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

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‘Come in from school / My head buzzing with rules’
Jook, ‘Crazy Kids’, 1974.

The Rat and Rubbish Alley (continued)
With the refuse collectors’ strikes of the autumns of 1970 and 1975, rats were the biggest hazard faced by the troops who had been called in to clear the resulting mountains of putrid detritus. Indeed, smack bang in the middle of these two bouts of industrial action, the much maligned rodent of that decade, ‘the rat’, made a low-key, yet indelible, appearance on the shelves of Britain’s bookshops and newsagents – with the publication of James Herbert’s first novel, The Rats, in 1974. Written, according to Alwyn W. Turner’s Crisis? What Crisis? – Britain in the 1970s (2008), in “a proletarian prose style that combined episodic narrative with an unflinching eye for visceral violence”, The Rats was a highly-popular literary debut, “particularly among secondary schoolchildren, who passed it on from hand to hand with salivating enthusiasm, so that its readership massively out-numbered even its sales figures” (p.44).

Moreover, James Herbert’s follow-up to The Rats was The Lair (1979), and was no longer a damning indictment of the slums of London, but the stark warning that the vermin-derived urban horrors would continue, intensify even, amid the British countryside – or, more precisely, across Epping Forest’s green belt (although, still in all-to-close comfort to London – the very site from which the rats had come). Indeed, as made explicit in James Herbert’s Dark Places – Locations and Legends (1993), the author acknowledged the social reasons as to why the rats had swapped their urban environment for that of the rural: “My idea for the sequel was to have the rats move out from their squalid habitat to the wealthier suburbs, and then into the green belt that adjoins the capital, the idea being that no one was safe … that privilege was no protection” (p.85).

Smash Street and Skiving School
By the late 1970s – at the height of the all-too-tangible social and cultural crisis that had become known as ‘Aggro Britain’ (this was The Daily Mirror’s sensationalist headline of the 4th of June, 1973) – there were some (mainly Marxist sociologists) that were beginning to listen to, and sympathise with, working-class youths, and what they had to say about education and schooling in relation to the lack of opportunities in their lives. Paul Willis, in Learning to Labour – How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (1977), conducted a study of ‘the Hammertown Boys’, whom he termed ‘the Lads’. In constant conflict with the stifling authority in their lives that was education and schooling, they defined themselves through their opposition to both teachers and the ‘Ear ’Oles’ – with the Ear ’Oles, according to the Lads, being unmanly weaklings who had allowed themselves to become teachers’ pawns in the hierarchy that was the classroom. As, unlike the Ear ’Oles, the Lads spent their time ‘dossing’, ‘blagging’, ‘wagging’, and ‘having a laff’, and yearning for the day that they could leave school, get a job and earn money.

Meanwhile, Paul Corrigan’s Schooling the Smash Street Kids (1979), made more than explicit that, for the pupils that he spoke to (of both ‘Municipal Comprehensive School’ and ‘Cunningham Secondary School’), education and schooling was nothing more than an ‘imposition’ that should be, at worse, endured and, at best, avoided. Vitally, Corrigan (as a true Marxist) described the schoolchildren, in relation to the ‘imposition’ that was their nominal engagement with education and schooling, as being in a “guerilla struggle” (p.70), insisting that “teachers and pupils in secondary schools at the moment will recognize this analogy as a day-to-day reality” (p.71). Well, that being the case come the end of the 1970s, a favourite ‘guerilla tactic’ of these schoolchildren – in their desperate attempts to rid themselves of the imposition of education and schooling – was truancy. For the pupils that Corrigan spoke to, truancy – or ‘dolling off’ – was the very consequence of schooling being compulsory. As Corrigan makes clear, “it may seem farcical but it did appear that school might not be so bad if you did not HAVE to go. Therefore having to go to school – in effect the reverse of truancy, but also its major cause – was where the boys started off their everyday school experiences” (p.18).

Grange Hill and Chaotic Comps
The BBC’s Grange Hill was first broadcast in the 8th of February, 1978. The title of the programme being the name of the institutional-like comprehensive school within which this ‘gritty’, late-afternoon children’s drama series was mainly set. According to Alistair D. McGown and Mark J. Docherty’s The Hill and Beyond – Children’s Television Drama – An Encyclopedia (2003), the series’ writer, Phil Redmond, paid particular attention – across the opening scene of the series’ inaugural episode – to the, at times, sheer bewilderment of the ‘first formers’ arrival at Grange Hill, whereby he “constructed almost the first full ten minutes of episode one to sketch in the backgrounds of the pupils making their way to Grange Hill for the first time” (p.113). So, following a lone black pupil (Benny Green, played by Terry Sue-Patt) hesitantly walking through the school’s just unlocked gates, carrying a football, it is with such ‘first formers’ that, thereafter, the first season of Grange Hill is wholly concerned. Furthermore, offering its young viewers the collective experiences’ of fictitious 1st-year pupils as they start comprehensive schooling in such a realistic manner, and it all being first screened in 1978, it is no wonder that this particular series of Grange Hill resonated so much with those who went to such a ‘comp’ during the arse-end of the 1970s.

The comprehensive school system – as graphically portrayed in Grange Hill – was a controversial educational institution. For, come the mid-1970s, the majority of the local authorities in England, and all of them in Scotland and Wales, had ‘gone comprehensive’. In their book 1970s Britain (2012), Janet and John Shepherd note that, by the middle of the decade, the majority of LEAs (Local Education Authorities) had embraced non-selective comprehensive education, whereby grammar schools merged with secondary moderns, to such an extent that “the national move towards comprehensive education had progressed too far to be halted” (p.64). In relation to this ‘unstoppable tide’ of educational progress, and its consequential creation of mega-schools (that is, with regards both size of school and their catchment areas), between the years of 1970 and 1974, the number of kids going to ‘comps’ doubled (that is, to just over 60% of all secondary-school age pupils). Thus, it was the sheer number of children attending such immense educational institutions that many critics blamed for the unruliness that was perceived to take place at every new ‘comp’ during the 1970s. As a ‘fly on the wall’ Panorama programme of 1977, filmed at Ealing’s Faraday High School, shocked adult viewers by, as Shepherd and Shepherd put it, “revealing scenes of chaotic indiscipline” (p.65). '

It was, then, the vastness of the ‘comps’, as oversized educational institutions, which resulted in the comprehensive system’s inherent problems – problems which were, by the mid-1970s, being reflected in cultural texts of the time. As the state system went from secondary moderns to comprehensives, youth media forms (comics and television in particular) were to adopt, certainly by the late 1970s, a nastier, more explicit edge in their representation of, what was for many, the ‘no future’ of education and schooling. Thus, in 1978, Grange Hill was very much a prime example of this mediated trend. As, for Grange Hill to appear on television screens in 1978, whereby unruly school-kids were openly encouraged to swear on national television (well, they said “Flippin’ ’eck!” a lot), was antagonistic in itself, but for it all to be located in a modern, multi-ethnic, mixed-ability ‘comp’ was perceived to be tantamount to an incitement to riot. In fact, according to Ken Jones and Hannah Davies, in their work ‘Keeping It Real: Grange Hill and the Representation of “the Child’s World” in Children’s Television Drama’ (2002), “to make a programme based in a largely working-class London comprehensive school was thus from the beginning to court controversy” (p.146).

70s Aggro Britain and The Rule of Kids?
Controversy, in relation to the youth of Aggro Britain of the 1970s, was also to be found in a violent comic-strip that was very much a product of that violent decade – namely, Action’s ‘Kids Rule OK!’ (1976). Martin Barker, in his book Comics – Ideology, Power and the Critics (1989), explained that Action’s editorial team were, from the off, committed to producing a ‘realistic’ children’s comic that “had to be up-to-date, a comic of its time” (p.19). In fact, provisional, alternative titles mooted for the comic – which very much resonated with the Bovver Boys of Aggro Britain – included the brand-touting Dr Martens and the far more spartan (and the ‘kick in the balls’) Boots. However, even with the rather more restrained Action being ultimately chosen, the comic was launched on the 14th of February 1976, and it, from the outset, offered itself as a street-wise weekly comic that contained ultra-violent strips that often laid bare the lawless nature of 1970s youth (albeit in a ‘near future’ format). Thus, ‘Kid Rule OK!’ was to eventually provoke both a tabloid backlash and a House of Commons’ debate, all resulting in the comic being taken off the newsagents’ shelves in December 1976. So, it is to ‘Kids Rule OK!’ – and its incorporation of graffiti within its comic-strip format – that we now, finally, turn.

Set in a not-too-distant future, then, where a virus has wiped out almost the entire adult population (the so-called ‘Oldies’), the initial instalment, depicting two tear-away youths (one holding down an Oldie, whilst the other boots him in the face), menacingly warned that, whilst adults were now almost extinct, “the kids remained – roaming freely in gangs in a world where there were suddenly no more rules or petty restrictions. Kids like the Malvern Road Mob of North London”. All-the-while, across a brick wall which formed an urban backdrop to this act of random ultra-violence, is the comic-strip’s title in the form of dripped-paint graffiti. Thus, at the start of each week’s instalment thereafter, its title was in the form of such paint-tin graffiti upon a stretch of brick wall. And, with the previous week’s synopsis appearing as a peeling fly poster upon that wall, there also stood (just in front, at the base of the wall), a drip-festooned paint pot, with the handle of a discarded brush protruding from its open top. No wonder, then, that Action was, at the time, termed by The Sun as ‘The Sevenpenny Nightmare’ (the 30th of April, 1976) and its readers, by The Daily Mail, as ‘Comic Strip Hooligans’ (the 17th of September, 1976). So, for those of us who grew up throughout the Aggro Britain of the 1970s, this was the tabloid press stereotyping us all as lumpen, graffiti-daubing viscous vandals: Lads, dolling off, who revelled in our self-made social hell of piss-stench bus shelters, out-of-order phone booths, and chaotic ‘comps’. Well, if that was the case, mister, then ‘Up Yours!’.

‘Up here I can see the world / Sometimes it don’t look nice’
The Jam, ‘Life From A Window’, 1977.

This article is dedicated to the memory and life of Terry Sue-Patt, (1964 – 2015).

Part One Here 

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