When I look at this image, an image I have known for so long, I think of Paul. You don’t know Paul and neither do I now, but there was a time when I did and that time was the late 1970s and early 1980s. Paul was in the same year as me at school, he lived near the train station and we knew each other. He was tall, wiry and his head was slightly stooped. His legs were covered in an extremely tight and narrow grey trouser, his blazer far too short in the arm and his tie was loosely draped around his neck. His own version of the official school uniform. His hair was shaved, his boots were DM’s and on his neck he had a swallow tattoo. Paul was 17 and at that time tattoo’s were as rare as hens teeth on anyone other than soldiers, sailors or skinheads. Paul was a skinhead.
Paul was an angry young man. We would acknowledge each others existence and occasionally talk, but rarely. I kept my distance. I had friends who were Irish, Jamaican, Indian, and Pakistani. Paul didn’t seem to have friends.
His anger seemed to grow as we moved through the school we both attended and his violence towards others seemed to grow with his progression. The violence became more serious and although I cannot remember the exact nature of his final offence at school, I can clearly remember the afternoon that he was rumoured to have been taken behind the school swimming pool building and beaten by some of the teachers. He was not seen at school again and although I would see him around the streets of where we lived, I never spoke with him again.
This photograph by Chris Killip acts as my time machine back to that period of my life. The intense anger is clear in the foetal position adopted by the young man seated on a brick wall, framed by that wall and that which his back pushes against. It is a photograph of constrained emotion, fighting to be released, Killip capturing the moment before that emotion is released as a form of primal scream. A roar against life and the life he has been given.
Killip’s youth is not wearing a school uniform but he does not appear to be any older than sixteen years of age. Maybe he should be at school, maybe he has just left, maybe he has been forced to leave, maybe it was the weekend, or maybe he is older in age than he appears in looks. I don’t know, but I can see in his well worn jacket, and his thick socks, the uniform of the working class. Clothes the men of Jarrow, primarily manual workers in the local ship works, had worn for years.
He is in my eyes a Northern Paul. I recognise the angst, the anger and the coiled spring nature of his physicality and mental condition. The shaved head is an obvious commonality to observe but it is in reality a symbol of anger against and rejection of polite society in the late 1970s amongst the working class. Many skinheads supported the facist beliefs of the National Front at that time, whilst others danced to Trojan records and dedicated themselves to the Jamaican sounds of Ska, Blue Beat and Two-Tone. Nothing was straight forward in the 70s, a time when support for mental health was limited at best and economic survival was fragile and tough. It was not a time of disco, sequins and big hair for all. Thatcher was coming and the union unrest at the beginning of the decade was soon to reach a crescendo of national action with the subsequent demolition of working class areas and communities across the country.
The youth in Killip’s image seems to represent this sense of pent up frustration that so many felt at the time it was created and where it was created. A timeless image firmly rooted in the time in which it was made and yet universally communicative in its content and context.
I get all of this from Killip’s photograph. It allows me to travel back from a personal perspective and reflect on that time with the benefit of hindsight and experience. I wonder where Paul and Killip’s youth are now.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Taylor Francis 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Taylor Francis 2019). His next book What Does Photography Mean to You? will be published in 2021.
© Grant Scott 2020