Oxford: In “violent” Britain, plagued with soccer hooliganism, one of the more peaceful spots for a summer Saturday afternoon picnic is the bank of the River Thames where it winds through the Oxfordshire countryside. Those who dare to risk contact with the “savage” natives may sit among the rushes and the willows on the edge of Oxford itself where town meets gown, where the privileged students of the great university celebrate their graduation by lolling in flat-bottomed boat drinking champagne, and where the less privileged city works look on, swigging bottles of beer, sitting out the summer until the start of the next soccer season.
As Auberon Waugh wrote in a recent issue of The Spectator devoted to “England’s humiliation” at the Brussels soccer match during which Liverpool fans knocked over a wall onto rival Italians, and 38 people were killed: “We have always known there were two Britains, one extraordinarily mild and pleasant, inhabited by mild, tolerant kindly people, the other utterly disgusting, inhabited by brutal, malevolent louts.” When the “louts” go on the rampage, as they have done periodically since the Crusades, first in blood-lust campaigns in India and Africa, and nowadays in soccer stadiums at home and abroad, the world, particularly the New World, looks on. It is no longer transfixed by fear, but by stunned amazement that this green and pleasant land is not full of gentlefolk spreading civility throughout the world.
By way of attempted explanation of this event I would like to start on a recent Saturday afternoon on the banks of the River Thames at Oxford. You knew, from the pop of the champagne corks and the occasional belch from a beery belly, that the two divided Britains were there. Suddenly a rowing eight whisked into view, wishing down the middle of the river, its coach barking orders from a bicycle on the towpath. Behind the eight, buffeted in its wash, came a two-man canoe whose occupants were gamely struggling to keep pace. Provoked by a deafening bellow from the coach’s megaphone, the person in the front of the canoe shouted, “Why do you have to speak with an American accent?” There was no doubt about the accent, or now about the “lout” in the front of the canoe. He spoke with a local Oxfordshire accent, not the Polished English of an undergraduate.
“Yeah,” said the second person in the canoe, “why don’t you bugger off back to America?”
To which the coach replied, “Oh, come on, you guys, this is such a great day, why don’t you just relax and enjoy?”
“How can I enjoy myself while listening to an American accent?” one of the canoeists retorted.
“Well, what would you like me to do,” pleased the coach, “kill myself?”
“Yeah,” came a thunderous roar of approval, not just from the canoe, but from everyone, “louts” and students alike, many previously unseen, on the river bank. A student, who had been drinking champagne, was so taken by the suggestion that the American coach should liquidate himself that he rose up cheering from his flat-bottomed boat, lost his balance, and fell into the river.
And all this because the coach was American? Surely not. He could have been speaking French, German, Italian, or Japanese and been equally rejected as a Frog, a Kraut, a Spick, or a Nip. (John Bull, returning from foreign wars, introduced that now universally derogatory word Wogs to embrace anyone who was not a white cherry-cheeked Briton, and any attempt to eradicate the term from the lexicon has failed.) Thus reminded of Britain’s rampant and boundless xenophobia, I began to find it the most satisfactory way to make sense of the riot in Brussels.
Most of the causes proposed by a host of pop psychologists and sociologists to explain soccer hooliganism have proved too linear—the absence of chairs at British football stadiums, alcoholism, the inherent dissatisfaction of fans because too few goals are scored in soccer, or the frustration and violence the game breeds because it is played only with the feed in a manually oriented “manufacturing” world (yes, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in the Washington Post, suggested that). Others are just plain wrong. The fans who riot and kill do not do so because they are unemployed and have nothing else left. As it turns out, among British fans there appears to be a direct relationship between violence and affluence. The most violent are from upper-working-class, semi-affluent backgrounds, dress smartly for their bloody rituals, and have been known to leave gold-embossed, vellum calling cards on their victims. One gang has such a card saying, “Nothing Personal—You Have Been Serviced by the Anti-Personnel Firm.”
Every country has its share of xenophobes (the French first gave the word real meaning), but Britain, with its extensive former empire, has been more vigorously and thoroughly xenophobic than any other. Xenophobia here has often been summoned up by ruling-class jingoism, amply demonstrated in 1914 and 1915 for the Great War. Ultimately, though, xenophobia knows no class barrier, and as postwar Britain sank into a decline, it was recalled into service for the Korean War and various and sundry colonial detachments.
Suddenly, in 1982, Britain suffered the ultimate humiliation when it failed to prevent the Argentines from walking into the Falklands. All but a handful of Britons supported Mrs. Thatcher’s wildly successful military response—the kind that imperial dreams are made of—but not without a certain social and psychological cost that is only now being paid. As Eric Hobsbawn, the British historian, wrote at the time, “The forces sent to the Falklands were a mini-museum of everything which could give the Union Jack particular resonance—the Guards, the new technological strong men, the SAS, the paras; all were represented down to those little old Gurkhas. They weren’t necessarily needed but you had to have them just because this was, as it were, a recreation of something like the old Imperial durbars, or the procession a the death or coronation of British sovereigns.”
In Britain today, racked as it is by “deindustrialization,” by the destruction of once-proud centers of manufacturing, each with its own regional and cultural identity—and its own soccer team—large chunks of the lower and middle classes have lost their social identities, and many have been set adrift in sterile, depressing “new towns.”
It would be wrong to blame the roots of this demise on Thatcherism. After all, each British leader since 1945 has failed to come to grips with the deep-seated social and economic problems linked to the “end of empire” Nevertheless, it is true that these people, robbed of their past societal anchors, are under constant pressure. And this pressure springs, as Jeremy Seabrook wrote in The Guardian recently, “from the homogenizing influences of that foreign ‘enterprise culture’ of the USA that Mrs. Thatcher is so anxious we should emulate, even though it means the dissolution of our own culture—means that people will cling more tenaciously to anything that offers a promise of continuity and stability; hence the much-commented ‘tribalism’ of football.”
One thing left is to be British, to create and adhere to a lunatic code of self-esteem, and, of course, to keep foreigners out and intimidate them abroad. This insidious code applies, and manifests itself still, in the growing race-hatred in the towns and cities of Britain. It also emerges from small vicious gangs at football matches in foreign lands, where fans see themselves first and foremost a British. “Keep the Falklands British” declared a Liverpool fan’s T-shirt at the Brussels game.
Thus if one decides to disturb the tranquility of the English countryside on a balmy summer afternoon by talking too loudly, one had better speak with an English accent. The penalty could be severe. And what, I hear my island-bound compatriots demanding, is uncivilized about that?
Peter Pringle is a Washington correspondent for The Observer of London.
This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.