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The Vacuum Issue 11 spacer Issue 11
Angels Flying too Close to the Ground
by Paul Moore
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It is significant that in the foreword to Des Bell's book Acts of Union: Youth Culture and Sectarianism in Northern Ireland, Philip Cohen asserts that "the work is about 'a whole section of youth whose culture and conditions of existence have for too long been travestied or ignored simply because they are growing up in Northern Ireland rather than 'mainland Britain'". Not only has the question of youth been ignored but the more general issue of underground, subcultural movements has also been given little or no concentrated attention and analysis.
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One group that this applies to are those who have developed cultural and leisure activities related to the motorcycle, despite the fact that Ireland in general, and Northern Ireland in particular, has always had a special relationship with two wheels. Many of its most famous sporting figures have been motorcyclists, from Stanley Woods, through Sammy Millar and Tommy Herron to, most recently, the Dunlop brothers, Joey and Robert.
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However, while most motorcyclists in Northern Ireland were, and are, involved in what might be termed the 'mainstream' aspects of the sport, there have always been groups who existed on the margins, outside the 'acceptable face' of the movement. Descended from the Rockers and the Hells Angels (sic) these outsider or outlaw groups seemed to gain strength in periods of economic and structural tension in post-war society. It is these groups that represent alternative or subcultural modes of behaviour to those dominating society in general.
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Angels Flying too Close to the Ground
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The comments in this article are based on a two-year period of study with an outlaw group in Derry, undertaken as Phd research. The fact that the notion of studying bikers is seen by most as alternative in itself is an indication of the lack of attention that has been given to small movements that say a great deal about the way in which people organise their lives to cope with daily life in a dysfunctional society.
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In Northern Ireland there are two types of motorcycle clubs, the MCC groups and the more 'hardcore' MC clubs. Although the initials in both cases designate motorcycle clubs, MCC groups are the acceptable face of the biking movement. While the members are anxious to show their affiliation to a particular type of biking (the lifestyle as opposed to the sporting) they are equally anxious to illustrate to the public that adherence to this kind of social activity should not be equated with particular forms of anti-social behaviour. These clubs actively engage in publicity exercises aimed at raising the public profile of bikers, events such as charity work or organising 'gift' runs at significant times of the year. The clubs are administratively organised according to the accepted rules of business protocol with elected officers and carefully choreographed monthly meetings.
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In contrast to clubs that promote a democratic, if bureaucratic, mode of operation, the MC clubs are more radical in their structure. These groups are always associated with a particular district and ethos and they are identified by the wearing of a back-patch or colours which shows the name of the group and the district in which they 'run'. Crucially MC club members take pride in the fact that they have an identifiable history which connects them by a cultural thread to an authentic form of biking which involves complete and absolute commitment to the lifestyle.
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Angels Flying too Close to the Ground
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MC groups have no elected structure of officers, and the 'President' is usually a charismatic character who has proved himself by behaviour which has benefited the club in some way, whether materially or in terms of club credibility. On the world stage the best example of such an individual is Ralph 'Sonny' Barger founder of the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels and their unofficial world leader. In an MC club a member's status is dependent on the length of time a commitment has been shown to the club and the work which has been done to promote the lifestyle. All members are given club names, used in the club on a dailybasis, which reflects their status and contribution to the group.
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You cannot just join an MC group. You are invited to become a prospective member, or 'prospect'. It is then your responsibility to carry out menial tasks for the group and other full members. As a prospect you cannot wear the full patch but after a suitable prospect period you are considered for full membership. If the vote is not unanimous you are out - you have not the 'class' to wear the full patch.
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So what do MC clubs do? Basically they live the outlaw biker life as a constant, meeting regularly to discuss club problems and going on club runs, often to other club events. They adhere to a set of explicit rules and advance the movement through what might be termed a kind of self-reflexivity whereby they use their history and the public's perception of them as anti-social to embed conceptual notions about the subculture.
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This self-reflexivity emerges through the realisation that bikers now have a history. Lawerence Grossberg calls this realisation the coming of the 'Nostalgic' and in the context of rock music claims that this realisation leads to the death of the form and the deconstruction of youth. Much of what Grossberg has to say about rock music could be applied to outlaw biking and the problem for those bikers who consider themselves to be the 'real' followers of the hard-core lifestyle is how this identity can be sustained and stopped from turning into some grotesque parody of an earlier movement.
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The answer for MC bikers is to develop a discourse of authenticity which allows them to use a subcultural biking history - The Wild One, Easy Rider, Hunter Thompson's Hells Angels - as a means of underpinning, rather than undermining, their credentials. This construction is developed through the application of four key elements - a technological discourse, an oral discourse, a representational discourse and an elite discourse.
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Each of these discourses cements the authentic nature of the players - each member will develop his own bike and work on it himself. Hence he will gain technical credibility and distinctiveness. On every available occasion a member will reinforce the history and rituals of 'real' bikers to anyone who will listen, adding this to an elitist notion which is reinforced by each club's behaviour and the deference other clubs and bikers are prepared to give them. Finally the movement is reinforced through the representations of outlaw bikers in magazines, books, television and novels. One of the most famous of these representations are the Chopper novels published by the New English Library and so significant are these formulaeic novels that recently Chopper was repackaged with images of 'real' bikers on the front cover and a foreword by the now deceased PR person for the Windsor Hells Angels Dr. Maz Harris. And so powerful has this construction been that the combination of a customised motorcycle, a black leather jacket, a distant demeanour and an air of menace assures respect and fear from the viewing public. The irony, of course, is that bikers have themselves seen through this construction and use it to protect their privacy. One example will suffice to prove this. On a busy Saturday afternoon in a large rural town I witnessed the group I knew well park their bikes and proceed to urinate in unison in the main street. On enquiring what this act was about I was told - 'Your public expects it!"
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Angels Flying too Close to the Ground
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The biker movement is also immersed in contradiction. While it is sexist, many of the members are married with children and show real commitment and respect for their partners. The cliché of female groupies who belong to the club and can be used as club members see fit does not apply in the Northern Irish context. Indeed the security offered by a constant partner is, to an extent, one of the factors that allows club members 'time-out' to pursue what is perceived as anti-social behaviour.
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As the previous point would suggest outlaw biking is not a 'youth' culture. Many of the members have arrived in biking having sampled other subcultures and found them lacking in the commitment and authenticity they crave. Hence many members are heading towards middle-youth and hold down long-term jobs.
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The notion that they are all outsiders, socially and psychologically, is also open to challenge. Certainly each club has a range of 'characters' such as the thinker, the leader, the organiser and the joker, but in general members are invisible in their daily lives and it is this very invisibility that offers the anonymity and privacy necessary to sustain the lifestyle and keep the club free from interference from offialdom.
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The greatest irony is in the context of Northern Ireland, however. It would appear that many members of outlaw biker groups joined as a means of escaping and evading immersion in traditional cultural activities that would have brought with them the expectation of involvement, perhaps even involvement in paramilitary activity. Hence there is the spectacle of men joining an anti-social subculture to avoid becoming embroiled in anti-social political activity.
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What enables outlaw bikers to live with, if not resolve these contradictions is a profound connection to Northern Ireland as a place. If we accept that place is a social construction, then outlaw biker groups in this place construct a concept of Northern Ireland that has nothing to do with geography or politics and everything to do with biker group interaction and exchange. Hence place for them operates on a cultural level, particular places gaining mythical significance through the continual telling of club stories by club members many of whom would not have been members when the events they are relating took place.
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The heavily ritualised nature of outlaw biking can be explained, therefore, as an attempt by MC clubs to mark boundaries within a constructed symbolic community, but these boundaries are always relational, placing the biker community in relation to what they would term as 'straight' society. All of this complex matrix of construction is represented for outlaw bikers by the wearing of the club patch which openly declares a kind of subcultural ethnicity and which, therefore, can never be allowed to be challenged by another club, 'taken down' or (the most heinous crime) misplaced or lost.
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Angels Flying too Close to the Ground
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So what can we learn from outlaw biking subculture in Northern Ireland? Firstly, that outsider groups can, and do, problematise their own history and reconstruct it to solve present day tensions. Secondly, that traditional theories of subculture are not sufficient to explain underground behaviour in a dysfunctional society. Thirdly that, as with all subcultures, the rituals and symbols of outsider groups articulate themselves through stylistic expressions which are original, creative and self-aware. Finally, that being a part of an outsider group means understanding the subcultural history that has brought you and your group here. A 'historicised' subculture analyses its own movement and its practices and uses three inter-related accounts - the real history, the media history and the mythical history - to construct a movement which can live the contradictions of the official/unofficial, subterranean/open, subaltern/dominant. And all this on two wheels!
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