Monday, 17 October 2016


Recently I read Richard Weight’s best-selling book on the Mod Movement. I assume it was best-selling, since it was out on the tables at Waterstone’s Piccadilly. It’s one of those social history books that makes sense while you are reading it, but doesn’t quite hang together in the memory. Weight includes as 'Mod' a number of groups I don’t think belong there. Skinheads: nothing sharp, ironic or racially-tolerant about them. And Northern Soul Baggies are as non-Mod as anything that could be imagined. A lot of the cultural content he ascribes to the movement comes from a group of people who called themselves “Modernists” and went for jazz, continental cooking and design. I have a feeling those guys weren't grooving to Stax and popping uppers in Ham Yard Friday night. I have no idea what Neville Brody and Post-Modernism are doing in there either, even if Brody was a young Mod back in the day. Len Deighton’s creation Harry Palmer just about belongs, although I see Palmer as closer to the Nouvelle Vague and Godard’s louche anti-heroes.

However, this isn't the point. Weight's book is a good guide to some of the fringe groups of post 1960’s British Cultural History.

It leaves you with the sense there was and is a sensibility called Mod, and that it had to do with dressing sharp, liking black music, being racially-tolerant, with Vespa-riding as an option, rejecting mainstream ideas of career and jobs, and with a sprinkle of irony thrown in. But not much more. Misogyny. But then Weight has to say that, because he’s a Visiting Professor at Boston University, so he has to throw some ideological chum to the feminists.

The phrase everyone quotes to define Mod is from Peter Meadon: “clean living under difficult circumstances”. You may feel that since this was said by someone in the middle of drug use and nervous breakdowns, this is possibly a little rich, but let’s go with the words of the prophet and not his actions.

At the very least “clean living” means self-respect, or at least its outward show. Hence the sharp dressing, which is always good for outward show.

Here are some things that weren’t options in the 1960’s: junk food, super-sizing, sugar and soya in everything, snacking; couch-potato living, playing computer games for hours, sitting in office chairs for hours on end; staying up late watching television; central heating keeping your house at near-summer temperatures; wearing sports clothes on the high street; two hundred channels and nothing’s on; around one hundred and fifty genres of dance music; terraced houses in working-class areas that cost ten times median earnings; sending jobs to foreign countries; easy divorce; hours of soap operas on television; effective birth control for women; social media. More people did manual work, and all work was more manual. The entire country was closed on Wednesday afternoon and all day Sunday. Except for cinemas.

What would “clean living” mean now? It would mean resisting all those ways to turn into a slob. It would mean keeping fit, eating well, staying in shape, and not being distracted by social media or slouching in front of the TV. Add being informed about the new in whatever interests them. It would mean focussing on having a good time, getting done what needs to be done and not being drawn into random drama and outrage. Sound familiar? Exactly. Mod was a Man’s Movement. Girls were welcome, but they weren’t the point of all the sharp dressing, Vespa-decorating and dancing to Wilson Pickett.

That’s the insight Weight’s academic political correctness blinds him to. Throughout history, I suspect, there have always been men who simply have not seen the point of family life and producing offspring - though they probably produced offspring, since birth control was pretty haphazard. These men chose to live better than the family man. Whatever “better” meant back then. Mods were the post WW2 working-class take on that. That's why the skinheads and their offspring really don't belong in Mod. When the Mods faded away, leaving only Paul Weller and Paul Smith behind, there was nothing for over three decades until the internet-based self-improvement movement evolved from PUA. That's the real story.

Self-improvers are not Mods. Sharp dressing, and a particular style of it, is the core part of Mod identity. I never dressed that sharp, but I did prefer Stax and Tamla Motown when I was at school. My lot were too late for Mod. Or for Hippies. But I am, however late in life, a self-improver.

The book has a comment from a Mod girl about the Mod-Rocker fights. She recognised some of the Mods in the photographs. They were not the Faces she knew. The rioters were the boys in the lower streams and secondary moderns. The Mods she hung out with were much smarter and were going to pass their exams and have careers. (You could have a better career with five good O-levels then than you can with a junk degree now.) Weight half-absorbs the lesson of this. Mod was an elite, as self-improvement is now. Elite means elite, not hundreds of teenagers in parkas having a riot. Since he's not allowed to like elites, Weight has to conflate the rioters and the Faces, and that's what spoils the coherence of his story. In the end, the art-and-design Modernists just cannot be tied in with the Vespa-riding, pill-popping Mods. Every time he did it, I kept wanting it to work, but it doesn't. Paul Weller and Pete Townsend weren't Mods, for all the parkas, rounders and sharp suits. They were from the start, professional, dedicated and hugely talented musicians, who found in Mod a framework for their ideas. There's a difference between being the thing and being inspired by the thing. The caustic song "Substuitute" is at once man anthem and a critique. It depends how the listener reacts.

On the other hand it does give him something to write about the thirty year wasteland between the death of Mod and the growth of self-improvement.

If you really want to know what Mod was and how it felt, read the first two chapters of Tony Parsons' Limelight Blues. In fact, read the novel: it's Parsons’ best, and one of the best novels of the last quarter of the twentieth-century. Yes. Really. Here’s his protagonist David Lazar in full Mod righteousness:
They thought they were so special, the creeps on the team [at the advertising agency where Lazar works], but they reminded him of commuters. The suits of the men in the Tube made him smile. What was the point in wearing a suit if you looked like a sack of potatoes in it? They stared at him…and they hated him, because he wore a suit beautifully and for pleasure, and they wore a suit as a convict wears a fetter.

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