I haven’t blogged for a while, as I haven’t felt it for a while. Here is a post I wrote a while ago, when we were in Manchester. Thanks Manchurians for reblogging.
I’ve watched movies about football hooligans, but I didn’t ever think I’d be among them. In the movies, they’re mostly wearing primary or pastel coloured tracksuits with diagonal patterns in parachute silk or Adidas polyester, which kind of takes the edge off the wielded screwdrivers and wanton glassing. But that’s because most of the films take place in the eighties and early nineties, and directors like to hire costume designers who like to make their mark, I suppose. And because stealing the right Adidas tracksuit was an important part of being said hooligan, back then. But this afternoon everyone was dressed in dark colours and jeans. Well, except this one guy who was in baby blue tracksuit – tops and bottoms, who rushed toward us when things started happening, yelling, ‘It’s on! It’s on!’ The colour of his tracksuit, which I will again focus on, makes it sound like it could have been a bright and chirpy occasion. Or, I guess, that he was just back from a rave, or from the nineties. It wasn’t nice, but that’s the thing: it started out quite nice and normal. We had arrived on the train from Leeds to Barnsley, and had finished making our way around the craft and jewelry stalls in a miniaturised Saturday morning Barnsley version of the Victoria Markets, and were heading up the road to find a pub in which to have a pint. Barnsley looks like a nothing town, a city, I guess, from the train station, but when you travel further up the high street it gets all cobblestoney and commercial, with at least five pubs visible without moving from the town square. Which is more like a circle, about twenty meters wide with octopus arm streets shooting off in all different directions. The sun had come out, and the town was full of people, mostly families. We were in the square, and I was about in the centre when I heard someone yelling. There was a large white tent in the middle of the square, but I didn’t really notice what it was because the town was full of stalls. I looked closer, and it was a tent with beer on tap. It was the Hull supporters’ pub. Hull, being one point up at the moment with a few games to go, if they win this game will be a sure thing to be promoted to the Premier League. Barnsley, whose home game it is (obviously), could be relegated if they lose. So the Hull supporters had a tent. And so things go in England. Anyway, the guy I heard yelling, I thought was yelling to his son to hurry up and follow him. He was in front of me and to the left as I passed, and was yelling behind me. Then he began to swear a lot, and my thoughts went to the foster system and how long it would take this kid to get there. Then I realised he wasn’t yelling at his kid, but he was challenging a guy over the square to take him on. By then, we were across the square, and I looked back and got scared. There was a guy with a giant black pipe, holding it in the air, and other people were starting to yell.
And I mean yell. That was the most thrilling thing about the fight – the sound it made. It wasn’t the usual sound of a crowd, where everyone raises their voices and you can hear a general kerfuffle, some voices higher over the rest. This was more like something organic, or growing out of the ground. No – it was more tidal. The sound came in waves, and it made my guts feel hollow. These guys threatened each other like a communal living thing, like waves crashing against the shore, and their screams fed each other, then died down, then rose again. And it wasn’t like normal fighting, where it was, ‘yeah mate, have a go?’ They were already quite aware that ‘the go’ was on; they were already into the bit of the fight that gets serious. And this was only twenty seconds in.
I walked briskly away, because as I said, I was truly scared of it. Something about the sound just made me aware of my own mortality. Butters, of course, stopped where he was, about twenty meters away, and looked on. They were throwing punches and throwing beer.
Then the sound started to move. In my direction. And then something weird happened – it seemed like they were looking at me. It almost seemed like they were looking right at me, like I had something to do with the genesis of the fight. I almost locked eyes with the guy with the black bar. The sound heaved, and it was almost certain that they were going to stampede – and then something stopped them, and they went to the side. I was pretty pleased with that, because I had started to get a bit of that thing where your legs won’t move for you, even though you’re mentally pleading with them, while at the same time trying to be cool. The fight went on, and I moved further away.
The thing that surprised me was the relative normalcy that the other townspeople kept. There were some locals who were saying, ‘shit, this is serious,’ and things like that, but mostly people seemed to expect it. It was like it was a regularly occurring flash mob, and only the people who weren’t often in town hadn’t seen it before. Or like it was a stage play, and it was expected to be played on the hour, every hour. And that’s the impression I got from the hooligans themselves – they wanted it, expected it, were waiting for it and got it.
And that was the other thing – they knew that the police were going to be there in about three seconds. And they were. They were expecting that, too. But about a minute after the riot broke out, kind of casual, or as casual as you can be in a sirened sedan (did I mention how piercing English sirens are?) arrived from just around the corner, about fifty meters away. It pulled into a side street and, causal as you like, released the hounds into the crowd, some on leads and some loose, barking down the hundred shaved-headed Englishmen dead at each other over a game. (No wonder these guys were good at war.) I headed up the road, and tried to find a pub that looked neutral. Butters wanted the one a little bit closer. It was a quarter full of bald headed Englishmen, most of them drunk on Fosters.
When we left the pub to head toward the game, there were fifty policemen in the town square, dominant in their blue uniforms swaddled in fluoro jackets (fluoro is the colour you must respect at the football, it seems – you can be a twelve year old girl and be on crown control on the edge of the pitch), just being there. They seemed like they expected it, too. Because of course they did. As we walked toward the stadium, we went slightly the wrong way through some sort of factor market thing. We knew we were about ten minutes walk from the stadium, via Google maps, but I didn’t think we’d have to wait that long.
‘I think I can hear it,’ I said to Butters. From the right, through the factory, was the faint sound of chants and footsteps. As we came out of the factory, the streets were full with supporters and police. There were police absolutely everywhere – a lot on horseback. (I patted one of them later on – this beautiful bay mare was just shy of 18hh, paired with a black and white pinto with hooves the size of the risen moon.)
At one intersection, about a hundred police had surrounded a group of Hull fans (there were more police than fans in this group) and were keeping them at bay from the Red fans until the coast was clear up the road to the stadium.
It was an amazing atmosphere. Completely insane, and completely normal for them all.
The stadium had a much different atmosphere – no real malice, not threatening, just chanting football fans. We were sitting right next to the exchange benches in the front row. I could get used to Butters getting us such good seats. The game was a bit of an upset – Barnsley won 2-0, and the Hull team seemed totally outmatched. It was almost as if they feared for their lives. They let everyone rush the field when the whistle blew, surprisingly, with long lines of police and fluoro guards as respite for the players. Danny Rose ran into the middle of them to escape some eager fans at one point.
I don’t know what happened to the guy with the long black pole, or the guy with the baby blue tracksuit, but I’m sure they were up in it somewhere.
On the train, the two women opposite us won’t stop talking, mainly about pregnancy and childbirth. I don’t know why they think that everyone, especially the people they’re facing, want to know how painful the minute by minute really is. It’s not a great soundtrack to the beautiful countryside we’re going through.