on 3 August 2017
Tom Johnson is a warehouse worker living in London. He is also a football fanatic, supporter of Chelsea F.C., and part of a gang of minor hooligans. The Football Factory is set and written in the post-Hillsborough era of 1990s English football, in which the game is being commercialised as a result of large-scale investment and the fans watch matches in all-seater stadia. But the hooligans didn’t go away and Tom is one of them. Not much happens inside the stadia when the men are watching actual football matches, but there is a lots of violence outside and this is a harsh novel, in which the f-word and c-word are used frequently: almost on every page. If you like football, you will probably like this novel, but this is not so much a novel about football per se as about the English working class, and in that regard, some other very interesting characters feature who have nothing to do with violence. As well as Tom and the other hooligans, there are is also a chapter in which we follow Tom's daughter; there is a chapter about an aspiring journalist, Jennifer, who is clearly middle class and has some naive notions about football violence; a lady called Doreen, who works at a laundrette and privately observes the subtleties of societal decline and how we all become contaminated and polluted by it; Albert Moss, an unemployed man with a sideline in psychic readings; Michelle Watson, a soulless and ambitious anti-white middle-class socialist and social worker who views working class people as chess pieces for her own personal and ideological ends; Billy Bright, an ordinary white working class man on the dole; a sad widower called Mr Farrell, who still talks to his dead wife, who was a Holocaust survivor; Matt Jennings, a video game designer; and, a few fanzine journalists.
I was suspicious of this novel, due to its obvious 'zeitgeist-ness' (it was first published in 1996, at the height of a football craze in Britain) and the way it was heavily hyped and praised at the time of publication. Fittingly, King's novel gave rise to its own hype. When it took-off, there were fawning reviews in 'lads' mags' and other popular media, a film by the same name and a documentary called The Real Football Factory (I haven't seen either and won't), among other things. On the front cover of my copy of this book, there is a quote from Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting (another 1990s novel, and much more hyped than this one, if that were possible): [quote]"The best book I've ever read about football and working class culture in Britain. Buy, steal or borrow a copy now."[unquote]. King alludes to the hype about football violence with repeated criticisms from the main character about the way media sensationalise the activities of so-called 'hooligans', using buzz words:
[quote]"As Morgan talked, Will started drifting. He vaguely heard his colleague listing the buzz-words and phrases which made for a good hooligan article - 'scum', 'mindless yobs', 'thugs', 'ashamed to be English', 'good thrashing' and 'now is the time for the courts to hand down tough custodial sentences.'"[unquote] [p. 58].
This book itself ironically represents the very hype he critiques, so that there seems to be a symbiosis between writers and the publishing industry, the media, the football 'industry', the police and the criminal courts, and the hooligans themselves. The police exaggerate the risk posed by working class football violence so that they can spend their time arresting easy targets, instead of solving real crimes. Here Tom describes an unsympathetic police character:
[quote]"The bloke doing the talking has a thin face and bulging eyes. Bullfrog breed. There's a dedicated look about him. Believes in what he's doing. Wants to make the streets safe for pensioners and kids on their way home from school. Probably collects stamps in his spare time, but the fat c___ he works with is more into hardcore porn and fifteen pints of lager. They should f___ off and hassle some real criminals. The rapists, the muggers, nonces. Instead they're wasting their time at football. They're missing the point. But they're also taking home a healthy wage packet for having some fun at the taxpayer's expense. I reckon some of them love it more than us lot."[unquote] [pp.167-168].
I tend to the view that anything that is hyped in the way that this book is (or was) probably serves an ulterior agenda, and no doubt this work did and does. Had I read The Football Factory around the time of its publication, I probably would have dismissed it as vacuous crap. But not now. The Football Factory is an example of a work that looks better in hindsight than it might have seemed at the time. Its weaknesses - the vacuity at points, the jumping between voices and characters, the lack of any plot - can now be regarded as strengths. It's not really a novel. It's an anti-novel, with no plot and no coherent narrative, just the voices of its ordinary working class characters going about their lives, with no real resolution of any of the issues facing them, but lots of ad hoc insight. You know that they will continue living that way, they know that, and they know why, but somehow Tom, the thuggish hooligan, cannot lift himself out of it. He openly and explicitly admits what he is to the reader, and he is somewhat proud of it, while at the same time, paradoxically lamenting it. I did struggle through the first couple of chapters, which are written in the mumblecore of Tom's first person voice, however while it was a difficult read, I am glad I persisted. John King's anti-novel grew on me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth, insight and quality of the writing. In particular, the author had a very sophisticated understanding (for the time) about racial and class issues and their intersection. He understands the way in which, even back in the 1990s, the anti-fascist Left were abandoning class politics in favour of a identity politics and how this alienated and harmed the white working class. Even today, it's refreshing to read something that doesn't necessarily try to demonise the English working class. Other important social themes creep in, too many to elaborate on at length, among which are: the conflicts between men and women; the relevance and advisability of marriage; the role of men in society; the relationship between police and the ordinary public; classism and reverse classism; the ownership of football clubs and the role of supporters; the relevancy of political and social ideologies in football; and, the North/South divide in England (Tom comments a lot here on how grim the North seems to him as a Londoner).
I do have some criticisms. King has clearly immersed himself in the violent football culture of the 1990s. I don’t know what his personal background is, but he clearly knows a great deal about it and has done his research well, including all the London and football slang. He doesn't himself use the word 'hooligan' anywhere, which reinforces this impression that he knows his subject. However, I think this is one of those cases where the author’s attempt at realism comes out the other end as a bit too canny and contrived. I doubt the contrivance was deliberate, yet in an odd sort of way, it adds to the story. You might say that The Football Factory is an example of hyper-realist fiction, the type that self-references and does so authentically since by the 1990s football hooliganism, such as it was, had largely moved beyond its organic origins and become a self-referenced movement. Tom's monologues, while a struggle to get in to, are brilliantly done. He does not describe himself as a hooligan, as such, and to me he comes across not so much as a hooligan as just a common street thug. Arguably this is because football hooliganism in the real sense had largely ended by the time this novel had been written and what in fact the author was recording (whether he realised it or not) were the last gasps of an already-archaic male working class sub-culture centred around recreational violence.
Hooliganism, so called, has a lengthy history in England, in fact as long as the organised game itself, going back to the late 19th. century. From the 1960s onwards, football hooliganism became known as the English Disease and was associated specifically with English clubs. All the major clubs, all over the country, had a violence problem, but a handful of clubs were particularly noted for it. The main hooligan clubs in the North were Liverpool F.C., Leeds United, and Manchester United; and in the South the hooligans were mainly to be found at Chelsea F.C., Tottenham Hotspur, Millwall, and a few others. As briefly alluded to in this novel, each hooligan 'firm' developed its own identity and even its own uniform: normally a particular style of dress or specific clothing, often cheap designer or popular branded clothing, which resulted in hooligans as a whole being colloquially known as 'casuals'. For example, the Leeds hooligans were known as the Leeds United Service Crew (named after the trains that often took Leeds supporters to particular games). I mention all this because it is important in understanding the social and cultural background to hooliganism and why this novel does not really capture the essence of what we might call authentic 'firm' culture. Hooliganism from the 1960s onwards was really a manifestation of two things: terraced culture and the broader working class youth culture that began to emerge during the late 1950s, especially the mods and rockers (from the early 1960s), and later, the skinheads (from the mid-to-late 1970s).
The characters in The Football Factory are emphatically not a continuation of that culture and very little in this story reflects it – they are technically working class, but in the context of football violence, they are little more than ‘tourist hooligans’, just thugs. There is an anecdote told by one of the characters of a trip to watch a match in Spain, and so the impression is given that the characters have some antecedence in hooliganism, but by the 1990s, their football support is more the background setting for their violent tendencies than than its raison d'être. This is the effect of a radical cultural transformation in the game: the local rivalries that once existed between supporters of clubs gradually (almost imperceptibly) are starting to break down as the game is commercialised and gentrified and the elite clubs implement the recommendations of the Taylor Report. As King points out, football as a whole had also been in the vanguard of a multi-racial society with the involvement of black players in the professional game, who came to be accepted by supporters. Thus, the violent men have become a pastiche, a confused relic of a time that was drawing to a close, the clubs they support no more than vicarious identities on which they base their self-worth at a time when they as individuals and as a class are under attack culturally and economically. They wore the signature hooligan clothing - as many young working class men at football matches still do today, as a vestige of a more muscular and masculine past - but they were throwbacks to what then, in their minds, must have seemed very recent time yet even then was starting to look archaic. They were on the way out, and their successors today are gelded 'football fans' and the blood, dirt, smell, racism, anti-Semitism and violence has all-but disappeared. Thus, if The Football Factory records 'hooliganism' at all, it is of the post-modern kind: a sort of plastic imitation that references itself, and with the implementation of the Taylor Report during the 1990s and its introduction of the all-seater stadia, and the changing football culture, this anti-novel captures the aimlessness and relative tepidity of this plastic legacy hooliganism of the early-to-mid 1990s, a period when the sanitisation of football's working class influences began. As such, this book could have been a redundant artefact, but the writing and the thematic relevancy saves it.
What were the origins of football hooliganism and what sustained it? One theory is that the English working class are violent and tribal, and arguably official permissiveness towards football violence was a way of allowing a potentially revolutionary section of the population to let off steam. Hooliganism as a word (very obviously Irish in origin) and concept is, arguably, just a way of stigmatising an aspect of working class culture that threatened the rest of society because its violence was a manifestation of the raw power of working people. The greatest threat to the capitalist class was, and remains, the development of an independent culture among working people and working class unity. Like it or not, football embodied such, and in light of this, the attacks on football culture, everything from treating football supporters as animals (using fencing and repressive police methods) to maligning them in the media and popular culture, could be viewed as just another means of dividing and fragmenting the working class and stopping any politically-useful unity and solidarity from being realised. However, the violence in The Football Factory is different, and instead a manifestation of an anti-culture, which is to say, a rejection by, opposition to and escape, by Tom and others, from the ordered society around them. This is in the context of the fragmentation of the working class, the removal of identity from the white working class in particular, the existential angst felt by working men as a result of consumerism and the other pressures of modern society, and the alienation caused by the drudgery of people's lives, in Tom's case, his dead-end job. Tom is burrowing around in his own limited world centred on a cycle of dull work, self-gratification, negativity and escapism, and much of what he says about his situation and the world in general is just repetition of received notions that he grasps inconsistently. Yet he does make some insightful points in the first person narrative. Tom - with justification - pours scorn on the moral hypocrisy of society's rulers and bureaucrats, who are more violent than the so-called hooligans. Like them, he sees a way to escape the ordered conformity that shackles ordinary people, he has accepted the hegemony of ultra-individualism and to him football culture is not about working class solidarity but instead an outcrop of this Darwinian struggle in which he attaches himself to tribes: "Different tribes for different parts of the country." [p.82]. He does not want working class unity - "Unity in poverty." [p. 79]. Tom sees his life as freer and more enjoyable than those ordinary people who abide by the law and live ordered, conformist lives - he can be himself - and he is scornful of the rest of society for this reason. Yet we see in the story that he gets arrested and has to attend court, something he has done before due to his violence, so he is subject to the same strictures as everybody else and is in fact powerless.
The use of the word 'Factory' in the title to the novel seems meant to evoke multiple meanings, but can be summarised in the notion that, contrary to what Tom might think and pretend, the characters are not in control of their lives, and are not free, and just as this is a contrived and hyped novel, the characters live out orchestrated and patterned lives serving the ends of others, which they have been bred to do. The working class could be better-named the working caste. Tom still has to go to work, even though he dislikes his job, which he finds boring and when he it not out drinking or at the football, tries to mentally escape in Walter Mitty fantasies; he still has family responsibilities which tie him down; he even has to abide by a sort of informal code of honour within the violent circle he fraternises with. In moments of honesty, Tom acknowledges he is powerless and recognises the futility and pointlessness of his life, but even in these self-conscious flashes of insight, he fails in his efforts at explication, perhaps because the introspection is too painful. Instead, he falls back on circular rationalisations about 'needing something to do', being "White trash" and feeling special [p. 154], being part of something - "Everyone's in a gang", no matter how important they are in society [p. 155] - or, there is his own pet theorising, the argument that it is in Man’s nature to fight:
[quote]"You can't change human nature. Men are always going to kick f__ out of each other then go off and shaft some bird. That's life."[unquote] [p. 2]
This is true, but it is not in Man’s nature to be self-destructive. These men are parodies of the type.