Getting By’s introduction to the “notorious” St Ann’s estate in Nottingham begins not with the polite, softly spoken words you expect from an academic work, but the sharp, prodding tones of the “street” voices of its inhabitants; what follows is enticing and inspiring in its authentic, emotionally charged honesty.
Sociologist Lisa Mckenzie, who lived on St Ann’s for two decades, begins by recounting her arrival on the estate, with its strong and spirited community of white working class and Jamaican residents, as a young mother with a mixed-race baby. She took a job at the Pretty Polly factory, and then shop work, before beginning her road to academic life with an access course to higher education – an empowering route that has become much steeper for members of poorer communities, thanks to rising course fees and ever-deeper cuts to adult courses in further education.
Like the words of a mate or a neighbour, Mckenzie’s account resonates with my own history; her reference to an old man entertaining patients in the local health centre with ska songs reminded me of Jamaican Joe, whose busking entranced us as kids. Her ability to capture countless small, easily forgotten memories made me smile; I too remember stepping into washing-up-liquid bubbles on childhood bath night every Sunday.
But although the moments of laughter Mckenzie evokes might make it easy to imagine that the people of St Ann’s estate are indifferent to their circumstances, Getting By aims to challenge the stereotypes and “happy with their lot” myths that patronise the complexity of human experience and emotion.
An insider as well as a scholar, Mckenzie confronts the simplistic, judgemental ways that council estates and those in them are so often presented, via the stories of people who don’t merely survive, but who are resourceful, resilient and brave. Misha and Tyler lose their baby boy to meningitis, but despite their pain, hold on to hope for the future and faith in education’s ability to offer opportunities for a better life. Single mother Ayesha, pissed off and afraid that she’s not a good parent, takes her bit of comfort in a pair of Gucci glasses she can ill-afford but that give a rare sweetness to a young life immersed in daily struggles.
Mckenzie writes without a shred of sentimentality, but with a conviction and passion that never allow us to be emotionless spectators. She hits out at the stigmas – gangs, drugs, guns, single mothers – applied by those on the “outside” to communities such as this. The narratives are not only recounted with humour, love and care but are also grounded in social and cultural context. She exposes the contradictions and complexities lived by the people of St Ann’s, and shows them trying to make sense of them from their place in a society built on inequality of opportunity and choice.
The author’s own journey is one of success: in overcoming structural inequality; in taking agency in her own trajectory; in undertaking work that creates a critical space for community resistance, empowerment and social justice. Her voice and those she presents here need to be brought to other silenced communities, to inspire their inhabitants to tell their own stories and put voices of resistance into the public domain.
Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain
By Lisa Mckenzie
Policy Press, 224pp, £14.99
Published 14 January 2015