Rubber Soul: Memories Of A 1981 Trainer Fanatic

London, 1981, a dark and grey time politically when life revolved around football, fashion and the holy trinity of trainers; Nike Wimbledon, Adidas Forest Hills and Diadora Borg Elite
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London, 1981, a dark and grey time politically when life revolved around football, fashion and the holy trinity of trainers; Nike Wimbledon, Adidas Forest Hills and Diadora Borg Elite

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1981 was a grey and drab green time. Grey Farah slacks and long green macs. Two sides of the many-lateral trends that abounded in that fashionable, fabulous city of London. Soulboys and post- punks. Where Throbbing Gristle brushed shoulders with “Jazzifunk” at the Electric Ballroom as Friday night became Saturday night in Camden Town. Add in to the mix the punks, skins, Glory Boys, reggae and rude boys and straights. The cab driver chic and Latin American freaks. Where Jamaican roots met zoot suits.

But beyond the fads and fashions it was all grey and drab green as Margaret Hilda Thatcher’s policies bit hard and The Specials’ Ghost Town and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Five nights of Bleeding were the soundtrack to the summer.

Panic on the streets, the dancehalls and music venues of London. Skinheads storming the Marquee stage - then getting a beat down off the soulboys at the Angel Islington before jazz-fuelled nights in The Tib off the Essex Road. Go to the wrong gig, take the wrong turning or order a light and bitter in the wrong pub then trouble awaited you.

Saturdays at the football was a world away from the sanitised Sky days of the twenty-first century. West Ham storming the North Bank Highbury, The Shelf and The Shed before Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea returned the favour. Bottles flying and knives flashing. Bootboy ways fading fast as the bovver-booted barmy awaydays were disappearing from view.

By the end of 1981 there were new kids on the block. From the estates and terrace streets, looking sharper and slicker. All over London – big multi-racial gangs dressing smart and acting flash. It was hard to ignore them back then in North London. For the three years that I’d been a part of “our little gang” we had bonded over and been united by football, clothes, music and girls. From Cockney Rebel to The Clash. Maze to Marvin Gaye. Joy Division to Jah Rastafari and all points inbetween. Long nights in pubs and on the dancefloor discussing politics and dancing to impress the girls. Arguments about Bob Dylan and Charlie George, Glenn Hoddle and George Harrison. It was part of our culture, see. How we’d grown up and all the things that mattered in our lives. Too many days sat dissecting the latest releases while clad in the latest gear. Too many games of football and too many rumbles on the terraces. Reading the Skinhead books by Richard Allen and “Tottenham Boys we are here”.

The latest look was sportswear and Spanish-made jeans, tennis shirts and shoes, golfing jumpers and jackets, anoraks and adidas

It was the same all over London. The same all over Britain. New kids on the block dressing smart and acting flash and of course we had to be in on it. Tony, Dell, Gal, me and the rest. We were in on it early doors - as these were inner-city kids twenty years of age with money in their pockets and - like Dennis Brown - looking for love and a laugh while at the same time all dressed up. A new look (The Look) that to the outsider appeared from nowhere but for those involved was just the next stage. Moving on, moving forward in hard times under heavy manners. The latest look was sportswear and Spanish-made jeans, tennis shirts and shoes, golfing jumpers and jackets, anoraks and adidas. It was a heady mix that resonates to this day even though it was strictly of that time. Of course it was fashion but this was borne out of politics and culture. Working class politics and working class fashion. Misunderstood – then and now – by those that aren’t in on it. Whatever “it” may be – then and now. But then in those early days it was about the tracksuits and the trainers. Ah the trainers…

At that time in late 81 and early 82 in London the holy triumvirate of trainers was Diadora Borg Elite, Nike Wimbledon and adidas Forest Hills. White shoes, sparkling bright. Boxfresh and beautifully-made. The kangaroo leather of the Borg Elite, the box and the bag with Ice Borg’s image on it. The Nike Wimbledon that John McEnroe wore over those long hot summers with the sky blue swooshes to match the sky blue jeans with the “V” in the hem cut just so.  And of course the German precision and those three golden stripes.

All three are beautiful shoes but they are more than that. They are of their time and they mattered. It mattered that at that time you had them. Crossing the city to find the dusty back street shops before parting with almost a week’s wage then wearing them into the ground along with the tracksuits and golfing jumpers. Walking down the street, the knowing nods and the vicious stares before moving on, moving on…

Back then in the early eighties those three pairs of training shoes were the most beautiful things I possessed. I kept them clean and in their boxes. I wore them to work, to the match and down the pub. In that grey and drab green world we were the bright young things in our pastel shades and white pumps. Nobody knew what we were about back then and despite numerous books and films on the subject – unless you were there/are there – nobody knows now. It was a secret world and it was fuelled by the politics and culture of the day and thirty years on it still is.

Nowadays I still buy trainers but it’s just because I might like a certain style. I don’t collect them and I’m not obsessed about them. The provenance means nothing. The reissues are not the same. They may look similar but times have changed, I (we) have moved on. Thirty years ago it was the be-all and end-all now they are just nice training shoes to me.

But don’t get complacent. Even though (probably) 99% of the United Kingdom’s population now wear training shoes of some kind, events of the last week or so have shown us that certain training shoes are still part of the politics and culture of the working classes.

Sadly (or thankfully) 98% of the United Kingdom’s population will never understand that…

With thanks to Adi Dassler, Steve Prefontaine, Gregory Isaacs, Bjorn Borg, Jerry Dammers, LKJ, John Mac, Ian Curtis, Charlie George, Frankie Beverley, Gil Scot-Heron and all the other unlikely working class heroes.

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