Thursday, 25 June 2020

Leeds go mad in Dorset

This is the latest in a series of posts about my journey around England in a camper van in 1990. Read an introduction to this drawing journey around England here. 

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.]  

It's May Day Bank Holiday weekend in Bournemouth, 25C and queues of cars are edging open-windowed or roofless towards the seafront where the beach is already packed. It is the fulfilment of all those winter yearnings for a tan. The most unlikely looking windows are being used to sell refreshments from, but the busiest and loudest is a pub near the pier from which comes chanting and a sort of singing.

I had parked under the shade of trees at Branscombe further up the coast, once, and not so very long ago, a separate town but now congealing like the rest of the south coast into one long line of development. It is easy to see on a day like this how Bournemouth could have become so popular in the last 200 years: long sandy beaches, pine trees, and green, south-facing cliffs. The traditional and familiar attractions of days out at the seaside seem to be alive and well: there are the smells of fish and chips and sun lotion, a Punch and Judy tent, waterskiers, acres of pale bodies, family arguments and amusement arcades, all these, but with sun too.

But sun and alcohol are not mixing too well at the pub by the pier (top image). Today is the last day of the football season and the visitors, Leeds United, are expecting to get promotion into the first division [the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season] at the expense of Bournemouth Town, and to this end they have set about trashing the place. 

Apart from the drinkers, who are watched by groups of police, there is a larger and yet more ugly gathering further on by the beach. It could be 1,500, it could be 2,000, but they are a mass of young men that seem to have come from just a handful of moulds. Short haired, T-shirted, wearing shorts or jeans, holding cans of alcohol that are crushed and discarded on the pavement as quickly as they are emptied, they are seething, singing, chanting, kicking footballs high into the air so that three or four of them keep popping up as they gather for the march up to the ground for the game.

I cannot take my eyes off this sight. It is almost like an old circus sideshow where those with hideous deformities are paraded for the public. This crowd is ugliness itself, unlike anything I have seen before, a bundle of fascism and bigotry I gather from the songs they are singing. It is frighteningly magnetic to watch. As a group they are all of a single mind, and not a very broad one.

[This weekend of violence by Leeds fans in Bournemouth grabbed the headlines in a way I didn’t really recognise at the time. I didn't even draw the fans, for instance. There were more than 100 arrests and 12 police were seriously injured over the weekend I was in Bournemouth. There were even questions in Parliament about the violence that unfolded.] 

The Bournemouth Evening Echo has not missed out. “Thugs on Rampage” runs the headline above stories from the night before. Beach huts have been set alight. In the town centre windows are boarded up, some in anticipation, others evidently repairing what has gone before. Mounted police roam the pedestrianised centre while fans wearing “Bournemouth Invasion” shirts pose for souvenir photographs next to them.

Just to get into a supermarket is not easy, the way in barred by a policeman. I first have to convince him that it is food I want to buy rather than anything alcoholic. There are more police inside roaming around the aisles. They call everyone “lad”, trying to defuse the tension with a forced good humour.

For no apparent reason, the crowd by the beach takes it upon itself that it is time to leave for the walk to the ground, and, as one, it makes off leaving the debris that until then it has been impossible to see. The shouts and singing seem to hang in the air long after they have all leaked away up the road.

What surprises me is just how prepared people are to accept that this is the way things must be, to go on regardless as if this ugly violence is entirely normal. Half naked women push their way through the fringes of the fans to join the queue for ice creams, going barefoot through the empty beer cans littered around as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Police stand around to almost heighten the crowd's sense of importance, a sign of the fans’ power to disrupt, acting as escorts to a roving lawless zone. A camouflaged military vehicle I associate with the streets of Belfast looks on. I am amazed that a kick around between two teams of eleven can be worth all this.

James Hobbs, Bournemouth sea front, 1990

The more usual beach noises return as kick off approaches. Some of those without tickets turn on radios to listen to the commentary so that they overlap across the sands, never out of earshot. The air is freed from sirens for a while but it is replaced by racist chants from groups draped in Union Jacks who troop up and down the beach looking for topless sunbathers.

We hear the game won by the Leeds team down on the beach, looking out to the still sea that few people actually bring themselves to swim in. The sight of a large offshore structure for drilling oil must be as responsible for this as anything. I plan to get well out of town for the night before the ground empties and the Leeds celebrations begin. I am well up a very deserted country lane before the late kick-off results come over the radio.

Two days later and the wind and rain are back, the deserted beaches marked by tractor tyres where the sand has been raked and cleaned. The flashing orange lights of council cleaning lorries have taken over from the blue ones of Saturday’s police cars. A few people are about. There is a children’s roundabout in the shape of a teapot around which seated toddlers turn in teacups at the end of which they head with their carers, like me, to the domed cafe on the pier. 

James Hobbs, Happyland Amusements, Bournemouth, 1990

It is more likely to be like this when you visit Bournemouth, you and a few others wondering where everybody else is. An elderly lady strolls in the gardens to the relaxing cry of seagulls, leaning on her only slightly younger companion, enjoying the flowerbeds and pointing her walking stick at shrubs. I pass just in time to hear her lean towards her friend and say: “You know Mrs Thatcher looked a picture in the paper today...” Bournemouth is back to its old self. 

James Hobbs, 1990 

[Further posts about this journey will follow here soon. This is a link to details about my journey, which started 30 years ago.] 

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