|Simon Belt's opinion articles|
Comments by Simon Belt August 2011
I've come into contact with a section of society known as Young People quite a bit recently, and to be honest I don't care for the category much. Having worked in the civil service and an international outsourcing company for long stretches, I'm familiar with the concept of new this, that and the other, which are usually recycled and repackaged presentations of something very similar to what existed before. Young people are clearly not a new occurrence, but I get the feeling that the use of the term has moved from being a description of comparative or relative age to a category or identity of a relatively separate group, for more than marketing reasons.
For the last couple of years, I've provided work experience opportunities for some school students so they can research, write and edit articles for publication on the web, primarily focussed on profiling local businesses. These profiling articles are not straight advertising copy, but require the students to find out about local businesses and go interview the business owners or key people within the business, then determine the angle of the articles for themselves. Now I know this is a big ask for many adults, but without much by way of preconceptions of what people in work actually do, school students can be encouraged to do what many adults wouldn't do - an eye opening experience for the students and adults alike. Click on this work experience link to read some of their work, and indeed the interview with Melvin Burgess they did for this website.
I mention this because I've learnt a lot from this work experience about how Young People see themselves in relation to society. When it comes to researching local businesses, and then interviewing people involved in those businesses to understand what the business is about and get some interesting nuggets of a human story, there's little in their school experience to provide guiding reference points or limitations of how to approach things. With some irreverent comments and questions by my cheeky chappy self, the students soon relax about approaching adults in a business setting on something like equal terms. Where the businesses have a more familiar public and institutional form they've been schooled to appreciate, like the local Golf Club or a renovation project for a local Arts Centre, right on cue they articulate what should be done to make them friendly for 'Young People'.
Now, there's definitely things businesses can learn from fresh eyes looking at the customer experience they offer, but I find the suggestions presented by my work experience students on how businesses like the Arts Centres and Golf Clubs reflect a pre-written script that demands they be turned into youth clubs. The notion that young people should develop their repetoire of behaviours beyond the youth club (that they all think is patronising anyway), just isn't part of the script. As it happens, when they actually go off script, dig around in these venues and interview those involved their pre-conceived notions of what's actually on offer are quickly exposed as ill informed prejudice.
Protecting alternative sub-cultures
Alongside young people being schooled to think of themselves as a separate group that society should organise around to accommodate as an almost separate group, is the promotion of distrust of adults by increasing numbers of educators or temporary guardians - that children shouldn't talk to anyone they don't know. It seems like these descriptions of people are taking on more of a categorisation of groups with those categories having a more permanent and static character than a loose and transient character I think they once had. Whilst campaigning against discrimination of people with ginger hair is ridiculous (see gingerism.com), at least it's a personal characteristic not usually chosen. Following the repeat of Simon Armitage's afternoon play on Radio 4, 'Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster', I went along to the recording of the 'Black Roses Debate', a rather scripted talking heads 'debate' about extending Hate Crime legislation from categories such as racism, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and disability to include categories like 'alternative sub-cultures'.
In the first half of the play, before Sophie Lancaster is attacked for dressing differently, she describes her choice of fashion, albeit in Simon Armitage's words, but for me captures the accidental and fluid character of identity as people search to define themselves in relation to society in a dynamic way:
With the poignant and haunting soundtrack to the play being from The Cure, it reminded me of how in my youth I mixed and matched an orange punk mohican with black clothes, or funky yellow and orange trousers, experimenting with a variety of political ideas and naievely trying to develop a look to express that, as if it was that simple. However, this fluidity of developing form and content of personality and political views, was starkly contrasted by the proposals on extending Hate Crime laws being promoted by the Sophie Lancaster Foundation to include 'alternative sub-cultures' and mapped out in the play:
Formally trying to protect people using characterisations of identity, requires people's complex and dynamic personalities being manoevered into objectivised labels of a rather fixed character. Inevitably the labels will then become mechanisms through which people will negotiate their conservations and relations between people. Some comments drew this point out very well where identity becomes fixed and rooted, in that "people no more chose to be alternative, to be goth, to be hippies, to be whatever, they don't choose that anymore than a person who's disabled chooses to be disabled - they are who they are". When I was a punk, I chose that lifestyle, experimented with it, changed my dress when visiting my grand parents for example.
On the back of formalising an increasingly personalised and antagonistic society based on identity, the state is invited in to police more of our inter-personal behaviour in a way that goes beyond anything George Orwell imagined in his 1984 novel. Just on that, I thought that having Sylvia Lancaster in the lead position on the panel for the debate meant that the debate was always going to be muted and one sided as people's natural desire not to upset her further over her the circumstances of her daughter's death, leads them to temper their criticisms of her proposals. Allowing Sylvia to grieve in private with her family and friends around her rather than encouraging her to lead public discussions over policy related to her daughter's murder, would certainly allow for a more balanced and critical assessment of those policy proposals.
Editor's Note: Catherine Smyth, the first reporter on the scene where Sophie Lancaster was murdered, wrote a book about it, entitled Weirdo. Mosher. Freak. To read a review of it on this site click on this Murder of Sophie Lancaster link.
Young people on the margins
After the discussion on policy initiatives formally designed to promote greater tolerance towards young people expressing their identity through alternative sub-cultures, I started reading Melvin Burgess' new novel 'Kill All Enemies' with the tagline of 'Ever felt like you just don't fit in?', rather expecting to have more categorisations of Young People as a separate group with their own characterists, well meaning but ultimately trapping those in the category with the need to live up to the characteristics determined for them. I must say that I was most delightfully disabused of that notion with a novel that expressed great depth and complexity of personalities, maybe edging towards instability, but still offering a dynamic fluidity with free will able to dominate through personal responsibility.
Now I took the work school students I had on work experience to interview Melvin Burgess after they read and reviewed a proofing copy of his new novel, but I didn't get chance to read it myself beforehand. After a relatively slow and oddly focussed start, I literally couldn't put the book down as it flowed very well, progressively fleshing out the personalities involved in the story and broadening out a view of the complexity, nuance and connections within society. The story is about 3 school students, Chris, Rob and Billie, whose lives become intertwined and connected through rather accidental events bringing them together, though often through antagonistic situations, in a quite believable way. The story is told through the voices of each schoool student and their case officer Hannah in the Pupil Referral Unit where the ultimately end up.
The different voices telling the story from their vantage point lulls you in quite a voyeristic way, as you delve into the mindset of 3 young teenagers and they reveal their emotional roller coaster of turbulent lives. It also works in a very conversational way, as each character engages with the other characters through your own reading of their story, peculiarly putting the reader at the centre of piecing together the jigsaw puzzle and adding layers of character and personality to the protagonists. The character Rob fills out some of his identity in a very funny relationship with a Metallica T-shirt that his mum gives him the night she leaves the family home. The way the T-shirt comes to demand behaviours from Rob may seem odd, but is quite mindful and sensitive to the tensions and flux involved in teenage mindsets as personalities get a handle on their rapidly changing position from dependent child to increasingly independent young adult.
In a great description of how the mind works through trying to rationalise being bullied, and then dig deep for the strength to overcome and conquer fears, Rob tells us what's going on in his head wiith:
Hannah is the proxy parent for the absent and poorly equiped parents intervening on their behalf to nudge the kids and poorly functioning adults back to more productive ways of operating, using various therapeutic techniques to get under the skin of the teenagers to open them up and uncover what's going on in their home lives. Having worked on the periphery of hostel environment for kids requiring long term stay out of their family home to keep them from entering the secure lock down environment, I can appreciate the side of society that's lost control and does need some external support to avoid some serious damage being caused to individuals and families. The scenarios posed in this book are definitely milder cases but do reflect some real life situations that need somekids to be taken out of school situations to allow normal school activity to continue.
It will be interesting to see what Melvin's audience will make of it. As we can see from the discussion on extending Hate Crime categories, there is a wider sense that society is out of control, particularly young people, which needs an army of regulators to bring under control for our collective good, and it would be a shame if this book is used to promote that. I don't think this novel objectifies young people as a separate disconnected group requiring third party intervention, but as people who are young and in need of integrating in wider society in more spontaneous ways. Though as it sits alongside discussions of disconnection following the recent riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester, its promotion of the idea that people aren't linear or static personalities that fit neatly into categories, but complex things that are usually very well equipped to negotiate their own solutions to the problems thrown at them, may well be lost.
Editor's Note: Details of an In conversation discussion with Melvin Burgess at Blackwell University Bookshop on Tuesday 06 September are available by clicking on this Kill All Enemies link.