This is England

by Rene Matić

 

I am obsessed with Shane Meadows 2006 film ‘This is England’ because of its portrayal of the duality of the Skinhead subculture - my culture! It is one of the most palpable illustrations of our dearly beloved white jealousy and how it operates most fatuously and fallibly (and phallically) within the Skinhead movement and society more widely. Meadows draws inspiration from his own experience growing up in 1980s England, honing in on the importance of youth cults and subcultural production within marginalised groups in western society.

 

One scene in Meadow’s film remains stuck to the soles of my Docs. It is the poignant scene when Combo (played by Stephen Graham) beats up Milky (played by Andrew Shim) in a racialised attack. In the moments leading up to the assault, Milky (black) is sharing stories about his adoring Jamaican family, inviting Combo (white) to “come and see how we live.” Combo becomes visibly jealous and irritated, calling Milky a range of different racial slurs. Milky responds by looking him in the eye, nodding and smiling. The smugness. This scene is aware of its responsibility and its weight. I have watched it over and over, sometimes with my eyes closed when I can’t quite stomach it. In that moment, in Milky’s smile, something so familiar happens that carries me through the scene just slightly less tensely. I need to look closely at this – the taking, the jealousy and the armour (This is England, 2006).

 

Here we go…

 

The scene takes place in the living room of a small council flat in the Midlands.

 

‘The Dark End of the Street’ by James Carr is playing on a record player in the background.

 

This song is about two people whose relationship can only exist in the shadows. A forbidden love. A disobedient love. Like Isaac Julien’s ‘Looking for Langston’ or Jennie Levingston’s ‘Paris is Burning’. It’s what Patti Smith says about that fiery sadness, it’s desire; something that we should never let go of. ‘We are the hunger of shadows’ (Looking for Langston, 1989). The having to hate because you’re not allowed to love. What is segregation if not a Vogue battle?[1]

 

Milky: *passes joint* “seriously Combo mate, I have to tell you man, you’re a good Geezer. I mean this music, this sort of music is the sort of stuff I listen to, my Uncles listen to. You know what I mean? This is good music.”

 

Soul music, the backbone of the Skinhead. It originated in the fifties and sixties in African American communities, soon escaping into all corners of the music industry. Soul is sex, and it taught post-war Britain how to feel. After all, it’s rhythm that teaches us all how to move, how to live, how to love. And rhythm comes from black folk. The rhythm of soul is like nothing else; sometimes like gravel, sometimes like coffee and cream. That’s life.

 

Combo: “what you’ve got to remember Milks right is, I’m an original skinhead. ‘69 me, but it was people like your uncle, your uncle, that introduced that stuff to me. The soul of that music just fucking resonated within us. Do you know what I mean?”

 

In an interview about coming to London from Trinidad in the sixties, British Black Panther, Darcus Howe spoke beautifully about ‘The power of west Indian spontaneity and English caution’ as producing ‘a generation of little children who are quite remarkable in the way they approach things’ (Howe, 1998). Queue the Skinheads.

 

To identify as a Skin in 1969 was to embrace the causality of error (Russell, 2013)[2]; to maneuver against the strategy of the colonizing forces (Fiske, 1989)[3] and to exemplify the functionality and desirability of multiculturalism.

 

Here we have remarkable little Mum (white) and remarkable little Dad (black).

 

The interracial relationship - platonic or other, but always with romance - in all of its spontaneity and caution is

 

two people whom once faced away from one another as two halves, turn to face the world as one; as full. As one Skin(heads).

 

My mixed-race identity - much like first generation Skinheads - embodies and is a product of the dissonance and coexistence of multiculturalism and the legacy of Britain’s colonial, imperialist past.

 

That’s our flag baby!

 

I’ve written about it – my body, my identity – with reference to all sorts of things; a body that holds war and conflict inside it, a body that poses a threat, a body that is an error, a body that represents the dilution and destabilisation of whiteness. But only when listening to ‘The Dark End of The Street’ (the song that carries this scene so romantically), did I think about this body with reference to love. A body that possesses the irresistible fight to love and be loved and make love. In all this struggle and stickiness to think that

 

ours,

 

above everything else,

 

has always been a love story.

 

‘What about the love of two “human beings,” who mate in spite of or because of or instead of or after the fact of?’ (Collins, 2018, p. 50).

 

Not all love can weather these storms.

 

Milky: “And it’s Skinheads like you, true Skinheads like you keeping that flame alive.”

 

 

a true Skinhead:

Someone(s) who needs to be held by something(s). Someone(s) who loves deeply and angrily. Someone(s) who sets up camp within the margins. Someone(s) tired but full of energy.

 

I don’t know. I am just describing my Dad, or myself... It sure is a flame though.

 

Combo: “Yeah, it was fucking unity, it was black and white together do you know what I mean?”

 

This was a complex and sophisticated germination and cross-pollination between two cultures in a way that didn’t harm either and yet remained faithful to both. ‘It was unique, it was a bond we had with our black friends, it was something we could all share in. Even what we were wearing… that all came from Jamaica’ (The Story of Skinhead, 2016).

 

Milky: “Yeah! It’s something that should not be forgotten. It shouldn’t die!”

 

It’s something that should not be forgotten. It shouldn’t die.

 

Combo: “You’re still flying that flag in that fucking get out that your wearing, do you know what I mean? It’s proper. It’s real, man.”

 

HA! Flying the flag, he says, as they sit in a room decorated with the St George’s cross – (arguably) one of the most intimidating symbols of power and imperialism the world over. How can these two flags be flown at the same time, with the same wind? Both cannot be proper, cannot be real. Can they?

 

Milky: “Ah man”

 

*shake hands*

 

Combo: “That’s it man we’re like brothers now, yeah”

 

White folks do this shit all the time. They don’t accept opacity, they ain’t know how. They only shake hands with the other and accept them as neighbour or ‘brother’ if they (white) can order and manage the differences. They define these differences through western frameworks that cater solely to imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy (hooks, 1984).

 

White folks have to translate everything into something or else,

 

it will remain a disparity that must be violated and abused (Hall, 2001).

 

Milky: “Serious, for life”

 

Combo: “Yeah, for life”

 

Sean: “Nice one combo”

 

 

For a peaceful moment, the two manboys are the same; common interests, equally stoned, similar height and build, outfits more or less identical, shaved heads and big hands. Brothers, twins, for life.

 

The marijuana carries them lethargically into the night.

 

Combo: “So how many Uncles have you got?”

 

Milky: “Urm, three Uncles and two Aunties”

 

Combo: “So a big family then?”

 

Milky: “Yeah, twenty-two cousins. One Uncle’s got what, seven kids”

 

Combo: “What to the same woman, like?”

 

Milky: “Nah, spread out between three different women. Ones got two, another’s got two and the other one has three kids.” 

 

Combo: “And he’s just left these families and fucked off?”

 

Milky: “Nah, he still sees ‘em, to me he still spends time with them. There always round at Christmas and stuff like that. We all get together. Big party ‘til late in di mornin’. Yeah, it’s nice, it’s nice having a big family.” 

 

Combo: *Biting nails* “Have you got a Mum and Dad because you haven’t talked about your Mum or Dad?”

 

The night draws to an end.

 

AND WHEN THE DAYLIGHT HOUR ROLLS AROUND/IF BY CHANCE WE SHOULD WALK DOWNTOWN/IF WE SHOULD MEET, JUST WALK ON BY/OH DARLING, PLEASE DON'T CRY (Carr, 1967).

 

The music changes to Oltremare by Ludovico Einaudi.

 

Milky: “Yeah I’ve got a Mum and Dad, course man. Can’t knock ‘em at all. I was one of them kids where my Dad was away all the time. Sometimes he was away for like a fortnight working. But I never blamed my Dad or anything like that for being away and working ‘cos there was always food on that table. And that’s what I respect that man for. Always.” 

 

Combo: “Lucky you ‘ey”

 

One of the many stereotypes surrounding black men is the absent father. The father that fathers many but none at all. The undeserving father. The lazy father. The poor father. It’s a stereotype created to justify the demonization of blackness, estranging it as monstrous and inhumane, as something one shouldn’t touch. But Milky’s family history interrupts that narrative, setting a scene of jubilant family love and support, rich with culture, determination and warm bodies.

 

Not only does Milky paint a picture of a beautiful, big, black family. He paints a huge one. One that wouldn’t even fit in the room where the manboys are sat. A painting bigger than England, bigger than the whole of the damn world. A painting of a beautiful, big, black family whose size, in a world that seeks to shrink and diminish blackness, is so very intimidating, overwhelming and antagonising.

 

Combo is visibly but subtly distressed. He picks and bites at his nails, his eyes start to shine as if his body is rejecting something. His voice monotone.

 

Milky: “I tell you, anytime you want to come around for something to eat, you have to come around to my Grandmas to get something to eat.” 

 

Combo: “Yeah”? Milky: *in Jamaican accent* “Yeah mon, she cook some rice, she cook some peas, she cook some chicken!”

 

Milky’s Grandma most likely came to Britain just after the 1948 British Nationality Act was passed. The act reaffirmed the right of all British subjects to move freely and to live anywhere they chose within the newly constituted British commonwealth. As commonwealth citizens, all had equal ‘rights’ under the ’48 act. The act was intended to strengthen ties between Britain and the old commonwealth, making movement to and from Britain as smooth as possible for white people from former dominions such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. However, ‘what nobody in the political establishment imagined for a second was that black and brown people from Asia, Africa and the West Indies would use their rights under this very same act to come and settle in Britain’ (The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files, 2019). The act precipitated a glitch.

 

Combo: “She sounds dead lovely doesn’t she?

 

Milky: “Serious man, come ‘round for some akee and saltfish”

 

It is worth noting that Akee and Saltfish is a traditional Caribbean dish, its history born from slavery. Sugar plantation owners in the Caribbean imported salt fish to feed their slaves as it was a cheap source of protein (Thanks).

 

Notice the temperament change as the oppressed offers the oppressor a meal only fit for slaves.

 

Combo: “That would be nice wouldn’t it?”

 

Until Thatcherism, an ‘aspirational’ white working class didn’t exist in the way me know it to now. In some ways, I suppose, Caribbean migrants brought with them a sort of neoliberal mentality; coming to the motherland in search of prosperity.

 

Whiteness has a particular hatred for ‘lucky’ Blacks, those who dare to step out of their place and look it in the eye as an equal. “Lucky you ‘ey.”

 

Circulating relentlessly across and throughout generations is the (white) belief that people of colour are inherently undeserving and inferior (Diangelo, 2019). This ideology pervades white culture and has (sadly) become rampant amongst oppressed white working class groups who, much like their Black and brown counterparts, are also routinely and systematically robbed of opportunities that middle and upper-class whites have access to.

 

This is a common thread in British political discourses; the view that white people – and the white working class in particular – are at risk because of other oppressed ‘racial’ groups. Typically, this argument is used to endorse strict immigration laws and to validate greater surveillance and/or control of racial minority communities and individuals already in the population (Gillborn, 2010). white elites leverage the white working class to their own political ends. The white working class do the dirty work of capitalist, neoliberal white supremacy – much to their own detriment. It not only helps to achieve what the white elite want (the dampening of any social justice or equal rights movement and the upholding of white supremacy) but it also deflects and distracts the working class from the indisputable fact that the white elite is directly responsible for their own plights. Punching down is easier than punching up.

 

Milky: “Seriously man, I’d love for you to do that, love for you to do that. That would be nice. Come and see how we live; do you know what I mean? Even on a bad day, they’ll be a couple of my Uncles and – ”


Combo: *scowling* “Fucking hell you’ve got everything you have haven’t you”

 

Here we go.

 

Milky: “What?”

 

Combo: “You’ve got the whole lot, haven’t you? You’ve got the whole fucking perfect package, haven’t you?” *stands up* “fucking hell, you’ve got everything you, haven’t you? Fucking hell. So, what do you think makes a bad Dad?”

 

Even amongst the working class and those living in poverty, white privilege offers whites safer and more comfortable living conditions than their Black counterparts (hooks, 2000). For whites, that is as it should be. Even Combo wouldn’t argue with that. This is why he is so uncomfortable and enraged - someone he views as inferior has it ‘better than him.’ Because he, whiteness, has been defied. Embarrassed. Scorned.

 

Combo stands up in an attempt to restore order. He stretches his arms above his head, big strong manboy looking down on Blackness anxiously, considering how he can put it back in its place. Milky remains calm, his eyes and mouth still soft from the high.

 

‘(S)he flinches from nothing[4]’ (Alexander, 2018, p. 4).

 

As we Black people often do/don’t.

 

Milky: “I don’t know mate, I’m not a Dad, am I?”

 

Combo: “I know you had a good Dad and that like but, what do you really think makes a bad Dad though?”

 

Milky: “I don’t know man, what’s with the questions man? I feel like I’m being interrogated. What do you reckon?”

 

Combo: “niggers?”

 

Milky: “What’s with the nigger?”

 

I was writing about what hell is with the nigger the other day:

 

Combo: *Walking towards Milky* “Because you are aren’t yeh? You’re a fucking nigger, aren’t yeh?”

 

I looked up from my laptop and scanned the café. It was 1pm. Everyone was eating avocado and – oh, I noticed I was the only black person there. I took my feet down from the chair opposite me. I straightened my back. I started to need a cigarette and I realised

 

that

 

Nigger is the wind that blows between them and I.

 

Between our flags.

 

Milky: *sits forward*

 

As if to become open to the wind.

 

Combo: “aren’t you? Fucking coon”

 

What is he describing? As James Baldwin says, what you say and how you describe someone else, only reveals you:

 

‘I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m talking about me…what you were describing was not me and what you were afraid of was not me. It had to be something else. You [white people] invented it [the word nigger], so it had to be something you were afraid of’ (Baldwin, 1963).

 

There is something about the space between, the wind that blows. It produces a kind of agoraphobia.

 

Sean: “Combo! Just leave him”

 

Combo: *under breath* “Come on”

 

‘It is easy to do evil things, easy to harm oneself. To do what is good, what is good for oneself is very difficult’ (Collins, 2018)[5].

 

Milky: *Starts to smile*

 

 

Here it is. The smile. The nod. The knowing. It articulates everything I am trying to say but can’t. All I can do is smile and nod myself.

 

This is why I got so excited when Akala wrote ‘Why not turn the anthropological lens around? Ask white people about whiteness and not allow the dominant identity to remain invisible, thus retaining its mystical power’ (Akala, 2018). Isn’t it truly wild and sore that it wasn’t until I was twenty-one when I learned that yes, they are looking at you, but baby, you can look right back!

 

We must look at whiteness in order to reject and dismantle its status as the hegemonic, dominant and default mode. This is what the smile and the nod does. It gives the problem back to the oppressor. It says ‘LOOK AT YOU, I SEE YOU’; at once patronising and sincere. Like Baldwin says ‘it’s not necessary to me so it must be necessary to you, I give you your problem back, you’re the nigger baby, it isn’t me’ (Baldwin, 1963).

 

The smile and the nod that holds a mirror up to the crisis of whiteness. The smile and the nod that acts as an umbrella for the weather of anti-blackness, anti-colouredness. The smile and the nod that sees the taker and refuses to let them take anymore. The smile and the nod that begs the question – what is it really about the nigger that causes whiteness to feel threatened?

 

There is something here, this is what I am trying to grasp. Perhaps Baldwin said it best when he wrote:

 

‘You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced' (Baldwin, 2017).

 

Combo: “Don’t fucking smile at me? Don’t fucking smile at me because I'll rip that smile off your fucking face.”

 

 

Don’t show me. Don’t you dare give me the opportunity to reflect. How dare you look at me and how dare you force me to look at myself.

 

Sean: “Milky stop smiling at him”

 

Isn’t there a myth about doppelgangers? If you look each other in the eye you will both perish? This is like that. The fragility of whiteness (and masculinity) is so dainty and weak. If one fine day it happened upon itself, like a vampire exposed to light, it would, and it does, dissolve into a reality of its own nothingness.

 

I am reminded of a line from Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje 2019 film, Farming[6] ‘ran out of electric? All you’ve got to do is ask them [dark skinned, black children] to smile, they’ll light up the whole bleedin’ street’. This line does so many things. Whilst it plays into the narrative of the black child as ‘pickaninny[7],’ it is whiteness looking, gazing, gawking at blackness with wonderment and contempt; alarmed and aware of its influence. whiteness is ultimately charmed by the Negro’s sunshine[8] and its ‘flames’, but far too scared and selfish to feel its warmth. I feel like I can catch whiteness in one hand, like a moth with a broken wing. But light, you cannot catch, contain or hold

 

and that is,

 

in our society,

 

terrifying.

 

And that is why

 

Combo: *jumps on milky and starts beating him, repeating racial slurs*

 

Manboy, when will you learn to cry instead of spit?

 

I’m trying to understand evil without giving it power. I’m looking for the child in evil. Badness is a pill that we all swallow and it ain’t even that bitter. It rests within us, as comfortable as discomfort can. As our lady Tony Morrison says, goodness is mute. Goodness sure is now that your gone Tony baby, God bless you. ‘Evil is compelling, goodness lurks backstage… Evil has vivid speech, goodness bites its tongue’ (Morrison, 2013).

 

I said 'This is England' and this particular scene was obvious because when one first watches it through squinting eyes and a clenched jaw, its goodness gets lost; overpowered and overlooked as another demonstration of evil that relies on the weight of nigger and fists - a lazy image, a boring image, an unhelpful image – but this (my) framing is not that.

 

Milky’s painting of himself and his family is blackness as LOVE as love as love.

 

Most commonly when blackness threatens the status quo, babylon ain't waste no time in calling it crazy, angry and/or emotional. But Shane Meadows does the opposite. Blackness is represented as love and whiteness as the fearing of that love. whiteness is crazy, is angry, is emotional. (I am not one to quote the bible but) ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18).

 

1969 Skins – that was love.

 

whiteness thwarts and smothers our love because it is a destabilising glitch.

 

thwarted interracial

love

opacity

acceptance

 

is both resistible and irresistible.

 

This is a conflict almost impossible to encapsulate. But here it is in the scene, the skinhead movement, and within my very own self.

 

 

Both words and artwork by Rene Matić

 

 

Notes

[1] Vogueing is a style of dance that originated in the 1980s Harlem ballroom scene. When people participate in a vogue battle, one of the rules is that their bodies must never touch, no matter how close together they are.

[2] Legacy Russell coined the term glitch feminism in 2012 to denote a new and unique ‘socio-techno construct of gender and sexuality’ in contemporary feminist digital culture (Russel, 2013). However, rather than glitch being used to denote a negative occurrence of error or failure, Russell depicts the glitch as a productive moment – a necessary and refreshing lapse in hegemonic order which signals a ‘correction to the ‘machine’, and, in turn, a positive departure’ (Russel, 2012)

[3] Although culture will always operate within the area of white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy, Fiske proposes that there is still room for empowered counter-cultural resistance and readings of cultural objects and productions. Fiske uses film and television as example elements of popular culture that have the ability to be read and received in many unpredictable and empowering ways. Fiske relocates our agency and subjectivity in systems of power and culture and reinvests in our ability to resist and potentially subvert those cultural norms, which at best do not serve us and at worst, actively oppress us.

[4] My brackets

[5] Sections of pages 10-19 have been published by Montez Press as part of their ‘Interjection Calendar’ (Matić, 2019).

[6] Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s film tells the story (based on his own life events) of a young Nigerian boy, `farmed out' by his parents to a white British family in the hope of a better future, but who instead becomes the feared leader of a white skinhead gang.

[7] A racial slur, referring to a dark-skinned child of African descent, framing them as dirty, naughty and unruly.

[8] The subject of a work by black, queer artist, Glenn Ligon, inspired by a James Baldwin novel.

 

 

Bibliography

Akala, 2018. Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. first ed. s.l.:Two Roads.

Alexander, E., 2018. foreword: in Search of Kathleen Collins. In: Whatever Happened to Interracial Love. London: Granta Publications, p. 4.

Baldwin, 1963. What's a Nigger? [Interview] 1963.

Baldwin, J., 2017. I am not you Negro. s.l.:Penguin Random House.

Carr, J., 1967. Dark End of the Street. [Sound Recording] (Goldwax).

Collins, K., 2018. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?. London: Granta Publications.

Crime & Poverty In Manchester: Britain's Forgotten Men. 2018. [Film] Directed by Dan Murdoch. UK: BBC Three.

Diangelo, R., 2019. White Fragility. s.l.:Peguin.

Eddo-Lodge, R., 2017. Why I'm no longer Talking to White People about Race. first ed. London: Bloomsbury publishing.

Fiske, J., 1989. Understanding Popular Culture. London: Unwin Hyman.

Gillborn, D., 2010. The White Working Class, Racism and Respectability: Victims, Degenerates and Interest-Convergence. British Journal of Educational Studies, Issue 58:1, pp. 3-25.

Glissant, E., 2009. CONVERSATION WITH ÉDOUARD GLISSANT ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY II [Interview] (AUGUST 2009).

Hall, S., 2001. Modernity and Difference. s.l.:s.n.

hooks, b., 1984. feminist theory from margin to center. s.l.:south end press.

hooks, b., 2000. Where we Stand: Class Matters. s.l.:Routeledge.

Howe, D., 1998. Windrush: The Irresistable Rise Of Multi-Racial Britain [Interview] 1998.

Looking for Langston. 1989. [Film] Directed by Isaac Julien. UK: Sankofa Film & Video Productions.

Mead, M., 2007. Empire Windrush: Cultural Memory and Archival Disturbance. MoveableType, Volume III.

Morrison, T., 2013. Toni Morrison on language, evil and 'the white gaze' [Interview] (7 March 2013).

Nowell, D., 2015. In: The Story of Northern Soul. London: Pavilion Books Company Ltd, pp. 3-4.

Phillips, J., 2017. s.l.: Twitter.

Phillips, M. & Phillips, T., 1998. Windrush: The Irresistable Rise Of Multi-Racial Britain: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-racial Britain. London: Harper Collins Publishers.

Russell, L., 2013. Elsewhere, After the Flood: Glitch Feminism and the Genesis of Glitch Body Politic. [Online]

Available at: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/mar/12/glitch-body-politic/[Accessed 8 October 2019].

The Story of Skinhead. 2016. [Film] Directed by Don Letts. UK: BBC.

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files. 2019. [Film] Directed by Tim Kirby, James Ross. UK: Uplands Television Limited.

This is England. 2006. [Film] Directed by Shane Meadows. UK: Warp Films, Film4 Productions.Wambu, O., 2000. Hurrican Hits England. s.l.:s.n.

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