Review of Bill Buford’s “Among the Thugs”

Ross Wilcox

Review of Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs

Bill Buford’s 1990 investigative book Among the Thugs is a humorous and intelligent examination of English football hooliganism. The inspiration for Buford’s eight year immersion into the hooligan subculture came on a night in 1982 when he boarded a train on his way home from Cardiff, Whales. Buford sat idly in the train, awaiting its departure. All of a sudden, a mob of football supporters commandeered the train. They were loud; they were rude; they were drunk.

Buford, an American journalist living in London at the time, spent the next eight years hanging out with English football supporters. He spent the vast majority of his time with the most wild and crazy hooligans, the supporters of the famed club Manchester United. Buford tags alongside the supporters each Saturday as they march into pubs and consume copious amounts of lager. He observes their disgusting behavior with an honest and humorous eye. He bravely walks with them as they parade down the streets of various cities, stopping traffic and smashing car windows. He is right there on the front lines as the supporters engage in old-fashioned, hand-to-hand combat with rival supporters or innocent citizens. Amazingly, Buford is also present when the supporters defy police attempts to squelch crowd violence. Although the book focuses specifically on English football supporters, the overarching theme extends to crowd violence of all forms: the allure of it, the solidarity that overcomes the individuals, and some of the social factors that contribute to it and perpetuate it.

Bill Buford is an American journalist who has written, in addition to the very popular Among the Thugs, the book Heat: An Amateur’s Experiences as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. He attended the University of California at Berkley before moving on to the University of Cambridge, where he studied at a Marshall Scholar. He lived in England for most of the 1980’s. He is the former fiction editor for The New Yorker, where he is still on staff.

Initially, Buford’s purpose for pursuing the study of English football hooliganism was purely out of curiosity. However, as he got to know some of the supporters, his interest grew as more of the details shaping these men’s lives came into focus. The book is very funny in the beginning, but it starts to take a more serious tone as Buford observes greater degrees of violence, disgusting instances of debauchery, and terrifying moments in which there is literally a war taking place in the streets between supporters and policemen. Though Buford never explicitly identifies a thesis, crowd violence emerges as the major theme of the book.

At the time of its publication, Among the Thugs was a timely and urgently relevant work. The media was having a heyday with English football supporters. Cities were vandalized beyond belief by the supporters. There were deaths due to crowd violence inside and outside of football stadiums. In short, football hooliganism was a societal problem. Buford sought to investigate this behavior, and on page 217 of his book lays perhaps the heart of what he is trying to get at. Here, he is discussing his experiences after being involved with hooligans for several years:

“I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable….This is, if you like, the answer to the hundred-dollar question: why do young males riot every Saturday? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself, with, I was convinced, many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically-produced drugs.”

For Buford’s methods of observation, he completely immerses himself in the hooligan subculture. There is little to no attempt at achieving a objectivity. The book is written in first-person. We stand in Buford’s shoes. The book succeeds so well in drawing us in because in the beginning, we are in the same position as Buford: we have never seen or met real hooligans, let alone walked and talked and fought and drank and eaten with them. So, as Buford embarks on his journey, we feel as shocked and amazed as he does with each new experience. Buford makes no mistake about it: the reality of this story is filtered through his mind, his emotions, and his perceptions. It is a first-person account of one man’s immersion into a violent subculture, and it reads like good fiction.

Buford didn’t conduct formal interviews with the hooligans as much as he simply befriended them. He didn’t talk with them as much as he conversed with them. He more than observed their behavior – he participated in it. He drank with them. He smoked with them. He traveled with them. He ate with them. He, for the most part, became one of them. However, it should be stated that Buford did not engage in any violence. He was right there as it happened, but he didn’t attack anyone or vandalize anything (at least none that he admits). So in this sense, Buford probably doesn’t qualify as a true hooligan, for a true hooligan, as Buford states, engages in violence because it is a kind of drug for him.

Buford, in most cases, does not hesitate to give his opinion. This is a subjective book and all elements of reality are filtered through Bill Buford. This is why the book reads like good fiction. It doesn’t attempt to be objective. One of the advantages fiction has traditionally had over journalism is its ability to allow the reader to stand in a character’s shoes. Well, in Among the Thugs, Bill Buford is a character and we stand in his shoes. His book employs all the elements of fiction successfully. Is it all true? Who cares? It’s a great story by a talented writer and it is entertaining, engaging, funny, and insightful.

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