Magazine article The Spectator

Shazzas Rude Boys

Magazine article The Spectator

Shazzas Rude Boys

Article excerpt

TO join my gang, supplicants had to face a gruesome rite of initiation. Francis, a huge simpleton who acted as our enforcer, would clamp petitioners' bony arms, hoist them trembling into the air and plunge their clenched faces into the dankest, ripest nettle bank St George's rec could offer. If this ordeal was endured for the count of ten without whimper or wriggle, we had another 'ganger'. If not, my north Liverpool primary school gained another victim.

But those are far-off days, when boys wore short trousers until they were 14 and belonged to houses called Tudor, Stuart, Lancaster and York, and playgrounds were simple places of guileless brutality and hulahoop crazes. Forty years on, and Tony Blair's bog-standard comprehensive has become a Byzantine court of competing power groups and tribal loyalties, fragile hierarchies and social ceremony, subtle gradations of status and exquisite sensibility to imagined slights and unwitting solecisms. (Kathryn Blair and my daughter both attend Sacred Heart in west London, and I have used the school as the model for this article.)

`Up to the Sixties, schoolyards might have had "A-lists" of friends, to which other people were "satellites",' says Dr Terri Apter, a social psychologist at Newnham College, Cambridge, and author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls' Friendships. `In the Seventies, with increasing diversity, difference and choosing not to conform were perceived to be cool.' Dr Apter says that most modern children start to join gangs or `friendship groups' at eight or nine, and will remain in them until adulthood. `Groups form because children feel more secure in them, and once a school has an environment of groups, they don't feel comfortable unless they belong. Teenagers look to each other for endorsements, and groups use fashion and musical tastes to make statements about identity.'

The new gangs, it seems, are essentially consumer-based, and members are extremely sensitive to the nuances that distinguish them: `It can be very important that one shirt button is undone, and not two.' Children who offend against the group will be punished by expulsion, but Dr Apter says that loyalties are rarely voluntarily transferred. `Change between groups is very violent. It happens only if a child wants to change identity, and is usually caused by depression or general unhappiness.' Despite an apparently infinite variety of music and style, there are perhaps six discrete gangs that attract this sort of tenacious allegiance.

Shazzas: these are the wolf packs, ferocious and spectacularly foul-mouthed girl gangs composed of poor whites from council estates. Permanently on the brink of rage, the Shazza terrorises other students with physical and verbal abuse, cheerfully extorting cash and 'borrowing' mobile phones. Characterised by thickly gelled hair scraped tightly into a bun, the Shazza typically spends 250 on her uniform of shiny Adidas trousers, Gap jumper, logo trainers, denim jacket and lots of gold-hooped earrings. A wannabe black, she speaks an 'innit' patois: `Yes, yes, blood?' translates as `how are you?', `crutching in me drum' as `sitting around at home', and 'bo' as excellent. The Shazza listens to garage music, especially Pied Piper, DJ Luck and MC Neat. Virtually unteachable, she welcomes confrontation with authority and is effectively beyond the reach of school discipline.

Townies: allied to the Shazzas but not as numerous, Townies belong to a higher social class. …

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