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SOC0010.1177/0038038514547801SociologyBook Review Essay

Book Review Essay

Remembering Working-Class
Life: History, Sociology and
Working-Class Studies

Sociology
2014, Vol. 48(6) 12321237
The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/0038038514547801
soc.sagepub.com

Tim Strangleman
University of Kent, UK

Tony Blackshaw
Working-Class Life in Northern England, 1945-2010: The Pre-History and After-Life of the Inbetweener
Generation
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 55 hbk (ISBN: 9780230348141), 256 pp.
David Hall
Working Lives
London: Bantam Press, 2012, 25 hbk (ISBN: 9780593065327), 391 pp.
Ben Jones
The Working Class in Mid-twentieth-century England: Community, Identity and Social Memory
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, 65 hbk (ISBN: 9780719084737), 256 pp.
Arthur McIvor
Working Lives: Work in Britain Since 1945
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 19.99 (ISBN: 978-1403987679), 360 pp.

In 1963, the British Productivity Council sponsored a 44-minute black and white film
called People, Productivity and Change. The films commentator and on stage interviewer was sociologist Tom Lupton we meet him first as the camera pans through his
office door at Aston and eavesdrops on an important debate about social change. The
film itself is a wonderful time capsule of social and economic life in the early 1960s. But
through the haze of industrial quantities of tobacco smoke the films participants produce, one thing stands out, and that is the centrality of history in shaping the experience
of class. For many of those explaining their reaction to plans for increasing productivity,
their thinking was powerfully shaped by events of the 1920s and 1930s. Suspicion of

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employers motives coupled with the memory of real poverty more than three decades
before animates these mid-20th-century conversations.
This theme of the importance of history is one that unites four recent books on the postwar experience of the working-class in Britain. These are all historical accounts of class
and community and each, with the exception of Blackshaw, are by historians of various
stripes. Focusing on the period from 1945 largely up until the 1970s and beyond, they
combine social and economic history with sociology. The post-war British working-class
experience is enjoying increased attention from historians as a by-product of recent decades becoming ripe for consideration as modern history. For example, David Kynastons
(2007, 2010, 2013) multi-volume series on post-war Britain is now reaching the 1960s,
while the 1970s has seen a rash of more popular explorations from authors such as Francis
Wheen with his Strange Days Indeed (2009), Alwyn Turners Crisis? What Crisis? Britain
in the 1970s (2008), and the prolific Dominic Sandbrook (2010, 2013). With the exception
of Kynaston, the working-class play a bit part on the stage of post-war Britain in these
books; workers role is to be the beneficiaries of the welfare state, to enjoy undreamt of
affluence or, especially by the 1970s, to become cannon fodder for politically motivated
men. In popular writing, the working-class in part did for themselves by falling for the
chimera of affluence, for having the wrong kind of politics or simply having the economic
rug pulled from under them. In such narratives we are left with a low wage, unskilled
working-class who, in the wake of two decades or more of neoliberalism, are as likely as
not to be identified by the early 21st century as chavs (see Jones, 2012).
The volumes considered here make far more complex this simple narrative by reminding the reader that being working-class has always been difficult. Indeed if there is one
theme that unites all four titles it is that working-class life even in the age of affluence
was tough and that post-war class identity was shaped just like Luptons interviewees
by the folk memory of the interwar period if not before. But they also are a timely
reminder that working-class people enjoyed and exercised agency in their daily lives.
The most explicit attempt at periodization occurs in Tony Blackshaws book. In it,
Blackshaw sets up the Inbetweeners, a generation that spans a good deal of the 20th
century sitting between an earlier traditional solid working-class and those of the later
boomer generation. Blackshaws Inbetweeners have a foot in both camps. Born into
industrial Britain of the interwar period, socialized by family and community with fixed
ideas of moral and cultural horizons, they mature in a world after WW2 where the ties
that anchor class are loosened or lost altogether. Blackshaw derives this periodization
from Zygmunt Bauman, and in particular his notion of the solid/liquid dichotomy. As
Blackshaw puts it, the Inbetweeners:
Provides a buffer between two generations far removed from one other: the generation that
was a product of industrial modernization and a sensible world based on social class and
patriarchal social relations, and the generation that became known as the boomers. This
intermediary generation stands in between two historical generations in contradiction.
(Blackshaw, 2013: 20)

Blackshaw claims that his Inbetweeners help us unlock sociologically the intergenerational puzzle of working-class community and experience. What produces this shift

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between solid and liquid is a tripartite interregnum caused by WW2, economic shifts and
the creation of the post-war welfare state. Each in its own way dissolves the pre-war
ways of being working-class.
Blackshaw acknowledges that liquid and solid descriptors are ideal types and that
reality is somewhat messier. The trouble is that Baumans ideal types metamorphose into
the firm conviction of others that the world actually looks or looked like this or that. The
seductive attraction of liquidity seems to saturate many accounts of contemporary society, and the problem with these types of categorical periodization is that they do damage
to more subtle accounts which stress gradual change and incremental shifts, ones that
each of the other authors emphasize. The question is, therefore, how does a model like
the Inbetweeners deal with gradual shifts in economic and social status, one that differs
greatly by industry, place and sector? One could, for example, see some of the traditional
industrial areas of the UK as being in long term decline from the 1920s while others only
begin to fade during the 1980s. Whichever way we look at this industrial change, and
especially deindustrialization, we are dealing not with an event but rather a process
played out across many decades. As Walkerdine and Jimenez (2012) have recently
argued in connection with the South Wales steel industry, industrial loss has been shaping working-class communities, masculinities and femininities for five decades or more.
Any contemporary reflection on working-class life has to confront the issue of nostalgia and each of the four books do this well. Arguably, it is the case that in more than any
other field to seek out positive accounts of the working-class, their communities or
places of work is to invite the charge of sentimentality. The term nostalgia is used as a
card to crudely trump what is often more insightful analysis. On the face of it, David
Halls Working Lives (2012) should fall into the nostalgic category, written as it is for a
more popular audience than is the case with the others reviewed here. Indeed the review
quote on the front cover from the Daily Mail describes the book as Nostalgic and oddly
moving. While it is true that a sense of loss animates Halls book, the chapters are organized around particular industries cotton, shipbuilding, coal, iron and steel and they
reveal both the complexity and hardship of working-class life as well the positives people were able to carve out of often grim circumstances. Hall himself is an interesting
author. His previous writing saw him play the role of Boswell to the late Fred Dibnahs
Samuel Johnson, having written no less than seven titles on the Boltonian industrial
enthusiast and steeplejack. Halls book does not shy away from struggle dwelling on
the pollution, long hours and industrial accidents that were the staple fair of industrial
communities the length and breadth of the country. But his, like all the other books here
also shows the positive sides to life, sense of community, closeness to others and the role
work played in maturing people. What we also get from Halls book, and McIvors too,
is how dominant a presence industry was in the lives recorded here. There is, I think, a
transparency about British industrial communities in the post-war period. People were
aware of what others did; there was knowledge about the things made and the men and
women who made them. We get a visceral sense here of the nature of industrial districts
and how they created an anticipatory socialization into industrial work and its concomitant identities largely absent in modern life.
The relationship to the past and especially in seeing value in it is never clearer than
when people talk of gaining access to improved housing. There are many examples of

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this in Ben Jones book, which in part focuses on housing patterns. Here he quotes a
respondents memory of moving into their new home:
We were thrilled with the house It contained one small sitting room, a large living room,
which led into a kitchen. Upstairs there were three bedrooms, toilet and bathroom. Just imagine
going upstairs to bed and being able to have a bath in a special room, to turn on the tap and
obtain hot water The most magical thing of all was to press a switch and the electric light
came on. (Olive Masterson, quoted in Ben Jones, 2012: 161)

It is easy to gloss over these seemingly mundane features most of us take for granted
now, but such accounts offer important insights into a working-class world dramatically
improving in the interwar and especially in the post-war period. These small increments
felt for those who speak here like profound shifts in the experience of life. If there is
nostalgia present in accounts about the working-class or given by working-class respondents themselves, it is more complex, nuanced and reflective than is often given credit.
The voices recorded in such accounts possess a complex relationship with the past. The
positive aspects of the past are always grounded in realities of shortage, hunger or struggle. However, these voices are quite rightly asking critical questions of the present and
the past in comparison. One of Blackshaws Inbetweeners makes the following telling
observation:
Yes, I was born at the best time. Such an optimistic period to grow up in. Alright, there were
street houses and that kind of thing but we were happy. We saw this optimism, we saw full
employment. I mean everybody had a job. I suppose it were in the 80s, the first time, you went
from the 40s and then had 30 or so years, things started to get better in the late 50s, til the 80s
when Mrs Thatcher started sacking everybody. But we had all that time when everythings better,
better, you started going abroad, having cars, buying furniture for houses, putting pictures on
your walls, buying house, buying things! (Fred Pickersgill, quoted in Blackshaw, 2013: 84)

A common thread through all of these books is the account they offer of rising standards
of living coupled with a greater sense of security. Affluence, such as it was for many in the
working-class, was secured by long hours and overtime. Security linked to regular wages
speaks here to order, predictability and stable living rather than simply the ability to access
material goods. Seen from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, sentiment for such
an era is surely understandable and even highly realistic given current conditions and
likely future ones and is worth more than to be casually dismissed as nostalgic.
Ben Jones book examines in detail working-class experience of community and
especially housing in and around post-war Brighton. His detailed and subtle rendering of
working-class experience shows the complexity of attitudes and responses to changing
patterns of housing tenure, suburbanization and slum clearance. In doing so, Jones problematizes simplistic truisms about either the warmth of the slums or the sterility of estate
life in post-war Britain. It also illustrates the way the working-class were far from passive victims of the local or national state, but exercised agency in numerous ways to hold
on to what they had or to gain access to new resources.
What roots all these studies is their ability to draw on oral histories in the narrating of
their stories. Here Halls book and that of Arthur McIvor are the most driven by the

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method. McIvors volume is a real tour de force in the way it deploys oral testimony collected by both the author and a variety of other scholars. McIvors focus is on work and
working life, but in doing so he tells a remarkably rounded story of the period. This is the
first book that I know of that handles topics such as gender, masculinity, the body and
ethnicity in such a sensitive way. Its real achievement comes from McIvors ability in
linking general societal and economic trends to the particulars of the shop floor. In the
process he reveals the complexity of workplace culture as a dynamic and fluid property
which both enables and constrains action.
So what can we say about the study of the post-war working-class from these volumes
and how do they fit into wider debates about class? The revival in the study of class has
been going on for a couple of decades now in the UK and further afield, most notably the
USA (see Bottero, 2004; Russo and Linkon, 2005). In the UK, one of the criticisms some
have made of this turn is that too much attention has been paid to the cultural significance
of working-class life at the expense of economic aspects (see Atkinson, 2009; Hebson,
2009). Equally, it could be argued that much of the Bourdieusian analysis is strangely
ahistorical, which can allow for a certain weightlessness to figure in narratives. These
books root class in refreshing ways which allow us a richer sense of access to what is
novel in working-class experience now, as well as much that is continuous with the past.
Interestingly, while all the titles offer rich sociological insights, none of the authors is
a sociologist. Three decades ago, Philip Abrams (1982) offered the field his Historical
Sociology, wherein he made a passionate argument for dissolving the walls that divided
history and sociology. For Abrams, all good history was sociological and equally all
good sociology should be historical. Those insights are as true today as when they were
first written, but as a discipline we tend to forget this. As David Inglis has recently
argued, Sophisticated historical consciousness is largely moribund in mainstream
British sociology today, posing acute questions about the intellectual solidarity of the
discipline as it is currently organized and practiced (Inglis, 2014: 101). Collectively,
these volumes pose questions for sociology as a discipline about how it studies class and
especially in the way our subject employs its historical imagination.
These books remind us of the legacies of class and the working-class experience.
They show us how modern Britain was forged before, during and after the war. The
shape of work, industrial relations, post-war political affiliations, and housing tenure are
all powerfully influenced by the politics of class. We learn too of the importance of
working-class organization and solidarity built across generations. It not only greatly, if
very slowly, improved working-class living standards and working conditions for a time,
but it also resulted in ordinary people and their needs being taken seriously, as mattering.
This sense of mattering is exemplified in Jones quote from Caroline Steedman:
I would have been a very different person now if orange juice and milk and dinners at school
hadnt told me in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, that I was worth something. (Steedman,
quoted in Ben Jones, 2012: 123)

The books here all focus on a time when the working-class really mattered to itself, to
politicians and to sociologists. The working-class were taken seriously and were given a

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seat at the table, and at times even won real power for themselves. To understand what
that experience felt like in all its diversity is to be attentive to a real sense that things
really could improve and go on improving for ordinary people. The charge of nostalgia
against such experience does violence to the narratives on offer here, but it also prevents
a more complex debate about how working-class power and community have been constituted in the past and might be again in the future.
References
Abrams P (1982) Historical Sociology. Shepton Mallet: Open Books.
Atkinson W (2009) Rethinking the work-class nexus: Theoretical foundations for recent trends.
Sociology 43(5): 896912.
Bottero W (2004) Class identities and the identity of class. Sociology 38(5): 9851003.
Hebson G (2009) Renewing class analysis in studies of the workplace: A comparison of workingclass and middle-class womens aspirations and identities. Sociology 43(1): 2744.
Inglis D (2014) What is worth defending in sociology today? Presentism, historical vision and the
uses of sociology. Cultural Sociology 8(1): 99118.
Jones O (2012) Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso.
Kynaston D (2007) Austerity Britain 194551. London: Bloomsbury.
Kynaston D (2010) Family Britain, 19511957. London: Bloomsbury.
Kynaston D (2013) Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 19571959. London: Bloomsbury.
Russo J and Linkon S (eds) (2005) New Working-Class Studies. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press.
Sandbrook D (2010) State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 19701974. London: Penguin.
Sandbrook D (2013) Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 19741979. London: Penguin.
Turner A (2008) Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s. London: Aurum.
Walkerdine V and Jimenez L (2012) Gender, Work and Community After De-Industrialisation: A
Psychosocial Approach to Affect. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Wheen F (2009) Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia. London: Fourth Estate.

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