Some years ago, when Millwall played West Ham United, the Millwall fans sang the following song (to the tune of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, if you want to hum along): ‘Oh east London, is like Bengal. Oh east London is like Bengal. It’s like the back streets of Delhi. Oh east -London is like Bengal.’ They haven’t sung it for two or three years, but only because Millwall haven’t played West Ham. I mean, I don’t think that Millwall’s supporters have gradually thought better of it and decided that the ditty was perhaps racist and demeaning, or are worried about the relative geography of Delhi and Bengal.
If we (Millwall are my team) played West Ham tomorrow, I think we’d still sing it. I’ve watched one or two West Ham fans nodding their heads sadly when the song gets an airing, and there’s at least one Hammer writing for this publication who would ruefully concur. West Ham’s fans respond, incidentally, by suggesting that Millwall supporters are members of the travelling community — which they do without, to my mind, the requisite respect for that much-maligned ethnic minority. But then we make the same sort of references whenever Millwall play Gillingham: ‘You can’t read, you can’t write, you wear gold and Nikes. You are all from Gillingham and you are fucking pikeys.’ Or, more briefly: ‘You can shove your lucky heather up your arse.’ It is, I would accept, a fairly coarse demotic and not mindful of the very real hurt it might cause. Or perhaps very mindful of that hurt, and revelling in it.
Why do football supporters sing these sorts of songs? The writer David -Goodhart might be able to provide an answer. He divides the country between ‘somewhere people’ and ‘anywhere people’. There are those who feel a profound allegiance to their hometown, who are rooted there almost to the degree that it defines them, and those who feel no sort of allegiance, who have escaped the bonds through aspiration, wealth, advanced education or simply a more cosmopolitan mindset.