Why do they do it? It’s a yobbo power trip

19 March 2006
The Sunday Times

Last Sunday I spotted trouble when I was returning home along the City Road in Islington, north London. At first sight the men looked harmless enough: they were white, well dressed in jeans and designer jackets, with shiny leather footwear and nice haircuts. They were not your typical hoodies at all.
But I knew I was vulnerable because they were clearly quite drunk and they were “parading”: their chests were puffed out, they were laughing loudly, they were pushing and shoving each other playfully and, above all, their eyes were searching for an audience.

They kept twisting their heads around to see who might be watching them. As they saw me coming they knew they had a captive and vulnerable audience. For my sins, I get around London by push scooter. It is quick, easy and convenient — but inevitably it does look a little stupid.

“Oi, how old are you? Two years old, you f*****?” one of the men yelled at me as his mates pushed him forward. He had been given the leading role in their new mini-drama of baiting the sad middle-aged loser on the scooter.

But I was prepared. Seeing that there was no traffic I jumped the scooter onto the road and attempted to pass the men without incident. Not to be outdone, the “lead actor” jumped out into the road too, right in the path of the scooter. I was shocked. He certainly didn’t look like a psycho. He was clearly well off — and when not drunk probably very pleasant. I swerved the scooter out of the way as he screamed “You f****** c***!” and scootered on my way, adrenaline freshening my veins.

His friends fell about laughing, clapping loudly, leaving me feeling humiliated. Both he and I could have been seriously hurt. I almost felt like returning and telling them — from a safe distance — what a bunch of over-privileged idiots I thought they were. But then I decided against it.

You see, I had seen this sort of behaviour time and time again during the research for my book, Yob Nation, published this week. I wanted to write the book primarily because of my experiences as a teacher in the classrooms of a number of comprehensives.

During my career I had been sworn at, had missiles thrown at me, found ripped-up cans on my chair, been threatened and broken up quite a few fights between pupils. I had seen how some pupils got swept into the yob culture by a prevailing atmosphere of bullying and intimidation in a school. I was also attacked by a teenager on a night bus in London.

More than this I began to notice that the whole culture of Britain seemed to be changing: our television programmes were generally more vulgar and aggressive, our politicians openly bullied and humiliated their opponents, and Home Office statistics show that there has been a tenfold increase in violent crime since 1979.

In the course of my research I exhaustively observed the British, visiting afflicted suburbs, estates and centres in London, the Welsh valleys, Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast and the Cypriot holiday resort of Ayia Napa. I interviewed numerous people — from politicians and media pundits to binge drinkers, street robbers, drug dealers, experts in the field of antisocial behaviour and, perhaps most important, the victims of yobbery. I began to see that a certain type of yobbish behaviour was very similar whether it happened on the streets, in a swish bar, on a trading floor of the City, on television or in the Houses of Parliament.

This was what I termed “parading”. The parade is what the British yob lives for. In my view a yob is not like most criminals who wish to be secretive in what they do. Yobs like nothing more than to be seen and heard. Whereas a genuine “gang member” will quietly threaten somebody with death if he does not do his bidding, a yob will publicly humiliate his chosen victim in the streets, calling for all of his mates to have a look.

Yobs will call up the ambulance, fire and police services for absolutely no reason at all other than to lob stones and bricks at them, for the sheer fun and buzz of creating their own little violent show. Once a yob has earned his reputation by being watched doing something highly antisocial, he will then enjoy parading himself. A yob’s parade is unique because while it might appear that he is doing something entirely innocent like walking down the street, he knows that he is causing fear in those who are watching him, either because of his previous reputation or the signals he is sending with his clothes.

Time and again when I interviewed yobs they all said that they loved watching the fear on people’s faces as they stood around doing absolutely nothing.

What I found most surprising was that it was definitely not your stereotypical hoodie from the socially disadvantaged council estate who enjoyed parading.

Cardiff on a Saturday night is perhaps one of the best places to see a glittering yob parade. It was July last year when I visited but the weather was bad: a thin drizzle descended upon the streets, sprinkling all the revellers. Not that this put them off. I marvelled at the scene before me. The city was heaving with party animals. The streets throbbed with the sound of loud music. The bars were thronged with people of all descriptions dressed up to the nines in designer T-shirts and jeans, in shiny suits and winkle-pickers, in pristine tracksuits and blazing baseball caps.

However, the women impressed me the most. I saw a crowd of women in their twenties who were dressed as Mexicans in sombreros, laughing and giggling by the ancient walls of Cardiff Castle; another gaggle of middle-aged women were wearing Playboy bunny basques, stilettos and bunny ears, and another group were sporting cowboy outfits which revealed fishnet thighs.

“Cardiff is the hen party capital of the world,” said Daphne, a middle-aged woman with a very fake tan and a glittering silver top. “Everyone who is anybody comes here for their hen party. They come from the Welsh valleys, they come from Bristol, they even come from London to have their hen party here. You see, Cardiff is the greatest city in the world now.”

I asked if she had dressed up like any of the troops of women who were parading around the streets. Daphne nodded: “Many, many times. I’ve been a Playboy bunny, a schoolgirl and once I was a bin man with a Wonderbra!” She laughed uproariously and slapped her friend on the wrist. They were a little bit drunk, but sober enough to explain to me what the appeal of this brave new world was: “It’s the dressing up. It’s the becoming someone else. It’s walking up and down and showing everyone what you are made of. It’s being proud of who you are. It’s not caring at all. It’s not giving a f*** any more.”

I certainly saw plenty of people who didn’t give a f*** on the streets as I wandered around Cardiff that night; girls were swaying around, enjoying being openly drunk, shouting at the tops of their voices. “F***, f***!” was a frequent invocation, but also I had a few women shout at me, “You’re lovely!” I am pretty sure that this was not much to do with my personal attractiveness — they always hurried on quickly away from me as they shouted the compliment — but that it was more to do with their general level of intoxication and lack of inhibition. It was as if they weren’t bound by the old rules of decorum that had constrained the female sex for so many centuries in this country. They were allowed to say what they wanted, to articulate the most hidden taboo of their own desires.

“The women in Cardiff have got a lot of money,” Phil, a bartender at the Holiday Inn, told me. “They are the ones in serious employment around here. And they’ll save up their wages just so that they can spend £100 during a weekend on going to pubs and clubs. It’s what they live for. It’s great for the guys, too, because if you wander out on the streets at two in the morning you’re bound to find a free shag. The girls are so pissed they’ll go with anyone. I’ve only been in this city for a year and I’ve had 27 one-night stands. This place is shag central. The girls think nothing of doing it in the street.”

The dark side of his carnival was high levels of antisocial behaviour. In Cardiff I saw people vomiting on pavements and urinating on cars, and two fights where one guy was glassed in the face. In many ways I felt that Cardiff was a tame and affectionate place compared with some of the cities I visited.

I found Bristol particularly depressing; so many of the late-night revellers seemed so angry and vituperative in the way they treated each other. But undoubtedly the worst place for such parading was the notorious Cypriot resort of Ayia Napa, which is stuffed to the gills with Brits from the ages of about 16 to 30 looking to drink themselves stupid, have a ruck and a shag.

The ripples spread across the pool quietly at first. It was three in the morning. I was sitting with Diane, a girl from Chester-le-Street, sipping a beer and talking about what motivated women to come to a place like Ayia Napa for their holidays. Then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the ripples were inching further and further out in a rhythmical fashion. This was more than someone dangling their feet in the pool.

“Don’t look!” Diane said, with her eyes widening. She then added in an astonished whisper, “They’re shagging.”

That certainly made me turn my head. I looked across from the bright lights of the pool bar and into the shadowy area of the pool. There was nobody sitting by the edge but the light cast from the rooms above quite clearly exposed the couple. It was expressly forbidden to get into the pool after 8pm, but these two didn’t care.

The plump girl still had her black bikini top on, but her skirt was floating on the water. The blond young man had his T-shirt on but no trousers. She didn’t have her arms around him but was clearly attached by other means.

I couldn’t believe that they were doing this in such a public place. Everyone in the bar could see them. “‘What do they think they are doing?” I asked Diane. “Even if there is someone in their room, they could go around the corner and shag there without being seen.”

Diane laughed and replied: “You’re missing the point. Those two may look like they are a bit embarrassed, but they’re not really. They want to show the world that they’re having fun. They want to prove to everyone that they’re on holiday. It’s the ultimate in street cred to say that you shagged him in front of everyone in the swimming pool, where you were forbidden to go.

“That girl — who I don’t know, by the way — has probably been planning for a moment like this for months. She’s been talking with her mates about what kind of guy she wants to shag, how tall he should be, how toned his body should be. She’s spent all day, from the moment she got up, deciding on her costume and where she’ll go with her mates. And then when she’s gone out she’s felt everyone’s eyes on her and she’s loved it. It’s like there’s a holiday spirit that has turned you into a model or something.

“Look at that girl — she’s not anything special, she’s not that pretty, and yet she’s pulled that muscly guy. She’d never get a guy like him back home, but here all the normal rules are suspended. It’s about being in your own little Big Brother reality TV show. Being watched makes you feel special, like a media star, a celebrity.”

Ayia Napa truly showed me what a theatrical creature the young British woman has become. The whole atmosphere was rather similar to the one I had witnessed in Cardiff, Glasgow and Newcastle, only it was more drunken, more exaggerated, more outrageous. Every night masses of girls dressed in sexy, skimpy clothes would parade up and down the streets. They would stomp into the bars like gunslingers, climb onto the counters and dance very provocatively to the incessant thudding music.

In a few places the bartenders would pour spirits onto the counters as the girls danced and set the alcohol alight, letting it whoosh in between their legs. They would scream with delight as packs of guys in T-shirts, jeans and topped-up tans would gawp at them. But do parades of the sort seen in Cardiff and Ayia Napa occur in our more upper-crust environments?

My research revealed that yobbish parades are endemic in all social classes, from the “neds” on the estates of Glasgow to the upper-class toffs who have gone to Britain’s top public schools and universities. It is a trait that is part and parcel of the British character — almost inexplicable to other nations — but so natural to the British that they rarely, if ever, feel the need to justify their actions; the drunken parade is one of those essential British rituals that enable the British to express the more outrageous aspects of their characters.

“I think that the people at the Bullingdon Club, who have now all become journalists, lawyers, academics and MPs (including David Cameron) were not naturally violent,” says Harry Mount, a journalist who attended public school and Oxford University.

“They weren’t constantly straining at the leash to beat each other up. The Bullingdon Club was composed entirely of upper-class students at Oxford University; you were invited to join because you had gone to the right public school and you were going to be a successful person, who it was important to know later on in life. The Bullingdon’s drunken antics were an entirely ritualised affair. It was an occasion when one was allowed to beat up others, drink too much, sing songs very loudly, be sick, tease each other and, I am afraid, shamingly, take one’s clothes off.

“But the next day these very same people would be studying very hard for their exams. They have all ended up doing quite well. In fact, I think that these two things go together. The same people who want to get on, want to get elected into these societies where one is very antisocial.”

Perhaps the worst instance of Bullingdon Club yobbery was committed by Alexander Fellowes, Princess Diana’s nephew, and his friends on December 1, 2004. Ian Rogers, landlord of the White Hart Inn in Fyfield, Oxfordshire, said: “The group was impeccably dressed in jackets and ties, tweeds and dinner suits, and was very polite. But soon they became boisterous and began to bang their fists on the tables.” After about five minutes, Rogers went into the beer cellar having heard two glasses smash. He found one member of the club with “a deep cut on his cheek; he was bleeding a lot onto his shirt”.

The injured man refused all offers of help and despite being extremely polite to him and his staff, the men’s language when addressing each other contained “graphic swear words” and was “very antagonistic”. Later he found “all the food and plates had been thrown everywhere and they were jumping on top of each other on the table like kids in a playground”. The experience took on a surreal nature as each time Rogers confronted a member “they apologised profusely but offered no explanation”.

In much the same way that the hoodie on the council estate parades his power by beating up his rivals, the people in the Bullingdon Club were parading their power by smashing up the pub and beating each other up.

No politician better understands the importance of the political parade than Tony Blair. At the height of his power he knew the importance of appearing top dog. He rarely missed an opportunity to be paraded in a positive and powerful light. One striking example was the furore caused by Black Rod, the royal official who was in charge of making the arrangements for the Queen Mother’s funeral.

In a memo that was leaked to the press, Black Rod said he and his staff had been placed under “sustained and constant pressure” by Downing Street to give Blair a more prominent role at the funeral. The memo claimed that during the mourning period before the royal funeral, Blair’s office had suggested to Black Rod that the prime minister walk from Downing Street to Westminster Abbey, meet the coffin and enter through the main entrance in front of cameras.

Blair was very keyed into the thinking of the British. He knew that they invest status and authority in people who are at the front of an important parade. While there was obviously nothing particularly yobbish about Blair walking to meet the Queen Mother’s coffin, the desperate instinct to do this is the yob’s instinct for parading his power. Moreover, the tactics by which Blair tried to muscle in on the funeral certainly were yobbish.

It was my understanding of this inner need that the British have to parade themselves which ultimately prompted me to smile at the memory of those well-dressed yobs mocking me and my scooter. Our need to join the yob’s parade is what makes us British.

Yob Nation, by Francis Gilbert, is published this week by Portrait Books, £10.99

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