Yob Nation Extract — Part 1

19 March 2006
The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday

The firework exploded at our feet in the grotty north London playground. Three white boys snarled with laughter from behind the hoods of their green parkas. One of them chucked another firework in our direction. It fizzled and snapped. My brother and I retreated, but my father, in a tough-guy Marks and Spencer anorak, approached the teenagers.
It was 1979. I was 11, playing football with my dad. Although I was smallish, I always beat him. I could dribble the ball through his legs. It was a stretch to imagine I was Johan Cruyff and he was a great defender.
Perhaps it was because he was bad at football that I felt protective of him. Or perhaps it was because my parents were divorced and I saw so little of him.
‘You can’t do that! That just isn’t acceptable! It’s utterly intolerable!’ my father blustered at the teenagers. I shrank back and my stomach tightened. My father’s outraged received pronunciation seemed out of place in Kentish Town. I was a veteran of some fairly rough playgrounds. I knew the hue and timbre of trouble. My father, an academic and businessman, did not.
‘What’s your problem? I can do what I want here,’ a pale-faced youth replied steadily.
My father stared at the boy. ‘You shouldn’t speak like that. What you’ve done is intolerable,’ he said.
The kid swore at him and began to walk away, sniggering. But he suddenly wheeled round and whacked my father in the face. Blood burst out of his eyebrow. He reached for his handkerchief as the boys ran laughing into the street.
Once they were safely in the distance, my brother and I started shouting, ‘Hey!’
All three of us gave chase, running after my father’s tormentors. This was probably not wise, but the youths were far enough away for us not to worry. Our pursuit enabled my father to keep his dignity. The parkas vanished into a warren-like council.
Today, my father would never chase someone who had assaulted him. Today, people are scared. Fear of being severely hurt by louts is endemic in the culture. Most of us are too cowardly to argue. We cowering people know it would be unwise to protest if attacked because we might lose our life as well as our wallet and our dignity.
In September 2004, my father was mugged near where he lives in a smarter part of north London, Chalk Farm. When he was asked for money, he handed it over quickly. He didn’t pursue them.
My father was right not to tussle over his wallet. Home Office statistics show violent crime has risen sharply in recent years. There were 1,159,400 violent assaults against people in 2004. But it’s more than statistics that make the people of Britain worried about being attacked. It is personal experience.
Twenty years later, I was attacked while travelling home on a night bus in east London. It was this beating that inspired me to write a book about Britain’s yob culture – along with years of teaching in some of the roughest schools in the city. I have had classes that rioted, missiles thrown at me, and ripped cans and spikes left on my chair. I have been verbally abused and have had to break up fights in my lessons. This is normal for a teacher.
I was now 31 and it was 1999. I had lived in London most of my life and felt at home in the dirtiest streets – too comfortable perhaps. So when a group of black boys had asked me for money as I sat on the top deck of the bus I angrily refused. I soon realised my error.
In a split-second I calculated my options. The other kids were approaching rapidly and one was in front of me. If I stayed I would be trapped because they would block the stairwell.
So I bolted. I pushed past the boy who had asked me for the money and managed to edge in front of them on my way to the stairs. At the head of the stairs I clocked them properly, staring right into their eyes. Hungry eyes. Surly eyes. Predatory eyes. Their cheeks were sculptured out of ebony. They were thin and wired with a nasty energy.
At the bottom of the stairs I shouted to the driver, a chunky Irishman. He threw them off the bus, his anger carrying enough authority to persuade them to leave. The door shut and it appeared we were on our way, unscathed.
But as he was about to drive away, the leader of the gang pressed the emergency door button outside the bus and sneaked back on. I was sitting right next to the exit. Suddenly, I felt his fist plunging into my eye. There was a flash of blinding light and a spinning in my head. Blood gushed out of my eye. I rose to my feet, blood dripping onto the floor. The kid had gone.
After 10 minutes an ambulance arrived. The paramedics rushed on the bus, looked at my eye and asked me a few questions to check I didn’t have concussion before leaving. As I sat waiting for the police, a lady and a boy argued about the merits of me getting off the bus so it could move on.
I wanted to melt away. I clung on to the plastic armrest of my seat. I was frightened. I didn’t want to get off the bus. The darkness of Stratford was lapping at the bus entrance. I knew I would drown the moment I stepped outside. Maybe those boys were waiting for me. There was no way I could wait for the police at the battered, lonely bus stop. I would die there.
Eventually they arrived. A man in a bright fluorescent coat said it probably wasn’t worth a statement. I nodded and he left. Finally, the bus started up. When I got off I ran home without once looking up. I was shaking when I opened the front door. My eye hurt like hell and I was very frightened.
I was one of the lucky ones. A few years later violence in the area escal¬ated. One group of youths called themselves the Lords of Stratford Crew. They registered on the police’s radar in September 2003, when they knocked two Asian youths unconscious on a Liverpool Street train and stole £500. Later, a female student was followed by 15 gang members and brutally beaten. She was grabbed, punched, kicked to the floor and ‘groped all over’. The victim said: ‘They’re animals – there’s nothing human about them at all.’
Five members of the gang – whose core were from Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Somalia – were sentenced to five years in a youth offenders’ institution. They were caught when 19 of them boarded the night bus at Whitechapel in October 2003 and began robbing passengers.
I talked to one of the policemen who helped catch the Lords of Stratford Crew, Detective Constable Gary Wildman. He told me: ‘What is frightening about these guys is that they enjoyed attacking people who had already handed over their stuff. They enjoyed watching people being totally humiliated. If this series of robberies had not been stopped when it was, I’m sure we would eventually have ended up with a murder enquiry.’
Inspiring fear in the public is one of the reasons such gangs exist. Their muggings were theatrical; they needed an audience to validate what they were doing. But what kind of person got a kick out of beating the hell out of someone so publicly? I still couldn’t reconcile my picture of London with what the police were telling me. They painted the picture of a war zone, where feral gangs were turning the streets of London into their own bloody theatre.
The Lords of Stratford Crew were yobs of the worse kind. The word yob is 19th century colloquialism, back slang for boy. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, it now means an uncouth, loutish, ignorant youth or man, especially, one given to violent or aggressive behaviour.
But it isn’t just vicious youths like the Lords of Stratford Crew who fit this definition. The British have become more brutal, more yobbish. More and more people revel in their rudeness, using the techniques of bullying and harassment to establish their dominance, often delighting in making their victims suffer. As a result, many of us feel under siege – harangued by gangs in the street, puked at by lager louts, and emotionally blackmailed by adverts and programmes on television.
In many ways, the yob is not a new phenomenon. The British have always been a bellicose race. The country has been a war on and off for almost 500 years. The image of the defiant, sneering theatrical hooligan is ingrained in our culture. But after the second world war, Britain was left without a sense of purpose, only to be reinvigorated in the 1980s by a robust individualism. That was epitomised where I grew up by the strutting aggression of Essex Man and also by the Sun newspaper, which applauded rowdiness and promoted obscenity. That attitude spread, fuelled in the 1990s by the drinks industry and the attendant surge in alcohol-related crime.
While all this was going on the boundaries of good and bad behaviour broke down. Older adults I spoke to while researching my book said that in the 1960s communities were self-policing. Once, people intervened to keep children in check. They no longer feel they can do that. Social deprivation also has an influence on delinquency but not in the obvious way. In the 1950s and 1960s people had far fewer possessions but there was less crime. Many people told me that it was the very existence of material goods, especially portable gadgets like iPods and mobiles, that encouraged crime.
In my investigation into the yob phenomenon I found a number of things that all louts have in common. One is the parade – the theatrical, public display of bad behaviour – and the other is territory. It was the same on rundown estates in London, Belfast and Manchester, in supposedly respectable city centres and even where Brits are found abroad.
I went to central Cardiff on Saturday night in July. I remembered the city from the 1980s: a quiet, depressed place with fusty, smoke-filled pubs and the odd nightclub. How different things were. The city was heaving with party animals. The streets throbbed with loud music. The bars were thronged with people dressed up to the nines.
The women impressed me the most. How confident they were. A crowd in their twenties in sombreros giggled by the ancient walls of Cardiff Castle. Another gaggle of middle-aged women wore Playboy bunny basques, stilettos and bunny ears.
The women I spoke to were a little drunk, but sober enough to explain the appeal of this brave new world: ‘It’s the dressing up. It’s being proud of who you are. It’s not caring at all.’ I certainly saw plenty of people who didn’t care 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 a few women shouted at me: ‘You’re lovely!’
I am pretty sure this was little to do with my attractiveness – they always hurried away as they shouted the compliment. It was more to do with their intoxication and lack of inhibition.
‘The women in Cardiff have got a lot of money,’ Phil, a bartender at the Holiday Inn told me. ‘They’ll save up their wages just so that they can spend a hundred pounds during a weekend on going to pubs and clubs. It’s what they live for. It’s great for the guys, too. 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. The girls think nothing of having sex in the street.’
There was also a sense such exhibitionism was a part of a newfound national pride. ‘We’re Welsh, and we’ve got our own ways of doing things,’ said a woman who worked for the tourist board.
The dark side of this carnival was high levels of antisocial behaviour. In Cardiff, I saw people vomiting in the street and urinating on cars, and two fights where one guy was glassed in the face. It was three in the morning. The clubs were turning out and men were fighting mindlessly. One had a glass and smashed it into a another man’s face. Blood was everywhere. What I didn’t see, however, was any sex in public – I had to take Phil’s word for that.
Which is more than can be said when I visited the holiday resort of Ayia Napa, in Cyprus. Again at three in the morning I was sitting with Diane, a girl from Chester-le-Street, talking about what motivated middle-class young women to come to Ayia Napa. There’s nothing unusual about talking at three in the morning in Ayia Napa; things only start to happen at about 11pm. I noticed ripples were inching further out across the hotel swimming pool in a rhythmical fashion.
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 was bobbing up and down slowly, as he lunged drunkenly into her.
I couldn’t believe they were doing this in a public place. ‘What do they think they are doing?’ I asked Diane. Surely there was somewhere else they could go.
Diane replied: ‘You’re missing the point. They want to show the world that they’re having fun. To get tapped while you’re on holiday in Ayia Napa is the ultimate in street cred, and it’s even better to say that you shagged him in front of everyone in the swimming pool.
‘Look at that girl – she’s not anything special, she’s not that pretty, and yet she’s pulled that muscly guy. He’s six foot five tall, and he’s got a great body, and yet she’s quite fat, and not even good-looking. She’d never get a guy like him back home, but she has here. All the normal rules are suspended.’
The atmosphere in Ayia Napa was similar to Cardiff, only more drunken, more outrageous. Every night, masses of girls in sexy, skimpy clothes would parade down the streets. They would stomp into the bars like gunslingers, climb on to the counters and dance provocatively to the incessant thudding music. A few bars had poles; there the girls would leap up and do stripteases, jutting out their breasts and bums at the admiring crowd.
Yet business in Ayia Napa was suffering because it had got a reputation for a being dangerous. Claire, an 18-year-old from Guildford in Surrey, told me: ‘I just don’t feel safe here. Every night I’ve seen fights outside the clubs.’
The British men in Ayia Napa were much more aggressive in their day-to-day routines than the women. There was a permanent loutish competition between them. Most visibly, this took the form of drinking contests.
As I left Ayia Napa, I reflected that the girls’ parading was causing multiple problems in these resorts. Their showmanship was a manifestation of their growing economic status, but they were still being exploited. The girls remained the playthings of the men, in many cases no better off than unpaid prostitutes. Meanwhile, the men’s competitive parading led to ridiculous drinking contests, chronic bullying and fights.
As well as a parade, the yob will always want territory. Whether it is in the poorest council estate in Glasgow, by the pool in Cyprus or in the hallowed corridors of power in Whitehall, he wants his patch, his manor, his pitch, his ground.
The yob claims his territory by a number of techniques, many of which I have seen as a pupil at school and during the 15 years I have taught in London comprehensives. Pupils and teachers have had their territories stripped away from them literally and metaphorically. Playing spaces have been replaced with buildings and teachers’ ability to choose lessons has been replaced with a centrally imposed curriculum. The pupils’ response has been to claim some space for their own – the classrooms and corridors of the schools, even if that means abusing their teachers.
Jefferson was a typical problem pupil. His educational attainment was low – he achieved only a couple of GCSEs at low grades. He grew up in east London, like the members of the Lords of Stratford Crew, and went on mugging sprees as a teenager.
‘We were into street robbery,’ he told me. ‘We would travel up and down on the trains in east London, looking for people to rob. It was funny because we didn’t need to speak to each other about who we would mug. We had got to know each other so well that all it would take was a few glances, lasting maybe a second or two, and we all knew who was going to be attacked.’
There was a childish selfishness about what Jefferson and his friends did: they were unconcerned about the effect on their victims. They hadn’t considered the pain they would go through after they had been assaulted. All they were aware of was that they were, in all likelihood, not going to get caught.
In a multiplicity of ways, modern British culture creates the atmosphere in which our streets are turning into battlefields. It is highly materialistic, with every type of media from television to the internet celebrating the acquisition of costly goods – such as jewellery, trainers and designer clothes – and it is also individualistic, with its emphasis upon the individual achieving what he wants no matter what the consequences for other people.
Advertising suggests success can be achieved instantaneously by buying the right drink, item of clothing or lottery ticket.
When children like Jefferson see they are not going to achieve academic success in our moribund schools, they search for instantaneous success on the streets. The culture has trained them to think of people as little more than skittles that need to be knocked over to achieve that success.
Fuelled by alcohol, greed, hatred, bullying or a persuasive leader, they go in search of a fight. Once they have tasted combat, most people don’t want to give it up. Even policemen have told me about the thrill of whacking people, of going to war. ‘The adrenalin high is addictive,’ one policeman told me.
Like Jefferson’s story, much of what I heard in my investigations was brutal and depressing, but there were also chinks of light. The story of Phil Hughes was the most harrowing as well as the most uplifting.
In Ebbw Vale, in the Welsh valleys outside Cardiff, I was drawn to the estates perched on the slopes of the valley. In one street, Summerfield Road, 44 houses out of 60 were boarded up. What was remarkable was that it looked like quite a pleasant place to live. The houses were bigger than the ones further back. At the moment, though, it felt like a ghost town.
Phil Hughes, chairman of the residents’ association, and his wife Julie have lived there 27 years. ‘When we moved into the street in 1978, it was a very nice place: it was the first project built in the area. There was a fabulous atmosphere too. Everyone would pull together.’
About 15 years ago, the council started moving in the bad with the good. ‘These were people who had been expelled from other council properties. These guys were drug dealers. They would buy a lot of drugs from Bristol and then sell them here on the street. They were menacing, difficult people.’ Then the car racing started – and the noise. Phil says: ‘The music that they played was very, very loud, and it didn’t get switched off. It would play into the night, for weeks on end.’
More dramatically, there was a murder on the street. The council moved in a girl who had five or six children from different fathers. ‘At the time she moved in here, she had a partner who had a track record of violence. The police and the council knew that he beat her up. She was stabbed 24 times.
‘After this, another girl, let’s call her Sarah, moved in opposite us. She had lots of men coming in and out of her house at all times of the day and night. Although she only had a two-bedroom house, there would frequently be 40 or 50 people in there.
‘We found out later that Sarah was chatting to people on the internet and inviting them over. So we would get guys from all over the country coming to the house. She had a young boy, a six-year-old, a lovely kid, who was expected to look after himself. One of the guys who slept with her told us that sometimes she would have the child in the bed as she was having sex with these strangers.
‘Once we found the little boy wandering down the street at midnight, calling out and crying, “Where’s my mummy?” She had disappeared for the night. Anyway, a neighbour looked after the boy until she came back.’ Neighbours signed a petition saying the boy wasn’t safe, but social services did nothing.
Later, there was an armed siege at Sarah’s house. ‘The police managed to negotiate their surrender, but the robbers demanded that they gave themselves up after they had finished watching Coronation Street.’
A couple of young people died of drug overdoses in the street. ‘The drugs began to take over the streets. Too many kids were high because there were so many dealers hanging around.’
Phil suffered as a result of his petitions, complaints to the council and his refusal to give in to the thugs. His life was threatened four times and his car petrol bombed.
Phil and Julie know they can’t move. They own their house and it would not be easy to sell. ‘The truth is, I don’t want to move. We are beginning to change things around here. We’ve set up a youth club and we’ve also got a drop-in centre for teenagers. The only thing I would say to someone who is suffering like my family suffered is. “Don’t give up”.’
The Hughes family had been sitting ducks – victims of the council’s rank stupidity in the way it relocated trouble¬makers – but despite everything they had stood up against it and brought up two children. And there they were, after all those years, still in Summerfield Road, and proud to be there. Most importantly, they were doing things to change the yob culture. They were the sitting ducks who fired back at their tormentors.
Thanks to Phil’s youth centre – which amounts to no more than a pool table and four computer games consoles – crime in the immediate area has fallen by more than 60 per cent. Phil Hughes is an unusual man. He takes no prisoners and is proud of his neighbourhood. He is forcing civic duty down people’s throats. We all need to learn a little of his attitude if we are to crush the yob culture.

Next week: How Britain can reclaim its streets from the yobs

Extracted from Yob Nation by Francis Gilbert (Portrait)


  1. Phil’s name should be known by everyone who cares ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THIS COUNTRY.
    Having just celebrated D-DAY we should all ponder what so many of the men and women who died and/or suffered less than 70 years ago would make of the unbelievable wealth but total lack of humanity.

    from ANDY
  2. Thanks for your supportive comments! I agree Phil is an important role model for so many of us.


    from francisgilbert
  3. I am American and live in the States; my Mother is British and lives in the UK. My Mother would tell me how the kids in her town would treat elderly people. I thought she was exaggerating until I went to visit her in 2002. My Mother was minding her own business looking out her front room window and 2 teenage girls walked by and yelled up “What are you looking at you old b!$@h.” I flew to the window and yelled out to them to watch there mouths and have some respect but they just laughed and flipped me off. My step-father was telling me to get away from the window and not cause problems. I was shocked and very angry. I’m not saying America has no violent teenagers but what is going on? I have 3 teenagers and if I ever heard of or saw my children acting that way it would be the last time. Where are the parents of these kids? Why do the police not do anything to the children or hold the parents responsible? My Mother refuses to stay in her town, this is the place she was born and raised, so she has gotten her green card and is moving to America where she feels safe.

    from Stephanie Knox

your comment

Published in