According to the popular media, until recently everyone in society was perfectly well behaved. But all of a sudden, every young person in the country has turned into a criminal, society is rotting and its the end of life as we know it.
You could be forgiven for thinking that if you only read the Sun, and especially if you’ve got no idea what happened in the past. Crime is not a modern thing. Anti-social behaviour is not a modern thing. It just looks slightly different dressed in modern clothes. I’ve studied crime at University and it is a fascinating subject. The bad things people do to each other can be a real eye-opener, its one of those subjects that lets you peer into peoples souls.
All through time, every generation has looked on the one following it, and thought ‘shit, the youth of today, we’re in trouble’. The generation before them thought the same about them. In Roman times one famous philosopher, whose name escapes me, wrote about his fears that young Romans were spending too much time having fun and drinking wine, and that it would cause the collapse of the Roman Empire. Thousands of years later, we don’t remember the Romans for being drunken yobs, rather as philosophers, epic warriors, architects and engineers.
There are plenty of records out there that show crime is by no means a modern phenomenon. The Old Bailey’s proceedings from 1674-1913 are avilable to search online, and fascinating reading they make. In 1675 we read that “J. D. a little boy about 14 years of age, for murthering a Citizen and Silkman in Milk-street , which he confessed: Young in years but old in wickedness: yet had he been older he could not have been more sensible of his fact, nor more apprehensive”. Despite weeping uncontrollably in the dock, the 14 year old was put to death. This is just one case among thousands.
We see the same in Portsmouth too. Some years ago the records of the Seventeenth Century Portsmouth Quarter Sessions were catalogued in a fascinating volume, which is full of cases of people abusing the Mayor, using illegal scales, fornication, and popery. What is striking, both in the Old Bailey and in Portsmouth, is that crime against propery is seen as just as serious, and often more serious, than violent crime against a person. Why? Well, property of the main things that demonstrates a persons class. For one person to steal something from someone else, it must be a challenge against the class system. On the other hand, who is to worry if one poor person kills another? In any case, life was more expendable back in time than it is to us now. And during the second world war the Government hushed up reports of looting in bombed out areas. The stereotypical view of blitzed brits singing ‘roll out the barrell’ airbrush out any mention of looting or panic.
But back to the theme of young people. Read Charles Dickens, and the characters jump right out of the pages. Dickens books arent just stories, but commentaries on the world he lived in. In Oliver Twist in particular, we see that youth crime is not a new thing at all. It just wears different clothes depending on the place in time. You could almost teleport the Artful Dodger into 2009, and you could imagine him hotwiring a moped. People have always been worried about crime, and young people. Geoffrey Pearson, in his pivotal book ‘Hooligan: a history of respectable fears’, argues most convincingly that moral panics say more about the respectable classes and their insecurities than they do about young people.
So, are chavs and hoodies a new thing? Of course not. The clothes are different, but the people wearing them and the people fearing them are strikingly similar. In the 1950’s people thought that Elivs and his gyratory danding would lead to moral collapse, and then in the 60’s we had the Beatles. But time and time again, generations prove that actually, they’re not so bad. It isnt just young people who perpetrate crime, just as crime is not a modern thing.