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Reviews: Books:
Everywhere We Go
Dougie and Eddy Brimson (Headline 1996, £6.99)
Among The Thugs
Bill Buford (Mandarin 1991, £6.99)
The Football Factory
John King (Jonathan Cape 1996, £9.99)
Everywhere We Go, an insider's account of football violence, promises far more than it can ever deliver. Its publishers seem eager to give it the hard sell by screaming hysterical tabloidisms - "The Shocking Truth Behind Football Violence" - when, in reality, much of the content is hardly controversial at all.

It's written by two brothers, both Watford supporters and both involved in violence in the past. For obvious reasons, the authors are unwilling to go into any detail about their activities and leave it to anonymous accounts to flesh out their arguments. For that reason, I wouldn't get too hung up on the Watford angle - you get little more than a paragraph about Craig Ramage and a lot of waffle about hating Luton, both of which you can get for a quid by buying a copy of Clap Your Hands.

It gets off to a truly hideous start, the brothers Brimson appearing intent on establishing themselves as "true fans" in direct opposition to the scorned "intellectuals". Thus, during the course of the introduction, we are treated to such visionary statements as "Women like football. They don't love it or worship it, they like it." as they attempt to explain why violence occurs at matches. Personally, I don't cough up seven pounds to be bored by conservative toss like that.

Resist the urge to chuck the book in the bin, though, because the rest ain't that bad. What follows is formed of a series of letters and interviews, linked by the brothers' minimal narrative. It's functional stuff but strangely compelling.

Anyone who's watched and listened at English football grounds in the last twenty years will learn little new from this but there's a certain interest to be found in filling in the gaps. Sadly, the stories themselves rarely live up to the intensity of their subject matter. It takes a bloody good writer to deal with violence convincingly and no-one here is up to the job - what we get instead is an endless supply of "We got a decent size mob together and gave them a right slapping". The incidents themselves are fascinating, often very revealling, but the prose is just so lame that the whole exercise rapidly becomes rather sterile.

Ultimately, the brothers take the helm and the book is at its best in the final chapters, as factual reporting gives way to reasoned argument. While the continual adoption of the pompous "We, the decent supporters" tone tends to grate bearing in mind the writers' less-than-angelic past, much of what is said makes sense. Even at its most contradictory (and it is frequently very contradictory - one moment, they're criticising all and sundry for ticket price rises that alienate the ordinary supporters; a couple of pages later, they're advocating noon kickoffs to discourage away supporters), there's a certain debate-in-a-pub enjoyment to be found.

But it's that quality to the book that rather begs the question of what it's target audience is. To regular fans, it's simply another book about football, albeit with a new angle; to outsiders, who do have much to learn about football violence, it'll probably be just a bit too supporter-orientated to be approachable.

It's a good read and little else. Despite the claims to comprehensive inside information, I still came away with questions unanswered - the importance of the match (for example, Oxford and Brighton fans recently caught the police out by arranging a fight on the other side of town while the match was in progress - what's that all about, eh?), the acceptability of weapons, the dividing lines between ordinary fans and hooligans. All of these are hinted at, none are explored in any kind of depth. That's the kind of book this is - just too shallow to make sense of something so complex.

The one you want, if you've got a few pounds to spend on a book about hooliganism, is Bill Buford's Among The Thugs. The Brimsons' protestations that nobody else had successfully written about football violence so they had to do it, don't hold a lot of weight when you realise that Buford's work has been on the shelves for five years. Don't let the sensationalist cover put you off - what lies within is a book of the utmost intelligence.

What immediately strikes you about Buford is that he can write. The first chapter, describing his first encounter with football fans at Cardiff station in vivid and potent detail, makes this clear - it's almost a linguistic statement of intent. Buford brings his experiences to life - they're frequently (and on one occasion in particular) sickeningly violent, but equally hold an inescapable humour that is brought to the fore at the most unexpected moments. Throughout, resisting the temptation to label his chapters things like "Introduction" and "Conclusion", Buford brings in his own ideas about what he is witnessing, occasionally side-tracking completely to follow up an idea. It is beautiful journalism.

The background is this - Buford, an American who has never seen an English football match, is taken to White Hart Lane and becomes hypnotised by the culture surrounding football (this, in itself, is fascinating - to see the fans' behaviour, which we have grown so accustomed to, through the eyes of a newcomer) to the extent that he goes out to find and study football violence and its perpetrators. This takes him first to Turin with Manchester United, then to a National Front meeting at Bury St Edmonds and, finally, to England's game with Holland in Sardinia, where he is beaten up by Italian policemen.

He is always on the front-line but never with the arrogance that comes from familiarity with violence - more often than not, he is scared witless and happy to admit it. As his stereotypical view of the hooligan fades away, he meets members of West Ham's infamous ICF and we learn more and more about this world. It is rivetting stuff, held together by the author's insights into what he sees - for instance, he is conversant in crowd theory and attempts to explain the riots he witnesses in those terms (although it's more complicated than simple theory - there is always the lone nutter, the loose cannon to contend with).

By the end, in Sardinia, he's sick of the violence. The book reaches its logical conclusion - if hooliganism is a way of breaking through accepted codes of behaviour into a realm of utter lawlessness, then there is a flipside which is that those you attack no longer have to play by the rules either - as the author is curled up on the ground while a policeman's truncheon hammers into his kidneys.

There are still problems, of course - as before, questions are left unanswered (although Buford is, perhaps, intelligent enough to resist generalisation and concentrate on individuals - if there's confusion, it's because the subject matter does not follow a set pattern, it is truly lawless) and there are occasions when the ignorance of traditional football culture is irritating. But most of the time, this is blinding stuff - from the description of losing all sense of identity in the crowd at a Cambridge match ("There wasn't one moment when I stopped noticing myself; there was only a realisation that for a period of time I hadn't been.") to the analysis of Orwell quotations in a diversion about the death of the working class.

It is as intense and intelligent as a book about soccer violence needs to be. You should read it.

I'd take a guess that John King probably has read Buford. Regardless, his first novel pulsates with the intensity of inside knowledge - I know nothing about him at all but it's immediately apparent that he knows what he's writing about and that's what matters. The Football Factory is so comfortably the best fictional work about football I've seen or read that the rest should be embarrassed.

More Hubert Selby than Nick Hornby, this is a novel that forces you into hard choices and relentless self-examination. Although considerably less violent than the cover would like to suggest (I mean, I'd just finished a Dennis Cooper novel and it'd have to go some to out-do that), it's never easy reading because it looks deep inside the characters responsible for football violence, seeing the good as well as the bad, the reasons as well as the excuses. Thankfully, the author takes a backseat and there's no sermonising, no philosophising - King is content to set his characters up and let them do the talking. Just the way it should be.

At times this is so effortless you wonder why it took so bloody long for someone to come up with a novel this good. While concentrating on his main character - Tom Johnson, a member of a Chelsea firm - King weaves in others' lives to the narrative, giving us the full fabric of modern London society. Thus we hear from war veterans, journalists, fanzine writers (a one-sentence chapter - Beckett meets the Headhunters?), mothers, children... Why? Because this is a book about London, England as much as anything else - yes, it centres around football but we all know that the conflict of the match is just a formalisation of the conflicts in society.

The bits that actually concentrate on matches are extraordinarily convincing. For a start, King resists the temptation to present a sensationalist view. So, although we get big rucks against Tottenham, West Ham and Millwall (in the latter, Tom gets an almighty kicking - an obvious parallel with Buford's account), we're also treated to Rochdale, Wimbledon and Norwich. And that's the best thing - the acknowledgement that football, even hooliganism, is frequently as mundane and frustrating as ordinary life. Tom sits watching Chelsea against Wimbledon with the flu and there's instant identification (we've all sat watching crap football wishing we could go home, I think); the Chelsea firm turns up outside Villa's Holt End only to find that there's no-one there to fight with, so they end up watching the match with Rod worrying that his wife might be pregnant.

I suppose that's the point, if there is one. That hooligans are little different from the rest of us - certainly, King does his best to dispel the myth that they're not true football supporters - and that we're not in any position to sit in judgement. The casual, flippant bigotry is an obvious flaw in that argument - but you get that just as much from the ordinary public in the street, so even that's dubious. In the end, there are no conclusions - the novel ends with a stabbing and life goes on. It's like we've been given a window into another world and someone's drawn the curtains to shut us out again.

As with Buford, I can't recommend this enough. Although I had doubts before, caused by years of seeing football fictionalised in a glib, lazy way, The Football Factory comes at you from all angles, modern literature and football in perfect harmony at last. As a novel, it's very fine indeed, particularly for a first effort; as a book about football, it's brave, potent and convincing.

Ian Grant