Posts Tagged Hillsborough disaster
On the 15th April 1989 I was nine, and I can remember playing a game with my younger brother Sean. We were in the bedroom of our house in Burscough, messing around on the bunk beds. At some point we wandered downstairs, to get a drink or a ‘Toronto Snack’ – a fruit salad like the ones I used to get at nursery in Canada when Dad was teaching there for a year and Sean was just a baby. In my memory we came into the living room to find him watching the television.
“Something’s happened at the match,” is what I remember him saying. I remember the green of the pitch and the blue of the sky and the people milling around on the grass. People running as they carried others on makeshift stretchers. A line of police. As the afternoon progressed we learned of the deaths. 10, 20…
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On 14 April 2012, marking the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, I wrote this:
…the awful truth is that no matter how many of those fans were drunk and how many were there without tickets, if there had been stewards in front of the entrances to the Leppings Lane pens, directing fans away from the already crowded central pen, then no one would have died. No one. It’s horrifically, tragically, simple.
Earlier this week, at the inquests in Warrington, David Duckenfield who was the police commander in charge on the day of the match, acknowledged, at last, at long last, that ‘his failure to close a tunnel that led to the overcrowded Leppings Lane terrace pens directly caused the deaths of 96 people.’
The truth about the tragedy was always known. It was always that simple. But the lies that were spun and spread were so effective that it’s taken us 26 years to have that truth stated so starkly, in public. So to the tragedy of 96 lives lost, and so many more injured and traumatised, so many families devastated by grief, was added the bitterness of the contempt that the dead and their families received, the scandalous lies, the fabrication of blame.
It is unforgiveable.
And yet I find myself pitying Duckenfield. Forgiveness isn’t for me to offer, and whether, if I were a family member I could ever have the courage and the grace to forgive I don’t know. I do not, cannot, sympathise, let alone empathise with him. I can imagine myself, briefly and inadequately, on those terraces, or in the homes where people waited and hoped and then despaired. I cannot, however, imagine covering up catastrophic failure and living, for 26 years, with the knowledge of what my failure had done not just to 96 people but to all the others who loved them. That is beyond my comprehension.
It’s not that I find it so impossible to imagine finding myself out of my depth, being expected to make huge decisions and realising that I haven’t got the knowledge to do so, freezing like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car, lying on the spur of the moment to try and cover up a catastrophically wrong decision. There but for the grace of God, as they say.
But faced with that aftermath, not just the bodies, the grieving families but the tabloids full of lies, to remain silent? As Taylor and Stuart Smith inquired and scrutinised, through the private prosecutions and the Independent Panel, he remained silent, acknowledging only what he had no choice but to acknowledge, that he had lied about the opening of the gate. I can’t understand, I can’t sympathise let alone empathise, and it is not for me to forgive.
But I felt pity for him this week, for the first time in 26 years. That he suffered from depression and PTSD in the aftermath of the disaster is hardly surprising. That he, as a middle-aged Yorkshire bloke, was ashamed of that diagnosis, saw it as weakness, and attempted to hide it, is not unexpected. Locked in his own shame and misery, he could not see, he says he did not see until so recently, what his failure to acknowledge what he did to the 96 was doing to the survivors and the families of the 96.
I’m not letting him off the hook – not at all. From his blunder and the knee-jerk attempt to blame someone, anyone, for the unfolding disaster rather than to take responsibility for it, flowed everything else that happened that day. And from his failure to speak out in the days, weeks, years that followed, flowed the persistent stream of misinformation, the inevitable rejoinders to every article or statement supporting the families. The S*n would not (or so they say) have published that most scurrilous and vicious of reports had they not heard the allegations from the apparently impeccable source of a Tory MP and a police commander. And inevitably what he says now causes yet more pain. For the families to hear of his PTSD after their years of agony, to hear him say that failing to foresee the consequences of opening exit gates at the ground was “arguably one of the biggest regrets” of his life – arguably? ‘one of’?? – must have been extraordinarily difficult, and little wonder that some had to leave the courtroom.
But he’s said it now, and it stands there, that crucial admission, after all these years of denials and lies. Too late, of course, but it cannot be unsaid. And I cannot help but pity a man who has carried so much guilt, the responsibility for 96 deaths and for prolonging and intensifying the misery of the families, who has had that weight to carry all these years. I cannot help but pity a man who has known all along what was right, and been unable to do it. I do not say that I hope he finds peace now. Peace is what is owed to the families and the survivors – it’s not for him. I do, however, hope that he finds some way to channel the guilt and shame that has festered in him for 26 years into doing something good now, something right.
RIP the 96. Massive respect to the families. You’ll never walk alone.
As all this weekend’s football matches kick off seven minutes late, to commemorate the time that the semi-final between Forest and Liverpool at Hillsborough was called off, on 15 April 1989, and as the inquests into the deaths of 96 men, women and children proceed in Warrington, we seem to be within reach of truth and justice at last.
For so long, any time anyone tried to tell the real story of what happened – the failures in planning and organisation, the lies, the callous treatment of the bereaved – they were immediately countered with the narrative that was propagated so assiduously in the days after the tragedy, most notoriously by the Sun. It had become an accepted fact that the cause of the disaster was the behaviour of drunken, ticketless fans, arriving late and forcing their way into the ground, even when the Taylor report scotched so many of these cynical fabrications. Finally, with the report of the Independent Panel, and the overwhelming weight of evidence to vindicate the families’ and survivors’ accounts, that has irrevocably changed.
Too late for too many, and just too bloody late – how could it have taken so long for the truth that was known at the time, even as the events unfolded, to be brought back into the light?
I do not know how the families and survivors have sustained their fight for so long, and at what terrible cost. But I know that a sense of justice has driven them on. Of course they have been fighting for the people they loved who never came back from that football match, of course. But it isn’t just personal – it comes from a deeper sense of what is right, what is fair, and a refusal to let lies stand in place of truth. I was privileged to meet, very briefly, the father of one of the victims a couple of years ago, and what struck me most powerfully was his belief that the values that he held dear, and that he had passed on to his son, were being betrayed, in the vilification of the victims and the deliberate falsification of evidence, in the lack of respect for those who attended the match on that day, and those who loved them.
I am indebted to Gerry, from the wonderful That’s How the Light Get’s In blog, for finding this very apt quotation from Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop:
the world would do well to reflect, that injustice is in itself, to every generous and properly constituted mind, an injury, of all others the most insufferable, the most torturing, and the most hard to bear; and that many clear consciences have gone to their account elsewhere, and many sound hearts have broken, because of this very reason; the knowledge of their own deserts only aggravating their sufferings, and rendering them the less endurable.
They have, nonetheless, endured. And the seven minute delay and the 96 empty seats remind us again of what was lost, as the inquest testimonies remind us that each of the 96 had names, stories, hopes and aspirations, and people who loved them.
They’re not alone, they haven’t walked alone, they never will.
RIP the 96
2012, for me, has been the year of the blog. The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced. I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude. And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views. On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and Diane Magras. To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!
The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out. But my own experience has been entirely positive. Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff. I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew. This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.
So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:
- John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
- Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
- TV : Homeland – plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen. Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics. Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising. The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!). Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
- I’ve been reading Proust. A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond. I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described. There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough. I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
- New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
- First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of – Hans Fallada, Alexander Baron, Haruki Murakami and Wilkie Collins.
- Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak House, but I need not have worried. Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
- Theatre – Geoffrey Streatfeild in both Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
- Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green. Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
- Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.
2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally. The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk. And that justice seems finally to be within reach now. Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.
And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life. The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning. We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.
So – onward to 2013.
No resolutions as such. But anticipations and aspirations –
- Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
- Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
- Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff. Lots and lots.
- Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
- Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
- Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
- Continuing to be an utter geek
- Listening to as much music as possible, with as eclectic a range as possible
- Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
- Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing. Going on and on.
- Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend
Phew! No pressure then.
Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits. Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.
Gerry’s blog, That’s How the Light Gets In, marks the vindication of the Hillsborough victims, survivors and families with Dickensian reflections on injustice. RIP the 96, and massive respect to the campaigners.
I’m currently reading The Old Curiosity Shop and, in one of those curious coincidences without which Dickens’ plots would have ground to a halt, I read the following passage shortly after hearing news that the Hillsborough families are one step closer to justice:
Let moralists and philosophers say what they may, it is very questionable whether a guilty man would have felt half as much misery that night, as Kit did, being innocent. The world, being in the constant commission of vast quantities of injustice, is a little too apt to comfort itself with the idea that if the victim of its falsehood and malice have a clear conscience, he cannot fail to be sustained under his trials, and somehow or other to come right at last; ‘in which case,’ say they who have hunted him down, ‘—though we certainly don’t expect it—nobody will be better pleased than we.’ Whereas…
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17 October. A demonstration is scheduled in the heart of the city, against a curfew recently imposed on certain sections of the population. There are about 30,000 demonstrators, men, women and children, many in their Sunday best, a signal of their peaceful intentions. But the reception, as they emerge from the stations and move towards their meeting place, is anything but peaceful. The police are ready for them, their instructions to pay back one blow with ten, with the assurance that whatever happens, they have the backing of their superiors. Of the 30,000, 11,000 are arrested. Some of these are herded into buses and taken to a nearby sports stadium, where they are interrogated and beaten up. Some are beaten and thrown into the river, or hung from trees and lampposts. Probably – and we’ll never know for sure – 200 of the demonstrators are killed.
This happened in Paris, in 1961, to Algerians and others of North African origin, in the context of the Algerian War and terrorist activity by the FLN. That it isn’t widely known about – was barely spoken of at all until the 1990s – is the result of one of the most successful cover-ups of our time.
It’s not that there were no accounts of these events at the time – the arrest, beating and murder of so many could hardly go unnoticed in the centre of Paris. But in France itself, there was rigorous state censorship – films and photographs were seized and destroyed, and journalists found their reports buried or edited to match the official line that it was a riot that was firmly dealt with by the police. This was echoed by most of the international press, who at best suggested that perhaps the police response was a tad firmer than absolutely necessary. Amongst the Algerian community, fear of reprisals largely ensured that, even as people desperately tried to find out what had happened to family members who never came home after the demonstration, their experiences were not made public.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the massacre in her autobiography, drawing on her friend Claude Lanzmann’s first-hand account:
The cops were waiting for the Algerians at the exits to the Metro … [Lanzmann] saw with his own eyes how they kicked them in the teeth and smashed their skulls. Bodies were found hanging from the trees on the Bois du Boulogne and others, disfigured and mutilated, in the Seine. … Afterwards, I heard the … bare-faced lies: two dead, when we already know of more than 50.
That there is now a plaque on the Pont St Michel, and films and TV documentaries about that night in October 1961, is due mainly to the fact that the person in charge of the Paris police force at the time was one Maurice Papon, who in the 1980s came under scrutiny not for his treatment of Algerian demonstrators twenty years earlier, but for his complicity in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux almost twenty years before that. During the course of his somewhat belated trial, the connection with the massacre was brought to light.
Didier Daeninckx’s noir policier Meurtres pour la Mémoire linked the massacre with the deportations (without naming Papon) in 1984, but interestingly was not the first fictional treatment of the massacre. Black American writer William Gardner Smith wrote The Stone Face in 1963, and Kristin Ross, in her study of the afterlife of May 68, writes that:
It is a mark of the success surrounding the official blackout of information about October 17 that Smith’s novel, written by a foreigner in France and published in the United States (it could not be published in France), would stand as one of the few representations of the event available all the way up until the early 1990s – until the moment, that is, when a generation of young Beurs, as the children of North African immigrants call themselves, had reached an age at which they could begin to demand information about their parents’ fate. Professional or academic historians have lagged well behind amateurs in the attempt to discover what occurred on October 17; investigative journalists, militants, and fiction writers like Smith, or the much more widely read detective novelist, Didier Daeninckx, kept a trace of the event alive during the thirty years when it had entered a “black hole” of memory.
For many, Michael Hanecke’s film Caché (Hidden) was the first introduction to the 17 October massacre. There’s only a brief mention of it but nonetheless it sits at the heart of the film, a film about memory and the burying of memory. It led me to try to find out whether – as seemed improbable at first – such a thing could have happened and left so little trace.
There are so many aspects of this story that fascinate. The connection between collaboration in the deportation of Jews during the Occupation and the violent repression of dissent by French citizens of north African origin even extends to the fact that an earlier crack-down on Algerian demonstrators by Papon had involved the use of the Vel’d’Hiv as a detention centre. And the fact that an event witnessed by so many could be so effectively hidden from view reflects the way in which the history of collaboration during the Occupation had to be dragged painfully into the light over decades.
There’s also the contrast with the public response to the brutal suppression of a demonstration in February 1962 organised by the Communist Party – the eight who were killed became the symbols of state violence during the Algerian War. One might have thought that this would have brought the October massacre back into public consciousness, but it seems to have had the opposite effect – it was simply eclipsed. Le Monde even reported the suppression of the Charonne demonstration as the most violent state action since 1934. Why? The only plausible explanation is the fact that the October demonstrators, unlike those who were killed and beaten a few months later, were overwhelmingly Algerian or North African.
Of course, the notion of an official cover-up is terribly pertinent today as we await prosecutions, 23 years after the event, in relation to Hillsborough. In both cases, what happened was both known and not known. Known because these things happened in public places, because there were eye-witnesses, photographs, films, newspaper articles. Not known because, in the case of the 17 October massacre those accounts were suppressed by the machinery of the state, and in the case of Hillsborough because no matter how often the truth was published and asserted it barely seemed to dent the falsehoods that had been disseminated at the time so vigorously by the police and others.
It took forty years for the victims of the 17 October massacre to be commemorated officially. We don’t know how many of them there were. We don’t know all of their names, or exactly what happened to most of them. But the events of that night in 1961 are no longer hidden.
- Simone de Beauvoir, La Force des Choses (Gallimard, 1963)
- Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour mémoire (Gallimard, 1984)
- Jean-Luc Einaudi, La Bataille de Paris: 17 octobre 1961 (Editions du Seuil, 1991)
- Jean-Luc Einaudi,’17 octobre 1961: un crime toujours pas condamné’ L’Humanité, 13/10/01
- Richard J Golsan (ed), The Papon Affair: Memory & Justice on Trial (Routledge, 2000)
- Daniel A. Gordon, ‘World Reactions to the 1961 Paris Pogrom’, University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, I (2000)
- Jim House, Neil MacMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (Oxford UP, 2006)
- Jacques Panijel, ‘Le 17 octobre 1961 – un crime d’état’, L’Humanité, 24/10/97
- Kristin Ross, May ’68 And Its Afterlives (University of Chicago Press, 2002)
I wasn’t at Hillsborough that day, though I’d thought of going, my first football match in years, to watch my team, perhaps meet up with my brothers, like old times. Instead I was standing in our kitchen just the other side of the valley, wondering what was going on, why they weren’t playing football. I’d have known little more had I been there – I would have been a football pitch away from the people dying behind the goal, and I would have been frustrated at the delays, and angry with the troublemakers. Instead I was watching and listening all that afternoon and evening as grief and horror and disbelief mounted.
I wasn’t there that day but I remember afternoons in the Trent End, when a surge from the back of the crowd forced me stumbling forwards, feeling very small and vulnerable, trying to keep my footing, or pressed against a barrier till my ribs were bruised, and I can imagine so easily how it happened. I can understand after so many other games ruined in those days by people who cared more about fighting than football, some of the cumulative, and catastrophic errors in planning, in crowd management, in communication, in emergency response.
But I can’t understand how long it took to see that there were people dying, how the pleas and desperate cries could have been ignored, for so long. And I can’t understand why the injured and the survivors and the families desperately searching for their sons and daughters and partners were treated as criminals, why information was withheld from them, why misinformation was wilfully disseminated (and not just by The Sun). I can’t understand why, still, after the Taylor report, and all of the information we now have in the public domain, the old lies about drunk and/or ticketless fans being to blame are still trotted out, every time that day is discussed.
I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone at the Liverpool end behaved impeccably – some may well have had a drink or several, some may well have headed across the Pennines hoping to get a ticket when they got here, or to get in without. But actually, that’s by the by. Because the awful truth is that no matter how many of those fans were drunk and how many were there without tickets, if there had been stewards in front of the entrances to the Leppings Lane pens, directing fans away from the already crowded central pen, then no one would have died. No one. It’s horrifically, tragically, simple.
Taylor called this a ‘blunder of the first magnitude’. From this blunder stemmed the desperate attempts by South Yorkshire Police to cover their own backs, to blame the fans, to propagate distortions and falsehoods that would persuade the public that what we had here was yet another example of football hooliganism, rather than a terrible error by those in authority. That’s why, despite the regular calls for the victims’ families to ‘move on’ and ‘let it go’ (clichés favoured in general by those who have not experienced anything approaching this degree of trauma ), there is still a need for information to be brought into the public domain, for light to be shed and records to be set straight. If there had been a swift acknowledgement that a hideous mistake had been made, and the energies of the authorities had been channeled with as much vigour into helping both the victims and their families as they were into blaming them, then the families would be grieving rather than campaigning, commemorating the ones they’d lost rather than fighting for the truth to be told and the lies to be nailed once and for all.
That afternoon twenty-three years ago is vivid in my memory, and I’m thinking as I do each year of all the people who never came home from that match, and all the people who waited for someone who never came home, and all the people who still live with that horror.