The Times’ Review of ‘Yob Nation’ — Diary of a plagued society by LEO MCKINSTRY
FEAR OF CRIME CASTS AN increasingly dark shadow over modern British society. We seem to be beset by problems such as binge-drinking, drug-taking, antisocial behaviour, aggressive mugging, and gang warfare.
Many liberal commentators have argued that this perceived decline in social cohesion is an illusion, fuelled by a reactionary press and nostalgia for a mythical past. According to this argument, Britain is no more brutal than in the past. Anxiety about disorder is misplaced. The perceived rise in offending, it is claimed, has largely been caused by improved reporting of crime and a political establishment that cynically whips up moral panic to justify authoritarian measures.
This rewarding book by Francis Gilbert demolishes such complacency by showing the real misery caused by lawlessness. Gilbert’s previous books, based on his experiences as a teacher, were disturbing, often witty, accounts of the anarchic nightmare that is modern British schooling. Now he has widened his scope to look at yobbery across Britain. In a heroic odyssey, he covers street gangs in East London, drunken revellers in Glasgow, antisocial tenants in South Wales and teenage thugs in Manchester.
What makes these passages especially compelling is the direct testimony not just from victims but from the yobs themselves.
Gilbert is not content to confine his study to the usual urban low-life — he believes that yob culture now exists in every strata of society. So he condemns the ease with which new Labour has frequently resorted to abusive intimidation, especially when its propaganda machine was headed by Alastair Campbell, whom Gilbert paints as little better than a yob in a suit. Further attacks are made on ritual humiliation in the Armed Forces, bullying and harassment in the Army and semi-pornographic vulgarity in the tabloid press.
The book opens dramatically with the story of how Gilbert was attacked by a youth on a night bus in Stratford, East London. “There was a flash of blinding light and a massive spinning feeling in my head. I felt blood gushing out of my eye,” he writes. This experience, he says, is all too typical of modern urban Britain. “Today, people are scared. Fear of being severely hurt by louts is endemic.”
Gilbert follows up with an interview with two Metropolitan police officers who are in despair at the prevalence of violent gangs on the streets of inner London and who believe that the crime figures, far from being exaggerated, actually underestimate the real problem.
The two have few of the politically correct inhibitions that have so dogged the debate about urban crime and warped the performance of the Met. They are not afraid to face the reality that some of the worst thuggery is committed by Africans and Asians. “We’ve got a particular problem at the moment with Somali youths,” one says. “They don’t give a second thought about using extreme violence and they enjoy inflicting pain upon people for absolutely no reason.”
Gilbert is no hardline reactionary. Although he does not shy away from aggression by ethnic minorities, he also highlights serious racial abuse: one of his most harrowing passages is about a Turkish refugee family in Glasgow who were threatened with knives, had stones thrown at them and were spat at in the street.
The evidence that Gilbert has accumulated through his cour-ageous research builds into a depressing picture of a nihilistic country, where all sense of authority, decency and restraint is collapsing. He quotes, for instance, a doctor at a distinguished teaching hospital, who is appalled at the yobbish, ignorant behaviour of many of his medical students.
“We are no longer educating an elite but trying to socialise a pretty motley bunch of thugs,” the doctor claims, citing one incident where an attractive female patient was persuaded to give a talk to the students about her medical condition. The lecture was quickly reduced to a humiliating farce by the constant wolf-whistling of the medics.
No section of society escapes Gilbert’s censure, whether it be drunken students at the notorious Oxford University Bullingdon Club or predatory brokers in the City. But at times he casts his net too widely, particularly when dealing with the Government. He is fond of drawing a parallel between new Labour’s machismo and the belligerence on our streets.
There is no doubt that Labour has coarsened the political culture. But Gilbert stretches the point until it becomes unconvincing. To claim that a few tirades from Labour spin doctors or government whips amounts to a culture of systematic violence is just absurd, while there is something repellent about the self-pitying whines of the former Department of Trade and Industry press officer Martin Sixsmith, who was forced out of office by Stephen Byers after a bitter personality clash. This sort of incident has happened in politics for centuries.
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Gilbert also bangs on too much about the hostile environment of the City, portrayed as a cesspit of foul-mouthed abuse and terror. If that were true, the City could hardly be one of the most successful financial centres in the world.
Gilbert tries to end on a more elevated note. He points out that the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOs) may be yielding some results in urban areas. He explains that his own research has made him less fearful on the streets because he is now more willing to assert himself. He is no longer one of the “cowering people”, waiting on a bus to be attacked. But he had to expose himself to some real savagery to reach that point.
An Extract From Yob Nation
I staggered out of the nightclub on to the train. The seats were ripped and the windows were covered in graffiti, but I didn’t feel intimidated.
I am a Londoner and expect nothing less from my public services . . . I had lived and worked in London most of my life. I had taught in some of the roughest schools in the city and felt at home in the dirtiest streets — too comfortable perhaps.
There were other people around and I felt secure enough to put my feet up. I dozed. I dreamt that the nightclub was not the noisy, thumping hole that I had been happy to leave. Instead, soothing music stroked my soul . . .
I woke up with a jolt. Oh no, the train was terminating here! I was at the benighted Leytonstone station. I scrambled off and managed to catch a night bus. I congratulated myself on my luck: I might have waited an hour for the bus. It smelt really badly of vomit downstairs, so I climbed the stairs and positioned myself in a seat tucked away behind the stairwell.
Even in my drunken state I registered that there were about five black boys at the back of the bus. A tiny squirt of adrenalin suffused my veins. I dismissed my fear as racism. Besides which, I had taught kids like this for years.
I clamped on my Walkman earphones and pressed play. Neville Jason reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time enlivened my mind. I was walking on the shimmering beach, watching the lithe bodies of Albertine and her friends in their bathing costumes. The sea of Proust’s prose washed over me . . . A rough hand shook my shoulder. It was one of the boys from the back.
“Oi, have you got a quid?” My reaction was immediate. I snapped back that I didn’t. I bitterly resented the way in which my sublime vision of Albertine had been interrupted. I was also very afraid.
YOB NATION: The Truth About Britain’s Yob Culture
by Francis Gilbert
Portrait, £10.99; 192pp