Sunday, 25 January 2015

Among The Thugs - Bill Buford


Not that I long for the return of such days but there was a time when you couldn't go to a gig (particularly of the Punk Rock variety) without the night ending in an explosion of fighting on the dance floor, or by being chased home by a pack of howling skinheads with the scent of your blood in their nostrils.
If you care to gather round I could tell tales of Toyah screaming hatred at brawling boneheads, of the UK Subs leaping from the stage and swinging their mike stands wildly around at anyone and everyone in a bid to stop mobs fighting; of the Angelic Upstarts halting play and inviting disruptive elements up onto the stage to fight personally with them, of the whole of Crass jumping en masse from the stage to tackle mass punch-ups, of the Cockney Rejects punching out shaven-headed racists only to be labelled Nazis themselves, of The Slits heaping abuse upon fighting skinheads, of Stiff Little Fingers buckling and fleeing from crowd violence, of Conflict pulling out baseball bats to confront troublemakers, and so on and so on and so on. These names won't mean much to most people nowadays but that's fine because the point I'm making is that violence and fighting at gigs was once endemic.
There was a time also when you couldn't go to a football match without being caught up in or bearing witness to aggro and violence. There was blood on the terraces and blood on the streets brought about not only by boots and fists but coins, darts, coshes and Stanley knives. Unlike a gig situation, the fighting was not contained within the confines of the event but could erupt at any point to and from the match, encroaching upon anyone who just happened to be there at the time. At train stations and in pubs it could be particularly ugly and many an innocent bystander could be injured. In regards to this, however, I must admit I've never personally ran with any football hooligan gangs but because of where I was born and where I went to school (in Bristol, England, if anyone's interested?), I knew plenty who did who would regularly regale me with tales of their exploits.

So enters writer and editor of literary magazine Granta, Bill Buford, who whilst waiting to catch a train in Cardiff one Saturday evening encounters hundreds of Liverpool supporters packed tightly into a train bound for London. He has to get on the same train and during the journey witnesses destruction, wanton vandalism, aggressiveness, theft and constant chanting. The supporters are apparently ungovernable and unstoppable. All the police can do is to escort and contain them until their final destination at Paddington Station.
Buford can't quite believe what he's witnessed. He's an American and though he's been living in England for some years has never seen anything like it before. Like Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid regarding the posse in pursuit of them he asks "Who are those guys?" but his Cambridge and Oxford-educated friends can't really explain so he sets off to discover for himself by attending football matches; his aim being to meet a few of these 'football thugs', get to know them and then write about them.

In Manchester he comes upon a suitable specimen and duly introduces himself by saying he's writing about football supporters and can he ask a few questions? The specimen responds by stating "All Americans are wankers and all journalists are cunts" and from there establishes a rapport. Buford's advised to go to Turin for the Man Utd/Juventus Cup-Winners Cup second leg match and it's there that he starts running with the pack and dishing up vicarious thrills for the middle class, all neatly recorded in his book Among The Thugs. And as evidenced by the plaudits on the back cover of the book it's a right bunch of vicarious thrill seekers he appeals to: Martin Amis, Jonathan Raban, John Stalker at the Sunday Times, Michael Crick at the Independent, writer John Gregory Dunne, unnamed writers at the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Time Out, The Economist... All highly-educated and cultured fellows to a man.

To be fair to Buford, his writing is actually really good and in describing the destruction wrought upon Turin by the English football fans he captures a series of snapshots that ring very true. As I said, I've never ran with any football hooligan gangs but I must admit I've been in a fair few riot situations of a more political nature over the years and the sounds heard, the scenes witnessed and the feelings felt are as he describes. Buford's good at writing riot porn. He's a riot pornographer appealing to the fetishistic desires of Martin Amis and his like.

Buford starts off by being quite witty in his descriptions of the characters he's meeting; mocking their manners, their physiques, their world-view - their whole lives, really. As the book progresses, however, he gets more and more serious until it eventually starts reading like a thesis on the nature of crowd behaviour, culminating in an analysis of what it's like being truncheoned by a couple of Italian riot police.
His lack of political awareness is exposed early on when he reflects on the values of the football hooligan community and composes a list of what they like: Lager, The Queen, the Falkland Islands, Margaret Thatcher, Rolex watches, war movies, the Catholic Church, expensive jumpers, lots of money, and themselves. What he doesn't seem to realise is that what he's described is the model Tory citizen. Thatcher's children. Thatcher's electorate holding Thatcher's values.
He then gives his game away at the end of the chapter detailing his adventure in Turin when he describes his return to London and his rush to get back to his home. There's an old couple having trouble negotiating the stairs at the Marble Arch Underground station, and they're taking one step at a time. Buford shoves them forcefully aside so he can get past then turns around to them and says "Fuck off. Fuck off, you old cunts." Presumably he writes of this incident so as to show how being involved with a hooligan riot can affect a person - even someone as well-educated and cultured as him - and cause them to act uncivilised too. Hooliganism can be infectious, he seems to be saying. The problem here, however, is that Buford releases the hooliganism he's been contaminated with upon a couple of weak, defenceless, old-aged pensioners which is actually the lowest of the low. He's not out in a mob caught up in the madness of the moment. He has no excuse and for all the mocking of the football hooligans over the previous pages, it's highly unlikely that very many of them would do as what he's just done. In fact, many would probably have asked if the old couple needed a hand down the stairs. He seems to think it's normal that a mob mentality in a riot situation is simply replicated when trying to pass a couple of old people on a flight of stairs but he's so incredibly, utterly wrong.

Following his trip to Turin he returns to the UK and continues to attend football matches, heading up to Manchester for a Man Utd vs West Ham game. Whilst anticipating a bloodbath, what he actually witnesses is the humiliation of the Man Utd hooligan firms by the infamous West Ham Inter City Firm, led by the legendary Bill Gardiner. Buford describes Gardiner's entrance as "majestic", standing there unflinching, flanked by his troops. This is hardcore football hooliganism being handed to him on a plate but rather than following the real story and trying to gain the acquaintance of Gardiner, Buford instead heads next to a National Front disco in Bury St Edmunds of all places. As if the NF are ruling the roost and have unbridled influence over football crowds, and that it's here that he'll find the answers he's searching for. He finds none, of course.

From there, over the course of the book Buford writes about the conditions of the terraces, the physicality of being in a crowd, the release of jubilation at a goal being scored, crowd psychology, mob anonymity, mob violence, organised violence, the euphoria of crowd violence, mindless violence, the ubiquity of football violence, lad culture, Heysel Stadium, and then Hillsborough.
A lot of this is actually very intelligent writing and a lot of ideas and insights are thrown up though at the same time there are a lot of very deep flaws that rise up to expose Buford's ignorance, naivety and total lack of consciousness - socially, politically and culturally. This then calls into question the judgement of all the critics such as Martin Amis, John Stalker, Michael Crick etc whose praise for Buford's book has been used as blurbs on the back cover. Just who are these people and how do they continue getting away with being taken seriously as aficionados of literacy criticism? Are they really up to the job? Who exactly are they talking to? Who exactly takes their views seriously?

One of the biggest clangers Buford makes is when he states that the working class doesn't exist any more and that there is only at best a working class 'style': "Nothing substantive is there; there is nothing to belong to, although it is still possible, I suppose, to belong to a phrase - the working class - a piece of language that serves to reinforce certain social customs and a way of talking."
If this is the case then who exactly does he think he's been talking to out on the terraces and at his National Front discos? Who are all these people out on the council estates, the urban sprawls, towns, cities and villages through the UK? They may no longer be working out on the coal fields, the docks or in heavy industry but who are then all these people working in the call centres and the service industries? Who are all my friends? Who are all my family? Just who the fuck am I? Am I also simply part of a "highly mannered suburban society stripped of culture and sophistication and living only for its affections: a bloated code of maleness, an exaggerated embarrassing patriotism, a violent nationalism, an array of bankrupt antisocial habits"?
If the working class doesn't exist any more does this mean the middle class no longer exist also? That there's no longer any upper middle or ruling class? Is it meaningless that David Cameron and most of the leading elite in politics, the media, business, Law, etc all come from Eton, Oxbridge and Cambridge? Is it just some fucking coincidence?

Among The Thugs isn't a bad book at all, in fact a lot of it is very interesting and it's very well written but what it brings to mind whilst reading it are the lines from the song Common People by Pulp:
"Like a dog lying in a corner, they'll bite you and never warn you. Look out! They'll tear your insides out.
Cos everybody hates a tourist, especially one who thinks it's all such a laugh, and the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath.
You'll never understand how it feels to live your life with no meaning or control and with nowhere left to go.
You're amazed that they exist and they burn so bright while you can only wonder why."

Bill Buford is a tourist and so too is Martin Amis and all the many other critics who have praised this book to the skies. Every single one of them fails to understand the subject matter in hand whether they’re writing about it like Buford or simply reading about it like Amis et al. And they would probably all scoff at, guffaw or vehemently deny the very idea but the lives they lead are much less interesting than those they choose to write about, deride and read about.
Their antics may not be to everyone’s taste but ultra hooligans such as Bill Gardiner and all the other working class people whose existences are denied do indeed burn brightly as the Pulp song suggests whilst Buford and Amis et al remain as nothing but damp squibs; collectively and individually wondering why whilst congratulating themselves for their devastating literacy skills, their sizzling repartee, their considered opinions and breathtaking insights in one very small, self-centred and exclusive mutual masturbation club.

Among the thugs? There are football thugs but there are also intellectual thugs of a more academic nature being paid good money to expound, pontificate and elucidate upon subjects they blatantly have very little understanding of. Laying down their social and cultural guidelines within very restricted parameters. And of which is the most powerful and of which is the most dangerous depends entirely upon where you're from and where you're at.
John Serpico


  1. Thanks John, that;s a pretty good piece of analysis - and it crystallised why, despite the fact that I'll still read him, I hate Martin Amis and his oh so fucking sneery view of the working classes.It also reminded me why I'm happier at gigs now than I used to be with the ever present threat of skins and rucks. Keep it up !

    1. Thanks, Bel Mondo. It just makes me wonder. Does anyone still pay heed to any of these critics? Martin Amis in particular? I reckon I can expound better than him and do so with a lot more panache!
      And by the way, the world is still waiting for you to start writing again.