Monday 1 November 2010

Raving About History

Are historians only as old as the people they study? If so, that would make me a spritely young scout of the 1920s, twiddling my woggle in a working-class district of Salford, or a daring female flapper, taking in the ‘talkies’ in a showy yellow raincoat. With my own research, and the upcoming New History Lab of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll, it seems that youth cultures are everywhere I go. What will the present generation of youth look back on in their dotage? Will our children chortle on their space-bikes as we reminisce about the Ipod, or the ascendancy of the internet? Whatever the next trend may be, it will be surprising if it doesn’t involve some frowned-upon marriage of technology and music with the experimental exuberance of the young. Looking back over the twentieth-century these links make a constant appearance: cinema and jazz in the interwar years, the electrification of rock music soon after, or the explosion of the synthesizer and video games in the 1980s.

Such new forms of entertainment almost always caused some degree of outrage, as the righteous morality of civically conditioned youth experiences like school, boy scouts, girl guides, youth and church clubs were compared unfavourably to the independent, rebellious, and frightening world of experimental music, different forms of dancing, and audacious new fashion. Throw in a handful of drugs, or at least the idea that everyone is indulging in drugs, and you have yourself a moral panic. Where is the crisis of youth in the early-twenty-first century? Sporadically mentioned in the media, perhaps it is the world of ‘stoners’ and their video games: ‘Super Mario made me do it, Miss’. Or the inner-city ASBO youth, who isn’t ‘bovvered’. Or maybe, if you believe the statistics, kids are just too fat to rebel anymore?

Of course, some older forms of youth culture still exist, perhaps championed by elder practitioners, but relegated to the fringes of society- or even the fringes of the urban. Take, for example, the raves of the 1980s, with their acid house music, and ecstasy-fuelled all-nighters. Have a summers-night trundle up into Goyt Valley, a scenic part of the Peak District between the small towns of Macclesfield and Buxton, and you might just chance upon a group of hardcore ravers, usually crowded around a sound-system on the mystical ruins of Errwood Hall. The music might be slightly different, as are the clothes and substance of choice, but it could perhaps still be the 1980s: people sharing in a frowned-upon experience, brought together by music and age. Surprisingly, this annual rave is linked to the tradition of the Buxton Wells Dressing – a more fuddy-duddy form of popular culture, with its traditional queens, local floats and flower displays. Yet, without fail, some of those taking in the sight of friends and family in the daytime carnival will then also make the journey up to the hills for something a little bit less ‘family-friendly’.

I suppose what I’m trying to grasp is the idea that movements from eighty years ago share characteristics with the youth cultures of today, no matter how new and exciting they may seem. In the same way that every generation thinks it invented sex, every generation has a tendency to see itself as pioneers in ‘new’ youth culture. But perhaps we are just extensions of our parents own forays into the cultures of their respective parents? Like anybody with a tendency to wistfully look back at that short period of blossoming early adulthood, I am starting to ramble. So after a cup of tea, a go on World of Warcraft, and a bit of ‘nu-rave’ while reflecting on how the present lot of teenagers has got it ALL wrong, I’m going to go looking for drugs, dirty dancing... and perhaps some pounding techno music.

Errwood Hall, or what’s left of it:
A rave in Goyt Valley (may contain flashing images!):