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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
The Football Factory
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on 11 September 2017
The story of bleak, violent lives. Of young, amoral men bored out of their skulls and seeking violence, excessive drinking and sex that is devoid of feeling never mind love and with the sexual object regarded with contempt. These thugs are condemned to a lifetime without aspirations and without even the concept of achieving even the most partial mature satisfaction. They live within their own perverted values because any other kind is beyond their ken. They are too ignorant to know how ignorant they are and instead strut their violent stuff to blank out an awful reality.

They are manipulated, the pawns of a society that ignores them because it does not know what to do with them. The book is a superb evocation of lost youth with no regard or awareness of what concerns a wider society.
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on 21 November 2016
Good book, superbly written from several different angles all linking up. One of the few books I've read twice, now looking forward to re reading Headhunters.
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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.
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on 19 August 2013
The Football Factory is a brilliantly written piece of work, which easily surpasses anything else written on the subject (one slightly inferior exception to this is 'Away Days'). King's main character, Tom, is totally believable. I thought King's handling of the ambiguity of racial attitudes in modern Britain, via Tom and Mr Farrell, was superbly done, as was his handling of issues surrounding old age. The quality of some of the prose is astonishing. Consider the following. Mr Farrell is at the funeral of his best friend who has died suddenly and breaks down in tears, as he thinks of, not only his friend, but his deceased wife who passed away three years earlier, and who he's kept alive in his head, having conversations with her over cups of tea. 'Finally Mr Farrell stood up and broke through the weakness because that's all that tears could ever be. Conditioned by his background and sex not to show emotion, that was for the privileged with time on their hands and a need for excessive psychology.' Prose of this quality occurs throughout the book. You don't need to have any interest in football or football violence to appreciate this modern classic. I pushed it on to a female colleague, a young teacher of French, who hated football. She read it and, on giving it back to me, simply said, 'It's brilliant.' She then bought 'Headhunters.'

Another reviewer, who only gave this book two stars, criticizes the book by saying it's Arthur Seaton meets Clockwork Orange. But what's wrong with that? I have a feeling that King has been influenced by both Alan Sillitoe and Anthony Burgess.
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on 25 October 2017
Irvine Welsh says it best when hailing The Football Factory as "The best book I've ever read about football and working class culture." I've never read anything that so authentically conveys the mood, texture and minutiae of working class life.

The misogyny, racism and violence is hard to read (and meant to be) but the articulation of the philosophy and feelings of the young, (almost exclusively) white, working class, London male has probably never been so accurately and fairly represented.

Two more in the trilogy to read but John King's now on my authors-to-explore-further list.
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on 11 September 2012
My first thoughts upon reading this was how similar the style seemed to be to that of Irvine Welsh, right down to using hyphens to indicate the speech of his characters instead of speech marks. The similarity was made all the more surprising by the fact that on the version I have there is a recommendation of the book by Welsh on the front cover. However, this only serves to indicate the considerable influence Welsh had on 90's British fiction, with this novel being first published two years after trainspotting. As with Welsh, King's writing is vivid and has plenty of the language necessary to authentically portray the particular white, working class section of society which both authors concern themselves with. The chapter concerning Millwall Away is particularly well written, conjuring up all the excitement and intensity of the Chelsea firm roaming through the Bermondsy estate looking for their Millwall counterparts, yet also describing the sickening harsh reality of main character Tom's personal injuries. This direct, colourful writing style makes the novel a quick, engaging read, although a couple of times I got confused as which thoughts and speech went with which character.

The main difference between this book and the film is that the book has vignettes of characters such as Mr. Farrel the old pensioner war veteran and Will Dobson, the middle-aged journalist slotted in between the accounts of violence, male comeradery, drinking and sex. These provide interesting counter-balancing points of views on the topics with which the book is concerning itself - the state of modern football, the media, differences between generations, law and order, class, racism and gender. Whilst these alternative points of view add depth to the novel and are worthwhile additions as a whole, I found that they could occasionally slow down the main story.

Overall this is an exciting novel about football hooliganism and gives voices to characters who we may or may not agree with but whose voice is not often heard in an authentic way in literature. Well worth a read if you have some interest in understanding this kind of ritualised violence, I read this after Awaydays by Kevin Sampson, and preferred The Football Factory to that book.
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on 13 March 2013
I enjoyed this book.It gave a view on football violence from a hooligan's point of view,but also viewed what they thought about life,and about the class that they come from,and the class that governs them,and makes decisions for them.John King writes in a flowing way, and the disparite characters that appear-Mr Farell,Vince and Albert all fit into the story,and have a role to play.
I have not read anythong by John Hall before,but I enjoyed his style, and will certainly be reading some of his other books.
Good Read
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VINE VOICEon 19 January 2016
The book is a classic. It has one of the greatest opening lines of any book every written. I knew the moment I picked it up and read that sentence, that it would provd to be one of the seminal works on the 1990s, and so it proved. It's set in the world of football fans and hooligans but it's not about football at all, it's about the people that follow it.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 January 2001
Interesting and disturbing depiction of a contemporary working-class Londoner. The novel portrays a bleak England which has little to offer its poor, white natives. The central character--who one imagines must be loosely based on the author--is a nasty man, whose one outlet is football hooliganism. A Chelsea fan, he defines his existence not around actual matches and scores, so much as he does around the pre and post-match violence (if any). The book seems to suggest that for him, and his ilk, society has nothing to offer and he must retreat to the camaraderie of his fighting friends to find any release and meaning in his existence. The chapters alternate between focusing on the main character on match days, and peripheral characters (some only barely related to the novel at all) and slices of London life. Despite the very raw descriptions of violence and sex, the writing is too deft, and the message too sharp for the book to be considered a mere cult novel. King's subsequent novels, Headhunters, England Away, and Human Punk are all equally vital--if not as raw--reading. Great non-fiction companions to this book are Colin Ward's classic, Steaming In, and Nick Danziger's Danziger's Britain.
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on 2 June 1999
The Football Factory is an excellent book that makes you think about many different issues, such as class, race, politics but above all, how the mind of the football hooligan works. Tom Johnson is an ordinary, working class man who enjoys normal everyday things, like having a few pints with his mates, pulling birds and watching his football team, Chelsea. He also likes violence a lot, which is where things get interesting. The buzz gained from committing a violent act is what he craves and all the tension is released at the match on a Saturday when his firm look for the opposition's firm of hooligans. The book makes compelling reading and says so much about the English male and football culture. All matters of issues are raised in this book, such as the North-South divide, inter-club rivalries, class boundaries, whilst a few stereotypes are also inevitably reinforced...But it makes compelling reading, and John King has proved himself to be a very accomplished writer with this excellently researched book.
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