Let me be honest with you from the get go in the hopes that a confession might be the best way to give what follows a little bit of much-needed context; I am an unabashed anglophile whose entire experience of England consists of a single 90-minute layover in Manchester airport. Which is to say, I know nothing of the place beyond what has been exported and filtered through the sieve of my own American experience. But oh, how I treasure what I have found; the punk rock music of the 1970’s, the post-punk genius of Joy Division and The Smiths, Liverpool Football Club and the whole of footballing culture and, most importantly to me, the imperial pint glass filled with a cool, refreshing beer. What this all adds up to for me is a way of life of sorts, one that, as an American (and in true American fashion), I can check into and out of like an isolated motel on a deserted road that is rarely frequented by other travelers.
It was the same for me in the early 1980’s of my youth; Growing up firmly middle-class in a working class city in the Midwest, I felt free to experience the things I liked, try on new bands, adapt my outward representation into a series of coded interpretations of what it meant to want to be, say, ‘punk rock’ (crappy jeans and a T-Shirt with Chuck Taylors on my feet) and to simultaneously be a competitive kid who wanted to be on the tennis team. While the overwhelming majority of my peers towed pop culture’s party line (watching Madonna erupt on MTV and lapping up Duran Duran records), there were others, the real working-class punk rock kids, who went whole hog down the post-punk road; safety pins, denim, Misfits, Doc Martens and all. I always envied them, not for their tastes and ideas (many of which I shared), but for the certainty of their convictions; I was alive and well in the post-punk moment and, as is my lot in life, I couldn’t give everything to the cause. While I loved the music and the attitude, I saw conflicts everywhere. My teenage heart was in a million places at once.
All of which has only enhanced my anglophilia later in life; Post-punk English culture has become a touchstone for me, a representation of class-consciousness (almost absent in America but front and center in my own experience of Regan-era Flint, MI) and an unfolding series of discoveries of things I love (The Jam, of whom I barely had a whiff as a kid, Quadrophenia which I discovered on VHS after recognizing the title from the album of the same name, and of course pies and chips!) and, not surprisingly, things I loathe. Top of the latter list? The blinkered regionalism and nationalism that can be found among those who have the least at stake in the continuation of nationalist identity. My love for all things English and working-class is tempered by my recognition of some truth in that exported image of lads gone wild; Racism, hooliganism, violent nights on the lash and all of the negative stereotypes that strike fear in the hearts of the right-thinking people everywhere.
But just as my loves are obviously exaggerated by my romantic associations (which are my own), my fears are certainly the same; I can never be certain of what post-punk Thatcherism was like for an English teen. I can only know what it felt like to be a teenager in a working class town in Ronald Regan’s American moment, and for me, there seemed enough parallel lines to cross any ocean and to keep my fascination with lad culture thriving to this day.
Which brings me, finally, to Shane Meadows’ This Is England. After an 80’s-soaked opening montage that perfectly establishes time and place, we meet Shaun (a phenomenal Thomas Turgoose), a working-class tween who recently lost his father (a solider in the Falkland Islands War) and who is living his days under the gray skies of the English midlands with his mopey mom, Cynthia (Jo Hartley). While the other kids at school seem to have already staked their place in the culture of cool (mods, Madonnawannabe’s, etc), Shaun’s bell-bottom corduroys and tight, shiny windbreaker make him the target of childhood cruelties. He is undefined and grieving, a young man looking for family and belonging without the comforts of either. After a chance encounter with Woody (Joe Gilgun), the sociable leader of a group of skinhead teens (more on this later), Shaun falls in with the lads and gets initiated into their world by being gifted all of the outward signs of the subculture; A shaved head, boots and braces, a Ben Sherman plaid shirt, etc. A single, sudden moment of kindness by Woody transforms Shaun and immediately infuses him with an identity and sense of belonging. A few strokes of the electric razor, and a new-found confidence emerges. The kid is alright.
Disorder: Thomas Turgoose as Shaun in Shane Meadows' This Is England.
Without warning, trouble arrives in the form of Combo (Stephen Graham), a 31-year-old ex-con skinhead who has been transformed by his prison experience. Crucially, Combo is no longer a young man; His world view has been corrupted by racist politics which have left him brooding and bitter. Out of the blue, Combo calls on Woody, Shaun and the other members of the group to share in his racist vision; When his diatribe alienates Milky (Andrew Shim), the only black member of the group, Woody and his friends decide to abandon Combo. But not Shaun; the lad is oblivious to politics and, after standing up to the much older man, is flattered by Combo’s fatherly attentions. Combo tries to seduce Shaun with the political ideology of the National Front (England's ultra-right wing, anti-immigrant political movement) and the climax of the film swirls around Shaun’s humanism and the inherent conflict it inspires when he witnesses an act of violence (I'll say no more here). By film’s end, his transformation is complete; Shaun is able to connect the dots between his own losses, his identity, and the problems of nationalism. But it all comes at a heavy cost.
Father Figure: Stephen Graham as Combo in This Is England
The movie is absolutely tremendous, falling comfortably into the grand tradition of Zéro de Conduite, The 400 Blows, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, If… and Quadrophenia as a dystopian, deeply human coming-of-age story. It also does a fantastic job of reclaiming skinhead culture from the fascist history that has been the focus of films like Romper Stomper and American History X. In popular memory, particularly in America, the skinhead identity corresponds directly with the neo-Nazi subculture which, through acts of racial violence, became a tabloid sensation in the 1980’s and 90’s. But the roots of the movement are based in distinctions of class; Founded by working-class teenagers, rude boys both black and white, who bonded over reggae/ska, beer, and the familiar shaved head, skinhead culture always was more about commonality than difference. This Is England captures the transformation of that culture from a group of racially-integrated rebels without a cause to the divisive, fractured and symbolically loaded image that has been co-opted by everyone from fascists to anarchists.
I remember some of this debate in America very specifically, from the crimes of neo-Nazis to birth in the late 1980's of youth groups like S.H.A.R.P. (Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice) and R.A.S.H. (Red And Anarchist Skinheads), which were formed in an attempt to win back the tolerant heart and soul of skinhead culture's origins. The skinhead identity is a deeply conflicted one historically, and the film goes a long way toward explaining some of its allure and romanticism. At the same time, there are many deeply problematic aspects of skinhead culture (homophobia, sexism, etc) that the film chooses not to address, but I believe that Meadows is too focused on Shaun's point-of-view to bother; The character is so kind at heart and built upon such good intentions, the politics of skinhead culture seem secondary to the idea of paralleling a national fall from grace to Shaun's own need to find himself. It is enough to show the vast gulf between Woody's generosity and acceptance and Combo's self-deluded racism. The difference is eloquently underscored.
But what is most compelling about seeing a film like This Is England at this particular moment is how much it echoes the politics of Bush’s America, where Lou Dobbs’ "chicken little" rants about immigration and the populism of racist, anti-immigrant politics is now fashionable all over again. When Combo takes Shaun and some of the lads out into the countryside to a small National Front meeting populated by farmers and everyday Britons, This Is England felt even more alive and timely. As the on-screen politician bleats on about how far mighty England has fallen, I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of our own political moment; This fantasy of preserving an abstract, exclusively white vision of an America that has never existed and never will is only trumped by the blatant refusal to see how much better we are for our diversity.
Looking For A New England: Self-Definition
As such, the film serves less as a corrective about the lad culture that I have always romanticized and more a reminder as to why now, more than ever, I feel I have so much in common with and so much to learn from our shared experience. This Is England is an uncompromising look at how we learn life’s hardest lesson; It’s up to us to take control of our own lives and show the world that what we stand for is who we are. At this moment in my own history (and in American history), it is good to know that those imagined bonds between cultures, between my own youth and who I am now, between the romance of an ideal and its manifestation in real life, can still harbor a tremendous kinship; The ocean is wide, but our ideas and experiences are made of stronger stuff.