Youth Culture in Modern Britain, c.1920-c.1970: From Ivory Tower to Global Movement - A New History

Andrew Blake is not bothered by the eclectic examples but rather by an emphasis on privilege

December 18, 2008

Writing about the recent past - when its subjects are alive to question the chronicler's findings - is particularly challenging; so, from the viewpoint of one of those subjects, is reading about it.

I'm too young to have been a direct participant in the youth cultures of the 1960s but, even so, reading this book meant coming to terms with another stage of my own mortality, my personal experience becoming not sociology but history. It's somewhat like being drunk, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, when you are the glass of water.

The sensation of being caught in an existential shift is emphatic, in that this is traditional academic history, using evidence from Parliament and the law courts alongside more predictable references to music and dance, and written with copious endnotes. The resulting methodological familiarity, however, can't hide the radical nature of the claims made by David Fowler.

He insists that an identifiably separate youth culture can be found in the early 20th century; that it was in large part a middle-class phenomenon, produced as much by idealistic university students as by the fashion and pop industries that serviced the teenage consumer; and that the Beatles have been given far too much credit for being socially transformative (which interested the press, so the book has been somewhat soundbitten).

The implicit attack on the established leftist orthodoxies of sociology and cultural studies surfaces in a discussion of the work of Richard Hoggart, the founder of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Otherwise Fowler's claims are made through examining young people's interests and achievements, from a prologue on the privileged young on the eve of the First World War to an epilogue on the generational aspects of the global triumph of the Spice Girls. In between, there are more detailed looks at the "flapper"; Rolf Gardiner's contribution to the British folk revival; youth and crime in Northern Ireland; the Mods of the early 1960s; the student revolts of the 1960s; and 1960s pop.

In other words, this is not a magisterial survey but an eclectic list. So it will be easy for those who find Fowler's angles too acute to respond by pointing to the absence of a systematic discussion of, say, fashion, music hall, drug use, comics and other literature, or broadcasting; or by claiming (perhaps too glibly) that Gardiner's ideas, embodied in his touring Morris dancers, were uncomfortably close to Nazi ideals about the gymnastic joys of youth. But such responses will not undermine all the claims made here.

The book emphasises the cultural power of the relatively privileged. Many of the Mods were indeed working class, and therefore poor and suburban; they couldn't afford to attend the fashionable nightclubs of the supposedly classless Swinging London. Instead, they became notorious for their activities on bank holidays in places such as Southend, the bank holiday resorts of their parents. The flappers, Gardiner's dancers, the student revolutionaries, and bands such as Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, on the other hand, were not working class, and all were important to youth culture's development. We might cavil about their uneven contributions, and certainly their attitudes differed: although some were idealistically evangelical about the potential of youth, others refused the burden of representation and pursued the pleasures of the time. As youth culture does. Like being drunk ...

Youth Culture in Modern Britain, c.1920-c.1970: From Ivory Tower to Global Movement - A New History

By David Fowler
Palgrave Macmillan
£55.00 and £19.99
Published 1 October 2008
ISBN: 9780333599228

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