Chapter 19 - SkinheadsI first encountered skinheads at the 144 Piccadilly squat. They were the antithesis of hippies - they had shaven heads and they wore deliberately drab working class garb - usually jeans with suspenders and steel-toed "Doc Marten" boots. The boots were their signature - the steel toes were for doing damage to their opponents in street fights. While hippies, or "hairies" as the skinheads called us, stood for peace and love and generally left-liberal values, the skinheads represented a twisted set of working class values - they were against immigration, drugs, rock music and their perceived softness of middle class values. Some skinheads were from the tough, working class East End, while others were the lumpen, the children of welfare parents and the dregs of English society.
For some reason British teens have a tendency to divide themselves into identifiable groups. In the 1950's the rebels were the working class 'Teddy Boys', and in the early 60's there had been riots between the rockers, who rode motorcycles and liked rock'n'roll, and the 'mods', who rode motor scooters and wore their hair carefully styled. So the division into skinheads and hippies was part of a British tradition, a confused byproduct of a still heavily class-stratified society, where everyone is assigned a role.
There were exceptions, of course. Some hippies were from working class backgrounds, and a few skinheads were middle class poseurs. There were many ironies in the dictated fashions of the two groups - the often racist skinheads preferred listening to reggae music, a product of black Caribbean musicians, and many hippies preferred a muddled socialism, which is the politics of the working class.
The skinheads espoused violence, fighting amongst themselves in their pubs, and sometimes practising particularly violent and racist attacks on coloured immigrants, which they called 'Paki bashing'. Of course hippies were a favourite target of the skinheads, who liked nothing better than to bash up a pacifist longhair. 'Gay bashing' along the Thames' towpaths, long an established haunt for London homosexuals, was another trademark activity of the skins.
Usually I managed to avoid confrontations with the skinheads. They mostly stuck to their pubs and parts of town, and the hippies frequented the drug-tolerant pubs and cafes and the parks and places like the Eel Pie Hotel. Occasionally there were clashes, usually when a gang of skinheads came upon a lone hippie. This only happened to me twice. Once a girlfriend and I were walking in Green Park in downtown London, when we saw a swarm of people coming towards us. It was a Sunday, and we thought it must be a large group of picknickers. It wasn't until the swarm was almost upon us that we realized it was a huge gang of hundreds of skinheads. I thought it best to ignore them and to not show any fear. The skinheads were mostly young, only around fifteen or sixteen.
When they reached us, they started shouting "Bring up the scissors, we've got a couple of hairies!" I suspected this was a bluff, and then the skins began kicking me, but not really hard at first, with their boots. Then I saw one start to kick at my girlfriend, and I yelled "Stop kicking a chick!" There was an embarrassed pause when the skins realized how unchivalrous they were being by assaulting a woman, even a hairy, and they let us pass.
My second encounter with skins had the potential for even more danger. One of the regular visitors at the hotel was a young local girl with long, frizzy blonde hair. I offered to drive her home late one night on my bicycle, and the chain broke. On my way back from her house I was wheeling my disabled bike, with the broken chain in my hands, when a carful of skinheads pulled alongside and rolled down their windows.
These were older skins, in their late teens and early twenties, and they seemed much more violent than the young kids in Green Park. "Hey, mate, want to play some football!" the skins taunted, as they began to spill out of the car. As they started to pile out to do a gang number on me, they noticed for the first time the chain dangling in my hands. Suddenly not so brave, they piled back into their car and skidded out of sight.
Almost all the hippies in Eel Pie were non-violent, the exception being Scotch John. Scotch John had grown up in the Gorbals, the toughest part of Glasgow. Before becoming a hippie, he had been the foreman of a construction crew, and in this tough environment Scotch John had become a master of 'the Glasgow bop'. The Glasgow bop is a spin-off from soccer playing, where experienced players field the ball with "headers" off the strong bone structures of their foreheads.
To perform the bop, John would grab an opponent by both shoulders, and then smack the victim's nose with his forehead, usually breaking their nose and making a bloody mess of their face. Scotch John had a personality as aggro as the staunchiest skinhead, and stories were told of his walking into the Twickenham skinhead pub, The Birds Nest. Most of us would scuttle past the Birds Nest on the far side of the street, and a few Eel Piers had been roughed up and dumped in the Thames by the Birds Nest regulars. So when Scotch John sauntered into the busy pub, he was followed by a tail of amused skins into the washroom. BOP! BOP BOP BOP and it was all over. After Scotch John's foray into skinhead turf, most of us were treated with more respect by the skins, as they probably couldn't tell the rest of us from Scotch John, who had the standard shoulder length black hair and beard, bellbottom jeans and a leather-fringed jacket.
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