communities

Fish, chips and Eastenders; the motorcycle club as compensation for fragmented communities

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I know, nothing for months and two posts in so many days. I’m clearly trying to make up for being so slack.

So this evening Mrs A and I went to our local fish and chip shop for a sit down meal. Cod, chips, mushy peas and a Sprite please. All very straightforward, tasty stuff. The place that we’ve been going to during our stay in Bromley has a TV in the corner which usually blasts out whatever soap opera is on at that point in the evening. Nothing too remarkable about that and I guess it is a fairly comforting and familiar background for the mostly female clientele there, many of whom dine alone. An unusual phenomenon.

The TV and the solitary diners got me thinking about the popularity of soap operas and the purpose they serve. These programmes tend to focus on a single, small community in a fixed location. Coronation Street, Eastenders’ square, Emmerdale’s farming village, all are established and confined within strict physical boundaries. Characters come and go in them all but all have certain key long term characters that are familiar faces, anchoring the show to a continuity of structure and by implication, of community. Leave a few years between watching episodes of a particular show and you can bet there’ll be a familiar face when you come back to it: a Ken Barlow, an Ian Beale or suchlike in broadly similar plotlines (an extreme example of Warhol’s opinion that a good film is one you can walk away from for a while, come back, and it not matter). Those characters signify a continuity to life in a smaller community space that is absent in the world in which most of us live: one of long working hours, a relatively transient workforce and expanding urban centres with ever more diverse communities. More people working ever harder and moving around more to earn their pay; household income increases but earners are left time poor. The post-war democratisation of transport had effects that were economically attractive but left us socially depleted. We swapped stable communities for fatter wallets but the craving for those social anchors never went away. The gap is filled in part by the mundane, restricted normality of the soap opera. Not quite “Opium  des Volkes” but not a million miles off.

The soap opera shares its origins with the kitchen sink drama – the portrayal of real, gritty lives in working class urban communities, laid bare for us all to see. Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night Sunday Morning lives a life of reckless abandon borne from the frustrations of his factory job. He gets his pleasure from booze and illicit sex and wants to escape the drudgery. He doesn’t. But where soap operas and kitchen sink dramas differ is that the latter comes out of the frustrations of young working class people wanting to escape their place in life; they’re about dreams and aspiration. Soap operas amplify and dramatise the normal but rely on character templates from the same locations and class positions as the films. They’re peculiarly introverted, the physical constraints of the set focusing the activity of characters on events in the pub, hairdresser or the launderette; their dreams equally confined. Transgressive characters are the least secure, their expulsion always seeming imminent. Their inevitable return is a threat to the community’s stability. The most frustrated characters are often, unsurprisingly, teenagers.

The key social and economic shifts start to happen to a lesser extent before the second world war and to a much greater degree from 1945 onwards. Urban centres reconstruct and expand after the war (with varying success as high rise living is introduced) and we start to see an increase in the use of personal transport. This of course starts with the bicycle a long time before (see also: the old joke about the enriched gene pool it causes) and in the post war period we see huge increase first in motorcycle use and then cars. Take into account the way London and other major cities were reshaped by German bombs during the Blitz and you can easily see how the combination of a changing built environment, a vast expansion of personal transportation and improvements in pay, employment rights and working conditions start to have profound effects on community and the capacity of an individual to find work further from home than public transport previously allowed. Many of my interviewees cited the motorcycle as a means of getting to work that reduced their commuting time, significantly increasing their leisure time. They could also choose from a wider selection of jobs within a wider radius from home, increasing their earning potential. Travelling further gave them more free time & more money to spend in it, often in social spaces a fair distance from home. Quite the opposite of the typical soap opera plotline with the local boozer as the hub of the community.

So give people a set of wheels in a time of almost full employment and they go out and get the better paid jobs. Stretch that over 50 years and the effect is magnified many times over: You might have grown up in the same place as your parents but ended up somewhere very different. If you have kids, chances are they won’t live near you. I started life in Wigan but soon went to school in Bolton. My first job was in Manchester, where I lived for several years after a year or so in Cumbria. From Manchester to London to Kent then back to London and from here, who knows? Technology changes how and where we work, be it a mode of transport or the laptop on which I’m writing this. And as the idea of our domestic location being fixed in perpetuity wanes, so does our sense of community, the comforting emotional ties to those around us. In fragmented communities we seek stability; an anchor to keep us rooted to the physical space we occupy. Stability takes the form of familiar faces, spaces and routines – and the soap opera fills some of those functions. Routines provide the familiarity that allows people to function on autopilot: the same faces on TV, the same drive to work or bus to the office, the same school run, the same supermarket and the identikit high street where people buy the same brand of underwear and those expensive t shirts that all their friends wear, the ones printed with the name of a town in California that means nothing*.

If we accept that the motorcycle is the tool that takes the young teenager away from their community in the 1960s, it’s equally to remember that it is the catalyst for the formation of new youth cultures. The motorcycle facilitates the formation of new social structures as young people, empowered with unprecedented mobility and earnings, come together in places like the 59 Club or the Ace Cafe. These new communities don’t originate from individuals’ geographical proximity but from a love of the machines that provide speed, freedom and access to new and exciting places full of teenagers from far and wide. Freedom is a powerful drug and can have profound, lasting effects; motorcycles changed the lives of my interviewees, all for the better. Lifelong friendships are forged through shared experiences on two wheels and the feeling of a wide open throttle on a big bike stays etched on the mind forever. Several people talked about how “that time” was special. Each interview had a moment when the individual’s eyes lit up as they recollected a specific journey, a particular bike or even just the magical feeling of being a teenager as teenage cultures began. All night cafes, rock’n’roll, fast bikes, leather jackets that scared the old folks and made headlines. Knowing that your best buddies grew up knowing that feeling too is the tie that has bound many together ever since. It must have been wonderful. 

Motorcyclists dreams are different, their horizons further, and they get there faster. Ride safe.

*Hollister is famous for one thing only, and it isn’t “So Cal inspired” t-shirts : it’s the site of an infamous 1947 motorcycle riot in California on which the Brando film The Wild One was based. I’ve no idea who Abercrombie and Fitch are and, even if you own one of their overpriced t-shirts, neither have you. Ralph Lauren? Bet you’ve never watched polo, never mind played it. You’re consuming brands with a fake, constructed and aspirational heritage, buying a stylistic allegiance to a fantastic falsehood. There’s more integrity in a bag of chips. Try harder. Lose the meaningless logos. You’ll feel liberated.

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