The Politics of Boredom (again)
T.R Fyvel’s The Insecure Offenders- Rebellious Youth in the Welfare State (picked up for the princely sum of 2 quid) is a blue pelican paperback in which the Tribune editor worries manfully about disgruntled youth in the early 1960s, and principally on its most dandified and violent form- the prototype of all Brit youth cults, the Teddy boys. This does involve some moments of inadvertent hilarity- the inability of the 21st century reader to not raise an eyebrow when Fyvel describes visiting teds’ caffs with a ‘young companion’. The book though is a fascinating resource both in the pheomena that were just being ushered in at the time (consumerism, violent crime, the breakdown of politicised working class communities) it’s equally interesting in what stops there and goes no further. Without the class warrior axe to grind of say, Richard Hoggart, it provides a rather seductive picture of caff society in the late 50s and early 60s.
The book begins with a view from Fyvel’s flat as he surveys the failure of local councils to sustain the utopianism of architects in favour of shabby asphalt slabs, what Constant Niewhuys and Guy Debord described as ‘cemeteries of reinforced concrete, in which the great mass of the population are condemned to die of boredom’. Their proposal was of course the technoid indeterminacy and communistic urbanism of New Babylon. The Fyvel book suggests another alternate Modern, that of the caff and of style. The caff culture he describes is in deliberate opposition to pubs, with their Victorian frosted glass, beery apathy, dismal sentimentalism, wood and ornament, and based on an obsession with cinema rather than ‘boring’ telly with its adverts and mundanity. Fyvel interviews ‘one precocious little ruffian’ who has this to say- ‘all those advertisments are something horrible. You see a bloke with a gun going to shoot somebody, and next thing you get ‘OMO adds brightness’, and when it starts again you see the police are already in the room.’
The caff would have ultra-modern décor, sell milk and coffee (and presumably if you were lucky, ‘milk plus’) and be the scene for the comparison of vertiginous hairstyles, brothel creepers and so forth. Much is made of the effeminacy of the youth, quoting the reply of ‘well the girls dress up so why shouldn’t we?’ It would be open all night, have a room at the back for dancing- demotic modernist spaces free of the pull of bovine English habits of work and ‘play’. Fyvel, rather sweetly, seems to like the caffs. The formica might offend his sensibilites, but it keeps the kids off the streets.
Obviously the spaces suggested here are impossible to find now, given the choice between pub and ersatz ‘third place.’ Finding remnants of the culture described here is a fun if often rather dispiriting game, best aided by Adrian Maddox’s lists. For one thing everything seems to shut around 4pm, which isn’t conducive to glamour. What intrigues is the futurist pull of all these artificial materials, the vitrolite and fake wood, plastic tiles like Mondrian mosaics, contrasted with the air of torpor- grime, heavy food, stale fag smoke- an aesthetic usually united in the face of the caff proprietor; particularly if female and hovering around 60, with the pinkest of pink lipstick and huge yellow hair. In this sense a place like the Golden Fish on Farringdon Rd (above) evokes nothing other than the Chestnut Tree café in Nineteen Eighty Four, its 20s décor offset by a huge television blaring out Sky News.