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Doing It for the Lads : AMONG THE THUGS, <i> By Bill Buford (W.W. Norton & Co.: $22.95; 313 pp.)</i>

Call them national images or national stereotypes; we seem to want them, at least as a point of departure. Otherwise, it’s hard to remember our foreign countries. Something goes blank at the notion of lazy Japanese, indifferently snacking French, cold Italians, fey Germans, violent English.

Of course there are Irishmen--laconic and teetotaling, naturally--who know that last category. And lurking in France’s ancestral nightmares is an English spook, crazed from gorging beef, who fights with sheer personal savagery quite beyond any reasonable measure or mesure.

We may perk up reading about low Japanese productivity, but that is because it invokes the stereotype even while departing from it. Without it, as a rule, foreign stories just don’t register, or they are printed on page 32.

That is pretty much what happens to the news that has regularly come out of Britain over the past couple of decades: A mob of soccer fans runs amok, fights the police, smashes cars and bystanders, and is arrested. Only when the Italian Army brings out tanks against the visitors, or when a soccer crowd jams up upon itself and three dozen die in Brussels or eight dozen in Sheffield, do we notice. And then, it’s like “Heat Wave Sears England” or “Midges Disrupt Henley Regatta.” Our image of green England and white-flanneled Henley is unchanged.

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So maybe Bill Buford’s remarkable book about soccer violence is a quixotic effort. Maybe not. He lives in Cambridge and edits “Granta,” perhaps England’s most distinguished literary journal. That, with a touch of piquancy--Buford is American--is a reassuringly appropriate thing to do. But one day, when he tried to get to London from Wales, he had to change trains four times. Each train was taken over by Liverpool fans, blind drunk, ripping seats, screaming, tossing lit matches at terrified outsiders on board.

Right there was something important that Buford didn’t know about England--nor, for that matter, did his English friends--and that he would spend four years trying to find out. What he saw and learned made that first train trip seem like Disneyland. He ran with the rampaging followers of the soccer clubs, after painfully winning the confidence of some of the core group, known in each case as “The Firm.” He drank with them, talked with them, got caught up in their ferocity, was knocked down and beaten up, traveled with them to Turkey, Germany and Italy, was knocked down and beaten up some more.

The great deal he sees is vividly, comically and horrifyingly reported. The certain amount he understands is speculated and reflected upon. He brings in literary and sociological references, and at times he grows excessively abstract. Not for long, though; and anyway, giving himself wholeheartedly to his experience--at one point he found himself shoving an elderly couple in the subway--he brings what he has, which, besides his legs, are his books. Ultimately his questions--Why? and Why in England?--are illuminatingly answered. If the illumination basically serves to show the darkness beyond it, if the doors he unlocks open onto locked doors, we have been on a fascinating and unsettling journey anyway.

Lads is what the regulars call themselves, and every act of violence is thought of as “doing it for the lads.” Children use adult war stories--cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians--to play their games. These blithe and sometimes murderous hulks use a childlike term to speak of their real-life mayhem. We think of Malcolm McDowell’s terrifying boyishness in “A Clockwork Orange.” Buford’s rampagers alternate affability and horror.

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There is, for example: Henry, portly, friendly, walrus-mustached, with a decent income and a wife and children who regard his Saturday outings as a kind of eccentric sport. Having drunk enough--a fifth of vodka and a dozen large beers are a normal evening’s fuel for a lad --Henry smashes up pubs with a bench and a spade. One time, the pub was full of off-duty policemen; in the ensuing brawl, Henry held one of them firmly by the head, sucked out an eyeball and bit it off. He returned home to take his family out for fried chicken, his shirt sticky with blood. While they were eating, riot police cordoned the place off.

The actual soccer games are an occasion for violence, not the reason for it. Whether the team wins or loses seems to make little difference. Mainly, the encounter serves to set up two opposing “firms” of supporters to do battle.

Buford writes powerful set-pieces. There is a trip to Turin on a charter flight full of heavy-drinking fans singing “Rule Britannia.” They go fully intending to wreak violence upon Italy; besides the alcohol and the camaraderie, they pump themselves up with bellicose patriotism. It is like being stuck in a World War II movie, though some of them manage simultaneously to wear swastikas and beat up Germans in the name of England.

Buford goes to a pub gathering of the neo-Nazi National Front. (The barmaid boasts that hers is “the most racialist pub in Bury St. Edmonds.”) By no means, though, are most of the Saturday night rampagers political extremists. They are not even protesters. They have steady incomes or better--traveling, drinking and fighting every weekend require a hefty wad of 20-pound notes--and uphold conservative principles and the rights of property (except when they’re smashing it).

Why, then, have rampages in dozens of towns become the way that part of England spends Saturdays? “Because it is pleasurable,” Buford responds. He has felt the exhilaration himself, the closeness of the mob, the goad of danger, the adrenaline that courses through a sluggish and unused body. (Most of the weekend warriors run to fat.) The charge breeds its own reaction: After being methodically beaten for quite a long time by three furious Italian policemen, Buford is ready to quit. Besides, there is nothing more to experience; this review has only touched on one or two bits of the author’s rich participatory reporting.

Of course, “pleasurable” is not an answer but a question. Having established that the rampagers are neither poor nor disenfranchised, Buford does not fully exhaust the possibilities. But he suggests that in Britain’s service-and-white-collar economy, the old class question survives, though in a reverse and highly paradoxical fashion. To end, it is worth quoting him at some length:

“Few people have come out and observed that the working class doesn’t exist anymore,” he writes. “In itself this wouldn’t be particularly significant . . . except that no one is admitting that the thing is no longer around. The reverse seems to be the case, at least among the members of the first non-working-class generation, my ‘mates': working-class habits . . . have simply become more exaggerated ornate versions of an ancient style, more extreme because now without substance.

” . . . It is still possible, I suppose, to belong to a phrase--the working class. A piece of language that serves to reinforce certain social customs and a way of talking, and that obscures the fact that the only thing hiding behind it is a highly mannered suburban society stripped of culture and sophistication and living only for its affectations: a bloated code of maleness, an exaggerated, embarrassing patriotism, a violent nationalism, an array of bankrupt anti-social habits. This bored, empty, decadent generation consists of nothing more than what it appears to be. It is a lad culture without mystery, so deadened that it uses violence to wake itself up. It pricks itself so that it has feeling, burns its flesh so that it has smell.”

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