‘This Is England’: Reconciling British Identity

This Is England (Meadows, 2006), one of Warp Films’ most acclaimed releases, also happens to be film director Shane Meadows’ masterpiece. A potent political drama set in the summer of 1983; it documents the motivation behind the rise of the Skinhead culture, which came to prominence during Margaret Thatcher’s epochal governance. Yet, more than anything, Meadows’ film is about protagonist Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), his coming-of-age, and his search for some form of ‘identity’.

Based largely on the director’s own experiences, the picture doesn’t shy away from psychologising the young protagonist’s motives. He is small, weak, impoverished, and missing a father who has just died in the Falklands War. Meadows make this clear from some of the very first scenes, which find Shaun taking on a kid twice his age on the last day of school. Shaun is burning, searching for a sense of belonging.

So when Shaun bumps into Woody (Joe Gilgun), and his gang of misfits beneath an underpass after school, it comes as little surprise that the vulnerable child will soon adopt them as his surrogate family. After all, Woody is charming and friendly – a natural older brother figure. He tells Shaun that he can hang out with them again, and in the process helps reinvent Shaun’s image, propelling him into a booted, Ben Sherman, braces-wearing fighter. He is a little “action man”, finding a niche between his prepubescent innocence and his depressing angst. Shaun is such a hit in fact that a much older pseudo-Goth called Smell (Rosamund Hanson) and Shaun start hooking up on a regular basis. Soon, Smell is asking him to perform nuanced sexual favors, and professes that Shaun “kisses like a 40 year-old”, despite his tender age of just 12.

Shaun’s journey is stunted however, by the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), who has just been released from prison. Combo is a burly, and fiery man who comes into the old group, and encourages them that violence and racism is a means to overcome their oppressive squalor. As the gang separates along this racial divide, young Shaun decides to ally himself with Combo – one assumes that the child is mesmerized by the older man’s strength, and soon, a paternal relationship develops.

The film’s setting takes place nearly 30 years ago now, but the portrayal feels as relevant, and as palpable as ever. The specificity of Shaun’s experience, and the root of his yearning are so relatable that the depiction could be of any contemporary British city today. Certainly, as the story reveals, the isolation of growing up in a poor and unpromising community makes gang membership seem like a safe, logical solution. As such, a new aggressive community develops – perpetuated by the bounds of the social and political hierarchies that demonize them.

I moved to Britain as a child from North Africa, only a few years after the events in the narrative took place. As young as I was, the social and economic change spawned by the Thatcherite government, seemed to fill the air with the taut and tense fear found in This Is England. The world was filled with an anxious fear of the unknown. As the class structure disintegrated, and unemployment rates continued to rise, my family felt constantly threatened that our place in the country was at risk.The Conservative government had altered immigration laws so that we were in a constant state of flux – never given a clear answer about our legal settlement rights. In turn, my personal history as it were, mirrors the opposition group of the Skinheads depicted in the Meadows film. Technically speaking, I fall somewhere between the demonized group of the South-East Asian shop owner, and Milky (Andre Shim)’s Afro-Caribbean heritage.

But as This Is England proves, the irony is that the two groups are drawn together by numerous similarities. For a start, mainstream government rejected us both because we didn’t fit into the status quo, we existed side by side in sub-standard living conditions, and we all held onto a close-knit sense of community to get us through it all. Nothing makes this as clear as Shaun’s portrayal in the narrative. Sitting back, and revisiting the film for the first time in a year, I found myself identifying completely with Shaun’s anxious search for validation. Unfortunately, it is true that fear, or perhaps, fear of getting hurt drives individuals to misguided hatred. When one group demonizes another, it allows itself a sense of validation – a right to exist, and a means to uphold community logic.

In the intermittent time since my youth, I have lived in the North America, the Middle East and Africa, only to find myself back where I started again, living in England. Over the years, England (and Britain more generally speaking) has seen itself fluctuate from a melting pot to a place of xenophobic violence, as well as a hotbed for radical hared. But in the end, the nationalistic verve that espouses the lives of everyday citizens rarely supersedes personal identity. It is no surprise then that in This Is England, both Milky and Combo (two people from very different backgrounds) identify equally as “English”. That is because being English (or British) has grown to become a far more heterogeneous label – one that merges one’s individual heritage, with old British traditions. More than anything, being English has become synonymous with personal expression (from punk rockers to white, aristocratic female rappers), Britain has become, above all, a place, where we are all, free to find ourselves.

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