Sunday, August 26, 2007

Yobs and chavs

In commenting on my Let's hear it for the good kids post, Peter has set me another poser to address:

"I have a question. We hear a great deal over here about crime and yobs and chavs and the estate culture, etc. Brit always said it was overblown, but there is no doubt your media is full of it. Dalrymple is always going on about the "underclass". My question is, do you see this as limited to such a class (dysfunctional, unemployable)or is it an increasing problem in what used to be known as the "working class" too? Is there still a large, hardy, moralistic class doing the hard work more or less responsibly or are more and more of them being attracted to drunken punch-ups in town centres?"

I begin by agreeing with Brit, that it is overblown. The reports we see in the press would not make the headlines unless they were startling exceptions to our everyday experience. Unfortunately, such reporting is counter-productive in two ways: it presents a false image to young people of what they are expected to be doing out of sight of their parents, and it stirs up fear in older people who then avoid going into certain areas in the evening. If we were all out and about, walking in the parks and town centres, I'm sure much of the poor behaviour just wouldn't happen.

So, the media has to bear some responsibility for the current situation but it is not a simple, single-cause problem, nor is it new. A common theme in my posts is the fallacy of the idea of a 'golden age' in education, moral standards, social behaviour or anything else. We only have to look at our literature and social history books to find accounts of young men (sometimes girls) defying the norms of behaviour set by their parents. The seventeenth century had its 'roaring boys' and the eighteenth century had 'mohocks' and 'young bloods', gangs of wealthy young men who roamed the streets of London: "They put an old woman into a hogshead, and rolled her down a hill; they cut off some noses, others' hands, and several barbarous tricks, without any provocation. They are said to be young gentlemen; they never take any money from any." (Wentworth Papers)

Outrageous fashion and flouting of convention were the hallmarks of the nineteenth century 'dandies' and the twentieth century 'flappers.' These, again, were the young members of the upper middle and aristocratic classes. I suppose the lower classes were too hard at work to indulge in such behaviour; the change seems to have occurred after WWII, when the term 'teen-ager' came into use and a whole youth subculture developed. I can remember the 'teddy boys' of the 50s with their drainpipe trousers, suede shoes and greased hair; for the most part, they were just flexing their fashion muscles but in some places they were little more than thugs and were involved in the race riots of 1958.

In the 60s we had Mods and Rockers. This generation of working class youngsters had more money to spend and more leisure time. They bought leather jackets and motorbikes and followed rock bands if they were Rockers and bought Italian suits and motor scooters and followed The Who if they were Mods. I think they just attacked each other and not the general public.

There is no doubt that there has been a change in the youth subculture in recent years largely due, I think, to the use of alcohol and a lack of adult supervision. City centres, town centres and now even our village centre are full of drunken teenagers on Friday and Saturday nights. Pub staff and nightclub managers could reduce this problem at a stroke if they would refuse to serve drinks to those who are obviously drunk. The massive expenditure on police units and first aid posts to deal with the problems after midnight might be better used on a police presence earlier in the evening, ensuring that the existing laws on serving alcohol are enforced. I won't mention the farcical extended-licence law.

The 'estate culture' is something else. Vulnerable, unsupervised children are prey to drug-pushers and this seems to be where the gang culture is growing. Boys as young as eleven and twelve may be recruited and some have started to carry knives to protect themselves or to bully others. We are seeing the effect of this bullying in the reluctance of the people of Liverpool to co-operate with the police in tracking down the killer of Rhys Jones. This appears to be a growing problem but it is not typical teenage behaviour in Britain.

Who is to blame and what can be done? Family life isn't what it was, or is it? This is what a Flapper had to say to her parents in the 1920s:

"It must begin with individuals. Parents, study your children. Talk to them more intimately. Respect their right to a point of view. Be so understanding and sympathetic that they will turn to you naturally and trustfully with their glowing joys or with their heartaches and tragedies. Youth has many of the latter because Youth takes itself so seriously. And so often the wounds go unconfessed, and, instead of gradually healing, become more and more gnawing through suppression until of necessity relief is sought in some way which is not always for the best."

On the whole, good parents produce well-behaved children, who grow into well-balanced adults. Schools have an important role but they do not produce badly behaved children, they just have to deal with them. Governments have a responsibilty to provide a healthy economy so that families can work and earn enough to allow parents time to spend with their children. Fact: there are far more good parents, good kids and good schools than there are bad ones.

What won't solve the problem is yet more legislation.


  1. I realise that I haven't addressed the 'class' element of your question, Peter. The 'working class' that you speak of - the miners, ship builders, blue collar workers, doesn't really exist any more because those industries don't exist any more. They were hard working, self-disciplined people who worked and saved to give their families a better life and they set an example of striving for improvement. Many professional people of my generation came from that background. It seems to me that those lower down, socially and intellectually, got left behind and the gap has grown wider. I think that's what the press refer to as the 'underclass' - people with little hope of working their way out of the situation because there are no work opportunities for them.
    The problem is compounded by the disastrous comprehensive education system which leaves youngsters who have no parental support far more disadvantaged than they were in secondary modern schools, where they could learn the basic skills for a trade.

  2. Actually, Peter, reading over what I have written, it looks rather glib. There are so many aspects to the problems that every diagnosis and proposed solution appears simplistic.

  3. I wouldn't worry to much about a lack of comprehensive coherence on this one. If I had the solution, I wouldn't be here.

    OTOH, in some ways it may be our general impression that this is a huge intractable problem that will require massive changes in something or other over decades to solve. The left wants huge transformative social programmes and bureaucracies and endless touchy-feely counselling and education. Conservatives insist nothing less than a mass revival of muscular faith, two generations of Horatio Algers, the abolition of divorce and the reinstatement of 19th century morality and law enforcement practices will do. I used to be prone to such thinking myself, until Guiliani came along in NYC. For decades the best and the brightest couldn't figure out how to stop the apparently inexorable decline into a dangerous, rotting social pathology. Suddenly, Rudy shows up for work and says, "Right, let's start arresting people for jumping the subway turnstiles and painting graffiti," and the rest is history. Gotta love those Americans.

    Isn't it obvious intolerable behaviour must in some way be met with intolerance and that the key here is to start sanctioning some forms of summary violence against men and boys?

    Also, I always get a little uneasy when folks start pointing out how there were similar problems many times in the past. So what, exactly? True, it can be important to keep that it mind to forestall panic or over-reaction, but the Victorians would never have tackled their slums if they had just kept on telling themselves how much worse it was in the 14th century.

  4. There isn't just one problem is there, Peter? That is why all the so-called solutions don't seem to get very far.

    My husband is a great admirer of what he calls the New York approach and I'm sure that could quickly sort out the alcohol-related misbehaviour, the graffiti, minor vandalism, litter etc. Get the kids to clean up the mess, get them back into their homes and make their parents take responsibility. That deals with the 'chavs.' You may not like comparisons, but I think this behaviour is the 'normal' teenage rebelliousness, which has gone on in different guises in every generation. The boundaries they have to cross change, that's all. I'm all for setting tighter boundaries.

    The drugs, knives and gun crimes and the growing gang culture are far more serious. This is not mere teenage angst, it is a worrying development among a section of our society that sees itself as underprivileged and disaffected. Decisive action (I guess you are joking about the summary violence!)is needed to stamp out the criminal activities but the causes of the disaffection must be addressed too.

    The public and political clamour here is for more legislation - it's a diversion. I think we probably have more laws than any other western country and I don't want to see any more.

  5. I guess you are joking about the summary violence!

    No, I've rarely been more serious. Granted we North Americans can't tell our yobs from our chavs, and I accept completely your assessment that is overblown--I've seen lots of that before over here. But I trust you agree there is a great preocupation with this in the UK. It isn't just your media, it's also the major theme of the last decade in most of the British police mysteries I so love. Frankly, it reminds me of the American preoccupation in the 70's with urban ghettos.

    Causes of disaffectation? By all means, let a thousand flowers bloom. May the spirits of Christian love and Enlightened humanism and tolerance combine to spread progress and brotherly cohesion and resilience across the land. In other words, bring on the counselling, workshops and mentoring programmes. But I fear that if you do not find a civilized, lawful way to tell the wife-beaters, soccer hoodlums and urban and school terrorists that their violence will be met in kind, blow for blow, the moment they inflict it, it will all be for nought.

    BTW, monix, the miracle of Guiliani wasn't that he made the subways safe and dealt with other minor irritants. It was that his focus on minor crime made such consequential inroads into solving the major kind. Who'da thunk?

  6. It is hard to know how people will interpret what one says on blogs - it leads to all kinds of misunderstandings, as we know! Peter, I don't know how you got from my post that I see counselling and therapies etc as an answer to our disaffected youth problems. I want parents to be made to take responsibility for their children's lives - all areas: language development, literacy, health, nutrition and behaviour. I have spoken out many times against government interference in these areas.

    I can see that the changes in society have contributed to the breakdown in family life: marriage/commitment is not deemed necessary for rearing children; government policies pressurise women into working instead of looking after their own children; rights have become more important than responsibilies etc ad infinitum. People are waking up to the fact that it is going horribly wrong, yesterday the government admitted that the billions it has spent on early education programmes have achieved nothing in terms of language and literacy development; another report recently showed that children who spend most of their time in nursery placements before age 4 years tend to be more aggressive and less sociable - the opposite of the predicted outcomes. Those of us working in this area screamed that they were getting it wrong from the start but no-one listened. It is going to be very difficult to get mothers to care for their own children again, the skills have been lost and the financial implications are too great.

    I'm all for accountability but there is a whole generation of parents who don't know how to parent, so need to be shown what they are responsible for.

    As for making our town centres, parks and streets safe, I have a fantasy, something like a Henry Fonda movie: one evening, as the yobs are pouring out of the clubs, every decent person in the country goes out into the street and simply stands there, reclaiming it. Then the youngsters are collected by their shame-faced parents and taken home. We have let the situation happen, we, not new laws, can change it. That is not a call for vigilanteism but responsible citizenship.

    Having said all that, I reiterate that there are many separate issues here. The misbehaviour of unsupervised kids, which is widespread, is not the same as the gang culture, which is exceptional. For the latter, you can be as violent as you like in stamping it out!

  7. Afterthoughts, Peter: I'm not at all surprised that tackling minor crime has a major impact on more serious crime. I was a strict parent (ask Brit!) and a strict teacher - I set boundaries for the small actions and courtesies and I followed through consistently. As a result, I could control a whole school assembly with a raised eyebrow and yet I was a very popular teacher. I think it was because the children knew exactly what was acceptable.

    Your image of blow for blow punishments is a bit scary - aren't we trying to protect ourselves against that kind of legal system?

  8. Firstly, sorry if my jab about counselling et al, sounded personal. It wasn't at all, it was just a poke at a general mindset we see around us that believes this problem can be talked and studied away.

    The power of your raised eyebrow is the mark of an extraordinary teacher and a good parent. It bespeaks a combination of selfless giving and no-nonsense demands that children crave. My wife is quite timid, but she has it with her grade four class and it amazes me--she is loved by them, even to the point that she disarms troublemaking neurotic parents who cave (sometimes in comical, obvious frustration)in the face of their kid's hero worship. They want to be with her all the time and tell her everything about their lives, but do they ever worry about displeasing her.

    But, monix, we are talking about personal vocation, sacrifice, gift, talent, etc., not a technique that everybody can study and master. It is folly to think every teacher can be trained to it. And you are quite right that it rests on at least a modicum of parental responsibility and family functionalism. It seems what we are talking about here is the complete absence of this and the presence of a lot of other malign factors. By all means, let's start with tough love, but let's also keep our eyes open to the certainty that it will not always work. That was a lovely story below about the boys and your garden. What do you think would have been the appropriate, realistic punishment if they had come back in the middle of the night and tore it all up and their parents didn't care, assuming they had parents?

    Note as well I said boys. I realize this is not politically correct thinking, but this is primarily a problem of male violence, despite the girl gangs and female complicity. Male violence is timeless, tolerance of it is not. In the past it was either punished or sublimated, but we seem to dream about rooting it out through some cocktail of education/propaganda, psychology and welfare. Whether directed against men or women or society in general, male violence is not reliably prevented or contained by gender studies or enlightened education or even strong mothers. The key is the example, expectations, reactions and threats of adult men such as fathers, (and fathers-in-law!) teachers, mentors, coaches, heros real and imaginary, etc. Of course physical violence need not be involved and it is better if it is not. I actually believe corporal punishment beyond the toddler years is a mark of parental failure, although the unstated threat of it may not be. But kids' are not just putty we mold and both good and evil reside within them. I'm afraid sometimes there is no choice and no place else to hide. And anyway, eventually we get sick of hiding.

  9. I think we see the root of the problems in the same way, Peter. I also think that neither of us has come up with any enforceable solutions.

    What if those nice boys had turned into vandals? In reality not much would happen - the community policeman would call at their homes and tell the parents what they had been up to and that would be an end to it. I think the boys should be held at the police station until the parents come to collect them and make some sort of agreement on future behaviour. Not much, but it would be a start, especially if there could be sanctions for violation of the agreement. The trouble is we don't seem to have any sanctions.

    BTW sorry the paranoia showed itself again. Yesterday my friend (who is a silent reader here) said I was too right wing, erp accuses me of being a leftie and I thought you were attributing too-liberal views to me. I am a lower-case conservative with Christian democratic tendencies and a tactical voter, not a political party member - just in case anyone wants to put a label on my views! Not being a certainty-wallah, my views are always open to change, through experience or persuasion.

  10. It strikes me that what we are talking about is not so much actual violence, but violence-in-reserve--i.e. the threat of it. When I was in school, the strap was still in the principal's armoury of sanctions, but it was almost never used. We'd never even seen it. We sure were aware of it and its potential, though. But today, when kids know the teachers can't touch them no matter what or that the guy on the street can't clip them for menacing an old lady without being arrested or that your husband can't grind their noses in the garden they just tore up, you have a difference in kind, not in degree.

    There is, I think, a good analogy in international affairs today. The idea of the dispute with Iran ending up in war is terrifying to everybody and we expect our governments to do all to avoid it, but I want to scream everytime I hear a European leader announce that war is not an option. How do they think that plays in Tehran? Talk about bringing war a step closer!

    No probs about the paranoia. At the risk of getting myself into trouble with another dicey comment, I think this is why argumentative blogging is generally easier for men. (N.B. I said generally!) We are just more familar with the digs and sarcasm, because that is how we talk to one another in person. Most women are much more attuned to hurt feelings and facial signs. Yesterday my wife was complaining about how she couldn't get any work done because her friend/colleague was in her class chatting the morning away and she didn't know how to get rid of her. I said that was hard for me to understand. If I am chatting about something with my partner in the next office and he wants to work, he just looks up and me and says: "Goodbye".

  11. Do you have any suggestions for sanctions that would be accepted today? Your story of the strap reminds me of the one that used to hang by the fireplace when I was growing up, it was never used but we knew it was there and that was enough to keep us all in line.

    I do have to keep reminding myself that the majority of youngsters are not only well-behaved but pretty generous, funny and kind too. I love 'em.

  12. The key is the example, expectations, reactions and threats of adult men such as fathers, (and fathers-in-law!) teachers, mentors, coaches, heros real and imaginary, etc.



I love to read your comments and promise that I will reply as soon as I can leave my garden, sewing room or kitchen!