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GENDER, SEXUALITY AND CONTROL
'Tom grinned, bringing his fist down with a chopping motion on the back of the United fan's neck. He felt the blow jar his muscles. He kicked as the man slumped. Then the boots went in hard. Muffled moans lost themselves in the frantic chanting from the terraces. Boot Boys! Boot Boys!'
So reads the copy on the back of Richard Allen's 'Boot Boys.' Beneath this blurb the covers of two of Allen's earlier novels are reproduced - 'Skinhead' and 'Suedehead’. The promotional copy for all Allen's books focuses on their depiction of violence. But although violence plays a major role in Allen's novels, it was by no means the only element crucial to his best-selling success. Allen's audience were obviously interested in reading about violence, but this violence was not simply 'soccer aggro,' it is extended into the realm of general social relations and sex. And it is a violence with a dualistic nature. It is simultaneously mechanical and mystical. It is beyond the control of those who vent it, but it is destined to be neutralised by some outside authority, usually the police, at the conclusion of each story. Parents and social workers also play important roles in the exercise of discipline and punishment. Some of these qualities surface in the following extract from 'Boot Boys':
'Basically, Tom had a 'feeling' for violence. It had not been something thrust upon him through environment, poverty, the necessity of fighting to stay alive. He had been given more opportunities than most to further his education, forge a career. Yet he had rejected all decency in his lonely search for power through brutality. His venture into skinheadism had been choice, not following a trend. His association with 'The Crackers' came from the inborn desire to command, to know that he was capable of ordering total destruction on the heads of those daring to stand up and be counted against his way of life. He was hard, had never backed away from bother, enjoyed proving how tough he was. Yet, deep down inside, there was a spark of fear when it came to any showdown with his father.
‘Do-gooders would, no doubt, strive to prove some childhood moment when Tom had been victimised by his parents. But Tom knew different. His father had invariably come to him offering the hand of friendship, comradeship, man-to-man relationship. That every gesture had been skillfully rejected by the growing boy was not parental fault. It was that intangible something which compelled him to repel all those who hoped to gain his affection.’
Allen's books were not the only series that his publishers, New English Library (NEL), issued which gave expression to, and simultaneously depicted the containment of, youth violence and sexuality. There were Hell's Angels novels by Peter Cave, Alex R. Stuart, Mick Norman and Thom Ryder, which although targeted at the adherents of a different subculture, also focused on the issue of youthful deviance. In the following extract from Mick Norman's 'Guardian Angels,' it can be seen that these books, too, were concerned with a mystical, perhaps genetic, aspect in the nature of their protagonists:
'These were not men of the nineteen-eighties, used to slick suits and the soft answer. There was a primitive violence and strength in the Angles.'
However there are major differences between Allen's depiction of deviance and its control, and that of the Angel novelists. Allen's characters tend to be teenage, whereas the heroes of the bike books are usually in their early or middle twenties. The Angels have a far greater emotional investment in the concept of freedom. Whereas Allen's characters tend to end up before the courts, the Angels neutralisation as a threat to authority is far likelier to be achieved through violent death. And even this neutralisation is more often than not the result of feuding between deviant youth groups, in contrast to Allen s protagonists, who are often subject to control by representatives of authority. Norman's 'Guardian Angels' is clearly marked by these differences, as well as providing examples of those elements which were crucial to the success of both genres:
'The offices of the Daily Leader had erupted in a plume of death, and many had breathed their last. Again, the premier chapter of Hell's Angels in Britain the Last Heroes, linked with the Wolves, affiliated by charter to the great chapter of Oakland in California went underground. But, times changed. Many of the dead had been members of a rival chapter - the Ghouls - and the public were not that concerned. Of far more interest was the news, only three days after the Holborn cataclysm, that a Minister of the Crown had paid a high-class prostitute to beat him with bunches of thistles, while he stroked her Alsatian. Not only had he admitted this absurd perversion, but a leading paper actually had photographs of him taking his pleasure. And the lady was reputedly of foreign extraction.'
It is the combination of sex and violence, and their linking to those in authority, and the process of control that accounts for the success of these books. This is a theme that occurs over and over again. For another example we will turn to one of Allen's last novels, the 1977 epic 'Knuckle Girls':
‘Already displaying signs of rebellion against parental authority, Ina suffered at her father's hands while her mother weepingly shut herself in the bedroom. From an age when memory registered events, Ina associated violence with her father. Yet, she also found pleasure in this painful relationship. The pleasure and pain were synonymous in her mind; inseparables creating an interweaving confusion marked by a noted adrenal rise. '
This extract also demonstrates another crucial aspect of these books, that of gender differentiation. Allen, in particular, is obsessed with reinforcing both sexual and racial stereotypes. While his male characters are simply sadistic, his female characters often have a masochistic aspect in their personal make-up. This viewpoint reaches a particularly obnoxious level of fantasy in Allen's depiction of rape. There are rape scenes in a number of his books, such as 'Skinhead' and 'Skinhead Escapes' but his most offensive use of this theme is to be found in 'Boot Boys':
"I haven't mentioned this before because I wasn't sure how you'd take it but,' and she closed her eyes, sat down with hands clasped in her lap, 'the night those boys raped me I suddenly realised a very basic feature of a woman's make-up Wilf, she is not that far removed from the jungle. I mean it Wilf .. .' and her gaze pierced his with a power he had not known her to possess. 'At first, I was so frightened I could have died. Then, the pleasure became intolerable.'
Allen skillfully builds up the recollections of the rape, intercutting them with other scenes. The recollections continue as the rape victim is making love to a journalist who is supposedly preparing a news report on her assault:
‘She couldn't rid her mind of that night
Taken out of context it is hard to believe that this is purportedly a recollection of a rape. It reads more like a piece of sheaf-busting romantic fiction. And Allen's treatment of race is as inaccurate, and offensive, as his treatment of female sexuality, as the following extract from "Top-Gear Skin" demonstrates:
'Thick Irish voices spoke of pints to be consumed and wages paid for goofing-off. Some even wore union buttons proudly in their caps. What a laugh, Roy mused. Always shouting that the English are a nation of lazy bastards. Crying for their rights as trade unionists and striking for higher pay. And what do they offer in return? Contributions to the IRA so that British soldiers could get shot in the back '
But if Allen's depiction of Wimmin, Irish, Blacks, and Jews, are no more than bigoted stereotypes, his depiction of those he and his readers identify with are also caricatured, as the following extract from 'Terrace Terrors' demonstrates:
"A wild one,' Debbie admitted. ‘She's married and got three kids now ( ... )'
It is in the depiction of gender, and sexuality, that major differences begin to emerge between the various series of teen cult novels. In Peter Cave's 'Mama,' a 'motorcycle groupie becomes queen of the Hell's Angels' by sacrificing any expression of her sexuality:
'She had sworn herself to celibacy when she made her great decision. Apart from her unfortunate, but necessary encounter with Bernie, there had been no other man near her.
As this extract shows, sexual stereotyping while still a feature of the Peter Cave novels is something individual protagonists may overcome. 'Mama' depicts Elaine Willsman breaking free from her heterosexist conditioning, but only by reducing her sensual expression to auto-sexuality. Mick Norman's 'Gerry Vinson' series allows for the expression of a far more liberated sexuality. In these novels two female characters, Holly and Lady, reject patriarchal sexualities and become lovers. However it is wrong to jump from this, to claiming that Norman represents an anti-heterosexist praxis. In many ways Norman's books are similar to those of Allen, Stuart, Ryder and Cave. For example, all these authors associate sex with humiliation and pain. One of the 'explanations' of Ina Murray's vicious behaviour in 'Knuckle Girls' is a sense of (sexual) inferiority:
'Regardless of what the others said about group sex, Ina had still to indulge in that kick. She joined in every other activity, but strongly rejected Terry's urging to be a sport and gang-bang. She knew why this one enjoyment was not for her. Looking in her wardrobe mirror told its story. She appealed to Terry but what if the blokes found her too skinny, too lacking in the knocker department. No, she could not afford to be ridiculed in front of Terry. And would not!'
Norman, too, associates sex with humiliation, as the following extract from 'Guardian Angels' shows:
'The rope ran to the neck of the first girl, then onto the necks of the others. The spotlights gleamed off their heads. Off their bald heads. Their hair had been brutally shorn by Holly and Lady, and the scalps coated with thick gold paint. Sequins had been scattered on top to give the glittery effect.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this linking of pleasure and pain, Norman's depiction of sexuality is polymorphous. It is not limited by the rigid heterosexist definitions to which Allen adheres. Norman even brings out the latent homosexuality in Angel rites. For example in this extract from 'Guardian Angels'
'Gerry, who had been drinking heavily ready to play his part, stepped up first and took the honours as president. He unzipped his trousers and urinated over the prospects back, shoulders and legs, reserving a little for the last to spray into Shelob' s hair.'
Norman had already gone further than this in his previous novel, 'Angel Challenge,' which concerns a rivalry between a traditional chapter of macho Angels, and a gang of satin clad gay Angels. And not even the heterosexuals in this novel are exempt from homoerotic urges:
'Gerry smiled to himself at the silence. It amused him to hear the sage words of advice of Sergeant Newman coming from the lips of an attractive girl. The old instructor would have considered it sacrilege. Girls was for screwing, and nothing else. Though Newman had once, when drunk at an NCO's party, admitted that 'the best fuck I ever had was a young Arab boy. Lovely arse, Vinson. Lovely.' Then he'd passed out cold.'
It is at points such as this that we discover the real value of these books. Although more often than not they reinforce sexual and racial stereotypes, they do, at points, break them down. Their readers were mostly school children, and since the books were published with the intention of making a profit, they had to reflect the desires of those aged eleven to sixteen, as well as trying to mould them. Thus while most of Allen's discourse on sexuality is no more than fascism dressed up as common sense, he doesn't give any credence to the liberal fallacy that those below the age of consent don't have a sexuality, as the following extract from 'Top-Gear Skin' demonstrates:
'Jeanette didn't mind older men paying attention to her. In school - when the rest of the class left - she frequently was asked to stay behind. Not for extra lessons unless one took sex as a vital part of education. Mr. Thompson had a thoroughly modern approach to everything - including the business of adulthood. Like when they were alone, her standing by his desk and his hand up her clothes doing such wonderful things. Things like she did at night, alone in her little bed. Things to make her appreciate the subtle change from childhood into womanhood.
The heterosexist manner in which Allen depicts adolescent sexuality IS objectionable, but the fact that such sexuality gets depicted at all IS worthy of note. Even the youngest of babies has a sexuality, and a sexual curiosity, a fact which the liberal discourse on sex has tried to suppress with its creation of the category of childhood and its 'romantic' notions of innocence. It should be stressed that pre-pubescent and adolescent sexualities are completely different to the sexualities of adults, but they nevertheless exist. It should also be stressed that power differentials between adults and children are such that kids cannot freely consent to sex with grown ups, and since acceptable sexuality is necessarily consensual, there are logical and completely non-moral reasons for treating paedophilia as a thoroughly unacceptable and abusive practice. Returning to the New English Library novels under discussion, when dealing with them it is important to remember they were chiefly read, and in great quantities, by children aged eleven to sixteen. The concerns of the books make this clear, parental conflicts appear again and again, for example in 'Skinhead':
'I arsked you to fetch me bread this mornin'.' his mother snarled. She waved a loaf before his face. ‘ ‘And over the money ... this is stale!'
The major characters in these books are always slightly older than the intended audience. This reflects the desire of the readers to leave behind the unwanted childhood they've had foisted on them by liberal humanists, and enter the world of adulthood where inequities are not as stark as the oppressive domination of adults over children. However the freedom of adulthood brings with it a loss of security, and the ultimate triumph of the representatives of authority in Allen's books marks the dialectical resolution of these tensions. In this way, youths who are crossing the boundary between 'childhood' and 'adult life' can momentarily assert their 'individuality', before swooping one set of oppressions for the more subtle, but equally severe, restrictions of adult life. There is a temporary loss of control, when the child who has always been treated as an object, is asked to behave as a responsible adult subject. It is at this moment that the norms of the teenage peer group come to replace those of class society. Class society is simultaneously rendered universal in the Skinhead series, and explained away through metaphors of inheritance and genetics. Allen offers the following description in 'Suedehead':
'Basically, Joe Hawkins had a feeling for violence. Regardless of what the do gooders and the sociologists and psychiatrists claimed some people had an instinctive bent for creating havoc and resorting to jungle savagery. Joe was one of these. Being part of a club which tried to foster a live-and let-live fellowship did not weaken his desire to unleash brutal assaults on innocent folk. The club was a front to cover his deep, dark nature. A requirement for his suedehead cultism. '
Finding everything about capitalist society unnatural, the deviant youth attempts to return to more primitive values. Rather than treating sexuality dialectically, that is to say as something which is experienced as real but which is actually socially constructed, such youth reject the dominant values and replace them with a taste for bother and promiscuous heterosexuality, which they invest with a mythical naturalness. 'Boot Boys' contains this description:
'Coming - as he did - from Golder's Green, Tom should have recognised that the way to success was by diligent pursuit of the Almighty Quid. He didn't. His pleasures in life were bashing heads, kicking the shit out of anyone too weak to defend himself, and laying anything from twelve to sixty that captured his passing fancy.
However, despite impressions they might like to give to the contrary, the readers of these books were not vicious psychopaths who had broken free of all control. They were searching for an authority they could believe in, rather than attempting to overthrow all forms of hierarchy. This manifests itself in an obsession with authenticity which occurs again and again in both the Skinhead and Hell's Angels books. For example Richard Allen includes the following description of author ‘Dick Arlen' in ‘Skinhead Farewell':
'Arlen grunted, sipped his tall drink. Personally he didn't give a damn about Lily Wright and her biased campaign against his books. He had been attacked often and by better antagonists than the ex -Sunday School teacher. But at the moment he could not afford to have his royalties cut by even a fraction. Of late, his outgoings had soared. This house with its acres of ground and a disastrous investment which had seen the loss of five thousand pounds had left him in dire financial difficulties.
The inference is that Allen's novels are authentic, indeed rather than being fiction, they are fact. Allen is obviously the author he is describing, and the one letter difference in the spelling of his name might even be a type-setting error. (The average reader with no knowledge - and probably little interest - in the author's actual identity is unlikely to realise that this passage is one of the most cynical in the entire novel. Richard Allen was actually the pen name of NEL hack James Moffatt. This obsession with the authentic - or at least a cynical pandering to the readers demand for it - surfaces most vividly in Allen's introductions to his books, and on some of the cover blurbs. For instance, the copy on the back cover of 'Demo' claims:
'Richard Allen has written a masterfully-researched novel that probes behind the scenes of today's university unrest.'
The fraudulence of such a claim is demonstrated by the front cover copy which boasts:
Similar obsessions with authenticity are found in the Hell's Angels books. For instance Mick Norman includes the following passage in 'Guardian Angels':
'Brenda: There are plenty of books about what we do. They're all old - written in the early seventies, most of them, but you might still find a copy around of one of them. Some of the brothers have copies, but they look like Dead Sea Scrolls. There are pages missing and what's left is held together by tape and glue. Try and read anything by either Stuart, Cave, or Norman. They all knew what it was all about.'
Although these books could never be taken to constitute a 'radical project', their progression is still depressing. While Allen's views had always been reactionary, his earlier books at least depicted youth in conflict with authority. By the time of 'Terrace Terrors' and 'Dragon Skins' he was writing about Steve Penn's squad of ex-skinheads who had abandoned 'bovver' and become a private agency tackling hooliganism and crime. The following extract from 'Dragon Skins' is typical:
'Steve Penn sat back in his chair and studied Boots Welling. He liked what he saw. As an ex-skinhead he trusted Boot's admission that he' d had his share of aggro but wanted to break free of all taints. They had a lot in common, right down to the marriage bit. .. '
Peter Cave turned to soft porn such as 'West Coast Wildcatting' when the bottom dropped out of the market for Hell's Angels books. After the fearsome 'Little Billy' series, Alex R. Stuart wrote a couple of books, 'The Bike From Hell' and 'The Devil's Rider,' which were nominally about Hell's Angels but actually had more to do with the occult. Most disappointing of all was Mick Norman's 'Angels On My Mind,' his fourth and final book about Gerry Vinson. In it Vinson is kidnapped by a crazed cop and then subjected to therapy by the cop's psychiatrist girlfriend. It is here that the Angel and Skinhead novels meet. The police feature in all the books, but the soft edge of authority (parents, teachers, social workers, psychiatrists) had, until this point, only found substantial depiction in Allen's novels.
First published in Smile 11, London 1989.
Some reflections on the work of James Moffatt (AKA 'Richard Allen')
Teddy Boy Riots & Right-Wing Angry Young Men (Bernard Kops' first novel)
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