WASHINGTON — The British call him "Buffalo Bill," this fast and clever-talking culture salesman; this Granada Hills High School graduate who hung up his scuba diving suit and went East, way East to live in England; this serious editor who launched the most original and intellectually important international magazine of the 1980s, and for whom, in the rarefied British literary world, the nickname signifies both endearment and skepticism.
"Buffalo Bill" Buford recently blew into town, dressed in the carefully rumpled casualness and gray-on-gray color scheme often beloved in London. There he is primarily known as the brains behind Granta, the magazine he resurrected on a shoestring as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1979 and coaxed into the height of chic as a cutting-edge purveyor of important writers like Salman Rushdie, Nicholson Baker and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Like all good entrepreneurs, Buford has lately spun off in another direction and become a first-time author. In doing so, he has become physically as well as intellectually heavyweight, acquiring a beer belly that is like a badge of courage for surviving his research into his new book "Among the Thugs" (W. W. Norton), a study of violence among lager-swilling British soccer hooligans.
He was not present when the most serious soccer accidents occurred--in 1985 when 39 fans were crushed to death at Heysel Stadium in Brussels and at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England, in 1989 when 95 people died.
Buford discovered soccer crowds on a train carrying Liverpool fans home from a match in Wales. He watched the soccer crowd smash train windows, tear apart the seats and throw lighted matches at other passengers. Buford had never been to a soccer game, and when he asked British friends about his experience, he was surprised to learn they were jaded about the violence.
"It was just one of the things you put up with," Buford wrote. "Every Saturday young males trashed your trains, broke the windows of your pubs, destroyed your cars, wreaked havoc on your town centers. I didn't buy it, but it seemed to be so."
To write his book, Buford almost became one of the thugs, entering their world and making friends.
He was surprised to learn that many of the thugs were not the dispossessed and unemployed, but often those like "Mick," whom Buford got to know well. Mick had a well-paid job as an electrician. In his leisure time he was the leader of a "firm"--a group that organizes mayhem at matches.
Among the soccer thugs Buford met was an engineer for British Telecom, an accountant, a bank clerk. There was Henry, an employed husband and father whose idea of fun on weekends was to attend a match, down a fifth of vodka and a dozen large beers and smash up pubs.
Immersion in this strange, twisted, drunken world has led Buford to conclude that soccer thuggery is symbolic of all of British society.
"I think (Britain) is the most macho culture I've ever seen," he says. "It's got the very crude, bloated bulldog codes of masculinity--which are more extreme than anything I've seen here (in the United States) and more extreme than anything I've seen in the machismo cultures of Latin America and the Mediterranean."
Buford explains from experience how crowd violence develops.
"I was there (at soccer matches) with people who effected that transition from being normal people, to being a group of people, to being a crowd, to being a violent crowd. One of the things I was trying to capture was what happens as that changes--what the excitement is like," Buford says.
In the book he describes the aftermath of a match in Italy in which the Italians defeated the British team. As fans tried to leave the stadium, "I remember some screaming. There had been a stabbing (I didn't see it) and with the screaming, everyone bolted--animal speed, instinct speed--and pushed past the police and rushed for the exits. . . .
"Throughout this last period of the match, I had been hearing a new phrase. 'It's going to go off.'
" 'It's going to go off,' someone said, and his eyes were glassy as though he had taken a drug."
Buford saw a woman almost crushed by the crowd. He watched "the firm" gather to seek and attack the Italian fans. During the huge brawl that followed, Buford was hit in the head by a full beer can thrown hard enough to knock him down. An Italian boy was savagely beaten by half a dozen British thugs. Gangs of British hooligans attacked people in cars, smashed windshields and destroyed the souvenir tables at the stadium.
"In the vernacular of the supporters, it had now 'gone off,' " he wrote. "With that first violent exchange, some kind of threshold had been crossed, some notional boundary: On one side of that boundary has been a sense of limits, an ordinary understanding--even among this lot--of what you didn't do; we were now someplace where there would be few limits, where the sense that there were things you didn't do had ceased to exist."