By ALAN BRIEN
I HAD hoped to smuggle this column into print this week without including the words 'Mods' and 'Rockers' anywhere in the text. I regret that this wilt not now be possible but please do not adjust your set. I promise to confine them to the first paragraph. What impresses me most
about this Lilliputian
, skirmishing (Bad Eggs v. Big Egos?) is that the allegiances are so arbitrary. The young brawlers have craftily split themselves into two camps— neither of which has any relevance to the loyalties which divide grown-ups. Despite that fatuous quiz in the Daily Mail, no one born before the end of the war gives a damn which side wins. if the battles had been between Blacks and Whites, White Collars and Dirty Finger-nails, Secondary Mods and Public School Rocks, Country Yokels and City Slickers, Northern Naives and Southern Pseuds, Homos and Heteros or Labs and Cons, we adults could at least have cheered on the touchlines and held the coats of our favourite team. As it is, the issues are as remote from us as Bimetallism. The young people of today have served notice that they in- tend to fight first and find excuses afterwards. They rebel and leave us to invent the cause. Britain is in a revolutionary situation without any revolutionary grievances—a generation of Iagos are tempting each other to violence while we Othellos sit at home by the telly with Desdemona, fascinated and amazed.
It is no use the seaside magistrates and chair- men of Watch Committees telling us to switch off so that the bored players can go home. There is an audience for such spectacles and we are it. Dr. George Simpson, the Margate beak, seemed to be rebuking the wrong party when he told an eighteen-year-old who had travelled from Can- terbury to see the fighting, 'You came down to satisfy your curiosity. You will go to a detention centre for three months.' Mr. Vincent Mulchrone of the Mail, and Mr. James Irvine of the Evening Standard, not to • mention all those television crews, also only came down to satisfy our curiosity. Would we be willing to wait three months to get their first-hand reports of life in a detention centre?
The odd thing about these Bank Holiday riots is not that they happen but that they happen now instead of thirty years ago when half Britain had cause to rebel and revolt. The Depression Years were the exception. The Affluent Decade has returned to the habits of earlier centuries when the lusty rogues, the masterless men, the idle apprentices, the unemployed artisans and City mob regularly terrorised the respectable.,Today London no longer has its Harlem for the grey outcasts from prosperity where no well-dressed citizen dare walk alone. The diaries of the past (Pepys's is only the most famous) since Tudor times have always contained references to the fear felt by the middle class when venturing out without a sword or hired link-men into the un- policed outskirts. To backdate the problem does not solve it. But it should at least warn us against laying the blame on the CND, the psychiatrists, the divorce laws, the decline of home prayers, the abolition of the birch, the resignation of Mr. Macmillan or the sale of Purple Hearts.
For 400 years, society has lived with its in- ability to impose its restraints and inhibitions on those who are outside the clan. During that time, mental illness has been treated by physical punishment, crime has been punished by execution, alcohol and laudanum were the only drugs, children began work at the age of eight, church-going was enforced by fines, divorce was possible only by individual Acts of Parliament, political power was in the hands of the educated and the well-to-do—all the panaceas of the nervous modern reactionary, were put into effect and proved ineffective. Today we still cut off the poor, the stupid, the young and the under- employed from any initiation into the freedom of our club. What has changed is the mobility and speed with which both people and news can travel across the small, crowded nation. It is diffi- cult to see what can be done about this—though if railways keep disappearing and cars keep multiplying, Britain may soon return to being a land of beleaguered villages.
I have been trying to force my mind back to the days of my adolescence to remember haw working-class youngsters occupied their idle hands in the late Thirties. Were we really so law- abiding, and, if so, was it through apathy and vitamin-deficiency rather than through respect for authority and concern for our neighbours? Certainly, we never gathered in gangs of 200. Twenty was the largest number which could be organised usefully without attracting the police. But we used to infiltrate Woolworths on a Satur- day to steal chocolate (great uneatable lumps of their own brand which seemed to have been quarried rather than cooked) and carry out quick mass raids on the local market. Any empty house (and there was one then in any long road) had every widow smashed, and every wrenchable fix- ture removed, within a week. Our parks were alive at nights with duck-hunters, fountain-plug- gers, flower-stealers and courting-couple-dis- turbers. New building estates provoked us to ex- periment whether we could undo at weekends the work put in during the week. Once we drove a lorry over the edge of a ravine and burned down a but full of explosives. We threw bricks at the local idiot—an enormous nineteen-year-old of ferocious strength and undoubtedly the first four- minute miler on the north-east coast. We perse- cuted door-to-door salesmen with mud balls from catapults and fired missiles of razor-edged slate into gardens so as to decapitate lines of tulips at long distance. We inflated frogs with straws, put out street lamps, let down tyres of cars, stole milk from doorsteps and poured it down the drain, swapped all the bagwash along an entire street, tied string to the knockers of notably bad-tem- pered neighbours so that we could bring them to the door from around the corner. We always put stones in snowballs when we threw them and polished every steep pavement by sliding until it was as slippery as wet glass. When we ran out of rival gangs to challenge, we would hold trials of our own members in lonely vegetable patches. We built up libraries of pornographic American magazines and stole the knickers off snobbish girls who wore hair ribbons and carried gloves. Now I come to think of it, we were monsters. But, until now, it has never occurred to me that I was a teenage delinquent. I thought I was just being 'a youth.'
If I had been caught and sent to an approved school, would I have been a better member of society now, or worse? Nobody (or at least no- body who knew our names) called us 'vermin.' We were 'Sawdust Caesars' incognito—our suc- cessors court publicity. Could that be the major difference?