Two more poems from the 1912 New York suffragette pamphlet Mother Goose As A Suffragette.
Mods, Teds and Rockers all get a mention in this section from D.J. West’s 1967 book The Young Offender, one of those worthy blue Pelican sociology books.
American literature on sub-cultures stresses the stark contrasts between rich and poor, or white and Negro. T. R. Fyvel*, in a colourful description of some features of modern working-class youth in England and in some European countries, has drawn attention to other kinds of class conflict which can equally well give rise to a class of aggressively disillusioned, socially alienated, and delinquent-prone youth. Fyvel points to the peculiarities of the English educational system as one of the worst sources of trouble. As the Crowther Report of 1960 pointed out, enormous numbers of fifteen-year-olds are released on to the labour market with insufficient training or preparation for anything but dead-end jobs. These hordes had been virtually condemned to second-class citizenship ever since the age of eleven when they were excluded from grammar school promotion and relegated to what were then called secondary modern schools. Finding themselves in boring jobs, but with more leisure and ready cash than their better-class peers, who were busily occupied in higher education or apprenticeships, these working-class youths, lacking the self-discipline necessary to organize their time constructively, remained bored and aimless. Having been turned off the middle-class ladder to success, and resenting their status as social failures, they tried to compensate by self-display, by extravagant spending on pop-music and exotic clothes. First the Teddy-boy outfits, then the Italian styles, then the long-haired, leather-jacketed Rockers spread across England in successive waves. The attractiveness of the new fashions to rebellious youth is doubtless much increased by the displeased reactions of teachers and authorities generally. Of course, fashions tend to spread in time throughout the population, and some are taken up by students at grammar schools as well as pop-art entertainers, but the delinquent groups are always way out at the current extreme, as evidenced by the extraordinary wardrobes collected from boys entering remand homes.
Clothes are a harmless form of protest, but of course England’s delinquents share, at least to some extent, many of the inverted ideals described by Cohen, especially the resentment of organization, the belief in living for the pleasure of the moment, and the importance of not letting a chance ‘to get away with something’ go by. One English writer of what might be called the social protest school, Alan Sillitoe, in his well-known short story (also filmed) The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, depicted his delinquent hero as being so deeply imbued with the idea that he was being pushed around and bamboozled by middle-class authorities that he deliberately let himself be overtaken in a race that he had worked hard to win rather than give the impression of cooperating. This hero’s disillusionment with conventional morality is completely understandable, especially when he fumes against toleration of the atom bomb, or the combination of puritanical restrictiveness with the exploitation of sex and snobbery in commercial advertisements. Among sub-cultural delinquents in real life, the frustration and disillusionment are felt and acted upon in a confused way without such attempt at intellectualization.
The class conflicts assumed to be responsible for delinquent sub-cultures may take many different forms according to the nature of the dominant culture from which they derive. Fyvel contrasted the state of affairs in Moscow and London. Both cities have experienced growing social protest groups of delinquent-prone youngsters, but the precipitating stresses have been slightly different. In London inadequate guidance and training allows lower-class youngsters to drift into difficulties. In Russia, where the educational system is much more tightly organized and adolescents of all classes are directed and disciplined to a high degree, it is those who do not make the grade, and find themselves threatened with banishment to uninteresting menial jobs in far-distant places, who are liable to take to hooliganism, drunkenness, and social subversion. Thus American-style clothes and music may serve to symbolize the rejection of an over-regimented meritocracy by those frustrated youngsters who suffer its restrictions without achieving the rewards that are supposedly open to all.
*Fyvel, T R (1961). The Insecure Offenders. Chatto & Windus; Penguin Books (1963, revised).
Roger Mills was born in Hackney Hospital, 1954. “I have always lived in Hackney, in flats until was five and then a house ever since. I went to secondary school in Clapton, a comprehensive. It was a huge modern school with thirty or more kids in a class. I worked for about five years in various advertising studios when I left. I was a ‘paste up’ man, he’s the one who colates all the different ingredients of an ad. and sticks it together.”
He was part of Hackney Writers’ Workshop and Basement Writers. This piece comes from the first Hackney Writers’ Group anthology that came out in 1977. In 1976 he had a story, The Interview, published by Centerprise and in 1978 the autobiographical A Comprehensive Education was also published by Centreprise.
For most young black kids, reggae is the ONLY music. Forget the stuff you see in the pop chart, that’s white man’s reggae. What I’m talking about are the obscure West Indian import records that sell by the dozen in those black owned record shops that no white man dare enter. Not that they would be unwelcome, but like the Caribbean supermarket around here it’s like another country, Jamaica, to be exact.
Reggae comes at you from all angles around here, from basement flats and tower blocks and, of course, those high street record shops. It comes canned from young skinny-legged girl’s cassettes and from open car windows, a sound to savour on hot sticky summer afternoons. Unlucky if you live above a black family though, because you’ll hear it coming through the floorboards too. “Here we go again”, my parents would say when Saturday night came. The black family along the road always had a party that night, and I mean a party.
It wouldn’t start until 11 o’clock and woud begin with a fanfare of slamming car doors. Then the reggae began, except that it was called blue-beat then.
Forget your finely tuned stereo and tweeters. They played their discos through huge monoliths of machinery, a closet with a speaker in it.
And on they’d go until morning. I didn’t mind it, lying in bed listening to it all, the music stripped to the barest crudest beat by the distance and air.
No, I didn’t mind it at all. I pictured them all dancing in hot moving rooms. For them it was a weekly return to Jamaica, the reggae records a cheap ticket home.
This poem was in the 1983 anthology Where There’s Smoke, which was the fourth one from Hackney Writers’ Workshop. Ron Barnes was a cabbie.
The Tower Block
Standing in the fog yellow light.
Listening to the muffled melody,
Of turning wheels, and running
The grey precisioned door slides stiffly
like a grey sentry,
And hollow echoes boom in the
Eight foot box.
The button pressed in this solitude,
In this insular compartment
And you are pulled up – Or,
Dragged down, according to the
The grey stone floor staring steps,
The walls soiled as a tramps heels.
Felt pen poems of loves,
And other facts of life,
Make an unwelcome and only change.
Comin up, or going down.
Glass panes take the drunken rage,
Or hilarious boredom.
And from this great distance,
You look down on this, tower blocked
The anthology Apples and Snakes: Raw and Biting Cabaret Poetry reviewed in Jamming!, number 21, 1984.
Apples and Snakes: Raw and Biting Cabaret Poetry
(Pluto Press, £1.95)
Following the success of the Apples and Snakes cabaret comes this volume of representative work. ‘Here are the rants, raves, screams, and whispers that are the poetry of today’, proclaims the cover.
The intentions of A&S are creditable enough – a return to the idea of poetry as a means of mass communication/information, rather than safe entertainment for a smug elite – though ultimately they are playing to an equally narrow field as their reactionary precursors.
Take Attila the Stockbroker (please!) who reveals his bootboy mentality in ‘Contributory Negligence’ (concerning the beating up of a judge) – ‘He asked for it! He’s rich and snobbish/right wing, racist sexist too!’ Hardly endearing qualities, though merely a listing of traits he knows his ‘hip’ audience will despise, thus justifying his violence.
The original emphasis, it must be remembered, was on performance, and many of these pieces suffer as words on a page. The contributions from John Hegley – hilarious in his deadpan style – appear curious nonstarters in print.
Also, the poets tend to over-reach themselves, writing what they ‘ought’ to, rather than what they know. The most effective pieces come from deeply-felt emotions on a wide range of topics (those by Marsha Prescod, Rory McLeod, Fran Landesman, for example).
Otherwise we have little more than ‘grown -up’ nursery rhymes – the type of crude lavatory humour that typifies most ‘youth’ poetry, from Seething Wells and John Cooper Clarke through to Pat Condell. Politically there is little genuine concern here – were the country ever run by a humane government (a contradiction like ‘living corpse’, but bear with me) this bunch would be at a loss for subject matter.
What is advertised as ‘raw and biting’ is, at the end of the day, as toothless and ineffectual as its declared enemy.
The Tottenham Hotspur Party Album reviewed in the NME, 12 December, 1981,
The Tottenham Hotspur Party Album
Disco and reggae singalongs of Cockaigne knees ups, terrace chants, Beatle ditties and the chart single ‘Ossie’s Dream’, interspersed with Radio London commentary extracts from the 1981 FA Cup final and a personal message from skipper Steve Perryman. Or as the girls on the lawn at Tottenham High would say, Wow! pretty heavy.
There is something for every discerning Spurs fan here: their considerable following of lapsed Jewish males, sitting in the Paxton Road stand of a Saturday afternoon instead of attending shul are remembered with ‘Shine On Harvey Bloom’; their West Indian supporters are treated to ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’; the Nazis get ‘White Christmas’; while the club’s South American connection is regaled with ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner’.
In addition, former White Hart Lane glories are recounted in titles like ‘I’m Henry The Eighth I Am’, in memory of full back Ron Henry; the spirit of Dave Mackay is evoked on ‘Roll Out The Barrel’; John White is remembered with ‘White Christmas’; goalkeeper Bill Brown is paid the tribute of ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’; even scarlet countenanced Phil Beal becomes the subject of ‘Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer’. The drunkard’s anthem ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ is surely included for the benefit of Jimmy Greaves.
It’s a doddle for Hoddle, who sings John Lennon with ‘Happy Christmas (War Is Over)’ and Paul McCartney, ‘Hey Jude’, though a surprising omission is ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ as bemoaned by Alfie Conn during the mid ’70s.
File next to Max Bygraves, in the rubbish bin.
D.J. West’s 1967 book The Young Offender is one of those worthy blue Pelican sociology books and contains several sections relating to sub-cultures. There is an overlap of youth cult and sub-culture and much of what is related reads very familiar.
Merton’s theories have inspired other writers to examine in more detail the reactions of those groups within society which deviate from or positively reject the morality of the majority. Such groups have come to be known as ‘sub-cultures’. One of the most obvious examples of a criminal sub-culture is that of the delinquent gang. Albert Cohen* studied the social outlook and origins of members of delinquent gangs of juveniles, whih he and others have elaborated into a general theory of deliquency causation. He observed that American juvenile delinquent gangs are recruited from working-class boys frustrated by lack of status. The emphasis among middle-class parents on self-discipline, planned ambition, and constructive use of leisure by their children paves the way to educational and social advancement. Lower-class boys find themselves at a disadvantage because success in business and education is largely reserved for those with middle-class ideas, values, skills and contacts, Being sensitive to their inferior status, and finding the effort to adopt middle-class standards too great, some of these boys react by repudiating middle-class values altogether, and holding up to ridicule conventional respectability and morality. The sub-culture thus formed stands in relation to dominant culture rather like a witches’ coven in relation to orthodox Christianity; so that what was most condemned is now most admired. The boy who has made no headway among his more respectable peers now gains status by acts of aggression, theft and vandalism. By demonstrating his defiance and contempt for the authorities who have rejected him, he relieves his own feelings, and also wins the admiration of others. Wherever this reaction is commonplace, the affected individuals are likely to come together to form a group solution to their status discontent, each member of the group obtaining support and encouragement from others similarly placed and similarly motivated.
Cohen pointed out that his interpretation satisfactorily explained some otherwise puzzling aspects of juvenile delinquent behaviour. A lot of delinquent activity cannot be accounted for in terms of simple material gain, since very often great risks are taken and effort expended to steal articles which are so little valued by the thief that they are soon discarded or given away. Boys who like thieving often also like bullying better-behaved children who are not members of their gang, as well as playing truant, defying teachers and destroying property. The common motive behind all these forms of anti-social behaviour is malicious delight in annoying the representatives of respectability. A resentment against being pushed around and exploited by authorities also accounts for two prominent features of the gang ethos, hostility towards any form of outside control, and ‘short-run hedonism’. Gang members are very resistant to efforts by teachers or social agencies to regulate their lives or supervise their leisure activities. They prefer to hang about idly, without set purpose but out for fun, until some impulse of the moment takes them off to a football game or a delinquent exploit. Gang members especially resent attempts by parents to control them, and in Cohen’s view gang loyalties may contribute as much to the break-down of family life as family conflicts contribute to gang recruitment.
Advocates of the delinquent sub-culture theory argue that the reactions described are essentially normal and inevitable responses to a given set of social circumstances. Cohen himself, however, was willing to admit individual differences in type of reaction. Some boys, like Merton’s ‘retreatists’, instead of transferring their allegiance to a sub-culture, simply gave up trying and lapsed into apathy. Despite the common core of motivation in the sub-culture, different individuals might come to join it for somewhat different reasons.
After Cohen, various writers have put forward variations on the delinquent sub-culture theme, but without much change in the basic concept. W.B. Miller** suggested that working-class sub-culture in America is such as to generate gang delinquency of itself, without the need for a reaction against middle-class ideas. The focal concerns of lower-class youth, toughness and masculinity, cleverness in making easy money and not being duped, excitement in chance and risk-taking, and the wish to be independent and not bossed about, encourage attitudes that are already half-way delinquent. The ideal of the super-manly fighting tough guy, intolerant of personal affronts, contemptuous of sentimentality, regarding women as objects of conquest and ‘queers’ as targets for abuse, has much in common with the traditional gangster hero. Skill in outwitting others in street-corner gambling and in exchanging insulting repartee brings increased status. Weekly ‘binges’, with the prospect of sexual adventures, brawls, and unrestrained excitement relieve an otherwise dreary and unrewarding routine. Resentment of coercion, exemplified by walking out on jobs, breaking away from homes and wives, or running away from penal institutions, may represent a compensation for dependency cravings, obliquely revealed by the compulsive way absconders seek out further ‘trouble’ and bring about inevitable re-commitment to institutional care.
*Cohen, A.K. (1955). Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. Glencoe, Ill., Free Press.
**Miller, W.B. (1958). ‘Lower class culture as a generating milieu of gang delinquency’. Journal of Social Issues, 14, 5-19.