Subcultures in England and their place in the British national identity
“The middle class is so fond of its traditional way of life that it even feels a kind of sympathy with petty criminals, as long as they fit into traditions. Punks, teddy boys, skinheads and especially mods […] are almost accepted as part of life.”
This quote from a book Inglesi by Beppe Severgnini from materials we were given in class caught my attention straight away. Now that I have a chance to think and write about it, I can consider all the aspects connected with this thesis and conclude whether it can be supported. I will trace the stories of some of these subcultures from their beginnings until today, follow their development from being excluded from the mainstream society to the stage they are at today, and examine to what extent they have become a traditional part of the British society.
Punk became probably one of the most known subcultures recognized by the majority of people. It came like a tidal wave and left everything, starting with clothes and appearance, ending with music and ideas, upside down. Since its beginnings in 1970’s, the reception of punk by the British society has gone through several changes; what had seemed to be doomed and sentenced to live on the edge of society has turned into a significant part of mass popular culture.
At the time of bands like Sex Pistols or The Clash, it was purely negative attitude that the movement had to face from the society’s point of view. Provocation, opposition and radical denial of British conservative values stirred up fear among ordinary people. The news and media were filled with indignant articles about crime and violence committed by members of the punk movement creating a stereotype that still does persist among a number of people.
However, mohawks, wildly coloured hair, safety pins and ripped clothes as well as the music, so shocking and beyond one’s grasp, almost prompted the commercial industry to take advantage of its popularity. Sooner than anyone would expect, it was turned it into a means of lucrative business. The marketing of the punk style knocked down most of the barriers that were raised in the years before. It became fashionable in its unfashionableness and a wider range of people started to identify themselves with punk. Mainly because it gave them a feeling of being unique, freethinking and different as well as providing them with a way of expressing their revolt.
Punk is nowadays a remarkable element of the mainstream popular culture. It gave roots to such music genres as the new wave, pop punk or hardcore and bands like Green Day, Blink 182, Paramore or Good Charlotte playing this type of music now have the main substitution in MTV. It contributed to the foundation of Britpop, which is globally one of the most popular genres. Punk fashion also inspires numberless amount of top world designers; Christian Dior for example has only lately introduced a whole punk rock collection.
Nowadays English people are aware of the fact that punk is no longer a vulgar minority subculture but that it became an important part of the popular culture worldwide. Not only they lost most of the prejudice they held against it, but knowing its message and attitudes, they accepted it as a part of their own culture. Seeing a group of regular punks with multicoloured spiky hair, chains and beers walking down the streets of London will cause no big fuss as they are something known, understood and accepted. They have been like this for forty years and did become a part of the diverse, modernized English tradition.
However the story of punk is not the only one. The mod subculture, or modism that emerged in 1950’s, is perhaps even more tightly linked to Britishness than punk as its ideals did not go against for example the Queen and British national identity. Punks were provocative and dirty while mods, on the contrary, clean and smart. Obsessed with expensive and elegant clothing despite their tough working class origin, they put all their money into stylish sophisticated clothing. Pompadour haircuts, Italian suits and Vespas at the early period, later purely English brands Ben Sherman or Fred Perry, combined with Sta-Prest pants and working class accessories like Dr. Martens boots and braces, were the hints to recognize mods by. Today, Ben Sherman and Fred Perry are still very popular, traditional and quite expensive brands that are worn by Englishmen with the knowledge of their origins.
Mods however, like all underground cultures, caused controversy and conflicts before they arrived at being recognized positively or at least neutrally. The elegant mod culture repeatedly got into fights with the tougher gang of rockers as well as mod gangs among each other. Media again caused furore about this and the older generation was absolutely shocked by the behaviour of their descendants.
As time passed, the concentration shifted from rockers and mods towards their slightly altered version, hard mods and traditional skinheads. In our country, due to misinformation, the public has always found the skinhead cult controversial as skinheads are often confused with neo-Nazis. However in England, as Severgnini states, the public acceptance of this group like of the ones mentioned above is very high. I personally talked to a variety of English people and to my surprise most of them were familiar with the English underground movements. An elderly couple, owners of a small family hostel in Blackpool, had even belonged to the mod culture and still have a very sentimental bond to it. So does Tim Otis, a Radio 1 commentator, when he talks about his old Vespa. Two teenage girls who are studying here at an international school knew everything about punk rock and could distinguish between nazi and traditional skinheads.
Football hooligans form a substantial role within the skinhead subculture. From all those that I have studied, this group is the most negatively looked at. Such view of them was formed firstly due to the repeated fights and violence at football matches. Secondly I believe this is because it is the most numerous and active group today. The media present English football hooligans and fans in general in a very negative way on a regular basis, adding up to the public’s disapproval of their behaviour.
The ways in which subcultures are presented by the media is an important aspect to consider when analysing the recent views of them. There are several movies that deal with mods, skinheads or hooligans and examples of a rather surprisingly positive presentation can be found in each of them. Movies made by English producers about subcultures often almost idealize the movements or at least present them to its benefit. And note the fact that they are not underground low-budget films. They are award winning films, enjoyed by the public, starring Hollywood stars such as Eliah Wood (Frodo from Lord of the Rings) in Green Street Hooligans.
G reen Street Hooligans is a film from 2005 by Lexi Alexander taking place in England among a group of football hooligans. According to her own words, she made this movie to put this message across: “You never run, you never leave your friend behind!” and to encourage people to be loyal, reliable and consistent, and she succeeds. This movie proves how popularized most of the subcultures are. However, it might be a good thing to show both sides of this coin. Even though the general attitude among British public toward hooligans is rather negative, thanks to her and this movie, the public will learn about the good qualities of a subculture like this as well. Not only that the characters are presented in a very human way, they are almost archetypal embodiment of the true values; friendship, loyalty and protectiveness. Alexander breaks presumptions and unfolds the reality of this community by gentle hints in seemingly insignificant situations; for example when one of the main characters frees his seat in the underground to let a woman sit down.
Another recent film showing a rather moving image of the skinhead community, released in 2006 and directed by Shane Meadows, is called This is England. This film contributes greatly to the public knowledge of the movement as it is set in early-1980s – the most important period for the development of the movement. At the beginning, the viewer is completely captured by the sweetness of a 12-year old loner Sean finding deep friendship with a group of traditional skinheads and can identify with their love for the cult, the Oi! and ska music and the clothing. However, the film also follows the critical time when the movement became influenced by the National Front and some of the true skinheads became racist.
Not only drama movies but documentaries about the skinhead cult were made as well. The most famous one which gained one German and one Swiss nomination for Best Documentary, Skinhead Attitude, comes from year 2003 and was directed by Daniel Schweizer. The film takes us on a trip throughout the whole history of the subculture, starting at the present day, showing the different existing attitudes and opinions on politics and gives a comprehensive insight into the different fractions. The evolution of some skinheads into racists and nazis is traced. The traditional skinheads are portrayed almost idealistically especially through the protagonist, a pretty young skinheadgirl, who travels around the world and meets other skinheads.
I find the fact that subcultures are not looked at in a biased and negative way a good defending argument for Severgini’s statement. Movies about subcultures are no longer made only for the subcultures but commercially for general public. The altogether positive response and the success of these films is a proof of the claim that the common opinion on hooligans, skinheads, but on the whole typically British underground too, has changed as well as that people began accepting them as a part of their national identity.
Once new and unexplored movements have become understood and widely related to, people are no longer scared. Barriers disappear, fear is replaced by maybe slight forbearance, but especially prejudice becomes acceptance. Filmmakers as well as music producers and fashion designers have taken advantage of subcultures, introduced their positive aspects to the public and succeeded! Going back to Severgnini’s quote, it is true that subcultures have become very close to be accepted as the sort of “unconventional tradition” of a society, which has always considered diversity its pride.
- Burning Britain by Ian Glasper
- Spirit Of ‘69: A Skinhead Bible by George Marshall
- G reen Street Hooligans, This is England, Skinhead attitude, Quadrophenia