The Milltown Boys Revisited

9781859738191

Reading The Milltown Boys Revisited I couldn’t help but imagine it as a film. The characters/research subjects are so powerful that they leap off of the page at you. So here is my ‘treatment’ of the opening moments of ‘Miltown Boys The Movie’. Film 4 are welcome to use this for free!

The camera pans across a Cardiff council estate and zooms in on a street filled with kids emptying out of the local school. They are fighting and shouting as they head home or out to the rec. David Bowie’s ‘All the Young Dudes’ plays in the background as the camera continues down the road passing by burnt out cars and broken windows before heading out into the woods behind the estate.

We follow the camera through the woods as we see groups of young boysThe younger ones are playing in abandoned cars or stealing birds eggs, while the older ones sniff glue, smoke and drink. 

Seasons change rapidly as we flash forward a few yearsWe see the same group of boys shoplifting, buying and selling drugs, heading off down the pub and painting the town red on a Friday night. They argue, fight, pick up girls and live for kicks.

Flash forward twenty years as the strains of the Bowie track come to an end. Where are they now? Whatever happened to the Milltown Boys?

It is not often that an academic book conjures up a world and its inhabitants clearly enough for you to feel like you know them. The critical distance we usually employ in academic writing tends to reduce humanity to being bugs under our microscope. We observe trends, analyse facts and figure and maybe even make policy recommendations. However it is a rare book that hums with the life and humanity that normally characterise a good novel. The Milltown Boys Revisited is one of those books and I’d argue that almost everyone would get something out of reading it. However, for those interested in career, learning and the role of guidance the book is even more essential.

Howard Williamson started the research in the late 1970s as part of his PhD. Essentially this first study was an ethnographic account of juvenile delinquency on a Cardiff estate. Williamson lived on the estate, got to know the ‘Miltown Boys’ and wrote about their culture and interactions. I haven’t read his PhD, but the glimpses of it that you get via this book are fascinating. However, in The Milltown Boys Revisited Williamson returns to the boys twenty years later and sees how their lives have gone. How did this group of glue-sniffing delinquents turn out. Did they continue in crime, grow up to be upstanding members of society or go off to do something completely different? Were they happy, successful and healthy. Were they still in Milltown or scattered to the winds, together as a group or atomised?

Williamson investigated the answer to these questions through interviews with 30 of his 67 original Boys. Others had moved away, died or Williamson was warned to keep away from them. However the opportunity to look at how these 30 Boys had turned out holds enormous insights. Starting with 30 roughly similar individuals, drawn from the same estate Williamson is able to track their lives, careers, relationships, health and friendships over the intervening period. This has the potential to lead us to some conclusions about what  factors are capable of influencing/impacting on the life of an individual.

So what did happen to the Milltown Boys? Well broadly they breakdown into three groups.

  • The first group managed to gain successful legitimate employment, buy a house, orientate towards relationships and family, and maintain reasonable levels of health and well-being.
  • The second group was also in employment, but this employment was closer to the margins of the labour market. This group tended to live in social housing, maintained relationships and family although with less focus than group one and often continued to have some minor involvement in crime.
  • The third group remained involved in crime and had at best patchy experience in the legitimate labour market. This group tended to have multiple relationships and high health risk behaviours.
  • Finally there were a few Boys who suffered from severe drug addition, poor mental health or were in some other way outside of this typology.
This is probably not that surprising. What it tells us is that most people’s lives are to a very great extent shaped by the environment in which they grow up and find themselves. However, what it also tells us is that upbringing and the social milieu in which you find yourself do not explain everything. Some of the Boys broke out and did things that they would not have expected themselves to do when they were young. Although Williamson is keen to point out that all of them feel the need to accommodate success and changed circumstances with their Milltown roots. The Boys’ identity is formed during their youth and while they move beyond this, they never escape or forget it.

So how do we explain the difference in outcome for the Boys? Clearly although they all have a similar beginning they are not all the same. Some are brighter, stronger, more ruthless, more patient, more ambitious or more susceptible to addition and health problems than others. Individual ability, health and psychology clearly explain quite a number of the different trajectories. However there are also more sociological factors that seem to have an impact e.g. school attended, qualifications obtained (even very few), speed with which they were introduced to the legitimate labour market and so on. What doesn’t seem to make much difference is either formal guidance interventions or the training and skilling schemes that are introduced by various governments. While these things did make a difference for one or two Boys, most key points of reflection, self-realisation, commitment to change and personal development come as a result of much more individual events. The death of a family member, the loss of a job, an injury or imprisonment all lead the Boys to rethink their path while job centres, social workers or training schemes rarely do.

So where does this leave us? Obviously findings based on the experiences of 30 people who are on the edge of the labour market don’t necessarily prove a lot in and of themselves. However they do give us pause for thought. If a key aim of careers work is to support social mobility and to act as a counter-weight for inequality it has got to be able
to touch the Milltown Boys in ways that Williamson’s study shows it did not. The Boys pretty much miss out on career guidance at school and only really access it through job centres and training schemes. Yet these interventions are so bound up with accessing benefit that the Boys rarely tell the truth, let alone perceive them as an opportunity for reflection and the realisation of their potential. What is more many of the less successful Boys take a ‘come what may’ attitude to their lives to the extent that it is difficult to see what IAG professionals would have to work with. Their aspirations are not being thwarted by lack of opportunity, they have very few aspirations to begin with.

All in all this is a fantastic book. It doesn’t provide us with a lot of answers, but it certainly asks a lot of interesting question.

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11 thoughts on “The Milltown Boys Revisited

  1. Interesting that you had that reaction. I thought that he had a really strong empahy with the "boys". What is it that you find stereotypical and judgemental?

  2. Howard Williamson was a snake in the grass, I’ve met lots of the "boys" talked about in the book and even Williamson himself all he did was use the "boys" for a book.. sounds totally ridiculous how Williamson had planned to write the book all along but he did.Williamson likes to command his image as somewhat of a working class hero. I find it quite frankly hilarious when people say he spent years "researching" the "boys" he was sniffing glue with them. i saw one of the "boys" talked in the book Dwayne recently he expressed his annoyance on how Williamson had used them. Pretending to be their friends with a plan to write a book all along. Dwayne had also told me how Howard Williamson had always told him how he wanted to be in TV some day. I mean seriously a person researching "Juvenile Delinquents" who shared dreams of Television presenting with one of the "boys" Trust me guys what may seem an insightful book about issues of youth crime is just little snippets of a typical council estate. I feel the people who think this book is controversial and shocking really haven’t lived at all

  3. I’m not really sure how to respond to the last comment. I’ve removed an additional comment that compromised the anonymity of one of the "boys". I still really liked Williamson’s book – how well he handled his relationships with the participants is not something that I can comment on. I think that the comment about it being just "snippets" is unfair. Although much of what Williamson does is surface experiences that people who havent’ grown up in that environment will not know about, he also provides a strong commentary and analysis of this that I found interesting and useful in my thinking about how young people transition to work (or don’t). I don’t want to get involved in a flame war here and I’m happy to host a range of opinions on this blog. Is this the right approach?

  4. If this comment had been made on *my* blog it would not have got through moderation unless it had come from a named individual with whom I could have had a discussion about the reason(s) for the comment.As for what you have left as the final sentence – no-one is saying that the book is particularly controversial or shocking are they? I’ve not read it but it doesn’t seem so to me.Personal anecdote: Of my four kids one went completely down the wrong path, one failed to secure permanent employment but lived happily enough on the edges, one is in regular low-paid work but she and husband own their own house, one is in a well-paid, high-level marketing job in London. I would have said that I brought them all up the same!

  5. Thanks Hazel. I’m trying to keep an unmoderated blog and to only take stuff down where it is clearly spam or offensive. This comment is sort of in the borderland between legitimate comment and offensiveness. That is why I’m not sure what to do.

  6. I tried unmoderated for a while but got a lot of spam – and very little by way of sensible comment – so gave up.

  7. Hi H, read the book after 10 yrs, really enjoyed the book. Was both sad and exciting but fair. rEally enjoyed lunch the other day with spaceman and yourself. Do it again pretty soon. Gary MIlltownboys

  8. The former anon description of Howard Williamson as a “Snake in the grass” is quite risible and largely formed from hearsay, considering he trusted and invited many self confessed thieves and hooligans (myself included) into his life and into his home without anything being touched or stolen.
    I was one of those “hooligans”, and the only reptilian qualities I ever detected from Howard was a lovely faux crocodile skin belt he used to wear. Everybody is entitled to their opinions though and I can say that I knew Howard from the time he first stepped into Milltown up until two days ago when I last saw him (41 years?) and he never did me no wrong.
    The book, in my opinion was spot on and although there are a few things he says about me which I don’t quite agree with, it is nevertheless- his truth, and just as valid as if I were to write “my truth” about Howard and his illustrious cohorts.
    I thoroughly recommend the book to any students of sociological subjects,or an interest in the social structures within our society. A glimpse into how society treats it’s working class youth, and the struggles and frustrations inherent with those caught within “The exclusion zone”.
    Good read- give it a go.
    Spaceman, Milltown.

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