Unordinary People: A celebration of British youth culture

British youth culture over the past 50 years has epitomised rebellion and self-expression. As a new exhibition opens, Charlotte Philby offers a snapshot of the young at heart

Wednesday 04 July 2012 02:07

It is a mild Spring evening in east London. Outside a dingy pub on the Hoxton periphery, a group gathers in preparation for a night of ambitious body-flailing before one of the country's hottest new bands. In the doorway, three middle-aged bouncers survey the young crowd with clear bemusement; their sober crew-cuts and practical footwear in stark contrast to a hive of vertiginous quiffs, Native American-print T-shirts, skin-tight pink jeans, heavy Nordic cardigans and acid-bright animal prints – all unisex.

Between drags of roll-up cigarettes and swigs of bottled cider, those in line gaze coolly ahead, nodding earnestly to the beats spilling from inside the venue. They are so into the music right now. So in the zone. So very serious about where they are and what they're doing. And to the mature observer, they look spectacularly absurd – which is exactly how it should be. They are young and ambitious and this is their moment, not ours. This is the rite of passage of the British teenager, and it must surely be encouraged by those for whom that moment has past.

Let us raise a glass to them then, the has-beens of tomorrow – who, for now at least, hold the torch on our behalf. Let us revel in the memory of what it was to be young and excited. As the Nobel prize-winning poet and essayist, Rabindranath Tagore, observed a whole century before the "official" advent of youth culture: "Age considers; youth ventures".

By way of illustration, the PYMCA library is presenting an exhibition at London's Royal Albert Hall – part of its "reflect" series – celebrating the creativity and resilience of those youngsters who helped shape modern Britain. Unordinary People documents the progression of youth culture from the Sixties to the present day, showcasing a selection of rare and exclusive cultural photography alongside archive video footage and excerpts from essays highlighting history, fashion, music and subcultures from the past 50 years.

According to the photographer and anthropologist Ted Polhemus, who wrote a foreword for the limited edition book which accompanies the exhibition, the journey begins in 1964, at a time when "Paris handed the baton to a new, feisty generation of designers in Swinging London. For women both hair and hem lengths got shorter, colours brighter, fabrics and boots kinkier."

From here, the exhibition explores every imaginable sub-culture, from the punks and the skinheads to the ravers and the hip-hop heads. Cultural commentators from different eras consider the wider political and social implications of each movement. Youth culture was never just about fashion or music or hair, as the photographer Syd Shelton, who documented Rock Against Racism protests in the Seventies, observed: "The significance of the clothes people wore and their body language could not have been underestimated; there was no time for distance, things were happening so fast."

Presenting a spectrum of imagery, from amateur snapshots to otherwise unseen professional portraiture, Unordinary People highlights defining moments in modern British history, taken from those at the forefront of the movements that helped shape this country. For Ted Polhemus, this collection is a momentous celebration of "the stories, the myths, the memories ... memories of the time you were young and you didn't give a fuck, or at least pretended you didn't."

The youth of Britain past and present – shine on you crazy diamonds.

There will be 300 signed, limited edition copies of 'Unordinary People', the book accompanying the exhibition, available at a cost of £50, at London's Royal Albert Hall. The exhibition runs from Tuesday to 24 May

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