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 boys. The 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 years. We 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.
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.