The Many Faces of British Yob Culture – an interview by Sheena Hastings
"YOB: noun, a colloquialism from the mid-19th century, which is back slang for BOY. Originally it meant a boy. Now an uncouth, loutish, ignorant youth or man, especially one given to violent or aggressive behaviour, a hooligan."
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary
AT the age of 11, Francis Gilbert saw his dad attacked by a yob. Father and son were playing football in a deserted playground, when a passing bunch of thugs began throwing lighted fireworks at them.
Gilbert Senior took them to task about their behaviour and was punched in the face by one of the teenagers, causing injuries which needed stitches. Three decades on, Mr Gilbert was attacked again, mugged in broad daylight in London’s salubrious Chalk Farm area.
This time he knew better than to put up a fight. These days most people are too terrified to give chase or even protest. They simply join the statistics for violent assault – 1,159,400 of them in the UK in 2005. According to the Home Office, there has been a tenfold increase in violent crime since 1979.
A few years ago, at the age of 31, Francis Gilbert was attacked by one of a gang of yobs as he travelled home on a night bus through Stratford, East London – one of the capital’s worst areas for violent attack and gang warfare.
While some on the bus were sympathetic to the man with the blood pouring from his eye, there were others who just wanted him to get off and wait for the police in a dangerous place by a bus stop, so that they could get on with their lives.
Now 38, and for 15 years a secondary school teacher in London, Francis Gilbert has carried out his own investigation into Britain’s yob culture, a phenomenon which he knows from both personal and professional experience to be exploding out of control.
Travelling the length and breadth of the country, he talked to young neighbourhood gangs, yobs, their victims, drug dealers, police, magistrates, youth workers, community leaders, shopkeepers, bar staff and drunken lads and ladettes on sodden Saturday night city streets.
He also interviewed journalists and former Whitehall civil servants, and travelled to Ayia Napa in Cyprus, one of the Mediterranean’s hottest spots for young Brits in search of 24-hour drunken revelry.
The picture he paints is not a pretty one: seen through the prism of his book, Yob Nation – the Truth About Britain’s Yob Culture, Britons are hellbent on loutishness, symptomised by the abusive and pornographic language commonly used and the spitting, snarling, menacing, bullying, boozing, drugging and sexual excess some call everyday behaviour.
Gilbert noticed changes that had been happening in our culture,
a general decline in behaviour, from the increasingly vulgar
and violent content of TV programmes to the openly bullying and humiliating behaviour of politicians and people in business, whom he castigates for their aggressive flaunting of power before those who are relatively powerless.
"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 the trading floors of the City, on television or in the Houses of Parliament.
"This was what I termed ‘parading’," he says. "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. The yob likes nothing better than to be seen and heard in their aggression and bullying.
"Whereas a genuine ‘gang member’ will quietly threaten someone with death if he does not do his bidding, a yob will publicly humiliate his chosen victim in the streets, calling his mates to come and have a look." Gilbert interviewed yobs who described how they loved the look of fear on their victims’ faces.
Yobs call the ambulance, fire or police services so that they can lob stones at their vehicles. They smash up phone boxes, cars and bus shelters, just because they can and because they know it makes them feared.
From his encounters with fancy-dressed party animals, male and female, he reports that many people think nothing of blowing £100 on booze, winding up insensible to the chaos of vomit, urine, violence and noise they create on the streets of our towns and cities. He blames the Government’s collusion with the "greedy" drink industry for exacerbating the problem.
Gilbert says the culture of yobbery permeates society from top to bottom, and he claims that both Tony Blair and his erstwhile communications director Alastair Campbell share some characteristics of yobbery – Campbell in his allegedly offensive and bullying management of press briefings, and the Prime Minister because of his tendency to parade himself as the "top dog" whenever possible.
This was illustrated, says the author, when Mr Blair exerted great pressure to increase his role and parade his power at the Queen Mother’s funeral.
But the writer believes the individualism and materialism inculcated during Margaret Thatcher’s incumbency started the rot.
Francis Gilbert says the British have an inherent tendency to yobbishness, and an institutionalised reverence for it. The brutish and merciless initiation rituals at some public schools, universities and in the armed forces show that the trait crosses all social divides.
"I felt very sorry for the working-class yobs who were trapped by circumstance and deprivation into fitting in with the patterns of behaviour around them," he says.
"I felt much less sympathetic towards middle-class yobbery, where much of the problem comes from parents who never set boundaries or say no to their children."
So has the experience of facing up to Britain’s yobs turned a self-confessed libertarian into a card-carrying reactionary, and is the genie of yobbery so far out of the bottle that it can not be sucked back in and recorked?
"While it’s true that my instinct is to be libertarian, again and again I came across things I saw as totally wrong and had to think again. Instead of wringing our hands and turning away, we have to find ways of giving hope and actually doing something.
"Parents have to take better responsibility for their kids, and we have to do something about children having children in the first place.
"We have to give teenagers places to go. In places where there are community youth clubs and organised activities, yob behaviour is not so much of a problem.
"We have to stop thinking so much about ourselves as individuals. There was a lot of good about the old days when a whole community took responsibility for behaviour, and kids who were out of order could be called to order by any passing adult.
"These days the child could easily verbally or physically abuse you, or both, and their parent would be after you, too. Today, even the law encourages you to cross the street and mind your own business. That has to be wrong."
Not one to simply identify and analyse a problem, Gilbert also suggests solutions, including education in civilised behaviour for children and parents together in schools, old-fashioned apprenticeship-style training for those unable for or not interested in a more academic education, and self-censorship of violent, pornographic and anti-social behaviour on TV.
He also advocates much better organisation and funding of youth services, and changes in the justice system so that it champions the rights of victims, not perpetrators.
The months spent immersed in yob culture have left their mark on Gilbert. "Funnily enough, the experience gave me confidence I didn’t have before. If you’ve been around some of the roughest estates in the country, you’ve been through a fire. I’m less of a victim now, and more bloody-minded.
"Yobs I met didn’t mind talking about themselves, in fact, they seemed to enjoy it. I didn’t look like a threat, and for many it was the first time they’d talked about their behaviour to an adult. One of the saddest aspects was knowing that their parents were pretending that the problem didn’t exist."
Over all, Gilbert says, he has to feel some hope that our country is not going to disappear under a gathering tsunami of yobbish behaviour. He must be an optimist – he continues to run the gauntlet of the missiles, swearing and violence that have become part and parcel of many teachers’ daily lot.
"Yes, I’m an optimist. You have to get up every day and believe that education can change things. I have seen it happen."
Yob Nation by Francis Gilbert is published by Portrait Books and can be ordered for £10.99, plus £1.95 postage and packing, from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, by calling free on 0800 0153232 or by logging on to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk.
24 March 2006