I’ve been wanting to read this book for some time now and I finally picked it up the other day. WOW! I don’t know if anyone else finds football hooliganism as sociologically fascinating as I do, but Bill Buford is not only one really good writer, but one brave ass motherfucker to boot.
Basically, for those not in the know, in other parts of the world (specifically for what we’re discussing here in the UK) they generally do not have street gangs in the same fashion that we here in America do. Instead what they have are referred to primarily as ‘Firms’. Football* Firms are essentially large, roving packs of young men who follow the team they have chosen to support from match to match and along the way participate in as much violence, theft and general debauchery as possible. Bill Buford is an American journalist and former fiction editor of the New Yorker (also founder of outstanding fiction magazine Granta) who became interested in hooliganism while attending school in the UK in the early 80’s, subsequently spending about eight years immersed in the hooligan lifestyle, using his experiences as the foundation for this book.
And what a book it is, pretty much from page one.
Very early on Buford sets out to meet a ‘hooligan’ and the first person he approaches, the massive and intimidating, if not ridiculously generous Mick tells him ‘all Americans are wankers, all journalists are cunts’.
You can see where this is going.
But Mick takes him under his wing and through this opening Buford is able to make more and more connections and actually actively participate and observe in this subculture of… well of violence.
Among the Thugs is the kind of book that you say things like, ‘OH!’ or ‘Damn!’, or “Yearlgh!” outloud while reading it, almost involuntarily. You might also laugh. I laughed a lot; somtimes because a situation Mr. Buford was describing was funny, sometimes for the same reasons I might say those aforementioned words aloud in a room with no one else in it – because what I was reading made me uncomfortable or caught me off guard like someone swinging a baseball bat at me and I just happened to see it at the last minute out of the corner of my eye. There is a certain slow-motion way in which Buford describes the violent situations he sets out to infiltrate. The second section of the book, for instance, is a chronicle of the riot that occurred when Manchester United’s supporting firm known as ‘The Red Brigade’ follows their team to Turin, Italy. During this account Buford finds himself in the middle of his first full out riot, even catching a police truncheon to the head at the height of the frenzy. And yet he never loses his ability to describe the situation. Later, in the cresencendo, the World Cup in 1990 Mr. Buford will take many police truncheons to his person in another, unmistakeably mroe viscious experience. You get the sense, and he even acknowledges, that even while being beaten, all the while he is writing in his head.
And Bill Buford’s writing is a rare sort, a Hunter S. Thompson, hands-on-you-bastards writing that conveys what he is witnessing as well as how it later integrates into his hindsight research – his in-the-now impressions juxtaposed with all manner of cultural significance that follows. All this at once and all in the easily digestable and thought provoking timing he uses to make us turn the pages faster and faster, trying to keep up with the complete bedlam falling about around his ears in one European city after the other.
Another thing I liked is Buford’s personal acclimation to the violence – he does not set himself apart from it or try and hold himself on a higher moral ground. The adrenaline addiction and often bad attitude begins to infect him at times as well and that’s part of what he’s trying to show us – that regardless of who you are or what you hold dear, when you’re in the midst of this magical beast called the crowd and it snaps, you are picked up with it, lifted by some invisible, indivisible chemical reaction and thrust into something that may well be unholy and lawless, but undeniably appealing in some ways as well.
Breathless is the description I find myself using to describe this book in one word. Now, why does an American non-sports type of guy such as myself have such an afinity for UK football culture, especially the particularly violent aspects of it? I suppose my interest stems in part from all the Irvine Welsh that I have read and loved, but it also comes from having been over to the UK twice and both times witnessed something I could not quite explain directly relating to what Buford finds one contact describes as akin to ‘a scent released into the air’. But this blog is already running on so I’ll call this Part 1 and save the second part, my encounter with the ‘invisible malevolence’ as I call it for my next blog.
So tune in next week, same bastard time, same bastard channel.
* You call it soccer over there and you will get a beating.