The two people that matter most to me when I was a boy are Freddie Owodunni and Richie Skinner. One time the three of us were standing outside the Co Op, not far from where the double-decker buses used to stop. We were passing around a Woodbine. We were all thirteen. I was eyeing up this pretty girl named Sally Harmon that I’d recognized from my Biology Class. I’d had a crush on her for two terms, and I was trying to work up the courage to ask her out. When I looked up to mention this to the other two, I noticed Richie was staring at a young black couple that were strolling down the opposite side of the street. The woman had hair like Diana Ross and the man was wearing a black trilby hat and a smart blue suit with thin lapels. They were holding hands and looking in the shop windows. Suddenly Richie spat in the gutter turned to me and said, I can’t stand most coloureds, but Freddie’s different. In those days the three of us were skinheads. Freddie was the only black skinhead in our gang. There were about ten of us in all, but most of the time it was myself, Richie and Freddie that hung around together. We were best mates. We’d known each other since we were around five year-olds. I can remember the three of us marching around the playground in our little grey shorts, holding hands, and chanting invitations to play cowboys and Indians. We were practically next-door-neighbours, and when we all turned eleven, Freddie and me ended up going to the same secondary school. Richie went to a different one down the road, but the three of us always met up in the evenings. Freddie was one of the lads. It hadn’t always been that way for him. The first two years of secondary school he was bullied quite a bit, but suddenly around the age of thirteen his hormones kicked in. He had a growth spurt and everything about him expanded. Suddenly at five-foot eleven and three quarter inches, he towered above the rest of us. At the weekends and after school, the three of us would stand on the corner of the high street decked out in our skinhead gear. I was a film freak, and in my head I had vision of Marlon Brando and his pack of teenage reprobates in that movie the Wild One. They of course were bikers and wore leather, but that didn’t matter to me. I understood, that they like us were social misfits and working class rebels. I was anti- establishment and I didn’t care if anyone knew it. In fact, I probably went out of my way to make sure that everyone did. On my left was Richie wearing a Crombie and one of his favourite Fred Perry T-shirts. His light blue stay-press trousers stopped two inches above his ankle, and showed off the white socks that ran into his smart shinny brogues. I wore a blue flight jacket. I had freckles and the beginnings of a bum fluff on my upper-lip. My ginger hair was shaved half an inch from my scalp. I had long thin legs and I wore steel toecap workingman’s boots. Freddie was dressed in blue Levis, a black Harrington and a pair of ten-hole oxblood red Doctor Martins. The three of us would intimidate local kids, tease old ladies and call all the black and Asian kids racially abusive names. By the time we were sixteen Freddie was massive. Not surprisingly few of the kids we abused ever answered us back. In those days we used to call him Freddie Red braces. That’s the type he always wore. Bright thin red suspenders over a white stay-pressed Ben Sherman shirt. If Freddie was a racist, I don’t think that he saw it that way. We were all best mates. And like I said we’d know each other since we were little kids. Freddie’s parents were from West Africa. His father worked for the postal service and his mother was a nurse. She worked nights, so at the weekends when I went round to call on Freddie, he’d stand there waving his hands above his head, hissing at me to keep down the noise, ‘cause his mum had been on the ward all night and was trying to sleep. My other mate, Richie Skinner was a bit of a hero around the area. He was a natural born fighter. He wasn’t as hard as Freddie, but he had a quick temper. He hated any sort of authority. And he’d rather die than back down if he thought he was in the right, which was pretty much always. As a result, out of the three of us, he was the one who probably got into the most trouble. He had a nick above his left eye. Some older kids down the snooker hall had jumped him and cut him with a Stanley knife. He’d been protecting some girl’s honour, so the myth goes. The truth was he’d called the wrong girl a slag and a whore, and her brothers had beaten him up for it. Richie didn’t care. At the time he wore the stitches above his eye like a badge of valour. If anything really separated me from Richie it was his xenophobic attitude. He hated foreigner, especially blacks. I had mixed views on the whole thing. I was all for England, but I was also intrigue by black people. I liked their music. I had a whole collection of Ska records that I used to listen to when I got home. I knew a few black kids from school; but the ones from my area usually hung out in a different crowd. Also in those days the racial communities were a lot more separate. Anyway, I became a skinhead because as a working class kid it was something I could identify with. Not to mention it was a laugh. But more importantly, it was what most of my mates were into at the time. Richie had other ideas. He was a strong supporter of the National Front and British Nationalist Party. He’d picked a lot of it up from his old man. My older sister who was at college at the time thought he was nuts. She was dating a black guy and referred to Richie as part of that racist Enoch Powell Brigade. Richie had an older brother in the army who went over to Northern Ireland and later emigrated to Australia. I think Richie missed his brother and that was part of the reason for a lot of his bottled up anger. None of us really saw much of his mother. She’d been ill when we were really young. You’d sometimes see her going to the shops wearing a big coat, with her hair tied up in a scarf. Hello Mrs Skinner, we’d say and she’d give us a fragile smile and keep on walking. We lived in a predominately working class area. We were kids whose dads worked in the building trade, the Gas Works, the biscuit factory, the post office and the bus depot. And our mums were office typists, nurses, shop assistants, and worked in the rag trade; or they supplemented their incomes by doing piecework, or child minding. We were latchkey kids. And those that didn’t have a keys, stayed out on the street ‘till their mums and dads got home. We hurled bricks at each other at the local dump, bought single **** from the little newsagent on the corner, or hung around the flats, where we often played marbles and penny up the wall. I wouldn’t say Richie was a troublemaker. It just seemed that serious trouble had a way of following him around. I remember one day in primary school one of the teachers asking him if how his mum was. Richie went crazy. He literally picked up one of the chairs and threw it across the room. At another time he lashed out at one of the dinner ladies, though to be perfectly honest, fighting the dinner ladies in our school wasn’t that uncommon. I don’t think I saw any girls do it though. It was a typical South East London Primary school, where eighty percent of the kids came from the local estates, and everything was settled by standing toe-to-toe and knocking seven bells out of each other. Talking things through just didn’t come into it. On one particular occasion, Freddie got into a fight with a boy who’d been racially abusing him constantly. The kid had even gone as far as threatening to beat people up if they dared to talk to him. By the time the dinner lady showed up, the kid was screaming and crying his eyes out. Freddie had his hands around his throat and was rattling him about like a dummy. His eyes had gone weird looking and you could see that he wasn’t himself. And when the dinner lady pulled him off, he simply walked away, sat down in a corner with his head in his hands, until the teacher arrived. We didn’t see Freddie at school for about a week after that. It was break-time and we were climbing on the monkey bars in the playground when Freddie told me about the lady Social worker who had been to see his mum and dad. Apparently the school had recommended borstal. Anyway we none of us kids thought it was fair. After all, no one else we knew ever got sent to a reform school for fighting. If they had, half the boys in our school would have been whisked away by the end of the summer term. Plus in Freddie’s case he probably had good reason. So after that Freddy spent the rest of his time in infant school attending a special day school a couple of times a week. Then his dad got involved and kicked up such a sink that the school changed its mind and the reform school thing was forgotten. Though Freddie told me that he got one hell of a beating from his mum and dad at home. Growing up, Freddie was always being warned by his parents not to imitate the whites boys. I know, because Freddie used to complain about it often enough. He’d claimed that his parent’s were always on his back about one thing or another. That they’d tell him time and time again that England wasn’t his country. And that just because he saw the white boys get away with certain stuff, didn’t mean he should expect the same treatment. As far as Freddy was concerned, it was exactly the sort of thing he didn’t want to hear. In Freddie’s words, What did his parents know? They’d grown up in Nigeria, where everything was different. They were Africans. What did they know about the complexities of growing up black in England? Freddie joined the Scouts when he was ten, along with the rest of us, though Richie only stayed about a month. He got kicked-out for beating-up up the Scoutmaster’s bullying son, which instantly made him a hero. On Tuesday nights we’d all meet up in the estate car park near where Richie and me lived. Freddie loved the Scouts. He told me he like learning new stuff: Like how to tie knots, and what you should do in the event of a fire. I’ve got to admit I even thought it was cool for a while. On the way home we’d all test our strength by punching the metal wire fence that ran along outside the garden of this derelict house. It was one of Richie’s boxing mates who’d come up with the bright idea. It hurt like hell, but nobody complained. It was just another way of showing you were tough. That was in the days when Bruce Lee, 'The Six Million Dollar Man and Charles Bronson were really popular. Mohammed Ali was 'floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.' In other words if you were a ten year old kid, punching-out your enemies was cool. Freddy once told me that he didn’t understand why being black made him so different from everyone else. He was born in England. He had gone to the same schools as the white kids. He ate the same food, talked the same way, and he even had a white girlfriend. He didn’t even know where Africa was; let alone want to go there. After being bullied in the first and second year of secondary school, he confessed to me that he’d decided that the only way to beat the system was to join it. He’d sit in the back of the classroom and make fun or himself or tell jokes about the other black kids. We all thought he was a scream. Then because of Richie and me, he got into the skinhead thing; standing on the corner in his Harrington and DM’s, calling his own people, black bastards. Somehow when Freddie looked in the mirror he didn’t see himself as black. That’s not to say he saw himself as white either. He said he wanted to be colourless. He said he didn’t see why he had to be judge solely on the colour of his skin. All he knew was that by acting the way he did, the white boys left him alone. He was caught up in a war, and he had to survive the best way he could. And if the other black kids couldn’t look after themselves, that was their look out. When we were seventeen Freddie began to drift away. He’d spend a lot of time by himself. He was still one of the chaps, but whenever I saw him he’d have this far off gaze in his eyes. It was around that time that he started getting into Bob Marley. He put away his DM’s, started smoking weed and grew his hair long in dreadlocks. The next time I saw Freddie he told me he’d enrolled at College and was doing a foundation course in art. That was also the year Richie Skinner got sent down two years for dealing. It was his first offence and really he should have gotten off. But Richie was staunch. He had classic working class mentality, and grassing up his pals was against the rules. Richie got tagged by the police with a Tesco carrier bag stashed with fifteen bars of hash. It was three months before he got sentenced. Three insane months of smoking dope, getting paralytic every night, and taking uppers When he got out, Richie didn’t go into a great deal of detail about his time in the nick. He did tell Freddie and me, that it was almost two months before he told anyone what he was in for. His cellmate was some old boy from Hackney. At night the pair of them would often share a joint. Richie was still dealing hash, using a contact he had on the outside. The girl would bring it in every time she came to visit. His cellmate’s name was Kenneth. Kenneth was in for GBH. He’d fractured the skull of an Indian store holder in White chapel. One time they were sitting on their bunks smoking a spliff and Kenneth’s said, Heard you got nicked for dealing. Yeah, said Richie. I sort of went to pieces when I saw these two coppers jogging towards me. What, you **** your pants, did ya? asked Kenneth, grinning. Nah, said Richie. I’d smoked all that ganja with Freddy and I was para. I might have over reacted. The coppers were only going into the KFC to get some lunch. In his conversations with Kenneth, Richie told me later that he’d never once mentioned that Freddie was black. I never asked him why, but I can only suppose that he was trying to establish a reputation for himself as a hard man with the other cons on his wing, who might not have been so accepting. Plus he still had his skinhead hair cut; and even thought it worked in his favour, he said he wasn’t always impressed with some of the lunatic fringe it attracted.