Social Mobility: A Personal Story

Joe Moran, Liverpool John Moores University

My new article for Cultural and Social History, ‘An Intimate History of Social Mobility in Post-War Britain’, focuses on the lives of my parents. My mum and dad were baby boomers, beneficiaries of the 1944 Education Act and the opening of new universities in the 1960s. But my article argues that they were helped less by formal education than by a sort of unofficial welfare state, made up of things like public libraries, plentiful part-time jobs that funded newspaper and book-buying habits, generous student grants, and an overall sense of not feeling driven into purely pragmatic or short-term choices.

Writing the article made me reflect on how I reaped the benefits of my parents’ big leap in upward mobility – and, like them, this happened less through formal education than by informal means. I went to a Catholic comprehensive in the 1980s. My mum taught English there. The school had an almost exclusively working-class intake, mostly the children of Irish and Italian immigrants. My brother and I were, I am fairly sure, its only children of university-educated parents.

The teachers at my school were competent and conscientious, and I was certainly better taught than my parents were in their grammar schools. But my story is similar to theirs in one key respect: my schooling mattered less than what happened outside of it. Like many in Generation X, we were latchkey children left to generate our own amusements. This was not an age of power parenting or opportunity hoarding. But at home I was being inculcated – mostly unconsciously for all parties concerned – in middle-class values. My mother’s meals were a hybrid of the Lithuanian-Lancastrian cuisine of her childhood and the recipes of Elizabeth David. These adapted peasant recipes, less labour-intensive than classic English cookery, suited her new life as a working mother. Our kitchenware and tableware were sourced from the Manchester branch of Habitat, with its ready-made, easy-care style for first-generation graduates and middle-class interlopers. We ate together as a family and our parents took an interest in what my brother and I said at the table.

The written word felt valued, even venerated. My mum taught me to read fluently before I arrived at primary school. An endless supply of stationery appeared from nowhere to support my recreational writing. The ambient noise of my childhood was the clatter of my dad’s typewriter in another room. On regular trips to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop in Manchester, I was never refused a request for money to buy a book, nor did my parents impose any quality control. Improving, herbivorous Puffins sat on my bookshelf alongside comic books and annuals. One of these books, acquired at the age of nine, invited me to fill in details about myself . I recently found this book in a clearout, and discovered on one of its pages that by then I already owned 90 books. My dad, as I explain in the article, did not own a book until he was thirteen.

We watched BBC children’s TV, which radiated Reithian high purpose: Blue Peter, Jackanory, classic serials on Sunday afternoon. We had trips to Hallé orchestra concerts at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall and plays at the Royal Exchange. BBC Radio 3 and 4 were on in the background at home. I wore this coat of middle-classness as lightly and obliviously as an extra skin. It hardly felt like an advantage in a rough-and-tumble comprehensive, where it marked me out as a nerd. But it would amount to a series of unearned assets that I could absentmindedly cash in later on.

As a teacher’s son, I could enter the staff room with my mum and see how teachers behaved backstage. During school holidays, my dad took me into his office at the University of Manchester and I saw his colleagues in the same light. I was learning by stealth to fit smoothly into these spaces. To become an academic, it helps to have been raised in a family where words, ideas and quiet concentration are prized. And it helps if you are used to navigating the spaces of intellectual life like libraries, classrooms and lecture theatres. All this renders you comfortable with what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would have called the ‘habitus’ of academia. The habitus of a social space requires that we conform to its rules and the competition for cultural capital that goes on inside it. We reveal our personal pasts in the often unconscious ways we inhabit social spaces. Our bodily gestures and routines are the sum of our histories. Going to university was not the momentous decision for me that it had been for my parents. It felt like a natural progression – the body’s second nature.

Lynsey Hanley, raised on a Birmingham council estate, uses the phrase ‘wall in the head’ to describe the mental block that can make people feel they do not belong in middle-class spaces. The phrase was coined for East Germans who, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, struggled with the realities of reunification. Breaking through this mental wall requires, Hanley writes in her book Estates, ‘a degree of self-awareness, good health, a better than average knowledge of where you intend to go once you’ve made a run for it, and a sort of cheek’. My parents had just enough of all these things, but I had little need of them. There was no wall in my head to be scaled. Many of the students I teach seem short in particular of that last element: cheek. Doing well in social life, as Bourdieu knew, is about getting away with stuff. I hear the glib fluency of some of the privately-educated male elite who dominate public life, and ask myself: why can’t my students blag it like that? Why can’t they tell themselves, as my mum did in the first university lecture she attended in October 1964, ‘I can get away with this’?

The answer to this question could only be found in my students’ own intimate histories, which are not mine to tell. But I do know this: what makes the invisible injuries of inequality so hard to heal is that our bodies let us know when we feel out of place. We feel loneliness and unacknowledged shame when we think that a place is not designed for us and our presence in it is, at best, tolerated. That is why I argue that social mobility has as much to do with ideas and feelings as it does with the bare facts about university enrolments or income redistribution. The study of social mobility demands the particularising work of social and cultural history, attuned to the knotty realities of our emotional lives.


About the author: Joe Moran is a Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. His most recent books are Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness (Profile 2016; Yale UP 2017), First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing and Life (Penguin 2018) and If You Should Fail: A Book of Solace (Penguin 2020).

One response to “Social Mobility: A Personal Story

  1. Thank you for this. I fall between you and your parents chronologically and thus my experience was slightly different. My Dad went to Grammar School but when he left, aged 16, he had to go down the pit like the rest of his family. He pulled himself up by attending night school and sheer determination. When he got back from his National Service he discovered that his parents had thrown away his books. He often spoke of that with despair for their lack of imagination. My Mum had some of the social capital you discuss, she was the daughter of the Colliery manager and came from a long line of craftsmen and small business owners. She trained as a nurse, and taking time out for two children, continued to become a nursing sister, midwife and later a District nurse in the rural area my parents chose for their empty nest home. No-one in our family had attended University but my Dad really pushed me in that direction, but I didn’t fit in with any particular group at school, something always jarred. I was a sickly child and read incessantly, but only fiction, despite my Dad putting scientific tomes on my shelves. I failed my A levels and married in my early 20s, divorced before I was 30. It wasn’t until I faced the prospect of my own children growing up on a sink council estate that I found my own determination. I took Open University courses, got a 1st class degree and a good job in administration at a Uni. My own children both attended Uni, unlike most of their friends from school. My son-in-law is from a professional background and my daughter is a teacher. Hopefully my grandchildren will have that extra bit of polish that makes going to Uni normal not a struggle. I am now retired and studying for a Doctorate in History to keep my brain occupied. It’s too late to tell my Dad we succeeded, he passed away before my daughter applied to Uni.

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