The History of Youth Cultures: Understanding International Influences, National Frameworks and Local Lived Experiences
Charlotte Clements (University of Kent ) discusses the benefits and challenges of using a Four Nations approach to the study of post war youth culture.
Different regional, national and international perspectives are essential to understanding the history of youth cultures. Without understanding international influences, national frameworks and local lived experiences we cannot fully understand how young people have formed and shaped their cultures.
In Four Nations terms the frameworks of Youth Service policy are decidedly English. The Youth Service after the Second World War only included England and Wales in the landmark 1960 policy The Albemarle Report, even then with scant reference to Wales.[i] However, when looking at the regional youth club associations and individual clubs themselves it became clear that, even at the time, national policy frameworks were only so useful in understanding youth clubs and how between one quarter and one third of people used them.[ii] Youth clubs varied hugely, influenced by a range of factors, including the young people that attended them.
For example, in Liverpool there were clubs supported by long-established links with public schools, settlement clubs, church clubs, grassroots community clubs and roving youth workers in perceived trouble-spots using a minibus as a club. To say that these clubs existed against a local backdrop of industrial decline, unemployment and changes to housing in Liverpool in the post-war period would be to do a disservice to the way Liverpool’s unique history shaped the youth work happening there. It was a dynamic relationship with youth work organisations responding actively to City-wide and micro-local circumstances.
Youth culture also had a role to play, and one which cut across national boundaries. Adrian Horn’s discussion of Americanisation is pertinent here when looking at the local variations adopted by beat and skiffle groups in Liverpool to create the ‘Merseybeat’ sound.[iii] This sound was nurtured in the local youth clubs; places where bands formed, practiced and performed alongside the City’s central commercial venues. There were perhaps ten bands playing the local scene for each one that gained international or national recognition, but for the young people attending dances and live music in Liverpool’s Youth Clubs they were all part of their local youth culture.
This is evident in London too. In 1960s London, we are accustomed to hearing about ‘Swinging London’ and its vibrant scene. However, South London had its own variants of youth culture and subculture, including rival Mod and Rocker youth clubs and local sound system cultures. The glamour of the west-end clubs existed for the few, and as David Fowler rightly points out, it was the local Palais de Danse in Streatham rather than the glitzy Soho nightclub that was the site of everyday youth cultures, as indeed was the youth club for those that used them.[iv]
This indicates that both one and four nations approaches to the history of youth have their limitations. What is required is an understanding of how international influences, national structures and local circumstances came to shape young people growing up in the post-war period. This research began with an examination of 25 years of policy on youth and the Youth Service. It included reference to the problems of youth such as delinquency and indeed local case studies have added grounded examples to how youth work and delinquency can be linked. See Kate Bradley’s earlier post on this blog for more. Often though, national policy blurred and ameliorated as much as it revealed.
What does this mean for Four Nations frameworks? As previous posts have rightly pointed out, there is immense value in looking at our approach to history using the lens of different nations. The same applies to looking from local perspectives, though we should bear the metropolitan fallacy in mind. It is not that a four nations or national approach is not appropriate, but by delving below the national level to the micro local, we are encouraged to think critically about how we use these categories, to use them more explicitly and to talk to fellow historians about what we assume, conceal and reveal in the process. Looking at national youth organisations and literature on youth cultures has provided a national context, but is only by trying to understand youth cultures within individual youth clubs and local communities that this research has come to understand the myriad forms they have taken and the fluidity within them.
[i] Ministry of Education, Report of the Committee Appointed by the Minister of Education on The Youth Service in England and Wales (Albemarle Report), London, HMSO, 1960
[ii] Davies, Bernard, A History of the Youth Service in England, Volume 1, Leicester, National Youth Agency, 1999, p. 56
[iii] Horn, Adrian, Juke Box Britain- Americanisation and youth culture 1945-1960, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2009
[iv] Fowler, David, Youth Culture in Modern Britain c.1920-c.1970, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008
Charlotte Clements is a PhD student at the University of Kent. Her research looks at local youth clubs and youth club associations with reference to case studies in London and Liverpool. She is interested in voluntary action history, young people and their welfare, citizenship, and youth clubs as sites of youth culture. Charlotte is also a Research Assistant on the British Academy research project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’ which seeks to aid the preservation and digitisation of vulnerable voluntary sector archives. You can find out more about Charlotte and her research via her blog and twitter.