Dedicated followers of fascism
As an Asian teenager, Sarfraz Manzoor lived in fear of skinheads. Shane Meadows' tough new film shows what they fought so viciously to protect
Friday April 13, 2007
Shane Meadows' This is England
Its associations with racism have meant that skinhead culture has inspired less cinematic affection than other English youth cultures. This Is England is, among other things, an attempt to rehabilitate the skinhead movement by reminding us of its links with ska and reggae, and to capture a moment when there was nothing oxymoronic about being a black skinhead. But a benign, colourblind version of skinhead culture that was about fashion and friendship is also challenged by the film and usurped by a darker, uglier vision, in which being a skinhead means being a dedicated follower of fascism.
David was in my class at school. When we were both in the juniors, David was friendly but quiet with dark-brown hair and freckles. I cannot recall the precise moment, but sometime between the first and second year at secondary school David changed; he shaved his head and began wearing 16-hole Dr Martens boots and a green combat jacket. David had become a skinhead, and I remember very clearly feeling that he was no longer available to me as a friend - that he had, in some way, gone to the other side. David the sweet, softly spoken lad would now chase the Asian boys after school with his skinhead friends and, using white chalk, daub "skins" on their foreheads. He did it to me once.
That was a rare incident. My time at school was not especially traumatic and I do not recall my childhood to be particularly unhappy. It was only during the course of rereading my diaries from the time as preparation for writing a book about growing up during the 1980s that I began to appreciate how much my teenage years were spent in a fight to feel I belonged. My father would tell me that Britain was not my country, as would the racists who were marching through my hometown, Luton: on that, at least, my father and the skinheads agreed. Watching Meadows' film, I was struck by how the skinheads were also fighting to belong: they, like me, wanted to be able to say England belonged to them - but theirs was an England defined by race and skin colour. It was an England worth fighting for.
This Is England is a coming-of-age tale, but it is also a deeply political war film. It tells the story of 12-year-old Shaun Fields' experiences of joining a gang of skinheads, but the two most important characters in the film never appear on screen. The shadow of Margaret Thatcher looms across the film, just as it hung over all who grew up during the 1980s. It was the working class who suffered most from the recession of the early part of the decade, the decimation of the manufacturing industry creating the economic casualties of Thatcherism. The recession ruined lives and destroyed families; so did the Falklands war. In the film, Shaun's father is one of the soldiers who died in the Falklands. It is the loss of his father that drives Shaun to seek the company of the skinheads, which is why This Is England is a war film - it offers a timely warning of the human consequences of military conflicts.
The film suggests that those whose lives are unmoored are vulnerable to charismatic, hate-spouting demagogues. It is the arrival of Combo, an older, embittered and enraged skinhead, that precipitates Shaun's descent to the dark side. Combo is precisely the sort of thug who terrified me as a young boy, and Stephen Graham's superlative portrayal is bone-chilling. But it is made clear that, hateful as Combo is, he is also deeply damaged. The roots of his hatred are fear: the fear that England is being stolen from him, coupled with a jealousy for those who have what he does not, whether it is the Asian shopkeeper with money or the black skinhead with the loving family. The richness of their lives only reinforces the poverty of his own, and when love no longer remains it is hate that sustains.
There are moments in This Is England when Meadows allows the racists to simply pour their poison. These days it is rare to hear such unvarnished language, and it is not easy to watch. We are much more sensitive to giving such opinions a platform than in the 1980s, and more censorious about what might be deemed offensive. Among the absurdities of the Celebrity Big Brother race scandal was the mildness of the insults deemed to be racist. It is tempting to assume that because we do not hear the racist language, the racist thinking has also been conquered. The truth is more complicated.
Recent films and TV dramas - such as Kidulthood, Bullet Boy, Bradford Riots and Yasmin - have all attempted to represent the experiences of being a member of a minority in this country. Sometimes, as with Penny Woolcock's disappointing Mischief Night or Dominic Savage's lamentable Love + Hate, the film-makers' failures raise concerns that they are merely leaping on to the multicultural bandwagon, that they are white middle-class types stealing others' stories because they do not have their own. Meadows' film is about feeling like a minority in your own country, and it is in a different class to those other films because Meadows is examining the lives of the white working class from which he comes. That is not to suggest that no one should be allowed to venture beyond their racial or class origins - but rather that the affection, generosity and charm of This Is England is derived from the fact that its writer and director knows the world he is depicting.
The England in Meadows' film is, thankfully, no more. I remember that country: it was a nation where if you were not white, it was impossible to feel you belonged. That is no longer true; England is a more tolerant nation, an easier place to be different. However, the film's theme of belonging is still sadly pertinent. These days, white working-class alienation is just one strain of youth disaffection: we have young black boys, raised in fatherless families, being drawn to gangs; British Muslims, looking for something to belong to, seeking answers from hate-filled demagogues. We hear, perhaps too much, about the disaffection of Britain's ethnic minorities and not enough from the alienated white working class, routinely portrayed by the media as slappers and chavs. Mainstream politicians either take these people for granted, or pretend they do not exist, with the result that some of them are starting to look elsewhere.
The British National Party is fielding 655 candidates at next month's local elections, almost twice as many as last time. One supporter commented that when he went to his first BNP meeting he was surprised not to find any jackbooted skinheads, only ordinary men and women like him. This Is England recalls a time when you could recognise a racist; these days it is less simple and more dangerous. The success and continued threat of the BNP explains why This Is England holds lessons for the present, even though it is set in the recent past. The film reminds us how necessary it is that everyone feel included in the national story, as well as offering a sobering warning on how, in the absence of love and belonging, it is only fear, resentment and hatred that remain.
· This Is England is released on April 27. Greetings from Bury Park, Sarfraz Manzoor's memoir of growing up in the 1980s, will be published by Bloomsbury in June