Thug Life: When the ugly spectre of violence became part of the beautiful game
Bill Buford spent six years with the football hooligans whose weekends were spent rioting
Violent scenes at the end of a match at St Andrew’s Stadium in 1985 after fans poured onto the pitch. File photograph: Getty Images
Britain’s national rail service does not have much of a tradition of spontaneous conversation among passengers. But a brief exchange that took place on a London-Manchester train on an April afternoon in 1984 had lasting consequences.
Bill Buford was a young American who, after studying Shakespeare on scholarship in Cambridge, had vivified Granta literary magazine as an inventive and unorthodox editor. He was fascinated by the football hooliganism culture that had swept Britain and tried to persuade a few of his writers to explore their inner skinhead; they politely demurred.
It didn’t take Buford long to identify his ideal companion: a gargantuan white man with lavishly tattooed arms and a tee shirt riding high over an exposed belly, necking a bottle of Tesco-label vodka. Buford made his introduction and explained that he wanted to write about football supporters and stood waiting as the train rattled northwards while the fan considered the request.
“All Americans are wankers,” he was told. “And all journalists are c***s.” Buford was ecstatic. “We had established a rapport,” he would later write of the moment.
The fan’s name was Mick. That afternoon, he took Buford on a staggering tour of Manchester’s football pubs, who tried to keep pace with increasing alarm and awe as Mick sank 18 pints of bitter and several takeaway meals before stocking up on cans for the late night back to London.
The encounter was Buford’s entry to the subsequent six years he spent getting to know the young men whose weekend lives were spent rioting and fighting with other ‘firms’ at home. He watched young Italians savagely beaten in Turin, was threatened at a national front disco in Bury St Edmunds, felt the post-goal crowd crush in Cambridge, ran with rioters in Fulham and, at a 1990 World Cup match in Sardinia, was among the crowd of around a thousand English men vengefully punished by Italian riot police in a midnight retaliation for a day of rioting.
When Among the Thugs was published in 1991, it was received with both acclaim and shock. “A grotesque, horrifying, repellent and gorgeous book,” was the summation of John Gregory Dunne. It is at once funny and an extraordinarily bleak depiction of Britain, standing as an eye-witness account document of an ominous movement in British society when football crowds running amok became part of the game and of the weekend. The fighting was everywhere.
“Everywhere,” marvels Buford now, speaking from his home in Brooklyn. “Just everywhere. One of the things that made the book possible was that I was an American living in Britain. And it gave me a perspective to be able to see that: this is absurd. It is not normal for people to be attending football games all over the country to be beating the shit out of each other.
“Something else was going on. I got a chance to do an audio edition of the book a few years ago and I was struck by some of the passages where the violence is really bad and I remembered being haunted when I was writing it.”
It’s an extremely unusual book. As the New York Times review noted, “Buford pushes the possibilities of participatory journalism to a disturbing degree.” Within its pages he is, as the title states, among the thugs but not of them. And yet he spends time with them, buys and accepts drinks and owns up to a sheepish thrill when Sammy, one of the leaders, includes him in a head count after a street battle.
He is a confidante. Sometimes, he likes them. He never struck anyone but was himself struck several times. He wasn’t simply trying to record the episodes of violence but to understand the intrinsic motivation and energy of the crowd by moving with it. Over the seasons he discovered a contradiction: the deeper he explored, the shallower those motivations seemed. Perhaps the best explanation came from the Keith Richards lookalike who told him: “It’s what’s in us, innit?”
“It wasn’t the working class rising up or the disenfranchised rising up,” he says now. “It was to do with the crazed excitement of crowd violence and in that respect it had a kind comparison to a drug culture. I was disturbed at times. The sound of someone getting beaten up isn’t anything like the movies.”
The book could be seen as a coda to Buford’s subsequent writing life. In 1994, he took a phone call from Tina Brown, the newly appointed editor of the New Yorker magazine, who asked him to become its fiction editor. There was a perception that the magazine, though beloved, had become somewhat trapped in its rich, eccentric tradition.
“At that time, nostalgia was a little bit of a disease. And the magazine had probably been inhibited by its nostalgia. Tina didn’t really open windows, she kind of knocked down the whole building. And it was a fascinating dialectic because she did something that was absolutely necessary and was succeeded then by David Remnick, who has affection for the old ways but has also given the New Yorker a whole other personality.
“It is not easy to make a magazine work anymore but they have done it by being pretty quick on their feet.”
Buford, though, soon became restless. “Being an editor is a good way of procrastination on the really hard work of being a writer,” he laughs. At a brainstorming meeting, he proposed a profile of Mario Batali, the rambunctious chef whose restaurant Babbo was at the time one of the most in-demand tables in Manhattan. Buford was persuaded to write the piece himself and his fascination with life in the kitchen sent his life spiralling in a new direction.
He persuaded Batali to take him on as an apprentice where he endured ritual humiliations, major verbal and minor actual scaldings, quitting his job at the New Yorker, moving to Italy and ultimately writing the wonderful Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures As Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker And Apprentice to a Dante Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (2006).
That research was fleeting in comparison to the years his immersion in the world that features in Dirt (2020), his story of five years spent with his wife Jessica Green and their twin boys in Lyon, working as a trainee chef in the ruthlessly exacting kitchens of La Mère Brazier, where he is habitually insulted and humiliated.
If there is a connection between the football hooliganism and French haute cuisine, it’s that both pursuits demand unflagging physical commitment and are traditionally male domains.
“When I was in Mario Batali’s kitchen I would see parallels. Because in Thugs . . . I was flattered I suppose that it has been cited as embedded anthropology. What I was looking at what was extreme male behaviour in a very specific situation. And when I was in Babbo, while there were women there, they definitely had to fight for their presence. And I was witnessing male behaviour that is really cut off from society.
“It is like no other group in society - you ignore traffic laws, basic commerce, you walk into a store and empty of its contents and walk out because you are with this crowd which is very powerful in the kitchen. And although it is very civilised when you walk into the dining room, it really felt like a fraud somehow when you walked into that part of the restaurant. Wow! This is make believe. Because in the back, it is very hot and very rude and physical and abusive. And it felt like another little secret male world.
“In France, it was different because I ended up writing about a city. Lyon was my character. There was bad behaviour there in the kitchen too. And it’s male and it’s a weird code and it’s extremely physical.”
Buford and his family have recently returned to live in New York. The city’s famous and cutthroat restaurant scene has been devastated by the pandemic. He has come full circle, writing pieces in the New Yorker and, like everyone, waiting for normal life to resume. He is apprehensive about what the future holds for the city’s restaurant culture.
“I think it is going to be brutal and a lot of good chefs are going down and a lot of good restaurants are going to close. I do hope they return changed. Part of that change will be one felt by diners who in New York, especially, have lost the sense of privilege one should feel when you are eating in a restaurant and being served. Privilege because it is expensive. And because someone else did the shopping and they are doing the washing up.
“We didn’t have that as children and our parents certainly didn’t have it. Eating out is a great privilege and I hope it comes back - and that everybody eats dessert.”
The darkly fragile final days of the Trump administration brought Buford back to the characters he met at those forgotten football games. Many of the cast in Among the Thugs, including Mick, have shuffled off.
“Yeah, quite a few have died. Sammy and Roy had fairly grisly deaths, mainly from drugs.” He is still in touch with one subject in the book and his sense of the aging hooligans - close to pensionable now and probably Brexiteers, is that they view those raging days as a kind of a war.
“And they regard those events with ironic jollity, as in: those were the days. It was an eccentric time and people did baffling things - until of course you see things like the insurrection in Washington DC. I did think, the proud boys, these are people I could get to know.
“That was different in that there was a political revolt but there was a big element which is a basically willing crowd, that realises its power and enjoys the excitement of being in its power, as having actual physical confrontation and there is a line they want to cross - in this case the doors of the Capitol and yeah, I could recognise what was going on here.”
He recalls a night out in London when he was last in the city and met one of his contacts from the hooligan subculture. Out of habit, they went for drinks.
“And we went from pub to pub because he felt confident that we were being followed. And he still wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t a member of the CIA.”
Over the evening, Buford discovered that just before the book was published, members of the Manchester crew were convinced he had been an informant. When he learned of this, Buford made a point of going to Old Trafford and standing with his arms crossed facing the crowd as it exited.
“I spotted my friend Robert and we went to a pub. And he told me afterwards that there were a bunch of people who were talking about coming up and stabbing me in the pub. But I was confident that I could show them that I wouldn’t turn up if I had betrayed them. So it was a weird way of clearing my name.”
And it was good practice for the kitchen.