The Border Country of Class: Lynsey Hanley and Raymond Williams

On the blog for April we have an interview with writer Lynsey Hanley. The author of two books on class and working-class life, Lynsey was also involved in the 2009 re-issue of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. What follows is an edited extract from an in-depth interview, conducted by Phil O’Brien in Liverpool back in January, which appears in the forthcoming issue of Key Words. This year’s journal, co-edited by Phil and Nicola Wilson, is on working-class writing; it will include, amongst a range of articles covering the 1930s to the twenty-first century, an unpublished essay by Williams on the working-class novel after 1945. To receive your copy this autumn, please subscribe to the Raymond Williams Society.

Phil O’Brien: Can we begin by talking about your current project and how it connects with the work of Raymond Williams?

Lynsey Hanley: I’m writing a book about public transport, about the cultural, ecological, and social significance of it, and the two Williams texts I obsessively return to are Border Country (1960) and ‘Culture is Ordinary’ (1958). I mentioned ‘Culture is Ordinary’ in my last book, Respectable (2016), the fact that it begins with a bus journey, and then, after Respectable came out, I re-read Border Country. I was completely obsessed with it: the significance of the train station, the flow of rail traffic and the importance of the journey Matthew Price makes from London back to Wales, the story of internal migration, the fact that his mum was English and they arrived at that village specifically because of the railway. I’m also obsessed with what Williams gets across in ‘Culture is Ordinary’, about the significance of the everyday and the fact that borders are arbitrary and formative at the same time, as well as the fact that you can get a bus across a border, there’s no wall, from Hereford across to Pandy. My new book is a defence of the public, a defence of public transport and also, in my case, a militant dislike of cars and road traffic.

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I find the role of transport in Border Country, in particular the changing nature of transport, and mobility so significant. It is much more poetic, from my point of view, wanting to write a book in defence of the right to mobility, the right to mobility in general, rather than writing a straight-forward political polemic, writing a ‘cars are bad, planes are evil’ green transport policy book. Transport, mobility, and the right to move and the right to stay are interlinked. Parts of the new book are as quotidian as ‘isn’t it terrible that bus routes have been cut’ but other parts are on how this particular form of technology has such potentially transformative effects and repercussions all the way through society; these effects can and do have electoral and political repercussions as well as repercussions on the emotional life of individuals and how relationships are made possible.

PO: How does the new book fit with your earlier work because Border Country is also about crossing class and returning to a working-class community and upbringing? And how does it fit in with the way you think about class in Respectable? For you, is Border Country telling a similar type of story?

LH: Yes, I think so. With reading Border Country several times over a number of years I’ve become a lot more accepting of the necessity of the journey. It’s interesting with Williams because I suppose I identify with parts of his story quite personally; he was an only child and I’m an only child. It’s often the case that only children can only really leave by making a conscious, geographical journey away from the intense sphere of a small household. In order to break away you have to go away physically and that’s what Williams did. If you read Politics and Letters (1979), this was obviously a huge thing in his life, the necessity of getting away physically and geographically but he never really got away mentally and certainly his mother never let him forget the fact that he had left, her ultimate dream for him would have been to go back but, of course, for him there’s no going back, and I identify with that quite closely.

PO: What about a political return? Border Country is also about returning to a defeat, to the 1926 General Strike and a political disappointment, and Williams, in his own life, carried that with him, the politics of his family and the politics of his local community, partly expressed through what is a semi-autobiographical novel.

LH: That is where it differs in a lot of ways really. Although it was interesting for me that in Politics and Letters he refers to the fact that several members of his family migrated from South Wales to Birmingham which is exactly what happened in my family: my nan and several of my aunts moved from South Wales to Birmingham in the war to work in domestic service and munitions. They moved from Maerdy, which was the most communist of the villages and one of the strongest political stalwarts of the valleys, but the specific history was only vaguely in the background during my childhood.

PO: Has working on Williams more directly made you think differently about class?

LH: I always found Williams quite difficult to read in the past, his method of expression was quite difficult to get a handle on, whereas I always found Richard Hoggart much more immediate and his writing very much rang true to experiences I’d had. But Williams has been important for me when thinking about, not the inevitability of defeat, but the realisation that the ‘long revolution’ is real. It is real and it is longer that you can ever possibly anticipate! But you still have to believe in it. I suppose that is what I’ve come to appreciate and understand; just because we aren’t winning now, doesn’t mean we won’t win eventually, and reading Williams has also allowed me to get a handle on what winning could mean. What would that society look like and what sort of continuous work would we have to do to make it possible? Williams always writes from a place of confidence and to me, to come from a working-class background and to go into a middle-class, academic, professional environment is always to feel a deficit of confidence. I never get any sense from Williams that there was any point at which he didn’t feel confident in himself. He saw absolutely no reason whatsoever to feel intellectually deficient or wanting or underprepared or ashamed because of his background. That’s where I feel strongly that his conception of class differs from mine because I’m always coming from a place of fundamentally lacking in confidence and always associating that with class. That to be working class or to have been working class is to be told that you are not good enough. And he was always coming from a position of ‘I am good enough’.

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PO: He writes in ‘Culture is Ordinary’ about leaving, for university, a village and a country with a long and important history which meant that he wasn’t in awe of Cambridge when he arrived. He’s coming with something behind him, pushing him forward and supporting him. It’s a political background and a working-class culture that he takes with him: reading, writing, education, organisation. And he describes Wales as ‘a country with centuries of history written visibly into the earth’. A knowledge and an experience of all this means he’s able to approach his new surroundings with such unnerving confidence.

LH: But then it’s interesting going back again to Border Country, the gradations of class, the industrial and geographical specificities of class, and how they play out. When it’s the strike, Morgan starts taking truckloads of food over the mountains, down to the valleys, and it’s incredible how patronising he is about the people in the valley, ‘oh they don’t know how to eat, we are going to bring them the good stuff that they deserve but they won’t necessarily know what to do with it’. I’m paraphrasing! But the way people from one side of the mountain can treat people on the other side is really interesting and undermines that class feeling and class solidarity. And although the railwaymen are absolutely dedicated to the cause of the strike, it’s clear that they view themselves differently to the miners and although they may not say it directly that ‘ours is a dignified job, it’s not as dirty’, there is a strong sense in which they view themselves as the ones with the power, the only workers who can stop the engine of mobility that keeps capitalism moving. It’s a bit ‘lumpenproletariat’ and Border Country captures those tensions.

PO: One of the failures of the strike is that the tentative alliance forged across unions and industries collapses. It is part of the disappointment registered in Border Country, the falling apart of a political action based on class.

LH: Yes, it was too fragile to last. But of course what is also incredibly significant about the depiction of the strike and its aftermath in the novel is that it’s Williams who came up with that phrase ‘a slow and shocking cancellation of the future’ which now everyone attributes to Mark Fisher. Even Mark Fisher didn’t get it from Raymond Williams did he, it was from Franco Berardi. People think it’s either Mark Fisher or Franco Berardi but it’s not, it’s from Border Country, it’s from 1960, and I find that extraordinary.

PO: What about Hoggart and Williams? Williams had a more hopeful conception of working-class culture, I’d suggest, than The Uses of Literacy (1957), in particular the second half of that book, when we think of Williams’s theory of emergent cultural forms offering resistance to dominant culture, as well as new possibilities, in comparison to what Hoggart seems to argue was a capitulation to ‘shiny barbarism’. What position do you take on those different notions of working-class agency and human potential?

LH: After the event I’d say Hoggart was probably more open to pop culture, and more educated about the possibilities of pop culture than Williams was in the end, I think because Williams was within the academy and Hoggart never properly was. Hoggart was also coming from a place of a fundamental under-confidence and Williams always had that absolute bedrock of personal, internalised confidence; I think he could be less fearful and Hoggart was always writing from quite an anxious and fearful place. The second half of Uses of Literacy reminds me of the second part of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell which is basically a massive rant. Hoggart is quite funny in places about the milk bar kids as a form of spiritual dry rot. It’s funny and very cloth-eared because he wasn’t picking up on what was happening, he wasn’t picking up on seven-inch singles coming off the ships, kids playing them and making something completely new out of them. He wasn’t picking up on that and he wasn’t able to because he was just slightly too old for it. But at the same time I do think he was on to something, in the sense of the degree of alienation and anomie experienced by individuals in modern society under a permanent barrage, that it could lead people to try and block everything out. He couldn’t have anticipated the effects of the internet and social media and so on but the way mass produced culture, the way pop music is made now and the redundancy of bands and of personalities, his writing is very useful when thinking about these things. Mark Fisher wrote so much about this in k-punk (Fisher’s ‘uncollected and unpublished writings’ published by Repeater in 2018), about how you can hear depression, anomie, and the decades of cultural alienation coming out in what pop music sounds like now; lyrically it is so focused on the self and the inadequacy of the self.

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PO: Has there been a shift in your thinking on class, culture, and politics? Your article on Frank Field for The Guardian, for instance, was great because of the way in which it pushed against the idea of working-class respectability and, more broadly, some of the obsessions of Blue Labour. For me, you were more robust in your analysis of class. The same with your article on the Tory ‘culture war’ for The Guardian and on the Labour manifesto and transport for Tribune, they felt more radical, with a material underpinning, than Respectable. Is that fair or has that always been there?

LH: I mention Frank Field in Estates (2007) and Respectable, about what a git he is. I have a go at him in Estates because he said some people in Birkenhead were ‘toe-rags’ who should live in metal containers under the M53. I thought that was evil. So I always felt that about Frank Field. But what happened in the interim was that Labour did so well in 2017 election and that really changed the way I thought and felt. There was this massive window of possibility and I thought it could really happen. It was everything I ever dreamed of it but didn’t dare think was possible. So many people have been through this kind of feeling in the last couple of years, of everything they ever wished might be possible. Many things have changed.

I have felt that it’s been John McDonnell who was bringing the transformative potential of Labour to the fore along with the ideas that that required. His thinking about all aspects of society and the economy and culture, thinking about them in a broad and detailed way and coming up with policies that could put that sense of potential transformation into action as well as addressing all the consequences of the crash of 2008 and also the stagnation resulting from Thatcherism, going back to the pre-Thatcher period even. He had thought really, really deeply about all of those things and I got onboard wholeheartedly with the Corbyn project because of McDonnell. It was that sense of possibility that the 2017 election brought about; I knew I always believed in these things, I’ve always had left-wing positions on nationalisation, transport, housing, immigration, and simply how we treat people regardless of what they do or where they’re from, I’ve always believed that we should regard everyone as having the potential for individual flowering and a societal contribution. I’ve always felt that strongly. But having grown up during Thatcherism, there were so many moments of acquiescence that I was initially prepared to make just for the sake of having a Labour government. But then I realised with New Labour that what a lot of toss that was and I felt really angry for a long time.

With the last few years, it was McDonnell who made me believe not only that we were making the right arguments but that it was possible. I also thought the relaunch of Tribune was a really good sign that people were thinking deeply about political possibilities. I have been really influenced by people who write in broadly the same areas, people like Owen Hatherley for instance. Owen has been hugely influential to lots of people because he can write with a clarity that doesn’t tie itself up in knots and doesn’t alienate people. He has a way of making what once were seemingly really radical ideas seem like perfect common sense. I was never against them in the first place but it’s that feeling of having to be persuaded that, in any way, shape, or form, they are possible to enact. And that comes back to Williams’s ideas on the ‘long revolution’: how and what kinds of transformative and continual change are possible. No matter how long it takes, you still have to believe in it and bring it into being.

Lynsey Hanley writes for The Guardian and other titles, and is the author of Estates: An Intimate History (2007) and Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide (2016).

Phil O’Brien is the author of The Working Class and Twenty-First-Century British Fiction (Routledge, 2020). He is secretary of the Raymond Williams Society.

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