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From thugs to gammon: the smearing of the common people

John King, author of The Football Factory, on elite snobbery and his new novella.

John King

Topics Books Brexit Culture Sport UK

When The Football Factory, my novel about working-class football fans, was published in 1996, the back-cover text talked about ‘people reduced to the level of the statistic by years of hypocritical, self-serving party politics’. And while the book was slated for its supposed subject matter, denounced as politically correct and politically incorrect by the Guardian and Independent – I can’t remember which said what – the Glasgow Herald rightly identified one of its two main characters, Tommy Johnson, as a ‘white, Anglo-Saxon heterosexual who is fed up of being told he is crap’. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, carried out a swear-word count. Or claimed it did.

Those early reviews touched on some of the novel’s themes: the obsessions of the fourth estate, and through these the controlling elites and their elitist lackeys; the disdain in which the wider population and its culture is held by the chattering classes; and their lack of understanding of a population more interested in issues than dogma.

The book’s other main character is pensioner Bill Farrell, a former soldier who helped liberate a concentration camp during the Second World War, marrying a survivor in its aftermath. He is the hero of the novel, admired by Tommy and his friends. Bill can be described as a patriotic socialist, someone who loves his country and culture, which comes from its everyday, working people rather than the rich and powerful. He believes in the welfare state and the nationalisation of core industries, and like so many is open-minded and decent, refuses to be labelled and dismissed. Britain’s part in the war is important to the book. It is something to celebrate.

The Football Factory was followed by Headhunters (1997) and England Away (1998) to form a trilogy, and then a short story, ‘The Beasts Of Marseille’ (1999), which appeared in an anthology of travel writing. Stirred by one more media attack on the white, working-class male stereotype (branded ‘gammon’ today), ‘Beasts’ centres on an England football match in France. Except the spotlight this time is turned full-glare on two old university chums, a pair of media whores who enjoy arguing over their opposing political viewpoints, the sort of deep-rooted, sincerely held beliefs that vanish as soon as there is a chance to advance their careers, earnings, pleasures. When the story was performed by actors at the anthology’s launch, two journalists walked out, angered by the way their imaginary colleagues were being portrayed. Fact and fiction merged in aggravated fashion.

There was always a lot more that could be done with this story, though, especially as the globalisers tightened their grip on power over the following years, with digitisation and easy credit, and with social media driving a new sort of censorship, giving us a fake liberalism that preaches diversity and inclusion while simultaneously crushing difference. In 2020, that 4,000-word short story reappeared as ‘The Beasts Of Brussels’, a 40,000-word novella in The Seal Club, a collection of three novellas that also includes work by Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, whose debut novels – Trainspotting and Morvern Callar respectively – came out at around the same time as The Football Factory. Back then, we shared an editor and a publisher. Today, we share a sense of sadness at how fiction is being sanitised by the mainstream.

Moving the location from Marseille to the heart of the EU was a no-brainer, with the build-up to the referendum, the result and what followed confirming everything we already knew about those telling us how to live. ‘The Beasts Of Brussels’ draws on this just as The Football Factory drew on the decades before its release, or at least those I knew starting with my teenage years, listening to David Bowie and the emerging punk bands, reading George Orwell and Alan Sillitoe. The terminology and technology may have shifted over the past 30 years, with the attacks on our culture and the wider population more blatant, but nothing much has changed when it comes to those core prejudices, be they class, age or the anti-Englishness of our so-called intelligentsia (and by Englishness, they mean that of the people of England, not the self-serving, EU-centric establishment).

The targets and smears are ongoing – white heterosexual males are all sexist, racist brutes (and much worse if they are working class); their parents and especially their grandparents glorify an evil past and shouldn’t be permitted to vote; the masses generally are uneducated (if they didn’t go to university), thick, bigoted. Only Europe can save society from the plebs, and by that they mean the EU, as if the two are the same and can’t be separated. We mustn’t be proud of anything. Only ashamed.

Once the initial explosion of class hatred calmed after the EU referendum result, a second vote was promoted and cunningly christened the ‘People’s Vote’. The term ‘Brexit’ was being used to deflect and complicate, just as Ted Heath and the Tories persuaded the country to call the European Community’s political project the Common Market back in the 1970s. The big arguments for leaving – independence, democracy, sovereignty, localism / patriotism – were too often dismissed. That and border controls. The idea that the EU is little more than a trade deal was set on repeat. It was considered crass to talk about the coming EU superstate / empire, the transferring of power abroad and the dismantling of Europe’s nation states. And the war could never be mentioned, as John Cleese pointed out all those years ago in Fawlty Towers.

Really, this is the politics of invasion. Our controllers and their willing helpers are separated from us by class, culture and, of course, language – the difference between fuck and copulate. And so ‘The Beasts Of Brussels’ asks, who are the real villains? Is it a young man publicly shamed for trying to save a friend being kicked half to the death on the streets of Belgium, or the peeking pervs taking pictures and the journalists writing their lies long-distance, hiding in their bubbles as they pedal the corporations’ take on decency, breaking far worse rules in the shadows?

There are lots of newish terms floating around today, most imported from that nerdy, iPad America that dresses down in trainers, jeans and t-shirts. This world of likes and shares and subtle, deadly pressures is brilliantly captured in Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, and its follow-up, The Every. Ours is an era in which class war is buried inside the culture war, where we’re told that what our rulers think about the distribution of wealth, economics and the means of production is far less important than their trending identity cults and joys of victimhood.

Most of the jargon of our time feels out of place in the UK, but ‘virtue-signalling’ is one term that, when justly applied, and not just used as a way to shut down an opposing view, sums up too many of those with clout today. For most ordinary people, the essentials remain the same – actions speak louder than words… judge a person on what they do rather than what they say…

The Seal Club was fun to put together and well received, and a second collection, with three more novellas by the same authors – The View From Poacher’s Hill – is published this month. The title references ‘Future Legend’, the spoken introduction of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album. And while the back of the book describes the writing inside as ‘uncensored and unapologetic’, it is hard to imagine a maverick talent like Bowie coming through the ranks today, never mind The Football Factory getting anywhere near a mainstream printing press.

John King’s new novella, Grand Union, appears in The View From Poacher’s Hill, which is published by London Books on 12 August 2023. Pre-order it here. Visit John’s website here.

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Books Brexit Culture Sport UK

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