Listen to this article
It’s often forgotten, but Harry Potter grew up on the most English of streets. When we first meet him he lives on Privet Drive, with its “tidy front gardens”, milk bottles outside front doors and spoilt children.
In fact, if Harry hadn’t been a wizard made to sleep in a cupboard by his evil aunt and uncle, you might have said he had a conventional English middle-class upbringing.
The penultimate film in the Harry Potter series is released next week, and it’s another reminder of the UK’s grip on global youth culture. The US is often castigated for cultural imperialism, but Britain is the worse offender. Bizarrely, the drizzly island has colonised the minds of many of the world’s eight- to 25-year-olds. To foreign readers who think I’m a British nationalist, I’m not saying this domination is a good thing. Perhaps it’s a bad thing. The point is that it exists, long after the end of empire, and the question is why.
The UK doesn’t simply owe this domination to the English language. If that were the secret, American youth culture would rule the world. As it is, the US has the minds of the world’s under-eights, but beyond that its dominion extends only to movies. The economists Fernando Ferreira and Joel Waldfogel analysed global pop music charts since 1960 for their recent paper, “Pop Internationalism”. They found: “Between the mid-1960s and 1990, UK repertoire had the highest share of world trade, around 40 per cent.” Only since the 1990s have American pop exports overtaken British ones, and even then, given the size of both economies, the UK punches well above its weight, while the US doesn’t.
I once asked Malcolm McLaren, the nice Jewish boy who created the pioneering punk band the Sex Pistols, why British youth culture was so potent. “I think it’s because the English hate kids,” said McLaren, who died this year. “The Italians love kids – they live at home till they’re 30, 35. The Americans are kids.” But in Britain, he said, children were sexually repressed and often banished to boarding schools, and so they rebelled. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter’s creator and briefly a fan of punk, seems to have absorbed that view. So did McLaren’s one-time girlfriend Vivienne Westwood, pioneer in a long line of British fashion designers flogging countercultural clothes to the world’s discontented young.
Clearly McLaren’s explanation is partially correct. Part of the secret of British youth culture must be that many British youths are unhappy.
A report by Unicef in 2007 ranked the UK last among 21 developed nations for the well-being of youngsters. British children scored second-last for happiness, and bottom for relationships. British families rarely ate together, and many kids lived in single-parent homes or with step-parents. That, not incidentally, is how McLaren, Potter and John Lennon grew up.
Peter Pan ran away from his parents. The Sex Pistols rebelled, and so did that other creation of British youth culture, the football hooligan.
As Life, Keith Richards’ new autobiography testifies, the Rolling Stones certainly shrugged off sexual repression and explored the limits of the drug laws.
However, McLaren overstated the case. Not all British youth icons are angry rebels. Lennon and Paul McCartney were such good boys that they wrote songs for their absent mothers. Harry Potter and David Beckham, who was raised on a leafy suburban street very like Privet Drive, are also much nicer than punk’s Sid Vicious.
It would be more accurate to say that the classic British youth hero is a young person struggling to express himself in a society that doesn’t welcome that expression. Rowling coined the word “Muggles” – “non-magical folk” who don’t know about witches and wizards. Muggles are the serried ranks of the conventional. On British album covers and pop videos, they are sometimes represented by men in bowler hats.
Of course, the conventional exist everywhere, but there is a popular global belief that they abound in Britain simply because the country has so many traditional institutions. Often, in British youth culture, the young hero lives inside such an institution. Sometimes it’s a boarding school: Hogwarts, where Harry Potter studies wizardry, harks back to fictional schools from Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling and the Greyfriars stories. I’ve always thought that George Orwell’s original model for the repressive world of Nineteen Eighty-Four was his horrible prep school. Even at a school as unconventional as Hogwarts, Harry and his friends are always breaking rules and getting into trouble with the wizard authorities.
British football sets up the same conflict. Young heroes play for the world’s oldest clubs, and get into trouble with referees, managers and blazered officials – with Muggles, if you like. It’s a scenario calculated to attract young people. It helped English football go global, and helped transform Beckham from a very good right-half into the game’s strongest brand.
You’d wish for British children to become happier. But if they do, expect a decline in UK music exports.
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published