Exhibition Review: This Was England: a Skinhead exhibition from the 1980s – by John Pateman

Exhibition Review

This Was England: a Skinhead exhibition from the 1980s – by John Pateman

I was 13 years old in 1969 and I remember the first wave of Skinheads who associated themselves more with Trojan label reggae music rather than right wing politics. I remember wearing my first Ben Sherman shirt, Levi jeans (with braces) and Doctor Marten boots. And I recall going to football matches all over London and witnessing gangs of skinheads beating each other up in the name of tribal loyalty. The second wave of skinheads in the 1980s was more sinister and more aligned with fascist parties such as the National Front, British Movement and British National Party. This wave of skinheads was well documented by photographers such as Gavin Watson who took hundreds of photos of the skins who he ran with in High Wycombe.

Some of these photos are on display at the PYMCA Gallery at 41 Clerkenwell Road, London, until 20 April 2007. To coincide with the release of the film ‘This is England’ by Shane Meadows, this is an exhibition of skinhead culture from the early 1980’s upon which the film is based. Containing the unique collection of Gavin Watson from the book ‘Skins’, this exhibition offers a unique insight into the lives of young members of this subculture in this turbulent era. Featured photographers include: Gavin Watson, John G Byrne, Jannette Beckman, Toni Tye, Peter Anderson, Ted Polhemus, Richard Braine and Paul Hartnett.

Gavin Watson started photographing the life around him at 14, and by 19 was travelling the world photographing bands for Sounds music newspaper. It was during these years his early teens too his early twenties – that Gavin consolidated the majority of the pictures that formed the body of his critically acclaimed book SKINS, first published in 1994. Now on its 5th edition, Skins is a record of Gavins life in High Wycombe, London and Brighton in the 80s, a microcosm of teenage life which has since found resonance with people worldwide. The iconic imagery of the book has made it a cult classic, important both in terms of its artistry and as a cultural reference: Gavin Watson’s critical photography of the late 70’s and early 80’s skinheads perfectly captures a snapshot of this unique youth culture – his work contains some of the finest documentary photography of modern times, said Ted Polhemus. Throughout the 90s, Watson turned his attention to the rave scene which was exploding across Britain: he was the first photographer to have a collection of images of this new youth culture published (though Camera Press). The defining element though in Watsons work is that although he is regarded by many as a cultural commentator, he is never an outside observer but is always part of his subject, which makes his view a unique one. Having achieved an impressive collection of work, Watson is still working primarily in the music industry, still shunning the shiny and the obvious for the real and the relevant. Reviews for Skins: “A cult classic.” THE SUNDAY TIMES “Not forgetting why this book is important: Gavin Watson is a damn good photographer.” TED POLHEMUS. The following extracts are from a book by Gavin Watson, ‘Oh What Fun We Had.’

‘The influence of SKINHEADS has spread a lot wider than just small groups of people wearing big boots and shaving their heads, their neighbours, family, the community, the people that hated us etc. The stories are the most important thing. The stories, the myths, the memories, that’s what all this is about really, memories of the time when you were young and didn’t give a fuck or a least pretended you didn’t. I feel it is important to explain the amount of transformations I went through in the years of growing up. Being a skinhead always seemed to be there whether I was losing my virginity or standing in a field nearly ten years later with thousands of ravers.

Anyway there were about twenty of us, (all mongrel dogs from a pretty grim estate called Micklefield in a town called High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire,) causing mischief and mayhem round town on a dark October evening. Being only fourteen I had to be in for school by about seven thirty. Little did I know that this evening something was to happen that would change my life for good. I came in as usual took my shoes off at the back door (one of mum’s iron rules ), came into the front room, my mum was in her favourite chair, dad in his.

Top of the Pops was just finishing and there was a band playing, a group of young guys jumping around to a tune the likes I had never heard before. I was transfixed, blown away, the affect this band had on me was incredible. Who are they? What’s their name? I must have that record now. I must have it. The band I found out was called Madness.

The next day I think I nicked a pound from somewhere in the house before going to school. At school all my friends were talking about Madness, rumours of who they were abounded, were they Yanks, Mods, Punks? Nobody knew. I went down town after school straight into Woolworth’s and brought the single that was to change my way of life totally and set me on a unbelievable journey. I played that record to death until there was a hole in it and I was on the verge of being hung drawn and quartered by my family. The Record was THE PRINCE by Madness, the year was 1979.

I became a Skinhead because of the Music, and the attention I received especially from girls. I loved dancing, music and girls, and the Two Tone scene seemed to have it all. It totally spoke to me and about my environment one which was the new generation of the multi-cultural kids that were coming of age, Jamaicans, Irish, etc.. It was also being a Skinhead that drew me to Oi! music because it was directly geared towards skinheads. Legends of the East End of London passed down through bands like the Cockney Rejects. I remember being terrified of the East End for years thinking you were bound to get your head kicked in if you just as much got off the bus in Bethnal Green. We were carrot crunchers from the countryside, we believed that the Skins in London were the Hardest Mother fuckers ever to walk the Earth. It became a disappointment to my friends and me that at the time Madness denied their skinhead roots out of fear of bad publicity. In fact the East End was the Skinheads spiritual home. I remember going to the Last Resort, London’s only pure skinhead shop at the time, with my mum, dad and NEVILLE. The sight of all those Monsters coupled with the Last Resorts’ sales methods (buy something, as you may not walk out of this shop Alive, Vibe) will stay with me for the rest off my life. My brother and I being tourists brought Skinhead T shirts and were ecstatic at visiting a Skinhead Mecca.The real East End kids were the ones that were in Nicks Nights book “SKINHEAD” a book I never really liked because I felt I had taken better photos even though I was only fifteen and also he wasn’t a real skin and jumping on the band wagon, sour grapes from my part really.

At the Royal Wedding I met some older London ex skinheads and I asked them why they were not skins any more. They said they had been skins in 78 and it was all over now for them, old hat in there eyes. I was shocked, being a skinhead was so new to my friends and me it seemed to me to be for life. I was so intense about being a skinhead, to me it was final. Any body who grew their hair for work or their girlfriend was severely mentally impaired. I would be down town and would see an older skin who was growing his hair for some reason or another. I would feel very disappointed I could not understand how one could ever not be a skinhead once the step had been taken. I truly believed that it was a way of life and that being a skinhead was not just about clothes and style but something that went so deep, a connection. Even to this day after spending years trying to understand my self, and my actions and the meaning of life, I still have not got a clue. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, all have had some answers but I still believe there is a spiritual and mystical part of being a skinhead that is unfathomable. It’s like being in love you just can’t explain it or put into a nice neat little explanation so one can feel more in control of yourself.

I always felt like a misfit, even as a skinhead there was always a nagging feeling I did not fit in. That’s what this whole thing is about not fitting in to others expectations. When I was in the middle of doing interviews about my book and expo I was always asked about racism even though my pictures and life show a definite cultural mix. Never was I asked about racism from a black or Asian, it always seemed to be a middle class ex college student with luke warm Marxist ideals. It occurred to me that working class blacks and Asians could relate to white niggers and had no need to get on their high horse about the question of race.

I’ve never really seen colour and this is not because I give a fuck about political correctness. If I was a racist I would hold my head up high and admit it, I think I am captured on film somewhere with a load of mad skinheads smashing up an ANGELIC UPSTARTS gig and throwing in a few Sieg Heils for good measure there’s something oddly satisfying about throwing the odd Sieg Heil now and again, mine are reserved for traffic wardens these days.

One of the most upsetting times in my life is when we all went from primary school to secondary and there seemed to be an instant split between the blacks and whites. I realize now this was part of nature as we had to try and find our place in the world as young adults, but at the time I could not understand why people that I had loved dearly as a small child were now difficult to communicate with. There seemed to be an unsaid rule that blacks and whites could not get along at this age. We used to wear our Union Jack patches and the black guys would wear their Jah back to Africa badges. The teachers were horrified at this, thinking we were the second coming of the Third Reich.

Its all in the dynamics and nature of gang politics that you end up acting the same regardless of colour. My mother when she first came to England from Ireland would have to put up with signs in house windows saying “NO BLACKS, IRISH, OR DOGS” what right did I have to be a racist? I always felt uncomfortable trying to explain Skinheads and racism, as it really was never an issue in my life as a skinhead. If I ever really needed physical assistance nowadays there are only three people I know in my heart would be there for me. One is White and the other two are Black. One thing I knew when I was growing up is the Black kids were tough, strong, good fighters and if you messed with them you mess with there infinite number of cousins as well. They usually run the borstals and I never viewed the West Indians as a bunch of weeds.’

To read more visit Gavin Watson’s Myspace page:



John Pateman