Bish, Bash, Bosh – Growing Up in 70s Aggro Britain, Part One of Two

Written by Peter Jachimiak
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‘Yes, I’m in Aggravation Place / Where the pressure takes the smile off every face’
Jook, ‘Aggravation Place’, 1978

Bus Shelters and Graffiti
The concrete bus shelter was, during the 1970s, a communal space. Always reeking of the stale stench of piss, the bus shelter – as well as providing a rendezvous for late-night, fumbled sexual encounters – was a shared canvas for the marginalised to inscribe their identities upon, through that most proletariat of means, graffiti. Thus, bus shelter walls – both inside and outside – were often awash with not only the miss-spelt aggressiveness of youthful frustrations and subcultural allegiance, but the desperate outpouring of young love. So, arguably, the 1970s proved to be the decade where an increasing level of social decay coincided with excessive levels of vandalism in its most aesthetically displeasing form – that of graffiti-daubed brick walls, corrugated metal fencing, and so on. Many cultural texts of this time – especially those aimed at, or concerned with, youth and ‘youth issues’ – collectively positioned Britain’s young as both the victims and cause of such decay and vandalism by incorporating graffiti-daubed walls, fences, etc., as central motifs: motifs, that, in turn, placed emphasis upon the street-wise nature of those cultural texts.

For the title sequence of 4 Idle Hands (ATV, March to April 1976, and starring a very young Phil Daniels and Ray Burdis), after a sepia montage of manual labour and factory work, shows a young black male in front of a towering brick wall, with the upper floors of a high-rise housing estate just about visible, through a low mist, beyond. Significantly, the credits themselves appear as paint-brush graffiti upon the wall. So, little surprise, then, that this series – as made explicit on the back of the Network-released DVD release – was aimed at teenage viewers, and followed “the unsteady progress of Mike and Pete, two 16-year-old school-leavers who are suddenly forced to ponder the bewildering but urgent question: what are they going to do for a living? As Mike and Pete’s efforts to avoid the dole queue land them a succession of disastrous jobs, 4 Idle Hands humorously details the unremitting difficulties of adolescence”.

Graffiti, as both a social and cultural signifier of troubled (and troublesome) youth and, in turn, social decay, remained – in fact, intensified – as the 1970s progressed, to the point where so-called ‘youth TV’ proved harder-hitting than most of its adult equivalent. Southern’s Noah’s Castle (broadcast across April and May, 1980), despite being set in a ‘near future’, where law-and-order was at breaking point, was a series that proved very close to the bone, socially speaking, in relation to the day-to-day experiences of its young, urban audience. Indeed, the series’ credits open dramatically, with camera at street level, as armed youths run in slow-motion towards the viewer, with the series’ title, Noah’s Castle, appearing as gaudy, spray-can on-screen graffiti. Followed by scenes (again, in slow-motion, with the camera virtually on the tarmac) of mass rioting – with the army barely instilling order – this was a scare-the-crap-out-of-you TV moment, whereby everyday urban vandalism was equated with complete societal disintegration.

However, rather than being solely a characteristic of social ills, some Left-wing thinkers of the time saw graffiti in terms of the empowerment of disenfranchised (albeit criminal) youth. As the sociologist Stanley Cohen, in Colin Ward’s book Vandalism (1973), highlighted the significance of such technological advances as the aerosol spray: “Aerosol sprays are much quicker and easier to apply than paint, and fairly long slogans can be sprayed on posters in a matter of seconds. This decreases the chances of detection even in busy public settings and allows a number of offences to be committed in a short time” (p.221). Furthermore, Colin Ward (himself an anarchist thinker and writer) insisted, in Vandalism (1973), that “any open-minded student of graffiti will agree that this particular medium has improved the form, if not yet the content, of graffiti, since it raises the standard of lettering simply because it imposes a bold, free-flowing line on the user, by the comparison with the effect of dripping paint or hesitant chalk” (p.305).

Phone Booths and Vandalism
In order to both commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Samaritans and to provide young people with a collection of short stories that, it was hoped, would inspire those experiencing the loneliness of youth to engage in communication, Monica Dickens and Rosemary Sutcliff, in 1978, published Is Anyone There? The book’s cover comprised of, in the main, a stark, black-and-white photo of a dark, run-down end of town, with two daunting tower-blocks, standing as massive, silent sentinels over this bleak backdrop. However, what dominates the cover, both front and back, in its Post Office Red livery (which, along with the matching red lettering of the title and editors’ names, is the only colour to be found on the cover) is a phone booth. With a blurred image of someone inside (their back to the reader, as they use the phone), this red booth is, quite clearly, the only haven amid this barren, alienating urban landscape. Furthermore, the book, the first short story is – at a single page in length – Brian Patten’s ‘Making a Call’:

Alone in a red phone booth … All over cities people standing alone in red phone booths … relating back to their own reflections in misted-up windows … I dreamt one night the whole world slept together in a red phone booth (p.9).

The Post Office Red phone booth was, certainly by the 1970s, a common sight across Britain. Yet, as with the piss-stench, graffiti-plastered bus shelter, the vandalised and, thus, out-of-order phone booth – especially by the late 1970s – came to epitomise a decaying social order.

Vandalism – of which, of course, graffiti was a major, and highly visible, proportion – was an environmental scarring which, by the very start of the 1970s, was not only widespread, but subject to considerable academic debate and media scrutiny. Indeed, Colin Ward, in his introductory chapter to Vandalism (1973), was at pains to provide a portrait of the public’s stereotypical perception of the vandal: “We all know the vandal. He is somebody else. In general terms he is someone whose activities in the environment we deplore … a working-class male adolescent, and his act is the ‘wanton’, ‘senseless’, or ‘motiveless’ destruction of property, usually public property of some kind. He and his behaviour constitute a ‘social problem’” (p.13). Significantly, Ward’s book (again, published at the very start of that dreary decade that was the 1970s), was accompanied by a shit-coloured cover of a brick wall covered in both black and white paint lettering - lettering that, simultaneously, provided both the book’s title and, with “Up Yours!”, “Bovver”, and the like, typical examples of the era’s graffiti. Both the stereotype and the scarring as one-and-the-same then.

Vandals in the Garden
On the 21st of March 1974, accompanied by two of the Blue Peter presenters (John Noakes and Peter Purves), the gardener Percy Thrower dug out a plot in the small, secluded green space in front of the BBC restaurant block, Broadcasting House, London. Indeed, the plot was, thereafter, known simply as ‘the Blue Peter Garden’. Yet, in order to instill a sense of constant excitement in this gardening malarkey (with its often laborious focus upon planting, weeding, digging, and so on), significant new projects had to be eventually entered into, with the design and building of the Blue Peter ‘Italian sunken garden’ (with its paving stones, ponds, benches, urns, mini cypress trees, and the footprints and handprints of the pets and presenters of the day) being the show’s major gardening project of 1978. Although, on the 17th of April of that year, the programme’s presenters announced rather solemnly that the garden had been vandalised (with the garden, in fact, eventually being damaged by vandals three times over the next few years).

So, vandalism – a perennial, societal ‘youth problem’ – arguably reached its peak come the late 1970s. To the extent that, in Colin Ward’s Vandalism (1973), those that produce social spaces (amongst others) were asked to provide contributions on how vandalism could be prevented. Thus, Alan Leather and Antony Matthews’ chapter, ‘What the architect can do: a series of design guides’, offered advice on how vandals can be dissuaded from conducting their wanton acts of seemingly mindless destruction. One rule laid down by Leather and Matthews, with regards the building of particularly vulnerable, high-profile public places, was that “[c]are should always be taken over the provision and design of anything which may be considered to be of a novel, pretentious or prestigious nature” (p.166). Thus, the Blue Peter Italian sunken garden was not only ‘novel’, but, arguably, ‘pretentious’ as well. Indeed, being one of the most oft-seen public places on ‘youth TV’ at the time, it could not have been of a more ‘prestigious nature’ to wanna-be vandals in search of their fifteen minutes of infamy.

The Rat and Rubbish Alley
The rat (individually) and a plague of rats (as a writhing, unified mass) became synonymous with a Britain of the 1970s. A nation blighted by economic, social, and cultural downturn that, taken together, brought about a self-referencing of the nation as nothing but a putrid pile of rubbish teetering upon collapse. Indeed, as Alwyn W. Turner – in Crisis? What Crisis? – Britain in the 1970s (2008) notes – bearing in mind the Stranglers’ debut LP, entitled Rattus Norvegicus (1977), and the modest success of the Bob Geldof-led Boomtown Rats – that “[t]he rat soon became a common shorthand for social decline, particularly in rock & roll” (p.45). No surprise, then, that ‘the rat’ took on a starring role in both TV and pulp fiction texts of the 1970s. For example, the second of the six-episode series of plays by Nigel Kneale, Beasts (ATV, broadcast on the 23rd of October, 1976), entitled ‘During Barty’s Party’, portrayed the degeneration of a middle-class couple’s idyllic life in the country, as a result of – and, according to Turner, symbolised by – “the marauding terror of a tribe of super-rats with a taste for human flesh” (p.45). Cleverly never showing a single rat, the viewer’s growing perception of the couple’s increasingly terrifying plight was suggested by sound only, with the incessant noise of the rats’ unceasing gnawing and scratching audibly increasing as the play drew to its bloody, scream-drenched climax.

‘We’re never gonna change a thing / And the situation’s rapidly decreasing’
The Jam, ‘Sounds From The Street’, 1977.

Part Two Here

Read 11201 times Last modified on Thursday, 19 November 2020 12:43
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Peter Jachimiak

Peter Jachimiak

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