Reviewed in the United States on May 14, 2015
Buford has written a very good book. The description on the back claims that he has done so with “the raw personal engagement of a Hunter S. Thompson” and there are, indeed, sections of the book in which raw personal engagement is the driver of the account. But the comparison with Thompson is unfair to Buford, who uses himself in his narrative in a more restrained and more effective way, i.e., to support his main points rather than to supersede them. If any New Journalism comparison were apt, it would be to Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer.
The book has a clear arc. At the beginning Buford is an outsider in every sense of the word: he stands on a railroad platform as a train overtaken by “supporters” stops only to kick a few people out. The singing and debauchery are contained within the railroad cars; the scene is as mysterious as it is shocking. Determined to learn more, the reporter goes to his first football match, but finds that, even inside the cages at the Tottenham ground, he is still an outsider. Then he meets Mick, a hard-drinking, brawling Manchester United supporter. The rest of the book follows Buford as he makes his way deeper into the Manchester “firm.” He travels with them to Turin, where he is belittled as a fooking journalist and sees (or participates in?) in his first riot. Eventually he is accepted.
But by the end of the book Buford has referred to his “fellows” as “a bunch of little s***s” and has broken off from the main group in the middle of a riot. Disgusted at the crowd he was so recently a part of, he is beaten by Italian police.
Buford uses his narrative to avoid the greatest weakness of post-modern writing: its nearly religious aversion to the value judgment. There was a moment when I feared for the quality of the book. On page 182 Buford begins a historiography of crowd psychology and physiology. He trots out theories and drops names – Clarendon, Gabriel Tarde, Alexander Hamilton, Hipplyte Taine, Scipio Sighele, Plato, Thomas Carlyle, Gustave LeBon, Gibbon, Hitler, and Freud – spends several pages on a photograph from Yugoslavia, and waxes poetic about the crowd consciousness, for a moment concluding that its key component is nothingness, simplicity, “nihilistic purity.” He lists this together with religious ecstasy, sexual excess, inflicting and feeling pain, and drugs as the best examples of the “incineration of self-consciousness,” the “transcendence of our sense of the personal.” But the last words, which I've already mentioned, are “Nothingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity.”
I had to put the book down upon reading and re-reading this section. All of a sudden the well-chosen photograph of the thug on the cover didn't seem so ugly. How could it when compared to the idea that the “incineration of self-consciousness” is so easily associated with “nothingness,” with “nihilistic purity”? This assertion of the “transcendence of the personal” actually – and very clearly – denied the existence of anything but the personal. Had Buford delved more deeply into Plato and less deeply into Freud, he might have been reminded that the transcendence of the personal also takes place in conversation (friendship), politics, and especially philosophy. If he had not skipped from Plato straight to thoroughly modern examples like Gibbon and Hamilton, he might not have implied that religious ecstasy is nihilistic in nature.
And in the end, Buford may well have done these things. In fact, he may have added his own nonviolent, non-sexually excessive, non-drug induced “incineration of self-consciousness.”
Toward the height of the riot at the end of the book, Buford steps out of the crowd in one direction and observes one who has done the same in the opposite direction. A young Englishman is breaking things. His time not breaking things is spent looking for things to break. Something in Buford snaps. The lad is a little s***, and nothing more. Then he sees an Italian man rushing his family to the relative safety of their home, struggling to get a stroller up the steps and behind the metal screen of his shop. This man, because he is not called one, is not a little s***.
After Buford transcends himself and becomes human again, he wants nothing more than to be rid of the crowd. He sprints ahead of them, right into a trap set by Italian police. As the mob retreats, trying to stuff themselves through a tiny gate, Buford sulks behind two cars and assumes a fetal position, bringing up his arms to protect his head. The police will follow the crowd, he reasons. But not all of them do, and our intrepid narrator is beaten very badly by policemen who cannot have been apprised of his sudden change of heart. He was a member of a rioting crowd, and has paid for the “transcendence” of his humanity by being treated inhumanely. A fair price, I suppose.
The wisest of the thinkers Buford references in the book seem to have been right. The crowd is a wild animal, a pack of wolves, the scum that boils up the surface of the cauldron of a city, even a bunch of little s***s. I don't believe that grammarians have invented a suitable opposite of personification. But that opposite of personification is what a crowd does to itself, and therefore what the great thinkers – and, more immediately, the civil authorities – do to the crowd. To be in a crowd is exhilarating, as Buford learns early on, as the mustachioed man in that picture from Yugoslavia learned in that moment. But there is no good “transcendence of the personal” or “incineration of the self-consciousness” that happens in a crowd: each of those things is requisite to an abandonment of humanity. Not to pass moral judgment on crowds as such is to remain neutral on the very idea of human exceptionalism.
I was very happy that Buford could drum up the courage, finally, to see things as they are.