Very cool Britons

Youth in Britain since 1945
April 10, 1998

This book is essentially about Britain's postwar gallery of youth subcultures, rather than the wider ranks of youth per se - "squares'' included. And this is no bad thing. Until now, there has been no comprehensive chronological account of British youth cultures available.

On the face of it, a book on youth culture to be filed under "history'' and not the usual suspects - sociology, criminology, anthropology, education or cultural studies - seems an odd idea. After all, youth culture is an ever-evolving, living, breathing entity. And for many this will be closer to an agreeable ramble down memory lane than a straightforward history textbook.

The narrative that unfolds is richly detailed, drawing on an impressive array of source material. One cannot help drawing parallels with the present. Harold Wilson's MBE awards to the Beatles, described as "less the good-natured gestures of a 'man of the people' than a calculated appropriation of the language of youth and modernity'', provide a neat analogy with Tony Blair's patronage of Oasis. The backwards glance at 1960s swinging London is instructive in the context of 1990s Cool Britannia, although the description of Richard Branson as an "alternative'' businessman in the chapter on counter-culture does not seem congruent with the ubiquitous pension and railway magnate that is the 1998 model. Elsewhere we are told that "As late as 1965 NUS leaders had happily dined with Harold Wilson at 10 Downing Street'' before Vietnam policy disillusion produced a radical shift leftwards. A repeat in the face of the introduction of tuition fees seems unlikely in an age where student unionism has become a fast track to career politics, confirmed by the 1997 parliamentary intake.

It is on arriving at the 1990s that the book comes across most clearly as a victim of its ever-changing subject. The section "Youth at the end of the century'' inevitably feels a bit passe. "Blair, T.'' only registers two entries in the index, the second acknowledging his election victory. Almost a year after the event, the Blairite emphasis on creating a young nation has been one of the most salient features of the "New Britain'' rhetoric, worthy of comment in any future survey of youth of this magnitude.

While Bill Osgerby is sensitive to the class-based shortcomings of the subcultural theory developed by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s, which formed UK academe's last sustained engagement with youth matters, his respective isolation of "women'' and "race'' - ie black youth - into a chapter apiece implies that the rest of the contents address white males: a common criticism of the CCCS. However, perhaps the most glaring omission is any mention of Asian youth beyond race riots. As both second-generation popsters Cornershop's recent number one hit Brimful of Asha (after Indian film playback diva Asha Bhosle) and BBC2's Asian comedy show Goodness Gracious Me demonstrate, Asian popular culture is increasingly moving from the margins to the mainstream. Academic work such as John Hutnyk and Sanjay Sharma's Disorienting Rhythms, Marie Gillespie's Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change and Mohammad Anwar's Between Cultures reflects the new-found interest. Osgerby's oversight here is a blight on an occasionally entertaining, always informative but above all necessary book.

Rupa Huq is completing her PhD on youth culture at the University of East London.

Youth in Britain since 1945

Author - Bill Osgerby
ISBN - 0 631 19477 0
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £13.99
Pages - 256

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