In at the End

DAVID DOWNES has been doing post-graduate research on juvenile delinquency in East London for the past three years.

THE TEEN CANTEEN CLOSED DOWN OFFICIALLY IN DECEMBER, 1962. It had run for seven years, and had been successful for perhaps as many as three out of those seven, I became a "voluntary helper" and — later — a committee member at perhaps its lowest ebb, in mid-1960, when it re-opened only two nights a week and was little more than a built-in street-corner. It remained in this state until mid-1961, when a full-time, fully-paid manageress was appointed (Barbara Ward). With her, the Canteen opened five nights in the week, soon attracted about 50-60 customers — about 30 a night — mostly the 'unclubbables', the 'layabouts', the 'yobs', whatever name we call them to single them out for worry, condescension and little else. Within a few months, a football team was organised (by them), the drab cellar was re-decorated, the semblance of a committee was arranged by the regulars. Whether or not these are criteria of "success" for an "experimental" youth project (i.e. a project which attempts to seduce non-Youth Club users from the street-corner), at least things were happening where before there had merely been a social vacuum. At this point the Canteen ran out of money, ran through every possible money-raising scheme1 and — within a few months — had to admit financial defeat. We were spared one of the problems of our "success": how to retain a self-established in-group without excluding all comers. That we reached this stage at all was something.

What did the Canteen achieve? It kept them off the streets, marvellous. But if there had never been more to it than a negative coralling, an instant delinquency prevention programme, we would not only have failed: we would have been ridiculous. In that respect, the Canteen could never have been more than a holding operation only. More importantly, the Canteen served as a link between "do-gooders" who realised that established youth work was preaching to the converted (however useful that might be) and those adolescents who remained staunchly unconverted, who rejected and resented the cosy paternalism of the Clubs and preferred the uncertain freedom of the streets and the caffs. In this connection, the Canteen tapped — probably by accident — a source of frustration which is especially severe for the working-class adolescent in a dead-end, semi-skilled job, or in no job at all. What is often overlooked about these teenagers is the sheer importance they attach to their leisure hours. It is not for them simply a question of "killing time". It is that they increasingly look in their leisure for the purpose and excitement so conspicuously absent from their work. We too easily assume that the only aspirations an adolescent can have are occupational. It is a specifically middle-class assumption that, if a boy lacks 'ambition' in this narrow sense, all we can do is keep him occupied, fill in his time, give him ping-pong, go-kart racing and 'activities'. This is both naive and an insult to his intelligence.

The job aspirations of most working-class teenagers are notoriously — and realistically — limited in range. A few areas have specialities, such as docker and market-porter, but the norm is labourer, van-boy, factory operative, The scope is small for the non-apprentice, and their aspirations reflect this low-ceilinged market-place. They are not inherently disillusioned about jobs, any more than they are about education; it is just that the jobs to which they have access are all the same — tedious. Money is, therefore — and quite rightly — their only occupational criterion2, Hence the excessive importance of off-work hours, and here it is not only excitement they are looking for. Much more crucially for their self-respect, they seek in leisure the freedom and dignity denied to them in work.

It is precisely on these two fronts that their self-respect is under-mined nightly. If he rejects the Youth Club, he is "on the town". One of the best features of Fyvel's book3 was his evocation of just how little the "town" has to offer: the drab caffs and the sterile Wimpy's are all the working-class 'corner boy' has to hand for rendezvous and conversation; the cinema, Bingo and the occasional dance all he has for entertainment. The more decorous cafés, where open, either charge too much or frown on the milling, drifting chatter of the 'Teds' and their girls. "The Boys" was a film which caustically showed the possible results of this 'closed doors' policy. The Youth Service caters for these adolescents as if they were students or serious grammar-school boys, who sit quietly over espressos talking about the latest Truffaut film, when the least that they want is a place where they feel at home, can relax, which doesn't cost too much but is anti-drab, where they can loll about, drift from table to table, dance if they feel like it, horseplay a little, and so on. This is the necessary basis for the positive things of which they are capable as and when they sense that the 'tone' of a place is right. The triumph of Ray Gosling's Youth Ventures experiment — despite its tragic closure — was his instinctive flair for creating a set-up where — for once — the town 'rowdies' were trusted, not only to refrain from tearing the place apart, but to 'run' it. The Canteen did not go this far: in time it might have done, but its structure was neither big enough nor smart enough to really capture the teenagers' imagination. We lacked the money and the personnel to supply those specialised services — on a semi-commercial basis — which Gosling rightly saw as priorities,4 But the Canteen did — for a spell of a few months at the end of 1961 — become a place where the customers' sense of freedom and dignity was not affronted, Under Miss Ward's managership, it not only lacked the outdated Baden-Powellism of the average youth club, it briefly possessed an aura of teenage ownership, and we saw the glimmerings of the potentialities we ignore at great cost. At great cost, not simply because economically "the country" cannot afford a waste of talent and energy on the immense scale of the present. It can't, but we'll realise that too late. It is simply that, by ignoring this vitality and allowing it too often to warp into 'fringe' and chronic delinquency, we are the poorer as human beings.

The only consolation for "the boys" is that sooner or later, directly or indirectly, society pays the price. But delinquency is muddled social, never political, protest. The delinquent makes a blind swing at the wrong target, or pursues some futile 'exploit'. As yet, we are fundamentally indifferent to the delinquent potential of a class of adolescents who are — in crude socio-economic terms — expendable. Until recently, the American attitude towards a much larger problem suggested the same acceptance of delinquency as the other side of the coin to free-wheeling, if irresponsible and unequal, affluence, The problem became finally unmanageable, and following a decade of juvenile street warfare culminating in the Michael Farmer killing, existing agencies were given massive governmental and foundation aid to further research and preventive work. 'Mobilisation for Youth' is currently pouring 12 million dollars into one section of the lower East Side in an attempt to create legitimate job-opportunities where previously none or few existed. The situation here is radically different, but the government might have considered pouring a few hundred pounds into the Elephant and Castle, where by all accounts the Teddy Boy movement started. The 1960's will have its equivalent, with a different trigger-point but the same essential causes. The financial failure of the Canteen — which mirrors that of most experimental projects — is just a symptom of the structure of social priorities which underlies much delinquency. But in the case of the Teddy Boy movement, we are not only not wise after the event: we are not even sure what the event was. It is 16 years since the Barge Boys club, 12 since Spencer publicised the danger of the 'unclubbables', 3 since Albemarle, 2 since Leicester. When the Canteen idea began in 1955, it was hoped it would "catch on" all over the country. That it hasn't is only a reflection of our larger failure to want to understand the needs of "the boys".

1 LCC administrators well-meaning but far too limited funds. Case for responsibility of universities for fund-giving resources for "experiments".
2 cf. Arthur Seaton's pride in "grafting" for his wages, i,e. work hard, not bribery. But if you're, for instance, a van-boy, it's impossible to graft. This is incidentally the whole point of Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd.
3 The Insecure Offenders, 1961.
4 See Lady Albemarle's Boys, (Young Fabian Pamphlet, No. 1).

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Nov 1 2017 23:33


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