Saturday, November 14, 2009

Under the skin

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The skinhead movement is about to be reconsidered in a new film and a photographic exhibition. The menace and violence linger in the memory, but is it time to reassess the culture and its appeal in a more complex way?

It provided some of the most powerful youth imagery the UK has ever known. The shaved head, Doc Marten boots, braces and tight, bleached jeans made up a peculiarly British fashion that was exported around the world.

It was a look that became associated with the violence and racism of the late 70s - unfairly, according to its supporters. But the simmering menace added to its allure.

Now the movement, which came to the UK in two waves between the late 60s and mid-80s, is about to place its size 11s firmly back in the mainstream media.

1970s/80s SKINHEADS
Dress: Knee-high boots, flying jackets, Ben Sherman shirts, severely shaved head
Music: Two-Tone record label, The Specials, Cockney Rejects
Football: Attended matches en masse and named terraces like Chelsea's Shed
Difference to 60s skins: Coarser look, less influenced by mods and Jamaican ska

An award-winning, rites-of-passage film by Shane Meadows, called This Is England, hits cinemas at the end of the month. It's set in Thatcher's Britain of 1983, with mass unemployment and the Falklands War. A bullied boy joins a skinhead gang which is subsequently infiltrated by racists.

Meadows, who based the film on his own childhood in the East Midlands, says it's easily forgotten that the skinhead movement came about through the white man's love of black music.

A photographic exhibition which opened in London this week makes a similar point. Gavin Watson's portrayals of life as a teenage skinhead in High Wycombe show a racially diverse subculture that drew him in aged 14.

"Ultimately, it's difficult to explain the attraction, as it is for anyone deeply passionate about music, style and fashion," he says. "It's like asking 'why do you love your wife?' There was a lot of love involved and a lot of passion involved."

One theory he offers is that fathers hard at work could not provide the role model older boys could on the street.

What his own father did give him, however, was a camera, when he was 15 and about to be kicked out of school.

Over the next decade he took 10,000 photographs which offer a unique insight into a hidden, and often misunderstood, world. Watson's interest in it ended when rave culture took over, although he says the fun had by then been replaced by macho posturing.

Part of the initial attraction was being hated. "We were absolutely vilified. People were scared of us and wanted to beat us up. It was part of that stress of being a child - there's always a meltdown going on."

The racists were laughed at in the pub, he says. And there was violence but it plagued all communities at the time, not just the skinheads.

But while black culture was generally respected for its influence, other ethnic minorities were not so lucky. Gerry Gable of anti-fascist group Searchlight says the skinheads were the enemy in the late 70s and made up about 80% of the so-called "Paki-bashers" who roamed Brick Lane.

Class nostalgia

"The far-right political groups were looking for any kids that were alienated and these kids were putting on the [skinhead] uniform and going to the gigs. The two recruiting grounds were "Oi" music and football violence."

He thinks the appeal of being a skinhead was complex and differed from person to person - there were racist dimensions and anti-racist ones.

"It's unfortunate that the racist elements have become such a by-word for skinhead culture. The media has played its part in this, but by the same token it's clear the fascist element has always been fairly vocal in skinhead culture. The sad bit is that the more enlightened, anti-fascist aspects have not better promoted themselves."

Class nostalgia played a big part too, he says. "In the late 70s and early 80s, working class culture was disintegrating through unemployment and inner city decay and there was an attempt to recapture a sense of working class solidarity and identity in the face of a tide of social change."

Cultural critic Dick Hebdige wrote an influential essay on the subject in 1982, called "This is England and They don't live here".

In explaining a common misconception about the title, he says that "They" does not refer to immigrants but educated, middle-class, white professionals who were deserting the rundown inner city areas skinheads shared with non-white immigrants.

And he sees an ambivalent psychology in the way skinheads gave voice to their class subordination, but at the same time chose to proudly re-enforce it - "throwing yourself away before 'They' do it for you".

Today there is little doubt the skinhead movement is appreciated for its contribution to British fashion and history, says Mr Osgerby, and the film and the exhibition will help to crystallize the way it vividly captured the time.

Another legacy is the way the style has been adopted by some gay men as an extreme form of masculinity. Marvin, a 33-year-old skinhead from Wakefield, says that is nothing new and part of the attraction is subverting what is considered "the norm".

"Feeling like an outcast for being gay or feeling like an outcast for looking a certain way isn't that much different."

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