By Dougie Brimson
Despite being both a football fan and a writer with a vested interest in the greatest of games, I only stumbled across The Football Collective recently, and that by accident. Or rather, it popped up on Twitter and caught my attention.
A brief trawl of the website revealed not only a fascinating range of articles, but all kinds of references to both my name and my work. And so, after checking that I wasn’t due a fortune in unpaid royalties payments from various universities, it occurred to me that it might be an idea to get involved and hopefully, contribute in some small way. After all, I do have a reputation for looking at things from a slightly different perspective to most which is always useful when debating.
However, if I’m going to do that, it’s only fair that I introduce myself properly and so what follows is a brief resume of my work and how it came about as well as my thoughts on that most fascinating of publishing genre, hoolie-lit. A subject which is obviously dear to my heart.
Hopefully, you’ll find it both entertaining and enlightening but either way, feel free to comment accordingly.
I certainly look forward to working with you all.
How Hoolie-Lit conquered the world (and my part in its downfall).
It’s fairly safe to say that over the years my name has become synonymous with the subject of hooligan related literature, or hoolie-lit as it became known. Indeed, at various points I have been described in the press as ‘The Yob Laureate’ and ‘the football hooligans pornographer-in-chief’. As good an epitaph for my future headstone as it’s possible to have been granted.
Yet prior to 1995, writing was never really on my radar. Up to that point, my entire working life had been pretty much taken up by a career in the Royal Air Force.
What changed that was the fast approaching Euro 96 or to be more specific, the growing media furore surrounding the possibility of mass hooliganism at the tournament. For it’s safe to say that as someone who had followed football home and away for years and had occasionally been amongst the very worst the terraces had to offer, some of the things being written by certain so-called experts about a world we were relatively knowledgable about, were not just wide of the mark, they were laughable.
The more of these bizarre ramblings we -my younger brother and I- read and heard, the more it struck us that what was missing was some kind of balance. Something that provided an honest and frank examination of this fascinating world from the inside. In the end, we decided that if no one else was going to provide one, we might as well try. The question was how to do it and the obvious answer was to try and write a book.
Like many supporters with an interest in the Saturday Scene we had read a fair smattering of the work pumped out by the world of academia as well as all of the fan accounts written up to that point including both Among The Thugs and Steaming In. Whilst the likes of Armstrong and Williams provided us with little save mild amusement, the latter two books provided us with the gem of an idea.
We had decided fairly early on that the one thing we wouldn’t, in fact couldn’t, do was to write a wholly first hand account of our own activities. As Watford fans we were well aware that we were hardly the ICF or the Zulu Army and in any case, I had always been more of an interested observer than an active participant and as a result, my anecdotes would barely fill a small pamphlet let alone an entire paperback.
Therefore we realised that if we were going to get anywhere near publication, we had to write a book which was constructed in a way that would appeal both to those fans with a vested interest in the scene as well as those supporters on the outside of it.
As a consequence, we decided that the best way to approach it was to tackle some of the more contentious issues relating to both hooliganism and football from our own personal perspective and intersperse these with anecdotes of related violence gathered from some of the more active groups around the country.
In those pre-internet days, these were gathered through a variety of methods ranging from standing outside grounds handing out leaflets to placing adverts in fanzines and even just talking to people we knew and met.
But the core of the book going to be our thoughts on subjects which impacted on both the game and the culture. From policing through to the relationship with the media, we tackled every issue we thought needed tackling and whilst some of our opinions were controversial, the fact remains that they were ours and they had been forged not by trawling through other peoples work, but by following Watford home and away for decades.
Equally, because we knew that we weren’t writers and were both well aware of our limitations in that area, we were able to keep focussed on who we were writing the book for. The result being that we were able to write in a way which gave potential readers what we knew they would want as opposed to what we hoped they might like. Not just in terms of content, but in construction. In that sense, knowing that you’re never going to win Sports Book of the Year is actually quite liberating.
That book eventually became Everywhere We Go and was published by Hodder Headline in May 1996. To say it was a hit would be an understatement but then again, we always knew it would be. Not just because of the subject matter and the way we’d written it, but because with EURO 96 on top of us, the timing was perfect.
Suddenly, the media had free access to two blokes who not only fitted the exact photofit of the very people they had spent years demonising but who were actually capable of not only explaining but defending themselves. Often in the face of some quite aggressive questioning.
As a consequence, we were everywhere, from breakfast TV to late night radio and the book received reviews in everything from Time out to The Independent. It was fabulous.
There were downsides to this success however. The police quickly began to take an active interest in us and there were even suggestions made that we were the ‘top dogs’ of some kind of England super firm. Something that was never more evident during the tournament when we would often head into London to mix with the various firms who had encamped in the West End. On one night alone, I was stopped and searched 14 times.
It’s also fair to say that not every football fan was exactly supportive. As suspected, the fact that we were Watford fans attracted both abuse and ridicule in certain circles and there were plenty of accusations that we had simply made everything up or that we were ghost writing for someone else. Some also suggested that we had basically grassed to the police and that anyone who spoke to us would only have themselves to blame when the inevitable six o’clock knock came. All laughable attacks from our perspective, yet they still resulted in a bounty being placed on my head by one particular group.
Yet these negatives were minor irritations to us because the the bulk of readers were incredibly supportive. So much so that thoughts quickly turned to what we could do next. As it turned out, that question was answered pretty quickly.
One thing we’d done which proved to be something of a masterstroke, was to include an address in the back of Everywhere We Go so that anyone who wanted to could contact us. Within weeks of publication we began to receive a steady stream of information through the post as well as hundreds of anecdotes related to terrace culture. So much so in fact, that we fairly soon had enough content to put together more books using the same format with the result that over the next two years we released a further three books. Derby Days, Capital Punishment and England, My England.
Truth to tell, we could have written a lot more as we were being pushed to write about pretty much every region in the country as well as both Scotland and Wales. However, by this time we had become bored of saying the same things, particularly in respect of suggestions to address the ongoing issue of trouble on the terraces. For whilst we had examined and been critical of pretty much everything tried to deal with the problem up to that point, we also made constructive suggestions which we believed would bring about a more permanent solution. Yet the only contact we ever had with the authorities was a single meeting with the then sports minister, Kate Hoey.
At this meeting, which lasted all of five minutes, I was told in no uncertain terms to stop being critical of anything and everything the government was trying to do in respect of hooliganism. My response being simply to tell her that I’d be happy to do that if she ever did anything I thought would work. Shortly afterwards, I was back out on the street.
The consequence of this was that I decided to change tack slightly. We both had personal projects we wanted to work on and mine began to lean more toward hitting the by now burgeoning ‘hoolie-lit’ market more overtly.
A chance encounter with the screenwriter Lynda La Plante gave me an opportunity to make the leap into the world of fiction with The Crew and the success of this book led not simply into more fiction, but eventually into the world of screenwriting. First with the short film, It’s a Casual Life and then with the now infamous, Green Street. The rest as they say, is history although there were obviously more dalliances with publishing along the way including a book called Rebellion which charted the history of various fan protests.
I also dipped back into the world of hoolie-lit occasionally although these books tended to focus more directly on specific issues such as racism (Kicking Off) or the problem of hooliganism in Europe (Eurotrashed) but by now the genre was on it’s backside. Killed, ironically, by the flood of ‘kick and tell’ books that had flooded onto the market on the back of Everywhere We go.
To be fair, some of these were brilliant (Scally, Blades Business Crew, City Psycho’s and Cass being my personal favourites) but some of them were pure dross bordering on unreadable.
Yet whilst the the fact that hoolie-lit existed at all remains a source of amusement to many within the worlds of both publishing and the media, what it achieved should not be underestimated. For whilst it might not have changed very much within the world of football other than to provide a steady stream of references for the world of academia, in purely publishing terms it was a huge success. Something that has never been openly acknowledged.
To a certain extent, that is understandable. For whilst hoolie-lit moved a lot of books (some estimates put the figure at well in excess of two million) and made a lot of people an awful lot of money (at one time the now defunct Sportspages had an entire section dedicated to it) it generally celebrates a culture which is both anti-social and anti-football. Furthermore the vast majority of the writing, and writers, tended to lean toward the right hand side of the political fence. Couple this with the inherent snobbery that exists within the world of publishing and it was hardly surprising that invitations to literary events were rarely, if ever, extended to any of the working class oiks who produced hoolie-lit.
Indeed, I have said many times that we weren’t simply perceived as inhabitants of the lowest rung on the literary ladder, we were the rubber bungs at the very bottom.
Yet it is an undeniable fact that in many ways, the genre achieved something unique. For by actively targeting a non-traditional publishing sector, not only did it create its own market and in doing so, bring an awful lot of people back into reading, many for the first time since school, but the vast majority of the 70 plus titles it spawned were written by first time authors. Some of whom were very, very good and went on to forge decent careers for themselves.
That, arguably, is something that no other niche genre can legitimately claim and when one considers the relatively short timespan in which hoolie-lit actually came and went, it is even more remarkable.
That is not to assume that the genre is quite dead yet. In fact the market for hoolie-lit is still very much alive as evidenced by the steady stream of requests for more which land in my inbox as well as the fact that The Crew and Everywhere We Go continue to top the Amazon football charts over 20 years since they were first published. It is however, being wholly ignored by the world of publishing which is bizarre when one considers that ultimately, they are commercial enterprises and there is clearly money to be made.
Whether that will ever change or not is impossible to answer but whatever the future holds, I am more than proud of the role I played in this short-lived phenomenon and despite my writing career having taken me off in different directions over the last 20 odd years, it is a genre I most certainly intend to return to at some point.
After all, whilst nostalgia might not be what it used to be, it certainly sells books. A lot of books.