Q&A: Author Kevin Sampson on Thatcher, Hillsborough, Liverpool, and His New Book, The Killing Pool

Liverpool FC via Getty Images Liverpool

Kevin Sampson is a writer shaped by his experiences on the “island state” of Liverpool, England, where he is also a longtime season-ticket holder for the celebrated soccer team. His novels and nonfiction writing explore the recent past and present of a city that has been transformed, for better or worse, in the age of globalization. On the eve of the publication of his new novel, The Killing Pool, I talked to Sampson about his lifelong obsession with Liverpool Football Club; his exploration of football violence in his debut novel, Awaydays; the lead-up to the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died; and the influence of the legendary Liverpool fanzine The End on supporter culture.

When it came time to adapt Awaydays for the screen, the music was a really big part of the result. The soundtrack was pretty fantastic (there were even Manchester bands in there).

Awaydays is pretty much wedded to … Liverpool’s post-punk renaissance. The waterfront, the Ropewalks area, and the former trading hubs on either side of Victoria Street had so many disused warehouses and silos and underground storage cellars that, once the ships sailed for good, there were just so many wonderful, atmospheric bars and clubs springing up. Some of the most precious, for me, were Eric’s (which spawned the Zoo Records and Eternal labels), Checkmate, the Swinging Apple, Michel Claire, the City Vaults, Maxwell’s Plum, Oscar’s. With Awaydays, we tried to use tracks that would have been recorded by the end of 1979, and which you would likely have heard in clubs like Eric’s. So, yeah … plenty of Bunnymen, Ultravox, Joy Division, Magazine, and a previously unreleased demo version of the Cure’s “10.15, Saturday Night.” Beautiful, heartbreaking stuff!

Liverpool has this reputation of being wide open to world influences, yet sometimes willfully being an island state within England. The modern incarnation of the Port of Liverpool features in your latest book.

The Killing Pool (title inspired by an Echo and the Bunnymen song) is largely told through the eyes and in the voice of an outsider (in every sense), DCI [Detective Chief Inspector] Billy McCartney. McCartney tends to view Liverpool and its citizens through a jaundiced lens. McCartney’s specialized area of policing is in the field of drug surveillance. He’s a highly experienced liaison officer whose brief is to break up the major drug-dealing cartels. (Liverpool is acknowledged to be one of the most prolific staging posts in the global narcotic trafficking business.) One job can, typically, take Mac and his team two or three years to plan and execute, and it’s only natural that, spending so much time pursuing the city’s bad guys, DCI McCartney is resistant to notions of Liverpool as a groovy, creative, bohemian melting pot. Those of us born here like to think of the river and the ocean as being the original information superhighway, bringing the ideas and skills and customs of the five continents across the seven seas into the Port of Liverpool, where everything from goat curry to Rickenbacker guitars to rare blues discs to merino wool sweaters can be disseminated to the eager, inquisitive citizens of Liverpool. McCartney sees things slightly differently. He sees the port as the physical symbol of all that is bad in the world, and its citizens as the willing miscreants who abuse its trade winds.

Violence in football has tended to be written about either in an exploitative way (whether that’s Richard Allen–style pulp novels or the hard-man-confessional genre) or from a self-conscious outsider’s perspective — I’m thinking of Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (which probably has a disproportionate hold on American readers’ conception of this aspect of the game in England). Yet in Awaydays, you talked about it as an aspect of a particular part of British life, mixed in with football, music, fashion, drinking.

I think Awaydays stands out in the genre because its sensibility is so unusual. For what is essentially a gang memoir, Awaydays is quite tender in its exploration of a young man’s desire to belong to a violent gang, and another young man’s determination to thwart him. The book examines the adolescent male’s search for his own identity, as adulthood beckons.

Awaydays certainly does not shy away from the sheer excitement of running with a teenage mob — a thrill so powerful that, for many, it becomes a lifetime addiction. Yet I tried to place the exuberance of those scenes in some kind of context; to show the nihilism of gang life without preaching about its downside. It’s certainly no post-Orwellian “Why I Fight” tract; but by taking such a reflective stance, and by offering such a nuanced take on thug life, perhaps Awaydays does ultimately shine a light upon some of the reasons why some of those kids wreak such havoc.

Under Thatcher, it felt like football fans in England, along with the miners, were seen as the enemy. This also had the effect of directly or indirectly radicalizing a lot of people who might not have considered being a fan a political act. And then of course there was the long struggle for justice after Hillsborough. How has the latter in particular figured in your life?

The roots of the police’s apparent disdain for mass, working-class organizations from football fans to unions can, to a significant degree, be traced to the immediate aftermath of the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in May 1979. As soon as Parliament reconvened, the Tories implemented a 45 percent pay rise for police forces. Unsurprisingly, this fostered a spirit of kinship and loyalty among the nation’s constabularies. Simultaneously, the government started into its program of wage cuts and closures in the nationalized industries. One of the first to be targeted were the steel plants, resulting, in January 1980, in the steelworkers’ first strike in over 50 years.

This style of government quickly fostered a confrontational atmosphere in everyday U.K life. In the form of Thatcher herself, and foot soldiers like Norman Tebbit, there was little trace of any form of patrician Tory benevolence. Their credo seemed more akin to a rigid McCarthyite take on national identity whereby every true Brit toed the line and worked hard, uncomplainingly, for whatever they were given. Anyone who bucked against the Tories’ back-to-basics family values was deemed a “Wrecker.” The Tom Robinson Band’s 1979 track “Power in the Darkness” lists a catalog of Wreckers including “football hooligans, juvenile delinquents, lesbians, and left-wing scum.”

A year or two after “Power in the Darkness,” TRB might have added “Scousers” to that ironic list of Thatcherite demons. The 1980s oversaw a radical transformation in Liverpool’s national standing and its citizens’ popular perception. Gone were the lovable Merseybeat bands of the ’60s. In their place came a family of incorrigible scroungers, in Bread, followed by a litany of dolies, scivers, whingers, and whiners in Brookside and Boys From the Blackstuff. Just as the mop top came to symbolize a certain Liverpudlian élan, so the hackneyed bubble perm, worn with a sloppy tracksuit and a defiant mustache, stereotyped the work-shy Scouser of Thatcher’s Britain. Whereas the previous generation’s assumption was that Scousers were gregarious, generous, witty, and creative, the ’80s version were viewed as chippy, aggressive, and innately inclined toward criminality.

In the English First Division, crowds were on the decline and hooliganism was on the rise. With outside broadcast units joining the rest of nation on strike at various points in the ’80s, it almost went unnoticed that Liverpool and Everton won the League Championship almost every year. Against a backdrop of developing antipathy toward Liverpudlians, their fans could be forgiven for being a little arrogant as they traveled the country in their semi-flares and bobble hats.

But the 1984-85 season was marred by violence at football grounds, culminating in tragedy when 39 Juventus supporters died at the European Cup final in Brussels after they were charged by Liverpool fans. Mrs. Thatcher demanded solutions to the British Disease, and nothing — ID cards, electric fences — was considered too draconian. The culture of football violence ended organically the following season when ecstasy-fueled Acid House ushered in a new era of communality. There was certainly no simmering backdrop of hooliganism by 1989.

All these factors had a part to play in the events that unfolded at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989. Four of us set off by car that morning. We didn’t get into Sheffield until after one. It’s absurd to suggest that nobody approaching the ground had had a drink, but I’d seriously doubt that anybody physically had time to get seriously drunk. It’s equally pat to say that everyone had tickets — but the touts soon put paid to that. They were virtually giving tickets away on the walk-up to Hillsborough.

As the Leppings Lane end of the ground came into sight, and the singing amplified, the crowd flow simply stopped. We waited. There was no information. Understandably, the police were jumpy. These were football hooligans they were facing down. Liverpool fans. Scousers. Militants. The worst sort.

Everybody knows, now, what happened next. I was among the fortunate ones who went left, where so many others went straight ahead. For 23 years, those of us who were at that game to support Liverpool have had to endure, at best, the suggestion that somehow we were responsible for the deaths of our fellow fans.

There’s a quote from John Peel on the front of The End anthology saying “it concerns itself with music, beer, and football. The very stuff of life itself.” In America it’s hard to conceive of soccer as being so integral to daily life. As someone who’s been here for 10 years, I find the way American fans have organized, put up up with being patronized (especially those of MLS teams), and built their own culture from the ground up has actually got me enthused about going to the game again. Do you still love the game as much as you ever did? Did writing Extra Time [Sampson’s memoir of his life as a Liverpool fan] make you aware of a change in that relationship?

My God, Extra Time feels like a golden age now! I’m very sad to admit it but, given the hugely distinctive culture of the city I live in and the massively romantic story of the team that bears its name, I find it increasingly hard to relate to the pastime that goes on in the name of football in the English Premier League today. I have not done so yet, but I feel I could kick the habit without going completely cold turkey. For me, the game has been spoiled in the U.K., and you don’t have to look much further than greed to find the roots of the ailment. I cannot get my head around paying upwards of £50 to get into a match. You what? Sorry — I hate being a voice of doom about anything, especially football, but … look to Germany if you want to see how things can and should be done.

Liverpool played an American tour last year, and when they came through John Henry’s Boston, a big crowd showed up to watch them. It indirectly highlighted an ongoing cultural division between, on the one hand, American fans who follow the big European teams from afar and aren’t interested in the local game and, on the other hand, those who might follow the global game but actively support local sides like New England (who ironically enough were coached for years by ex-Liverpool player Steve Nicol). Thinking of that division, it makes me smile when I think of the letters page of The End, where people would get into arguments about whether they were true supporters because they came from two miles farther up the road than the editors. Does the idea of a “local team” still mean something?

I think it does, and it’s something that most supporters prize. Fans of, say, Stoke City will go to Manchester United and try to taunt their fans with songs of “We support our local club.” The irony is that clubs like Stoke City have ambitions of playing in Europe, attracting the top players, and winning the prizes that will, inevitably, erode their own special “local” flavor. If there’s one thing guaranteed to add another 50,000 out-of-town supporters to the fan base, it’s a heroic, televised, European win! Speaking for myself, I have always loved Liverpool FC’s international appeal. Way, way back in the early ’70s we had a pin-striped scarf that bore the motto “Supporters All Over the World.” I’d love to see the Liverpool story continue to grow, and to be cherished all over the world — while still keeping a genuine community ethic and a Liverpool sensibility at the heart and soul of the club.

Kevin Sampson (@ksampsonwriter) was speaking to Graham Parker (@KidWeil) as part of a conversation for Howler.

Awaydays, The Killing Pool, Extra Time, and Powder are accessible to U.S. readers via amazon.co.uk as e-books or paperbacks. The End Anthology is available through Sabotage Times.

Filed Under: Soccer, English Premier League, Liverpool, Grantland Q&A