Why “Bovver”

Of all the characters the British comedian Catherine Tate played on her television sketch series, perhaps none became as famous as Lauren Cooper, a bolshy teenager who responded to pretty much anything with the assertion she was not ‘bovvered’.

Viewers couldn’t help but pity whoever turned up in Lauren’s path, knowing no one escaped unscathed. Certainly not her chemistry teacher, who understandably loses his calm in this piece:

 

After all, what hope was there when faced with a loudmouth of such mythological proportion?

And so, when the editors of the OED picked ‘bovvered’ as their 2006 word of the year, a spokesperson claimed it was ‘the perfect expression of a generation of teenagers and their speaking style’. Linguistically, that may have been true, but more broadly, Lauren’s stubborn sulkiness was a caricatured distillation of youth culture in ‘Broken Britain’: did any of us stand a chance against the kids congregating in shopping centres or playing music out of their mobile phones on the top floor of the bus?

I thought of Lauren recently when put in front of a group of real-life teenagers. My employer runs an annual programme for students from a similar inner-London, state school background as their fictional avatar. Rather than ‘work experience’, typified by shunting a kid in an ill-fitting suit into an unused desk to punch holes in paper no one will look at, these teenagers attend a Big Business day camp. The students are organised into teams with Apprentice-style names (‘Fusion’, ‘Synergy’ etc), but rather than besting colleagues in the boardroom, the aim is making everyone feel more comfortable in the workplace. Activities include networking practice, treasure hunts across the building, reviewing sample CVs for a recruitment exercise.

The message of the week is simple: a large organisation runs on all sorts of skills, and students can pursue the occupation of their choice – lawyer, graphic artist, cook or personal trainer – in an environment that might have otherwise seemed like a foreign land. Furthermore, whether their career path leads to the market stall or the multi-national, the principles involved in finding work and being successful are hardly different.

This year, I registered to assist on several sessions. In theory, at least, I was excited. Having been born into a family of modest means myself, here was a chance to ‘give back’. But on the day, as the Outlook reminder popped up, I registered a slight sense of dread. What if the kids were like Lauren? Was I prepared to be that chemistry teacher, faced with the disaffection of youth?

I didn’t need to worry. The students’ engagement in my first session cleared that up. At this point in my life, I’ve no direct interaction with teenagers. Like any strangers in this city, they exist only as people with whom one doesn’t make eye contact. So if I was expecting anything, it wasn’t carefree smiles accompanying giggling questions like, ‘Do you have a PA, sir?’ On hearing an affirmative, the girl in the headscarf exclaimed, with a satisfied grin, ‘Everyone here has a PA! I’m going to be a PA’. And the origami swan, replete with flapping wings? A spontaneous thank you from a boy who surely has a career in design ahead.

The sessions were fine, but what struck me more was the time I spent talking with two girls between activities, about their studies and their futures. Though one of them had a name not far off Lauren’s, her manner could have hardly been more opposite. My management-ish job is hard to explain, but it falls under the aegis of Finance, so I often just say I’m an accountant. The honesty and vulnerability of a 16 year-old who says she really wants to do accounts, but she isn’t so good at maths, is a little bit heartbreaking. Talk about being bovvered. So, too, her friend who smiled so brightly on hearing an adult say that studying business, IT and English sounded like an ideal combination for any number of roles. It may be naive in Britain’s seemingly endless ‘Age of Austerity’, but how do you begin to describe that enthusiasm and optimism?

To the extent Lauren’s retorts were a challenge (and they were always a challenge) – ‘Am I bovvered? Do I look bovvered? But am I bovvered?’ – they put the burden of proof on her persecutor. Teachers, classmates, boys – anyone, really. She was impervious to them all. Or, so she claimed. Her pathos was evidenced by defensive overreaction – ‘Are you calling me a pikey? Are you saying my mum is a lardarse?’ – but good luck getting her to acknowledge any cracks in her unbovvered armour. Backed into a corner, either by responsibility or embarrassment, she was really asking, as in this clip, ‘Can you prove you’ve hurt me?’

For viewers, the disconnect between Lauren’s inner and outer worlds was always evident, cued by camera close-ups of her stunned face drawing in breath before her verbal onslaught. But if the mask ever slipped, we never witnessed it. When Lauren made a mistake, trying to prove her cool, she would never ‘take the shame’. She soldiered on, insistent. That’s what teenagers are like, innit?

Except, maybe not. The kids I worked with might have thought I was doing them a favour. Their handshakes and good cheer afterward certainly suggested as much. Maybe I was. But I reckon they did me a bigger one. By acknowledging their uncertainties and aspirations, even in small ways, they let me see beyond Lauren Cooper’s implacably unbovvered facade.

No doubt when confronted with rejection by a would-be date, those same students suck their teeth, tilt their heads and ask Lauren’s immortal question. Which is fair enough. In matters of the heart, wanting to never let them see you cry isn’t strictly the domain of the teenager.

Then again, being bothered about the future isn’t strictly the domain of the adult, either.

 

ML Peck likes a good pretzel.