Sunday, February 27, 2011

Skinhead by Nick Knight (1982)

I keep going to the Half Price Books in the suburbs, and that's sort of a bad idea, because I always walk out of there with like 4-5 books. Every single time. My list of books to read is now longer than my Netflix queue, and that's a problem. But they have this giant wall of science fiction paperbacks (it almost rivals Myopic's), and the prices are outlandishly low. Like, under two dollars per book low. So I keep pathetically stumbling back in there to give myself more and more homework. Damn you Half Price Books! More like Fifth Price Books!

Anyway, I was there around closing the other day, with an annoyingly tall stack of new sci-fi under my arm, and on a whim I decided to cruise past the music section to see if they had any books on Tamla Motown or Southern soul, because those are two areas of my musical interest that I seriously need to educate myself on. They had one book of Motown lyrics, but seeing as how I have access to the internet, not to mention functioning ears, I decided to pass. The employees were making grumbling noises, so I decided to pack it up and go (I hate when people stay later than closing at the store where I work, and hence refuse to subject other people to it), and right then, by pure happenstance, I spied Skinhead on the shelf. Eight bucks!! A no-braini-er no-brainer there never was.

If you're unaware, Skinhead is one of the two best-known and most authoritative texts on the British skinhead subculture (the other of course being George Marshall's Spirit of 69), although it is important to point out that both books were written during and after the late 70's revival, and not during the original 1960's period that they are principally occupied with. In Knight's case that is a bit more of an issue, but more on that later.

The book is primarily described as a photojournal, and indeed about half of its 100 or so pages are stylish black-and-white photos of--what else--skins. The pictures are uniformly excellent. Almost all are posed, but the subjects appear very natural and comfortable, and that is an absolute necessity in any photo book covering a youth culture. These 50 or so photos are probably the best visual history we have of the oi! and punk influenced skinhead revival. Number one crops, flight jackets, braces worn down in many cases. There are quite a few photos of girls, too, and while this may be a bit misrepresentative of the number of girls actually involved, they are definitely cute and you can only look at so many bald dudes showing off their contrast laces anyway. The photos are taken in a variety of settings: oi! gigs, grimy-looking alleys, the subjects' homes. They all have a suitably grainy, gritty quality that works quite well, and many are taken in close-up, with wide angle lenses that give a literally in-your-face and confrontational feel.

I'll be frank: a few of the photo subjects are obvious National Front members (racists, more or less, for those of you unfamiliar), but a few things are important to keep in mind. First of all, although non-racist/non-political skins certainly outnumbered the NF skins at this point in time (and arguably still do), they still comprised a significant minority, and any book with the catchall title Skinhead should, I feel, be obligated to include them. Secondly, it is crucial to understand that in the period these photos were taken (1980-1981) NF membership was as much an aesthetic fad as anything else. That may seem strange, but there was a media frenzy regarding skinheads which portrayed them all as violent racists, and not only did that attract more confrontational types to the subculture, but even anti-racist types would, for instance, often mockingly seig heil a camera just to add fuel to the fire. If that seems confusing, it's because it was a turbulent time for the working class in Britain and these kids were indeed oftentimes confused. As a final point, the photos in Skinhead are certainly not compiled from a racial perspective. There are also pictures of black skins and traditional types.

In addition to the photos, however, there are several written sections on skinhead culture. The first several are written by Knight himself, and cover a range of topics, each under a large bold heading: Origins, Dress, Hair, Music, Behaviour, Authority, Decline, and Revival. Most are a page or two long, and that is normally where this book comes under fire. For some reason, people seem to think this book is presenting itself as the end-all source on the culture. It doesn't, and it isn't. The information presented is quite good anyway, though. This book, however, is the most authoritative extant source on skinhead dress and style, and on that score it is an absolute treasure trove of information. Skinhead culture has always been fashion first. There's no use denying this, and with such a sharp and smart look, who would want to anyway? There were indeed unifying factors tying skins to one another (being working class, generalized music tastes), but like most British youth cults, skinhead was style-focused, with ideology lagging behind.

In that vein, and in my humble opinion, the best and most important part of the book is titled "Jim Ferguson's Fashion Notebook", and is a detailed description of the main elements of skinhead style in the original 1967-1971 period. There are a ton of illustrated pictures and diagrams, taking the reader through the skinhead wardrobe of 8-eye DMs, crombies, Bennies, Sta-Prest trousers, trilbies, Fred Perrys, brogues, and so on and so forth. Detailed notes accompany each entry, as well as large, page-sized pictures depicting the evolution of skinhead fashion as the years went on (each is headed "1968-69", "1969-70" and so forth). These diagrams are fascinating. You see the looser, grungier look of the first "hard mods" evolve into the smarter, cleaner look most closely associated with traditional skins now, and on to suedehead and smooth.

It isn't an exhaustive account of the entire fashion, but it does cover all the basics and a lot of the non-basics. Like I said there are a few omissions. But if you want to hear about monkey jackets, Jungle Greens, windowpane checks, and other more idiosyncratic elements of the look, that information is all available online if you know where to look. But on the whole, Ferguson's notes are one hell of a resource, although I'm told the girl's tomboyish look on the 1969-70 page is quite anachronistic. (Shame, really.)

Speaking of anachronism, though, brings me to my one big issue with the book. Most of the written sections give a detailed account of the fashions of the 60's, but the photographs were all taken during the early 80's oi!-focused revival. It's a pretty noticeable difference in style. You don't see a lot of oi! skins in Loake loafers, cardigans, and tonic suits. To a certain degree this was out of Knight's hands, since he was about 10 years old during the original skinhead era, and a disappointingly small number of photos have survived from that time anyway. But the writing still feels out of sync with the photos, and it would have been nice if Knight had given oi! and punk more than a passing mention at the end of his written sections, especially considering the fashion-oriented nature of the book as a whole. It also needs to be pointed out that in the original 60's era those within the culture would never have referred to themselves as "skinheads", as that was just one of many terms of derision used by others. At that time they referred to themselves as "mods" (generally in the north of England), or more usually, didn't apply a label at all.

Earlier in the review I mentioned skinhead culture being primarily fashion-focused, with ideology being almost an afterthought. While this is true, the ideology of some skinheads (NF boneheads) of course bears mentioning in a book that depicts the culture as it was. The last part of Skinhead I have yet to discuss is an excellent article by Dick Hebdidge entitled "This is England! And They Don't Live Here." Hebdidge gives a sociological account of the ideological underpinnings of the skinhead movement, from the traditional side as well as the bonehead side. He reduces a skinhead's motivations to two main themes: "being authentic" and "being British". He goes on to examine how and why different groups of skins constructed varying interpretations on these themes, splintering off into the right, left, and center of the political spectrum. It is a smart, scholarly, and well-written account, and probably the most even-handed but unflinching article I've read on the subject. For anyone looking for insight into the psychological factors driving the movement and its uglier aspects, I'd say this is the essential text. An excerpt:
"Some of the skinheads I've met admit to having 'gone through' one or other of the parties of the extreme right, but, after a brief commitment, the enthusiasm tends to lapse along with the membership. 'I joined the BM,' one skinhead told me. 'For the crack, like. But they went on about Hitler. He's dead. I couldn't see the point.' In general, racist jokes and asides amongst skinheads are no more numerous or self-conscious than elsewhere in the broader streams of white working class speech. This doesn't mean that this kind of racism isn't dangerous. But it does suggest that racism is too deeply embedded in the whole experience of growing up working class to be the sole responsibility of the skins.

"Meanwhile the skinhead/NF stereotype serves a wider function. It's a form of liberal scapegoating no less wrongheaded than the 'reasoning' (engaged in by some members of the Press) which converts every black boy into a mugger. The tensions and anxieties which are inevitably entailed when a more or less racially homogeneous society becomes multi-racial are displaced on to a solitary figure - the leering bootboy. In that way, it--the ugly fact of racism--becomes him, the skin. It has a name. It has a face. It is Them, not Us."
All in all, this is easily one of the best purchases I've made at Half Price Books to date, and that is definitely saying something. It seems like a lot of people (and by that I mean a lot of skinheads) have a dismissive attitude towards this book, and tend to say "Spirit of 69 is better." It's true that George Marshall's tome is an awesome resource, but the goals of that book and Skinhead are quite different and frankly I think it's useless comparing them. Marshall was more interested in tracking the rise of the movement through oral history and first hand accounts, while Knight was more interested in preserving an account of the fashion. It's better to look at the two books as companion pieces of sorts. Taken together they are a very powerful resource. Knight's book is not all-encompassing, it is true, but it is an insightful book, fun to read, and a superbly-written and -photographed overview of a very misunderstood subculture.

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