Like most people of my age and social background, I read the Richard Allen books when I was young. Tatty, well-worn copies of them were passed around school, confiscated by teachers when they caught us reading them, and often destroyed by outraged parents.
Not so much because of their content, I doubt any of those teachers or parents ever read any of them, but more because they weren’t the sort of books they thought we should be reading. This sounds stupid now, in an age where hardly anyone under 30 reads books anymore, but that’s the way it was back then.
It was actually the lack of any contemporary Richard Allen type writers that was the impetus to my Punk Faction ebook series (which you can read for free here), set during the great punk versus skinhead wars of the early 1980s.
My memories of the Richard Allen books were pretty vague, so I thought I had better re-read them to see what sort of standard I had to reach with my own writing. A trip to Ebay left me thinking “Fuck me,” and “I’m not paying those sort of prices.” But I did find out that they had all been reprinted in the mid-90s, which gave me another idea.
Armed with a list of ISBN numbers gleaned from Google, I tried my local library. I wasn’t really expecting them to have any, but thought it was worth a go, and was pleasantly surprised to find that my local prison library had volumes one and three (which contained all the Joe Hawkins books plus one called Top Gear Skin which I didn’t remember). I filled out a couple of cards and my library borrowed them from the prison for me, phoning me up a couple of weeks later to let me know they were ready to collect.
So, did they live up to my memories of them?
Well … no, not really.
It’s not that they were badly written. They were never really intended to be great literature, as I am sure the writer, editor and publisher would all agree. They were written to cash in on a youth craze, just like the similar Hell’s Angels books that came before (and after) them. And that is really the way you need to read them, ignoring the odd clunky passage or plain odd dialogue, and just going on a nostalgia kick.
A few parts of these books made me cringe slightly, reading them in the more PC world we inhabit now. The casual racism of most of the characters (including the non-skinhead ones), the (shall we say) somewhat one-dimensionality of the few female characters that make an appearance. But you really need to put them into context with the decade they were written in. Alongside the early James Herbert or Guy Smith books, TV shows like Love Thy Neighbour or On the Buses, the Richard Allen books were very much of their time.
The main problem for me is, after the first book (Skinhead), the story just got more and more far fetched and it became that much harder to suspend disbelief. In Skinhead Joe was a 15 year old skinhead doing what most 15 year-olds have always done – going out and having a good time, getting drunk, getting into fights.
In the second one (Suedehead), suddenly he’s wearing a bowler hat, carrying an umbrella with a sharpened point on the end, and working in the city. In the third one (Skinhead Escapes) he escapes from prison and becomes a professional thief.
The fourth (Trouble for Skinhead) is just a clip show, probably culled from out-takes from the earlier books, framed by a short story set in prison. The prison story is actually okay, so it’s a shame that wasn’t developed into a full book.
The fifth book (Skinhead Farewell) has Joe move to Australia where he gets involved in gem mining while on the run from a London gangster who followed him there.
It’s almost as if Richard Allen had already written these stories and just decided to insert the Joe Hawkins character into them regardless of whether it made any sense or not. They are also obviously written by someone with little or no knowledge of skinheads beyond what was written about them in the newspapers.
The true voice of Richard Allen speaks through his police characters, decrying the actions of the younger skinheads. The police in these books always triumph at the end, and they never do any of the things they used to do to both punks and skinheads in my day (and continue to do at the annual nostalgia fest at Blackpool even though we’re all in our mid to late 40s).
If, like me, you are considering re-reading these books, or maybe even reading them for the first time, I would recommend you read Skinhead and forget about the rest. A lot of people rave over Suedehead too, but it didn’t really do anything for me. Maybe because I’ve always hated people who wear suits (with or without the silly hat) almost as much as I have always hated the police.
I’ve been told that Richard Allen’s books became even more far fetched as time went by, including one about Kung-Fu skinheads which was presumably written during the Kung-Fu craze that swept England in the mid-70s. It’s a shame he died before we ever got to read about vampire skinheads, or skinheads battling zombies, or skinhead wizards.
Now there’s an idea …