Among the Thugs

by Bill Buford (Norton, 317 pp., $22.95)

Hooliganism can turn virtue into viciousness. Bravery becomes recklessness, and loyalty becomes tribalism. Prince Hal, the hero of three of Shakespeare's plays, is a hooligan. When we first meet him in Henry IV, Part I, he is a drinker, a fighter and something of a criminal, but by the time he becomes King Henry V, he has transmuted his roughness into courage. Yet Prince Hal differs from the thugs depicted in Buford's book in a very important way: Hal shows no loyalty to his friends. Hal's nasty remarks and practical jokes against his pal Falstaff seem to be normal hooligan manners at first, but as the trilogy proceeds, we see they are evidence of callousness and betrayal.

Among the Thugs is about many Falstaffs. We see the working-class Englishmen who riot at soccer matches (the protagonists of the book) as drunken, brawling and obese. Unlike Falstaff, however, they are inarticulate.

Once in a while, to be sure, a thug quoted by Buford seems on the surface to be quite capable of expressing himself. Whether or not he speaks in complete sentences, however, what he says remains incomprehensible: "We know they want it [violence] and so do we," says Steve. "I suppose it might sound stupid but because the policing has got so good we've got to the point where we have to inflict the greatest possible damage in the least amount of time, and the knife is the most efficient instrument for a quick injury. . . . If the policing was not so good, I'm sure the knifings would stop."

Steve is right; it does sound stupid. Violence, the destruction of property and life, is not morally neutral, to be regulated by the free market. Nor can Steve think it is; if he did, he would not object to knifings either. Steve's counterparts in America, gang members, have no such scruples; indeed, they prefer guns to knives. Because Steve offers no why, what he says is nonsense.

Sister Souljah, here in the United States, suggests that random violence be dedicated to a cause: affirmative action for murder victims. "So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?"

There are also groups of British hooligans with a cause: racism. A waitress at a pub called "The Green Man" told Buford it was "the most racialist pub in England. . . . No black or Paki had ever had a drink at the Green Man. And everyone who worked at the Green Man was proud of its record. It was also why everyone regarded it as a privilege to hold a party here for the National Front." Another organization, the League of St. George, claimed to be more militant and extreme than the neo-Nazi National Front. A member explained to Buford that modern man had been uprooted from the soil and placed in an artificial concrete world. When Buford remarked the similarity to the views of the Khmer Rouge, the man from the League of St. George answered, "Precisely."

The majority of the hooligans described in "Among the Thugs" have no overt political views. Yet they are always expressing bias. "F--- the Pope," say the soccer fans on a bus going to Turin. A fan named Harry "had urinated on a cafe table that had, in his inimitable phrasing, a number of 'Eyetie [Italian] cows' sitting around it, and he had then proceeded to abuse the waiters." Examples abound. What seems to separate the neo-Nazis from other hooligans is not their views but their hair styles--and their dancing.

The way they danced was intensely physical: they
all huddled together in the middle of the room,
and, rubbing each other's head with one hand
(most were shaved on top) and holding themselves
closely together with the other, they jumped up
and down.

The tough, male subculture of soccer fans is overtly anti-homosexual. Then what are we to make of this type of all-male dancing? There is probably no way to determine how many of the skinheads are hiding homosexual desires. What would happen if they "came out of the closet"? One can only speculate.

Steve, who said that policing was the problem, could not tell us why. The problem with those who study the theory of crowds, according to Buford, is that they don't tell us "what: what happens when it goes off, what the terror is like, what it feels like to participate in it, to be its creator." Buford's own reporting provides an answer: "What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness."

Buford is a wonderfully vivid writer. The reader is with him at the games and on the streets. Although I was completely swept up by the power of the narrative, I could not imagine how the author found "absolute completeness" among the crowds, among the thugs. Buford's writing took me along. I saw his hooligans, felt them and smelled them — and I couldn't wait to get away from the drunkenness, the nastiness, the vomit. Completeness? No. Nausea. And let me warn the squeamish reader: Skip over Page 239.

Yet I know from personal experience how exhilarating a crowd can be. I witnessed what might have been the largest crowd ever assembled, in Tiananmen Square, the biggest plaza in the world. I was at the square several times in May of 1989, and once on June 2. I was moved and overwhelmed by the gentleness and dedication of the protesters. They were directing traffic so that ambulances carrying unconscious hunger strikers could proceed to the local hospitals. The citizens of Beijing had undertaken the massive task of supplying the square with food and beverages. Crime in Beijing dropped sharply.

Crowd psychology is not the same thing as hooliganism. There is an enormous power for good in human beings, whether as individuals or in groups. Hooliganism is the perversion of that power.

An abbreviated version of this review appeared in November 2, 1992, issue of National Review.