Should books about football violence be on the top shelf? Rob Chapman believes that the success of ‘hoolie porn’ is due to some men’s rather odd obsession with crime
About 20 years ago I used to work in one of Britain’s hardest and most dangerous borstals. I mentioned this fact to the husband of my cousin one day at a family get-together. “Oh good, tell me more,” he said, fetching me another drink. “I love villainy tales. They give me an erection.” Yes, that’s what he said. These people do exist. He wasn’t the least bit discouraged when I told him that all I did was teach remedial English to a standard whereby the average semi-literate car thief or burglar might at least be able to grasp the rudiments of a Sun editorial. I haven’t seen him for years but I bet he reads hoolie-books. I imagine most of the commissioning editors who publish the stuff are a bit like him, too. They love a bit of rough and they’ve created a veritable industry out of “literature” that documents the exploits of former, and in some cases not so former, football hooligans.
Type “hooligan books” into Google and the search will lead you to provocative titles such as Want Some Aggro?, Who Wants It?, Bovver and Steaming In. They range in quality and emphasis from Saturday Is Service Day, Callum Bell’s breathless, hastily penned account of a Motherwell “crew” that punched above its weight among the Glasgow big boys, to Naughty, Stoke fan Mark Chester’s disturbed and sometimes disturbing portrayal of a broken home and a brutalised youth. There are Dougie and Eddie Brimson’s ethnographies of violence and mayhem in Europe (Everywhere We Go, England My England). There are tales from the post-industrial front line in Cardiff (Soul Crew – David Jones & Tony Rivers), Hull (City Psychos – Shaun Tordoff) and all points beyond. And they all tell the same story.
There’s usually a bit about the casuals (rarely developed beyond an arbitrary list of bands and brands), a smidgen of cod-sociology about alienated yoof and sink estates, and tons about rucking. It’s hoolie-porn and the publishers want the money shot every few pages. And that’s exactly what you get. One long tedious litany of ’aving it and mixing it and calling cards and gaining prestige and status by running the opposition off New Street station – or, in one memorable moment from Tordoff’s City Psychos, by commandeering the carriage next to the buffet car “and threatening anyone trying to wander through”. “They defended this carriage as though it was a section of terracing,” says Tordoff, “and found no one willing to take them on.” Hardly the Battle of the Boyne or Culloden is it? Although in the minds of the participants you suspect that it is.
There’s a certain kind of academic who loves this stuff of course. Puffed up on professorial salaries and usually found lecturing in Mickey Mouse Studies at one of Britain’s many pretend universities, they talk of how “empowered” the participants feel as they assert their traditional masculine roles by taking over stadiums and staving in pub windows. The dons, of course, prefer to gain “empowerment” by buying houses in leafy suburbs and going on conference junkets to Mexico City or Stockholm. The hoolies have to make do with bawling “No Surrender!” at bemused foreigners.
Ironically, the interesting stuff in these books is often in the incidentals. Bell tells a touchingly familiar tale of going shopping as a novice casual, buying all the wrong gear, so having to replace it the following week. Chester tells a far more poignant tale of dead or drug-addicted friends and failed relationships. The most recent one was with his fiancée who finds her supposedly reformed forty-something future spouse “fronting up” in the bedroom mirror and calls the marriage off. It’s a telling image and it lingers in the reader’s mind long after the routine reminiscences of high-street rucks and back-alley beatings.
The music writer Nick Tosches recently made the controversial point that rap music is the new minstrelsy. In its exaggerated depictions of masculinity and ethnic identity he saw the same grotesque distortions that “blackface” singers portrayed, and perpetuated, a hundred years ago. There’s something similar going on here with the post-industrial underclass and those Quintins and Pippas at the pulp end of publishing can’t get enough of it. Dig deeper, though, and it’s hard not to detect an undercurrent of poignancy in many of these books. Like those Seventies kids who once backflipped to Frankie Beverley or Dean Parrish at Wigan Casino or those Eighties kids who could bring an entire housing estate to a standstill with a beatbox and some breakdancing, many of the – now middle-aged – hoolies realise that this was their finest hour. The sheer number of RIPs in the acknowledgment sections tell another story, of course. Oh, and if any of you are still wondering why so many young recruits seem to be mysteriously committing suicide in the British armed forces, just read Chester’s account of his time with the troops.
There’s a key moment in Style Wars, Tony Silver’s 1983 documentary about hip-hop culture, that goes to the very heart of what we’re talking about here. Some of the film’s best insights are provided by the exchanges between an Afro-American mother and her teenage son graffiti artist. The mother listens with increasingly weary resignation as her son relates his subway train- spraying exploits. “Listen to them talk,” she sighs. “They sound absolutely ridiculous. ‘I’m king of the yakety-yak yard.’ Who died and left you king of the yard? He owns NOTHING in the subway.” Then comes the devastating pay-off: “What you’ve got here is a whole miserable sub-culture.” And then some.
Maybe what we need next is a new genre catering for the hoolies’ long-suffering mums. Books with titles like If Simmo Told You To Stick Your Head In The Fire, Would You?, perhaps. And its best selling follow-up, Well? Would You?
As Bell concludes yet another tediously identical description of a town-centre ruck, he mentions that the damage was restricted to “mainly bus shelters”. It would make a good generic title for most of these tales. Bus Shelters And Buffet Cars: My Life As A Frontline Hoolie.
From the photographic evidence on display most of the authors and their mates still look pretty handy. You wouldn’t want to spill their pint or call their lurcher a poof. You still see them at the match occasionally. Neck muscles bulging. Eyes swivelling and mobiles twitching. They can hear an away supporter rustling a sweet wrapper at 400 paces. There’s fewer of them than there used to be, of course. After all, most of them are at home scribbling their memoirs.
From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month