As new scenes and worlds began to emerge in the mid 20th century the straight, adult world were quick to offer all manner of consumer delights for the newly emerging teen crowd. From early on American publishers had been blowing the lid on the new youth teen scenes to the square adult world whilst simulateously firing up the imaginations of potential new recruits and converts amongst the fast increasing in size teenage population via a series of paperbacks and pulp novels dealing with the dawning of the permissive society and it’s obssesion with of sex, drugs and rock n roll rebellion of the late 50’s
In the early seventies The New English Library, a small London based publishers, found themselves up against it with slack sales and with few new titles on the horizon set to change this.
Editors at NEL soon realised the potential in producing ‘pulp’ novels, aimed at teenagers and followers of the various new subcultures, novels that offered sensational stories, set in, and featuring characters and worlds that were familiar to a new market of young kids. Short on quality stories and flourishing prose these novels would be hammered out from the typewriters of guns for hire writers, writers who earned a flat fee per book, an arrangement that meant the more books you could bang out the more money you were making. The books, however crudely put together were soon delighting their intended audiences. Young working class kids who were not typically readers – partly through not having grown up with a culture of books and reading but as much to do with the fact that the books introduced to them via school would have been of zero relevance to where and how they lived their lives.
Looking around them for ideas on new titles with which to lure the pocket money from these young kids pockets the NEL were confronted with a new breed of teenage delinquent and set out to publish a book on the fast growing subculture known as skinhead. They needed to rush release the book to capitalise on the nationwide growth of the skinheads scene and to ensure it was sensational and realistic enough to excite the potential market this new venture.
To write the book NEL turned to an unlikely source. James Moffat, a Canadian who was well versed in the ways of the bash em out and wind em up pulp fiction world was about as far away from any young participant in the British skinhead cult as you could get. Moffat did however have this pulp novel thing off to a tee. Having successfully produced literally hundreds of Stories he instinctively understood what made these types of novels work. Formulaic structures, gritty tell it like it is honesty and enough sex and violence as you could get away with were the order of the day – written fast to be read fast.
“The first job I had in writing was the old pulp magazines. In that we had write at least 6 stories a week to make a decent income. What we’d do was start off with Chicago, on a Monday, detective, the victim knifed. On the Tuesday, New York, again possibly a detective story, may not be, but this time the victim was shot. On the Wednesday switch it to Los Angeles, bring in a female, poison. By the Thursday you’re probably fed up with making it a thriller type of thing so you switch it to a western and you use the same plot, except where you had traffic in it you had horses. On the Friday, well, maybe on the FRiday you think of something like a fantastic science fiction story, basically everything had the same story” James Moffat aka Richard Allen on the 1900 BBC documentary Farewell Skinhead.
All that was left was to set the whole thing in the seventies world of the skinhead. A quick scan of the headlines of recent newspaper stories regarding the skinhead scene was all Moffat would have needed by way of research. Though this new cult had developed, via mod, and drew style wise on a variety of sophisticated inputs mixing ultra smart influences from the American ivy league college look with the attitude heavy cool of the West Indian rudeboys it was the traditional, back to basics working class look of boots, braces and military short haircut that the media had singled out as THE skinhead look. That, and the skinheads apparent delight for casual street violence were the tabloid version of your average joe skinhead and this was enough for Moffat to set to work.
In typical pulp style Moffat banged out the book in just a few short days and with a quick name change for the author the first novel by Richard Allen, called simply Skinhead was released, unleashing into the world the exploits of Joe Hawkins and his crew devoted to skinhead, mindless street violence and the pursuit of easy sex. The New English LIbrary could never had anticipated the response to there foray into the world of skinhead. The debut Skinhead title sold in excess of a million copies and in true exploitation style Moffat/Allen went on to produce a total of 17 titles in the series. Whilst the second book, Suedehead suggested (albeit in title alone) an interest in following the development of the cult the continuation of the saga soon returned to using the word skinhead or skin in the title – skinhead escapes, skinhead girls, skinhead farewell, dragon skins, trouble for skinhead.
The books were simplistic in there outlook and brutal in there extreme portrayal of life on the streets of Britain at the time. Yet the fact that large sections of their readership found the novels to mirror their lives and were able to identify with the situations, scenes and language that made up these stories make it a nonsense to claim these works as wholly exploitive. For sure Moffat may have cranked the dial an extra notch for effect in places but the realities portrayed were often much closer, much more representive to actual reality that many would care to admit. Far easier to try and isolate unease and aportion blame over widespread violence and racism to a specific groups and sections of society than concede that pretty much nationwide in the early seventies Britains street were pretty violent places to walk and that racism was in many ways as widespread a problem as it ever had been.
Many would have been happy to see these novels buried but interest in subcultures through the seventies and into the eighties lead to renewed interest in these tales from the recent past. The books began again to be collected, and whilst the actual stories and attitudes no longer rang as true for newcomers to the world of skinhead even the cover imagery and titles of the books themselves could be perceived as iconic statements that told you as much as you needed to know about the content of these books.
By the early nineties copies were becoming harder to find. Long out of print these ‘cheap pulps’ had lived up to their genre and despite the huge numbers they had sold within a few years had been discarded, thrown away and binned. So scarce were copies of the books becoming that In the early nineties Skinhead newspaper The Skinhead Times sought to re-publish the books, this time as trilogies to make them available to a new audience. These re-issues are now themselves out of print and command prices much, much higher than their original rrp.
After completing the skinhead series James Moffat continued to hammer out all manner of cheap paperbacks under numerous pen names as well as his own (a movie tie in based on the 1976 film Queen Kong being one notable example) until demand for these types of books gradually declined and Moffat once again slipped from public view. Just prior to the ST reissues Moffat resurfaced in an article in Scootering Magazine and with a long interview with Skinhead Times publisher George Marshall in issue 7 of his magazine. Within a year of this interview Moffat sadly died, succumbing to ill health attributed to his lifestyle as lifelong smoker and heavy drinker. Three years later in 1996 the BBC produced a documentary about his life and work, specifically the creation of Joe Hawkins and the Skinhead series of books.