New Boots And Rants

Film still for New Boots And Rants

Shane Meadows' new film This Is England is about a fatherless young boy finding his way into the skinhead subculture. But it also exactly evokes the disenchantment of 1980s working-class youth, says Jon Savage

September 1985, and the Clash released their first single since the sacking of founder, arranger and writer Mick Jones two years earlier. Their glory days were well behind them as they struggled to make sense of their punk ideals in a world gone cold. Out of desperation came a masterpiece, a haunting state-of-the-nation report that was all the more impressive because it replaced anger with vulnerability.

'This Is England' was mid-paced, drenched not in distorted guitar but in sighing synthesisers and clattering electro-percussion. Backgrounded by sound FX of playground taunts and football chants, Joe Strummer sang of a blasted landscape: "On the catwalk jungle/Somebody grabbed my arm/A voice spoke so cold/It masked the weapon in the palm." The Sex Pistols might have sung of 'No Feelings' but here was the reality: "This knife of Sheffield steel."

Although it briefly made the Top 30, 'This Is England' was too stark for the fizzy pop and post-Live Aid adult rock then saturating the airwaves; too different to the trademark Clash sound that was from another, more hopeful era. It was as though the group, and Strummer in particular, had embodied all too successfully the song's deep sense of hurt and defeat.

Set in the era of the Falklands war and Thatcherism triumphant, Shane Meadows' new film inhabits the same damaged place as the Clash's swansong: the tribal gatherings of forgotten youth in a "land of a thousand stances". At the same time, its title echoes other 1980s state-of-the-nation broadsides such as Alan Clarke's Made in Britain and Derek Jarman's The Last of England. Despite its tough setting, Meadows' This Is England offers neither brutal shock nor apocalyptic rant. Though located in the skinhead milieu sensationalised by Made in Britain, it treats its characters from an insider viewpoint, with full knowledge of their motivations and complexities. Made with tenderness and humour, it is a film about not just national identity and manhood, but also early adolescence, that key moment in identity formation.

An opening collage of 1980s events cut to Toots and the Maytals' rollicking rude-boy anthem. '54-46 Was My Number' roots the viewer in time and place. But this is a time of deadly struggle, not a decade of bad pop-cult nostalgia. Interspersed with the inevitable Rubik cubes and space invaders are images of Greenham women, Mrs Thatcher, maimed soldiers. The government is at war, with both the Argentineans and its enemies within.

The key element within the Tories' home-front struggle was the forcible restructuring of work and family under the aegis of radical free-market economics as England became a provider of services rather than product. Sheffield steel, for instance, was no longer exported around the world. The unions were under attack and the idea that there was such a thing as society was being replaced by rampant individualism. This was a class war under any other name.

Within this turmoil, whole swathes of England's youth were left to fend for themselves. Their plight is embodied in Meadows' film by the wan figure of 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who reluctantly makes his way into the school playground on the last day of summer term. He doesn't have a good feeling about the day, and his instinct proves accurate. As he tries to sidle through the throng, his flared trousers are mocked by an older two-toner: sartorial correctness is all.

His antagonist doesn't realise that the trousers were given to Shaun by his father, who has been killed in the Falklands conflict. The importance of this loss is reflected in Shaun's bleak bedroom: in contrast to the crammed consumer landscape of today's teens, he has no iPod, no posters, no computer - just fading wallpaper picked at in boredom and frustration. A picture of his father stands by his bed. Without any heed, Shaun launches himself at the much larger boy.

The playground fight is a dramatic staple going right back to Rebel without a Cause - and This Is England conforms to the teen-movie template. There is a finite period of time - in this case the summer holiday - during which the young hero faces serious choices: how to integrate with peers, how to detach from parents, how to deal with the first major conflict of loyalty. Beginning with the last day of school, This Is England even shares its opening premise with Richard Linklater's classic Dazed and Confused (1993), itself a canny updating of American Graffiti (1973), the granddaddy of all teen-retro movies. But the disparately dressed urchins of Meadows' seaside town are a world away from the American teens with their 8-tracks, cars and stuffed bongs. This is not a feelgood culture.

New-right power politics had a deep and dramatic impact on England's working-class youth. What adults rarely understand with regard to adolescent behaviour is that each period gets the teen nightmare it deserves, as the young replay society's shortcomings to the adults whom they feel are responsible for the way the world is. Hence the headlines made by the affectless, brand-driven, hyper-individualist teens of today.

With unerring accuracy, Meadows sets This Is England in 1983, the year that Time magazine ran a major cover feature on the country's warring youth, called 'The Tribes of Britain'. Heralded by a shot of a threatening, tense Mohican punk - all lairy look and torn clothes - Time's seven-page article itemised the players within Britain's national theatre of violent discontent. Using the language of urban anthropology originated by Tom Wolfe and popularised by the Face and i-D, Spencer Davidson turned Britain's youth into scary cartoon characters: punks, skinheads, teddy boys, mods, bikers, trendies, rock-a-billies, Sloane rangers and soccer fans. These were, apparently, living exemplars of the savage tribalism that signalled "the foreshortening of a nation's expectations and the growing alienation of its youth".

In the late 1970s punk had cannibalised post-war youth styles into a living collage. If you went to a gig in 1976 or 1977 you'd see someone wearing brothel-creeper shoes (teddy boy), a Wemblex tab-collared shirt (mod), a slimline 1960s Tonik jacket (skinhead) or battered leather jacket (rocker), and huge, baggy trousers turned in at the ankle (zoot suiters). Many of these items had been sold in Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's shop at 430 King's Road.

As punk unravelled, many of Britain's young returned to the source styles. Teds regrouped to batter the punks whom they thought were desecrating their costume. Mods returned in a lame retread of their 1960s heyday. As for their one-time cousins, well, "Skins are back!" yelled Sham 69's Jimmy Pursey at the Clash's May 1977 show at London's Rainbow - and there they were, transported from the late 1960s as if in a time machine.

But the second-generation skins were more yoked to far-right politics than their forebears, a connection made explicit in the figure of Nicky Crane, the National Front member who appeared as the cover star of the compilation Strength Thru Oi! - the phrase parodying a Nazi slogan. (As it happens, Crane was later discovered to be gay; note also the assumption of skinhead styles by a subculture of gay men during the 1990s.) The link between skinheads and far-right/nationalist politics continues today, most obviously in the former Iron Curtain countries and the US.

In Nick Knight's 1982 picture book Skinhead Dick Hebdige went to talk to some skins in the East End. He found that behind the bravado of the "bootboy seer" was "a boy who can't see any future." He was "an anachronism, born out of time... Because the brutal fact is that big business no longer needs brute force (except perhaps as Exocet fodder)... the manual working class is on the way out. It's had its day in countries like ours."

The skinhead was the living product of the 1980s class war. If "muscle and mechanical skills" were no longer required, then they would find another outlet. Hebdige acknowledged the skins' retreat into "white ethnicity", their far-right proclivities. He also observed that "subcultures are a mass of contradictions. Though they may be loosely allied to a particular kind of politics, that alliance is uneven and transitory. There are black skinheads and Socialist Workers Party skinheads."

This is contested ground, and it is to Meadows' credit that in seeking to recreate the subculture of his youth (with the aid of Knight's book) he tackles it head on. At the heart of his film is the battle for Shaun's soul between Woody and Combo, who epitomise the poles of the skinhead ethos. This struggle is played out among two wider issues: the attitudes and behaviour of youth in wartime and the nature of masculinity and, indeed, fathering.

It is Woody's gang who constitute Shaun's first peer group. Wandering back from school, he encounters a lairy-looking bunch in an underpass. They accost him, and in one of several beautifully observed scenes Shaun's prickliness dissolves as he realises they are not out - like everyone else - to get him. Despite his appearance, Woody (Joe Gilgun) is spacey, kind, and alert to any bullying behaviour. The gang take the lonely child to their heart.

The initiation follows. Shaun is slowly styled as a skinhead and the inevitable conflict occurs as parental and peer values clash. When Shaun arrives home with his head shorn, his mother Cynth goes ballistic. With Shaun in tow, she beards the gang in their café: instead of greeting her with the abuse you might expect, Woody and his girlfriend Lol are respectful and apologetic. Cynth is reassured that her son is in good hands.

With that conflict safely negotiated, the stage is set for the next leg of Shaun's journey, as initiation is followed by idyll. Dressed in a patchwork of crazy costumes, the gang head for open country. Freed from spatial restrictions, they revert to childhood. The day ends with a party, where different ages, races and subcultures mix - quite literally in Shaun's case, as he gets a kiss from New Romantic Smell (rhymes with Michelle).

"It's the best day of my life," he exclaims, but a shadow is quickly cast. Woody's party is invaded by an uninvited guest, Combo, fresh out of jail. The whole atmosphere of the film changes with the ex-con's entrance as the newcomer subjects Milky - one of Woody's gang, so called because he has brown skin - to a racist tirade. Nobody speaks up for him, and Combo seizes the moral advantage.

The next day he calls a meeting and delivers a lecture about national pride. "Two fucking world wars men have laid down their lives," he rants, "and for what? So we can stick our fucking flag in the ground and say this is England, this is England, this is England." So there it is. National identity is tied in with war. For Combo, however, "the proper fight" is not to be found thousands of miles away, but on the doorstep: against the immigrants who are usurping the jobs of the 3 million unemployed.

This begs the questions: what does war mean, and what does war do to non-combatants? Adolescence is the time when the young leave the family and go into the outside world. To some extent they soak up the values of that world like litmus paper, though of course there is room for individuation. If society is extolling combat, aggression and hatred, then they pick up and act on those values. War is nothing less than state-sanctioned violence, and the young are quick to notice.

The phenomenon had been recognised early in the history of adolescence as a social concept. During World War I there had been an outbreak of juvenile delinquency that had shocked the authorities. Over 20 years later, the National Government was determined this would not recur and so placed especial focus on the study of youth, carried out by the social reporters of Mass-Observation. During the winter of 1941-42 observers noted that many children and adolescents had "become sullen and aggressive. Fearful for the disintegration of their normal lives they are forming themselves into gangs, with a strong leader whose morals may be doubtful, but whose presence seems secure. Child delinquency is increasing. It was in just such a breeding ground of fear and insecurity that Hitler planted the seeds of Nazism, a philosophy for frightened, downtrodden, neglected people."

Zen master Woody has no riposte to Combo's miasma of violence and double talk. Still, he's not going to sit around and hear this shit. As he walks out, the gang splits down the middle - with Shaun remaining behind. Combo has already paid the boy special attention and he seals the deal with an appeal to his vulnerability: "I know what it's like to have people walk out on you, to have people just fucking leave." The good father has gone.

Blind to the consequences of his choice, Shaun becomes the mascot of the new group. He follows Combo into a National Front meeting and into terrorising Indian and Pakistani immigrants. It's not as though Woody's group were angels - the climax of their idyllic day out was the total destruction of empty houses - but under Combo's leadership the violence is directed against people, not property, and is explicitly racist.

For Shaun, still half in childhood, it's a jolly romp with his new mates. Adolescence loves action, and Combo provides it in spades. But the undercurrent of violence is getting stronger, and has to do with the new father's tortured psyche. Brilliantly played by Stephen Graham, Combo is a complex mixture of cleverness, manipulation and barely repressed fury. One moment he's all empathy, the next eye-popping, screaming rage.

Wilhelm Reich observed that one component of fascism was sexual frustration, and a key moment in Combo's unravelling occurs when he tries to rekindle his brief romance with Lol. Alone of all the skins, she stands up to him. Quivering with disgust, her beautiful eyes wide, she derides his rosy memory of their one-night stand: "It was the worst night of my life." Kicked right where it hurts, in his vulnerability, Combo shuts down.

The final explosion of violence is as shattering as it is inevitable. Shaun's new father is revealed as a psychotic bully, and, even worse, becomes the child, expecting the youngster to comfort him. Shaun has placed his faith in the wrong person. If Combo embodies all the toxicity of a country at war, then the concepts of nation, of struggle, of pride are nothing but dust. As Joe Strummer sang: "I see no glory/When will we be free."

By setting the film in the point-of-view of a 12-year old - a weight perfectly carried by Thomas Turgoose, all prickly aggression and skin-popping discomfort - Meadows abstracts This Is England out of mere nostalgia. Although it inhabits classic social-realist territory, the film is amplified by lustrous colour and excellent editing (Chris Wyatt) into fantasy and, on occasion, arresting beauty.

The events are thus hyper-vivid, not time-locked - as the world is to the adolescent - and resonate with contemporary discourses around the crisis in masculinity and the effects of the wars in Iraq and against terrorism on young psyches. It may not have been Meadows' concern, but the Thatcherite 1980s continue under many guises: radical individualism, nuclear deterrents, war as a motor of the economy, the working class marginalised. In particular, the scars caused by the Falklands war persist. While preparing this article, I watched an excellent BBC1 Wales documentary in which Simon Weston - for many, the living symbol of that conflict - revisited some of his old comrades in the Welsh Guards. The difference between the swaggering youngsters and the mentally and physically scarred, if not broken middle-aged was heart-breaking. No aftercare, of course, just like today.

This Is England leaves its young hero bereft and alone. Like Jimmy in Quadrophrenia (1979), Shaun ends surrounded by the sea, confronted by both physical limit and emotional space - if not actual ego dissolution. Both have seen through the compulsions of their peer groups, but what is left? How do you go forward? How do you deal with innocence lost? If you reject violence, what is it to be a man? What follows is the test of true character.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012