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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Reviews: Books:
England, My England
Dougie and Eddy Brimson (Headline 1996, 6.99)
 
Do I sense a persecution complex here? Within a handful of pages, England, My England has already drawn the distinction between 'us' and 'them' - in this case, 'us' being the supporters who read the Brimsons' first book (and, apparently, had nothing critical to say about it - you could've fooled me!) and 'them' being 'the reviewers'.

And it's precisely this division that forms the central part of this discussion of hooliganism surrounding England fans. Perhaps unwittingly, the Brimsons have found the very crux of the matter - by treating football fans as a single entity, a section of society from which we can expect nothing but anti-social behaviour, the authorities have been partly responsible for the violence they've been seen to condemn. That's particularly true when English fans travel abroad (the instances of provocation and intimidation are depressingly numerous and recent incidents in Porto suggest that little has changed) but no less relevant to events on the domestic scene.

Despite rarely being explicitly mentioned, this theme is the book's most interesting aspect. The problem is that, although eager to condemn the authorities ('them') for their treatment of fans ('us'), the Brimsons are less keen to look at the more important issue - fans' perceptions of themselves. Because it's not just the police or the media that reinforce the stereotypes - more than anyone else, it's the fans.

A typically brain-dead piece of Class War propaganda is the most extreme example of this stereotyping (it talks nostalgically of "standing shoulder to shoulder...with the people you worked, lived and drank with" when, frankly, that's the very last thing I want to do on a Saturday afternoon) but there's plenty more where that came from. It's depressing reading, football fans boasting proudly of their own little social ghetto. Much of it, to be fair, doesn't come from the authors themselves.

The Brimsons' final solution to the hooligan problem is to make it 'unfashionable' (not exactly revolutionary and slightly ignorant of the cyclical nature of fashions). And yet, at the same time, there's this desire to cling on to the 'real' football experience, to resist the influx of middle-class day-trippers. How, exactly, the atmosphere of violence and aggression is supposed to disappear without a change in the balance of support from single men to families, women, children never becomes clear.

To be quite honest, much of the whole argument simply irritates me. I find the assumption that any supporter who has led a relatively comfortable, middle-class life is therefore likely to bugger off and support Manchester United at the earliest possible opportunity ludicrously simplistic. I am a football fan (and, I'd like to think, a pretty bloody committed one). I also have an English degree, I'm a long-term vegetarian and a more-than-adequate cook, I'm rarely happier than when wandering round bits of derelict land photographing graffiti, I despise Kula Shaker, I've sat through all four hours of 'Malcolm X' without getting bored, blah blah blah. Stereotypes are always wrong and self-imposed stereotypes are the tool of the devil. (Oh, and while we're here, people like me were on the terraces long before Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch.)

The problem is that I'm reading between the lines here. Much of England, My England is tedious waffle, arguments that either contradict themselves or frantically hedge their bets allied to facts that are too vague. For example, in discussing the Dublin riot, we are told that the police could've stopped fans from travelling but chose not to - they cite the miners' strike as an example, yet never bother to tell us what the police powers to restrict movement actually are. That kind of thing undermines the credibility of the book, unfortunately. Similarly, the chapter on the re-location/re-development of Wembley begins with a fierce and entirely convincing argument for building a new national stadium in the Midlands, then contrives to destroy all that good work with a feeble 'on the other hand...' conclusion.

Worst of all is the chapter on the role of political extremists in football violence. As far as I'm concerned, if you really must re-print the views of BNP members, you have a duty to edit their contributions so that they at least stick to the topic of debate and, far more importantly, you don't just let their opinions go unchallenged. More than anything else, you really don't preface their words with a chapter on nationalism that comes dangerously close to expressing the same sentiments. And simply muttering 'politics has no role in sport' is an utter, snivelling cop-out. Mind you, the opinions expressed by the member of Anti-Fascist Action (which tend to revolve around the "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" argument - 'us' against 'them' yet again) are only marginally preferable.

The writing's generally awful (there's nothing actually wrong with it, just a general lack of elegance or coherence to reward the reader's efforts); the subjects become increasingly repetitive (page 220, a paragraph on away fans' travel; page 227, a paragraph on away fans' travel); the choice of topics is appallingly unimaginative (having hinted at the growing problem of football violence in Eastern Europe, something which presents an interesting angle on the phenomonen, the chapter on other countries' problems just concentrates on all the usual suspects and tells us nothing new as a consequence).

It drags on and on. Having bitterly accused all and sundry for their failure to understand the violence that surrounds football, the Brimsons, on page 214, finally come to the conclusion that "None of it makes any sense, because football violence makes no sense." At least partly true, but not exactly a revelation.

And then, suddenly, it picks up just as the final whistle approaches. Or maybe I was just in a more forgiving mood when I read the last few chapters. There are still missed opportunities (the chapter on the police only briefly touches on civil rights issues) and wayward arguments (a National Football Supporters' Party? Once again we're talking as if football fans only have one stake in society) but, somehow, the whole thing is slightly more engaging. Unfortunately, it's fair to say that, had I not paid seven quid for the bloody thing, I'd have given up reading long before.

I'm being harsh. I also think I'm being fair. The Brimsons' protestations that they're not authors but fans hold no water around these parts - if you write a book, you should expect it to be criticised on its own merits. And England, My England has painfully few merits, I'm afraid.

Ian Grant