What’s behind the rise of Yob Lit?

Books on ‘anti-social behaviour’ tend to reveal far more about the author’s mindsets than they do about life in Britain.

Graham Barnfield

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At home and abroad, Britain is seen as a nation of binge drinkers and yobs. That is the claim of a recent survey by the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science (1). Given that public debate has agonised over the perceived problem of drinking and violence for several years now, it would be surprising if the survey registered anything else. It is questionable, though, whether incidents of drunken violence are actually rising; the survey wasn’t designed to measure anything like that.

Pundits are making names for themselves by ruminating on crime and behaviour in contemporary Britain. Francis Gilbert is one such pundit. His book Yob Nation has become part of the national debate on anti-social behaviour (2). Yet as journalist Decca Aitkenhead argues, any book that promises to reveal ‘the truth about Britain’s yob culture’, as Gilbert’s does, should be treated with caution.

‘As a field of media enquiry, yobbishness is uniquely prone to lurid melodrama and vicarious titillation, and more often than not produces work which says more about the jumpy panic of the middle-class wuss than it ever reveals about the character of the yob’, says Aitkenhead. ‘Its trademark is the sensationalised anecdote about a fairly minor violent incident, recounted as if it were the worst thing that ever happened to anyone.’ (3)

On a charitable reading, Gilbert’s heart is in the right place. His early career is detailed in his first book I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here (4). Praise for that book stemmed from mixed motives. Like Beatrix Campbell before him (5), Gilbert’s initially left-wing concerns with the plight of the disadvantaged overlapped with hostility to a perceived British underclass. It’s not that either author set out to demonise anyone, but their reportage ended up complementing some unpleasant elitist sentiments. In I’m a Teacher, here’s how Gilbert accounts for his youthful idealism:

‘It was a Marxist fairytale, but a fairytale nevertheless, because it was here [Cambridge University] that I planned to gather all the intellectual and emotional resources to enable me to venture forth into the dark forest of working-class Britain where I would slay the dragons of class envy and alienation ….until the day after the Berlin Wall came down … the game was up regarding the Revolution’ (pp18-20).

When his own version of left-wing politics failed him, he seems to have become more susceptible to the idea that sections of the working classes – the chavs, primarily – are the real problem in Britain today. Which brings us nicely to Yob Nation. In this book, his methods and argument are lightweight. Why are the British yobbish? Because this trait was inculcated into the archers at the battle of Agincourt (pp30-31). Without a suitably medieval outlet for this aggression, we let it go on the streets. And, erm, that’s about it really.

The dubious history doesn’t stop there. There’s an obvious absence of any historical comparison. A passing familiarity with, say, the movement towards enclosure or ‘Gin Lane’ as caricatured by William Hogarth, would reveal that violence and drink today are not at an all-time high.

Just as the volume of boozing and fighting is historically specific, so too is the perception of these things as a problem. Craig O’Malley shows us how the establishment in 1920s Sheffield expressed its concerns about crime in ways that would be considered utopian and irresponsible today. New levels of crime worried local newspaper editors, but this was treated as a local matter with narrow, law enforcement and reform-led solutions. More broadly, it was taken for granted that a forward-looking, progressive elite could solve its problems through evolutionary social improvement (6).

These sentiments were not confined to the Steel City; they formed part of mainstream public thinking. They may have been overly optimistic perhaps, but they were preferable to today’s preoccupation with micro-managing interpersonal behaviour as a solution to what are fundamentally social problems. Gilbert takes contemporary concerns as his starting point; the closest we get to any sense of history in Yob Nation – away from Agincourt – is the author’s comparison between his dad getting punched in 1979 and his own being mugged on a bus in 1999 (pp2-8).

The book’s sociology also leaves much to be desired. Yob Nation has been marketed as a ‘devastating look at the state of Britain today – a country being steadily corroded by the advance of yob culture’. Yet the methods used are flimsy. Only the interviews with various authorities, mainly in law enforcement, shed much light. Insofar as they disclose something about the mentality of contemporary coppers, Gilbert’s transcribed conversations are the high point of the book. In contrast, his whistle-stop tour of rough estates and vertical volume drinking dens has all the analytical insight of a CCTV camera.

Ayia Napa, Cardiff and Glasgow all get the Ibiza Uncovered treatment, supplemented by snatched conversations on a Friday night. The British at play become the subject of an anthropological investigation – yet compared with academic studies making similar claims, Gilbert’s exposé seems dashed off. There’s neither the detailed ethnography of classics like Knuckle Sandwich nor the participant observation of Simon Winlow’s Badfellas, written by a PhD student working as a bouncer in Sunderland (7). Without the same care and attention as found in other accounts of working-class life, the standard of evidence supplied by Gilbert is no basis from which to offer insights into the state of the nation. Instead, the book comes across as voyeuristic.

Some of the ‘bad behaviour’ documented isn’t that bad. Thus in Ayia Napa, a youth gets behind a bar and turns up the music without the landlord’s permission (p123). Women ‘on parade’ – Gilbert’s term – ‘often found themselves dragooned into unpleasant shags in toilets’ (p120). In Bristol, a dad with pierced ears swears at his young son for manhandling a pushchair (p190). On a gay pride march, butch and femme lesbians trade threats and insults (pp46-48). In Newport, 30 to 40 drinkers are admitted to casualty each weekend (p171).

Only quite recently have these leisure activities been reclassified as a major social problem. It is not just that Gilbert exaggerates, as Aitkenhead argues; he actually recasts insignificant bits of everyday life as being the source of social decay today. However, writing about a yob nation means presenting the problem as one of all social classes. Whether in the interests of ‘balance’ or because of some residual left-wing conscience, Gilbert’s book does not limit itself to attacking chavs and NEDs. Its scope extends to bad behaviour in the army, the medical profession, the stock exchange and the establishment. From all walks of life, there are anecdotes to accumulate, of rowdy and drunken conduct, ritual humiliation and rudeness.

While the marketing campaign for Yob Nation appealed to the chav-hating classes, the book itself appears more even-handed. According to Gilbert, all manner of institutions lack manners. His explanation of this involves a universe divided up into briefing rooms, parade grounds and battlefields. These are the often interchangeable areas where people plot, pose and punch each other. Sure enough, every institution and occupation has these facilities, and everyone indulges in bad behaviour. Yet this just shows that the antics being discussed here are basically meaningless. Simply because the term ‘bullying’ has expanded to include what was previously known as ‘office politics’, doesn’t mean that the label has captured anything of any real consequence.

He presents city traders and hooray Henries alike as having their own equivalent of gang territories. Perhaps as a faint echo of his youthful marxisant self, he has an equal opportunities policy when it comes to labelling people as yobs. Several soft targets are bundled together within a loose conceptual framework, but even then Yob Nation gets it wrong. Much is made of New Labour’s use of football as a political metaphor, especially under Alistair Campbell’s public relations regime. Invoking the beautiful game is a concession to yobbery, argues Gilbert. This turns reality on its head: these days politicians use sporting terminology to connect with an electorate they’ve all but lost touch with. (The other common mechanism for reaching out is invoking the victim of crime, a rhetorical strategy that also peppers Yob Nation.)

Blaming politicians blends seemlessly with blaming the media, where the rise of Abi Titmus symbolises all that’s gone wrong, by moving from nursing to wearing a nurse’s uniform for baying male crowds (pp173-174). Celebrity journalism and self-promotion is often coarse, but they weren’t present at Agincourt. Titmus becomes another symptom in a generalised complaint about social decay. I agree that the world would be a better place without Big Brother 6, but there are worse employment opportunities for the under-30s. Even when it turns out badly, as it did for BB5 contestant Lesley Sanderson (or Saunderson, as Gilbert keeps referring to her), nobody forced her to take the part.

The kind of ‘canteen culture’ Gilbert bemoans, in the army, in politics, in the workplace, is actually subject to increasing surveillance today. Fear of (allegedly) inappropriate behaviour has become a driving force in the workplace. In the process it has stifled both the aggressively ambitious and those who wish to forge the cameraderie needed for trust at work. Granted, it’s unwise to set fire to one’s pubes (p140), but there’s no need to recast such high jinks as something intrinsically sinister.

Diagnosing the national character will require more than Gilbert’s merely observational methods. Anyone who keeps a diary or weblog for a month could list the polite encounters and random acts of kindness they observe every day. It would be no more (or less) representative of life in modern Britain than is Yob Nation. This book caught the imagination of so many reviewers because that’s how they see the world already. Experience has become the legitimate way to make a political point these days, making banal pub talk the basis for diagnosing society’s ills.

Ultimately, Gilbert’s book represents a missed opportunity to discuss some of the changes that have occurred in the recent period. People do live more fragmented and isolated lives. This leads to the adoption of a fearful and instrumental view of other people, posioning some – but not all – of our day-to-day interactions. It would be suprising if this mood did not contribute to a rise in incivility. Yes, it would be preferable if we reserved swearwords for specific situations, rather than using them to punctuate with. Gilbert does make accurate observations about suspicion-led lives and degraded language, but only to confirm his own outlook. Like the stopped clock that’s right twice a day, he gets it right, identifying an underlying problem by default.

Yob Nation by Francis Gilbert is published by Profile Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

Graham Barnfield blogs at the Loneliest Jukebox and teaches at the University of East London.

(1) Sarah Getty, ‘We’re a country of yobs, says Europe’, Metro, 9 May 2006, p.15.

(2) Francis Gilbert, Yob Nation (London: Profile Books, 2006)

(3) Decca Aitkenhead, Here We Go, Guardian, 8 April 2006

(4) Francis Gilbert, I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here (London: Short Books, 2004)

(5) Beatrix Campbell, Goliath: Britain’s Dangerous Places (London: Methuen, 1993)

(6) See Craig O’Malley in Who’s Antisocial? New Labour and the Politics of Antisocial Behaviour (Institute of Ideas Occasional Papers, 2005)

(7) Dave Robins, Philip Cohen, Knuckle Sandwich: Growing Up in the Working-class City (London: Pelican, 1978); Simon Winlow, Badfellas: Crime, Tradition and New Masculinities (Oxford: Berg, 2001). Admittedly, Winlow’s account has a bit of pulp fiction about it, climaxing in him going native in a brawl related to Wearside protection rackets, only to be pulled clear by his dissertation supervisor.

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