The generation gap

Extracts of What's Going On by Mark Steel (Simon and Schuster)
November 2008

Now in his forties, and questioning the meaning of life, relationships and socialist politics, Mark Steel subtitles his latest book 'the meanderings of a comic mind in confusion'. In these two extracts, he writes about teenagers and protest

One of the shocking aspects of becoming 40 that I hadn't fully appreciated was that once you get to that age it doesn't stop. You carry on getting even older than that. There follows another age, called 41, then 42 and each one comes round quicker than the last. You talk to a friend about the day you all went to Southend and played cricket under the biggest pier in the country, saying, 'Blimey, that must be five years ago now.' Then you work it out and realise it was in 1989.

There are endless shocks, such as the fact that the bloke who presents the news is younger than you. Which can't be true. He's middle-aged and grown up and says grown-up things like 'That's all from us, there'll be more on our evening bulletin at ten o'clock. Good night.' I can't be older than him. And the same age as people with jobs like secretary of the FA and economic spokesman for the Liberal Democrats.

If you have kids you're also forced to be sensible. When my son was thrown off a bus by a grumpy driver and plotted a revenge that could have been a screenplay for Die Hard, I found myself saying, 'The best revenge is to forget about it. Remember, you only have to put up with his grumpiness for one moment, but he has to go around with it 24 hours a day.'

And then there's the logistics of it all. Kids are life-affirming, life-defining conveyors of all your hopes but they also make life relentlessly complicated. It is not primarily the effort to raise them with a decent set of values, but simply the problem of what to do with them. Every morning outside most schools parents are involved in intricate negotiations. 'If you pick up Jenny and keep her until half past four, Tina will pick up her and Oscar and give them and Nathan some pizza while taking her aerobics class, then my mum should be able to have them from six because the hospital says she should be out of her coma by then and she'll drop them off with Eileen at the brothel as she gets an hour off between seven and eight, then David should have finished at the site and can bring them all back in his wheelbarrow.'

Even after you've dropped them at school in the morning you dread getting a call that goes 'You'll have to come and collect your son as he's been sick in the corridor.' And they take no account of the fact you might be working. You could say, 'But I'm flying a Boeing 757 full of passengers to Manila' and they'd reply, 'Well, you'll have to make an emergency landing, we do have a strict "sending home" policy following vomit.'

What are you supposed to do with them? Most workplaces act as if having children is a peculiar hobby. If you say, 'I've got to leave at five to pick the kids up,' you might as well have said you've got to get back to feed your octopus or 'I have to get home by six because that's when I have my wank.' Somehow we've arrived at a culture in which children, which define and shape more people's lives than anything else, are treated as an irritating intrusion. They're hard to find a place for in a culture driven by profit because they really aren't very profitable. When an individual's success is measured by wealth and status, kids can only be a drawback.

Perhaps it's a similar accounting of everyone's value as if they were a share price that's inspired the tsunami of vitriol hurled at the modern teenager. Historians of the future might come across the complaints made about today's youth and conclude that the country was under siege from marauding gangs of 'hoodies', probably descended from the tribes of Genghis Khan. To prove the connection, someone will declare they've found evidence that the Mongol warriors terrorised Asia by sweeping into villages, then leaning on mountain bikes by the fountain in the Arndale Centre and mumbling 'I'm bored bruv' at which point the entire local tribe would flee.

Their chosen weapon, the hood, must be one of the most harmless objects ever to cause mass terror. It's made of cloth. It's true that some young people in hoods are rude and intimidating, but it would be just as easy to generalise about old people in caps. Who hasn't been a victim of these 'cappies', blocking up post offices, driving in the exact middle of the road at 14 miles an hour, then pulling out without looking, on their way to sit by the window in a Wetherspoons pub from half past ten in the morning - haven't they got anything useful to do? Their dogs mess in the park, and if you kick a ball into their garden they don't let you retrieve it, probably so they can sell it and buy bottled Guinness.

The most tragic side to this issue is that the people most venomous about hoodies seem to be my own generation, we who had exactly the same cobblers said about us during the punk years. I never even dressed as a punk but I remember older people growling 'tut, tut disgraceful' loudly as they walked past, while staring in horror as if I was eating a live cat. It was as if they were saying, 'We fought in a war and they have the cheek to be 16. When we were that age we had to be 35, otherwise we got a belt off our dad.'

Now it's my generation's turn to grumble like that: 'We may have sung "Anarchy in the UK" but we always respected our elders - not like the yobs of today.' I'm sure one day I'll hear an old punk say, 'This hip-hop they listen to isn't proper music, you can hear all the words.'

This is why I felt uneasy one day when some 20 men were sitting in that midweek pub slouch in my local, occasionally breaking the silence to fire jokey insults at each other through the gloom, and "Pretty Vacant" came on the jukebox. Suddenly there were fists pounding on the tables, rattling the pints of Adnams, as the bald and the paunched yelled in unison, 'We're so pretty oh so perrretty- a-vaya-cant.'

It felt awful, because whereas this had once been a scream of defiance to the future, now it was a yearning for a lost time. Of course we should cherish the culture of our youth, especially the rebellious stuff that ignited our hopes, but once the subplot is 'those were the days' it becomes conservative, whatever the content.

There's even a trend among some punks and rebels of old to add to the sneering against modern youth, lamenting that 'youngsters of today don't rebel like we did'. Yet the number of young people who have marched or protested in some way, who engage with the ideas of figures such as John Pilger and Michael Moore, who abhor bigotry against foreigners or gays, is far greater than in the 1970s.

The problem, beyond the cycle of youths turning into their parents, may be that while a smaller percentage of my generation may have thought rebelliously, those of us who did were organised. From 1970 to the end of the miners' strike, youthful dissidence formed organisations such as Rock Against Racism that met, campaigned, produced papers and put on bands, creating tangible structures that, even if they didn't change society for ever, often transformed the people in them for ever. Today the rebelliousness of youth is scattered and sporadic, making it less effective and giving the false impression that it is not there at all.

And while it's true they've now got iPods, Xbox 360s, Facebook and a choice of ringtones, the young of today also have tuition fees, interviews almost every day if they're on the dole more than a fortnight, homework from the age of eight, SATs and ASBOs*. Maybe when they're sitting by the fountain in the Arndale Centre, they rub their hoods and snarl, 'Kids of the seventies, they didn't know they were born.'

* I don't wish to dismiss the unpleasant effects of teenage crime - obviously if a truant schoolboy burns your house down that is a nuisance - but it's becoming increasingly clear ASBOs are not always helping. For example, a lawyer told me he'd been approached by a teenager who'd been issued with an ASBO for 'being sarcastic'. Now, apart from anything else, surely a conversation between the police and someone being illegally sarcastic would go on forever, wouldn't it?

'Ah, think we're clever being sarcastic do we?'

'Go on then, officer, arrest me for it, that should keep the streets safe.'

'Oo, doing it again. Like spending the night in a police cell, do we?'

'I do as long as I'm in there with you and your sparkling wit, officer.'


Did we achieve anything today?

One afternoon I spoke at a protest outside the American surveillance base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire. This surreal compound appears across the moors like a city in a science fiction film from the 1950s, about a dozen domes that look like giant golf balls imposing themselves on the hills and dales, and you can't help imagine each golf ball full of figures in boiler suits carrying shiny metal boxes under a huge digital clock showing how long to go before a giant explosion will enable a madman to rule the world.

The camp is entirely under the command of the Americans, so this annual protest, on 4 July, is called 'Independence from America Day'. When I arrived, I was immediately photographed as I got out of the car, and in my arrogance assumed it was a local reporter keen to get the winning picture of the visiting comedian. Then came the deflation of seeing the same thing happen to a pair of crusties and I realised this was what the police did to everyone who turned up.

The scene of around 200 protesters with tatty banners and Thermos flasks, standing in the drizzle while a gazebo offered vegan bacon sandwiches, could easily be lampooned. But none of this seemed as mad to me as it would once have done.

First, because Alan Bennett turned up to speak, and he was magnificently Alan Bennett. I remember his speech as being full of stuff like 'I have to say the base behind me here is not a view I particularly care for.' And I was willing him to carry on: 'I rather take the stance of my Aunty Edith, who always maintained that a nation that's never learned to brew tea with a crocheted cosy shouldn't be trusted to place military camps on foreign territory.'

Second, because the protesters, like the protest, seemed not to be apart from the rest of society but an integral part of it. So much has changed since the days of CND in the 1980s that a teenager with a blue Mohican and a jacket saying 'Fuck Bush' is almost mainstream. And the crowd were part of their community, they worked in local shops, offices and schools, and even though some of them must have been over 70 everyone seemed young and lots of them had pierced eyebrows.

The organiser of the event was Lindis Percy, who's been arrested over 40 times outside the camp [see interview, opposite]. In the evening she asked me a poignant question that is the most relevant one we face: 'Do you think we achieved anything today? Or are we wasting everyone's time?'

It was fairly easy to answer this. The military establishment clearly takes the protests seriously and would be delighted if they stopped, while those who support the protests would feel deflated, instead of inspired by the fact that there is opposition to this sinister establishment. At least she asked the question. It struck me because the left so rarely dares to ask the question, and that's essential if you're to maintain your numbers, let alone grow. 'Did we achieve anything today?' You've got to keep asking the question, otherwise, when the answer's 'no', not only can you not put matters right, you don't even realise matters need putting right.

What's Going On by Mark Steel is published by Simon and Schuster


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