Paperback Nasties

Excerpt from Skinhead intro

Skinhead is brilliantly evocative of its time and place in early 1970s Plaistow, East London. The taut prose forms a concrete understanding of the milieu and mores of the post-Mod boots and braces culture of British working class youth and its social impact.

The first few Skinhead titles were published at a time when Clockwork Orange copycat violence was allegedly being meted out as quickly as municipal tower blocks and concrete car parks could be erected for it to take place in (a murder case of the time saw “sensational literature” cited in mitigation). Further dark episodes in the nation’s psyche, such as the Black Panther murders, were not far behind. Further evidence of the New English Library’s (NEL’S) former reputation is the reported existence of a Buckingham Palace Library-stamped copy of Skinhead, since the Queen’s own interest was piqued by the ensuing tabloid outrage.

No passing seventies youth cult was spared the NEL treatment: bikers, punks, football hooligans and even Kung Fu. The Skinhead series was temporarily halted each time to take into account shifts in the zeitgeist, be it life on the long-haired campus left against a backdrop of Angry Brigade bombings and wider militancy (1971’s Demo, a “masterfully-researched probe” according to its cover) or the latest manifestation of accelerated and manipulated teenybop (Glam, 1973).

The less-than-PC portrayal of Skinhead’s protagonist Joe Hawkins and his cohorts’ acts of violence and rape, not to mention far from casual (but never organised) racism, in Richard Allen’s work (‘Richard Allen’ was in fact an ageing hack by the name of James Moffat rather than the ear-to-the-ground bard of the terraces imagined by fans) cause many to blanche today. At the time these elements simply added to the series’ allure and profitability.

In recent years discussion has shifted from Hawkins to Moffat himself; the image of a chain-smoking alcoholic hunched over a typewriter churning out opportunistic prose for a ready paycheque, almost an arresting and topic-worthy narrative in itself. There are tales of Moffat having to be locked in the NEL offices to meet a deadline, though the out-of-print cachet of the NEL titles tends towards furthering this mystique.

By the end of the cycle, 1980’s Mod Rule (the protagonist Joe Hawkins’ rape plot bastard offspring on this occasion, naturally), Moffat was understandably burnt out and NEL cut their losses accordingly – the imprint went on under a change of ownership in 1981 as a solidly mainstream thrillers and horrors concern. As risible as the plots and violence became, parody and pastiche weren’t far behind, affectionate or otherwise. Here we can count the satirical poise of artist Stewart Home, the best-selling Victor Headley of Yardie fame, not to mention the Football Factory’s John King’s own Skinheads novel of 2008, the entire Attack! Books roster and the unabashed NEL stylings of The Reprisalizer (Warp Films, 2011).

 

Excerpt from Suedehead intro

In Suedehead, Joe Hawkins’ milieu shifts from Plaistow in East London, with its ‘poverty and hardship’, to a West End pad and dalliances with more affluent women, where he’s all of a sudden stepping out wearing a bowler hat. But what we’re dealing with is a more enigmatic prospect than Skinhead, as suedehead itself represented a more tailored approach to the skinhead aesthetic, with its velvet-collared Crombie, houndstooth check suits and brogues. The hair grown out and lack of bovver-boot attire singlehandedly and conveniently for many to this day manage to sidestep any visual associations with the far right – though for Allen, the look still represented ‘cultism’ as a façade for violence, which was of a ‘deep, dark nature’.

Four decades on, it is perhaps the debut solo single of Morrissey which serves as a blistering arpeggio-laden intro to the subculture for many, certainly representing an enduring fascination with aspects of the East London demi-monde on the part of the post-Smiths singer. The musical taste of skinheads and suedeheads themselves ran to reggae and ska, reflecting their broader interest in West Indian culture and fashion. Trojan Records returned the recognition with their 2008 Suedehead box set. It’s arguably a footnote in the evolution of the skinhead subculture but Barney Platts-Mills’ lauded Bronco Bullfrog (1969) represented the suedehead style’s sole depiction in cinema (though it’s often mislabelled a ‘mod’ film).

Interest in the NEL, Allen and the Skinhead cycle remains strong and testimony to the enduring values and aesthetic of the skinhead subculture, demonstrating perhaps that dangerous youth cults incubating within the bourgeois system prove a perennially potent concept. No doubt fuelled in part by successive iterations of skinhead, the cycle of novels was repackaged two decades on in the early 1990s by Skinhead Times as a six-volume set (which included other Allen titles such as Knuckle Girls and Punk Rock). Beyond the odd enthusiastic write up in Scootering Magazine, Moffat, who died in 1993, would probably be surprised to know that the spirit of his work lives on, not only in the form of films like This is England, but also allusions in the work of contemporary bands such as Sleaford Mods.

Andrew Stevens

 

Richard Allen’s Skinhead (1970) and Suedehead (1971) will be republished in ebook format by Dean Street Press in July 2015.


Why Richard Allen?

Richard Allen, The Charles Dickens of skinheads

James Moffat (1922-1993) was a Canadian-born writer who once published a magazine about bowling and who, under sundry pseudonyms, wrote hack fiction (westerns, children’s stories, mysteries). In 1970 he was asked because he was so versatile and prolific, to write a book for the New English Library about skinheads, the white working-class youths whose thuggery seemed, to some, an authentic cry of alienation and, to others, the decline of Western civilisation.

Allen’s first novel, Skinhead, uneasily combined self-righteous fascist rhetoric, nihilist indifference and the shocked voice of reason. But it succeed with its authentic portrayal of Joe Hawkins, the 16-year old gangster convinced the Cockneys had lost control of their patch, London, and whose life of rape, drink and hooliganism ends in a kind of triumph when he is jailed for beating a cop – a punishment which, he gloats, makes him king of the skinheads.

After that sold a million, the formula stayed pretty constant for 17 other novels – seven with the words “skin” or ‘Skinhead’ in the title. Allen bought to the task an enthusiasm for research, speed – he once completed a novel in less than a week – narrative drive and pulp fair. The opening line of Suedehead is masterful: “As he stood in the dock, Joe Hawkins considered the situation with a detachment”. Yet the author, uncomfortable with charges he encouraged violence, later blamed “leniency in courtrooms, catering to fads by mercenary-minded rage-trade merchants, a soft-peddling attitude by politicians who look for teenage votes and a overwhelming pandering by the media”.

Rediscovered in his seventies, Allen was planning a sequel Skinhead Return, when years of writing at short notice aided by tobacco and booze finally caught up with him. He died in 1993.

Influenced by: Pulp fiction, Harold Robbins.

Influence on: His success led to a plethora of books like Bill Buford’s Among The Thugs, in which intellectual types slummed it with violent oiks.

Essential reading: Skinhead and Suedehead stand apart.

Further reading: As Trudi Maxwell, Allen wrote the compellingly dire Diary of a Female Wrestler, unforgettably, ludicrously bad.

Taken from The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction


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