Francis Gilbert's I'm a Teacher, Get Me out of Here described the author's unpleasant experiences as a secondary-school teacher in the state system in London. His departure from teaching may have suggested that he found the anti-social behaviour seen therein to be repulsive. But it seems things are a little more complex than that. This book, his third covering similar ground, suggests that in uncouth behaviour he finds endless fascination. Gilbert may at first have had gutter values thrust upon him because of his work. Now, he is making a career out of seeking them out.
Gilbert finds yobbery in all the places notorious for such behaviour. Documentary evidence of the worst sort of disinhibited rampage, on troubled estates, in singles-oriented resorts, in party-town city centres, is familiar to us from voyeuristic television shows. Gilbert visits all those spots again, casting a fresh eye over the detritus, and seeing much the same sights as all the previous eyes.
His point of difference - or so he'd have us believe - is that he alone has noted the extent of a more widespread coarsening of the culture. He offers other examples of boorish behaviour in support of his thesis. These days, he reveals, idiotic outbreaks of alcohol-fuelled misbehaviour can be seen among traders in the City and university students. How can he possibly believe that this is news?
The latter example is particularly unfortunate, since surely university students pioneered the practice of meeting en masse to throw down as many cut-price drinks as possible, before staggering home with the spoils of petty pilfering to take part in what might soon be considered statutory date-rape. Far from being the latest victims of yob Britain, students have long been its standard-bearers.
This is a serious difficulty for the book. Gilbert is trying to describe yobbery not as a phenomenon seen only among the socially excluded, but as one that has become endemic throughout Britain's social system, reaching all the way to Downing Street and its Fettes-and-Oxbridge prime minister. Instead, his researches tend to suggest that if anything the problem is that the socially excluded have not been excluded quite enough, and that yobbery has infected upwards from the sink estate to the Volvo estate, and then effortlessly on to the Crown estate.
For example, he interviews a senior medical lecturer who has this to say: "The Asian students now form nearly 50 per cent of our intake... the problem is that these boys are often poorly educated and intellectually impoverished... their manner can be very aggressive and anti-social." Likewise, his investigations into anti-social behaviour in the City lead to stereotypical Essex, where the oikey young traders of urban legend are indeed the worst offenders.
Gilbert claims that his book is "controversial" and that he has written it in a "provocative style". I think he means that he has striven to juxtapose reports of bad behaviour in the rest of the country with reports of bad behaviour in government. Yet what does this really say? That politicians are part of their own culture and as vulnerable to the temper of the times as anyone else? Again, the point is obvious.
What emerges in Yob Nation is a pattern of confusion about behavioural boundaries, a willingness to celebrate poor attitudes rather than challenge them, and an embrace of "lad" culture adopted by women as much as by men, and by the well-off as much as the poor. The didactic attempt to hang it all on Blair, though, merely gets in the way.
Gilbert's achievement is to have gathered together some really insightful observations into the way in which Britons have been seduced into the creepy embrace of many of the least admirable of traits. His failure is to have been too busy worrying about damaging his own "street cred" - in exactly the way he pinpoints as a problem throughout the culture - to have pursued the direction of his own best work.Reuse content