The New Left and youth culture

Where Mark Abrams saw the emerging forms of youth culture as a new opportunity for companies and marketers, some academics perceived a more troubling challenge. For many on the political left, the ‘youth question’ was becoming more urgent, not only in response to rising affluence and the post-War baby boom, but also as a result of wider political developments: the Labour Party was in retreat, and many of the older certainties of left politics were being questioned, not least in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. One consequence of this was a general ‘turn to culture’ among left-wing academics: the cultural, symbolic and emotional dimensions of the ‘consumer society’ could no longer be ignored or merely condemned.

The most notorious response to these developments can be found in Richard Hoggart’s influential book The Uses of Literacy (first published in 1957), and especially in his description of the working class ‘juke box boys’ he saw loitering in a ‘milk bar’ in a Northern town. According to Joe Moran, Hoggart was writing about an experience from the early 1950s (the book was actually written between 1950 and 1955), and yet his description suggests something of the early Teddy Boys: these are young men with ‘with drape-suits, picture ties, and an American slouch’. Hoggart is scathing about the décor of the milk bar – ‘the nastiness of their modernistic knick-knacks, their glaring showiness’ represents a kind of ‘aesthetic breakdown’ – and about the (largely American) music the boys are playing on a ‘mechanical record player’. Hoggart is in no doubt about the lack of authenticity and cultural value of such entertainment:

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 amid the odour of boiled milk. Many of the customers – their clothes, their hair-styles, their facial expressions all indicate – are living to a large extent in a myth-world compounded of a few simple elements which they take to be those of American life.

As this latter comment implies, Hoggart seems to have reached his conclusions merely from superficial observation of the boys’ appearance: he does not seem to have spoken to them, let alone conducted any research. Yet he seems entirely confident in dismissing them outright: they are, he claims, a ‘depressing group’, ‘rather less intelligent than the average’ and ‘therefore even more exposed than others to the debilitating mass-trends of the day’. He continues:

They have no aim, no ambition, no protection, no belief… For some of them even the rough sex-life of many of their contemporaries is not yet possible; it requires more management of their own personalities and more meeting with other personalities than they can compass… Most of them have jobs which require no personal outgoing, which are not intrinsically interesting, which encourage no sense of personal value, of being a maker… [They are] the directionless and tamed helots of a machine-minding class.

Hoggart’s account of these young people and their leisure experiences is part of his broader lament about the decline of the traditional working-class culture of his own childhood. The Uses of Literacy contrasts the ‘rich full life’ of sing-songs in pubs and local clubs with ‘the newer mass art’, the ‘candy-floss world’ of ‘sex in shiny packets’. Authentic working-class culture, rooted in the home and the community, has been eroded and destroyed by commercialism, and especially by American popular culture. This is not only a cultural problem – a matter of ‘cultural debasement’, as he puts it later in the book – but also a political one: ‘mass produced entertainment’ is bringing about a moral and social ‘crisis’ that bodes ill for a free and open society. Yet despite his seemingly democratic values, Hoggart’s description of these young people is shot through with a patrician condescension and arrogance that makes it difficult to stomach today.

Hoggart’s approach was frequently dismissed by subsequent generations as both sentimentally nostalgic and elitist. More recent writers have been somewhat more forgiving, however. Joe Moran, among others, suggests that Hoggart’s concern about ‘cultural literacy’, class and education is still relevant today; while Sue Owen and her colleagues argue that the questions of cultural value that he raises should not be wished away in a kind of easy populism. To be fair, Hoggart does emphasise the continuing resilience of working-class culture; yet it is hard to detect much respect for the users of ‘mass culture’, at least in the descriptions I have quoted. Young people, in his account, seem to be little more than unfortunate, deluded victims of mass consumerism.

As I’ve noted, the empirical basis of Hoggart’s account is hard to pin down. However, Joe Moran provides a brief history of the ‘milk bars’ that helps to set it in a historical context – as indeed does Adrian Horn in his book Juke Box Britain. As Moran suggests, the milk bars should not be confused with the espresso coffee bars frequented by beatniks and metropolitan bohemians (the former were originally Australian, while the latter were Italian in origin). As these writers point out – and as Hoggart himself acknowledges – they were one of the few places young people could congregate to hear the popular rock-and-roll music that was beginning to emerge at the time. As Moran suggests (and as contemporary writers such as Ray Gosling and Stuart Hall also argued), there was a distinct lack of public leisure provision for young people: existing youth clubs had limited basic facilities, and were often run in disciplinarian (or at least worthy and patronising) ways. Moran’s telling comparison here is between the milk bars and our contemporary generation of Starbucks and Costa Coffee shops, which cater primarily to the ‘bourgeois bohemian’ (as compared, for example, with MacDonalds, which remains a popular location for working-class young people to hang out).

As Horn argues, Hoggart’s fears about the ‘Americanisation’ of working-class culture – and particularly of youth culture – were somewhat misplaced. While some of the music itself was undoubtedly American, British artists increasingly came to the fore, and American influences were quickly absorbed and adapted. Furthermore, as Alan Sinfield suggests, the take-up of American popular culture can be interpreted not only as a symptom of ‘cultural imperialism’, but also as a means for young people to resist and create alternatives to the traditions of their parents’ generation. As we’ll see, Colin MacInnes shared this more ambivalent and nuanced view of ‘Americanisation’, both in his journalistic essays and in his fiction at the time.

There’s an interesting contrast here between Hoggart’s views and those of Stuart Hall, who was eventually to succeed him as the director of CCCS at Birmingham. Hall was of a different generation (he was fourteen years younger than Hoggart), and came from the very different context of a middle-class childhood in Jamaica. Hall was a young academic, but also briefly a secondary school teacher at the time). As I’ve noted, he became the founding editor of the journal New Left Review in 1959. The NLR was formed out of the merger of The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review; and significantly, its offices were located on the floors above its own espresso coffee house, the Partisan in Soho’s Carlisle Street.

In 1959, immediately before the merger, Hall published two articles in the ULR that offered a different take on the ‘youth problem’, as he called it. In ‘The Politics of Adolescence’, he draws attention to a new generation of young people that had not grown up in ‘the heroic days of the Labour movement’. These young people are, he argues, instinctively radical: they resist conformity, but they do so primarily at the level of feeling rather than rational argument. They remain disenchanted with mainstream politics, which they regard as ‘stiff and dry and colourless and conciliatory’. They are, he suggests, ‘rebels without a cause’. Working-class youth culture is a vehicle for some of these feelings, although it is also open to commercial manipulation. The task for political radicals – and here Hall’s address is explicitly to the Labour Party of the time – is to learn from these developments, rather than merely dismissing them. He notes that some of the most significant political movements of the time (and especially youth-oriented movements like CND and the anti-apartheid protests) were not tied to any political party. And he urges fellow activists to engage much more directly with youth culture as a force in its own right: ‘skiffle and jazz,’ he suggests, ‘are not substitutes for politics: they are legitimate forms of expression in themselves’ (although he notably omits rock-and-roll).

In the following issue, Hall published a longer article that combined a review of Mark Abrams’s Teenage Consumer report with comments on three novels, including MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners. Hall professes to be ‘shocked’ and even ‘staggered’ by Abrams’s account; but unlike Hoggart, he also appears to perceive a latent radicalism in this emergent youth culture – albeit one that operates at the level of ‘style’ rather than anything close to overt politics. In some respects, Hall shares Hoggart’s contempt for what he calls the ‘aimless frenzy’ of working-class young people’s leisure activities. He is prone to similarly grandiose laments about cultural decline:

The truth is that we live in an age in which the very flow between human beings — a truly human and personal thing — has become distorted, part of a total crisis which eats through into the family life, and personal relationships as well. If we are willing to accept this state of affairs for the sake of a high rate of technical and industrial growth, then we are laying in store for our society deep social disturbances, of which racial riots, floating [sic] juvenile delinquency and petty crimes are merely unpleasant forbears.

However, in the course of the article, Hall appears to turn his attention away from what he calls the ‘secondary modern generation’ (that is, the predominantly working-class young people who attended less academic schools) and towards a newer group that he sees emerging, at least in London. He notes that ‘the Teddy Boy Era is playing itself out’ and ‘the L.P. Hi-Fi generation is on the way in’:

Here are the very smart, sophisticated young men and women of the metropolitan jazz clubs, the Flamingo devotees – the other Marquee generation. Suits are dark, sober and casual-formal, severely cut and narrow on the Italian pattern. Hair-cuts are “modern” – a brisk, flat-topped French version of the now-juvenile American crew cut, modestly called “College style”… A fast-talking, smooth-running, hustling generation with an ad-lib gift of the gab, quick sensitivities and responses and an acquired taste for the Modern Jazz Quartet… They have the spending habit, and the sophisticated tastes to go along with it. They are city birds. They know their way around…

Unlike the ‘depressing group’ portrayed by Hoggart, these hip young people do not appear to be wholly duped by the commercial market. ‘They know that the teenage market is a racket, but they are subtly adjusted to it nonetheless,’ Hall suggests. ‘They seem culturally exploited rather than socially deprived.’

Hall’s description of this emerging youth style (of which this is just an extract) owes a certain amount to Colin MacInnes’s journalism, and to Absolute Beginners. Indeed, Hall gives MacInnes’s novel something close to a rave review: it is, he writes, ‘an excellent and distinguished piece of social documentary’, that is commended for its authenticity in capturing this emerging youth culture. It is, Hall suggests, ‘the closest we have come to a “British” Catcher in the Rye’.

Hall’s cool, cosmopolitan sophisticates are clearly a very different group from the denizens of Hoggart’s Northern milk bar – and to some extent, the more generalized working class consumers of Abrams’s report. Yet in his conclusion, Hall suggests that it may be here – rather than among the traditional working class – that the seeds of a new political radicalism may be found: ‘I do not believe that humane attitudes to people and to social justice are bred only in conditions of want and deprivation’. It is in this ‘sophisticated advance guard of the teenage revolution’ that protest about social issues can be found, he suggests: ‘if the cool young men of today were to become the social conscience of tomorrow, it would be because they had seen sights in the Twentieth Century closed to many eyes before’. Hall’s arguments here seem remarkably prescient, and they still have much to say to us today – although for some they would probably be regarded as an early indication of where socialist politics began to lose its way. The shift in focus from working-class to more middle-class youth – or perhaps away from class altogether – is especially striking in this respect.

Hall was not the only writer to address the ‘youth question’ in the pages of New Left Review or its predecessors. For example, in 1958, the sociologist Derek Allcorn had published an account of his research on what he called the ‘unnoticed generation’ of young men in an industrial suburb earlier in the decade. Interestingly, he uses the term ‘youth culture’ to describe what he finds, although his focus is more on the dynamics of the peer group than on leisure per se. It is here too that we can find the early work of Ray Gosling, with whom this essay began.

Significantly, Gosling was presented as an ‘insider’: his first piece for NLR described him as ‘a young signalman’ (which he briefly was) as well as a youth organizer. Entitled ‘Dream Boy’, this piece offers a rather poetic account of the newly affluent emerging generation (and again, as in Hall’s articles, youth remains implicitly male). Here, and in a later NLR article ‘Ordinary Kids’ (1961), Gosling explicitly addresses the British commercial pop idols of the time, including Adam Faith and Cliff Richard, whom we will meet later in this essay. While he does take them seriously, he also acknowledges concerns that young people are being seduced into a ‘dream world’ that is largely of American origin. While he admits that these performers are ‘sizzling’ and ‘sexy’, he also condemns them as ‘commercial, unreal, glamourised, nice, respectable, conventional’. Gosling’s view is broadly sympathetic, although (like Hall and Hoggart) he remains highly ambivalent about the moral and political dimensions of this emerging youth culture, and the potential for change:

There is no answer in planning another social revolution, in giving another dream to a people still disillusioned, and dazzled with the last. The social revolution is taking place. A new world has been born. The country is a better place. The working class are better off than ever before. But the exploitation continues, the cheapening of human life is being accelerated. The mental and moral degradation is as intense, as terrifying as the physical of the past.

Despite this rather grandiose pessimism, Gosling was also a youth work practitioner, and was involved in contemporary debates about youth provision. As I’ve noted, he produced a pamphlet for the Fabian Society in 1961 that offered a critical response to the government’s Albemarle Report on youth work that had been published the previous year. The report eventually led to a professionalization of youth work, and to a large increase in funding, but Gosling claims that it largely failed to address the real lives and concerns of ‘teenager 1960’. He is critical of the disciplinarian and elitist approach of much youth work, and also of the patronizing, ‘vicar-type’ youth clubs; and he argues that young people should be trusted to organize their own provision.

A cinematic counterpart to these pieces can be found in the 1959 documentary We Are The Lambeth Boys, directed by Karel Reisz. Set in a youth club in South London, the film is one of the last examples of ‘Free Cinema’, the 1950s documentary film movement Reisz co-founded with Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti. Like other Free Cinema films, it has a naturalistic, almost improvisational style, although it also uses a voice-over narrator. The boys of the title (and in this case girls too) are not Teds, although they have some elements of the style. In most respects, they seem closer to the affluent teenage consumers of Mark Abrams’s report. The film follows them going to the club, dancing and listening to records, playing games and sports, and going downtown for fish and chips afterwards; and it also shows some of them at work, largely in manual trades, although a couple are shown at school. There are also extensive discussions among them about a range of issues, from clothes, entertainment and smoking, through to parents and romance, and even capital punishment. At one point, the group visits an elite public school for a cricket game, although there is little of the class conflict that might have been expected in this situation (one wonders what a contemporary ‘life swap’ programme would have made of this).

In some respects, the film seeks to reassure its audience about the potential threat of young people. We are told at the outset that this is ‘the rowdy generation that’s always in the headlines’. However, by the ending, it asserts that ‘people who complain about the young’ are largely mistaken. The group gets a little noisy at one point, throwing chips around, but we are reassured about the sheer normality of what is shown. ‘A good evening for young people is much as it has always been,’ the narrator tells us; ‘it’s for being together with friends, and dancing and shouting when you feel like it – things we’d all like to do’.

The ‘we’ of this commentary – and the implied audience of the film as a whole – is of course not young people themselves, but adults. While the voice-over generally refrains from being unduly didactic, it is nevertheless attempting to teach us a lesson. Its predominant tone is more anthropological, as though (in the mode of David Attenborough) it were cautiously approaching an exotic tribe in the jungle, and seeking to explain its curious rituals and behaviours. The song ‘Putting on the Style’, which is used repeatedly in the later part of the film, seems to encapsulate part of its message: ‘that’s what the young folks are doing all the while’. (The song originates in the 1920s, but became a hit for the skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan in 1957.) However, the film’s incidental music is by John Dankworth – a somewhat bland British modern jazz artist who would have been much more likely to appeal to an older, more educated audience than the young people featured in the film itself. (Although it’s strange to note that it was reactions to Dankworth’s music that seem to have kicked off the riots at Beaulieu the following year.)

Ultimately, these ‘New Left’ critical responses to youth culture need to be understood in their historical context. These writers and film-makers were not all responding to quite the same things, and their views often seem quite ambivalent and confused. Both directly and indirectly, they address a wide range of concerns about youth, and about social change much more broadly. And, like the films and novels we’ll consider next, they are all choosing to represent contemporary youth culture in partial and selective ways. With the possible exception of Ray Gosling, they all implicitly regard young people (and especially working-class young people) from the outside, as somehow ‘other’. And yet, as Nick Bentley argues, the new left’s responses reflected what he calls the ‘seemingly paradoxical duality of the teenager’ – on the one hand as a cultural manifestation of emerging post-industrial consumerism, and on the other as a potential point of resistance to it.


Read more…