The only clue to Terry Davidson’s less-than-orthodox youth lies on his forearm: a homemade tattoo, which has bled and contorted with age and now looks more like a blotchy black mass than a swallow holding the name of his first love underneath. Dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, Davidson looks like any other 56-year-old, with sandy hair flecked with grey and a score of creases around his eyes, showing that for most of his life, he’s been laughing.
Last year he took an early retirement from the Merchant Navy, and right now he’s sitting in his modest two-up, two-down home wearing tartan slippers because he’s “an old man” these days. 40 years ago, Terry bought his first pair of Dr Martens, and began a love affair that would span a lifetime.
“You’re not wearing those bloody shoes while you’re under my roof!” Terry’s face breaks into an ear-to-ear grin as he recants his father’s outrage when he showed him his first pair of eight-hole Dr Martens boots. They cost a fiver (around £75 in today’s money), and Terry had to save his wages for a month to buy the boots that his father had taken such an instant dislike to.
“The funny thing was, he’d worn identical boots to work at the docks, but I came in wearing them with rolled up jeans and a button-down Fred Perry shirt, and all of a sudden his little boy had turned into one of those thugs he’d seen on the front of the Gazette.” ‘Those thugs’ of course referring to skinheads, the new breed of young men and women who’d adopted the boot to brazenly signify their working class roots.
In 1945, Klaus Märtens, a doctor in the German army during World War II, reworked the standard military shoe to make it more comfortable, using soft leather and air-padded soles made from tyres. After the war, Märtens went on to mass-produce the shoe, until finally the British shoe manufacturer R. Griggs Group Ltd bought the rights and released the first pair in the United Kingdom in 1960. The boot became a symbol of the working classes; their hard work ethic, sturdiness, determination and physically demanding lives were manifested in these boots. For the first decade or so, that’s what they were - shoes for the workers. But in the early 1970s, the Dr Martens boot took on a whole new meaning.
“You see before Dr Martens we’d just wear bovver boots – steel-toe-capped work boots with the caps on the outside. But when we started wearing Docs, you couldn’t see them. So what we’d do, is we’d cut the leather from the front of the boot so you could see the steel caps, and then you’d know that we’d give you a good kicking.” Terry catches my wide-eyed shock and laughs, “No, no! I never kicked anyone about! It was all for show. Some of the other lads, they’d get jumped up and get into big fights, but we never went around bashing people for the sake of it. At least not unless they deserved it.” It was this out-and-out show of masculinity and bravado that first attracted the press to the skinheads.
Painting an almost cartoonish image of the ‘hard-man,’ with closely cropped hair, work-shirts and of course the big, intimidating Dr Martens, the skinhead was quickly marketed by the media as the latest menace on the British streets. Unlike the Teddy Boys or Mods before them, the skinheads did not aspire to be anything other than what they were. They embraced the worker’s uniform and adorned themselves in clothes appropriate only for grafting or fighting in.
After being kicked out of school at 14, Terry found work at the local shipyard. “In those days we didn’t have a lot. We had no aspirations, no futures... we were brought up not to have any dreams - we were never going to drive a nice car, or have a fancy job, so we just didn’t care.” But for Terry, his transformation into a skinhead wasn’t complete until he had his first pair of Dr Martens. “I had the jeans, I had the shirts and the braces anyway, so I felt like a fraud. One day my friend Smithy shaved my head and when my mum saw me she burst into tears. She said I couldn’t leave the house until it grew back because I looked like a criminal. That’s the look I was going for.”
Exactly one week after the head-shaving incident, Terry had managed to save enough to buy the boots. So what did he choose? “The classic eight-holes in maroon, of course. They ripped my feet to shreds [but] they weren’t just shoes to get from A to B in. They were saying something. We were telling people we weren’t ashamed of being working-class when everyone else was wearing poncey leather slippers from Italy. We were saying we were tough and not scared of anyone. We wanted to intimidate people.”
Intimidate was exactly what they did. “That was really frustrating you know? Because I’m as soft as muck. Most of us were. All bark and no bite. But then skinheads started getting a really bad reputation, and all of a sudden we weren’t allowed in the pubs if we were wearing Dr Martens, or in the corner shop. Even when I went to buy milk, the guy in the shop who had known me since I was a kid told me he didn’t want any trouble.” The trouble was the racist, homophobic and football-related violence that became associated with the subculture. A fraction of skinheads became known for their bloody hatred of minorities, often staging attacks on Asian and black youths. Soon Dr Martens lost their humble origin and became the footwear of choice to kick someone’s head in.
After Terry’s shipyard closed down, looking for work became a battle against prejudice. “I’d go to start a job and the foreman would take one look at me and tell me to go home.” Times were changing, age was creeping in and the lustre of the skinheads had started to fade. Growing out his hair, rolling down his jeans and trying to build an adult life for himself, the only thing that stayed were the trusty Dr Martens.
Dr Martens aren’t what they used to be. Now they’re manufactured in China, resulting in a huge decrease in sales among the subcultures that made them famous. You’re just as likely to see a seven-year-old girl in a sundress wearing them as a skinhead now. Middle-class students team them with leggings and £200 jumpers in order to prove how ‘edgy’ and ‘streetwise’ they are. Dr Martens aren’t scary anymore, but they’ve survived a tough economic climate, where even some of the best-loved brands have floundered.
Ten years after he walked into a shoe shop in Camden Town, Terry noticed a crack on the sole of his boot. “It was heartbreaking,” he said. “I’d been through so much with them. I know it sounds daft. I’d worn them when I was a kid knocking around, and when I met my wife, and when I started on the ships, and all this stuff, and they’re only a pair of shoes but they held so many memories.” Terry half-heartedly replaced them, opting for a black version because he was older now, and they’d always been a “bit showy to begin with.”
“The smell of the leather took me back to being 15 again, wearing clothes two sizes too big and begging my father to let me wear them.” Terry replaces his pair every ten years or so, and with it comes the masochist ritual of breaking them in. “I know they’re going to make me bleed, but I welcome that. Unless you lose a pint of blood in the first week, you don’t earn them.”
Archive: PETRIe Inventory 65
Words: Chloe Sexton