Biker Books and Skinhead Farewell

Skinhead Farewell is a 1996 documentary primarily focused on the work of James Moffat, the Canadian writer behind the Richard Allen pseudonym.

As Richard Allen, Moffat was responsible for the prodigious number of New English Library skinhead books throughout the 1970s . While the skinhead side of New English Library’s youth cult output has never really interested me, the documentary also covers the biker books and those I am VERY familiar with.

Though New English Library published authors such as James Herbert, Michael Moorcock, Frank Herbert, and Stephen King, the publisher will forever be known for the various youth subculture books released in the early seventies. At the time, one of the most visible of these were bikers, almost always called Hells Angels (whether they were or not).

The discussion about biker books starts 23 minutes into the documentary, and is very well put together. This is helped by an interview with Dr Maz Harris, who was a respected researcher into the biker subculture, and himself a Hells Angel. The documentary also interviews Peter Cave, the writer behind Chopper, as well as some of the NEL editorial staff.

As is pointed out, the books were reflecting what was happening in youth subcultures at the time. What I find interesting is the role these books then played (along with Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angel: A Strange and Terrible Saga) as young bikers started to find their identity.

Watching the documentary as an author is also fascinating, particularly the interviews with James Moffat.

Moffat was an extremely prolific writer with over 250 books to his name. Talking about when he wrote for the pulp magazines, he explains the need to write six stories a week to make an income. He explains his process, how he might start on a Monday with Chicago and a detective where the victim is stabbed. On Tuesday New York, another detective story with a gunshot victim. On Wednesday a female protagonist and a case of poisoning, followed by a Western story on the Thursday with the same plot (replacing the cars with horses), and a science fiction tale to finish the week. (I assume he wrote one on a Saturday too, though he doesn’t give an example here.) This meant that by the time he was writing for NEL he could, when he needed to, write 10,000 words in a day.

I also love the interview with Sandra Shulman, the author of The Degenerates. While the camera follows her around the supermarket, she explains NEL asked her to write an orgy scene as a sample chapter. To achieve this, she wrote down a list of all the perversions she knew then ‘choreographed’ them into a scene, all the time not really knowing what ‘shafted’ or ‘going down’ meant.

The documentary is an insight into several worlds, the publishing world of the seventies, the subcultures of the same time, and the 90’s when the documentaries were made.

None of the discussions cover the books I find the most interesting like The Devil’s Rider or the Gerry Vinson series, but it’s definitely a good introduction to what New English Library were doing at the time and well worth fifty minutes of your time.

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