When Harry met Vicky

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Does a thread of loutishness run from Agincourt to Little Britain? David Buckley examines the charge sheet

Yob Nation

By Francis Gilbert

Piatkus Books pound;10.99

Henry V gave us our first V sign. His archers famously flaunted their arrow fingers at the French, but good old Prince Hal was also the first yob, heartily drinking and trampling over foreign sensibilities with his violent English charm.

You'd think we might be ashamed, but no. According to Francis Gilbert in Yob Nation, the British have always revelled in these stereotypes, from the all-conquering Henry to the aggressive, no-nonsense John Bull, who embodied the spirit of the British Empire with his domineering friendliness and capacity for booze. John Bull was, of course, a satire, but in a sad, downward spiral, Gilbert locates the latest satirical yob in the figure of Little Britain's Vicky Pollard, another hard-drinking character exuding aggression but without John Bull's sense of fair play. Like many social nuisances, she sees herself as a victim without seeing how others may be victimised by her.

Francis Gilbert's third book, following I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here and Teacher on the Run, is a thought-provoking journey through Britain's yobland, a territory extending from inner-city estates to the political centre of New Labour and the flamboyantly aggressive world of the City.

He begins his journey on the top deck of a bus in east London, where a fondness for listening to Proust on his Walkman makes him oblivious to the gang of youths who surround him like a school of sharks. A similarly mistimed literary dalliance lost Prospero his dukedom, but it merely earns Gilbert a good whacking.

But the yobbery doesn't stop there. As the bus driver delays departure until the police arrive, Gilbert faces the anger of other youths for holding the bus up. This aggressive selfishness, in which anyone who gets in your way is an enemy, is deeply depressing. Francis Gilbert interviews many young gang members and offers their first-hand accounts of indiscriminate violence meted out without thought for the consequences.

Jamie and his friend Mike get stabbed in a gang feud. "We were sitting there just laughing about it, watching the blood leak out of our chests and stomachs." Mike dies laughing, and Jamie, now 29, runs an organisation that helps gang members to escape their lives of crime.

People who work at the grass roots trying to change things are the heroes of Yob Nation. It is certainly not the politicians, who display the same spirit of yobbishness the author finds on the streets. Gilbert writes acerbically about the New Labour press office when headed by Alastair Campbell. He likens the way Campbell reportedly ran his briefings to New Labour underlings, with a mixture of ridicule, jokes and relaxed laddish talk about football, to the meetings that gangs in London and Glasgow hold when planning nights of mayhem, cementing their dominance by cracking jokes.

Criss-crossing the nation's class system with an engaging mix of first-hand accounts and social analysis, Gilbert finds the roots of yobbery in inconsistent and violent parenting, with victims of bullies themselves becoming bullies, and in the loss of British identity; the latter he attributes to the end of the Empire, which has left us only football "wars"

to fight.

He links cynical tax-driven promotion of drinking to the rise of drunkenness on our streets. He compares the young thug's need for an audience with a professional criminal's need for anonymity.

But the analysis does not go deep enough. He provides no historical context to help us compare anti-social behaviour now with that of previous centuries. There are stories of troubled children becoming troubled teenagers, but no speculation about an amorality which seems oblivious to other people's feelings.

Yob Nation touches a nerve with all of us who fear the barbarians at the end of the drive, but the optimist in me wanted to resist. When Gilbert observes a father swearing at his little boy, his comment that "the dad's earrings glinted in the street light" suggests clumsy social stereotyping.

Politicians of a generation ago may have had better manners, but were they any less manipulative? He claims the social critique implicit in Vicky Pollard is that "our welfare state has produced a generation of teenagers who view themselves as the victims of other people's machinations", but my own baby boomer generation probably enjoyed greater benefits.

I wanted to resist Gilbert's scenario, but it is powerful. Since November my 15-year-old son has been punched in the face at the local shops, his friends have been attacked with baseball bats twice, and I have twice had to rescue him from parties invaded by gatecrashers. There is much in my son's generation to encourage optimism, but perhaps it is time to leave Proust at home when travelling on the bus.

David Buckley is an English teacher in Sheffield

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