Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: Bovver

Book Review: 'Bovver' by Chris Brown

5 / 5 Stars

Before I had a chance to weigh up the options he launched at me, charging down the terrace. I managed to land a punch before he could, straight in his beer-filled stomach, he doubled over, winded. Like a lot of fat bastards he was fit for fuck all. As his hulking mass almost engulfed me I gave him another whack in the face. He lurched over on to one side, his bloated body twisting at an acute angle from his tree-trunk-like legs. He crumpled to the concrete terrace and let out an almighty scream which almost drowned out the equally almighty crack as his leg snapped under him.

“Arrrghh ! I’ve broke my fucking leg !”

He lay there clutching his leg, which was now distorted and looking almost remote from his body.

'Bovver' (356 pp) was published (in the UK) in paperback by John Blake Publishing, Ltd. in 2002.

‘Bovver’ is Chris Brown’s memoir of growing up in Bristol, UK in the interval from 1970 – 1979. During that time he was an ardent supporter of the Rovers, one of the two football clubs in Bristol (the other club being Bristol City, the hated rivals).

Chris Brown (contemporary photo)

The book begins in the year 1970, when Brown was 14 years old, and embarking upon his career as a dedicated fan of the Rovers, taking up his place at the terraced portion of Eastville stadium in Bristol. Known as the Tote End, the terrace was where the dedicated Rover fans gathered to celebrate the feats of their team - and to engage in healthy amounts of aggro.

In those early days Brown was a skinhead, more precisely the quintessential ‘bovver’ boy, with a short haircut, suspenders, turned-up Levis, and hobnailed boots made just right for kicking. Brown and his mates eschewed rock and folk music in favor of reggae and Caribbean music. Among his favorite songs was the ‘Skinhead Anthem’, ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’ by Symarip, and ‘The Liquidator’ by the Harry J. All Stars

As for the aggro……despite his youth, Brown set out to be a valued member of the hard-core Rovers fans, standing beside them during confrontations in the street, and on the pitch, both Home, and Away. Even when they were outnumbered by rival supporters, the Rovers fans gave as good as they got, often coming away from combat clutching prized booty: the scarves in team colors carried by their victims. 

According to Brown, in the early '70s the police (‘Old Bill’, in the British vernacular) were poorly prepared to deter the massive brawls taking place in the stadiums, and by the time combat was forcibly halted,

The aftermath of battle lay all around: bloodied bodies, scarves, shoes and youngsters crying. Did I feel sorry for them …? Did I fuck, should have gone in the enclosure with your old man, shouldn’t you ? Besides, he’ll be doing the same to us in a few year’s time no doubt.

As Brown relates, he and his friends were ever-conscious of their personal clothing style, spending much of their hard-earned money in an effort to stay abreast of the latest fashions, some of which could change within the span of just a few months (or less !).

One of the more entertaining features of ‘Bovver’ is its meticulous overview of the songs that served as the soundtrack to the activities of Brown and his friends during the decade. There are a host of bands and singles mentioned in the book that I was unfamiliar with, and some of these tracks deserve investigating.

The book’s high point – and arguably that of the teenaged years of Chris Brown – came November 5, 1977. The day started with Brown’s mate Iggy being injured by Millwall supporters (they struck his arm with a beer glass, and caused a laceration that sent Iggy to the hospital), putting the Tote End crew into the mood for vengeance as the match with Millwall unfolded. Iggy in fact came from the hospital just in time to join Brown and the other Rovers fans in battling an attempt by the MIllwall supporters to take the End. The Millwall supporters were repulsed, with the television cameras capturing their ignominious retreat back to their section of Eastville for all the UK to see.

That evening, at the Bristol Exhibition Centre, Brown and friends took in a great Punk / New Wave concert: opening acts Richard Hell and the Voidoids, followed by……the Clash ! Both bands put on great shows to the jam-packed mass within the Centre.

After the concert, on the street outside the Centre, Brown and the Rovers fans found themselves facing off with a large contingent of Bristol City fans in the mood for violence. The opposing forces met in a melee that rapidly involved nearby pub-goers and concert attendees, and turned into, in Brown’s words, a ‘full-blown riot’.

The final chapters of the book take on a melancholy note, as the advent of 1978 saw the UK economy collapse even further, and the entropy-laden nature of life in Albion drove more and more of its populace – including Brown – into a sort of sustained depression that no amount of drink or violence or music could dissipate. A trip to the US, which Brown undertook with the goal of perhaps resettling in the States, turned out to be a disappointment, as Brown was unable to handle the insipid music landscape of the US, with its Grease soundtrack and disco over-exposure.

In 1979, Brown turned 23 and was gradually ageing out of the ‘hooligan’ life, although he remained a true follower of fashion, dyeing his hair blonde, wearing straight-legged denim jeans, and wearing white trainers, as per the style of the Police. But that year saw the fortunes of the Rovers fading fast, and their fans along with them. Chris Brown found himself in the unlikely role of the valiant, but overwhelmed, underdog in the face of the increasing domination of the Bristol football scene by the hated supporters of City.........

Summing up, 'Bovver' is a great read, even for those without a marked interest in football fan memoirs. It's a great overview of popular culture in the UK in the 1970s, a valuable social analysis of that era, and a fond remembrance of the Rovers. 

This one is well worth picking up.

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