Lecturer in Cultural Arts and an ex punk, new romantic and goth, Martin Devenney highlights and dissects the unpredictable corners of youth culture.

‘The Youth of Today’, don’t worry I’m not going to lapse into a Monty Python sketch, but phrases such as this and ‘it was never like that in my day’ are often attributed to the older generations of western cultures. I have experienced comments such as this many times from many older people and sometimes people that are even younger than me (even a few old punks). Before I begin however I must make it very clear that there are many people from the post 60 and 70 generation that have no problems with the youth of today or the youth of any day.

I think those who were part of a youth subculture from the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s to hip-hop today have a better understanding of what it is to be a youth and what it is to be part of a subculture. In today’s postmodern climate it is fine to carry wearing the clothes and styles of your youth.

My parents were not part of a youth subculture and went straight from being children to adults. One day my dad was wearing short trousers, the next he was in the RAF in Burma. My mother went from school to work, child to adult within the space of a few days. It wasn’t until the 1950s that teens got their own music and their own fashions and those that had finished their childhood by this time struggled to understand what the ‘teenager’ was?

Richard Hoggart was the father of British Cultural Studies and was part of a hugely important movement that began to take working-class culture more seriously during the 1950s. This was the time that writers and film makers began to take on subjects that depicted and related to the young British working-class. Before this they had quietly put up with forelock tugging Cockney stereotypes in films and television. Hoggart himself had come from an impoverished background in Leeds and was brought up by his grandmother because both his parents had died by the time he was 8. He managed to get himself a place at a grammar school and won a scholarship to Leeds University, this was still very unusual for working-class folk. In 1962 Hoggart founded The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham and this was the first time that ‘Culture’ had been studied in a broad multi-class way, with such academic depth.

To this point all was good. He even wrote one of the most important books on working-class culture in the post war period. The Uses of Literacy (1956) drew a picture of post-war urban life and the cultures that grew up within it. Although the book was an honest personal account of how mass consumption and mass culture was changing due to Americanisation, as well as being a serious attempt to explore an area that had rarely been a centre for discussion in the past, it was still very damning and judgemental. However hard he may have been trying, he was still making the point that the ‘Youth of today’ were not like the youth when he was a lad.

Within the book there is a short essay called The Jukebox Boys (pages 246 -250) and it talks of the relatively new phenomenon of the teenager in a rather scathing manner.

‘One such illustration is to be found in the reading of young men on national Service…the only books read by a great many, my own experience suggests, are those written by the most popular crime novelists. Otherwise they read comics, gangster novelettes, science and crime magazines, the newer style magazines…’ (Hoggart P.247)

Maybe this is all something to do with our nostalgic selves. The origin of the word ‘nostalgia’ comes from the Greek ‘Nostos’ and began its life as meaning acute homesickness. What this does to us all, especially in a time of recession, is make us feel and think that the past was a far better place than the present and because the ‘youth of today’ are always going to be a part of the present and not the past, they must be bad?

Maybe Hoggart pictures some noble working classes of his past, who spent their time reading Dostoyevsky, and Jane Austen and not the pulp/dime novel of the 20 and 30s?

He goes on to say ‘Perhaps even more symptomatic of the general trend is the reading of the juke-box boys, of those who spend their evenings in harshly lighted milk bars… Girls go to some, but most of the customers are boys between fifteen and twenty, with drape suits, picture ties and an American slouch…they put copper after copper into the mechanical record player…The records seem to be changed about once a fortnight by the hiring firm; almost all are American; almost all are vocals and the styles of singing much advanced beyond what is normally heard on the Light programme of the BBC…Compared even with the pub around the corner, this is all a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation, a sort of spiritual dry rot.’ (P.248)

It is obvious that the ‘milk bar/cafe’ didn’t exist in Hoggart’s youth so he struggles to understand it, but this is the way things should be, adults shouldn’t understand youth, it’s their club, we might dress in the same clothes be we shouldn’t be allowed in.

Toward the end of the essay he says ’They form a depressing group and one by no means typical of working class people; perhaps most of them are rather less intelligent than the average, and are therefore even more exposed than the others to the debilitating mass trends of the day. They have no aim, no ambition, no protection, no belief.’ (P.249)

Little did Hoggart know at the time, but this was only the beginning of youth subculture and contrary to his understanding of what this phenomenon was, those who were part of youth subcultures often went on to become the most creative of people, due to their opportunity of having an expressive outlet. Richard Hoggart’s importance to the academic study and understanding of popular culture should never be underestimated, but next time you find yourself moaning about young people wearing their trousers too low, or moaning about the popular music of the day, or saying ‘when I was young it was better’ just stop yourself and have a look at those photos of when you were 15.

All Text ©Martin Devenney / YOUTH CLUB

A kid wearing Teddy Boy styles, Caister weekender, UK 1980. ©Janette Beckman / PYMCA

A kid wearing Teddy Boy styles, Caister weekender, UK 1980. ©Janette Beckman / PYMCA

© Pelican Books / Richart Hoggart

© Pelican Books / Richart Hoggart