Derek Ridgers’ new book, ‘Skinheads 1979-1984’ offers perhaps the most comprehensive snapshot to date of a youth culture, and a country, in crisis.
As a photo essay it is little short of remarkable, capturing the boredom and ennui of its young skinhead subjects as they gather for bank holiday weekend seaside jollies or just generally loaf about London streets with little to do but strike the expected poses – straight arm salutes, white power insignia, swastika T shirts. Though there are more stylised moments as well, for instance the skinhead couple on Brick Lane in 1980.
Ridgers himself claims that he was surprised at just how resentful skinheads came across as when he first encountered them in 1979. But while this might be honest it does also highlight the ingenuousness which often inflects this type of photojournalism. For example, had he bothered to look, it is doubtful whether Ridgers would have found any Asians forced to run the gauntlet of these skinheads selling National Front newspapers on Brick Lane who were at all ‘surprised’ in the same way. And if some of these skins are presented as ‘the flowers in the dustbin’, prettified even by Ridgers’ compositions, then it is worth reminding ourselves that they were far from alone in feeling discarded by what passed for mainstream culture or the political establishment at that time. Poor housing, mass unemployment, dismal education, but also police harassment and racial violence (not something these skins by and large went through) were also blighting the lives of so many other young people during the period these photos cover – i.e the first flush of Thatcherism. Yet unlike the skins, many of these youngsters rebelled through a rejection of what they saw as the racist, establishment views of their parents. The 2 Tone movement, for example, was quite explicit about this, all the more so when the bands on its roster found their live gigs targeted by an extremist skinhead element.
London hosted its fair share of them on the terraces too. The Nuremberg choreography of the Shed End, anyone? But if all you had to go by were these photos, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was just another tribe, albeit a feisty one, suffering the perennial indignity of being misunderstood. Rather than the shock troops of a sectarian war being fought on Britain’s streets at that time, and the willing dupes for far right ideologues like John Tyndall.
In strictly sartorial terms, they also represent decline, from the sharp styled originals of the late 60s – Brutus, brogues, Shermans – to the bleached denims and bomber jackets of the second wave. These are plastic skins, no less dangerous for that, but creatively anaemic, the invention seemingly washed out with the jeans. If some of the earlier skins, the ‘spirit of ’69’, were at least genuine in their love of reggae and in their nascent stylings as urban multiculturalists, then the ones pictured here seem entirely comfortable inhabiting the role of jingoistic whites. And perhaps unwittingly that’s where these portraits are at their most honest.