Back in the 1980s, in and around a council estate in High Wycombe, Gavin Watson began taking pictures of his younger brother Neville, and their local bunch of skinhead pals—a group known as the Wycombe Skins. The bunch were united not just by their shorn hair, but by a love of ska music and a certain fashion style that’s since been aped over the generations—most visibly perhaps by director Shane Meadows as an inspiration for his film This is England (2006)—that of chunky Doc Martens boots, button up collars, rolled up jeans or fitted trousers hoisted on with braces. Tattoos were a signifier: draped across arms and shoulders, stamped on chests, and visible as a curled lip unfolded to reveal black ink against fleshy mouths.
That fashion came with it a distinctive brand of insouciance, but also fun: a fuck you to “the man” and to the injustices that then (and now) saw working class communities both maligned and frequently ignored by those in power. As time wore on, of course, skinhead culture came to indicate things a little more sinister than ska beats. Tabloids, as they are wont to do, sensationalized the factions of the subculture that were associated with Far Right groups and violence.
A new book of Watson’s images shot between 1979 and 1984, Oh! What Fun We Had, provides a portrait of skins in which the subculture was untainted by connotations with groups like the National Front, instead showcasing a racially inclusive bunch more associated with DIY parties than political ones. Even on the page, there’s a palpable sense of ebullience and freedom: perhaps it’s the youthfulness of his subjects, perhaps it’s the daft faces some of them pull, perhaps it’s the visible joy of forging friendships in which boredom is a currency for playfulness. Watson is also, of course, superbly technically efficient in his self-taught craft, which he learned having bought a Hanimex camera from Woolworths in his early teens.
“Watson’s images provide a portrait of skins in which the subculture was untainted by connotations with groups like the National Front, instead showcasing a racially inclusive bunch more associated with DIY parties than political ones“
The book takes its name from the bouncy song Baggy Trousers by Madness which, like Watson’s work, simultaneously narrates the spiritedness of youth and frustration at a system that was so obviously failing them: “Oh what fun we had/ But, did it really turn out bad / All I learnt at school / Was how to bend not break the rules.” Both works overturn the stereotype of council estate skinheads as nothing but problematic yobs, and showcase the creativity and buoyancy of the culture while underscoring its subversiveness.
Following on from Watson’s previous photo books, Skins from 1994 and Skins & Punks from 2008, Oh! What Fun We Had draws from Watson’s previously unseen work to showcase images that were painstakingly archived by his father Richard Watson and edited by Rini Giannaki.
In his foreword to the book, Andrea Rosso, the fashion designer who founded the experimental Diesel line 55DSL and a longtime fan of Watson’s work, writes that it is the “authenticity” that makes the photographer’s work so striking. “Gavin’s eyes are one of the few living testimonies to that one last authentic generation,” he says, “A generation of skinheads and punks and ravers and so-called youth which existed prior to the use of the word ‘real’ as a prefix to their code of identification”.