Bengali, Holland 1974, Lewis Mumford, Lewisham Shopping Centre, London, Margaret Thatcher, Maze feat Frankie Beverley, Millwall FC, music, Old Kent Road, politics, skinheads, soulboy, total football, West Ham United FC
You’ve heard them all before.
What do you call a Millwall fan in a suit?
What’s black and brown and looks great on a Millwall fan?
There are two Millwall fans in a car, but no pounding music. Who’s driving?
And so on, and so on. Part of the folklore. Bermondsey boys with a dockside heritage of hard drinking and uncompromising violence. As far back as the 1970s, the subject of television documentaries showcasing their pariah fans’ fighting instincts and in the flesh as regular ‘visitors’ to the then newly opened Lewisham Shopping Centre, while the regular Saturday shoppers would pile anxiously into Mothercare, waiting with appalled fascination for the horde to pass. They’re even there in fiction, stalking the pages like Alex and his droogs. This, from ‘The Football Factory’: ‘As far back as our memories go Millwall have always been mad. Something special, mental, off their heads. They’ve got the reputation and they deserve it…A hundred years of kicking fuck out of anyone who strays too far down the Old Kent Road.’
So there’s a certain amount of ‘form’ there, if you like. Personalised by proximity, too, with school as the incubator and the 1970s as the backdrop. Some years later, watching ‘The Godfather: Part II’ in the far more bucolic surrounds of a University campus, it was hard not to be struck by the strategic necessity of the Corleone gambit, ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’.
Away from the screen it also made perfect sense when applied to the apparently mundane yet ultimately character-forming choices of childhood. And in the 1970s, in south-east London, that meant football. Looking back, of course it made sense for an alienated kid to reach for succour in the fantasy of elsewhere, other people, another club, and crucially one not based south of the river. Familiarity and all that. But at the time it felt like a real leap of faith to align oneself with the ‘enemy’: the loathed Hammers and the East End from which the club drew much of its support. So when Margaret Thatcher popped up not long after and stole the Front’s thunder with her ‘swamping’ speech, some of us were already well versed in the dark arts of subversion; of being the ‘enemy within’. But let’s stick with football for now.
There were too many Millwall in any case at school, apprentice wide boys with plenty of mouth and precious few manners. And the scared (but trying not to show it) kid became adept at the skittish dance that would predictably follow such an imbalance – slipping under the radar, into the library, shrouded by books. Though on the inside of course, other thoughts are gestating. Resistance, refusal, rapport…but elsewhere. With other people. Another club.
Then there was that old Millwall ditty, ‘South London is wonderful, East London is like Bengal’, and the knowledge that at home when we ate fish, it wasn’t with chips.
Aesthetic reasons too – the attractive football played by the Hammers under the stewardship of first, Ron Greenwood and later, John Lyall, though if I’m going to be completely honest, such considerations were perhaps not at the forefront of my infant mind.
Retrospectively though, I’d like to believe that the aesthetic currency was somehow hardwired into my footballing DNA through exposure to the great Dutch side of 1974 and the ultimately unfulfilled promise of their Ajax-inspired ‘total football’ at that year’s World Cup. And that I sensed some of those footballing ‘principles’ as gold standards at the Boleyn too. But the truth is, I didn’t exactly get on with my classmates, they were all Millwall, and they hated West Ham. Ergo Corleone sum.
It’s why the affiliation, and the counter-associations, endure to this day. Tribalism will do that for you, the more so when you’re still a kid and the landscape you find yourself in is a jungle.
Strange times, those, and very much in the Confucian sense.
Of course for those of a certain disposition, rarely organic products of the environment in question, this type of social disconnect is curiously prized above all for its ‘dramatic’ potential, never mind the human cost.
Here’s the eminent urban theorist, Lewis Mumford, on just this subject: ‘in its various and many-sided life, in its very opportunities for social disharmony and conflict, the city creates drama; the suburb lacks it.’ To be fair to Mumford, though, he does, crucially go on to recognise that:
‘here lies the possibility of personal disintegration, and here lies the need for reintegration through wider participation in a concrete and visible collective whole.’
And there it is, in a nutshell. Becoming a Hammer. ‘Wider participation in a concrete and visible collective whole.’ The enemy of my enemy. Not Millwall, in other words.
For now, though, the only fretting to be done is around the whereabouts of the minicab. It’s almost 9am and there’s still no sign, though I’m doing my best to remind Mum that it’s not due till 9 in any case, so technically at least it’s not late. Not yet.
Ma continues to fret. It’s what she does; always has done. But not without reason.
The experience of Partition as a young girl was always going to have its say long after the fires were left behind. Next to that, if you think about it, pretty much everything else is small fry. Can be shrugged off, redesignated as so many ‘slings and arrows’. But the fear, where’s that going to go? The nagging doubts that something truly sinister lurks in the shadows, ready to strike at a moment’s notice if your guard is down; or if anxiety too is consigned in the suggested therapeutic fashion to some arcane past of hate-filled preachers and murderous mobs, and the knotting of the stomach is ignored; or worse, a la Dawkins, is ‘tested against the evidence’ and accounted for as a purely physical symptom.
Finally the cab arrives, and we set off, bathed in the glorious early Spring sunlight that can still sometimes surprise. It’s a long journey, from south-east to far north London. Golders Green Crematorium to be precise, for my uncle’s funeral. Dad’s cousin-brother, who, like Dad, had come to Britain just after Windrush and made London his home. Like Dad, too, he was always very dapper – a velvet smoking jacket here, a cravat there – and had an impish sense of humour which served him well into a graceful old age. This is especially tough for Ma. It’s barely a year since Dad passed and no matter how much the ‘invite’ implores that this will be ‘A Celebration of the Life of ———————‘ it’s hard not to sense the sadness that this actually conjures up for who and what has already been lost. But she remains staunch. There’s a funeral to attend, and respects to be paid, and it’s important to keep it together, though in fairness I suspect this applies more to me than Mum.
We’re not even out of Greenwich, and already road closures are coming into effect. The tension in the cab is palpable. Though we’ve allowed ourselves more than two hours to traverse the city, we’re almost half an hour in and still stuck in traffic in the deep south. And not even in the Blackwall Tunnel at that, which, predictably, isn’t even worth the flirtation. LBC traffic updates are filtering through. This junction, that turn-off, the entire southern approach to…and the cabbie’s not happy either. He’s barely spoken a word in fact since we clambered in, and is clearly no fan of SatNav, as no destination was ever punched in. But there is the reassuring presence of a well thumbed A to Z and he does seem particularly determined to get us, if not to the church, then at least to the crematorium, on time. He starts to get more animated, though, when it becomes clear that the myriad road closures are in preparation for Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, which is due to take place with all the state trappings the following day.
‘It’s a disgrace. Waste of public money. And for what? Her family should pick up the bill. Pay for it themselves just like everyone else.’
‘I know what you mean. Let’s face it, they were never that shy about telling the rest of us how to live our lives.’
‘That’s right. I hated that bloody woman.’ And then he turns around and apologises to Mum for his language. She tells him not to worry about it – she didn’t like that ‘bloody woman’ either. So no SatNav and courteous to a fault. Old school.
It’s while we’re snaking round the back of Rotherhithe and into a little maze of backstreets which lead into Bermondsey that he tells me he buried his Dad last year too. We tell each other what good blokes our old men were; how hard it was, still is, to fully countenance that they’ve gone, though of course there are always traces, reminders, moments even where their presence feels almost tangible. He’s just slightly older than me, married with a kid. I don’t trouble him with the dreary details of what happened to my own marriage, and for now at least in this labyrinthine backroute, the traffic seems to have mysteriously vanished. Mum’s being staunch, but I can tell she’s listening too.
Into Borough now, and the clock’s ticking – not yet across the river and we’ve been going the best part of an hour.
For all the money that’s poured into this area, its proximity to the City, the organic attractions of Borough Market and a whole new breed of urban hipster this side of the drink, to some of us this is still Millwall – dead-eyed chancers from disused Docks, and the ancient reek of the tanneries not far behind. It’s the Harry Cripps’ testimonial and the bad blood that’s flowed ever since. Sharpened coins, darts, bananas, monkey chants and worse. (And we’re not even in Italy.)
And of course, as luck would have it, this is the moment that the cab fills with the sound of manufactured outrage. A phone-in about the ‘scenes of appalling violence at Wembley that marred Millwall’s FA Cup semi-final defeat to Wigan’ just a couple of days before. Cue predictable lament about the feared return to ‘football’s dark ages’ and some cod-sociological guff about south London before some little genius sobs that it took place ‘in front of kids, some of whom were crying’. Which is not to trivialise their hurt, but merely to point out that at a time when it seems as though every other BBC ‘light entertainer’ or secondary school teacher, or ‘nightime economy’ worker, is a fiddler in the wings; and countless kids are being abused, or worse, by their parents – that some minor and very localised skirmishing at a football match might not be the biggest threat out there facing the little ones.
Cabbie’s had enough too. Tells me he was there, that it was just pissed blokes having a pop at each other as one had drunkenly knocked into another’s kid on his way back from the bar. Not edifying, but not exactly the end of civilisation as we know it either.
He changes the channel. We’re ‘up west’ now, well, in town at least, and appropriately enough it’s ‘London Calling’ on some suitably cobwebbed nostalgia fest. He likes The Clash, but always preferred the two-chord small town thrash of Sham 69; still remembers getting his head shaved and customising his denim jacket much to his mum’s chagrin. Gets very excited when I mention my still-not-too-shabby seven of ‘Borstal Breakout’. Remembers the grief he got when he tried to see Hersham’s finest at some Rock Against Racism gig. Is still indignant all these years on.
‘I was a proper skin, one of the ‘Sham Army’. But the Anti-Nazi League, they all thought I was the enemy. A fucking racist just ‘cos I was a skin.’
Then, of course, turning to the back seat – ‘Sorry, Mum’.
Mum doesn’t say anything, but nods, and it’s back to the tunes, or at least the nostalgia. And we’re making good progress round the back of Euston, skirting the edges of the mounting traffic chaos.
The other journey is a more familiar one. From skin to soulboy – Jimmy Pursey to Frankie Beverley – and of course Prince is there too, as are the Britfunk pioneers, Linx and Light of the World. Turns out we are both veterans of the Lyceum, the sugar-coated residency of Greg Edwards and the early ‘Special Branch’ offerings of Nicky Holloway up the Old Kent Road; our paths might even have crossed at some point when the tribal markings really used to matter: perhaps in that netherworld of clubs and all-dayers, or in that cheeky apprenticeship served by little herberts all over south London, chipping the fares going uptown. It’s when we pass one of the many meat-wagons that seem to be gearing up in advance for Thatcher’s send-off that the shared reflections take on a different hue: as much as we might both love Maze, it transpires we’ve neither of us been spared our own complicated relationship to the SUS laws and the kind of tactical law enforcement that was always eventually going to end in a Hillsborough. Five-oh and the perils of a night out, of ‘the fluorescent jam sandwich and flashing blue lights’ that Terry Hall was trying to warn us of.
The car weaves its way through a warren of back streets affording occasional glimpses into one northern enclave after another with precisely zero emotional resonance for either driver or passengers, and all mysteriously beginning with the same letter – Hornsey, Holloway, Highgate, Hampstead. Tottenham briefly crops up in the conversation but is quickly dismissed as a jumped-up, rag trade irrelevance. Cabbie’s ‘knowledge’ is an impressive feat – the south London boy effortlessly manoeuvring his way through the increasingly congested route with a series of complex adjustments north of the river.
It’s past eleven now and we’re on the Finchley Road. And then suddenly at the next junction, there it is, right in front of us. Traffic backed up but there’s the hearse, granting the asphalt and the tarmac the briefest of dignities. Looking out from under the wreaths, a black and white photograph of my uncle from when he first came to England as a handsome young man. Even at a car’s length it is possible to make out the look on his face: determined, perhaps a touch anxious, but there’s something else there too, best described as a kind of exhilaration. A true modernist, then, looking ahead, the past already just that.