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Response to Review no. 735

I am grateful to Ian Jones for his thoughtful and kind review of my new book, Youth Culture in Modern Britain, c.1920–c.1970: From Ivory Tower to Global Movement-A New History. Who, after all, can be anything but delighted that an assiduous reviewer concludes a review with the words ‘the book constitutes a “must read” for anyone approaching the history of youth in 20th-century Britain, and indeed any historian trying to write a general account of British society in the period.’ The purpose of my book, based on several years of archival research in British and Northern Irish archives, is to point towards a fundamental revision of the chronology and development of youth culture as a creative force, youth as agents and not as objects, in 20th-century Britain. It takes issue with the conventional wisdom that the 1950s and 1960s are the key decades and neither Jones nor any other historian, even the excellent narrative historian of post-war Britain, Dominic Sandbrook, has challenged my central thesis that the inter-war years are the critical decades in the emergence of new forms of youth culture – namely, new youth lifestyles rooted in consumerism on the one hand and, on the other, the far more intriguing elite youth experiments in ‘new ways of living’; a phenomenon we usually associate with the countercultural youth communities of the 1960s. Contrary to what Jones says, in a section of his review which is semantic quibbling rather than critical intellectual engagement, I clearly identify in the Introduction these two enduring strands in 20th-century youth culture that my study then goes on to explore for the period 1920–c.1970; a period which does see the emergence, development and fragmentation of youth culture as a creative force from its emergence in the universities in the early 1920s, through Beatlemania in the early 1960s and the Mod era of 1962–7, down to the dying days of the British student protest movement around 1970. Of course I realise that youth culture might also embrace such notions as ‘what youth did’, and ‘youth culture as a recognisable cultural milieu distinct from those of childhood and adulthood’ and ‘youth culture as a set of attitudes or behaviours mainly characteristic of the young’; but these attempts by the reviewer to offer a ‘sharper definition’ of youth culture in fact sound far too vague to take seriously. Moreover, they are rooted in psychological and sociological definitions of youth culture and there is enough obfuscation in the sociological literature on 20th-century youth culture as it is, without an empirical historian such as myself adding to it. I do not accept Jones’ rather ahistorical attempts to identify four definitions of youth culture. I prefer my two and believe these are systematically dealt with in my book, though I am perhaps less concerned in this book with working-class youth lifestyles than with middle-class and working-class youth experiments in new ways of living. However, I have written a monograph on young wage-earners’ lifestyles in inter-war Britain some years ago, and I hope Dr Jones might consult it.

I think Dr Jones raises some interesting questions for future researchers (myself included), such as how far were the student cultures at the LSE and Cambridge during the 1960s part of a wider cultural movement of British students. I am currently writing a new book on University Dons, Student Cultures and the Global 1960s which will engage with this vital question. Yes, I could have written another chapter on the 1940s and 1950s, and the Teddy Boy cult absolutely fascinates me and is only touched upon in my book. But I was asked to remove a chapter and this is the period that was removed from the final manuscript because, though interesting in itself, it did not add much to my central thesis; that is, using the inter-war decades and the 1960s to challenge the existing historiography on 20th-century youth culture. I end this response with Paul McCartney’s retort to a journalist who politely enquired that the Beatles’ White Album, a double-album, could easily have been trimmed (in this case my extensive scholarly apparatus) and refashioned into a single piece of vinyl. McCartney thought about it for about ten seconds, before responding: ‘Look, it’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album. Shut up!’

Of course, I am not claiming to have written the definitive book on 20th-century youth culture and I am already at work on a follow-up volume that covers the period since 1970; but I have tried to rethink the history of modern British youth culture, and reposition its chronology and texture, and if the main virtue of this volume is that it is innovative and challenging then the book has at least that in common with the White Album.