‘Intense‘ and ‘acute’ certainly seem reasonable adjectives for the descriptive process Buford adopts. The ‘characters’ he encounters are described in emotionally- loaded visceral terms. like fictional creations rather than real people. Witness the description of Mick (whom Buford later concludes is a reasonably nice bloke): ‘that special category of human being— one of it’s most repellent specimens. He had a fat, ﬂat bulldog face and was extremely large. His T-shirt had inched its way up his belly and was discoloured by something sticky and dark. The belly itselfwas a tub ofsorts. swirling. I would discover. with litres and litres of lager. partly-chewed chunks of fried potato and moist, undigested balls of over-processed carbohydrate. His arms — puffy doughy things — were stained with tattoos.’
This fascination with degradation can be seen as voyeuristic, and Buford probably wouldn’t deny the charge. What it does though is give the book a vividness and immediacy that brings home the reality of the violence far more effectively than any studied statistical argument. Buford almost nostalgically recalls the weekend he spent at a National Front party, waking one morning in a bedroom surrounded by 26 dozing skinheads.
‘A very powerful smell!’ he says. ‘Culture shock I suppose. It would be a culture shock for most of us. It was creepy. They were unlike any other bunch of people I’d ever met. I’m not sure if they are deep down actually that different, but certainly you are
A uselul bloke to know it you’re one short tor a Hampstead dinner party or a Late Show discussion panel, but not perhaps the immediate choice for an ally it a posse ot Millwall lads have got you trapped down a cul-de-sac.
prepared to think they’re different. It was an unusual way to spend a weekend, to say the least.’
The colourful descriptions of characters are one thing, but Buford’s matter-of-fact anecdotes of extreme violence are more problematic. The above quote about the exploits of Harry was one that Buford was keen to retain, despite the possibility that it could be seen as extolling thuggery. ‘Well, yeah, people have said that,’ he admits. ‘My American editor wanted me to cut that. But that was the point in my story when I thought I’d seen enough. It had all been quite amusing and eccentric up till then, and antisocial conduct is quite interesting just because it’s anti social. But this time it really was enough. It was incidents like that and incidents I’d seen at that time that made me feel I’d reached the end. So it was important to mention that because it happened.’
What also happened, and this element provides a backbone for what is an admittedly loosely structured book, is that Buford discovered the concept of the ‘crowd’. The most important moment for him was identifying the borderline between an individual citizen, recognising the validity of laws and moral structure, and a member of a crowd, seeing the potential for a whole new kind ofexperience, a darker, exhilarating lawless experience. ‘What are these experiences?’ he writes, ‘Religious ecstasy, sexual excess, pain, arson, certain drugs, criminal violence. Being in a crowd. And — greater still — being in a crowd in an act of violence. Nothingness is what you find there. Nothingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity.’
Later on he amplifies his feelings: ‘I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable. I would have assumed that the violence would be exciting— in the way a traffic accident is exciting — but the pure elemental pleasure was of an intensity that was unlike anything I had foreseen or experienced before. But it was not just any violence; it was crowd violence — that was the one that mattered: the very particular workings of the violence of numbers.’
So does this experience just say something disturbing about Buford’s psyche, or does it have more general implications? He is in no doubt: ‘I think it applies to everybody. I was writing about me because my actions provide a measure by which to judge certain things, but I was also there watching everybody, studying everybody, being with everybody, they were my subject. It was quite calculated. Everyone talks about the crowd being mindless, the way crowds behave shows people at their most irrational. But in fact there is a very rational
chain of choices that takes someone to the point where they are prepared to be part ofa crowd. That’s what I was trying to show in the book, that was why the crowd scenes are written at that sort of length, in that narrative form. I wanted to show how people very self-consciously become part of a crowd, very self-consciously allow someone to lead them. No leader could ever create a crowd, no one could be seduced against their will into a crowd. It’s a very deliberate thing. It’s highly volitional.’
Also highly English. Despite the horror stories of Dutch and Italian thugs, widespread hooliganism and crowd violence are (or were, football violence seeming to be an 805 trend that has not been repeated to the same extent in the 90s, although joyriders and ram-raiders are rushing to fill the gap) peculiar to one country. Buford finds it hard to offer a convincing
‘In the same way as drugs were the teature ol the 60s, violence was a feature of the 80s.’
explanation. ‘It’s hard to say, apart from preposterous notions about the English being more heathen and more macho than any other culture, although I think there may be some truth in that. There’s something to be said for the belief, in the crudest and most irrational way that you
could never defend, that the English are
different. There’s a whole generation that’s bored and uses violence for kicks. In the same way as drugs were the feature of the 60s, violence was a feature ofthe 8(ls.’
Ifit all sounds a tad simplistic, it’s wise to remember that Buford has few pretensions about finding reasons. He can’t do it, and no one else has managed it satisfactorily either. He does consciously reject the liberal models ofexplanation, but has little to replace them other than a highly focused sense of social alienation. which he found ultimately impossible to empathise with. ‘I did enjoy the company ofthem quite a lot,’ he says. ‘But there’s a kind of heathen barbarity about most of them, that there’s no need to apologise for or explain. It’s just there. They’ve taken up uncivil conduct as a moral code, an anarchist code, and finally I think you need some sort of moral conduct
to hold this society together.’ 3
Among The Thugs is publisher! by Sec/(er and Warburg, pricefM. 99.
The List 8—21 November IQQI 9