Review by Les Back
Review of Garry Robson “‘No one likes us, we don’t care’: the myth and reality of Millwall fandom” Berg Publishers, 2000 203pp.
There aren’t too many sociological books that make their way into the Christmas stocking. In this, and many other respects, Garry Robson’s study of Millwall football culture is exceptional. Up and down the Old Kent Road friends and relatives of the Millwall faithful, stretching far and wide in South London and its peri-urban hinterlands, will have bought the book for their loved ones. To date Millwall’s Club Shop alone has sold 340 copies, almost 40% of the annual sales. There is something deeply significant about this phenomenon that goes beyond its content in a narrow sociological sense.
While the focus of the book is on the culture and fortunes of this much benighted football club, the arguments contained within it have a much broader relevance. Millwall, a club that has never really had much success on the pitch, is an iconic emblem of all that is seen to be disreputable in the English game. For the police, football bureaucrats, officials and opposing fans alike the merest mention of those two syllables is enough to evoke associations with hooliganism, violence, bigotry and racism. The end result is the ‘Millwall myth’ in Robson’s diagnosis. Much of this, he points out, is a product of the urban imagination of the moralists – some of whom have been members of the British Sociological Association – that project these meanings on the club.
Yet, at the same time it is precisely the ‘anti-charisma’ that is associated with the club that makes it attractive to its devoted to fans. It is also why the Millwall faithful have resisted the currents of embourgeoisment and pacification that are prevalent elsewhere in the game. It is this defiant self-affirmatory power that is captured in Lions’ rallying cry – “No one likes us we don’t care.”
In 1989 Richard Hoggart wrote: “Each decade we swiftly declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” Tony Blair recently stated that the “class war is over.” While English society is as brutally divided by class as it has ever been, we simply don’t have a language sophisticated enough to describe and understand the ways in which these divisions express themselves. This is where Garry Robson’s book is a major advance. He uses football, and the collective forms of ritualisation that are brought to life in its theatre, as place to read histories of class, community formations and patterns of embodiment.
Millwall’s fan culture was forged in industrial South London where both the docks and riverside ‘entrepreneurialism’ provided an economic base for its communities. The echoes of this history resound in the patterns of culture established within Millwall fandom, even though these economic foundations no longer exist. Fans that have uprooted and moved to Kent, Surrey, Sussex and beyond can make the impassioned cry that ‘South London is Wonderful’. The result is an intense localism that no longer necessarily requires actual residence. Drawing on Christian Bromberger’s notion of the ‘collective imaginary,’ Robson shows how Millwall itself becomes the medium through which class affiliations and belongings are felt and lived.
Robson’s book draws substantially on theorists like Bourdieu, Bernstein and Bloch but he achieves something of a unique synthesis of his own. Central to his theory of class is the notion of the ‘recursive’ in which patterns of culture are sustained in motion and through performance. The structures of feeling that are produce through song and ritual are brought to life in the doing through a process of illocution. These forms of masculine culture are anchored in the body. One of my favourite parts of the book is where he applies this to ‘the bowl’, both a way of walking and a form of urban cultural habitation.
In this sense Robson’s book give us a whole range of new ways of thinking about the relationship between class, masculinity and culture. All of this accesses cultural patterns beyond the realm of language and ‘the discursive.’ He points to the ways in which class refuses to be buried, no matter how hard Tony Blair and New Labour might try to commit it to the graveyard British social life. These patterns of culture and class affiliations endure precisely because they are reproduced through embodied means and the passionate commitments that are engendered in the relationship between Millwall’s iconic status and its devoted fans.
I gave Garry Robson’s book to a neighbour. Tony is a lifelong fan of the club, a season ticket holder and ‘Millwall through and through.’ He read the book attentively. “I finished the book you gave me,” he said on a drizzly night in South London. “That blokes is ‘aving a laugh ain’t he.” I said I didn’t think so and pushed Tony on the historical detail contained in the book. “He’s obviously ‘one of us,’ Tony conceded, “but he writes like he’s swallowed the dictionary.” Despite this Tony recognised himself in the book and enjoyed it regardless of the dense and eloquent theorising. Many Millwall fans have been perplexed in the same way. Yet, they all concede that this book is written by “one of their own” who demonstrates an intimate knowledge Millwall fandom from the inside.
What Robson achieves is to make the bourgeois mores of the academy recognise and take seriously a maligned plebeian culture on its own terms. He is both a part of that culture and at the same time he serves as its translator. The paradox is that while he is successful in making intellectuals and theorists take something like Millwall seriously, the price is that the book is less accessible to the very people it aims to represent i.e. the working-class fans themselves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In a literary sense the book ‘outdoes’ sociological metalanguage on its own terms, so that its arguments can take a rightful place at the high table of cultural theory. Yet at the same time his non-academic readership of fans and supporters are also challenged and forced to view these familiar rituals through another lens. For some, this means thinking about their passion for football in different terms. We can be sure that this Christmas, in a pub somewhere on the Walworth Road, Garry Robson was signing copies of his book for people who are unlikely to ever see the inside of a university. While it may make many post-structuralists wince, this book deserves to become an immediate classic in the field.