Stuart Jeffries on Francis Gilbert’s ‘Yob Nation’
When Sorbonne students look across the channel before demonstrating in the Latin Quarter, they realise how little France should aim to copy our economic miracle. And how much there is to fight for on the streets.
Francis Gilbert’s new book, Yob Nation, is wonderful to read in this context. It argues that when Britons take to the streets for our public carnival of violence and vulgarity – binge drinking, happy slapping, macho intimidation, boorish spitting and swearing, street sex – we are doing something just as political as French demonstrators.
These displays, Gilbert argues, are little coups d’état. The insecure seize power on the streets to compensate for their powerlessness elsewhere. This may not console you the next time you’re mugged at knifepoint, but still. The safe money says that the more we follow Furchgott-Roth and become economically unequal and materialistic, the more such yobbism will become widespread.
Gilbert contends that the display of material goods – especially iPods and mobile phones – make inequality more evident and thus street crime more likely than it was when Britain was poorer. Worse, individualism rampant in the Thatcherite 1980s has produced people contemptuous of others, except in so far as they supply an audience. Hence, the public display of sex and drunkenness. The ritual consists in being seen: you are your own shameless reality show, especially if you film yourself in action on your videophone.
Gilbert traces yobbism to the top. Blair demanded a more prominent place at the Queen Mother’s funeral. "The desperate instinct to do this is the yob’s instinct for parading his power," writes Gilbert. In this, our überyob of a prime minister was keyed into the British mindset. He needed to confirm his authority by demanding a bigger role in the drama – a demand that, paradoxically, showed the opposite.