Monday, 24 February 2014

Generation X

First 'Library 33' hardback edition, 1964
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking book 'Generation X'. The title is now legend - it would go on to be used by the 1970s UK punk band who cited the original paperback as the source of their name, and, then in 1991, the term re-appeared, this time as the title for Douglas Coupland's 1991 cult novel. A few years later there was even the  'Generation X' Marvel Comic, a spin-off of their popular X-Men series.

The 1964 book of 'Today's Generation Talking About Itself' was published in a 9s 6d hardback by Anthony Gibbs & Phillips Ltd, 33 Beauchamp Place, London SW3, along with the much more familiar 3s 6d paperback under their Tandem imprint. This book is still a vital source of learning about the lives of teenagers in a Britain still a few years away from 'Swinging' - but it was already deemed out of date, and out of print, by the time the rapidly evolving '60s came to an end.

The cover was designed by Creative Associates Ltd, with classic pop art-style quotes from newspaper headlines with (mostly negative) press about the nation's teenagers. It was exactly this kind of crude journalism that made this book so necessary - and within lies a remarkable range of interviews with teenagers from up and down the country - the first Generation X.

US Edition, Fawcett Gold Medal Books, 1964


The first ‘Generation X’

“You’d really hate an adult to understand you. That’s the only thing you’ve got over them - the fact that you can mystify and worry them”

“I think old people are ridiculous. So phoney, everything they do is false. I’m rude to my mum and ignore my dad, and that’s how it should be” 

“My life will probably be quite futile. Most lives are. But then the general prospects for the future are not too bright, are they? The human race seems to have made a right old mess of things hasn’t it?”

“Security can be a killer, and corrode your mind and soul. But I wish I had it”  

Fifty years ago the paperback ‘Generation X’ hit the bookstands. Its aim was clearly set out in the first lines of the foreword:  “to get young people talking about their hates and hopes and fears”. What did they feel about marriage, politics, religion, sex, violence, responsibility, or anything else they wanted to talk about?

Back in 1964, a great deal was being written about the nation’s youth, but almost nothing by them. They were not the first generation to be dubbed ‘teenagers’, but just like the Teddy Boys, Cosh Boys or the Juvenile Delinquents of the ’50s, here were the young being labelled or denounced by their elders with typical headlines hell bent on tarnishing a generation as “Immature, Irresponsible...No regard for Law” - mostly in response to the seafront clashes at Margate or Clacton between the Mods and the Rockers. Generation X offered up a timely response with a collection of interviews with the nation’s youth, offering up a rare insight into the voices that made a generation tick. A concept became an unexpected overnight success for its publisher Tandem Books, and significantly, packaged in a classic pop art cover with that punchy title - which has since been reinvented again and again over the past five decades...

Danish hardback edition, Samlerens Forlag, Copenhagen, 1964

There’s no doubt that Generation X is a quintessential 1960s icon. Its teenage interviewees, post-war baby boomers who have grown up in a landscape of increasing wealth and materialism, speak candidly about their distrust of politicians, their discovery of the birth control pill and their fear of a Third World War. The backdrop is a soundtrack of Beatles-style beat, or the rhythms of Blue Beat fresh from Jamaica, easy-to-come-by jobs, modern jazz and ‘continental’ films. But what makes this book so intriguing is just how it came about. Neither a formal academic study nor a product of a marketing study – Generation X was the end-result of a complete accident.

In 1963, Jane Deverson, then a 23 year old reporter for Woman’s Own magazine, was commissioned to write a feature about the nation’s youth. She travelled around Britain to interview young people in coffee bars, youth clubs, at home - but the material Deverson collected was not considered appropriate for the conservative pages of Women’s Own. Deverson, whose father Harry, was the Picture editor of Picture Post Magazine (it had folded in 1957, but Post’s famous picture stories of ordinary people at work and play were legend), was certain that she had collected something special which shouldn’t be simply consigned to the dustbin. An agent friend arranged a meeting with journalist Charles Hamblett - twenty years older than Jane Deverson, but passionate about the writings of the Beat Generation, and fresh off the plane from Hollywood having penned books about youth icons like Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. They agreed to continue the work Deverson had begun. An inspirational meeting in Dublin with the playwright Brendan Behan cemented the pact. Behan told them:

“You’ll find they have nothing to say except for a lot of old talk. Still, it’s better for them to say nothing out of their own mouths than to have a lot of old ‘unprintables’ passing judgments on them without knowing what they’re talking about”

As well as adding further interviews and soliciting poems and letters from teenagers up and down the country, Hamblett added another vital ingredient - and that was the title itself, ‘Generation X’. Looking back after half a century, Jane Deverson believes “it was partly ‘X’ as in the unknown - teenagers were a mystery, it was also so shocking at the time, because it was like an ‘X’ film - because no one had up to then asked them what they thought”.

 “Marriage is the only thing that really scares me...”
“Religion is for old people who have given up living...”
“I’d prefer to do something for the good of humanity...”
“you want to hit back at all the old geezers who tell us what to do...”
...Quotes from Generation X

Deverson raises an intriguing point. For me, Generation X was a breakthrough for this very reason, but ever since I discovered a copy of the 1964 book languishing in a charity shop some thirty years ago, I’ve always wondered whether Hamblett and Deverson were indeed the first to gather the words and feelings of the nation’s teenagers. It appears that there were previous attempts...

In fact during the 1930s, the BBC began to recognise the importance of hearing what young people are thinking. Children’s Hour had been established in the earliest days of radio broadcasting in the early 1920s, but a push to broadcast talks “suitable for adolescents” gave birth to series like ‘the Under Twenty Club’, and then the remarkable ‘To Start You Talking’ in 1943 (whose wonderful audio was uncovered in the BBC Archive during my research) .

These projects can be seen as the youth broadcasting versions of the kinds of work being that have been undertaken in the Youth Clubs Movement, and Mass Observation, a survey of everyday lives of ordinary people which had been founded in 1937. Each episode of ‘To Start You Talking’ opens up with a short drama performed by the BBC’s Schools Repertory Company. Each story like “Scrounging and Stealing”, “Wilful Damage” or “All out for a Good Time”, re-enact the real words of young people overheard talking in cafes, clubs or at the workplace. The idea was literally to start the young guests talking - ordinary teenagers (that term wouldn’t be used until after the War) who had been selected to take part as representatives of the nation’s youth clubs. ‘To Start You Talking’ was on a mission. Apart from just recording the social attitudes of the young about startlingly edgy subjects for the BBC to be covering in wartime such as sex education and picking up girls in the street, it oozed with the moral concerns over daily life on the Home Front - from latch key kids on the prowl to the scourge of Venereal Disease.

Fast forward just twenty years, Britain was getting ready to ‘Swing’, when the Generation X’ers were first coined. Today, they are 65 years plus with grandchildren, teenage grandchildren even. 

“There’s too much jealousy over teenagers, and it stems from the old people. They hate our guts. Only they can’t intimidate us the way they did in the past” Tony, age 16, Liverpool

“Life is short. We’re here to try and be happy, and to give happiness to others. The most important thing in life is to feel wanted” Maureen age 16, Essex

“The Bomb – we are going to have some fool using the bomb, so I think we should get rid of our own bomb. It should be banned from the world”. Michael, age 16, London

Tandem Books, UK paperback, 1964


When Jane Deverson encountered Tony M at the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool, he was then 16 years old, and talked about girls, fast cars and how “adults hate our guts”. Today Tony works as engineer in Merseyside - lifts and escalators are his speciality. He’s embarrassed to be confronted by his truculent teenage words, but is clearly teary-eyed about the “magical music” he grew up with. Michael J, has recently retired as a solicitor in the City of London. He vividly recalls Jane Deverson interviewing him in his sister’s bedroom when he was a 15 year old idealistic public schoolboy who wanted to “get rid of the bomb” and become a Labour MP when he was “about 40”. He never entered Parliament, but he’s still passionate about politics - but admits that he has moved “a bit to the right” since those days. Essex-born actress Maureen S is described in the book as “exceptionally beautiful...she lives on a housing estate and is one of thousands...” She was sixteen at the time, and unlike many of the other teens in the book, she adored her parents and was convinced that “The most important thing in life is to feel wanted”. Looking back, she felt immortal as a clothes-obsessed 'Mod', and that her beauty and her teenage would last forever. The biggest shock for her adult-self was to discover that youth doesn't last forever.

Generation X was already a relic of a past age, and out of print by the end of the swiftly changing 1960s. Nowadays, the term Generation X is more associated with the title of the 1991 novel by the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland, which kick-started a label for a new trend of counter-cultural drifting twenty something Gen X’ers. I’ve never nailed firm evidence of the term Generation X being used even before the 1964 book. Coincidentally though, I’ve recently discovered that Jane Deverson’s own father had edited the photographs of a special edition of ‘Picture Post’ magazine in 1953 entitled ‘The Queen’s Generation’. It was an issue dedicated to hearing about the lives of ‘young people in a changing world’ in the Coronation Year of the 25 year old Queen Elizabeth II.

The story had been imported from Holiday magazine in the USA, and based around a photo essay provisionally entitled ‘Generation X’ by the great Hungarian-American photographer Robert Capa which had been promoted in their December 1952 edition. In the end, neither the full articles in Holiday nor Picture Post published in 1953 refer back to the ‘Generation X’ idea. So I still believe that the term 'Generation X' is Charles Hamblett's - until we can discover a far more concrete and well-developed use of 'Generation X' than that attributed to Robert Capa back in 1952. 

But as I flick through the fifty year old pages of ‘Generation X’, it feels like nowadays youth culture has been well absorbed into all areas of society, and that we’ve never stopped hearing what young people think. So is there still a need to produce books like Generation X?  What is clear to Jane Deverson, now 73 years old, “...is just how vitally important it is, to give understanding between the generations. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves, and as well as learning from them, they may learn something from adults, and actually we have a lot in common”.


September 2014:

Unfortunately I am updating this piece with the very sad news that Jane Deverson passed away last month following a long illness.

My sincerest condolences to her family.



Please tune in to 'The First Generation X' 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03wgt9r


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