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Polly Toynbee: An Uneasy Inheritance - My Family and Other Radicals review - looking back | reviews, news & interviews

Polly Toynbee: An Uneasy Inheritance - My Family and Other Radicals review - looking back

Polly Toynbee: An Uneasy Inheritance - My Family and Other Radicals review - looking back

The burden of a social conscience in an experience memoir from the acclaimed journalist

Polly Toynbee: class acts

There are few contemporary journalists whose names are instantly familiar – and usually it’s for the wrong reasons. Polly Toynbee occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of all those on the left. To those on the right, she is among the most offensive of “the wokerati”, though I doubt she’s mad about tofu. The Daily Express has called her “the high priestess of leftism”.

Her columns, for the Observer, the Independent (ah, those long-gone halcyon days) and the Guardian, are essential reading for all those on the Labour/Lib Dem spectrum and reviled by Conservatives, who like to paint her as the hypocritical daughter of privilege, weeping and wailing at the state of the nation as she pours champagne in her second home.

An Uneasy Inheritance makes clear that the weight of family history hangs heavy on her shoulders in a way that heritage – no matter how gilded and grand – never troubles a Tory. “The hard truth is that those of any politics or faith who claim concern for others are faced with the shaming incompatibility between life and belief, unless they take the Mahatma Gandhi way of loin cloth and self-denial.” Toynbee, like many others who genuinely care about the society in which they live, is left “searching for some liveable ground somewhere between Gandhi and hypocrisy”. When a Radio 4 producer asked her to say something about her own experience of social class for a series she was making, she “clammed up”. Try has she might, a big dig around the roots of her family tree found “not one drop of working-class blood”.

The Toynbees did not get dirt under their nails. Of her immediate forebears, grandfather Arnold was a historian, a professor at LSE and King’s, and the leading expert in his day on international affairs. Father Philip was a writer and critic, whose ideological angsts drove him to drink and depression. He lived a raffish bohemian life in Fitzrovia before moving with his wife, Anne, to the Isle of Wight, where first Josephine and then Mary Louisa – Polly – were born. (The location was perhaps the reason the Observer despatched her to review the 1969 Isle of Wight Pop Festival.)

Even as a child Polly was made aware that she was “other”: aged seven, playing in the cornfields with Maureen who lived in a pebble-dashed council house, she was rebuked as “your ladyship” by the girl’s mother – and she understood why. Little Polly was always looking for friends on lonely weekends. Asking them home made her anxious – even though some, like Jackie, “had more stuff that children want… I was posh.” She flunked Badminton, “where social class destiny was played out in microcosm”, took herself to Holland Park, Britain’s first comprehensive, where she re-sat her O-Levels and, thanks to an inspiring teacher, made it through the Oxford scholarship. But again, she threw away her education, which she regrets, leaving St Anne’s after an illegal abortion with the “cocky self-assurance of a secure middle-class background” to make her own way in the world.

And so she did, though perhaps not in the way she imagined – which was a boring day job to fund night-times of writing the great novel. A job on the production line of Tate & Lyle soon put an end to that fantasy. A couple of weeks’ work on the Observer diary was how she got her proper start in life – though she acknowledges that “If I were starting out now, without qualifications, I would never get near a newspaper job.”

Given the time, given her connections, an easier and more glamorous life in what was then Fleet Street would have been hers for the taking. Instead, having turned her eight-month experience of drudgery into a book, Working Life, and having gravitated to hard news stories, she took time out to work undercover to experience the true reality of striving to make ends meet. Lyons Cakes, Port Sunlight, steel towns, even a stint in the WRAC… It was the 1970s, a time of strife – and inflaton.

Three decades later, her own children grown up, Toynbee once more left behind her comfortable life to discern how much had changed, or not, for those condemned to a life of low-paid jobs. This time she set herself up in a “desolate and unfurnished flat” in a crumbling building on a 1930s estate 10 minutes and a world away from her own home in Clapham. She worked as an NHS porter, a cleaner, a care assistant (“by far the hardest job”) and a nursery assistant, buying clothes and furniture from charity shops. “Without trying this for myself and counting every penny I would never have known that over months ahead on the minimum wage, it was never possible to save enough for a pair of second-hand curtains: that’s why you see so many widows covered, like mine, with a nailed-up blanket”. Who among us would have had the strength and fortitude to do that?

We can’t choose our families, nor can we escape them, and voluntary poverty serves no purpose – better surely to earn money and pay your taxes. Toynbee’s extraordinary family, with all its roiling passions, and their raffish and gilded friends, are well drawn and An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals (its title a nod to Gerald Durrell) is an engaging read that’s part memoir and part polemic. Her great-grandfather, who founded Toynbee Hall, would applaud her tenacity, and her essential optimism.

Toynbee’s extraordinary family, with all its roiling passions, and their raffish and gilded friends, are well drawn

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