Review- Buford, “Among the Thugs”

Bill Buford, “Among the Thugs” (1991) – New Yorker writer Bill Buford followed British football hooligans around for a number of years in the eighties, and wrote this book about it. You can call Buford a belles lettres writer, if you’re so inclined- a smart amateur, basically, taking his writing chops and sensibility to the subjects he chooses rather than any particular expertise. He had virtually no experience with soccer before following the hooligans around, or much with violence. He acquired both. Despite his informants, mostly fans of Manchester United, early on insisting they were simple supporters, Buford witnessed them engage in serious mob violence and got them to open up about it, at least a little.

They talk a lot, the hooligans, but don’t really have a ton to say. For them, it seems, the speech act is a lot like their fighting, destruction, and drinking- more of a way of yawping “I AM” at the world than anything else. Buford is not a sociologist and does not pretend to really delve into what makes the hooligans, but he has some interesting stuff to say on the literature on crowds versus the experience of being in one. From Burke to Le Bon to Freud, critics — mostly conservative in one sense or another — have always made crowds into the quintessential “other,” something lesser people get sucked into and devolve with. Buford doesn’t deny the powerful force of crowd feeling but argues that it affects everyone, answering to a primal need… I do idly wonder if Buford threw anything through windows or hit anyone when he was in the midst of hooligan riots… just to fit in, of course…

Either way, like I said, he’s no sociologist and that’s mostly a good thing for readability purposes but sometimes we wind up with underexplored questions. Class in Britain is a tricky thing. Buford points out that many of the hooligans he spends time with aren’t poor. Many of them are successful small businessmen or work in big companies with good prospects (some are also successful professional criminals, it seems, especially the leaders of “firms,” hooligan gangs). But according to British understandings of class, they’re definitionally “working class,” I guess because they didn’t go to Oxbridge and don’t raise their pinky when they drink tea or something? I guess Americans can’t really talk about social class confusion. There’s much to be said for the clarity of Marxist distinctions in these matters. There’s a chapter on the British neo-nazi group National Front, which recruited heavily from football hooligans, and a lot of their supporters (though not their leadership) did seem to come from actually poor and working class white English people.

Thirty years later, the same kind of dull reactionary rage displayed by the hooligans Buford gets to know has spilled its banks and become one of the fundamental forces in British and world politics. As Buford puts it, the hooligans liked a short list of things — the queen, lager, whatever team they supported, and themselves (Buford also includes the Catholic Church on the list- was this an oversight? These people routinely chant “fuck the pope” at no provocation. Did he mean the Anglican Church?) — and the list of things they hated spanned the rest of the known universe. While Buford and the hooligans manage enough mutual amiability to travel with each other, the author isn’t shy about calling his subjects “little shits,” and that’s about right- loutish, dull philistines, dedicated to destroying what’s not them. Presumably, in the days of the British empire, men like these were exported to the colonies, to wreak violence and destruction there. That’s generally not an option anymore, so they have to violence for a soccer team. Pretty pathetic! But I guess the joke is on the rest of us, because we have to live with these people and the violent ignorance they promulgate and which increasingly shapes the society in which we all have to live. ****

Review- Buford, “Among the Thugs”

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