Catching up with Sammy

John Lanchester

  • Among the Thugs by Bill Buford
    Secker, 317 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 436 07526 1
  • A Strange Kind of Glory by Eamon Dunphy
    Heinemann, 396 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 434 21616 X

A scene from provincial life: one Saturday about twelve months ago I was sitting in the press box of a football ground in the Midlands. The game had just finished (the home side lost) and I and my fellow reptiles were scribbling away at our match reports – written as such things usually are, to deadlines of a hallucinogenic proximity – when a commotion developed. A crowd of people was barging into the press box from an adjacent part of the stand. There were about fifty of them; they were angry and drunk and they were shouting a lot.

In a matter of seconds it became clear that this was a not entirely impromptu demonstration-cum-riot, directed at the figure of a journalist called Wilkinson, whose job was to write about the local football team for the local paper. The crowd was shouting his name, liberally affixing threats and abuse thereto, as they shouldered their way towards him. Things looked as if they were about to turn really nasty. The first wave of demonstrator yobs arrived at Wilkinson’s desk, about thirty feet from where I was sitting, and the man in the vanguard, jabbing a finger at the seated hack, howled: ‘What you write is a load of fucking garbage.’

It isn’t given to many of us to know in advance how we would behave when confronted with four dozen enraged, drink-maddened hooligans, eager to disagree with something we might have written, and eager to provide a distinctly untheoretical, non-Wolfgang-Iser-approved demonstration of Rezeptionsästhetik. I am, however, confident that I would not do what Wilkinson did, which was to slam down the telephone – he had been dictating his piece right up until that moment – jump to his feet, and announce: ‘You’re the garbage!’

Under normal circumstances, even case-hardened yobs no longer fight inside football stadiums: the policing is too thorough, and the prevalence of video cameras, installed specifically to prevent such violence, is too high. Nonetheless, all present later agreed that this particular incident would have turned into a bona fide riot or lynching if the police had not arrived at that precise moment. About ten officers, shouting and barging in their turn, forced their way to the front of the demonstration and stood between Wilkinson and his public. The journalist and the crowd settled down to the business of shouting abuse at each other.

Yob (simultaneously pleading and threatening): ‘You’re our voice!’

Wilkinson (purple with rage): ‘I wouldn’t talk to you if you were the last person left in the whole fucking universe!’

Then one of the yobs leant forwards until his face was inches away from mine, as I huddled over my notebook. He had a world-class knife scar running from his left eye to the corner of his mouth, and it was clear that, under other circumstances, he would have greatly relished doing me the maximum possible amount of physical damage. He stared at me for about ten seconds and then, with a strange impersonal briskness, said: ‘Write the truth, cunt.’

This motif seemed to catch the public mood: the crowd started chanting ‘Tell the truth, Tell the truth, Tell the truth,’ to the tune, naturally, of ‘Here we go’. That went on for about ten minutes until, without any apparent signal and as if by telepathic consent, the police decided they’d had enough. They started to disperse the demonstrators – though ‘disperse’ doesn’t quite give the full flavour of what happened. Immediately in front of me a man had been shouting, over and over again: ‘You getting our message, Wilkinson? You getting our message?’ The incredibly tall policeman who had been standing closest to this man reached out and, in a gesture strongly reminiscent of something Darth Vader does in Star Wars, took his windpipe between the gloved thumb and index finger of his right hand. The man went quiet and very still. ‘You getting my message?’ asked the policeman. ‘It’s time for you to piss off now.’

I gave up writing football match reports soon after that close encounter. Although funny in retrospect, it hadn’t been funny at the time, and I kept thinking about that scarred face, about the purity of the ill-will displayed there. (I ought also to record that my decision to retire was facilitated by the descent into bankruptcy of the paper for which I was writing.) But, as yob anecdotes go, that episode verges on comic pastoral. Most yob anecdotes aren’t like that, because most of them are about violence: anything from urinating through letter boxes and vandalising cars to fatal stabbings. Almost all these stories have a shruggy, affectless quality, an appalled fatalism: they don’t really go anywhere, or point to any conclusions, or add up to anything: all they do is chronicle the kinds of thing that the people who do that kind of thing are capable of doing. I have been calling these people ‘yobs’, but Bill Buford calls them ‘thugs’, and he has written an engrossing book about them – a book that is itself a yob anthology, that both describes and partakes of the yob atmosphere.

Buford began to be interested in the subject in 1983, when, stranded on a railway station in Cardiff, he witnessed a trainload of football supporters in their full pomp. ‘It offered up a vision of the English Saturday, the shopping day, that was different from the one I had known: that in the towns and cities, you might find hundreds of police, military in their comprehensiveness [sic], out to contain young, male sports fans who, after attending an athletic contest, were determined to break or destroy the things that were in their way. It was hard to believe.’ Buford set out to investigate this state of affairs, and the people who caused it; he began to go to football matches.

I wanted to meet a football thug, but to my untrained eye everyone around me looked like one. I identified a likely thuggish-looking prospect – in that he was bigger than the others and more energetic, screaming and singing in a way that suggested incipient epilepsy – but the police identified him as well. Before the match began he was ejected for no apparent reason other than that he looked like he might do something. What next? Hi, you look ugly and violent, can I buy you a drink?

Buford started attending Manchester United games. Eventually his perseverance paid off, when he met Mick, an authentic thug who had not missed Man U play in four years. In the course of the evening’s drinking Mick consumed ‘a newspaper full of fish and chips’, two meat pies, two cheeseburgers, four bags of bacon-flavoured crisps, an Indian take-away, ‘four cans of Harp lager, most of a bottle of Tesco’s vodka, and eighteen pints of bitter’, with four more lagers purchased for the return train journey; he also filled Buford in on the structure and organisation of football hooliganism, its ‘armies’ and ‘firms’. And then we’re off. Buford flies to Turin, and participates in some vividly unpleasant crowd violence; in Bury St Edmunds, he attends a National Front disco at the ‘most racialist pub in England’; he stands on the terrace at Millwall, at Tottenham, at Cambridge; he takes part in a riot in Fulham; he witnesses violence in Dusseldorf; he attends a trial in Greece; he grows sick of it all; he receives a beating at the hands of Italian riot police.

Among the Thugs is an I-was-there book, and the parabola it describes – from fascination to boredom, irritation and horror – is a familiar one in the genre. Hunter Thompson’s engrossing Hell’s Angels, which ends with the author being beaten up by his subjects and concluding, ‘exterminate the brutes!’, is an especially close relative. Given that Buford is the editor of Granta, a periodical which relies heavily on the I-was-there form, that isn’t surprising; the texture of the book, though, was a surprise. It sometimes seems that every article in Granta is turning into the same piece, written in the same laconic, mean-moody-and-magnificent style, with lots of those short sentences that us Granta fans think are just exquisitely macho. (An acquaintance of his once told me that Buford’s tastes were formed at university in the USA during the late Seventies, when John Barth and long bad teachable literary books were all the rage. Buford had responded by going the other way.)

Among the Thugs isn’t like that, however: it’s written in a loose, chatty, almost gossipy style that works very well during the book’s moments of comedy (287 definitively intoxicated Man U supporters are greeted at Turin Airport by the British Consul; the same fans, after the match, are escorted to their hotels in a convoy of armoured personnel carriers). Buford’s prose is also effective at describing the yobs themselves – Sammy the General, DJ the counterfeiter, Clayton who had a lot of trouble with his trousers, Mick the complete imbiber – but its real test, and real success, is apparent in those not-infrequent passages where Buford is in the middle of a full-blown riot. Here’s Man U in Turin.

I caught up with Sammy. Sammy was transported. He was snapping his fingers and jogging in place, his legs pumping up and down, and he was repeating the phrase, ‘It’s going off, it’s going off.’ Everyone around him was very excited. It was an excitement that verged on something greater, an emotion more transcendent – joy at the very least, but more like ecstasy. There was an intense thrill about it, it was impossible not to feel some of the thrill. Somebody near me said that he was happy. He said that he was very, very happy, that he could not remember ever being so happy, and I looked hard at him, wanting to memorise his face so that I might find him later and ask him what it was that made for this happiness, what it was like. It was a strange thought: here was someone who believed that, at this precise moment, following a street scuffle, he had succeeded in capturing one of life’s most elusive qualities. But then he, dazed, babbling away about his happiness, disappeared into the crowd and the darkness.[*]

Among the Thugs tells us what it was like to be there. No intrusive interviewer will ever have to thrust a microphone into Buford’s face and ask: ‘But how did you feel?’ The benefits of this narrative strategy are vividness, immediacy, and a certain truth-to-experience which will, I think, keep the book readable as the events and moeurs it describes retreat into the past. The bulk of Buford’s book takes place in the mid-Eighties; the current on-dit in football is that hooliganism is on the retreat.

Having established this approach, though, Buford doesn’t vary it sufficiently: as the book goes on, we find out increasingly less about the thugs, and increasingly more about Buford’s responses to them: but that, Buford implies, is because he himself became a thug. He argues for a transformative psychology of the crowd, a state in which selfhood is erased and writer and yob are as one. There is no line between observer and participant, and therefore Buford doesn’t have to find anything more about the yobs, doesn’t have to do any more work or research or imagining. The writer has become his subject.

It’s easy to understand why Buford would want to argue this – it’s easy to understand why he felt he had to argue it – but it’s a convenient thesis rather than a persuasive one, notwithstanding the stretches of low-budget Canetti. Buford stresses that crowdhood is an existential condition, but he is damagingly vague about what exactly he got up to during all the violence – which is, after all, the crucial point. Violence is to do with acts, not intentions or states of mind: if the editor of Granta did violent things, it is of great, of fundamental importance to the thrust of the argument and of the book, if he didn’t, but found himself refraining from violence even at the point where he argues for the erasure of the self, then that, too, has to be of central significance.

‘Wherever football is played, the name Manchester United is honoured,’ Eamon Dunphy writes in A Strange Kind of Glory. It’s an odd thing to say, given that Manchester United have for quite a long time been powerful challengers for the title of the Most Hated Football Club in Britain. There are quite a few baffling moments of that kind in Dunphy’s book. These attention-wanderings often seem to be clustered around the allegedly mesmeric figure of Sir Matt Busby, Manchester United’s great manager from the immediate postwar years to 1969: ‘immensely charming’, ‘remarkable face’, ‘handsome as a knight should be’, ‘strong’, ‘imposing physical presence’, ‘bodily strength and physical power’, ‘something graceful, almost feline about him’, ‘affable’, ‘distant’, ‘leadership’, ‘mystique’, ‘elusive’, ‘genial’, ‘composure’, ‘daunting’, ‘modest’. That’s from the first page and a bit; there’s plenty more. Luckily, though, Dunphy’s tendency to write very badly about the positive aspects of his subject is balanced by his knowledge of and hostility to the less attractive side of professional football. The shabbiness, shadiness, bungling and criminality which characterise the milieu of our national game are amply chronicled in A Strange Kind of Glory.

Dunphy’s first book, still in my view his best, was Only a Game?, an intensely embittered and revelatory diary of a season spent playing Second Division football. The frankness and the ability to build up a head of emotional steam apparent in Only a Game? have proved an advantage to Dunphy in his subsequent career as a journalist. He hasn’t avoided controversy: his hostility to the kind of football played by the Irish national team during the 1990 World Cup leads to a cameo appearance in Roddy Doyle’s novel The Van. In The Van, ‘dunphy’ becomes a Dublin nickname for sausages, after the discovery that ‘sausages look like pricks ... and Eamon Dunphy’s a prick as well.’

Jack Charlton, manager of the Irish football team, has accused Dunphy of being ‘bitter’. It isn’t a thing anybody likes having said about them, but Dunphy in a funny way seems to have made an asset of bitterness: it gives his writing about football a quality of furious disillusion. ‘The conventional wisdom of the 1990s is that money has ruined soccer, that the greed of contemporary players and their agents is a cancer that is destroying the game. The truth is that professional football was deformed at birth. The game was never honourable, never decent, never rational or just.’

Still, nobody will be buying A Strange Kind of Glory to read Dunphy’s jeremiads: the book’s Unique Selling Point is that Sir Matt Busby co-operated with its author. The upshot of the collaboration is peculiar, as Dunphy praises Sir Matt at gruelling length (‘a man of action and a visionary, with the bearing and political instinct of a cardinal’), while also showing him doing some distinctly shitty things. Thus, when Dennis Law, the phenomenally prolific Scottish striker, publicly demanded more money – United being at that point the worst payers in the First Division – Busby put him on the transfer list and forced him into a humiliating climbdown. ‘But we did a deal which nobody knew about. He told me that if I apologised in public for the trouble I’d caused he’d give me half the rise I’d asked for.’ As Frank O’Farrell, a subsequent manager of United (‘widely respected in professional football despite his honourableness’), puts it, ‘if Matt Busby and Manchester United are the good guys, what are the bad guys like?’

[*] The riot in Turin is anthologised by Ian Hamilton in the forthcoming, obligatory-for-fans Faber Book of Soccer (333 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 0571 14402 0). A mix of old faves and new raves: Orwell, Keller, Ayer, Miller, Pinter, Dunphy, Amis, Kelman. Possible idea for PhD in the fact that the only two foreigners in the book – Nabokov and Camus – were both goalkeepers, despite not being very tall.