Dis/connected, by Nick Barham

The terrible truth about teenagers
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The Independent Culture

This is a truly shocking book, but not for the reasons suggested by the subtitle: "why our kids are turning their backs on everything we thought we knew". Nick Barham, an ad-agency worker, took a year away from his desk to sniff his way through British youth culture and retrieve some authentic voices. Along the way, he speaks to representatives of the tribe - graffiti artists, boy racers and rappers - and reprints many of those interviews.

This is a truly shocking book, but not for the reasons suggested by the subtitle: "why our kids are turning their backs on everything we thought we knew". Nick Barham, an ad-agency worker, took a year away from his desk to sniff his way through British youth culture and retrieve some authentic voices. Along the way, he speaks to representatives of the tribe - graffiti artists, boy racers and rappers - and reprints many of those interviews.

The young people he encounters are staring at video games, futtering about with gadgets, and decorating their bodies with tattoos and nose-rings.

Many of Britain's teenagers, Barham discovers, have a healthy attitude to exploring their own and each other's bodies. Many others enjoy drugs at the weekend without falling into a life of misery and dependency. The vast majority don't give a fig for politics.

All this is good stuff, but hardly earth-shattering. There is, however, the occasional flash of insight. "To suggest that any lyricist who raps about guns is a killer," says Barham in passing, "seems as ridiculous as saying any novelist who writes about drugs is a junkie."

For all their talk about listening to young people, he points out, the government's most potent youth initiative has been to criminalise them with antisocial behaviour orders.

The structural problem with his story, however, is that Barham is so concerned to give young people a voice that they end up looking silly. Much of the text is cluttered with half-literate conversations about nothing in particular.

The suspicion is that Barham has committed the cardinal sin of the researcher and empathised too much with his subjects. When he compares the sickly, gruesome lyrics of a heavy-metal band to great art, he moves wildly above his intellectual station. "It is", he opines, "an attitude reminiscent of Romantic poets, dour Russian novelists or downbeat Russian philosophers, who feel they are too sensitive for such a coarse world." Or probably not.

Barham's prurience at least has a purpose: the better he gets to know young people, the more stuff his ad agency can sell them. But his book is the research equivalent of graffiti, a pop-up guide fit only for the consumption of teenagers themselves and the agencies who need to know about them. The terrible truth he never considers is that teenagers are never happier than when disconnected and disaffected.

It is not their alienation from society which should worry us, but our determination to cuddle up to them for our own reasons. And that, for all his chumminess with the kids, makes Barham part of the problem rather than a guru of the solution.

The reviewer is director of talks at the ICA

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