Phil Thornton Interview

We interviewed Runcorn Renaissance man, the multi-talented Phil Thornton, as he prepares a ten year anniversary edition of his brilliant chronicle of terrace culture, Casuals.

Settle in, scroll down, and soak it in.

You are currently working on an update of 2003’s Casuals, widely, and rightly, regarded as the best account of the birth what is now known most commonly as casual culture. Can you tell us a bit about how the book came into being in the first place?

I suppose I’d always had an idea to write a book on what I still call the ‘scally’ as opposed to ‘casual’ scene. It was something I was fascinated with even when I wasn’t even dressing scally although of course no one went round calling themselves such a ridiculous thing.

I’ve always had an interest in youth culture and fashion tribes ever since first experiencing the various mobs who hung around Button Street in the late 70s: punks, rockabillys, mods, skinheads and the early scallies, or smoothies as we called them.  Like many other young lads I read The End religiously and thought they captured that mix of celebrating and satirising the ways of scally even as it was happening. To me the lads at The End were mysterious and untouchable; you could never out-cool them.

Everyone else was a div, a beaut, a meff or a whopper. It’s funny how many words Scousers have for ‘knobhead’ which is itself either a manifestation of their own superiority complex or a defence mechanism for what is actually an inferiority complex. As a ‘wool’ in Runcorn, a town where over half of the population was Scouse, dressing scally was felt to be a betrayal at first until United lads began dressing the same.

Stuck between Liverpool and Manchester, we shopped and went drinking and dancing in both cities but were regarded as outsiders by both. I started dressing uber-Manc around ‘84, ‘85 and started writing to The End just before they closed, and also letters to The Face under pseudonyms, although they did print one on so-called ‘paninaros‘ under my own name which I was mortified about. Most of my mates regarded writing letters as dangerously homosexual.

It was a towny culture and I was a towny, although I think the towny mentality exists in cities too. I then saw a small piece in The Face about Boys Own fanzine and sent off for a copy. Basically it was a Cockney version of The End but was more in tune with my own musical tastes which were for soul, funk and dance music rather than The Jam, The Clash and indie bands.

I sent them a few pieces and cartoons and by ‘89 I was their ‘northern correspondent’ and this lead to me writing for The Face in the early 90s. I was flavour of the month for a while and it coincided with acid house, Madchester,’baggy’ and Italia 90 when scallies and football became the media’s wet dream.

I started my own fanzines too which were pitiful efforts with no production values at all. I had to do them in work on the photocopier, single-sided because even typewriters never mind computers were hard to find and I could never afford to get them printed and typeset properly.

Around ‘95, I’d long been replaced by the likes of Gavin Hills at The Face and their new editor Richard Benson would ask me to write pieces and get me to give him ideas and then I’d see them in the next issue written by Hills, which pissed me off enough to write him a spoof death threat from a non-existent hooly gang a few weeks before he died.

I resorted to writing letters instead and started a new fanzine called The Guttersnipe. Former Boys Own reader and Evertonian Ste Connor and his mate Mark Malone got in touch and we started doing it together with help from fellow bluenose Shaun Smith and The End‘s cartoonist, John Potter, who wrote some great pieces about being on the building sites in the ‘80s.

I was still writing for fanzines like Manchester’s Ace Of Clubs/Northern Lights and Leeds’ The Herb Garden and the odd bit here and there for other fanzines and mags as well as trying to convince the likes of i-D that there was actually a whole fashion scene that they were missing out on, but no one was interested. According to the fashion press, ‘casual’ as they called it, died out some time in the mid-80s when Cockneys stopped wearing Fila and Lacoste. Even when the Mondays and the Madchester bands broke through, there was this misconception that they had no mage or were anti-image as if they were Mark E Smith types not K-stand fatnecks.

Local subtleties such as retro-scal, the Manc scruff or even the acid house rambler look were totally ignored or misunderstood. It was frustrating because we knew what was going on but once The End went, no one was really documenting it. What’s The Score tried to carry on from The End for a bit, while Boys Own just became a bit too cliquey with its ‘club gangs’ photos and then obviously the magazine began to play second fiddle to the record label and DJ careers.

I was still doing The Guttersnipe when I started doing bits of documentary filming with Pete Naylor who used to do edit What’s The Score and Carl Hunter from The Farm. We did a few programmes for Granada, one of which was about the influence of The End on Loaded, Viz and When Saturday Comes. Peter Hooton also did bits and I ended up starting a company with him in 2000 called Partizan. We’d put on club nights, talks and did a webzine which was quite novel back then.

I’d get onto websites like Martin King’s Hoolifan and Terrace Retro and it was obvious that there was the beginnings of a casual revival or at least a coming together of lads from all across the country and abroad who were still obsessed with the clothes but had been in isolation. I think this opened up a dialogue and began what would become a massive cultural and economic movement in the ‘00s. Unlike mods, teds, skins and punk there was very little documentation of the scene and even writers like Paolo Hewitt would reduce it to a few paragraphs in books like Soul Stylists.

I decided to put a proposal together to various publishers called ‘Dressers’ but again, no one as interested. Then in 2002 we did a talk for a festival called Writing On The Wall, entitled ‘Who Wants It?’ that looked at the rise of ‘hooly-lit’ books. We invited Cas Pennant of West Ham, Martin King of Chelsea and Tony Rivers from Cardiff along with Peter Walsh from Milo Books who published a lot of these books.

It was obvious to me that all them were similar and touched upon fashion although not in any great detail so I passed my idea to Peter and he went for it. It was a bit of a risk for him as we weren’t sure there was actually a big enough market for a book that was concerned mostly with clothes and not aggro but it has sold over 35,000 copies now and has been translated into Italian and Russian.

I’m doing a ten year revised edition because a lot has happened in the decade since the book was first published. Films, documentaries, books, websites and new labels have all took casual to a new audience and got a lot of people back interested in This Thing Of Ours, a movement that wasn’t a movement, a scene that wasn’t a scene.

In the interviews for the original book and the update did you discover stuff that surprised you or challenged your preconceptions?

To be honest, I didn’t actually do that many interviews. I remember doing some in London, a few in Manchester and a few in Liverpool, but the rest was stuff people sent in. The process was tiring though, having to play back the interviews sentence by sentence from my dictaphone then transcribing it, editing and typing it all up. I did most of the transcribing while on holiday with the kids in Lanzarote. It gave me an excuse to get away from the sun and mithering women so I quite enjoyed doing that. When I got back I had to type it all up as I didn’t have a computer – I was borrowing our kids and putting it on his hard drive. He wiped the whole thing off one day which put me back to square one so I made sure I saved it all on floppy discs then – remember them?

The internet really wasn’t as accessible back then, not everyone had broadband or laptops and I only bought my first computer in 2003, so getting hold of information wasn’t that easy. Most of the people I interviewed were either existing mates or lads we knew from Terrace Retro forum and because that was a place for lads from across the country I think I got a good spread of different views and angles on what it meant in Scotland, Portsmouth, Norwich and other outposts of the empire. There was a lot of repetition especially in the early days when everyone more or less went through the same process but I suppose there were big gaps too.

I did get a bit of stick for attacking Cockneys and in retrospect I wish I’d left my narrative a bit more neutral and interviewed more London lads, although some were asked to send stuff in but didn’t.

Some of the things that surprised me was how other areas reacted to the clothes. Our Forest mate, Vecky, says in his piece how wearing a pink sweatshirt or something in a pit village in Nottinghamshire was utterly alien and there’d only be three or four lads dressed like that. That never occurred to me because in the northwest everybody dresses like that – the weirdos are the ones who don’t. From 10-year-olds in Lowe Alpine and 110s to 60-year-olds in Stan Smiths and Lacoste, it’s just a part of our everyday culture up here but I suppose back in ‘83, ‘84 even, some of those town and villages were still in the ‘70s bootboy era.

Another thing that surprised me was how different cities latched onto Liverpool, Manchester or London for their inspiration. Ian, a lad from Portsmouth lad, says how down there it was all electric blue cords and yellow jumpers whereas the Liverpool supporters down there wore beige. I remember beige and various hues of brown being massive in ‘83ish. Then of course it’s interesting how fashions suddenly appear and then are out almost by osmosis. Like the time I went to the United v Everton FA Cup Final in ‘85 in my 24 inch flares were out, none of the Mancs were wearing them and I’d only been to town a few weeks before. When did that happen? Where are the minutes for that meeting?

That’s the thing that really annoys me about how the scene was misrepresented, as if it was all part of some Thatcherite plot to make the working class more aspirational and that it was all about so-called designer fashion when in fact every single fashion trend was made by the lads and girls themselves; none of it was mediated and no one could direct or control it. I think Liverpool and Manchester are both the same in that, you can spot their ‘scals’ from those of any other city. There’s just something about the way they wear certain clothes, their haircuts, walks, even if you’re abroad you can spot them a mile off but you need a trained eye. I remember visiting my brother-in-law in Kent and they look at you as if you’re an alien. It gets you paranoid, as if they can smell northerner on you.

As for the new book, I’ve done a few interviews and got pieces sent from lads in Sweden and Italy as well as Britain and I’m doing all the photos again because the original ones were pretty crap, but then again there wasn’t much to go on. This must be the most under-documented fashion scene in modern history. You have to rely on pitch invasions for any photographic evidence of what clothes people were wearing, but more and more has come to light over the last decade and of course there are new mags, fanzines and websites all devoted to This Thing Of Ours now so I’m doing all the photos again.

Are you surprised by how little credit the casual/scally phenomenon gets in terms of the influence it has had on the mainstream, especially compared to, say, punk?

Not really because I think the self-elected fashionistas and youth tribe ‘experts’ just didn’t understand it. There was no real musical angle and no leaders or spokespeople so the subtle nuances were lost on them and they certainly weren’t going to the match, so didn’t see it evolve.

Even when they did finally latch on in ‘82, ‘83, they tried to make it a movement, which it wasn’t, or tried to present it as a uniform, which again it wasn’t. The influence has lasted as a mainstream look for over 30 years and across generations but unlike hardcore punks or skins or mods the clothing changes all the time. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable and could be something as daft as the size of a turn-up, the accepted brand for a polo t-shirt, say Hugo Boss becoming massive again in Liverpool or the rejection of Adidas trabs or maybe even getting back into certain looks or mixing it with something new.

The way Fjallraven really took off wasn’t something anyone could plan or impose, it just happened. That’s why I think the fashion media reject it, because they can’t control it. No one can.

Do you think the circumstances that created ‘scally’ were unique – is information and access to clothes so easy now that we will never see a movement quite like it again?

I think because it was almost exclusively based around football terraces then those conditions in that period will never happen again. It was transmitted entirely via the stadiums and streets around them with no media or musical mediation.

I do think there’s a bit of revisionism going on with some people because everyone followed more or same the same looks once they’d become accepted. That was probably due to a few individuals leading the way and then everyone else copying. Liverpool’s always been a city where fashions are followed intensely even its only within the city itself and everyone gets on it. There’s definitely a conservative element to this, not wanting to feel like a ‘div’ and everyone looks the same, like the Lacoste tracky and argyle sock craze or the young ninjas in Lowe Alpine, North Face and 110s.

What have you been up to since the original book came out and do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

I’ve kept on doing webzines just to keep me sane really. I’m a compulsive writer, in fact it’s a bit worrying and I think I need therapy. I did a website called Swine for seven years with some mates which I think had some really good stuff on it and some shite too but we did it every month for six years, which takes some doing, and I think Sabotage Times ripped us off and stole some of our contributors, although they still don’t get weighed in.

You can still actually get on the archive at www.swinemagazine.co.uk.

I then put Swine onto a WordPress blog as I think it’s easier to update but then it became just me posting stuff and that wasn’t the intention. Honestly, I’m not that much of an egomaniac.

I’ve called it a day on Swine and now do a similar site called Yer Know The Dance and it’s really taken off so I’m hoping that’ll do what Swine failed to do, which is appeal to a wider audience than a few hundred cynical ex-hoolies.

I’ve also done loads of fiction and poetry but there’s no market for that, and I’ve produced films, theatre productions and creative writing collections.

Then of course I’m doing the ten year anniversary edition of Casuals with a new chapter called ‘100% Pure Wool’ about my own experience growing up in Runcorn, an extended introduction with contributions from Kevin Sampson and a host of stars, plus new photos from people like Casual Connoisseur, 80s Casuals, Proper Magazine and The Rig Out.

When’s the new edition out and where can people order it from?

The new edition should be out next year some time, although I’m not sure when exactly, and it’ll be available in all good book stores and some shit ones and online and on Kindle and everywhere else.

I’ll keep you posted.

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