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The popularity of films like ''Green Street'' and ''Football Factory'', which depict football violence seem to have increased over recent years whilst the violence itself has been decreasing. This, combined with an increase in the number of ''true life stories'' type books means that those people who took part in this kind of behaviour can now talk about it more freely and to a wider audience. Although marketed as fiction, Kevin Sampson's ''Awaydays'' is one of the latest to fall into this category.
Paul Carty is from a fairly decent area of Birkenhead and shouldn't really be interested in going to football matches purely for the violence. But since his mother's death, he finds it easier to lose himself in a world of casual violence and equally casual sex than to face the home life he would have without her. He inhabits an area between the two worlds, feeling estranged from the family he still lives with, but never being entirely accepted by The Pack, Tranmere Rovers travelling fans, no matter how conformant his dress or how many opposition fans he fights.
The only person who seems to accept him is Elvis, the only other member of The Pack who doesn't seem to match the stereotype of a football hooligan. He not only experiences angst, but he also seems to know how to spell it. Whilst most of The Pack exist only to cause hurt to others, Elvis worries that his continued existence may cause hurt to himself. This not knowing how or even whether they fit in doesn't prevent them from enjoying the life to the full.
''Awaydays'' is six weeks in the lives of Carty, in his dealings both within and without of The Pack. It's written in the first person, from Carty's point of view, which helps give the story a lot more impact and immediacy. It also adds a touch to reality to things, as Sampson seems to get into the mindset of a boy in his late teens very well and focuses on what a boy like Carty would tend to concentrate on. Thus, the sex and violence that forms a major part of his life is recounted in exacting detail, both leading up to, during and in the aftermath of the events. But his dealings with his family and work are largely glossed over, not being important to him.
This sense of perspective reminds me very much of Dave Zeltserman's ''Pariah'' and in the same way as that book, it helps the whole thing seem real. It is credit to Sampson that at no point did I feel I was reading fiction. This book felt so real that it could have been marked as autobiographical and I would have believed it. If this is truly a work of complete fiction, then Sampson is to be applauded not just for his skill with words, but how exact his imagination allows him to be, with both events and emotions.
Whether or not you enjoy the book will depend entirely on how you feel about the subject matter. Whilst Carty himself doesn't carry a knife, Elvis and some of the others do and Carty reports on what he sees when they're used, even down to the patterns of the blood. He's equally graphic in his descriptions of his sexual encounters. If you're prudish or don't like hearing about violence, then this isn't a book you'll enjoy in any way. If you do like that kind of thing, or can handle it, this is an absolute must read story.
If there is one down side, it's that the age and location of the story can make things a little difficult in places. Set in Birkenhead in 1979, there are references to both the location, and the date that show this and makes reading it thirty years later feel a little strange. It doesn't completely exclude the modern reader, but it does leave you with a feeling of detachment. In fairness, however, this is largely how Carty feels at times, so it could be that this is a literary device of such genius that it went way over my head.
This aside, this is an incredibly well told story. Sampson's writing really allows you to get inside Carty's life and, if you can put aside the use of slang and late 1970s jargon and references, it's a strange and wild ride when you get there. I would never have wanted the kind of life Carty experienced in any way, but thanks to Sampson I realise more accurately how distasteful I find this sort of behaviour, as I almost feel as if I lived it for a short while. This, I suspect, is exactly the kind of effect that Sampson was hoping to have with this book; I loved it, but hate myself for doing so. If you think you can stomach the story, it's easy to stomach a price of 75 pence from eBay.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk