The original Generation X
- 1 March 2014
- From the section Magazine
In 1964 the paperback Generation X hit the bookstands. Its candid interviews with teenagers still make fascinating reading 50 years on, says Alan Dein.
Its aim was clear from the first lines: "To get young people talking about their hates and hopes and fears."
The book was an immediate bestseller thanks to its frank, powerful quotes.
"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..."
Back in the early 1960s, a great deal was being written about the nation's youth. But not many journalists were actually asking young people what they thought, about marriage, politics, religion, sex, violence, responsibility, or anything else.
Generation X was something different. It was a collection of interviews with teenagers, in their own voices.
"You'd really hate an adult to understand you," it quoted a girl named Susan from London as saying. "That's the only thing you've got over them - the fact that you can mystify and worry them."
Its teenage interviewees - post-war baby boomers who had grown up in a landscape of increasing wealth and materialism - spoke candidly about their distrust of politicians, their discovery of the birth control pill and their fear of a third world war.
The backdrop was 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.
The concept became an unexpected overnight success for its publisher Tandem Books. Significantly, it was packaged in a classic pop art cover with that punchy title - which has since been reinvented again and again over the past five decades.
Neither a formal academic project 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 she collected was not considered appropriate by her employer.
Deverson, however, was certain that she had collected something special which shouldn't be consigned to the dustbin.
She teamed up with journalist Charles Hamblett - 20 years her senior, but passionate about the writings of the beat generation. He was 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.
"You'll find they have nothing to say except for a lot of old talk," Behan told them. "Still, it's better for them to say nothing out of their own mouths than to have a lot of old 'unprintables' passing judgements on them without knowing what they're talking about."
As well as soliciting poems and letters from teenagers up and down the country, Hamblett added another vital ingredient - the title itself.
"It was partly X as in the unknown - teenagers were a mystery. It was also so shocking at the time, like an X film - because the book interviews pulled no punches," Deverson says.
"I think old people are ridiculous," David, 19, from London, told her and Hamblett. "So phoney, everything they do is false. I'm rude to my mum and ignore my dad, and that's how it should be."
Another David, this one 18 and from Hull, was yet more nihilistic: "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?"
Ever since I discovered a copy of Generation X languishing in a charity shop some 30 years ago, I'd wondered whether Hamblett and Deverson were indeed the first to gather the words and feelings of the nation's teenagers.
In fact during the 1930s, the BBC began to recognise the importance of hearing what young people were thinking.
Children's Hour was well established since the early 1920s, but a push to broadcast talks "suitable for adolescents" gave birth to a series called The Under 20 Club, and then the remarkable To Start You Talking, which began in 1943. It re-enacted the real words of young people overheard talking in cafes, clubs or at the workplace.
In the 1960s the teenagers featured in Generation X were getting ready to swing, but today they are aged 65-plus, some of them with teenage grandchildren of their own.
When Jane Deverson encountered Tony Mizen 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 it's clear that he still gets teary-eyed thinking back to the "magical music" he grew up with.
Michael Jacobs 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". Michael, who recently retired as a solicitor in the City of London, 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 Sweeney was described in the book as "exceptionally beautiful... She lives on a housing estate and is one of thousands". She was 16 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 says felt immortal as a clothes-obsessed mod, and that her beauty and her teenage would last forever. The biggest shock for her adult self, she says, was to discover that youth doesn't last forever.
The paperback was 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 Canadian writer Douglas Coupland, which kick-started a label for a new trend of counter-cultural drifting twentysomethings. I've never nailed firm evidence of the term Generation X being used even before the 1964 book.
But as I flick through the 50-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.
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".
Archive on 4: The First Generation X is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 GMT on Saturday 1 March - or listen on BBC iPlayer