DON'T SMILE, SAY OI!

A photographic diary of life as a skinhead.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A skinhead for nine years, with convictions for violent behaviour, Gavin Watson now lives in a leafy street in super-respectable Highgate, with his riding instructor girlfriend. These days, he talks of "catching up with his maleness".

Diagnosed as dyslexic, Gavin left school at 16; but he is exhaustingly articulate, with opinions on everything from chaos theory to the causes of the Second World War. Now an exhibition of photographs he took during his skinhead years is touring Britain, and a book of them, Skins, has been published.

Gavin grew up on a council estate on the outskirts of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, and first felt inspired to shave his head at the age of 14, when he saw the group Madness on television. Among the hardcore half-dozen members of the Wycombe Skins, one was black and another Jewish. All came from deeply dysfunctional and/or deprived families, and joined the gang in order to impose some sort of order on their confused lives. "We didn't join the Army, instead we joined our own army and probably had to serve longer," Gavin says. They kept each other "in order", as he puts it, by constant ribbing, but "if one of the weaker ones had been picked on, then the guys came to protect him."

They were, he insists, more attracted to the external trappings of skinhead life than the politics or the violence. "There are just as many skinheads out there who bought the clothes and music and never had a fight in their life as there were the blokes who were just up for a ruck."

But is it as simple as that? Now 29, Gavin is on a mission to explain skinhead culture to sceptical outsiders. His photographs speak for themselves: they show a gang of boys brimful of typical adolescent contradictions. In one, they are innocently enjoying themselves on a day out in London; in another, they put on their best snarls for the camera. But in another, a young man in Nazi regalia is shown Zeig-heiling his girlfriend. One suspects he means it as a "joke". If so, I've heard better.

Gavin's photographs capture the essence of skinheadhood, and he can also explaining the culture. On being a skinhead: "It's like being in love. There's always a percentage that is unknowable." On pride among skinheads: "We were very proud that our estate was the roughest. But we would have been proud of anything."

Surely, though, the links between skinheads, violence and Fascism are irrefutable? To Gavin, these have been blown out of all proportion by a hysterical media: many skinheads simply want to join a gang and vent their anger at an unjust world.

The Wycombe Skins broke up long ago. Felix, the black boy, died of liver damage at 21. One of the others became a born-again Christian. Gavin no longer dresses as a skin. But his language is full of words like "pain", "violence" and "anger". "There is no typical skinhead," he says. "Even if you interviewed a tattoo-faced Fascist, you'd probably find somebody else in there with a Snoopy bedcover." Equally, underneath the civilised, media-friendly exterior of Gavin Watson, there is a strong sense of barely suppressed anger. As the saying goes, "You may be able to take the skinhead out of his boots, but you cannot take the boots out of the skinhead."

Brothers Under the Skin is at the Buckinghamshire County Museum, Aylesbury, from 26 May to 24 June

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