Bradley Wiggins receiving his BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 2012.
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Reviewed: Mod - a Very British Style by Richard Weight

Absolute beginnings.

Mod: a Very British Style
Richard Weight
The Bodley Head, 496pp, £25

Last December was a good month for the cyclist Bradley Wiggins. The Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medallist was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year and awarded a knighthood. He also took time out to join his musical hero Paul Weller onstage, playing guitar on the old Jam classic “That’s Entertainment”.

That song was first released in the autumn of 1980, when Wiggins was just six months old. He was too late for the mod revival led by the Jam, let alone for the glory days of the movement back in the mid-1960s. So what is it about mod that can still exert such a powerful attraction over yet another new generation of enthusiasts?

Part of the answer can be found in Richard Weight’s splendid new book, which tells the tale of the movement. Born in the affluence of Harold Macmillan’s Britain, mod was a cross-class coalition of youth, bringing together the art school and the assembly line in a sharp-suited, pill-popping celebration of cosmopolitan taste, Continental attitudes and consumerist aspiration. It was, though, a mess of contradictions, a mass movement built in pursuit of individualism and elitism; it sought out new thrills while remaining essentially conservative in its values; it lived for the present but has provoked more revivals than any other youth cult. Surely it was too unstable a proposition to last?

Indeed, its moment seemed to have passed by 1967, the year of psychedelia and the TV series The Prisoner, when dwindling record sales and audience figures made it clear that the avant-garde pioneers who had dominated the scene were no longer being followed by the masses. New boutiques were still being launched but the price tags were now beyond the reach of most and a proletarian reaction, in the shape of the skinheads, was not long in emerging.

Weight argues that this was merely a temporary setback, that the ethos that underlay the movement was to resurface time and time again over the succeeding decades, that mod has been “the DNA of British youth culture for almost half a century”.

By the end of the 20th century, what had seemed a temporary phenomenon had become the mainstream. In the process, in “the long journey from cult to culture”, the country had been transformed. So although the heyday of Pete Townshend and Mary Quant is covered in detail, Weight doesn’t rest there, continuing the story as he teases out the influence of mod in cultural phenomena as diverse as 2 Tone, Factory Records and rave.

Nor is it music alone that falls within his remit. Everything from Habitat and 1960s road signs to gastro pubs and urban gentrification is included. Despite the title, this is closer to being a history of British popular culture in the years since 1960, in many of its more intriguing variations. It could almost be seen as a companion volume to Weight’s earlier book, the indispensable Patriots, which explored the development of national identities in Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Where that centred on political concerns, this fills in the popcultural detail.

Mod shares all the strengths of that earlier work. The writing is witty (shopping malls are described as “the retailing equivalent of the grey squirrel”); the judgements are pinpoint accurate: the creed of the casuals who populated football grounds in the 1980s is summed up succinctly as “vanity and violence”. The research is formidable in its scope and detail, though one correction has to be made: Roxy Music never did play a gig at Biba, more’s the pity. (On the other hand, the Wombles did.)

The connections back to mod may seem strained at times, but for the most part Weight makes a convincing and persuasive case. Even when he argues that the smiley face, so ubiquitous during the era of acid house, was akin to the RAF roundel in the 1960s, he takes you with him.

The weakest link in the chain is the first: the explanation of how all this grew from a group of a few hundred self-proclaimed “modernists” in London in 1959. Taking their music from cool jazz, their fashions from France and their style from the Bauhaus, these were the hip young things chronicled in Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners. Yet the gulf between them and the Beatles’ triumphant invasion of America in February 1964 is so vast that the two scarcely seem to belong to the same world.

To understand the way in which that early incarnation of mod took over first Britain, then Europe, the US and the rest of the western world requires an even wider focus than is given here. Much of the groundwork had already been done. The foundations were laid in the early 1950s with the emergence of the Teddy boys; they may subsequently have evolved into the “rockers”, the sworn enemy of mods, but they were the first working-class dandies in Britain and they displayed a similar social conservatism.

Even more plausibly, the revolution can be dated to 1955, arguably the year that youth culture was born, with Quant opening her first boutique, the release of the film Rebel Without a Cause, the arrival of the Wimpy burger bar in Britain and the breaking of the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly by ITV. The following year, there was the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and the eruption of the Angry Young Men.

The ensuing cultural renaissance created the conditions for mod to break into the mainstream. By the time the Beatles arrived in America in 1964, the advance forces of the British invasion were already established, from the Oscar-winning films Lawrence of Arabia and Tom Jones to the Broadway musicals Oliver! and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off and even to the satire boom: Beyond the Fringe was playing to rave reviews. Jonathan Miller, one of the stars of the latter, claimed a kinship: “The Beatles were satirical or, at least, sceptical.” In those early days, the irreverent humour of the band was just as important to their appeal as the music was, resonating with a world that had already been primed.

But even a book as wide-ranging as this has to draw the line somewhere. Weight’s account is undeniably in tune with the spirit of our times. When Wiggins rang the bell to signal the start of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, he was followed by a parade that, in essence, supported Weight’s central thesis. It, too, presented British popular culture as the flowering of the 1960s into glam, punk and beyond. And it, too, allowed little space for Britain before the Beatles.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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