Badfellas: crime, tradition and new masculinities, by Simon Winlow

The academic who got a kick out of sociology
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The Independent Culture

BACK IN the Seventies, it was difficult to find a sociologist working in the area of deviance who was not involved in participant observation. Academics could be found hanging out on street corners with youth gangs, sitting in squats with drug-users and standing on terraces with hooligans. A former colleague of mine remembers stepping off a late-night train at Waterloo and suddenly hearing a familiar voice issue from what looked like a bundle of old rags on a bench. "Goodnight, Mary," said the voice. The bundle was an old friend from the University of Essex, pursuing research on vagrants.

Even if there was something comic about such infiltration, there was no doubt about the courage shown ­ or about the value of the stories brought back from the margins. I can't, though, think of any other sociologist in this country who has ever travelled quite so dangerous a road in search of a viable thesis as Simon Winlow.

What interested Winlow was the manner in which working-class men in north-east England who had been deprived of traditional occupational ways of asserting virility sought out new careers that allowed them to be properly masculine. He found what he was looking for standing outside the hundreds of clubs that have sprung up to cater for urban youth: the bomber-jacketed army of bouncers. "Bouncing," writes Winlow, "is now a viable career option... for men from lower-class backgrounds who have a good deal of violent potential and large, muscular physiques."

Most of us might have been content to leave it at that. But the intrepid Winlow, armed only with the advantages of a more than adequate physique and a similar background to his subjects, went right ahead and obtained a job on the door of a club. It wasn't long before he was involved in the action.

"A girl taps me on the shoulder and tells me that a fight has broken out in the main bar," he writes. "I rush towards the fight... One man is standing with his back towards the main bar, head down, trading wild punches with a more skilled adversary... I get there first just as the man with his back to the bar catches a punch squarely on the nose and another flush on the mouth. He stops swinging and although he doesn't go down he seems defeated. I grab the victor from behind, swear at him and drag him to the door. Dom [another bouncer] joins me, swears at him, grabs him by the collar and yanks him so hard I lose my grip and he falls to the floor. While he is down another customer kicks him in the ribs."

Episodes like this become routine. But there is nothing at all routine about the dilemmas Winlow faces as an ethnographer. He knows his cover will be blown unless he vigorously embraces the violent subculture around him but decides that he has no alternative but to intervene when a couple of his new mates look as though they are moments away from kicking an antagonist to death. ("My stomach is turning as I say, leave him alone, he's had enough. I can feel Matty looking at me. There is an uncomfortable moment of silence before Chris joins in and tells them to leave him alone.") At other times he is perilously close to being drawn into the protection rackets that form a valuable financial sideline for many doormen.

It's difficult to drag oneself away from the stories that Winlow has to tell about his life as a bouncer. He is so good at upsetting the stereotypical media images of northern gangsters, so adept at capturing the ambience of urban nightlife and the excitement and intrigue surrounding extreme violence, that one finds oneself turning with some reluctance to the chapters that reveal the theoretical significance of his perilous journey.

But he doesn't let us down. His argument, that bouncers with their bulging muscles, broken noses and shaven heads epitomise a new form of working-class masculinity, is as convincing as his final ironic observation ­ that "crime is one of the few traditional trades that still offer an apprenticeship in the post-industrial North-East". This is qualitative sociology at its best: revealing, disturbing, counter-intuitive, and compelling.

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