Among the Thugs

Bill Buford

Read June-July 2006

Buford's examination of mob violence in late-1980s and early-1990s British soccer fans deserves to be regarded as some kind of classic. The author, an American wunderkind who edited Granta, approaches the mob phenomenon with a mix of terror, fascination, revulsion, and curiosity. Rather than merely talk about it, though, Buford actually immerses himself in the mobs. Setting aside his pop sociology attempts to explain mob behavior and other tics, what makes this book so visceral and compelling is that you can almost taste the fever and excitement of mob activity leaping off the pages, material that might have floundered in less capable hands.

There are real problems with his account: his immersion is never quite complete, and his arm's length distance (metaphorically and physically) means the book never really answers its own questions. His clear revulsion with the people he runs with means we constantly view them from a plane slightly above, blurring the analysis. And his brief excursion into the British National Party and their connection with the mobs is too superficial.

Yet it is these very weaknesses that give the book a peculiar strength. His near-complete immersion is just right; weaving one way or another would not have been credible. His revusion reminds us that we are in the process of study, not training. And the excursion casts just the right shade on the connection between the groups without needing to be overt. Once you've read this book, the phrase “it's going to go off” will forever after have a special, dark meaning.

Thanks to Michael Tschantz for lending me this book just in time for the 2006 World Cup.