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The sweet embrace of the crowd

I neglected to mention in the previous filing the furore surrounding the Thames whale. A 20-foot northern bottlenose whale that marine biologists later determined was trying to make its way back home, westward to the Atlantic, swam up the River Thames past Parliament to Battersea Park. (At least one sports columnist wondered whether the whale was in town to apply for Sven-Göran Eriksson's job as England manager. See part 1.) Tragically, the whale died on board a barge, isolated and convulsing, after an expensive rescue witnessed by thousands of Londoners lining the riverbanks.1

It's probably in bad form to say that the whale story was splashed all over the London dailies. But it's true.

We missed all the dramatics, knocked out by jet lag. Events unfolded as we slept. On a walk the next day along the riverfront in Battersea a television crew approached us, looking for eyewitnesses. The sensitive, animal-loving city dwellers had seized the day, displacing the caricature of the inured, emotionally stalwart Briton.

Speaking of caricatures, before traveling to the U.K. I had found myself indulging in the worst sort of stereotyping about the "English yob." On telling friends that my wife and I were visiting London and attending soccer matches, I sought to beat them to the de rigueur hooligan joke by saying that I would be shaving my head and keeping a PVC pipe under wraps. I implied that we would be taking preventive measures in case, invoking a phrase learned from reading Bill Buford, it all "went off." My comments struck me as strange. I was parroting a cliché I did not believe and that those listening, for all I knew, might not have believed either.

I recalled these bizarre statements almost immediately after scanning a claret-and-blue access card in front of a laser light to gain access to the Boleyn Ground at Upton Park, the home of West Ham United. Outside a concession we were confronted by a balding man, about 20-stone, holding a plastic cup of lager over his head and belting out the Beatles' "Twist and Shout." He was surrounded by friends, whom I sensed had been drinking and singing for some time. (Alcohol consumption is not permitted in the stands.) Not having seen Green Street Hooligans, I was clueless. What is the protocol? Do we grab a cupful and join in? Do we fold our arms and put on a "we're not with them" look, as several women were doing at the fringes of the circle? Was it all about to "go off"?

Link to MP3 clip, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," Cockney Rejects The 1919 Tin Pan Alley hit has been recorded by George Gershwin, Doris Day and, in 1980, by the punk band Cockney Rejects. West Ham supporters started singing the song in the 1920s. Club historian John Helliar has prepared a thorough account.

We managed to skirt by, and people behind us followed suit. It was to be the only slightly edgy moment in consecutive nights of English football. In fact, from the moment we inhaled crystallized dew rising from the pitch at Upton Park, and encompassing the same bracing chill at Highbury the following evening, I felt myself in the crowd's embrace. In full voice, within five minutes of taking our seats in the Centenary Stand at Upton Park, I was belting out the West Ham anthem:

I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding,
I've looked everywhere,
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.

I did not know most of the suitably dire lyrics,2 but I found myself affecting a Cockney accent for the rest of the evening and sang lustily. Given the American players in the Fulham squad, I felt more inclined to pull for the Cottagers. But once among the crowds, raising my digital camera high with the portable phones, I felt compelled to join in singing "two-nil to the Cockney boys" after a drag-back and goal from Hammers midfielder Yossi Benayoun.

Patter from the crowd was accented and employed colorful adjectives. My wife said she heard a monkey-related remark spewed toward referee Uriah Rennie. Such language is chilling, but I surprised myself while watching West Ham, and again at Arsenal, by my willingness to say things aloud that I had no place saying or that I did not believe. I had underestimated the Zelig-like compulsion to blend in as well as the security that comes from having one's actions masked in numbers. And we were all, in some way, part of invading armies. The white faces with which I blended in at West Ham were no natives to the new East End;3 at the match's conclusion, we careered en masse down Green Street, toward the queue at the Upton Park Underground station, past the halal butchers, curry palaces and other reminders of the present demographic.

Link to .wav file of Highbury faithful Arsenal players move through their pre-game paces in front of the North Bank. Notice the ubiquitous cell-phone cameras in the foreground. (Click on graphic for audio of North Bank serenading Arsenal's José Antonio Reyes.)

This movement and allegiance in numbers was a fresh sensation. At Highbury, even though the competition on offer was a third-tier Carling Cup semifinal against Wigan Athletic (second leg), coordinated crowd action was far more sophisticated than that at most American professional sporting events. For the trip, in anticipation of the match, I had brought George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier. I was far enough along in the book to have gained appreciation for the stalwart northern spirit and pictured the Wigan supporters—at a safe remove from us, 150 yards away in the Clock End—as miners on an unspeakably rare holiday, finally allowed to straighten their backs after day shifts in the pits.4 Of course, the pits have closed, energy production shifted to North Sea oil derricks, and the local football has improved considerably.

Yet after a Wigan foul, leaving an Arsenal player writhing, I nodded approvingly at the chant, "Dirty northern bastards, dirty northern bastards . . ." How quickly I had forgotten, as Orwell writes, that "all of us owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel." I should have known better. The chant was not nearly as bad as chants can get,5 yet I lacked the cultural standing to participate in it.

My enthusiasm for the giddy bonhomie of football supporters has academic foundations. In a pre–World Cup literature summit in Berlin at the time of our London visit, novelist Tim Parks said he drew on the emotion of the Più-mati, the supporters' club of Hellas Verona, in writing A Season with Verona (Arcade, 2002). "People go to stadiums to experience the emotion of collective delirium, to experience a place of danger," Parks said during a panel discussion.6 "When we see games with no aggression, we hate those games."

Even more foundationally, the theoretical writings of Mikhail Bakhtin on the carnivalesque relate to football. The football match has, in its policed space and regulated rituals, managed to replicate the institutionalized jesting of a pre-Lenten feast of fools. Some think English culture took to the terrace chanting, in part, because of the fundamental conservatism of working-class life in Britain and its background of puritanism. The football chanter challenges such polite society, and one academic paper adds:

Another explanation for the phenomenon comes perhaps paradoxically from the football fan's sensed loss in personal autonomy: he is part of a mass, chanting crowd excluded from "social normality," but at the same time his style mocks and parodies conventional values and implies some kind of superior vision.7

At Highbury on 24 January, this superior vision extended, for my part, merely to the scoreline when Robin van Persie curled in a left-footed free kick to put Arsenal ahead 2–0 (2–1 on aggregate) in the second extra period. I had been hoping to sing the tune we had sung for West Ham the night before, this time with more feeling and sweeter lyrics:

Two-nil to the Arsenal
Two-nil to the Arsenal . . .

Van Persie bends it in with his favored left foot. (This video has no audio.)

The words came out with the force of a hymn, like "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today" on Resurrection Sunday. But I quickly learned the sensation of having a chant stick in the craw. Jason Roberts scored the goal that would take Wigan to the Carling Cup final with 71 seconds remaining. (Although the tie was level, Wigan advanced on the away-goals rule.) Even football writers noted the presumptuous celebrations of those in the North Bank.

Wigan chairman Dave Whelan later exulted in the team's rise to its first major final, less than 10 years from toil in the third division. Before that, Wigan had competed in the Northern Premier League. "Every Arsenal fan expected them to walk all over us," Whelan said. "It is just wonderful for a working-class town team to go to Arsenal and come away in the final." A multimillionaire and owner of apparel chain JJB Sports, Whelan had returned to the northern counties on board his helicopter.

Meanwhile, we were directed by horseback-mounted London police to Finsbury Park, given ongoing problems on the Piccadilly Line. We trod with the masses and waited in queue for close to an hour. I think that Whelan got home before we did. Dirty northern bastards . . .


1. Annals record previous whales in the Thames. The Times mentions the 1658 account of John Dryden, who calls a whale that appeared in the Thames at Greenwich "That Gyant Prince of all her watery Heard," and that of diarist John Evelyn. The whale was stranded at low tide, writes Evelyn, and "was killed with a harping iron, struck in the head" (Nicholas von Maltzahn, "The London Whale of 1658," 2 February 2006).

Writer Iain Sinclair recalls that Pocahontas, aged 22, died on the same part of the river in 1617 when she was departing London following a seven-month stay ("Thinking Big: A Fitting End to the Whale Tale," The Guardian, 24 January 2006).

There is something quite poignant in this connection: exotic cargoes both. Symbols of something magical and extraordinary. We shouldn't commemorate this fabulous event, a symbol of ecological hurt and damage, with anything as fatuous as a physical memorial.

That was the mistake with Pocahontas: a Disneyland statue in a Gravesend church. Neither is it reasonable to bury the corpse. Far truer to the pragmatic and cruel spirit of place would be a decision to boil the creature at the site of the millennium dome on Bugsby's Marshes—where such things traditionally happened. | back to text

2. American Ring Lardner, humorist and sportswriter, as early as 1919 used the lyrics to satirize the miserable showing of his beloved Chicago White Sox in that year's World Series. Lardner's perceptions were acute. In what became known as the "Black Sox Scandal," members of the White Sox were found to have thrown the series to the Cincinnati Reds. Here is Lardner's verse, quoted from Donald Elder, Ring Lardner (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), 160:

I'm forever blowing ball games
Pretty ball games in the air.
I come from Chi.
I hardly try,
Just go to bat and fade and die.

Writing in The Guardian as West Ham unexpectedly advanced to the final of the 2006 FA Cup, Russell Brand boasted of the song as a "wise and mystical ode." "A song that compares the inevitability of a bubble bursting to a lost opportunity and wasted hopes sung by the ICF [Inter City Firm] is a surreal anomaly that makes the paintings of René Magritte look like that picture of the tennis girl scratching her bum" ("Blowing Bubbles in the Face of a Storm," 13 May 2006). | back to text

3. George Vecsey of the New York Times writes in early 2003 of the sincere attempts by West Ham United to integrate the South Asian community into its football academy. "The children of immigrants," Vecsey writes, "are invited to the only public field in the working-class neighborhood, encouraged to break the stereotype that 'Asians can't play football.' " Academy of Football director Mick King likes to tell children that "soccer, like life, works best when you find your own space" ("West Ham United: One Team That Courts Its Neighbors," 4 February 2003). | back to text

4. Orwell's sociological study, published in 1937, comments on the rise of organized gambling and its lure to families on the edge.

I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury. (The Road to Wigan Pier [San Diego: Harcourt, 1958], 89)

Football pools, played by as many as 10 million as recently as 1994, have sharply declined with advent of a national lottery. "[I]t has . . . lost its place as the nation's pre-eminent fantasy gambling event," according to the encyclopedic When Saturday Comes: The Half Decent Football Book (London: Penguin, 2005).

Orwell's brother-in-law, Humphrey Dakin, said Orwell was too gloomy in his account: "What he describes is accurate. But it's only half, it's the depressing half. He didn't go to any of the football matches where they were enjoying themselves" (quoted in Peter Aspden, "Confessionals, Clichés and a Few Winners," Financial Times, 3 June 2006, p. W6 [U.S. ed.]). | back to text

5. Some of the most extreme examples of contemporary football chants appeared in Simon Hattenstone's column in February ("Sound of Silence Leaves Shame at the Lane," The Guardian, 8 February 2006). | back to text

6. For more on the summit, see Kyle James, "From the Pen to the Pitch: World Literature Meets Soccer," Deutsche Welle, 23 January 2006. | back to text

7. These observations appear in the extensive survey by Mikita Hoy, "Joyful Mayhem: Bakhtin, Football Songs, and the Carnivalesque," Text and Performance Quarterly 14 (1994): 289–304, here 293. Hoy analyzes particular chants, suggesting that the trimeter of some football songs distinguishes group performance from the individualism of the iambic pentameter. She goes on to explain why the mocking of death—such as the chants referring to the 1958 air disaster involving Manchester United—features prominently in the terrace songs (298–99). | back to text