Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth is out in February 2021. It charts the myth and reality of social mobility in Britain from the 19th century to the present, through the words and experiences of ordinary people. It reveals the experiences of those who climbed the social ladder and those who tumbled down it – and also asks how, and with what effects, social mobility became a tenacious dream for successive generations.
I show that attempts to establish a meritocracy – in which people’s talents determine their rung on the social ladder – always failed. This was because those who determined what constituted valuable work rarely did so on the basis of which work was most necessary for a society that could fulfil everyone’s needs and potential. In particular, women tended to end up at the bottom of the pile, because caring work was rarely recognised as requiring skill or recognition. As well as focusing on those who experienced mobility, the book also shines a spotlight on socialists and feminists who argued for the creation of a more equal society, rather than for a more meritocratic one. Some of their ideas may help us to overcome the challenges we face in the 2020s.
Snakes and Ladders is draws heavily on personal testimonies. Many of these come from the Mass Observation Archive in Brighton. Mass Observation’s founders collected diaries and observations on everyday life between the last 1930s and the early 1950s (you may have heard of Nella Last, whose Mass Observation diaries Victoria Wood adapted for television). The archive began collecting reflections from volunteer writers once more in the 1980s, and has gone on doing so ever since, through regular ‘directives’ that ask writers to consider a wide range of topics. As well as drawing on many existing diaries and directives, I was able to commission a Mass Observation directive on social mobility specifically for my research – the first time that hundreds of people had been asked to write about the subject. You can find out more about Mass Observation here.
Tastes of Honey: the making of Shelagh Delaney and a cultural revolution is out now. Stuart Maconie says it’s ‘smart’, David Hare that it’s ‘riveting’ and Ken Loach that it captures a ‘vital cultural and social moment’.
The People. The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 2014 Book of the Year in Observer and Guardian; one of David Kynaston’s Books of the Year; one of only three history books by women to be a bestseller in 2014. Now translated into Japanese, Korean, Catalan and Spanish.
Young Women, Work, and Family in England, 1918-1950, Oxford University Press, 2005. Buy a copy here Or a kindle ebook here Winner, Women’s History Network Book Prize ‘Young women emerge in this history as a critically important force…When we imagine a typical interwar worker, it isn’t as a bob-haired 14-year-old shop assistant wearing her first pair of heels’. LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS