Monday, 7 May 2018

SKINHEAD by Richard Allen

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads 

How I discovered this book:  This book first came out in 1970, the first and most well-known of a series of cult novels by Richard Allen.  I went to a fairly rough school from 1970-1972*, where the (scary) skinhead girls of the 3rd and 4th years would lend it to we 12-year-old babies.  It got passed round the whole class, and I remember it used to fall open at Chapter 8, the rude bit.  When I spotted the new digital version during an Amazon browse, I had to buy it to see how it had stood the test of time, and if it was as bad as people said it was, even then.

Genre: violence, crime, social comment.

Briefly:  The story tells of a couple of weeks in the life of Joe Hawkins, the 16-year-old leader of a skinhead gang from Plaistow, East London.

Violence - tick
Sexual content - tick
Nudity - tick
Bad language - tick
Racism - tick
Sexual violence - tick

It's hard to give this a star rating as there are so many elements to take into consideration.  As a piece of pop culture history, it's a gem.  The characterisation is pretty good, and it certainly kept me turning the pages.   Now and again clever insights are succinctly delivered, and the atmosphere of the time - the post-1960s optimism, pre-decimalisation era, when the East End no longer ruled, is so well illustrated I almost felt nostalgic for a time and place about which I know little.  A soldier, Jack Piper, who falls foul of Hawkins' bovver boots, talks about the fate of his working class parents in the dreariest part of London in a way that is quite heartbreaking.  The attitudes of the older working classes, particularly the police, to the new liberalism of the 1970s is, I dare say, spot on.

...but then there's the exposition, the bad punctuation (the proofreader from the New English Library, its first publisher, must have thought that a semicolon is a random alternative for a comma, whenever you feel like it), the exclamation marks, the lazy grammar... and, in places, lack of research/realism.  'Richard Allen' (pen name) was nearly 50 when this was written, and it's clear he doesn't know what the effects of 'pot' are, or even that it wasn't called that by anyone other than newspaper reporters.  He appears to think that all hippies, or 'hairies' (haven't heard that word since 1972!) are unemployed and indulge in regular orgies.  Joe Hawkins and his band of thugs never use the 'f' word, and call people things like 'stupid idiots', though the 'c' word does appear once or twice.  

It's really quite a horrible book, depressing and nasty, from Joe himself (who, Allen makes clear, is not the victim of social deprivation or an abusive childhood, but was born a psychopath), to the way women are portrayed (old bags or total slags), to the way in which the older people worry about the lack of control over the new breed of thugs.  Yet I kept turning the pages.  Go figure, as they say.

Oh, and by the way, the Chapter 8 'rude bit' is no stronger than anything you might read in one of today's mainstream 'steamy' romances.  In an age when you see more explicit stuff in network TV dramas than would have been included in under-the-counter soft porn films in Joe Hawkins' day, it is quite tame.  And actually not badly written.

*I was 'lucky' enough to experience the first year of easing into the new comprehensive school system, which meant not being able to go to the Grammar School until I was 13.  I think this had an adverse effect on my whole attitude to education, and possibly my whole life, because I had to learn to be rebellious in order not to get picked on by the rougher girls.  On the other hand, it probably taught me an interesting snippet or two that came in handy later in life, when I started writing. 

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