Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
LAINY MALKANI (# 38)
Born in London, England
Father & Mother both born in British Guiana
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Indo-Caribbean
A professional journalist who works for television and radio, Lainy also writes extensively for other British and international media. She interviews the ‘movers and shakers’, the famous personalities, those with significant stories to tell. For her, it must therefore feel quite strange to be cast in the role of the interviewee, telling her own story and specifically addressing the issue of social mobility in Britain today, an issue which affects us all profoundly.
Lainy is a first-generation Londoner: her parents were born in the north of South America, in what was then British Guiana, now Guyana, having achieved its independence from British rule in 1966. Guyana had been a British colony since 1796 and, like many of the Caribbean territories, was largely developed for the cultivation of sugar cane. Until the abolition of slavery, the Guyanese sugar plantations were almost entirely dependent on imported slave labour, with Georgetown, the colonial capital, becoming the location for a historic slave rebellion - the ‘Demerara Rebellion’ of 1823 was an uprising involving more than 10,000 slaves and did much to encourage anti-slavery sentiment in the UK.
Lainy’s parents are themselves Indo-Guyanese, descended from Bihari, Uttar Predesh and Tamil migrants and, a few years before independence, her mother migrated again, this time to London, together with her six children; there she joined her husband who had relocated to London some time before. “My parents’ story is rather typical of all new arrivals to this country: they lived in a succession of places, trying to get a sound footing in a large city that was at that time still mostly white. As a large family - Lainy was the seventh of ten siblings and the first to be born in London - the task of finding somewhere suitable to live was difficult. The family lived mainly in North London, often in places that were simply too small for them, so with Father working as a Civil Servant on a relatively modest income, there was little alternative to their being a close, tightly-knit family. “Despite the size of the family, my mother worked too - she simply had to in order to make ends meet. She worked from home as a ‘piece-maker’, tailoring cowboy suits. Our living room was essentially my mother’s work space.”
Asked to describe her childhood, Lainy comments: “It was a tough childhood, with things becoming noticeably more difficult when my parents divorced. I was still very young at the time. Thankfully, by that time my older siblings were almost adults, and some were already working, so they were able to contribute to our survival as a family. Later on, my mother managed to get a regular job at the British Library and, with a steady income, life became a bit easier. To be honest, we all pitched in; we all helped one another; a sense of interdependence was deeply ingrained in our psyche. We were a Catholic family - I went to Sunday School and played in the Church Band - but while our faith provided some sort of framework in our lives, religious dogma was never imposed upon us nor did it play a dominant role in our lives.”
Having attended the local primary school, Lainy describes herself as a ‘bright but could do better’ sort of child. At the age of 11, she progressed to secondary school, also locally. “This was an interesting time for a number of reasons: we were a working class family residing in what was a mostly middle class area; we were also amongst a very small minority of black and brown people in a community that was predominately white; and, as an Indian-looking family from the Caribbean, we were unrecognisable to stereotypical South Asian families - we didn’t speak Urdu or Hindi as a second language, we were Roman Catholic by religion, and we wore western attire. Thus, we were outsiders in quite a number of ways but, to be honest, at that age I was largely unaware of it. One thing I did feel distinctly at secondary school, however, was that I was poor. I knew that we simply could not afford so many of the things that others took for granted and, while I well understood the reasons, I could not help myself from feeling embarrassed. My mother made clothes for me, of course, and being an experienced tailor, she did it very well but not unnaturally, I suppose, I longed for the sort of clothes the other kids wore, clothes that looked more stylish somehow.”
Though Lainy described the secondary school she went to in Muswell Hill as really good, she adds that she didn’t do well there: “In an environment that had a distinctly ‘Them and Us’ quality to it, I associated with a bunch of working class kids; we hung out together, tended to be rebellious, and felt that we were more original in our outlook on life. Without doubt, the reason why my parents came to England in the first place was to secure a better life for their children but, having said that, one must not forget that many of our close relatives, my mother’s contemporaries, came straight from working on plantations, from cutting sugar cane or working in rum factories - in fact, my own uncle worked on a sugar plantation. But, though my parents hoped for better lives for us - they were ‘aspirational’ - they were only too aware of the limits on what can be achieved by recent arrivals to a new host county.”
Asked if, when she was at secondary school, she had ever considered the likely consequences of not taking her education more seriously than she did, Lainy replies without hesitation: “I suppose I thought I would be able to ‘buck the system’. I saw school as part of the establishment and I felt proud to be outside it. I don’t remember having any great aspirations; I didn’t think it was cool to be brainy. My mates and I just wanted to have a good time and we bunked off school a lot. Looking back on it, I was really quite a rebel and unsurprisingly, I left school with only modest results.” Of course, these would also have been the times for the torments of puberty, the days full of insecurity and teenage angst. Asked how she coped with the transition to womanhood, Lainy replies: “I had crushes on boys, of course, but none of them seemed to have had crushes on me. I mainly hung out with the lads I knew and interestingly, some of the best mates and friends I’ve had, right up until now, have been men. To be honest, I was not really that aware of myself as a woman at that time, or if I was, I didn’t think about it too much; perhaps there was just no-one around in those days who might have awakened the romance in me, or even the lust!”
Lainy left school at 16 but despite being in a group of staunch outsiders, the rebellious teens, she was obliged to observe that other kids who’d done better at school than she had seemed to be progressing further; they seemed more confident, more assertive, and they clearly expected more out of life. Though many of these youngsters came from the large houses with the long, gravel drives - their affluence was almost tangible and they seemed destined to go further - they had also worked harder at school so as to make sure of their success. Lainy started to suspect that perhaps she should have tried harder herself. Her mother was always very keen to emphasise the need for good, solid education and while she had expected Lainy to do better, she found balancing work and home life difficult enough without worrying unduly about Lainy. This was partly because looking after such a large family didn’t leave her much time and partly because she probably had enough confidence in her daughter to believe that she would soon enough discover the hard facts of life for herself; in that respect, she was certainly right. However, her elder sisters did encourage her to make more of herself - after all, Lainy had been born in London, she’d had all the advantages they hadn’t had in Guyana and they couldn’t comprehend why she wasn’t making better use of them.
By way of response, Lainy enrolled at Tottenham College and suddenly, her life was changed completely: “I had the best time of my life: I soon became Vice-President of the Student Union; I acquired some great new friends; and I had a fantastic social life. But did I do well with my studies? No, unfortunately! I just succeeded in scraping through my A Levels. Coming from a big family, with ten kids, getting any attention for yourself, as a person, was a pretty rare event; you never had any personal space to call your own; and finding out about yourself as an individual was difficult too. My time at college was therefore significant in many different ways. It was the time when I discovered myself as a person, as a woman; I learned about make-up, how you could change your appearance, and how you could stimulate different types of attention from the people around you. It was also exciting to be able to engage with people from outside the family and my immediate circle, people who came from such different backgrounds and who consequently had such radically different perceptions and attitudes. I also came to appreciate that well-paid work is almost always the best way to ensure your independence.”
Lainy was then 19 and, though it was largely unplanned, her next step proved to be fortuitous. She got involved with a youth club in Tottenham, initially on a voluntary basis, and having had some experience as a Union Vice-President, she interested herself in the organisation and running of the club and that interest led to her securing her first paid employment. She also got involved with the production of the youth club’s newsletters and, with her student politics as a background, she began to perceive how certain sections of the community, mostly the working class, rarely had access to the media - hardly ever was the world at large apprised of what these people’s viewpoint on life and society might be. So, the local youth club newsletter that she wrote for and edited became a potential vehicle for change, and because the youth club where she worked happened to have a relatively high profile, they often had attention from the media. On the basis of that experience, Lainy began to consider journalism as a possible career that might be worth exploring.
This was the time of intense and very public anti-apartheid demonstrations: Trafalgar Square was crowded almost every weekend, with speakers proposing radical changes in the society there and worldwide, or simply challenging the status quo in some other respect. Lainy was part of that, part of a movement determined on changing the world, and it might be said that in many ways they did succeed in changing the world, certainly in South Africa. Perhaps buoyed up on the tide of these changing times, by drawing on the considerable experience of life she had mustered so far, and by exploiting her ability to observe, to interpret and, above all, to listen to what ordinary people had to say, people whose stories were never heard, Lainy hoped to break into professional journalism without going to university. “Of course, I continued to move mainly amongst people who came from the same sort of background as me, from the working classes who hardly ever seemed able or willing to break out of their predestined place in the social order, but I actively fought against this sort of compliance because I saw it as part of our collective problem. I well understood by then that the class system was rigid and almost impenetrable; access to the layers above was barred to the likes of me and the people I was at school with, irrespective of our ability or our willingness to participate and to contribute. I tried to get a job as a journalist but all doors remained firmly closed to me and while I periodically had articles published in a few local newspapers, the chances of anything better seemed minimal.”
After two years of work, fun and frustration, Lainy came to realise that a formal course in journalism at a university could possibly open some of the doors that had so far remained closed and she promised her mother that she would try for university. Despite discouraging odds, a glimmer of hope broke through in the guise of the Polytechnic of Wales. By now, Lainy had developed a more mature attitude to life, she knew what direction she wanted to go in, and she was determined to do well. Living far away from home felt good too; indeed, rather better than that, it was “absolutely brilliant”, as Lainy recalls. While the student life offered lots of temptations, Lainy was focussed and industrious in her studies, doing exceptionally well right through her course. Three years later, she returned to the family home. By that time, this was quite empty, her other siblings having flown the nest. Of course, Lainy was welcomed back by her mother who, proud of her daughter’s achievements, now expected her to get herself a nice, respectable husband - a doctor, a lawyer or a businessman with some social and economic standing; instead, Lainy fell for a humble musician from a similarly humble background who played in a band. He was delightful, talented, quite brilliant in his way, and enterprising too, but to her mother’s disappointed eyes, he was simply a man who had no proper profession, a man with long hair. He was also of Indian extraction.
To her great credit, Lainy managed to secure a rather special one-year post-graduate scholarship, at City University, to study ‘Broadcast Journalism’ and she is keen to emphasise that this was not mere luck; this was the result of her own initiative, determination and pure force of will: “This was the point when I figured it out; I had seen clearly the route to take, how to enter the world of professional broadcasting. At City University, I met some really influential people in the field of broadcasting and mixed with others who would be my professional colleagues and associates over the years to come. Until then, I had not known anyone who could introduce me, commission me, or give me that essential break.” Perhaps this was hardly surprising: journalism, broadcasting and the media in general are full of those who have entered the field through established family or professional networks and most of these are drawn from what might be called the middle-class intelligentsia. With few exceptions, the doors are kept firmly closed to outsiders, especially those outsiders who are from the working class - they always were.
Lainy’s first professional job as a journalist and broadcaster was with the Hounslow-based Asian local radio station, Sunrise. The job was demanding, exciting and offered her invaluable experience, dealing with local community issues and very much providing a voice for those who are rarely heard - in that respect, it was immensely fulfilling work too. “Of course, my job at Sunrise was somewhat outside the mainstream media world but it involved covering local issues, minority issues, and I loved that. I was also in awe insofar as I had actually made it - I had my first full-time salaried job in the media! In the past, I had always done freelance work and looking back, I often wonder now if the reason for that was that I didn’t want to become a part of the establishment - I was on the outside and was quite content to be that way. I never really had that sense of belonging. I also felt that I didn’t want to be tied down to a middle-class world, the world that I saw as ‘the establishment’; that was not my world. I am not necessarily saying that I was excluded; perhaps I just didn’t want to belong. When you come from a working class background, you struggle, you always wonder if you can go through a door without knocking, without gaining someone’s permission to enter; whereas someone who has grown up believing that this is their home territory, where they belong, will simply barge through that door without a moment’s hesitation. Without wishing to generalise too much, when you come from my kind of background, you feel that even after you’ve gained entry, even when you’re through the doorway and safely on the ‘inside’, that you’re somehow only there by permission not because your ability entitles you to be there.”
Lainy progressed into mainstream television broadcasting where she continues to work now. Not surprisingly, she is the pride of her extended family; she is the clever girl who made a success of it through her determination, strong will, perseverance and sheer hard work. Despite her disinclination to join the establishment, Lainy did get married and, together with Raj, her delightful husband, lives with their two daughters in middle-class north-west London, like many another professional family. She observes: “Both of my girls have grown up as the sort of people who would walk straight in through that door as if it were the most natural thing in the world; they would feel no obligation to knock or seek someone’s permission to enter. They both ‘belong’ and see themselves as part of that educated, professional, bourgeois world; they are proud of their hinterland, the journeys that their mother and grandmother had to make and whose achievements are now their own foundations. They are proud young citizens who will contribute and help to shape the future of modern Britain.”
Thanks to the post-war consensus that followed the Second World War, there was broad agreement that greater social mobility was not only desirable but also essential if Britain was to recover and prosper. While various elites may have struggled jealously to keep the doors to power firmly shut, increasing numbers of talented and able individuals from the working classes rose to positions of great influence within UK society. Lainy is a splendid example of someone who, despite being born into an immigrant, very much working class family, succeeded in securing a good state education and gaining invaluable professional qualifications for free - she did not have to enter the world of work with a huge burden of debt around her neck. Hers was probably the last generation of people from modest backgrounds who received state assistance, with no strings attached, in order to migrate to the world of the professional middle classes. With the current predominance of neoliberal values, where everything is valued only in terms of cost and broader social benefit seems to be of little regard, the opportunities for social mobility have diminished. Furthermore, the middle classes themselves, those who represent that reservoir of knowledge, skills, experience and continuity that every stable society relies upon, are also now under attack by global forces orchestrated by those who would reshape the world into a new order.
Asked how she feels about these sorts of changes, Lainy comments: “It saddens me; actually, it is more than that, it scares me. In my opinion, the Maths do not add up. If I were a parent now, sitting down with a son and daughter both wanting to go to university, and if I were working on one of those zero-hours contract jobs that we seem to have so many more of nowadays, I should be reluctant to encourage them to go. Even with the massive loans currently available to students, the money is often not enough and parents have to provide top-ups. So, we are back at the position where, unless your family is well off, or you have working-class parents who are able and willing to work all the hours God sends or to take on another job so as to generate supplementary funds, access to higher education for the poor is restricted once again. I can’t see how this will change unless businesses step in and offer sponsorships to poor students, or unless more philanthropists come forward, willing to share their ever-increasing wealth, to help talented, able and enterprising young people from the working classes to receive higher education and thus secure better jobs and better positions in society.”
With their payment of fees and their provision of modest Maintenance Grants, the Local Education Authorities used to support able kids through higher education - that no longer happens.
In response to being asked what were the major disadvantages of being an outsider, Lainy comments: “Even given the type of person I am, with my intelligence, my drive, my determination and my very positive outlook on life, being an outsider set back my career by years, compared with where I might have been otherwise. In that respect, a working-class background can be very much a hindrance.”
Asked if she feels there were any advantages of being an outsider, Lainy says: “Because nobody really expects very much from you, you are free to prove them wrong; because people’s expectations of you are so low, you are free to walk away if you want to, or you can even surprise them and excel.” Lainy concludes the interview with the observation: “I am very proud of my background and whatever I have achieved in my life, it will have been better than the expectations people had of me at the beginning.”
In a recent publication, The Equality Trust has observed: “People may move up or down the social ladder within their lifetime or from one generation to the next. That everyone has the same chance of moving up is what lies behind the idea of equality of opportunity. [And] one way to measure social mobility is to see whether rich parents have rich children and poor parents poor children, or whether the incomes of parents and their children are unrelated. Can children of poor parents become rich? Researchers at the London School of Economics have used this method to compare social mobility in eight countries. Using their data, we have shown that, at least among these few countries, the more equal countries have higher social mobility. It looks as if the ‘American Dream’ is far more likely to remain a dream for Americans than it is for people living in Scandinavian countries. Greater inequalities of outcome seem to make it easier for rich parents to pass on their advantages. While income differences have widened in Britain and the USA, social mobility has slowed. Bigger income differences may make it harder to achieve equality of opportunity because they increase social class differentiation and perhaps prejudice.”
In his speech of 13 November 2013, Sir John Major responded to a claim that in every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class: “To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking. I remember enough of my past to be outraged on behalf of the people abandoned when social mobility is lost.”
The speech was interpreted in some quarters as a veiled attack on the former public schoolboys who dominate David Cameron’s largely Eton-educated cabinet, although Sir John was careful to blame New Labour for what he called a “collapse in social mobility”.
Mr Cameron responded by saying: “I absolutely agree with the thrust of what John Major said. You only have to look at the make-up of Parliament, the judiciary, the Army, the media. It’s not as diverse, there’s not as much social mobility as there needs to be.”
Interview Date: 13th March 2014
Updated: 12th April 2014
In 2012, Lainy set up the Social History Hub, a social enterprise designed to bring different generations of communities together to celebrate a common understanding of shared historical experience. To learn more, go to:
A successful journalist, Lainy lives with her family in middle-class, north-west London. But Lainy didn’t start there: her Indo-Guyanese parents migrated to London for a better life but struggled, bringing up ten children on a modest income. Despite hardship, and leaving school at 16, her intelligence, determination and a positive outlook carried Lainy through college, polytechnic, then City University, on to a post in bourgeois-dominated broadcast journalism. Though Lainy ‘made it’, being a working-class outsider set her back years. Nevertheless, her ascent demonstrates how a good state education and professional qualifications were once yours for free - Lainy did not start work burdened with debt - allowing you to migrate to the professional middle classes. Such opportunities for social mobility are now markedly diminished.
Photography: London 13th Mrch 2014