26.7.07

ARE THERE TRAILER PARKS IN BRITAIN?

Schoolteacher Francis Gilbert takes a cut at a larger social phenomenon, attempting in Yob Nation to offer a prima facie case that the bad habits of the hustler and the slacker have become the norm in British culture. I don't know enough of the country's history to evaluate all of the claims in the work, which appears to find yobbery everywhere. (Did you know that John Bull is the Father of All Yobs?) This Book Review No. 26 suggests that Thirteenth Generation crudity has made its way to Britain. Mr Gilbert attempts to make the case that the well-to-do have aped some of the self-destructive behaviors that used to be confined to the poorer quarters, although his evidence is of the anecdotal and unsystematic type. Thus, for example, the aggressive, sometimes drug-charged style of the securities trader and the initiation rituals of the officer corps become of a piece with the brawling of Geordies with Scousers in the terraces. (Ah, soccer, the sport of choice of eight year old U.S. girls, and of Third World males.) Recently retired Prime Minister Tony Blair rates a yob tag, with Mr Gilbert suggesting his relationship with "consigliere" Alastair Campbell sharing an inner outlook in common. Binge drinking and the rabbit culture become, in Mr Gilbert's estimation, the norm for social life among collegians and young professionals. Bristol's gentrified riverfront, with numerous nightspots, takes on a "bleak, sour mood" at bar time. (I did spend a Saturday evening in a hotel near that riverfront, and although it sounded like quite the party, it didn't sound that unpleasant, although I was still a bit out of phase with the clock and opted to turn in early.) The impression the bar staff has of the collegians brings to mind the Rate Your Students fodder who will not do a lick of work but will push every button to wheedle a higher grade. "You find yourself engaged in an argument with one of them for 15 minutes to half an hour, if you won't let one of them in." So just say no and summon the bouncer faster. (I did notice a lot of "staff wanted" posters in windows of waterfront establishments. Perhaps there is a mismatch between pay and working conditions.) Ayia Napa, in Cyprus (where the Greeks and Turks continued World War I by proxy) appears to be a British version of Panama City or South Padre, complete with "Girls Gone Wild" material. Mr Gilbert does not draw the plausible connection between welfare entitlements and the yob life, although one of his sources laments that more of Britain's skilled trades are being done by immigrants, legal and illegal, from the former Soviet bloc. But, to repeat myself, the steering of young men who exhibit yobbish tendencies to trade school ought not be the default policy prescription.

Mr Gilbert's policy prescriptions, although incompletely supported by the stories he puts together, strike me as sensible. First, he suggests that the destructive lifestyles of the rich and famous (are you listening, Michael Vick, Lindsay Lohan, Newt Gingrich, Barry Bonds, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton?) ought not receive the affirmation they often do. Here, the book might have been strengthened by appeals to more rigorous social science, should such work exist, on the casual causal relationship between the antics of famous people and the mores of the hippie commune and the trailer park. Second, he suggests that the schools more aggressively inculcate the habits of the middle class (to put it in the North American locution I regularly use.) Again, although he draws on reports of classroom management difficulties colleagues have encountered, and some of his other books suggest a discontent with the teacher's lot, Mr Gilbert puts together an incomplete case. Finally, he suggests a tougher criminal justice system, with greater reliance on anti-social behavior orders (usually involving a more rigorous house arrest than Paris Hilton almost got away with.) There has to be a great deal of social science addressing the effectiveness of that regimen.

I must add an anecdotal note of my own. Often, the markers of a "yob" appear to be sneakers, which the British call "trainers," hooded sweatshirts, and ballcaps, often with the bill askew. That description would fit more than a few good and decent U.S. collegians, and some of Mr Gilbert's problem might rest in decoding the cross-cultural messages. On my visits to Britain, the attempts of the young to ape North American dress and speech amuse. All too often, the youngsters know some of the words, but they don't get the music. But frequent use of the less imaginative four-letter words is a sign of social deficiency, there as well as here.

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