Skins: Looking back at a youth cultural glitch

For years, skinheads were Britain's favourite nightmare, vilified as nothing but racist thugs. But were they really more than that? A compelling book of reveals a proud community of working-class kids growing up in a tough world

Fiona Sturges
Saturday 29 September 2007 00:00 BST

For a short while in the early Eighties shaved heads and Doc Martens were as common as hoodies and trainers are today. Back then Britain was awash with youth movements, but while the New Romantics, the punks and the mods are now viewed with nostalgia, the skinheads, with their steel-capped boots, button-down shirts and braces, are looked upon with shame, a terrible glitch in the history of youth culture.

The original Sixties skinheads were obsessed with their appearance and were devotees of Jamaican ska and rocksteady. The late Seventies revival hailed the ska-derived sounds of The Specials and Madness but despite the devotion to black music, racism began to pervade the gangs and the skins become synonymous with bigotry and violence.

For Gavin Watson, a shy, working-class lad from a High Wycombe council estate, they represented something very different: a sense of identity and kinship. He was six when the family relocated to Buckinghamshire from London so his dad could take a job as a compressor engineer. Money was short and life on the estate was tough.

"There was this depression that hung over the place," he recalls. "It seemed as if the whole town had given up." When he was 14 Watson came home after the usual bout of post-school mischief to find Madness performing their single "The Prince" on the television. He was immediately hooked. "I got my mate Felix to nick it from Woolworths the next day and played it constantly." Watson joined a gang of skins who were united by their love of Madness, The Specials, the Cockney Rejects and an innate distrust of authority.

Gangs would differentiate themselves from their peers with their own emblems. Brixton skinheads had five-pointed stars tattooed on their palms. The High Wycombe skins were, somewhat improbably, defined by their knitwear. "We would go to jumble sales looking for cardigans or our mums would make them for us," says Watson. "I was proud to wear my mum's knits!"

Along with the music and the clothes, the sense of danger was irresistible. "You could get killed walking into the wrong area looking like that. People were scared of us so they often reacted with aggression. On one level that really upset me as I was a decent kid but on another it was exciting and empowering. Looking back, the whole thing was contradictory. It was like 'Look at me but don't look at me'. I loved getting dressed up but then I used to catch myself in car windows and think 'Who's that thug?'"

No one minded when Watson started taking photographs. He stuck close to home, snapping his mates, his neighbours and his younger brother Neville ("He's the most famous skinhead in the world"). Still in his teens, Watson had no particular plan for the pictures and was only dimly aware that he and his friends were part of a broader movement. But his dad had bought him a camera and it was something to do other than sit around in other people's houses drinking cider.

By the early Eighties xenophobia had begun to creep into the culture, though Watson maintains that was not the defining part of being a skinhead. "For us, it was all about working-class rebellion more than anything else. It was a punk attitude, a statement of 'this is our tribe'. Sure, there was a definite racial divide. We were always conservative, in our clothes and our outlook, however misplaced that is. The right-wing extremists I knew were pretty damaged people and full of hatred."

It's an issue that was recently addressed in Shane Meadows' semi- autobiographical film This Is England, a coming-of-age story set in 1983 about a 12-year-old boy who is adopted by a gang of skinheads. They group is harmless enough until their avuncular leader is ousted by a tough-talking neo-Nazi who marches his acolytes to a National Front meeting.

Watson sees the susceptibility to right-wing politics as a result of the absence of role models. "We had no one over the age of 21 who we could look up to. One of the motivating factors was not to be like the older generation. So we looked up to the sociopaths, the ones who nicked police cars. We were," he believes, "the first generation that didn't go to war so instead started our own armies and had our own rules and regulations."

It's testament to the troubled history of the skinheads that it's taken more than 25 years for Watson to be able to show his pictures with pride. His book Skins was initially published in 1994, a time when political correctness was at its height, but quickly went out of print. Now it has been reprinted complete with new, previously unpublished pictures. Often poignant and rarely threatening, the photographs at once mythologise and demystify the cult of the skinhead and provide a unique document for a previously ignored and misunderstood youth movement.

"It's taken all this time for people to start really looking at the culture," says Watson. "In the early Eighties every kid from Cornwall to Scotland knew, or knew of, a skinhead yet they were vilified. Perhaps now people will look at the pictures and see skinheads for what they mostly were. Just kids learning about themselves, getting dressed up and having a laugh."

'Skins' is published by Independent Music Press, £12.99. To buy the book for a special price, with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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