Friday, 21 September 2012

Good Lads, Really

Adam Curtis is a magician… of the BBC archives.  By pulling these films out of his employer’s top hat, he gives us an unusual perspective both into the “hooligans” of yesteryear, the Hell’s Angels and the Skinheads of the late 1960s, and the mainstream culture that reported on them.

The press are in constant need of scary monsters to entertain us.  They create them out any material they can find: the underclass, Islamic terrorists, paedophiles, unions, the IRA, communists, psychopathic families…any old nutter will do.  It is the reason Fleet Street was situated next to the Old Bailey and not the Houses of Parliament: crime is more popular and therefore profitable than political debate.

The young always provide good material.  For they are always with us: from Mods and Rockers through to the “feral” teenagers of today, with hippies, punks and the ecstasy generation filling up the gaps in between.  Just about every one of us has been demonised in our day.

What these films imply is that youth movements are consciously used by the media to create violent myths; by taking granules of truth, real but relatively small amounts of thuggery and criminality, to refashion what are essentially teenage groups into bands of wild animals threatening the order of society.  Gothic horror stories used to secure a high readership for the press who need them to raise the advertising revenue.

These films also suggest that the coverage encourages the violence it condemns, which a cynical news editor would surely welcome – from a rational market perspective they need more crime not less.  The newspapers creating an image that the groups themselves then try to emulate; at least to a limited extent: a teenage cult designed to upset parents will have little effect if the TV fiction is worse than the banal reality.  The adults likely to be relieved when they discover the small extent of their daughter’s anti-social behaviour: writing "suck this" on her knickers and flashing them to the local traffic warden is hardly worth a reprimand, given the circumstances.

Some of the Skinheads are very explicit about this, and we can see it in the group interview, where they talk about “Paki bashing.”  They feel, we are sure, that they must be outrageous for the camera, in order to shock us appropriately.  However, they are honest kids, and cannot help but admit that what they say is mostly PR.  We wonder where they work now… If it wasn’t for their class I would guess corporate communications. 

This creates a curious situation: it is in the interest of both the media and the groups they castigate to exaggerate the violence and criminality.  Both are in the same game of story inflation.  That is, both parties have a vested interest in producing a world made up of fictions, eagerly consumed by the general population, many of whom want to believe these stories are real: “it wasn’t like that when we were young, love”, confirming those halcyon days of their distant school years.  Everyone, it seems, benefits from a world that is largely untrue…

The interview is revealing of the power of authority on these supposedly lawless groups: the interviewer refuses to accept their terminology, and (quietly) insists on saying “Pakistanis” not “Pakis”.  One member of the group follows him - civilised to the last he knows how to follow orders.

This is not to say there was no racism and no violence, but it is a small part of the behaviour of these groups, as the last extraordinary comments make very clear: to be a member of a gang is have pride in belonging to something bigger than yourself.  It is a kind of micro nationalism on the local scale.

Both films are revealing, and suggest something about the shifting attitudes amongst the working classes of the 1960s (these documentaries show, contrary to Marxist myths prevalent at the time, that there was no single proletarian culture; a largely middle class invention). 

The Hells Angels interviewed are from the Midlands.  They are adolescents who are rebelling against their parents; the Nazi memorabilia the best way of annoying their mums and dads who lived through the war, and who absorbed the suffocating British nationalism that followed it.   All the Germans are supposed to be bad, Hitler says, and yet the ones we’ve met are good people.  It is an easy way of exposing the narrowness of their parent’s worldview.  They have found the strongest point in the previous generation’s collective identity, and by attacking it seek to carve out their own, which is based mostly on rejection – the Nazi symbols do not indicate an interest in fascism or any other alternative culture.  They are more like Beatniks than anything else.  Their aim is simple: not to conform to what they regard as mainstream society, which in their case means the ethos of the communities where they grew up. 

It is a culture war, and is a clear break between the generations.  It is also something else: an attack against their own class, which, because it is mediated through their parents, they find oppressive.  These extreme reactions, one generation completely denying the cultural symbols of the other, suggests something of the tensions within the working class communities at the time, which in turn implies that they were beginning to decline.  The Hells Angels the advance guard of a reaction against a highly conservative culture (contrary to once popular myths the industrial working class were very reactionary – it was a defensive community, designed to protect what it had already achieved through previous struggles), which in the decades that followed was to lose not only its power, but its self-respect. Today the white working classes are often conflated with an underclass, and treated as a sort of social scum by politicians and establishment commentators (both on the left and right).  Even the radicals have given up on them.i

The Skinhead family is very different.  Here there is no generational conflict: the father is an old Teddy Boy who understands and supports his son.  This suggests, and the rest of the interview confirms it, that there is no hatred against their own class in this group; the contrary in fact: becoming a Skinhead is a way of affirming one’s community, by identifying oneself against those who would deny it – one’s social superiors.  In a very real sense the attitude that animates this group is close to class war.  The son, unable to become a journalist because of his East End origins, puts his boots on to kick against the system, which is prejudiced against him.  To be a Skinhead is to be proud of your origins – the complete reverse of the Hell’s Angels’ attitude – and to affirm it against outsiders who look down on you. 

The interviewer’s reaction is very interesting, for he cannot understand why the boy gave up his attempt to be a journalist after only one rejection.  From a different background he doesn’t understand the symbolic weight of such a first refusal; confirming what the lad already knows through other experience and his own education that includes the images, codes, and language of the mainstream culture, which constantly reinforces the perceived futility of the fight against class prejudice.  To become a journalist he would have to effectively migrate from one community to another; and thus become a kind of immigrant; a hard and often unrewarding life if you wish to rise to eminence – such success rarely occurs in the first generation.  Only someone who is already part of the host society, in this case the media tribe, could fail to understand this difficulty and the resulting fatalism.

Here is a story of the problem of mobility in a hierarchal society that is supposed to be equalitarian.  Unlike the Hells Angels that are fighting against the facts of their community, the Skinheads are rebelling against the comforting myths of the mainstream culture, which suggested privilege was on the way out.

These contrasting films are an extraordinary insight to a cultural shift, which shouts out to be explored more fully.  To take just one example: why did the Skinheads target Pakistanis not posh people?  It wasn’t because they were racist; Jamaica was a big part of their sub-culture.  It must have been for some other reason.  Surely it was more than bullies picking on the weakest available ethnic group.  Was it something more… Did they recognise themselves in this immigrant community?  Two kinds of foreigner, both struggling to survive in a land that openly rejects them?  The Skinheads beating up Pakistanis are really smashing their own faces against the bathroom mirror…

They are being left behind in a world that seems to be taking off.

In our memories, in large part created by the new media of television and photojournalism, the 1960s were a wild and prosperous time.  They probably were for the liberal elite, especially those associated with the rising industries.  For the majority it was a decade when the post war dream of rapid growth and increasing social justice died; with unemployment on the rise and social mobility starting to fall.  These two films suggest something of the effect of these changes, together with the impact of the media’s illusions on the general population: the riches are so close… just turn on the television set…  everything is there for the taking… Yet, in the workaday world, when you try to actually acquire them: where are from again, young fellow?

[i] See my I’m Lazy and the link it contains to When Conservatives Become Socialists.

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