My personal experience with skinheads—a “run in” you might call it—was brief, lasting mere minutes, but it was a memorable occasion…
The year was 1983 and I was a 17-year-old lovesick dickhead living in a south London squat who wanted to impress this super gorgeous goth chick I knew. My choice of attire has always been more to the preppy side, but I realized that if I was to have any chance with this beautifully morbid creature, I needed to switch up my look from Brooks Brothers to something a lil’ more Peter Murphy. So I hennaed my hair black and spiked it up with hairspray, wore eyeliner and makeup and donned a black trenchcoat. The object of my affections was not in the least impressed with my new look, but that’s beside the point.
Later that night, right after the pubs had shut, I was going home, alone, rejected and dejected, on the London subway, and feeling like an idiot. The goth look I’d worn for all of maybe five hours just wasn’t me. When the train stopped at Leicester Square, a massive rush of people crushed into the train, including a gang of eight very large, very fearsome, very mean and very fucking drunk skinheads. They were with their girlfriends, who were also wearing boots and braces. All had the “Chelsea cut” that female skins wore. The girls seemed even harder than their boyfriends, and just as ugly.
One of the female skins noticed me and pointed out the “goth poofter,” suggesting that her boyfriend and his pals should kick my faggoty ass. They jeered at me, brandished their fists at me and let me—and every other passenger in that subway car—know that they were going to beat me within an inch of my life. If I was lucky. Suffice to say that my life might’ve changed course dramatically that night had things turned out differently.
My first instinct was to piss in my pants or start crying like a baby begging them for mercy, but I decided that hoping for some cops to magically appear and save my quivering hide was probably a better strategy. Then the train conductor announced over the intercom system that we’d be stopping at the next station, and that the train we were on was being taken out of commission so all the passengers needed to exit and wait on the platform for the next train to arrive.
This was not necessarily good news, I thought.
I mentioned how crowded the train was. When this positively bursting-at-the-seams car cleared out a bit, I made to exit in the opposite direction from where the skinheads had been taunting me when the biggest and meanest one of them stomped right over and drew his arm back to wallop me with a haymaker. Had his punch connected, I’ve no doubt that he would have knocked me unconscious and probably broken several bones in my face. But he didn’t connect. He barely grazed my forehead and I felt his fist rush by me like a gust of wind as it just barely missed cracking my skull into several pieces.
The platform at the station was even more densely packed than the train had been. I needed to find some cops—and was frantically trying to push my way through the sardines, followed closely behind by this drunken, bloodthirsty skinhead wolfpack—but there were no London bobbies anywhere to be found. I kept moving, hoping something would happen when the train turned up. Standing still and waiting for them to catch up to me wasn’t an option, and there were several yards between us. I plowed onwards.
I kept moving down the platform as fast as the crowd would part for me and at the very last minute I shoved my way into a car that was especially packed. The skinheads, who were really pissed off at this point entered the same car but they went in a different door. The car was far too packed for them to make their way to where I was and at the next stop I hopped off the train. They all hopped off the train. I hopped back on the train and the train pulled away as I laughed and waved to their dumb asses as they stood, furious, left on the platform.
It was all very French Connection, and it’s a good story to tell, but frankly it’s a yarn I’d rather listen to, not experienced myself.
I’ve tried to avoid skinheads ever since, as you might imagine. But despite my antipathy for packs of bald muscular idiots in Doc Martens who might want to kill me, it didn’t put me off the great new documentary The Story of Skinhead presented and directed by Don Letts. The Story of Skinhead aired on BBC Four a few weeks back and it’s still there to watch on the BBC Player for another week for UK residents. For the rest of us, there’s always YouTube and several people have uploaded the show in its entirety. If you’re interested in youth tribes, reggae, fashion, or the modern history of race—and racism—in the UK, it’s must-see TV.
Letts, of course, has had a long and illustrious career greasing the wheels of pop culture from his early days of renown blasting dub and reggae records at the Roxy for the young punks who would form the Sex Pistols and the Clash—that’s him pictured on the cover of Black Market Clash—to his stint in Mick Jones’ post-Clash project Big Audio Dynamite to his music videos and more recent documentaries like Punk: Attitude, Sun Ra: The Brother from Another Planet and Soul Britannia. I’ve got the time for anything Don Letts is involved in and I found The Story of Skinhead to be fascinating viewing. He’s got a deep expert’s understanding of his subject matter and tells the story in an entertaining way. (My wife, who loathes rockumentaries, loved it.)
Although there is no particularly “Brexity” subtext to the documentary—I’m reasonably sure it was produced before the vote—it’s interesting in light of recent developments to see footage of the racial intermingling that went on socially with fashion conscious white skins and black Britain’s sharp dressed rudeboys in the 1960s. At the same time it was highly enlightening to hear the why, when and how of the way racism—and nihilistic ultraviolence—became part and parcel of the ethos of working class white skinheads, incubated by the National Front and the British Movement on the football terraces and encouraged by Richard Allen‘s popular books like Skinhead and Skinhead Escapes that presented a “cool” racist skinhead archetype. Separating the very tangled knot of how something that began as a racially harmonious movement soured into something that is today synonymous with racism, violence, fascism and sheer stupidity isn’t an easy thing to do, but in The Story of Skinhead, Don Letts has done just that. Required viewing.