As it turned out, it wasn’t the Man United supporters I should have worried about. It was ours who spoiled the day – attacking the Man U bus with bottles as it drove into the ground, with the Club’s co-chairman – the ex-pornographer and jail bird David Sullivan, brought up as it happens in the same east London suburb as I was – blaming the visitors for being late. (He’s since retracted.) My son Ben and I didn’t see any of this, and only learned of it as we were leaving, through a cordon of riot-geared policemen and -women. (I hope no-one takes seriously the pic of me that Ben’s posted on one website, over the legend: ‘Police have released this picture of the man they believe to be the ringleader of the violence…’) Up until then it had been a wonderful occasion, and – almost incidentally – a terrific match: 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, then 3-2 to the Irons. Joy was unconfined. Until we got out. As so often, it is the hooliganism that has made the headlines.
I suppose that in a way this might be considered an apt send-off for the old ground, true to its history. West Ham has always been known as an – even the – ‘academy’ of skilful and clean football; the legacy of the late, great and good Ron Greenwood, in the era when those dour cheating thugs of Leeds United were winning everything. (See the 2009 film The Damned United.) But its immediate environs, the poorest part of the East End, has always thrown up villains – ‘Jack the Ripper’, the Krays – some of whose criminality seems to have rubbed off on a number of the Hammers’ supporters. These are highly organised, notably in a group who style themselves the ‘Inter-City firm’, whose passionate rivalry with the equally violent and racist ‘Millwall Bushwhackers’ – slogan: ’Everyone hates us and we don’t care’ – can be bloody. (Luckily West Ham and Millwall are in different divisions just now.) It should go without saying that the degree of hooliganism among supporters bears little if any relationship to the playing style and conduct of the teams they follow. It just so happens that the Hammers are burdened by playing in this deprived, violent neighbourhood. Which is a good reason, I suppose, for them to leave. (Last night’s match was their last at Upton Park before they move to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. ‘East’, not on Avon.) Another is that the Stratford site is far more approachable by buses. One of the sparks last night was the difficulty the Man United coach had threading its way along narrow Green Street, through crowds of supporters, to the ground. Yes, it would have helped if they’d planned to arrive earlier. Ben and I got there in good time. And I came all the way from Hull.
The point is that the Boleyn Ground is cramped: not only its environs, but the ground itself. Its capacity is only about 35,000, which is small for a top club these days. That has huge attractions for those who can get in, of course: from the front rows you can touch the players, and the atmosphere is intense. The walk from Upton Park Underground station to the ground passes between small terrace houses, many of them turned into chippies and ‘pie and eel’ cafes, which make walking along it an olfactory as well as a visual and aural delight. It’s a journey into the past, and into my own past: the old, friendly, communitarian, humorous – as well as villainous – East End. I shall miss it terribly. (I’ve supported West Ham for 60 years.) As I left the ground, a tear passed down my cheek. I wiped it away quickly. In the East End grown men don’t cry.
It’s not only the cramped approach to the Boleyn Ground that has sealed its fate. It’s the commercialisation of football generally. Originally a working-class game, well suited to the sort of venue the Boleyn Ground occupies now, it has – like most other great cultural productions, most of them emanating from ‘below’ – been bought up by the capitalists, who can never ‘create’ anything themselves, in order to exploit it. In parallel with this, there is the ‘gentrification’ of the East End of London, pushing up the monetary value of West Ham’s present real estate, which is very unlikely to be utilised in a way that will benefit the typical East Ender: with genuinely ‘affordable’ housing, for example. (Barney Ronay’s take on this today in the Guardian is good, I think: https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/may/10/goodbye-bash-upton-park-west-ham-united-manchester-united.)
And so the capitalist leviathan rolls on, The Boleyn Ground is its latest victim. It may be worth the move to Stratford if it prevents scenes in the streets like last night’s. But then the warmth and comradeship and humour and the smell of frying onions won’t be there. We’ll all be too far from the play, with a wall of capital between us and it.
(An edited version of this is posted on the LRB Blog, 11 April. It attracted quite a few comments btl. – http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/05/11/bernard-porter/goodbye-to-boleyn/)