Milk Bars, Starbucks and the Uses of Literacy

Abstract The starting point for this article is the passage on ‘The Juke-Box Boys’ in Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. This passage is often cited as evidence of Hoggart’s residual, Leavisite suspicion of mass culture and his nostalgia for more ‘authentic’ working-class culture. This article moves beyond this critique by discussing Hoggart’s account in relation to the broader historical shifts signalled by the development of milk and coffee bars in postwar Britain, and their more recent replacement by corporate fast-food and coffee chains. It argues that Hoggart’s critique was not simply a knee-jerk fear of the new; it fed into more widespread anxieties which long predate the media invention of the ‘teenager’ or the emergence of organized youth subcultures. These anxieties were not simply about mass culture and Americanization, but also about cultural literacy, class, the relationship between the public and private sphere, and the losses and gains of rising affluence – concerns that have been increasingly submerged in post-Thatcherite political culture.


In a famous passage in The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart writes of the ‘juke-box boys’, the young men between the ages of 15 and 20 who ‘spend their evening listening in harshly lighted milk-bars to the “nickelodeons”’. Hoggart sees the milk bar as an example of the pernicious influence of American culture on British working-class youths. These boys are living inside ‘a myth-world compounded of a few simple elements which they take to be those of American life’. They play American hits on the jukebox, affect an ‘American slouch’ and ‘waggle one shoulder or stare, as desperately as Humphrey Bogart, across the tubular chairs’. This is all ‘a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation, a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk’ (Hoggart 1958: 247-8).

Even admirers of The Uses of Literacy found this five-page milk-bar scene condescending. ‘No passage of mine has been more often challenged’, its author later acknowledged (Hoggart 1994: 74). It is often cited in surveys of the evolution of cultural studies, where it is seen as exemplary of Hoggart’s residual, Leavisite suspicion of mass culture and his excessive nostalgia for more ‘authentic’ working-class culture (see Chambers 1986: 204-5; Docker 1994: 58-9l; Strinati 1995: 29-31; Turner 1996: 46-7: Lee 2001: 57-57). This article seeks to locate this passage within a specific historical moment in postwar Britain, in an attempt to flesh out issues which are often missed by this critique – unsurprisingly, since they are not explicitly addressed in the passage itself.

The Uses of Literacy combines scholarly and literary registers in a hybrid form which Hoggart later defined as ‘discursive social writing’ (1994: xv). It brings together an allusive prose style and a diverse evidence base – autobiographical material, quasi-ethnographic research, working-class folklore, social observation – to create a series of emblematic scenes. These scenes, like the milk-bar passage, often draw on the personal experience of the author but seek to show how it ‘reverberates, resonates, with meanings indicative in some way of other people’s experiences also’ (Hoggart 1994: xv). The result is a richly suggestive writing which often deals only implicitly with its particular cultural and historical contexts. One of Hoggart’s key concerns in The Uses of Literacy is to explore the less visible aspects of cultural change through an investigation of the mundane aspects of everyday culture. In this article, I want to follow the logic of this approach by discussing his account of the juke-box boys in relation to the broader historical shifts signalled by the development of milk and coffee bars in postwar Britain, and their more recent replacement by corporate fast-food and coffee chains.

The rise of the milk bar

Although not published until 1957, The Uses of Literacy was written earlier, between 1950 and 1955. Hoggart later revealed that he was inspired to write the milk-bar scene after watching a group of young men while drinking a cup of tea in a milk bar before teaching at a Workers’ Educational Association evening class in Goole in 1950 (1994: 74). This small East Yorkshire port is an unglamorous setting for a passage often seen as inaugurating the academic study of youth subcultures. In 1994, Hoggart described the town in bleak terms:

To a visitor it seemed Chekhovian in its lost air; one could imagine some of the inhabitants so bored that they stood at the town-centre level-crossing to watch the occasional trains go by … the town was dull – itself, its landscape and what it offered; especially to young people at that time. (1994: 74)

Hoggart seeks to rescue the milk-bar scene from an anachronistic reading which associates it more with the book’s date of publication than its time of writing. Most critics of this passage, he suggested, were ‘too young to have known places like the Goole Milk Bar, year of 1950’ (1994: 76).

Hoggart’s juke-box boys are often identified as Teddy boys (see Hebdige 1988: 74), although he does not describe them as such. The ‘New Edwardians’ emerged in South London in 1953 and spread to the provinces a year later (Rock and Cohen 1970: 289, 295), some time after Hoggart’s encounter in the Goole milk bar. His only references to the boys’ clothes are to their ‘drape-suits’ and ‘picture ties’ (1958: 248). There is no mention of other elements of the Ted look – brothel-creepers, velvet jacket collars, drainpipe trousers, lacquered quiffs. Teds wore bootlace or ‘slim-jim’ ties rather than ‘picture ties’; and American-style clothes, including long jackets or ‘drapes’, were popular among British working-class youths during the 1940s, a look influenced by the zoot-suit and gangster fashions worn by wartime GIs (Hopkins 1963: 427; Osgerby 1998: 9).

Although Hoggart makes passing reference to the American influence on ‘their clothes, their hair-styles, their facial expressions’ (1958: 248), he is less concerned with the juke-box boys’ self-display than with the banal public space they occupy: the milk bar. Milk bars pre-dated the formation of postwar British youth culture by some years. Their emergence in Britain in the mid-1930s was partly inspired by the success of the American soda fountain, and the healthy image of milk in the United States ([Times] 1965b). But the milk-bar concept was an Australian innovation, established there successfully in 1932 ([Times] 1935). An Australian, Hugh D. McIntosh, formed a syndicate to found a chain of ‘Black and White’ milk bars in Britain, the first being opened in Fleet Street, London in August 1935 (Maddox 2003: 54). Within a year there were more than 450 milk bars throughout the country ([Times] 1936c). They were enthusiastically promoted by the National Milk Publicity Council, founded in 1920; and the Milk Marketing Board, set up in 1933 ([Times] 1936a).

David Fowler (1995) has shown that a relatively affluent juvenile workforce, with disposable income to spend on an emerging consumer culture, began to form in Britain in the interwar period long before the postwar media invention of the ‘teenager’. The early milk bars, which allowed young people to congregate in a healthy, non-alcoholic setting, seem to have been motivated by both paternalistic concern for and commercial exploitation of this new social group. But the bars avoided effeminate associations with ‘milksops’ by calling themselves ‘bars’ rather than ‘parlours’, and by giving grown-up names like ‘Bootlegger’s punch’ and ‘Goddess’s dream’ to a whole range of milk-based drinks, including malted milk, yeast milk and ‘milk soup’ ([Times] 1936b). Unlike Hoggart’s milk bar, though, these early examples were not designed as places for young people to hang around. They were modelled after the distinctive British pub tradition of counter rather than table service, their main selling point being that there was no need to wait.

Using new kinds of laminates and metal alloys in their interiors and fascias, the milk bars embraced the streamlined, curvilinear design of 1930s America, particularly its factory-built roadside diners (Maddox 2003: 56; Votaloto 1998: 44). As Dick Hebdige argues, Hoggart shared with George Orwell a tendency to associate these streamlined, moulded forms with the ‘industrial barbarism, stylistic incontinence and excess’ of an Americanized modernity (1988: 58, 72). Hoggart’s terminology for the new commercial culture, such as ‘shiny barbarism’, ‘glaring showiness’ and ‘corrupt brightness’ (1958: 193, 247, 340), often elides aesthetic with ethical critique, referring both to the look of this Americanized culture and its moral vacuity. But streamlining in the milk bars was partly a practical question of achieving a hygienic, hard-wearing and easy-to-clean design (Marks 1952: 14). The most popular material was ‘Vitrolite’, a coloured glass which could be easily moulded and backlit, and was used to cover all surfaces that needed to be wiped regularly (Maddox 2003: 56).

These milk bars were part of a growing, American-influenced trend towards standardized mass catering in the interwar period. The labour shortage and subsequent growth of cafeterias in the Second World War also accelerated the movement towards self- and counter-service. During and immediately after the war, the shortage of milk (which was rationed until 1951) meant that milk bars had to branch out into serving light snacks such as sandwiches and pastries (Marks 1952: v). The natural successors to milk bars were the Wimpy Bars, which opened in sections of Lyons Corner Houses from 1954, and which offered American-style refreshment in the form of milkshakes, knickerbocker glories and hamburgers, ‘the square meal in the round bun’ (Hardyment 1995: 77); and the chain of ‘Golden Egg’ cafés founded in the early 1960s. Like the milk bars, the Wimpys and Golden Eggs were brightly lit and colourful to attract the customer in off the street, and were aimed primarily at a young clientele.

From the early 1950s onwards, however, another, quite different phenomenon emerged: the Italian-style espresso bar. This phenomenon had several causes: the large number of Italian immigrants arriving in Clerkenwell and Soho after the war; the importation of Achille Gaggia’s espresso machines from Italy in 1952; and the end of rationing and price controls on coffee in the early 1950s, which transformed it into a luxury commodity which could be sold in high-end environments (Ellis 2004: 225-7). By 1956 there were 400 espresso bars in the capital, with two new ones opening every week (Pendergrast 2001: 219). Contemporary commentators described this new phenomenon as a ‘mushroom growth’ ([Times] 1955) and ‘the greatest social revolution since the laundrette’ ([Architectural Design] 1954). Unlike Hoggart’s milk bar, however, the espresso bar was not seen as a form of American cultural imperialism. In March 1955, the writer Marghanita Laski suggested that the ‘essentially European’ coffee bar was a protest ‘against the corrupted adaptation of an American way of life’, while in January 1956, the broadcaster John Pearson argued that the espresso bar showed that ‘however popular the U.S.A. may once have been with the young, it is no longer fashionable’ (Ellis 2004: 232).

‘Frothy’ or ‘fluffy’ coffee soon became a highly charged symbol of either continental sophistication or metropolitan pretentiousness. In the film The Rebel (1960), Tony Hancock plays a frustrated office clerk with bohemian aspirations, who betrays his petit-bourgeois roots by telling a waitress in a trendy London coffee bar: ‘I don’t want any froth! I want a cup of coffee! I don’t want to wash my clothes in it!’ Cappuccino’s acquired taste functioned as a synecdoche for an older generation’s confusion about cultural change. ‘Once our beer was frothy / But now it’s frothy coffee’ sang Max Bygraves in his 1960 hit, ‘Fings ain’t wot they used t’be’. The espresso bar’s associations with slightly risqué youth culture are captured in films such as Beat Girl (1959), Expresso Bongo (1959) and West Eleven (1963). Soho coffee bars drew on a growing clientele of students from universities, art colleges and design schools (Marwick 1998: 57), as well as young female office and shop workers who were ‘less committed to the traditional male patterns of expenditure on beer and cigarettes’ (Hobsbawm 1994:  328). The bars nurtured a lively subculture of beatniks, mods and would-be existentialists mimicking Colin Wilson, the author of the bestselling The Outsider (1956) who was given various alliterative nicknames including the ‘milk bar messiah’, ‘the coffee bar philosopher’ and the ‘espresso evangelist’ (Maddox 2003: 112; Ellis 2004: 238).

But this subculture was primarily a metropolitan, and more especially a West London, phenomenon. The Teddy boys preferred their own haunts in South and East London. In the provinces, the espresso bar was a more mundane but still popular venue for young people largely deprived of other forms of evening entertainment. By the winter of 1957 there were a thousand of these bars throughout the country (Hopkins 1963: 460). Writing in 1963, one social historian suggested that the espresso bar filled a void in British cultural life, a place to ‘hang out’ which was neither the pub, with its dingy, middle-aged image, nor the establishment club, with its stuffy, snobbish associations:

In a Britain whose furnishings were still largely those inherited from the Victorians, there had been no place for the ordinary non-clubman to sit and talk or sit and stare but the dreary working-class ‘caff’ or the pub where drinking was still perpendicular and the fog-and-fug often impenetrable. The prewar milk bar and the postwar clattering self-service teashop were designed for speed, not leisure. The espresso bar was at least a token acknowledgment of this large gap in Britain’s urban pleasures. (Hopkins 1963: 459-60)

The interior design of the new espresso bars was a key part of their appeal. With their colourful new laminates (mainly Formica and Melamine), leatherette booths and plastic tubular chairs, they had elements of the no-nonsense, wipe-down aesthetic of the older milk bars. But they also brought together Festival of Britain ‘contemporary’ with Italian and Scandinavian style: exposed stone walls, recessed spotlights, bamboo slat screens and matting, avant-garde art prints, bullfighting posters, tropical plants, shells, skulls and masks (Whiteley 1987: 82-3; Osgerby 1998: 41; Ellis 2004: 228-31). Such neo-baroque eclecticism is perhaps reflected in Hoggart’s reference to the ‘nastiness of their modernistic knick-knacks’ (1958: 247), a phrase which suggests a vulgarly chaotic aesthetic rather than the cleaner lines of the earlier milk bars.

Confusingly, the new coffee bars were also sometimes called ‘milk bars’, many of the originals of which survived, now transformed into general snack bars and thus misnamed. It is therefore unclear what sort of establishment Hoggart’s juke-box boys are frequenting. He writes that he is ‘not thinking of those milk-bars which are really quick-service cafes where one may have a meal more quickly than in a café with table-service’. He means the kind of milk-bar which is springing up in northern towns with a population of more than 15,000, and which has become ‘the regular evening rendezvous of some of the young men’ (1958: 248). Since the boys’ main reason for being there is to ‘put copper after copper into the mechanical record-player’ (1958: 248), Hoggart may at least partly be referring to the espresso bars where there was likely to be a jukebox and a dancing area.

From the early 1950s, the British popular music market was increasingly dominated by teenagers (McKibbin 1998: 412), and coffee bars were one of the few places that these young people could hear rock’n’roll. It was only in 1955 that the American jukebox began to be commercially exploited in Britain, when the government relaxed import restrictions on luxury goods. But there was a small, indigenous jukebox industry which developed after 1945 from Blackpool’s amusement machine market, producing small, basic models uninfluenced by American styling (Horn 2002). Hoggart’s jukebox, for which he uses the old-fashioned name ‘nickelodeon’ and which only has ‘about a dozen records … available at any time’ (1958: 248), may be one of these more primitive machines. By the end of 1957, 8000 jukeboxes had been imported from America (Whiteley 1987: 83). With their brash styling derived from the Detroit car industry – tail fins, chrome grilles, windscreens and dashboards – they were usually the most American-looking item in the coffee bars.

Hoggart’s dismissal of the record player as ‘mechanical’ is a reminder that the resistance to Americanized popular culture at this time often focused on the replacement of ‘lived’ experience with mediated, virtual forms. For example, the American and American-style sitcoms and variety shows shown on ITV, the commercial channel which began in 1955, were seen as ‘amount[ing] to an influence far exceeding that received from one or two visits a week to the local cinema. The theatre and the cinema are, after all, fully developed dramatic entertainment that the living-room can never be’ (Manvell 1956). Many commentators were similarly hostile to the jukeboxes because they offered a cheap, synthetic alternative to live dance bands. In the early 1950s, there were still about three million people a week in Britain frequenting halls licensed solely for dancing (McKibbin 1998: 394). Hoggart’s account of the juke-box boys may be partly informed by the imminent collapse of dance band culture in Britain, which had already happened precipitately in America after the Second World War, with the increasing popularity of vocalists and ‘the song qua song’, and the marketing of hit records through jukeboxes and radio disc jockeys (McKibbin 1998: 411). The espresso bars were thus different from the milk bars in that they actively encouraged young people to ‘hang around’ talking and playing records, without necessarily spending much on coffee (Sandbrook 2005: 133). The average waiting time in a Wimpy Bar, by contrast, was 17 minutes (Adams 1956: 20). The coffee bars influenced youth culture in a way that the earlier milk bars never had, because they allowed customers to linger in a thoroughly sensual environment, incorporating the jukebox music, the hissing steam from the Gaggia machine, the colourful décor, and the smell of coffee and boiled milk.

Despite their origins in the Goole milk bar of 1950, Hoggart’s juke-box boys are clearly composites. They seem suspended between the fast-service, anonymous, clinical aesthetic of the earlier milk bars, and the more leisured, eclectic milieu of the later espresso bars. They belong to a moment when youth culture was still in formation, before the serious commercial exploitation of the baby boomers who became teenagers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Americana that they absent-mindedly consume is not the rock’n’roll culture so creatively appropriated by British youth from the late 1950s onwards, but an earlier and less glamorous hybrid influenced by interwar survivals, the GI presence in Britain, and the reliance on US financial aid in the era of postwar austerity.

The milk-bar passage thus predates the concept of the ‘teenager’, a term that only became prevalent in Britain in the late 1950s and which Hoggart does not use. The market researcher Mark Abrams’s influential 1959 study, The Teenage Consumer, noted the rise of distinctive teenage spending patterns, and argued that the lifestyles and fashions of the affluent young were undermining traditional class distinctions (Abrams 1959).  Abrams’s findings were later qualified by studies which showed that working-class youths in this period did not always enjoy more disposable income and leisure time (see Hebdige 1988: 69). Written before the media invention of the ‘teenager’, Hoggart’s milk-bar passage anticipates this uneven development of affluence, and the resilience of class distinctions in the new youth subcultures. True, his juke-box boys have ‘time to spare and some money in the pocket’, but ‘most of them cannot afford a succession of milk-shakes, and make cups of tea serve for an hour or two’ (1958: 249, 248). There is little sense of what the 1960 Albemarle Report on the Youth Service identified as the tendency for teenage spending on clothes and coffee-bar snacks to be ‘charged with an emotional content’ ([Ministry of Education] 1960: 24). In fact, both Abrams and the Albemarle committee stress that Britain has only just begun to create these culture industries satisfying the desire for emotional engagement. Abrams suggests that young people’s consumption of American popular culture may have as much to do with its availability as its inherent glamour, since ‘post-war British society has little experience in providing for prosperous working-class teenagers’ (Abrams 1959: 18). This cultural lag is apparent in Hoggart’s Goole milk bar, where the brashly Americanized décor and background noise sit uneasily with the drabness and boredom of the postwar provinces.

Youth culture, cultural studies and the everyday

We know from Hoggart’s later account that he was actually present in the ‘original’ milk-bar scene. But in The Uses of Literacy he does not acknowledge his presence explicitly. Hoggart’s unwillingness to converse or otherwise engage with the juke-box boys was implicitly challenged by later ethnographic studies, such as Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour (1977), which similarly focuses on the socializing forces of education, work and culture among working-class youths. Willis spent three years with a group of twelve Wolverhampton boys – talking to them, attending their classes at school and following them through their first few months at work – in order to show how they developed a powerful subculture of cynicism which ensured that they entered jobs with limited prospects. When set against this substantial research effort, Hoggart’s work might seem unmethodical, perhaps even voyeuristic in its willingness to pass judgment on the boys from a distance. ‘Better to be an unknown,’ as he writes in a later book, ‘to float through town looking and listening, a would-be observant ghost’ (1994: 189).

But Hoggart’s apparently impressionistic, anecdotal approach needs to be understood within its particular intellectual contexts. His primary concern in The Uses of Literacy is with the commonplace routines and mental habits of quotidian life, which are so taken-for-granted that they rarely form part of a self-conscious attitude or style. In this concern for what might be called the collective unconscious of daily life, he owed much to the subject matter and methodology of Mass-Observation, and in particular the work of Tom Harrisson. Harrisson’s surveys drew on indirect interviews and conversations recorded in pubs, cafes and other places, described as ‘overheards’. He focused on observable behaviour rather than the explicit justifications that people gave for their opinions or actions: ‘This vast area of human activity, to be studied by looking and listening, only secondarily by ASKING, remains excitingly – and rather terrifyingly – unexplored in our own society’ (Harrisson 1961: 19). During the Second World War, the Ministry of Information gave these research methods legitimacy when it commissioned Mass-Observation to observe people going about their daily routines in order to monitor civilian morale.

With the end of the war, however, morale sampling became officially redundant and Harrisson found it hard to get funding for M-O projects. Government bodies and newspapers became more interested in the work of the new opinion polling companies, which provided unambiguous results and good copy on topical issues (Heimann 1997: 242-3). Harrisson lamented this emphasis on ‘scientific’ rather than intuitive approaches:

PUBLIC opinion is what a person will say out loud to anyone. It is only when things have reached this level that they are freely discussed and gain a mass currency, perhaps an ‘upward impact’ of influence. Many things which agitate many minds never reach this level at all. (Harrisson 1961: 18)

As well as sharing Harrisson’s interest in the observation of social trivia, The Uses of Literacy is similarly hostile to the statistical analysis of daily life in the form of opinion sampling and consumer profiling. Hoggart dislikes opinion polls because they ‘elevate the counting of heads into a substitute for judgement’ (1958: 180) and erase questions of cultural literacy. They see ‘public opinion’ as merely the statistical aggregate of numerous private opinions rather than something tested through collective argument and education.

The rise of ‘opinionation’ (1958: 201) as a substitute for analysis and judgment is part of what Hoggart sees as a more generally populist tendency in the media and public life. It is particularly evident in the embattled tone, the ‘well-known cant of “the common man”’, employed by newspaper columnists and leader-writers. For Hoggart, this is ‘a grotesque and dangerous flattery’ (1958: 179) because it substitutes a rhetorically constituted ‘people’ for genuine democratic participation. Indeed, specific versions of ‘the people’, such as affluent working-class voters and electors in marginal constituencies, began to be targeted in the late 1950s by professional pollsters such as the Labour Party’s Mark Abrams, who had first identified the teenage consumer market (Worcester 1991: 25). For Hoggart, the media’s populism imagined social progress within the narrow terms of increasing affluence, rather than the eradication of social inequality or the improvement of cultural literacy. In such a context, the consumer revolution would primarily benefit those with existing reserves of educational and cultural capital – which did not include the juke-box boys.

As founder of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham in 1964, Hoggart helped to legitimize the study of popular culture and youth subcultures in the academy. But the ‘cultural studies’ which later emerged from this centre addressed a different set of political and methodological problems to those considered in The Uses of Literacy. First, it aimed to demystify ‘moral panics’ about youth culture, using insights from the Chicago School’s understanding of deviance, labelling theory, the Gramscian concept of hegemony and the new criminology emerging out of the National Deviancy Conferences beginning in 1968 (Brake 1985: 63-4). Second, it identified youth subcultures as a form of ‘resistance through rituals’, drawing on work in ethnography such as Claude Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage (see Hall and Jefferson 1976). These research methods suited the examination of the more coherent, distinctive subcultures – mods, rockers, bikers, punks – which emerged in Britain after the publication of The Uses of Literacy.

Milk and coffee bars had long been identified as sites of cultural ‘deviance’. In 1952, the Guardian journalist Norman Shrapnel quoted Salford’s medical officer of health, who described them as sinister places where ‘young people flock at night when they ought to be in bed’, and who blamed growing rates of illegitimacy on these ‘snack bars and milk bars of an unsatisfactory type’. After a nighttime visit to these bars, Shrapnel was unconvinced, although he echoed Hoggart in his cultural reference points: ‘You cannot feel that corruption has yet struck deeply here, though one or two of the older boys hold their drinks a shade ponderously, like Humphrey Bogart’ (Shrapnel 1952). One of the first commentators to link milk and coffee bars with violent teenage gangs was Robert Fabian, a retired Scotland Yard Detective-Superintendent who became famous on radio and TV in the 1950s as ‘Fabian of the Yard’. In London After Dark, he wrote that ‘the signs of dissipation, that we used to know, are no longer present in the child hoodlum of today. He does not touch alcohol, preferring milk bars and cups of tea in cafés and coffee-stalls’ (1954: 104). Unlike Hoggart’s juke-box boys, Fabian’s delinquents are distinctively Teds – 15-year-old ‘spivs’ in drapes, thick-soled shoes and coloured socks – who ‘hang around late-night milk bars until they see a drunk’ whom they can assault and rob (1954: 101).

But the popular idea of coffee bars as dens of vice did not really take hold until about 1958, a year after Hoggart’s book appeared. The jukebox became a powerful signifier of juvenile delinquency, not only because it was loud but also because it encouraged people to hang around, apparently doing nothing. In Gillingham in 1959, hundreds of young people did a ‘processional jive’, marching to the municipal buildings to protest against the banning of jukeboxes in coffee bars by magistrates ([Times] 1959b). Many contemporary accounts focused on the mere potential for delinquency inherent in the coffee bar’s sanctioning of inactivity. In December 1958, Birmingham’s Lord Mayor attacked the ‘aimless juvenile café society’ which led young people into crime. ‘I do not think it a proper thing,’ he said, ‘for groups of young people to go into coffee bars and spend hour after hour listening to records, buying cups of tea and coffee and bottles of pop’. In Hoggartian vein, he argued that these youngsters needed to be trained to spend their money wisely, instead of ‘feeding pennies into juke boxes and fruit machines because they had nothing better to do with their spare time’ ([Times] 1958). With the arrival of mods and rockers at seaside resorts in the early 1960s, coffee bars were blamed for attracting ‘scooter gangs’ which would then spill out into the streets ([Times] 1960a). Politicians began referring to ‘milk bar cowboys’ and ‘coffee-bar cowboys’, terms that originated in Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s to describe motorcycle gangs ([Times] 1959a; [Times] 1961). The atmosphere of moral panic surrounding coffee bars is encapsulated in Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), subsequently made into a cult film (1971), in which a group of four young hooligans meet at the ‘Korova Milkbar’ to consume ‘milk plus’, laced with various drugs, in preparation for a night of violence (Burgess 1962/1972: 5).

The coffee bars were culturally potent because they underlined both the perils and pleasures of increased affluence and leisure time among young people. They brought together two competing accounts of youth culture emerging in the 1950s: first, as a social and moral problem which would exercise opinion-formers and policy makers; and second, as a captive market for new forms of mass consumerism. For similar reasons, the subcultures forming around the coffee bars attracted the interest of CCCS researchers who were interested in how young people used their leisure time to resist the oppressive uniformities of consumer society.

This research drew on an ethnographic notion of ritual as semi-formalized, symbolic action. In Paul Willis’s words, the CCCS’s work on youth subcultures identified forms of ‘symbolic creativity’, a ‘grounded aesthetics’ which responded to the dullness and insecurity of dead-end work with the meaning-making of leisure time (1990: 1, 21). The CCCS responded specifically to Hoggart’s work in its accounts of late 1950s ‘Teddy boys’ (although, as noted earlier, it is not clear whether the ‘juke-box boys’ actually are Teds). For Hebdige, the Teddy Boy style should be seen

less as the dull reflex of a group of what Hoggart called “tamed and directionless helots” to a pre-digested set of norms and values than as an attribution of meaning, as an attempt at imposition and control, as a symbolic act of self-removal (Hebdige 1988: 74; see also Jefferson 1976).

Hoggart’s account differs from the CCCS researchers in that he focuses more on the poor facilities offered to the youths than what they themselves make of them. In this sense, his argument has much in common with contemporary accounts which often discussed coffee-bar culture in relation to the lack of public provision of facilities to match the increase in adolescent leisure time (see Fyvel 1963: 67-72; 250-3). Coffee bars partly assumed such cultural importance because of the paucity of other forms of amusement for young people, at a time when the only other late-night haunts were the transport café, the motorway service station and the coin-operated launderette.

Youth facilities had been a political concern since 1939, when Neville Chamberlain’s government established the Youth Service to coordinate leisure activities for young people, arrangements which were formalized in the 1944 Education Act. But youth club buildings were rarely as smart as the milk and coffee bars, and tended to host worthy activities such as classical music appreciation and amateur dramatics. As late as 1960, youth leaders were being sacked for allowing their charges to play rock’n’roll, darts and billiards (Weight 2002: 313). There were also rather forlorn attempts by Christian groups, local councils and political party branches to open their own, more wholesome coffee bars where there might be, for example, political speeches or uplifting sermons ([Times] 1960b; [Times] 1965a). In October 1958, the Universities and Left Review opened a coffee bar, the Partisan, at its Soho offices, hoping to bring young people together for political meetings and discussion. It advertised itself as London’s ‘first anti-espresso bar’, serving filter coffee and eschewing ‘fake theatrical’ design for minimalist décor (Ellis 2004: 240). Many on the left were uncomfortable even with this restrained flirtation with the consumer society. Eric Hobsbawm, a member of the Partisan’s management board, later dismissed it as a ‘lunatic enterprise’ which attracted ‘the more demoralized bums and the fringe hangers-on of Soho’ (2002: 213-14). The Partisan’s uneasy relationship with youth culture was somewhat similar to the pioneering ULR pieces on teenagers, which veered between sympathetic engagement with and critical analysis of the ‘youth problem’ (see Kullman 1958). In an early essay, Stuart Hall voiced concern about the ‘Sec Mod boys’, the working-class youths from Secondary Modern schools who at the age of 14 enter ‘the wider world of their own groups, the friendships and rivalries of their local gangs, the culture of the youth club and skiffle group, the heady atmosphere of the mass entertainments’ (Hall 1959: 18). For the New Left, as for other critics at the time, coffee bars were both a cause of and a potential solution to this ‘problem’ (Ellis 2004: 245).

The lack of facilities for young people was one of the key concerns of the Albemarle Committee, appointed in October 1958 and reporting in February 1960. Hoggart’s invitation to serve on this committee was prompted by the chair Lady Albemarle’s reading of the milk-bar passage in The Uses of Literacy (Hoggart 1993: 18-22). This committee took as its subject exactly the same constituency as Hoggart’s juke-box boys: working-class youths aged between 15 and 20, those directly targeted by the youth service. It suggested that the youth service should provide facilities not for pre-arranged activities but for young people ‘to talk and to get to know one another, without necessarily any further obligation’. These facilities should be modelled on ‘a college union’ with ‘good decorations in good colours; modern appearance; a coffee bar rather than a canteen’ ([Ministry of Education] 1960: 54-5). In response to this report, the government expanded and increased the funding of the youth service in the early 1960s (Weight 2002: 312), although without challenging the growing influence of commercial youth culture. Hoggart’s worry that the youth clubs would not be able to attract working-class teenagers like the juke-box boys, and that the ‘peculiar grip’ of the commercial people would be ‘retained and strengthened’ (1958: 249), thus formed part of widely expressed anxieties during this period.

The Albemarle Report and Hoggart’s juke-box boy passage are similar in another respect: they are free of moral panic, focusing on the lack of facilities for young people rather than their potential trouble-making. Contemporary media representations of the Teds tended to see them as appropriating space territorially and making it their own (see Rock and Cohen 1970: 299-300). But in Hoggart’s writing the boys are simply making do with facilities meant for general use. He makes no mention of flick-knives or razors, nor is there any suggestion that the boys form part of a ‘gang’, a common way for the media at the time to read a sinister coherence into Teddy boy culture that it rarely possessed (Rock and Cohen 1970: 299). Hoggart’s juke-box boys are simply bored, and they do not have the necessary cultural literacy to transform their boredom into acts of subaltern resistance or semiotic reinvention.

Starbucks, chavs and cultural literacy

In a later discussion of the response to his account of the juke-box boys, Hoggart accuses his CCCS critics of focusing their research on cliquish subcultures such as motor-cycle gangs or ‘many another partial rather than representative sub-culture of young people’ (1994: 76). In doing so they are

unwittingly belittling those people by reducing their responsibility for their own actions or by, sometimes quite subtly, glamorising their ways. They are blunting also the edge of right and necessary anger – at the exploitation of so many and the humbug with which it is justified; today as in the fifties. (1994: 77)

Hoggart condemns this ‘stay as sweet as you are’ attitude (1994: 76) which avoids any discussion of shared, communal life, and runs the risk of arguing that there is ‘no need for everyone to have access to public forms of discourse’ (1993: 241). In fact, the CCCS’s analysis of subculture was always more ambivalent than this, recognizing both its achievements in giving some meaning to young people’s lives and its limitations in failing to transcend their material circumstances.

The disagreement is, again, partly generational. Writing before the media’s identification of the ‘teenager’, Hoggart is uninterested in the subcultural identity of the juke-box boy. This ‘hedonistic but passive barbarian’ is ‘not simply a social oddity; he is a portent’, unique only in the sense that he is less intelligent than average and therefore ‘more exposed than others to the debilitating mass-trends of the day’ (1958: 250, 249). If the language here seems harsh, it is worth noting that Hoggart is trying to connect the boys with much wider social change rather than dismiss them as beyond the pale. The investment of cultural studies in subcultural identity, difference and otherness, Hoggart would later suggest, has led to the submerging of important issues about the politics of culture.

It is striking how much Hoggart’s argument in The Uses of Literacy about the declining significance of cultural literacy in affluent societies anticipates the political and cultural strategies of the New Right from the late 1970s onwards. Thatcherism’s ‘authoritarian populism’ or ‘populist centralism’ (see Hall 1983; Marquand 2004: 128) justified its concentration of power in central government through its ideological construction of ‘the people’ – particularly the homeowning, car-owning lower-middle classes of ‘middle England’. At the same time, it introduced greater surveillance and coercion of other groups, such as low-paid, unemployed and young people, through the increased policing of benefit payments and vocational training schemes. Institutions aimed at improving cultural literacy – universities, adult education institutions, public libraries, museums, art galleries, public service broadcasting – came under threat as public goods. Quangos such as the Albemarle Committee, with its paternalistic concern about how young people would occupy themselves, were ‘made to look like a dodo of public life’ (Hoggart 1993: 20). Attempts by intellectuals to question this market-based model of democratic participation were dismissed as evidence of the elitism or cynicism of ‘the chattering classes’, a new pejorative term emerging in the 1980s whose use Hoggart deplores (1995: 311-12).

One of the consequences of this shift in political culture was what Andrew Milner calls ‘the strange death of class’ in media and political representation (Milner 1999: 1). Class remained a resilient determinant of life chances, but overt social snobbery was increasingly unacceptable, and all in public life professed a commitment to general affluence and the ‘meritocratic’ distribution of social rewards. Hoggart’s continued insistence that Britain was a ‘sub-literate society’ in which ‘too many are still only literate enough to be handed over to the persuaders, not yet literate enough to be able and willing to blow the gaff on them’ (1995: 336, 34), came to seem increasingly old-fashioned. This may have been because his defence of the established literary canon against ‘relativism’ (1995: 82-88) made it easier to link his concern with cultural literacy with the work of conservative critics in the US such as Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch (see Goodwin 1992: xxxiii). But Hoggart retained a more explicitly political concern with what he called ‘the hidden authoritarianism of the marshmallow state’ (1995: 322), the ways in which everyday culture conceals both material inequalities and differential cultural literacies, particularly in relation to social class.

The modern-day successors to Hoggart’s milk bars foreground these issues in revealing ways. The milk and espresso bars began to decline and close from the 1970s onwards due to a number of factors: the revival of public houses, particularly their increasing appeal to young people; the arrival of American fast-food conglomerates in the mid-1970s; and the emergence of chain-owned speciality coffee bars in the 1990s. A series of recent books, websites and valedictory guided tours has celebrated the classic Italian espresso bar, now under threat of extinction from what its Pevsnerian chronicler, Adrian Maddox, calls ‘a kind of massive cultural, corporate napalming’ by ‘the standard issue coffee shop: a sick, pallid parody of the café culture of the Fifties’ (quoted in Smith 2004). Another writer, Edwin Heathcote, celebrates these fast-disappearing cafes as ‘part of the fabric of the city, that melt into its steely-grey streets and sludge-coloured walls’ and represent ‘the dying, but still steaming, breath of a particular moment in the city’s history’ (2004: 6, 8). These cafes ‘are not about lifestyle, they are about everyday life’, and serve as ‘an antidote to the over-designed corporate chains that fill and suffocate our streets’ (2004: 8, 22). The rise of corporate-owned pubs, fast-food outlets and coffee bars has typically been seen in this way, as part of the transformation of British town centres into bland, globalized ‘non-places’. But what is also striking is how smoothly they have formed part of older narratives about youth and class in British culture.

The coffee bar chains, such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffè Nero, began to proliferate in Britain in the economic boom years between 1995 and 2000. In varying degrees, they all seek to retain the edgy, countercultural ambience of the traditional espresso bar, although this image has not gone unchallenged. Starbucks, in particular, is often criticized for the hypocrisy with which it combines continental pretension, corporate blandness and vaguely progressive politics. Like the arrival of milk bars in the 1930s and espresso bars in the 1950s, the arrival of the coffee chains has been highly visible but largely unannounced. So for many people it has become a metaphor for the rapidity and inexorability of cultural change, particularly the homogenizing effects of globalization. Hoggart’s conflation of the milk bar with the ‘odour of boiled milk’ is strikingly paralleled in modern-day complaints about ‘the lactification of the coffee house’ (Ellis 2004: 258). For their critics, these chains simply serve coffee-flavoured milk, ‘a nondescript house blend under a tower of froth – milkshake for grown-ups’ (Blythman 2001). But they also exclude the very people – working-class youths – that Hoggart’s milk bars sought to attract. Their high prices, understated décor and gourmet products mean that they appeal to affluent young professionals with particular forms of cultural literacy. The ‘Seattle speak’ which identifies different coffee types (‘mocha’, ‘latte’, ‘Americano’) and sizes (‘tall’, ‘grande’, ‘venti’) offers customers a reassuring sense of initiation and exclusivity. The corporate coffee chains show how, in Jonathan Rose’s words, professionals have ‘successfully reconciled bourgeois and Bohemian values … the boutique economy they have constructed involves a process of class formation, where the accoutrements of the avant-garde are used to distance and distinguish cultural workers from more traditional manual workers’ (2001: 464).

The obvious descendants of the original milk bars are not the coffee bars but the more obviously Americanized fast-food outlets. They have harsh lighting to attract people in from the street; hard benches to discourage excessive waiting; hygienic, efficient service of standardized products; and a core market of young people between 15 and 24 ([Keynote] 2005: 52).  McDonald’s has been widely cited as the stomping ground of the ‘chav’, a designer-label obsessed, youthful member of the ‘peasant underclass’ who became a ubiquitous media phenomenon in Britain in 2004 (see Chavscum 2005). (The term was said to derive either from a large council housing estate in the town of Chatham in Kent, or from chavi, a nineteenth-century Romany word for child.) An anti-chav t-shirt went on sale on the cult website, ‘Chavscum’, which pirated the McDonald’s golden arches logo and altered its advertising slogan, ‘I’m lovin’ it’, to ‘I’m chavin’ it’. One book about chav culture cites McDonald’s, or ‘MaccyD’s’, as ‘the home-from-home’ of the chav (Wallace and Spanner 2004: 128). This association of chavs with McDonald’s is symptomatic of their vulgar appropriation of predominantly Americanized mass culture:

When you see a stunted teenager, apparently jobless, hanging around outside McDonald’s dressed in a Burberry baseball cap, Ben Sherman shirt, ultra-white Reebok trainers and dripping in bling (cheap, tasteless and usually gold-coloured jewellery), he will almost certainly be a chav. (Tweedie 2004)

One journalist assumed the role of participant observer, travelling to the ‘chav capital’ of Croydon (a south London suburb) dressed in ‘chav gear’, and eating in McDonald’s. ‘I have never seen such a packed outlet nor observed so many people linger for so long over one Big Mac’, she wrote. ‘But this is a chav’s “blazin” (excellent) idea of a meeting place’ (Wyatt 2004).

The origins of the chav phenomenon lie in the Thatcher era. From the late 1970s onwards, a new form of consumer profiling emerged in the advertising and marketing industries, termed ‘lifestyle research’ or ‘psychographics’. A key assumption behind this new research was the declining importance of class, and the subsequent fragmentation of markets into social tribes and niches, which were defined by taste and lifestyle choice, rather than income or occupation (McDonald and King 1996: 166-8). As the chair of one advertising agency put it: ‘We have long ceased identifying people in purely class terms. In an advanced society people’s behaviour is more determined by their personality and attitude’ (Woods and Norton 1999).

The ad hoc social typologies of consumer research soon began to be reproduced in mainstream media. The early 1980s saw the development of a new form of unofficial social research – style-watching – which emerged in older magazines like Harper’s and Queen and Elle and flourished in newer magazines such as The Face and ID before filtering into newspapers. Its guru figure was Peter York, whose key innovation was to translate the concept of ‘market segmentation’ into a new genre of popular anthropology (York 1982: 12). York’s notion of the social ‘tribe’ – encapsulated in neologisms like ‘Sloane Rangers’ and ‘Neurotic Boy Outsiders’ – offered an interpretation of the behaviour of certain groups which erased questions of social and political agency: how and why people behaved in such a way.

Writings about chavs often seek to be similarly class-neutral and pseudo-anthropological: ‘Spotting a chav in the wild is easy. Often moving around in packs like a strange nomadic tribe, the rigid dress code will enable you to spot a chav yards away’ (Wallace and Spanner 2004: 15). One author compares herself to Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist, ‘because she tries to integrate herself in the chav community and gain their trust in order to observe their behaviour’ (Wallace and Spanner 2004: 256). The pop-anthropological tone is also evident in the phrasebooks which seek to translate the unfamiliar language used by chavs (Bok 2004b).

There are obvious parallels with Hoggart’s account of the juke-box boys. Chavs are also criticized for ‘hanging around’ wasting time, and for their thoughtless consumption of commercial products. Chavs similarly live in a ‘myth world’ assembled from different elements of American and upper-class English culture, such as baseball caps in Burberry check, ‘Mr T. jewellery’ and McKenzie hooded tops, usually purchased in fake versions sold at cheap markets or ‘pound shops’ (discount stores) (Wallace and Spanner 2004: 11-21). Like Hoggart’s youths, the chavs do not inspire moral panic – except when they form part of a subgroup, the ‘hoodies’, gangs of young men who loiter in shopping centres wearing hooded tops to avoid detection by CCTV cameras, assaulting passers-by and filming it on mobile-phone cameras for their amusement (so-called ‘happy slapping’). On the whole, though, chavs are ridiculed rather than feared. The frequent discussion of the ‘chavistocracy’ – celebrities from working-class backgrounds such as David and Victoria Beckham, the Big Brother contestant Jade Goody or the model Jordan – is meant to suggest that chav culture is a symptom of a more general debasement of taste. Two bestselling books about chavs are tellingly subtitled ‘A User’s Guide to Britain’s New Ruling Class’ and ‘The Branded Guide to Britain’s New Elite’ (Wallace and Spanner 2004; Bok 2004a). In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester similarly pointed to chav culture’s growing ascendancy:

Chav styles and mores seem to take up more and more space in the public sphere, and more and more seem to be a focus of imitation by non-chavs: baseball caps, tattoos, swearing, spitting, fighting, calling your children Armani and Lexus (2004: 8).

Unlike Hoggart’s juke-box boy passage, however, the journalistic discussion of chavs circumvents questions of cultural literacy. Hoggart later justified the severe language of the milk-bar passage by his anger on the boys’ behalf at the different opportunities available to different social classes and ‘the easy way most of us put up with others’ deprivations’ (1994: 75). There is little evidence of anger on the chav’s behalf. ‘Chav’ is not so much a subcultural identity as a figure conjured up by others to suggest that the poor are stupid, feckless and profligate, and therefore deserve their poverty. In the anti-elitist, consumerist ethic of post-Thatcherite society, chav culture is seen not as an effect of education or background but as a freely acquired lifestyle: ‘CHAV is an attitude, a way of life, a tribal thing, and those in it (or innit) have chosen to be there’ (Wallace and Spanner 2004: 11). When a society places such high value on populist identification and classless consumption, the uneven distribution of cultural literacy is more difficult to detect and critique. Clearly, the choice that consumers make between McDonald’s and Starbucks is not simply a question of comparing the price, or even the quality, of the coffee. But a striking feature of the media phenomenon of ‘chav culture’ is the way that it substitutes the critique of taste for more uncomfortable questions about class and cultural literacy.


Hoggart’s commentary on the juke-box boys was quickly overtaken by the sheer energy and vitality of youth culture from the late 1950s onwards, so it is easy to see why his comments have been seen retrospectively as condescending. But Hoggart’s critique was not simply a knee-jerk fear of the new; it fed into more widespread anxieties which long predate the media invention of the ‘teenager’ or the emergence of organized youth subcultures. Milk and coffee bars, and similar public spaces, were rich in meaning and symbolism in postwar Britain. This had less to do with fears about Americanization, as a surface reading of Hoggart’s milk-bar passage might suggest, than with concerns about the relationship between the public and private sphere, and the losses and gains of rising affluence. In more recent years, corporate coffee and fast-food chains have similarly served as a locus for anxieties about social change. Some of the same issues that Hoggart addresses – about the influence of American and continental forces on British culture, particularly on the young – have resurfaced. But other, more explicitly political issues with which he was concerned – about cultural literacy, class and education – have been increasingly submerged in post-Thatcherite political culture.

In the years since the publication of The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart’s principal fear has been realized: commercial culture now has a much greater hold on young people than publicly provided facilities. There are many more amenities for the young – it is no longer possible to write, as Tosco Fyvel did in 1963, about the ‘pall of boredom’, the ‘dead and shuttered look’ that descends on the average English town after dark (1963: 67-8). The worst sorts of social snobbery and exclusion, which partly allowed the milk bars to fill the gap in available facilities – young women and groups of young men being excluded from public bars, for example (Fyvel 1963: 68-9) – no longer exist. In the symbolic passage from juke-box boys to ‘chavs’, however, it is clear that inequalities have survived in subtler, more insidious forms – a useful reminder of the uses (and abuses) of literacy.


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