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.’

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[*] 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.