The first time I met George Marshall was four years ago in the back of a Ford Transit van, careering around Glasgow with five other skinheads and two baseball bats. We'd spent the previous two hours at a ska concert, where I'd spent most of the time hugging the walls, cautiously eyeing the audience.
Some of Marshall's entourage had become embroiled in a fracas with a rival faction, which had erupted into a high-speed chase. I had witnessed the sort of scene that pensioners have nightmares about and newspapers turn into headlines: 'Skinhead attacks skinhead'.
As folk devils go, skinheads are right up there, their size 10 boots emerging from the shadows every time we read about refugee hostels being firebombed in Germany or a pop star flirting with the Union flag. They are the bogeymen of youth culture, comprising a cult that nobody else wants to come into contact with, let alone understand. Nobody would argue that skinheads are not violent, but four years ago in Glasgow, few people would have imagined an incident pitching skinhead against skinhead.
In the past two decades skinheads have become synonymous with neo-Nazis. The extreme- right British National Party and the National Front are both aware that snarling, shaven- headed youths waving Union flags make for powerful images and that skinheads are easy to exploit. Their fierce patriotism and proclivity for violence make them obvious targets for political extremists. But although skinheads provide the National Front with willing recruits, others recoil from what they see as a perversion of their roots.
Originally a working class cult that evolved in the Sixties (and peaked in 1969), its mix of ska music and aggressive posturing became increasingly polarised as the Seventies turned into the Eighties. Ska style, with its roots in black music, was incorporated by bands such as The Specials who spoke for a multi-racial audience. However, a growing white right-wing element among skinheads turned to aggressive 'Oi' music, which was reflected in a uniform of shaved heads, combat trousers and knee-high boots. The Nazi bonehead was born. The original skinheads, in their Sta-prest (as in 'stay-pressed') trousers and brogue shoes, stood in stark contrast, and eight years ago in Glasgow they decided to do something.
'We coined the catchphrase 'Spirit of 69', because the image of Nazi boneheads had nothing to do with what skinheads were about,' Marshall says. 'You can't have roots in black music and be into white power. We wanted to remind people of our roots in 1969 - of smartly dressed kids into ska.'
Marshall wasn't the only one. About the same time as the Glasgow initiative, a network of anti-
racist fanzines appeared, converging around a ska scene that involved young bands, rather than 15-year-old records. Their contributors were attempting to present an alternative skinhead identity - its true identity.
For four years, Marshall, now a softly spoken 26-year-old, produced Zoot, a photocopied fanzine. He also lampooned the boneheads in cartoons, wrote to magazines and tried to preserve a skinhead heritage that was in danger of being forgotten. But few were listening, including publicans who refused him entry to their premises because they thought he was a Nazi.
He says: 'Ten years ago, the politicians moved into the youth market, and some skinheads started to follow right-wing politics. They were the ones who got the publicity. Organisations such as Sharp (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) were formed, but it got to the stage where if you weren't in an anti-Nazi group, people accused you of being a Nazi.'
In attempting to deal with one extreme, skinheads were expected to adopt another. Marshall decided that the only way skinheads were going to get a fair hearing was if he took action himself. The fanzine Zoot became the internationally distributed Skinhead Times, and Spirit of 69 became a book.
Until then, the only document of skinhead history worth reading, as far as Marshall was concerned, was the series of novels mythologising skinhead violence by the pop author Richard Allen in the Seventies. But even they were less concerned with the facts. Allen chronicled the exploits of the anti-hero Joe Hawkins through Skinhead, Suedehead and Skinhead Escapes.
'Richard Allen was writing about what he read in newspapers rather than what he experienced - the stories about football aggro, bank-holiday violence, Clockwork Orange and so on. It was a violent period in general and skinheads, as far as the press was concerned, were singled out for special attention,' says
'He was writing novels, not history books. Whatever you think of the content, he was the first person to write about skinheads with any understanding, even if he did concentrate on the violence.'
Unlike Joe Hawkins, who could only articulate his anger and alienation through his boots, Marshall has been on a solo mission since the launch of Skinhead Times a year ago to re-educate skinheads about the roots of their movement.
His company, ST Publishing, has published The Two Tone Story and Spirit of 69; acquired the rights to Richard Allen's novels (the first anthology is out now), and is planning a book on Madness. Skinhead Times (distribution 5,000), with its slogan 'Pride not Prejudice', is into its eighth issue.
' 'Pride not Prejudice' means being proud of the cult, the way you look, where you come from, your town, your country,' Marshall explains. 'Most skinheads are working class. You should take pride in that; you're as good as anybody else. But no prejudice, because people from other countries have got the right to be the same. So we're proud to be skinheads, but we're not prejudiced against anybody else.'
Marshall accepts that the racist skinhead image has become so ingrained in the public mind that, like pit-bull terriers and football hooligans, they are invariably subjects of fear. In Skinhead Times, he has dispensed with polemics and concentrates on information. You can find out about a skinhead weekend this month in Germany ('but political bullshit will not be tolerated'), that Miss Skinhead 1992 entries must be in by the end of October, and that brogue boots cost pounds 55 (including postage).
Apart from its 'Pride not Prejudice' slogan, Skinhead Times makes few judgements on behalf of its readers, preferring simply to report news. 'The tabloids have distorted the truth,' says Marshall. 'Look what's happening to Morrissey. Because he's started to take an interest in the skinhead cult people are accusing him of being racist. I don't think anyone would have dared say he was racist before. But just because he's interested in skinheads, people are saying he must be racist.'
The assumption that skinheads are driven by prejudice has been addressed by Pete Milligan, a writer, and Brendan McCarthy, an artist, in their new comic, Skin. They chose to make the central character a thalidomide victim as well as a skinhead. But the violence of the comic meant that it was passed around among publishers for four years until Tundra finally issued it last month. .
ST Publishing decided not to take it on for different reasons, Marshall explains. 'I was talking to Brendan three years ago about Skin, but I couldn't afford to print a full-colour book. What I found interesting was the idea that skinheads were the only people who accepted a thalidomide victim as one of their own. They were the only ones who had no prejudice.'
Not for the first time, George's smile hides a weary shrug of fatalism. 'The irony is that everybody now thinks skinheads are these big, bonehead Nazis. When we walk into a pub, everybody thinks we're squaddies. Very few people actually think we're skinheads.'
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies