Tuesday, May 29, 2007

This is England


My God yes, this is England: not the only England, but one England among many. It is certainly an England I have lived in.

What Shane Meadows does brilliantly is capture and express a specific time and place, and root his story in the real experiences of working class life. Skinheads rejoiced in how the English often see ourselves, as hard drinkers and fighters, brave men who “can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.” It was a youth sub-culture born of cultural impoverishment, but also rebellious, exuberant and cheeky. Being a skinhead meant being part of a gang that approved of you, and the values of being a skinhead were generally ones celebrated in English culture (I am not saying that is a good thing!) This is underlined by the frequent references to the Falklands war.

Thomas Turgoose turns in a fantastic performance as Shaun, the troubled 12 year old brought into a local gang of skinheads, attracted by their camaraderie, and the way they boost his self esteem. What the film does very well is show how precarious and out of control life is when you are young, as the gang changes around Turgoose’s character, and the bond of loyalty to the gang becomes more sinister and explicitly racist.

Stephen Graham as Combo, the racist skin just out of nick is electrifying. The review in the Guardian described Combo as “deeply objectionable”, but that soooh misses the point. The truth is that anyone who has ever been in a youth sub-culture has had mates like Combo. Older men who, like Peter Pan, shelter from life’s disappointments by being the respected elder in the gang. He is objectionable from the point of view of a Guardian journalist, but from the point of view of a 12 year old on a council estate, Combo is quite glamorous.

The contradiction that Combo was both a violent racist, but also conscious of the multi-racial origins of Skin culture was convincing. Back in the 1970s I had friends very sympathetic to the NF who would listen to ska music, and thought Desmond Dekker was like unto a God. This is part of a very contradictory world view that understands class grievances, but articulates them through racism. So there is an ambivalence about black people who share the same class experience.

Indeed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s most (white) working class teenagers knew people in the NF. I found the NF meeting in a tatty pub completed convincing, and I liked the way the film showed the NF as reasonably attractive for these alienated lads, while at the same time most of the skins saw through it as a pile of shit.

There are some lovely touches in the film. The fact that combo only has a provisional driving licence is comically deflating in an understated way, and the indignity for Shaun, that DMs don’t come in children’s sizes!

There were some things I was not too sure about. I think the film tried too hard to explain why Combo was a loser, whereas I think the audience could have been trusted to work that out without the Oprah moments. I am also not entirely sure that skins in 1983 were listening to ska so much , as opposed to the Cockney Rejects and Angelic Upstarts. There was also a political problem, that in 1983 the NF would not have been talking about Englishness, but Britishness, and it would have been the Union Jack, not the Cross of St George behind the NF speaker.

But generally, this is a great, and very English, film.


Alex Nichols said...

I'll try to see this one. It looks interesting if a little belated.

Shane Meadows has a good analysis of the skinheads as a part of working class culture here:-


In fact, the skins date back much further than is imagined.
Certainly they were around by the latter half of the1960's (we called them 'peanuts' when I was at school)
Mostly working class kids, who saw themselves as opposed to the middle class hippies.

I don't think there was anything inherently racist about them at all.
Listening to Bluebeat and Ska music and mixing with Jamaicans was a defining marker from the time of Millie and Desmond Dekker.
The leader of the Chelsea Shed in the early 70's was "Black Kojak", who directed a gang of white skinheads.

Later on, the skinhead thing was exploited by the NF, but the NF was full of weirdos like Tyndall and Webster, hardly attractive figureheads to people growing up in post-war youth culture. I knew people who exhibited the "overlap" you describe - who were at Southall and Lewisham with the ANL.
We had loads of skins in RAR and attracted hundreds of people to our local gigs. I got to meet Desmond Dekker after he performed at one of them.

Must see if I can find my DM's.

Sharon said...

I dragged my husband along to see it in April- when I came out I had go for drink I felt like sh**.
As a former skinhead girl I know I was one of those who sat in silence and never challenged- not until a year or so later. I mean we were all working class kids and I had grown up on The Sun and Love Thy Neighbour so to a certain existent the derogatory terminology went under my radar.

I remember I went to a Madness gig with my mate, and some NF boneheads were there and disrupted it. Suggs told them all to F*** off and then the gig ended early. On the way out my mate shouted abuse at this bonehead and he insulted her back. He then came after her and asked her to go out with him - and she said yes!!

It was really horrible for a while, we were both in care but had a separate flat attached to this girls hostel. He was so intimidating and I ended up taking all my Specials and Madness posters down. The relationship with my mate didn't last long - thank god - but he left an unpleasant record behind that we didn't ever play - but it was left amongst our records for ages. I mean I really just never thought about it - I wasn't even really into Oi! that much but had got Strength Through Oi! just for show. So I kept it around in the same way - no wonder people were getting freaked out after they had gone through our records.

I think it is really easy when your young to get manipulated in that way - also people never talk about how women get drawn into that movement and I could see they were going for really young, vulnerable girls who wanted a boyfriend.

It was soon after that I got challenged by a Marxist Feminist Youth Worker and her Liverpudlian colleague they both took me under their left wing. This was followed by a YOP scheme rally and saw Tony Benn, so started to get involved in politics of the left along with feminism. This didn't go down well with many skinhead men - but that's another story.

Thank got 'Sharpe' came along - although I wasn't a skinhead when it did - I think it would have been good to have something like that when I was younger.

Anyway going to see Roy Ellis at the weekend Mr Symarip Long live Ska.

AN said...

Thanks Sharon

That was really intersting :o)

Sharon said...

Yes - sorry I actually meant SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Predajedice) not shape!
That's a yoghurt isn't it?

AN said...

I'm not sure about the yoghurt.

You wrote "Sharpe", I had visions of yu giving up your DMs to watch Sean Bean in a Napoleaonic bodice ripper on TV!

Around 1986 the SWP insisted that all the skins in the party grow their hair, ebacsue they ddn't want to be associated with the image. That always seemed wrong to me, as the cultural ground should not have been abandoned to the right wing.

Phil said...

Not that I was there, but I wonder if it was the fash that they wanted to dissociate themselves from or the anti-fash...

Sharon said...

I didn't know that about the SWP. Weren't the Red Skins part of the of the SWP?

Such is life - Roy Ellis was wonderful on Saturday.

AN said...

Indeed he is wonderful, there are a couple of good clips of Symarip on Youtube: "I want all you skinheads out there to put your braces together, and with the boots on your feet, do some of that old moonstomping!"

Yes the Redskins were in the SWP, I also believe - but it might be an urban myth - that the Redskins were asked by the SWP CC to disband.

With reagrd to the SWP prohibition of the skins image - around that time the SWP brewed up a lot of synthetic controversies, as part of the culture of the so-called downturn. There was some acknowledgement of this in the CC contribution to a pre-conference internal bulletin about ten years ago. The idea being that the constant debate gave a sense of purpose at a time when the "party" had little influence.

Phil said...

If this is the 90s then it's some time after they parted company with RA, which was what I was alluding to. I've just re-read John Sullivan's account of that break (Cliff ... ordered an inquiry fearing that the local SWP had been infiltrated by the Sealed Knot Society) - probably not entirely accurate, but I can't help wishing it was.

AN said...

The skinheads being asked to grow their hair was about 1986 or 1987.

The break with Red Action was a few years earlier, and was at about the time i first left the SWP (I rejoined in 1986).

Actually the SWP had a disastrous drop in membership and branch organisation in the year or so following Thatcher's victory in 1979, and the Red Action split was only the most dramatic event - while many of us were making individual decisions to leave.

Partly this drop was because of teh sudden switch away from anti-facsist activity (and in typical Cliff fashion it is all or nothing), but also there was a lot of opposition to Cliff's "downturn" thesis (I reread his "balnce of class forces today" from 1979 recently, and it was so wrong. I rememebr going to a SWP district aggregate in Bristol in 1979 when people were heckling Cliff, and calling him a "senile old git", etc. (ratehr unfair as he wasn't senile)

AN said...

BTW - I knew John Sullivan.

He would have been more influential if he hadn't been so out of his time with his homophobia, etc.

AN said...

Of couse a lot of people made individual decsions to leave then beacsue the SWP made the stupid decision not to enter the LP.

Partly this was becasue it would have been a recognition that the whole prognosis behind launching the SWP out of the IS just three years earlier was utterly wrong.

Nick Fredman said...

The contractions of skin culture were reflected in Australia, though I only observed it peripherally and past its peak. As a teenager in the 80s I course heard a lot of ska, and even my small town by about 83 had a band with the great name of the Bouncing Souls. I was never a serious fan although amongst the first real gigs I went to were the Strange Tenants, something of an Oz Red Skins with the singer associated with the Moscow-line Socialist Party, and the 1986 Madness tour.

A year or 2 later a rude girl of my acquaintance had to tell me that the white laces I happened to wear in my Docs, as part of the eclectic fashion of the times, was not a good look for a socialist. I think by then few would have known about the political signification of Doc lace colours.

The Tenants also played at the first political conference I went to in 1990, that of Resistance, the DSP's youth organisation. Beefier comrades (e.g. not me) were assigned to a security detail as boneheads were apparently known to disrupt the Tenants' gigs, especially overtly political ones, but none showed.

At that time I recall much talk of a heroic battle a few months previously , at which if I remember right boneheads gathered for a conference of National Action in Sydney tried to invade a a lefty pub and were driven out and humiliated. There has been little public evidence of such forms of the far right since, and by the early 90s boneheads seemed a pathetic remnant, as portrayed in Geoffrey Wright's 1992 film Romper Stomper. Since then the far right has been wrapped in the Aussie flag and appealed to older petty bourgeois and alienated and/or retrenched blue collar workers in outer-suburban and country areas, with little purchase since a conservative government has implemented much of its platform.

Ska though seems to have been revived (re-revived?) at least twice since then. I must have absorbed something in the early 80s because I can often be seen now with cropped hair, Docs and listening to early reggae.

AN said...

Bizarrely, here in Britain the SWP decided that Romper Stomper encouraged fascism, and organised protests and tried to stop it being shown. In Bristol, where I lived at the time, we picketed the Arts Centre showing it, and put a lot of pressure on the hippy liberal that ran the place not to show it.

Nick Fredman said...

Picketing Romper Stompter must be the reducio ad absurdum of the "no platform" principle, which is often wrong, and particularly so when directed at something that clearly represented fascists as pathetic losers. What apart from this the film was saying, while not too clear, seemed a bit dodgy and unpleasant, even if you weren’t expecting a consistent ant-fascist lecture, as I appeared to be from my Green Left review at the time.

Romper Stomper is a powerful, shocking, and flawed film. The story of the violent downfall of a group of Melbourne fascist skinheads, manages to be an apparently authentic portrayal of a subculture, while saying nothing about the causes and real nature of fascism."

Another comrade in the same issue looked at the film in relation to graphic media violence and racism generally

"Progressives should not celebrate this film so much as understand that uncovering the horror of racism must help us, albeit indirectly, to combat it. In this sense telling the truth is the only option we have, and probably the only one that was available to the producers of Romper Stomper." Full