Friday, September 18, 2009

Skinheads: the cult of trouble by Ian Walker (New Society 26 June 1980)

A wee departure from pasting up film posters on the blog.
What seems like a lifetime ago, I posted the late Ian Walker's 1979 New Society article, 'Anarchy in the UK', on the blog, and it was always my intention to post other pieces by Ian Walker that had originally appeared within the pages of the now defunct British magazine, The New Society.
What happened then? Well, I moved to the States and my copy of Paul Barker's 'The Other Britain' - a collection of New Society articles from the 70s and 80s that included five Ian Walker contributions - decided not to take the journey with me.
Other more important matters also intervened and it's only in the most recent past that I've been able to acquire a pristine secondhand hardback copy of Barker's book. (My original tatty secondhand paperback copy of 'The Other Britain' is still launguishing back in Britain lying suffocated under 73 back issues of International Socialism.)
As a follow up to Walker's article on the sub-culture of British Anarchism back in the day, I thought I'd post an 1980 article of his on the Skinhead phenomenon that was making headline news for all the wrong reasons during the same period.
You'll obviously recognise the bands mentioned in the piece because they never went away, but it's a blast from the past to see mention of the National Front's Joe Pearce, who has since travelled some distance both philosophically and geographically from the fascism of his youth in the East End of London.
Hope you enjoy the piece. I know it's very much of its time but Ian Walker was a wonderful writer, people are still trying to hunt down his work (that's what my sitemeter tells me, anyway) and maybe, just maybe, next time it won't take me four years before I post another of his articles on the blog.
Skinheads: the cult of trouble by Ian Walker
Skinheads streaming out of Camden Town underground tonight look hard and they know it. The crop is the style, but it can also be the weapon: it'll nut you if you look too long or you don't step out of the way, if you're wearing the wrong uniform or follow the wrong team. Outside the Electric Ballroom four Special Patrol Group men stand staring at the line of skinheads waiting to pay £3.00 to see UB40, staring at the anti-fashion parade.

The smart look is sta-press trousers, Ben Sherman shirts and polished Dr Martens. The tougher look is a short-sleeved shirt displaying the tattoos, bleached Levis with the braces hanging loose round the legs. The real hard cases have tattoos on their faces. One has a small cross on each cheek. Most of the girl skins look really young, about 13, and are dressed like the boys in shirts, jeans and boots. But some wear short skirts, like one black skinhead girl who's got brown monkey boots over black fishnet tights.

The police point and giggle at all the girls in mini-skirts. Now and again they try to show who the real tough guys are by frogmarching the odd skinhead to the back of the queue.

Skins: the image is white convict, the music is black. (Remember Norman Mailer's article on the cult of hip, 'The white Negro'?) Groups like UB40 - the name comes from the DHSS code for the unemployed - are now called two-tone because they put black and white musicians together to play ska, an early form of reggae coming out of Jamaica, and popular with the first wave of British skinheads in the 1960s.

It is not just skinheads who are into two-tone. Punks, Rastas, rude boys (skins in mohair suits), and a few long-hairs, are here too. But inside the Electric Ballroom, this huge and airless hall, it's the skinheads who make the atmosphere charged . . . . There's a loud crack and heads turn. But it's just a skin who's finished his can of Coke and smashed it on the floor.

A skinhead tries to make an art form out of machismo. He walks chin out military style, with a duck-splayed swagger. He sucks hard on his cigarette, chews his gum with a vengeance. He doesn't smile too much, unless he's with his mates at the bar. The only time a skin looks somehow vulnerable is when he's dancing - never with a girl, always either alone or with other skins - with his eyes half-closed, dipping his shoulders rhythmically. Skinheads are great dancers.

'It's just fashion, innit?' says a 16-year-old from South London, watching his mate zap the Space Invaders in the bar, rocking gently to the reggae of Reality, the warm-up band. Two girls - one has MINI-SKIN N4 DODGER painted on the back of her army-green jacket - run full-tilt through the bar; scant regard for drink or bodies. Skin girls aim to be as street-tough as the boys. They strut to the front of the queue at the women's toilets. No one complains.

Although skin boys don't hang out with the skin girls, every now and again a boy will just waltz up to a girl, kiss her violently for a couple of minutes, before moving off wordlessly. Girls are okay for kissing and fucking, but you don't talk to them, not in public anyhow. These boys, with their POW haircuts and markings, their enamel Union Jack badges, their polished boots - these boys don't get too upset if they're taken for fascists. Fascism is a laugh.

A boy in a red Fred Perry tennis shirt greets his friend with a Nazi salute, grinning. Another skinhead wandering round the bar has WHITE POWER written in blue on his T-shirt. A black roadie for UB40 stops and scowls at him, but the white supremacist ignores the challenge, walks on by.

At 10.30, UB40 come on stage and there's a rush from the bars as the skins make for the front of the hall. Two Rastafarians and six whites in this band. 'This is one of our Rock Against Thatcher numbers,' says the frontman. A few half-hearted cheers. 'Are there only 50 people here into Rock Against Thatcher?' He gets a bigger cheer. A drunk skinhead staggers through the packed dance floor, trying to kick the guy running away from him, before giving up the chase and collapsing on the floor. Everyone ignores him. Be cool.

The final encore over, the lights come on, and the plastic pint pots are ceremoniously crunched. West Ham skins sing 'Wembley' (pronounced Wemballee) on their way out, throwing down the gauntlet to the Arsenal.

It's not picked up. It's been a quiet night, after all. Police are back on duty outside as the dancers spill out, dripping with sweat this warm night, and traipse down the street for the underground train home. Home to their parents, most of them, though there is one last pleasure to be squeezed out the night: to chant and sing and look tough on the tube. Scaring the straights is half the fun.

It always has been. Seat-slashing Teds, mass-rioting mods and rockers, football thugs, skinheads, drug-taking hippies, foul-mouthed punks . . . Sub-editors write headlines, politicians fire moralism from the hip, youth movements come and go.

Skinhead first arrived in the late 1960s. It was a sort of male working-class backlash against mods grown too narcissistic, effeminate and arty. Football fans discovered a style. I remember 4,000 Manchester United skinheads on the terraces at Elland Road, Leeds, in 1968. They all wore bleached Levis, Dr Martens, a short scarf tied cravat-style, cropped hair. They looked like an army and, after the game, went into action like one.

Skinheads never really disappeared from the football terraces. But the clothes, like skinhead music (soul, ska, home-grown rabble-rousers like Slade), went out of fashion, until the punk movement turned style inside out, starting in late 1976. A new generation of skins started following the band called Sham '69. 'If punks are about anarchy, then skinheads are the most anarchist going,' Jimmy Pursey, the band's frontman, once told me in his Hersham flat, above a bookie's. 'They fight, run riot, don't give a fuck about anything.' Pursey withdrew from the Rock Against Racism carnival in Brixton later that year because he feared that his supporters might smash the whole thing up. Sham '69 folded the next year.

Mark Dumsday never liked Sham '69 anyway. He has been a skinhead for two years, he is 18, and moved to London a years ago after working on a fairground in Southend, his home town. He now lives in a short-life ex-council flat in King's Cross. He gets £23 a week from social security.

It's five in the afternoon. We're sitting in front of a black and white portable TV, here in the living room of this fourth-floor flat in Midhope House. Mark says he usually gets up around two, watches television, then goes out for a drink, or to a gig, or whatever. His father is a welder. His mother works for Avon cosmetics.

'When I was at home,' he says, 'I didn't get on very well with them. Now it's sweet. All right now. They don't mind me being a skin. They quite like it, like the haircut, think it's tidy.' He's looking at the TV. Shots of bikini-clad women on Caribbean beaches. The Eversun commercial.

Why did Mark first get his crop? 'I dunno. I used to hang around with bikers, the Southend Hell's Angels. In August '78, when I came off the fair, I had a crop. It was something different at the time. At Southend there was only about ten of us. Now there's loads of 'em.'

The tattoo on his right arm is a caricature of a skinhead. 'Most skins have got this one,' he says, pointing to it. 'Or a lot of the BM [British Movement] skins have got the phoenix bird.' Pictures of Debbie Harry and Olivia Newton-John on one wall, and of the West Indian reggae artist, Peter Tosh, smoking a joint on another. 'Yeah, I like a blow. I don't know any skinheads who don't.'

He left school at 16 without taking any exams. 'I was hardly ever there. Used to bunk off all the time.' He's thought about getting a job as a despatch rider, but he's happy enough on the dole. He has no girl friend. 'I don't bother going out with them,' he grins. I ask him why it is that skinheads always hang out in all-male groups. Is it that they don't know how to talk to girls? 'That's rubbish,' he says. 'Anyone can pick up a bird. Anybody.' But Mark has never picked up a skin girl. 'I think a girl with a crop looks silly.'

Skinhead isn't fashion, he says; but he's not sure what it is at all. What does he get out of it? 'Not a lot.'
Two young Glaswegian women, both with dyed blonde hair and one of them tattooed, arrive with shopping bags. 'They're just staying here,' says Mark. 'Ain't got nowhere else to go . . . ' No, the only thing that's kept skinheads going is it's not commercial, like punk was and mods are. I want to stay one till I'm 21.' Why? 'Dunno. Stuck it out two years. Might as well make it five. If I quit, I'll probably turn biker.'

A lot of the skins who used to live on this estate are now inside, but Mark has stayed pretty clean. 'I only have one offence against me. For possession.' Of drugs, that is - 'speed', amphetamines. 'I'll have it occasionally, not very often. A lot of skins are into glue, but I've never done that. If you can't afford the right stuff, don't do that.' The television picture distorts. Mark gets up, fiddles around with the aerial, which is stuck in the grille of a gas fire. One of the Glaswegians notices a mark on the back of his head. She asks him what it is. 'Scar,' he says. A woman on the box, now in focus, reckons the boa constrictors are very popular pets now. Mark sits down again.

Life here, the way he tells it, is one long struggle against the law. 'The Old Bill were up here the other night. Took me curtains away to analyse them. Went right through the place. They went downstairs and asked this geezer, "Is that bloke upstairs a nutter?"

A prostitute who lived on this estate was murdered. Most of her body was found in Epping Forest; police expected to find the rest here, in Midhope House. 'The cop was saying, "You did it, didn't you? I think you done it." I just laughed.' Mark says he did know the prostitute. 'Didn't like her either.' A sudden strong smell of varnish as the two women start painting their nails.

'Yeah,' Mark continues. 'You do get a lot of aggravation from the Old Bill. In Southend I've been nicked twice for things I never done. My mate kicked in a rockabilly and I got put in a cell for 24 hours for that . . . and here they just stop you on the street, RO you. Give it all out on the radio. See if they've got warrants out for your arrest.

'I've been beaten up the Old Bill. There was me and another guy, me mate, he ran away. They took me home, found a starting pistol. Then they got me in the back of the car. Twisting my neck and punching my mouth. Bastards they are . . . and you get a lot of DS [drug squad] at gigs. Round here the DS are easy to spot, just old geezers. But at gigs some of 'em are really young. I was at Dingwalls [also in Camden Town] the other night and suddenly the DS was all around us.'

Mark, the letters of his name tattooed on his four fingers, flicks a hand over his crop, asks me if I want a cup of tea? Skinhead crops come in four categories, from grade one to grade four. Mark's is grade one, the shortest. He has to get it cut every three weeks.

Over the tea Mark says he has no time for mods ('just a load of wimps'), Teds, rockabillies or Asians. Why Asians? 'I don't like Pakis and I don't know any skinheads who do. Pakis just don't mix. You'll see one of them,' he points to the Peter Tosh poster, 'with a white man. Never see a Paki with one. Paki-bashing is all part of the cult anyway.'

There is an Asian band in south London called Alien Kulture who take gangs of Asian youth with them wherever they play. Mark had said he thought 'niggers are okay, I like the music.' But he just shakes his head about Alien Kulture: 'I don't think they'll last. I don't think they'll last five minutes. A Paki band? I never heard of such a thing.'

Tonight Mark is going to see Madness, the all-white ska band, at the Lyceum. Madness are darlings of the British Movement and National Front skins: somebody's going to get hurt tonight. Mark himself says he isn't into fascism, and he isn't into violence. 'I don't fight unless someone provokes me.' But what is it then that provokes skins to punch, kick, nut and razor? 'It's just the cult. Skins are trouble, aggro, Paki-bashing, the lot. The cult is trouble.'

Choose your own cult and live inside it. Skinhead is trouble. The cult is big in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester. In Glasgow and Belfast, punk is still the biggest youth movement. In the country as a whole, the 'heavy metal' revival is in the ascendant (loud rock from the likes of Saxon, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard). No one is really too sure what is happening in the youth culture. Fascist skins, left-wing skins, and yet more skins who just like the clothes and the music? A psychedelia revivial, a rhythm-and-blues revival? Black skins and white rude boys? Asian rock bands?

I take a train up to Bradford. Bad Manners are playing at the university. Bad Manners are from Stoke Newington. All white apart from the drummer, they say they got to know ska sounds hanging out in the local black clubs. The lead singer, Doug, has been a skinhead since the first time round, in 1968. 'I'm the leader,' he says, elongating the vowels to fake dumbness. 'I'm the one who encourages all the violence at the gigs. I think you haven't had a good gig unless you've had a good punch-up'. He smacks his ample fist into his palm and laughs.

The accent, like the clothing, is constructed from the cartoon worker, the Jak navvie. Skinhead style takes the bourgeois caricature of its class (dumb and violent) and makes it yet more extreme. Shave off the hair to emphasise brainlessness and criminality, make the head ugly and lumpen. Wear boots to emphasise drudgery and violence. A donkey jacket, like the one that Doug wear on stage, completes the look.

Active in a housing co-op in Stoke Newington, Doug is smart all right, he knows all about the parody and he has no time for racist gig-wreckers, but what can he do except make jokes about it? Trapped by his chosen style, the farthest he can go is to say, 'Well, anyone who votes NF, they're not too clever.'

The band are changing and tuning up in a lecture room. The tables are littered with empty bottles of Stella Artois, the remains of pasties. 'I'm tough, I'm rough', shouts out one of the band, sub-Clint Eastwood. 'I'm mean, I'm clean', screams someone else.

The boys from Stoke Newington, living on $25 a week and touring the country, are having a good time. After an American football-style huddle they rush out to play. No violence, of course, at a college gig. Bradford seems a lot further than 200 miles from London where, the next day, I have an appointment with the National Front.

I ring the bell and the front door is opened cagily by a fat man with greased back hair and an army-surplus jumper. Joe Pearce, the organiser for the Young National Front, and editor of their magazine, Bulldog, shows up. He looks every inch like a college boy, which he was till he was forced to abandon his course on polymer technology at the South Bank poly. His medium-length brown hair is well groomed. He wears a green car-coat and beige flares. He says he's told the NF skins to meet us down at the pub. We live Excalibur House, the National Front's Shoreditch headquarters.

Proud of the Front's impact in the youth culture, Joe Pearce boasts of widespread support among heavy metal fans and mods, as well as skins. 'Like the mod movement in the East End is NF. There's a link between the glory boys and the NF, the gang that used to follow Secret Affair and now follows the Cockney Rejects. They're the ones that have mod tattooed in the inside if their lip.'

The first skin to arrive is Gary Munford from Ealing YNF. He was first a skinhead in 1970, when he was twelve. Since then, he's been a suedehead and a soul-boy. 'I used to go down the discos, wear pegs and American bowling shirts. It was such a posy scene. I was spending about $30 a week on clothes. And then there was all the niggers at the discos and white slags hanging about with them.'

The few black people in this bar start finishing off their drinks. Another crophead sits down at the table. He's wearing an army-camouflage flying jacket. I ask him what he does for a living? 'Demolition,' he says, with a mechanical chuckle. His name is Alex Barbour.

The recent National Front march in Lewisham was 80 per cent skinhead. What's happened to the older support? 'More important you have the young support. Look at the police running away, like they did at Bristol. Older people aren't prepared to take that violence. Young people have got the bottle to go out there and . . . ' Gary Munford clenches his fist, adorned with punching rings.

'If there's going to be a ruck, skins'll be the first ones in, they'll steam in. Except I do disagree with them going down to Brighton and Southend and beating the shit out of each other, when they could be beating shit out of more constructive people, mentioning no names.' His friends laugh.

Tony Duck and Rita Hope, from Haringey YNF branch, finally turns up. He is an unemployed electrician, and she works at Swan and Edgar on Piccadilly. He thinks a lot of recent skin converts are 'just a bunch of wallies who've learnt how to chant Sieg Geil at gigs. They're the sort of people who'll grow their hair and start going round with blacks again.' Tony says that, in his branch, there are two full paid-up black members. 'It's because they really want to go home.'

Gary Munford says his girl friend is in the Front. 'She;s been on marches with me. But a lot of the time the blokes tell the birds not to come. There's gonna be a riot.'

'Half of us can look after ourselves just as good as you lot anyway,' says Rita Hope. Even here, in the backwoods of the NF, some cracked reflection of a women's movement: a woman's right to ruck.

Jeering at this notion of physical equality, Gary Munford recalls a time he arrived at a march with 14 skins, to find 200 Anti-Nazis blocking their path: 'We got all the girls behind us, said keep walking, then just ran at them shouting, "White youth unite." They all just turned and ran. Whatever anyone says, our blokes have got more bottle.'

'The birds of the reds are worst,' says Rita Hope.

There is a vicious feel to those East End streets, where all the white boys are skins, which is absent in Somers Town: the small triangle between St Pancras, Euston and Camden. There is no reason to go through Somers Town, unless you happen to live in one of those blocks of council flats that comprise the neighbourhood. At around a quarter to four, boys are pouring out of the local school, Sir William Collins, an all-boy comprehensive. The blacks walk home with the blacks, the whites with the whites.
Two white skins, Andy Sophocleous and Steve Rawlinson, both 13, say that out of 165 boys in their year, about 70 are skins. They reckon the school is all right: 'Same as all schools really. Some parts you like, and some you don't.' What is it they don't? 'Some of the teachers. Some of 'em are grumpy. Don't let you have any fun in class. Kids work best if you can have a laugh, too.'

Andy is carrying a school-supplied acoustic guitar. 'I want to be in a band when I'm a bit older.' I ask him what his parents said about him becoming a skin? 'Well,' he pauses. 'I walked in after my first crop. and my Dad goes, "Oh, what? You think you're a trouble-maker now?" And our teacher, Mr Malinson, he sort of goes to me and him,' pointing to Steve, "'If I saw you two on the street, if I was a cop, I'd pick you up before two normal kids." For sus, like. People can get the wrong idea because of the hair.'

'My mum don't like it,' Steve says. 'Thinks you're going out just for trouble . . . Best ti be normal if you think about it. Then you don't get beaten up by no one.' Steve and Andy aim to keep out of trouble. That's why they don't go to gigs. 'There's trouble on the train. They won't let you on 'cos they think you'll vandalise everything. On buses they can make you sit downstairs.'

Moved on, stopped, questioned, denied entrance - skinheads these boys reckon, have a lot to put up with. 'Yeah, they get a hard time, especially from the police, and quite a few teachers. One teacher suspended a skin. He had a swastika shaved into his head. I think that's bad as well,' Andy says. 'I think he should have gone home. He would have got into a lot of trouble with the coloured kids, anyway. He would've got beaten up. The school's roughly half and half, a few more whites . . . '

They're getting a bit fidgety. It's 4.20 and the football is on, live from Rome, at 4.30.

Down through Somers Town, over the Euston Road (a territorial divide for the gangs round here), and again on into King's Cross. Just down the road from the Midhope House, where Mark Dumsday lives, is a youth club called the Tonbridge Club. Open 6 to 10, six days a week, it's the hang-out for local kids too young or too poor to go drinking and dancing. They come here to play table tennis, snooker and pinball, listen to records. Most of the boys here, too, are skinheads. One of them, Michael, tells me he's up in court next week for not going to school. He's 15. Why did he get a crop? 'Dunno. Just like the music, reggae and ska. And I'm into me own band, play bass. Get the name of the band down. It's called Youth Cult.'

Another skin, Eric McQueen, takes Bob Marley off the turntable and puts on the Sex Pistols single, Anarchy in the UK. Eric is living in a hostel for juvenile delinquents in Westbourne Grove. 'Well, it started at primary school, see,' he says. 'I used to fight all the time. I went to a hostel in Chapel Market and then they put me in Stratford House, a remand home, for six months. From there I went to a community house. Spent a year there, and then I got a job. I've had seven jobs since I left school, in shops, factories, decorating, everything.'

And what's the idea of this place he's in now? 'Sort your life out,' he smiles. 'It's all right. Ain't got many rules, except you got to be in by 12 on Saturdays.' Eric is 18. He has only had his crop, which is dyed blond, for two months.

Eric tells a couple of young girls who've sidled up that he gets about $8 a day from his social worker. They look impressed. I ask him how he got the scar on his left ear? 'Some nutter.'

Hugh Byrne, who's also 18, has a crop which is starting to grow out. He's out of work. 'He's a good artist,' says one of the girls standing by a bar which sells Kit-Kats and Coke. 'Skinhead is just the thing round this area,' High says, with the air of someone bored with the whole idea. 'Used to be a lot of mods round here too, 'cos the star of Quadrophenia, Philip Daniels, used to live round here. Half the skins round here used to be punks or mods.'

One local skin gang, about 40 strong, have recently given it all up, Hugh says.'They've all changed to normal 'cos they were always getting picked on and that. I used to get picked up by the Old Bill a lot.' Is that why he's letting his hair grow? 'No. Not really. It's only been two months. I can't be bothered to get it cut.'

Post-skins. like Hugh, and his friend, Tony French, all describe themselves as having gone 'normal' once they've let their grow out. Tony French, who now looks like a King's Road smoothie, used to be involved in all the gang feuds round here. 'No reason,' he says. 'Something to do.'

Reasons? Anyone interested in reasons (for skins, for punks, for Rastas) should take a walk through the meaner city streets, then turn on the TV. 'We want a riot.' You must have heard the skinhead chants. 'We are evil.' The straight world, the Rastas call it Babylon, is threatened with style: a sneer, a strut, a beat that has soul . . .

The teenagers at the Tonbridge Club start drifting off home at around nine. Youth Cult are playing London Calling down in the basement.
26 June 1980


darren redstar said...

takes me back- I had this on my bedroom wall as a 13 year old skin in west dorset in the 1980s. the fascination of academics for youth cults were keenly snapped up by us and critiqued in the youth club cafe.

Darren said...

I don't think Walker was an academic, though. He was just a really good and empathetic journalist. I think he started out at The Leveller in the seventies and then went onto write for New Society and elsewhere in the eighties.

At the time of his death in either 90 or 91 he'd just got a journalistic gig with the Mirror. What a bastard shame that he died so young, and couldn't have become better known.

Check out his Anarchy in the UK article that I also posted on the blog, if you haven't already read it. Fascinating snapshot into that period of political life.

I'm afraid I could never be a skin. I don't have the ears for the haircut.