The sixth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years. 

WORKING-CLASS CHILDHOOD. AN ORAL HISTORY by Jeremy Seabrook (1982)

When I was young, the children ran around barefoot. Now it’s their hearts that are bare”. This quote is that of an old man from Sheffield and establishes the main theme of this book.

Drawn from a wide variety of sources, Jeremy Seabrook explores the changes in society between the 1930s and 1970s mainly from the perspective of children, though mostly taken from the memories of older interviewees..

The hard, often cruel, upbringing in the pre war years prepared kids for the harsh world of adulthood. Discipline was strong and communities close-knit as people faced up to the common threat of poverty.

Seabrook highlights the way the increasing dependence on material wellbeing has brought many benefits but has  fundamental drawbacks; he writes: “All the talk of change turns out to be changing people so that they fit the modified needs of cold economic processes; the only revolution turns out to be the revolution of the fixed wheel”.

Hardship and struggle is nobody’s idea of an ideal society but it does have the advantage of binding people together. There’s a telling quote from Richard Hoggart’s Uses Of Literacy : “It is easier to kill the old roots than replace them with anything comparable […….]; the strongest objection to the more trivial popular entertainments is not that they prevent people from becoming highbrow but that they make it harder for those with an intellectual bent to become wise in their own way”.

This book was published in the middle of Britain’s dark age (i.e. the Thatcher years) and while the perspective is resolutely Left Wing this is not a tub-thumping book of political rhetoric.

Fundamentally. Seabrook argues that genuine progress derives from the pursuit of interests that go beyond the manifestos of Labour or Conservative parties. It ends with the words of a woman who is scornful of notion of a ‘caring society’; “Societies can’t care”, she says, “Only people can”.

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NOTE – Jeremy Seabrook is still active and has retained his compassionate belief that societies have to be founded on human rather than economic principles. For more information go to his website 

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