Richard Allen’s first two books for New English Library (NEL), the notorious Skinhead (1970) and Suedehead (1971) have been republished by Dean Street Press as paperback and digital editions.
Skinhead began a decade-long run of pulp fiction novels from NEL, tapping into the latest youth cult or fad. Skinhead, in particular, was a huge unexpected success. Selling over a million copies - read by many times that number as battered copies passed around classrooms and playgrounds - its young readers assumed the author recounting East End’s Joe Hawkins putting his bovver boots into the nuts of authority was one of them; someone they could relate to. The reality being somewhat different: Richard Allen was a Canadian born writer who’d knocked out hundreds of novels under a string of aliases and who was about to turn fifty.
Not being a thirteen or fourteen year old boy in early 70s Britain excited by tales of brutal violence and rape, Skinhead and Suedehead aren’t enjoyable reads. That said I can understand the attraction of taking your gang to Stamford Bridge to infiltrate the Shed and stick it to a bunch of Chelsea fans (or “Chelseaites” as Allen calls them). I can also appreciate Allen’s writing appealed to a section of the population who had no interest in the rest of the literature presented to them, but despite any superficial resemblance to the vicious gang mentality portrayed in A Clockwork Orange these are books are worlds apart when taken as anything other than a titillating read. The protagonists of books aren't required to be likeable, the subject matter doesn’t have to be palatable, but Skinhead and Suedehead are poorly written, nasty pieces of exploitation with few redeeming qualities.
What’s perhaps more interesting is how these books were perceived at the time. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t a massive outcry about the subject matter or, and I don’t want to sound too prudish, that kids were reading this stuff. There would be uproar now to such glorification of the actions of Hawkins and his gang. It’s impossible not to read the triumphant last sentence of Skinhead without hearing the distant echo of cheering playgrounds. The treatment and attitude towards women is, from this distance, quite shocking. That presumably was the intention but I can’t help wonder how close to reality it was. As time capsules go, even accounting for exaggeration, these novels were perhaps best left buried.
Reading between the lines, the permissiveness of the era was something Allen was keen to rail against and he adopts the tone of a hectoring Daily Mail writer, keen to bring back National Service and hanging to deal with all this unchallenged thuggery. “Since when does molly-coddling criminals pay dividends?” He also manages to take a dig at unions and has one beaten man ask “Can’t you see what this bloody Welfare State is costing Britain?” The books are so right-wing they’ve slipped off the side of my bookcase. Whilst some attitudes from the early 70s have changed for the better, making Skinhead now read like a postcard that's been hidden in the sideboard, others read like our current government. Now, that’s frightening.
Skinhead and Suedehead by Richard Allen are published by Dean Street Press.
For a very good article about Joe Hawkins, Richard Allen and New English Library see Subbaculture and there’s also this 1996 BBC2 documentary, Skinhead Farewell, which, however improbably, was narrated by Tony Blackburn.