A very English thuggery

Our football hooligans are violent, repressed, xenophobic - just like us, says Michael Bywater

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CLOSE your eyes and think of England. Go on: do it. What do you see? Yes: a porky thug, sweat-slick, beer-dribbling, a giant armpit, a bunched dog-muscle. You can smell the reek of him. Smack inna face! Nutcher! VIN-DA-LOO! EN-GER-LAND!

Right. Brits! Engerland! What a shame, what a disgrace, oh the pity of it all; let's get together and crack down hard, because we are, after all, a civilised, sophisticated, gentle society and these bone-crunching ambassadors of mindless decay do us a disservice - no, an injustice.

Don't they? We are not like that, surely? There can't - can there? - be even the slightest possibility that we secretly enjoy them, that, in some horrible dark manner, these liminal men, cross-hatched with knife- scars, somehow speak on our behalf?

Well, of course they do. Alan Clark may have complained last week that our yobs, our dorks and thugs and grebos, are picked on by horrible foreign police, but behind his curious fifth-form, stick-together, wasn't-me- sir "reasoning" lies his altogether stranger, but more truthful, assertion that we have always been, deep down, a martial race.

More truthful, but not the whole truth. We have always been martial because we are, at root, a violent and xenophobic society. Think of Britain at its height and one thinks of war and Empire. What we do best is what the thugs do best: suppression and violent intolerance. "You can push Johnny Englishman so far," the old saw goes, "but then he'll stand up and fight, and God help you then." Good In A Crisis, we tell ourselves; we won't make trouble but if trouble comes, we'll be ready.

And we're ready all the time. Always have been. We're not a peaceful nation, growing our cabbages and biding our time; we exist in a state of constant alert, suspicious, resentful, nurturing our grievances against the neighbours, the council, the government, the lot. Most of the time the lid is on, screwed down tight; wisps of steam leak out in the steady hiss of repressive legislation without which we cannot conduct our national life. We have to be putting a stop to things, taking a dim view, cracking down, stamping out, for fear of what may creep in. It has become ridiculous now: smoking laws, parking laws, even laws that enable little men with desolate lives to stop people eating outside in the summer. And we know it is ridiculous; but we cannot stop ourselves. Repression we demand, and repression we must have. We claim to be a grown-up nation but other nations marvel at the restrictions we accept on our private behaviour.

The simple-minded view is that, when our idiot grunting thugs escape the constrictions of Engerland, they simply go ape - or rather, being apes already, go more ape. The booze goes to their heads, the excitement drives them wild, and, like penned animals inexplicably released, they simply cannot stand the freedom. And there may be some truth in that; a nation which exists under the certainty that, at any given time, there is some generic officialdom planning to find out what it is doing and tell it to stop, is liable to respond with Dionysian abandon when confronted with the elementary liberty of, for example, being able to buy beer at breakfast-time.

But, as an explanation, it simply won't do. Our laws exist because of how we were, not how we might become. Our history is one of violence and drunkenness, of Gin Lane and rioting apprentices and xenophobia, at home and abroad, passive and active. Not only have we always hated foreigners when they have come here, we have actively sought them out in their own countries, and suppressed and beaten and deracinated them across the globe.

Yet things have changed, haven't they? Hasn't foreign travel and multiculturalism made us see that we are all brothers beneath the skin? Damn it all, you can get garlic in the corner shop now - the corner shop run by Indians - and modern British cuisine draws heavily on outlandish culinary tropes, and the Eurostar whisks us to the heart of Paris in just three hours. We are - aren't we? - at home abroad, and return to praise the savoir vivre of the French, the elegance of the Italians, the relaxed equipoise of the Caribbean people and the diversity of Mauritius. We seek out the pleasurable languors of the Spanish siesta, drink wine without making a fuss, leave our jackets off in the hot weather and kiss each other on the cheek - ciao! - without throwing up. Foreign habits, all of them.

And how we hate them. How we loathe foreigners and resent them and wish to beat them and see them dead. We hate the French for their elegant women and the fluidity of their language; we hate them for their ability to live well in cities, we hate them for eating well, we hate them because we suspect they are having more and better and stranger sex than we are.

We hate the Italians, too, over-excitable wops as they are, with their hand-waving and their shrugging, the courteous, sociable foregatherings in their piazzas, we resent their stylishness - dressing up, the bastards, not to go anywhere, the bastards, but just to walk around, the bastards. We hate the Germans for the war, and for their cleanly seriousness, and we hate the Dutch for their humane libertarianism, and the Belgians for their Loden coats, and we hate the Austrians and the Swiss, too, for just being foreign, for being over there, with all the other frogs and wops and spics and dagos.

And that's just Europe. The World Cup, well, who do they think they are, these little tinpot nations? Turkey, Hungary, Greece, these places in Africa, who do they think they are, immigrants and shirkers and Muslims, how would it be if everybody did it?

If everybody did what?

I suspect the answer is: if everybody enjoyed themselves. It's not that we secretly believe ourselves to be better, but secretly believe ourselves worse: more put-upon, more rained upon, more confined, more cheated by our fast-food joints and our dingy stinking pubs, more patronised by - yet inexplicably more respectful of - our government, more restrained, more disapproved-of, more infantilised. When we go abroad we sit at our pavement-cafe table and make plans to stay, we lie beneath the palm trees and imagine life without the 8:47 and the Tube and Mr Gryce in Corporate Accounts; a life without Jeffrey Archer and Kilroy on the box, a life without grey suits and damp armpits and traffic wardens and the great unknowable sea of commissionaires exerting authority.

And then we come back. And nothing has changed. We import the outward and visible signs - the polenta, the rioja, the olives, the Armani - but the inward and invisible grace-of-living somehow continues to elude us. We picture the natives going through life in what was, for us, a temporary Saturnalia, a supramundane fortnight where the laws do not run, and we hate them. Ours is not the calm command of the dominant, but the contorted, shouting rage of the submissive who knows he is beaten but is determined to break heads before he goes.

So we suppress it. We bury our rage under the Great National Lie: that we are a tolerant people given to fair play on a level field. We construct myths for ourselves, fraudulent hymns to decency and chivalry, and when our liminal men, our crop-headed leisure-wear thugs with their gut-tattoos and Stanley knives, go out to battle, to gouge and smash, we flagellate ourselves with the unconvincing brush-strokes of a dissembling bishop. "They are letting us down," we cry, "They are the underclass, they are animals, they are the victims of Thatcherism, they are beyond the pale; flog them and ban them and lock them up and stamp them out."

And yet we do nothing, or next to nothing. A "maverick" politician valves off about our lads being much put-upon; a QC huffs and puffs on the Telegraph letters page, demanding a new offence of "bringing the country into disrepute", although it might be better drafted as confirming the country in that disrepute in which it is already held.

And we do nothing, not because we can't think of anything, but because we don't want to do anything; because, secretly, we know that we are telling lies, and that our vile and liminal men are married, have children, own homes, are drawn from the NCO classes and the clerical ranks, and know precisely what they are doing. They are doing what we have always done: taking violent revenge on the bloody foreigners for daring to have more fun than us. That is the thing we cannot forgive; that is why the soon- to-be deeply unfashionable middle-class blether about "the beautiful game" and the purity of football and the elegance of collaborative effort and how it is being spoilt by a Horrid Violent Minority with appalling dress sense and dodgy personal hygiene, probably incapable of appreciating a decent Chateau Talbot to boot, all that nonsense is nonsense, and the secret truth is that the liminal men are acting on our national behalf, carrying into reality the scent of death which the carefully civilised arena of the stadium lacks. They are our gladiators, greaved and bloodied, the ambassadors of intolerance, repression and drizzle; and how, in our hearts, we egg them on! Smack inner face! Punch inner marf! VIN-DA-LOO! EN-GER-LAND!

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