Concerning Hooligans

Chapter 2 from Clarence Rook’s 1899 book Hooligan Nights looks at the origins of hooligans and the type of young man that they are.
Good to see my ends get a mention ‘the basher of toffs flourishes in the Kingsland Road.’

There, was, but a few years ago, a man called Patrick Hooligan, who walked to and fro among his fellow-men, robbing them and occasionally bashing them. This much is certain. His existence in the flesh is a fact as well established as the existence of Buddha or of Mahomet. But with the life of Patrick Hooligan, as with the lives of Buddha and of Mahomet, legend has been at work, and probably many of the exploits associated with his name spring from the imagination of disciples. It is at least certain that he was born, that he lived in Irish Court, that he was employed as a chucker-out at various resorts in the neighbourhood. His regular business, as young Alf puts it, was ‘giving mugs and other barmy sots the push out of pubs when their old swank got a bit too thick’. Moreover, he could do more than his share at tea-leafing, which denotes the picking up of unconsidered trifles, being handy with his fingers, and a good man all round. Finally, one day he had a difference with a constable, put his light out, and threw the body into a dust-cart. He was lagged, and given a lifer. But he had not been in gaol long before he had to go into hospital, where he died.
There is little that is remarkable in this career. But the man must have had a forceful personality, a picturesqueness, a fascination, which elevated him into a type. It was doubtless the combination of skill and strength, a certain exuberance of lawlessness, an utter absence of scruple in his dealings, which marked him out as a leader among men. Anyhow, though his individuality may be obscured by legend, he lived, and died, and left a great tradition behind him. He established a cult.
The value of a cult is best estimated by its effect upon its adherents, and as Patrick Hooligan is beyond the reach of cross-examination, I propose to devote a few words to showing what manner of men his followers are, the men who call themselves by his name, and do their best to pass the torch of his tradition undimmed to the nippers who are coming on.
I should perhaps not speak of them as men, for the typical Hooligan is a boy who, growing up in the area bounded by the Albert Embankment, the Lambeth Road, the Kennington Road, and the streets about the Oval, takes to tea-leafing as a Grimsby lad takes to the sea. If his taste runs to street-fighting there is hope for him, and for the community. He will probably enlist, and, having helped to push the merits of gin and Christianity in the dark places of the earth, die in the skin of a hero. You may see in Lambeth Walk a good many soldiers who have come back from looking over the edge of the world to see the place they were born in, to smell the fried fish and the second-hand shoe-leather, and to pulsate once more to the throb of a piano-organ. On the other hand, if his fingers be lithe and sensitive, if he have a turn for mechanics, he will slip naturally into the picking of pockets and the rifling of other people’s houses.
The home of the Hooligan is, as I have implied, within a stone’s throw of Lambeth Walk. Law breakers exist in other quarters of London: Drury Lane will furnish forth a small army of pick-pockets, Soho breeds parasites, and the basher of toffs flourishes in the Kingsland Road. But in and about Lambeth Walk we have a colony, compact and easily handled, of sturdy young villains, who start with a grievance against society, and are determined to get their own back. That is their own phrase, their own view. Life has little to give them but what they take. Honest work, if it can be obtained, will bring in but a few shillings a week; and what is that compared to the glorious possibility of nicking a red ‘un?
Small and compact, the colony is easily organized; and here, as in all turbulent communities, such as an English public school, the leader gains his place by sheer force of personality. The boy who has kicked in a door can crow over the boy who has merely smashed a window. If you have knocked-out your adversary at the little boxing place off the Walk, you will have proved that your friendship is desirable. If it becomes known – and it speedily becomes known to all but the police – that you have drugged a toff and run through his pockets, or, better still, have cracked a crib on your own and planted the stuff, then you are at once surrounded by sycophants. Your position is assured, and you have but to pick and choose those that shall work with you. Your leadership will be recognized, and every morning boys, with both eyes skinned for strolling splits, will seek you out and ask for orders for the day. In time, if you stick to work and escape the cops, you may become possessed of a coffee-house or a sweetstuff shop, and run a profitable business as a fence. Moreover, your juniors, knowing your past experience, will purchase your advice – paying for counsel’s opinion – when they seek an entrance to a desirable house in the suburbs, and cannot decide between the fanlight and the kitchen window. So you shall live and die respected by all men in Lambeth Walk.
The average Hooligan is not an ignorant, hulking ruffian, beetle-browed and bullet-headed. He is a product of the Board School, writes a fair hand, and is quick at arithmetic. His type of face approaches nearer the rat than the bull-dog; he is nervous, highly-strung, almost neurotic. He is by no means a drunkard; but a very small quantity of liquor causes him to run amuck, when he is not pleasant to meet. Under-sized as a rule, he is sinewy, swift, and untiring. For pocket-picking and burglary the featherweight is at an advantage. He has usually done a bit of fighting with the gloves, for in Lambeth boxing is one of the most popular forms of sport. But he is better with the raws, and is very bad to tackle in a street row, where there are no rules to observe. Then he will show you some tricks that will astonish you. No scruples of conscience will make him hesitate to butt you in the stomach with his head, and pitch you backwards by catching you round the calves with his arm. His skill, born of constant practice, in scrapping and hurricane fighting brings him an occasional job in the bashing line. You have an enemy, we will say, whom you wish to mark, but, for one reason and another, you do not wish to appear in the matter. Young Alf will take on the job. Indicate to him your enemy; hand him five shillings (he will ask a sovereign; but will take five shillings), and he will make all the necessary arrangements. One night your enemy will find himself lying dazed on the pavement in a quiet corner, with a confused remembrance of a trip and a crash, and a mad whirl of fists and boots. You need have small fear that the job will be bungled. But it is a matter of complaint among the boys of the Walk, that if they do a bit of bashing for a toff and get caught, the toff seldom has the magnanimity to give them a lift when they come out of gaol.
The Hooligan is by no means deficient in courage. He is always ready to fight, though he does not fight fair. It must indeed, require a certain amount of courage to earn your living by taking things that do not belong to you, with the whole of society, backed by the police force, against you. The burglar who breaks into your house and steals your goods is a reprehensible person; but he undoubtedly possesses that two-o’clock-in-the-morning courage which is the rarest variety. To get into a stranger’s house in the dead of night, listening every instant for the least sound that denotes detection, knowing all the time that you are risking your liberty for the next five years or so – this, I am sure, requires more nerve than most men can boast of. Young Alf has nearly all the vices; but he has plenty of pluck. And as I shall have very little to disclose that is to his credit, I must tell of one instance in which his conduct was admirable. One afternoon we were at the Elephant and Castle, when suddenly a pair of runaway horses, with a Pickford van behind them, came pounding into the traffic at the crossing. There was shouting, screaming, and a scurrying to clear the way, and then I saw young Alf standing alone, tense and waiting, in the middle of the road. It was a perilous thing to do, but he did it. He was used to horses, and though they dragged him for twenty yards and more, he hung on, and brought them up. A sympathetic and admiring crowd gathered, and young Alf was not a little embarrassed at the attention he commanded.
‘The firm oughter reckernize it,’ said a man in an apron, looking round for approval. ‘There’s a matter of two ‘underd pound’s worth of prop’ty that boy’s reskid.’
We murmured assent.
‘I don’t want no fuss,’ said young Alf, glancing quickly around him.
Just then a man ran up, panting and put his hand over the harness. Then he picked up the reins, and, hoisting himself by the step, peered into his van.
‘You’re in luck to-day, mister,’ said a boy.
The man passed the back of his hand across a damp forehead, and sent a dazed look, through the crowd.
‘One of them blarsted whistles started ’em,’ he said.
‘That’s the boy what stopped ’em,’ said a woman with a basket, pointing a finger at young Alf.
‘That’s awright,’ muttered young Alf. ‘You shut yer face.’
‘Give the gentleman your name,’ persisted the woman with the basket, ‘and if everybody ‘ad their rights-‘
‘Now then,’ said a friendly policeman, with a hand on young Alf’s shoulder, ‘you give him your name and address. You want a job, you know. You bin out of work too long.’
Young Alf’s brain must have worked very quickly for the next three seconds, and he took the right course. He told the truth. It required an effort. But, as the policeman seemed to know the truth, it would have been silly to tell a lie.
The next day young Alf had the offer of employment, if he would call at headquarters. For a day or two he hesitated. Then he decided that it was not good enough. And that night he went to another kip. By this time he might have been driving a Pickford van. But he never applied for the job.
Regular employment, at a fixed wage, does not attract the boy who is bred within sound of the hawkers in the Walk. It does not give him the necessary margin of leisure, and the necessary margin of chance gains. Many of them hang on to the edge of legitimate commerce as you may see them adhering to the tail-boards of vans; and a van-boy has many opportunities of seeing the world. The selling of newspapers is a favourite occupation. Every Lambeth boy can produce a profession in answer to magisterial interrogation. If you ask young Alf – very suddenly – what his business is, he will reply that he is a horse-plaiter. With time for reflection he may give quite a different answer, according to the circumstances of the case, for he has done many things; watch-making, domestic service, and the care of horses in a travelling circus, have stored his mind with experience and given his fingers deftness.
Young Alf is now eighteen years of age, and stands 5 feet 7 inches. He is light, active, and muscular. Stripped for fighting he is a picture. His ordinary attire consists of a dark-brown suit, mellowed by wear, and a cloth cap. Around his neck is a neatly-knotted neckerchief, dark-blue, with white spots, which does duty for collar as well as tie. His face is by no means brutal; it is intelligent, and gives evidence of a highly-strung nature. The eyes are his most remarkable feature. They seem to look all round his head, like the eyes of a bird; when he is angry they gleam with a fury that is almost demoniacal. He is not prone to smiles or laughter, but he is in no sense melancholic. The solemnity of his face is due rather, as I should conclude, to the concentration of his intellect on the practical problems that continually present themselves for solution. Under the influence of any strong emotions, he puffs out the lower part of his cheeks. This expresses even amusement, if he is very much amused. In his manner of speech he exhibits curious variations. Sometimes he will talk for ten minutes together, with no more trace of accent or slang than disfigure the speech of the ordinary Londoner of the wage-earning class. Then, on a sudden, he will become almost unintelligible to one unfamiliar with the Walk and its ways. He swears infrequently, and drinks scarcely at all. When he does, he lights a fire in the middle of the floor and tries to burn the house down. His health is perfect, and he has never had a day’s illness since he had the measles. He has perfect confidence in his own ability to look after himself, and take what he wants, so long as he has elbow-room and ten seconds’ start of the cop. His fleetness of foot has earned him the nickname of ‘The Deer’ in the Walk. On the whole, few boys are better equipped by nature for a life on the crooked, and young Alf has sedulously cultivated his natural gifts.

Hong Kong poet Jennifer Wong with a copy of the 1979 edition.

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