Nostalgic reunion for the 'Milltown boys'

Howard Williamson
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

At the end of September I hosted a party for the "Milltown boys", who were the subject of my 1970s study of a group of boys on a south Wales council estate.

It seemed appropriate, after 35 years, that I registered my thanks to them collectively for having accepted me into their world, trusted me with their life stories and allowed me to write about them without closing the door on future contact.

It has, of course, been a two-way relationship: the "norm of reciprocity" was instilled in me as a sociological concept in my first year at university. And at times I have been circumspect about revealing some elements of the boys' lives. For example, though they furnished me with a book's worth of ways they have managed to "scam" the system, I chose not to disclose their tactics. It was not as if they were living in splendid luxury. Indeed, the most successful have been those who found their way into legitimate employment and stayed on the right side of the tracks. The others have always struggled to get by in more precarious circumstances.

What was interesting about the party was the level of conversation. The DJ kept asking me when I wanted him to pump up the volume. In turn I asked the boys. They said to keep the music nostalgic (1970s stuff) and low, as they were insistent that they wanted to talk. Admittedly they had spent the first hour of the 'party' downstairs watching the football and then the women disappeared to play bingo from 8 to 9pm. But the dialogue was fascinating.

It was an unashamedly retrospective evening. I even made a black and white slideshow of 1970s photos of them and displayed them on the walls. The boys basked in reminiscences and there were few regrets. They remembered them as the good old days and did not take kindly to me reminding them that, for many, a considerable period of time had been spent in cells, courts and prisons. That fact was conveniently forgotten or romantically celebrated.

More to the point was that they talked about their children: those who were ticking along, those that were already going down the wrong path, and those who were doing well. Their kids range in age from a few months to thirty years but most are in their late teens and early twenties. For me, interest always lies in the unexpected: the young person doing well from the most roguish of backgrounds, or the kid embroiled in drugs and crime despite the very best efforts of their parents. Statistical probabilities always hide the unpredictabilities of the life course.

- Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of Glamorgan, and a member of the Youth Justice Board. Email howard.williamson@haymarket.com.

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