Original BBC Magazine article here
He was the British extreme right’s most feared streetfighter. But almost right up to his death 20 years ago, Nicky Crane led a precarious dual existence – until it fell dramatically apart.
The skinhead gang marched in military formation down the High Street clutching iron bars, knives, staves, pickaxe handles and clubs. There were at least 100 of them. They had spent two days planning their attack. The date was 28 March 1980. Soon they reached their target – a queue of mostly black filmgoers outside the Odeon cinema in Woolwich, south-east London. Then the skinheads charged. Most of them belonged to an extreme far-right group called the British Movement (BM). This particular “unit” had already acquired a reputation for brutal racist violence thanks to its charismatic young local organiser. Many victims had learned to fear the sight of his 6ft 2in frame, which was adorned with Nazi tattoos. His name was Nicky Crane. But as he led the ambush, Crane was concealing a secret from his enemies and his fascist comrades alike. Crane knew he was gay, but hadn’t acted on it. Not yet.
Twelve years later, the same Nicky Crane sat in his Soho bedsit. His room looked out across London’s gay village – the bars and nightclubs where he worked as a doorman, where he drank and danced. Crane flicked through a scrapbook filled with photos and news clippings from his far-right past. For years he had managed to keep the two worlds entirely separate. But now he wasn’t going to pretend any more.
Nicola Vincenzo Crane was born on 21 May 1958 in a semi-detached house on a leafy street in Bexley, south-east London. One of 10 siblings, he grew up in nearby Crayford, Kent. As his name suggests, he had an unlikely background for a British nationalist and Aryan warrior. He was of Italian heritage through his mother Dorothy, whose maiden name was D’Ambrosio. His father worked as a structural draughtsman. But from an early age Crane found a surrogate family in the south-east London skinhead scene.
Its members had developed a reputation for violence, starting fights and disrupting gigs by bands such as Sham 69 and Bad Manners. In the late 1970s, gangs like Crane’s were widely feared.
“When you’ve come from a tough background, when you get that identity, it’s a powerful thing to have,” says Gavin Watson, a former skinhead who later got to know Crane. The south-east London skins also had close connections to the far right. Whereas the original skinheads in the late 1960s had borrowed the fashion of Caribbean immigrants and shared their love of ska and reggae music, a highly visible minority of skins during the movement’s revival in the late 1970s were attaching themselves to groups like the resurgent National Front (NF). In particular the openly neo-Nazi BM, under the leadership of Michael McLaughlin, was actively targeting young, disaffected working-class men from football terraces as well as the punk and skinhead scenes for recruitment. Crane was an enthusiastic convert to the ideology of National Socialism. “Adolf Hitler was my God,” he said in a 1992 television interview. “He was sort of like my Fuhrer, my leader. And everything I done was, like, for Adolf Hitler.” Within six months of joining the BM, Crane had been made the Kent organiser, responsible for signing up new members and organising attacks on political opponents and minority groups. He was also inducted into the Leader Guard, which served both as McLaughlin’s personal corps of bodyguards and as the party’s top fighters. Members wore black uniforms adorned with neo-Nazi symbols and were drilled at paramilitary-style armed training weekends in the countryside.
They were also required to have a Leader Guard tattoo. Each featured the letters L and G on either side of a Celtic cross, the British Movement’s answer to the swastika. Crane dutifully had his inked on to his flesh alongside various racist slogans. By now working as a binman and living in Plumstead, Crane quickly acquired a reputation, even among the ranks of the far right, for exceptionally brutal violence.
In May 1978, following a BM meeting, he took part in an assault on a black family at a bus stop in Bishopsgate, east London, using broken bottles and shouting racist slogans. An Old Bailey judge described Crane as “worse than an animal”. The following year he led a mob of 200 skinheads in an attack on Asians in nearby Brick Lane. Crane later told a newspaper how “we rampaged down the Lane turning over stalls, kicking and punching Pakistanis”. The Woolwich Odeon attack of 1980 was described by a prosecutor at the Old Bailey as a “serious, organised and premeditated riot”. After their intended victims fled inside, the skinheads drilled by Crane began smashing the cinema’s doors and windows, the court was told. A Pakistani man was knocked unconscious in the melee and the windows of a nearby pub were shattered with a pickaxe handle. In 1981 Crane was jailed for his part in an ambush on black youths at Woolwich Arsenal station. As the judge handed down a four-year sentence, an acolyte standing alongside Crane stiffened his arm into a Nazi salute and shouted “sieg heil” from the dock. Crane’s three jail terms failed to temper his violence. During one stretch, he launched an attack on several prison officers with a metal tray. A six-month sentence following a fracas on a London Tube train was served entirely at the top-security Isle of Wight prison – a sign of just how dangerous he was regarded by the authorities.
All this may have horrified most people, but it made Crane a hugely respected and admired figure across the far right. He was neither an orator nor a conversationalist. His vocabulary was sparse at best. But he managed to exude a powerful charisma. “I knew him, I liked him. He was friendly,” says Joseph Pearce, who was leader of the Young National Front during the early 1980s before turning his back on extremist politics. “He was not the most articulate of people. It would be yes or no. It was difficult to have anything but the most superficial conversation with him.” In the aftermath of a violent march through racially mixed Lewisham in 1977, much of the UK’s extreme right had concluded the path to power lay in controlling the streets and destabilising the multicultural society rather than through the ballot box.
At the same time, groups like the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and, later, Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) were becoming more and more confrontational. “The opposition were very, very combative,” Pearce says. “Their strategy was to smash the nationalist movement. It was a necessity to have a street presence that had muscle. Someone like Nicky Crane was a powerful physical but also symbolic presence.” This was a description with which even Crane’s enemies concurred. “By appearance and reputation he was the epitome of right-wing idealism – fascist icon and poster boy,” writes Sean Birchall in his book Beating The Fascists, a history of AFA. Unbeknown to his comrades, however, a very different side to Nicky Crane was emerging.
It was a Thursday night at Heaven, a gay nightclub below London’s Charing Cross station. Underneath the venue’s arched roof stood a young man, up from Brighton for the evening. A garrulous character, he was universally known by his full title of John G Byrne. Since 1969, when he discovered reggae music as a 13-year-old, Byrne had been a skinhead. As he looked across the dancefloor, he caught sight of a man he’d never seen before. The stranger was tall, shaven-headed and tattooed. Byrne introduced himself. It was Nicky Crane, fresh out of prison. “He stood out quite a lot,” says Byrne. “A lot of people used to be quite keen on him because he was a very butch-looking geezer.” Years later, Crane said he hadn’t had sex with a man until after he turned 26 in 1984. But now he was becoming a regular at places like Heaven. “I just used to chat to him,” Byrne adds. “Nicky was quite a friendly person. He was quite quiet, really. He was the opposite of what he looked like.”
He appears to have thrown himself enthusiastically into the gay scene around this time. His imposing frame meant he easily found work as a doorman at gay venues through a security firm. But if the neo-Nazi world would have abhorred his sexuality, the vast majority of London’s gay scene would have been equally horrified to learn that he was a neo-Nazi. Among the leadership of the largely liberal-left gay rights movement that was growing in London during the 1980s, fascist symbolism was an obvious and outrageous taboo – a reminder of the persecution that lesbians and gay men had suffered. According to feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys’ book The Lesbian Heresy, a commotion unfolded in 1984 when a group of gay skinheads turned up at a gay bar in London’s King’s Cross and began sieg heiling. She also records that a well-known far-right youth organiser was thrown out of the same pub after taking off his jacket to reveal swastika tattoos. A huge row erupted the following year at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in King’s Cross when a gay skinhead night was held at the venue. It’s not clear whether Crane was present at any of these incidents. But it appears that, at least initially, he was able to deflect questions about his politics by presenting himself on the gay scene as a skinhead first and foremost. His friend Byrne, who describes himself as “sort of more a Labour person”, had no time for the far-right element that had infiltrated the skinhead movement. But Byrne was convinced at the time that Crane “wasn’t really a Nazi. It was all show”. The softly spoken Nicky he knew was too nice to be an extremist, Byrne believed. This wasn’t as fanciful as it might sound. By the mid-1980s, a gay skinhead scene was beginning to flourish in London, says Murray Healy, author of Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation. Gay men had many different reasons for adopting the look, he says. Some had been skinheads before they came out. Others found that, in an era when all gay men were widely assumed to be camp and effeminate, “you were less likely to get picked on if you looked like a queer-basher”. There were also “fetish skins”, attracted to the “hyper-masculinity” of the subculture. Against this backdrop, even the swastikas and racist slogans inked on Crane’s body could be explained away, at least initially. During the 1980s, says Healy, “gay Nazis were assumed to be left-wing even if they had Nazi tattoos”. “People refused to read these tattoos politically. People thought it was part of the authenticity ritual. People thought he was just playing a part.” And indeed it wasn’t just gay skins who flirted with the iconography of fascism. While “redskins” and “Sharps” – an acronym for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice – confronted those with links to the far right, many heterosexual skinheads who were apolitical also adopted fascist garb, says Byrne. “A lot of skinheads that weren’t right-wing used to wear Skrewdriver T-shirts,” Byrne adds. “It was about the fashion of being a skinhead.” But Crane wasn’t just playing with the imagery of Nazism. He was living it. His decision to start frequenting venues such as Heaven wasn’t the only thing that had changed since before his sentence. During the years 1981 to 1984, which he mostly spent incarcerated, his fame had grown far beyond the narrow confines of the far right.
In 1981, the journalist Garry Bushell helped put together a compilation album of tracks by bands from the burgeoning Oi! scene. Oi!, a cheerfully crude sub-genre of punk, was popular with skinheads. Its politics were fairly broad – while there were right-wingers within its ranks, some of its most prominent acts, including the Angelic Upstarts, were avowed socialists. Others, such as the 4-Skins, condemned political extremism of all kinds. That was to count for little after Bushell, desperate for a cover image after a photoshoot fell through, seized on a Christmas card which he says he believed showed a scene from the film The Wanderers. In fact, it was a picture of Crane.
It was only when the image was blown up to 12in cover size, Bushell says, that he noticed Crane’s Nazi tattoos. Faced with the choice of airbrushing out his markings or pulling the release, the writer chose the former option.
“It was a monumentally, cataclysmically stupid decision,” he says. The title of the compilation was Strength Thru Oi! – which Bushell says was intended as a pun on Strength Through Joy, the title of a recent EP by punk act The Skids, but which in turn was borrowed from a Nazi slogan. The Daily Mail seized upon the title and the connection with Crane, condemning the “highly controversial” record as “evil”. According to Bushell, who had only recently left the Socialist Workers Party and still regarded himself at the time as a left-winger, the story was a “tissue of lies”. But as a result of the coverage, the hitherto obscure Oi! scene became associated by many with the far right – to the chagrin of acts featured on the album, such as the socialist poet Gary Johnson. Crane’s musical background had hitherto extended to starting fights at ska and punk gigs, plus a short-lived stint singing in a punk band called The Afflicted. The notoriety, however, transformed him into a skinhead icon. The Strength Thru Oi! cover image – featuring a topless, muscle-bound Crane snarling and raising his boot – was widely reproduced in the wake of the row. T-shirts featuring the image were sold at The Last Resort, a clothes shop favoured by skinheads in London’s Whitechapel. They were a huge hit. Although the album was withdrawn from sale, reproductions of its cover adorned thousands of bedroom walls. “He was literally a poster boy,” says Watson, who at the time was a teenage skin in Buckinghamshire. “Even a 15-year-old was like, ‘That’s what a skinhead should look like.’ “He just fell into our living rooms. These little kids in High Wycombe – we didn’t know anything about the Nazi stuff.”
On the surface, the idea of a gay man embracing neo-Nazism might appear baffling and self-defeating. Just as Adolf Hitler’s regime had thrown gays and lesbians into death camps, the neo-Nazi movement remained staunchly homophobic.
Crane was becoming all too aware of the contradiction of being a gay neo-Nazi. “A lot of people that I did used to hang around with, they did sort of like hate us,” he said in 1992 – “us” meaning gay men.
“They’d go out queer-bashing. It’s something I never did myself. And I’d never let it happen in front of me, either.” He had, however, chosen fascism long before he had embraced his sexuality, and much of his social life and prestige was bound up with his status as a prominent neo-Nazi activist. To maintain his cover, Crane would often appear in public with a skinhead girl on his arm. “He often had a so-called girlfriend but they were never around for long,” says Pearce. “Nicky had no chemistry with girls.” Certainly, after coming out, Crane always described himself as gay rather than bisexual. Nonetheless, his relationships with women, coupled with rumours that he had fathered a son, allayed any initial suspicions his comrades might have had. So too did his propensity for racist violence.
On Sunday 10 June 1984, Greater London Council leader Ken Livingstone held a free open-air concert to protest against unemployment and government spending cuts. Thousands of Londoners turned out to watch acts like The Smiths and Billy Bragg. Most would have been attracted principally by the music and the summer weather. To Nicky Crane, however, anyone attending a left-wing-hosted event like this was a legitimate target. As The Redskins, a socialist skinhead band, played, Crane led an attack on the crowd. Around 100 fascists began setting about the audience closest to the main stage. “They were organised, they were used to violence, the audience wasn’t,” says Gary, an anti-fascist activist who was present that day and asked to be identified only by his first name.
The neo-Nazis were beaten back by a group of striking Yorkshire miners, invited to steward the event by Livingstone as a solidarity gesture, and members of the militant far-left group Red Action. Crane was not cowed, however, and after regrouping his forces, he charged a second stage at the other end of the park where the Hank Wangford Band were playing. This time, however, the anti-fascists were better prepared. Militants grabbed empty cider bottles to use as improvised weapons. As the anti-fascists fought back, Crane broke away from the main battle. “He was busy attacking the rest of the crowd, on his own, stripped to the waist,” says Gary. As Crane tried to make it over a barrier on to the stage, he was knocked over by a Red Action member. He escaped the furious crowd by using a female left-wing activist as a human shield, according to witnesses. As the violence subsided, anti-fascists confronted another skinhead in the crowd. His Harrington jacket was unzipped to reveal a slogan on his T-shirt. It read “Nicky Crane”, in tribute to the young man’s hero. Given the carnage Crane had just instigated, the left-wingers had little sympathy for his admirer. The skinhead was set upon and beaten. Crane was never prosecuted for his part in the riot. In the febrile atmosphere of the mid-1980s, however, violence was everywhere. As clashes between police and striking miners becoming increasingly bitter, football hooligans across the country were fighting it out with unprecedented ferocity. The formation of AFA in 1985 resulted in increasingly bloody stand-offs between anti-fascists and the far right. Several years later, Crane told the Sun newspaper about an attack on a Jewish Remembrance Day ceremony for which he also appears to have escaped arrest. “We hurled insults at them and started punching and kicking as they went by,” he admitted to the paper in 1992. On another occasion, Crane and his gang spotted a left-wing activist on a Tube train. “Me and a few mates beat him really badly,” he said. “Even though he wasn’t moving we all kept jumping on his head. “I think he survived. It must have been a miracle.” After the BM collapsed in 1983, Crane had become something of a free agent. He was a visible presence on demonstrations held by other far-right groups. These included the NF – now split into two warring factions – and the British National Party, formed in 1982 by John Tyndall, which had begun to attract a significant football hooligan following. Among the rank and file of each group, Crane remained a hero. “You could very easily drop him into the Weimar Republic in 1923 and, some language difficulties apart, he’d fit right in,” says Gary.
His closest affiliation, however, was with the neo-Nazi rock band Skrewdriver. Originally the group had been apolitical. In 1982, however, singer Ian Stuart Donaldson came out as a supporter of the National Front. With song titles like Europe Awake and Flying the Flag, the group gained a huge following among far-right skinheads. Opposition from anti-fascists meant gigs had to be forcefully stewarded. Donaldson appointed Crane as Skrewdriver’s head of security, and he became a trusted lieutenant. Reportedly, Crane wrote the lyrics for a Skrewdriver track called Justice and provided the cover art for the albums Hail The New Dawn and After The Fire. Archive footage of their concerts shows Donaldson barking neo-Nazi lyrics as he loomed above Crane who stood, arms folded, at the front of the stage. The T-shirt on his chest said “Skrewdriver security” in Gothic script. Crane wasn’t playing an instrument, but it was as though he was part of the performance. His status as a neo-Nazi icon had never been more secure. But for the first time, the twin strands of his double life were about to intersect.
The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight was, despite its political leanings, required reading for activists on the extreme right. Each month the publication would run gossip about the neo-Nazi scene, and fascists would furtively buy it to see whether they had earned a mention.
In April 1985 it ran a feature on Crane. It mentioned the GLC concert, the south London attacks and the jail sentences he had served. The magazine revealed it had received a Christmas card from him during his time on the Isle of Wight in which he proclaimed his continued allegiance to “the British Movement tradition” – that is, violence.
The Searchlight report ended its description of Crane with the line: “On Thursday nights he can be found at the Heaven disco in Charing Cross.” Even a neo-Nazi audience might have been aware that Heaven was at this point London’s premier gay club. Nicky Crane had been outed. And homosexuality was anathema to neo-Nazis. But the response of Crane’s comrades to the revelation was to ignore it. A number of factors allowed Crane to brush off the report, Pearce says. Firstly, homosexuality was indelibly associated with effeminacy by the far right, and Crane was the very opposite of effeminate. Secondly, no-one wanted to be seen to believe Searchlight above the word of a committed soldier for the Aryan cause. Thirdly, on the most basic level, everyone was afraid of being beaten up by Crane if they challenged him. “I remember it was just sort of furtive whispering,” adds Pearce. “I’m not aware that anyone confronted Nicky. People were happy for things to remain under the carpet.” Sightings at gay clubs were dismissed by Crane. Donaldson claimed Crane told him that he was obliged to take jobs at places like Heaven because the security firm he was employed by sent him there.
“I accepted him at face value, as he was a nationalist,” Donaldson told a fanzine years later.
For his part, Heaven’s then-owner, Jeremy Norman, says he does not recall Crane working on the door: “I would imagine that the door staff would have been supplied by a security contractor and that he would have been their employee but it is all a long time ago.” Rumours circulated that a prominent football hooligan and far-right activist had hurled a homophobic slur at Crane, who in response had inflicted a severe beating which the victim was lucky to survive. Word of this spread among the skinhead fraternity, too. “My mate had a shop in Soho,” recalls Watson. “People would come in to say, ‘Have you heard Nicky’s gay?’ He would say, he works around the corner, why don’t you go and ask him? Of course they never did.” Just as some in the gay community refused to believe that a gay man could be a neo-Nazi, others on the extreme right were unable to acknowledge that a neo-Nazi could be a gay man.
In 1987 Crane and Donaldson set up a group called Blood & Honour. It was a cross between a White Power music club and a political party. It staged concerts for Skrewdriver and other neo-Nazi bands with names like No Remorse and Brutal Attack. T-shirts, flags and records were sold by mail order through its magazine. The operation had an annual turnover of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Donaldson was its head, Crane his right-hand man and head of security. Around the same time, the latter’s organisational skills were being put to use elsewhere. Searchlight reported in October 1987 that “Crane, the right’s finest example of a clinical psychopath, is also engaged in building a ‘gay skins’ movement, which meets on Friday nights” at a pub in east London. Crane’s sexuality might by now have been obvious to any interested onlooker, but the neo-Nazi scene remained in denial. While his right-wing colleagues studiously ignored the report, AFA took an interest. Its activists put the pub under surveillance.
The anti-fascists didn’t care about Crane’s sexuality, but were concerned that the gatherings might have a political objective. “Here were gay skinheads wearing Nazi regalia,” says Gary. “We could never get to the bottom of it – whether it was purely a sexual fetish.”
The gay community had, by this stage, begun to take notice of Crane, too. He was confronted by anti-fascists attending a Pride rally in Kennington, south London, in 1986. The campaigner Peter Tatchell recalls a row erupting after it emerged Crane had been allowed to steward a gay rights march. The organisers had not been aware who Crane was or what his political affiliations were. But now they were, and Crane must have realised he would no longer be welcome in much of gay London. The gay skinhead night may simply have been an attempt to carve out a space for himself where he would not be challenged either for his sexuality or his politics. While his status in the far right was secure, he was being pushed to the fringes of the gay community. The double life he had been maintaining was beginning to erode.
The Bloody Sunday commemoration rally was held every January to mark the deaths of 14 unarmed protesters at the hands of the Parachute Regiment in Derry in 1972. For years the rally had been a target for the far right, whose sympathies in the Northern Ireland conflict mostly lay with the loyalists. So when Nicky Crane was spotted within the vicinity of the march in Kilburn, a traditionally Irish enclave of north-west London, in January 1990, it was assumed he had trouble in mind. Crane was confronted by anti-fascist activists who were stewarding the event and, after a brief exchange of blows, he managed to get away.
But when he was spotted in a black cab heading back into the area, marchers took it as read that he was about to spearhead an ambush on the march.
After the taxi became stuck in traffic at the top of Kilburn High Road it was quickly surrounded. Crane was pulled from the vehicle and found himself on the receiving end of the kind of violence he had long inflicted on others. After putting up fierce resistance, he was beaten unconscious. Three anti-fascists were jailed for a total of 11 years for their part in the incident. Unusually for a political street fighter who deplored the system, Crane testified at their trial. It was a hint that Crane was preparing to cut his ties with the extreme right. “I don’t think he’d have done it in his fascist days, put it that way,” says Gary. “You didn’t go to the police. Hard men don’t do that, they sort it out among themselves.” It was not the first indication that Crane was losing his enthusiasm for the Nazi cause. In May 1989 he had fled when anti-fascists turned up to a meeting point in London’s Hyde Park for a Blood & Honour gig. After the Bloody Sunday march, there is no record of Crane taking part in any further political activity. He had begun drifting away from the extreme right. Friends say he had begun spending an increasing amount of time in Thailand, where his past was not known and he could, for the first time since Strength Thru Oi! was released, be anonymous. Back in London, he appeared in a series of skinhead-themed amateur gay porn videos. The films did not achieve wide circulation but, to star in them in the first place, he must have been indifferent to whether or not he was exposed. Eventually he made a decision. It was time to end the double life once and for all.
The Channel 4 programme was called Out. It featured a series of documentaries about lesbian and gay life in the UK. The episode broadcast on 27 July 1992 was about the gay skinhead subculture. Its star attraction was Nicky Crane. First the programme showed recorded interviews with an unwitting Donaldson, who sounded baffled that such a thing as gay skinheads existed, and NF leader Patrick Harrington. And then the camera cut to Crane, in camouflage gear and Dr Martens boots, in his Soho bedsit.
Nicky Crane interviewed in 1992 for a Channel 4 documentary
He told the interviewer how he’d known he was gay back in his early BM days. He described how his worship of Hitler had given way to unease about the far right’s homophobia. He had started to feel like a hypocrite because the Nazi movement was so anti-gay, he said. “So I just, like, couldn’t stay in it.” Crane said he was “ashamed” of his political past and insisted he had changed. “The views I’ve got now is, I believe in individualism and I don’t care if anyone’s black, Jewish or anything,” he added. “I either like or dislike a person as an individual, not what their colour is or anything.” The revelation attracted considerable press attention. The Sun ran a story with the headline “NAZI NICK IS A PANZI”. Below it described the “Weird secret he kept from gay-bashers”. Crane reiterated that he had abandoned Nazi ideology. “It is all in the past,” he told the paper. “I’ve made a dramatic change in my life.” The reaction from his erstwhile comrades was one of horror and fury. Donaldson issued a blood-curdling death threat on stage at a Skrewdriver gig. “He’s dug his own grave as far as I’m concerned,” Donaldson told the Last Chance fanzine. “I was fooled the same as everybody else. Perhaps more than everybody else. I felt I was betrayed by him and I want nothing to do with him whatsoever.” But according to Pearce – who by this stage had made his own break with the NF – it was Crane’s disavowal of National Socialism, rather than the admission of his sexuality, that proved particularly painful for Donaldson. “I think that Ian would have been very shocked,” says Pearce. “He was deeply hurt. But it had more to do with the fact that he switched sides politically. “Nicky didn’t just come out as a homosexual, he became militantly opposed to what he previously believed in.” British Nazism had lost its street-fighting poster boy. For the first time in his adult life, however, Crane was able to be himself. Watson recalls catching a glimpse of Crane – by then working as a bicycle courier – shortly after he came out. “I saw him riding around Soho in Day-Glo Lycra shorts,” remembers Watson. “I thought, good for you.”
On 8 December 1993, Byrne took the train to London. He had arranged to meet his friend Nicky Crane at Berwick Street market, just a few yards from his Rupert Street bedsit. Byrne was looking forward to having “a good old chat” about skinheads they both knew. But Crane didn’t turn up. When Byrne got home, he found out why. Crane had died the day before. He was 35. The cause of death was given on his death certificate as bronchopneumonia, a fatal inflammation of the air passages to the lungs. He was a victim of the disease that had killed so many other young gay men of his generation. “He didn’t tell me about his problems with Aids,” says Byrne. “He didn’t talk much about it really. I thought it was a shame.” Word had got around that Crane was ill, however. Gary recalls his shock at seeing his one-time foe looking deeply emaciated, waiting on a platform at Baker Street Tube station. Crane’s stature was such, however, that even at this point fellow passengers were careful to keep their distance. Those who suffered as a result of his rampages may have breathed a sigh of relief that he was no longer able to terrorise them. But his death marked more than just the end of Nicky Crane. It also coincided with the passing of an era in which the extreme right hoped to win power by controlling the street with boots and fists. In 1993, Crane was dead, Donaldson died in a car crash and the British National Party (BNP) won its first council seat in Millwall, east London. The various factions of the NF had by now all but withered.
The following year, BNP strategist Tony Lecomber announced there would be “no more meetings, marches, punch-ups” – instead, the intention now was to win seats in town halls. The party would try to rebrand itself as respectable and peaceful – a strategy continued, with varying success, under the leadership of Nick Griffin. Streetfighters like Nicky Crane were supposedly consigned to the past.
The broader skinhead movement was changing, too. Watson, like many other former skins, had by the time of Crane’s death, abandoned boots and braces for the rave scene. His skinhead days already felt like a different age. “The skinhead stuff was washed away by rave and it’s, ‘Oh yes, Nicky’s out of the closet,’” Watson says. “It’s the story of that side of skinheads, isn’t it?” By contrast, the presence of skinheads in gay clubs and bars was no longer controversial. Shorn of its political associations, the look was by now, if anything, more popular in London’s Old Compton Street or Manchester’s Canal Street than on football terraces or far-right rallies. Two decades after Crane’s death, says Healy, the skinhead is “recognised as a gay man unambiguously in London and Manchester”. He adds: “If the Village People reformed today there would be a skinhead in the group.” He may be an extreme case, but Crane reflects an era in which people’s expectations of what a gay man looked and behaved like began to shift. “Everybody always knew gay people, but they just didn’t know it,” says Max Schaefer, whose 2010 novel Children of the Sun features a character fascinated by Crane. “The neo-Nazis were no different from everyone else.” It’s unlikely Crane reflected on his place at this intersection between all these late 20th Century subcultures. He was a man of action, not ideology – a doer who left the thinking to others, and this may be what led a confused, angry young man to fascism in the first place. As he lingered in St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, west London, waiting to die, a young man named Craig was at his side. Craig was “one of Nicky’s boyfriends”, says Byrne. According to Crane’s death certificate, Craig was with him at the end. Picture research by Susannah Stevens