Hillsborough: Where Was I?
November 1, 2013
by Martin Odoni
FOREWORD: I do not wish the many essays I have written on the subject to give a false impression of my ‘relationship’, for want of a better word, with the Hillsborough Disaster. I must reiterate categorically that I was not present at Hillsborough, and to the best of my knowledge, nobody I knew at the time was there either. Nor have I ever had more than the most fleeting contact with any of the Disaster’s most prominent campaigners for justice – the late Anne Williams once shared a couple of my essays on her Facebook Timeline, but I would say that that is about the biggest direct link I have ever had, and, honoured though I was to learn that she thought highly of my work, it isn’t much of a link really.
While I have supported the campaigns against the British Judicial system repeatedly over the last twenty-four years, and I have also frequently been caught up in vehement arguments with those who insist on propagating the apocryphal stories about how the Disaster happened, my own personal stake in it is minimal, and very much ‘from-a-distance’.
A few months ago, I wrote to the Independent Police Complaints Commission to point out to them a serious issue raised in a recent Panorama documentary about the Disaster, and from the response I got, it seemed the person replying was under the impression I had actually been at Hillsborough when it happened. So it is in order to make sure that no false impression is given as to my position that I have written the following account.
Every so often in my life, I’ve been accused of being a ‘glory-hunter’. The reason for this is that I am from the city of Exeter in Devon – “capital of the south-west and Jewel in the Crown of the West Country!!!!” as it is sometimes referred to by older generation locals too misty-eyed to know better – and yet for most of my life as a football fan, I have been a supporter of Liverpool FC. Merseyside and Devon are both in the western half of England, but that’s about as close as you can ever really get to finding a geographic parallel. So why do I support Liverpool?
Well, my family does have links to Merseyside; my mother and father lived there for a while in the months after they married in the early-1970’s. But my main reason for supporting Liverpool is probably less sentimental than that. The simple reality is, I first started watching football in the early-1980’s, when Liverpool had been the most dominant team in the country for some years. The team were on TV more often than any other, so they were the team I’d first heard of, and I quickly developed a familiarity with them. So I always looked up and paid attention as a six and seven year old whenever I saw them mentioned on the news. “Yes! I know them!” I sort of just started supporting them because I knew who they were. Kind of like imprinting, I guess.
My poor neglected local club of minnows, Exeter City, I am embarrassed to say, did not register with me at all until about a year after I became a football fan. My reaction when finally one of my friends told me about the club was one of genuine surprise. “What?” I gasped in my quaint yokelly accent, which, yes, I still have today. “We have a football club in Devon?” That can come as a real brow-raiser even now, given Devon’s long status as a cricket and rugby union stronghold, but in fact we have three clubs in my home corner of the world. Exeter City, pride of the West Country of course, Plymouth Argyle, who wear green because they make me sick, and Torquay United, who wear yellow because they’re such cowardly…
Nah, too easy. (Answer back if you dare, Helen Chamberlain!)
From that point on, I became a supporter of both Exeter City and Liverpool, and that is still my position today. (It was a very surreal experience for me when the two clubs played against each other in the League Cup a couple of years back, I can tell you.) Rather annoyingly, the year my family moved to Glasgow was the very year that Exeter City finally tasted a bit of success by clinching the then-Fourth Division Championship, just as I was no longer there to see it happening. But as a consolation, there was a guy at my new school in Bearsden who was a Carlisle United fan, whom Exeter pipped for the title, so I gave him plenty of stick and wind-ups about that.
That year was 1989-90, but in the April of 1989, my family had still not moved north. I was still very much an Exonian – that is the demonym for people from Exeter in case you were wondering – living as a gloomy teenager with a slow-to-fade fondness for Transformers comics, and a detestation of the vainglorious private school I had been sent to. At the time, my family were living around the corner from City’s home stadium (read: tumbledown veranda with a grass field attached to it), St. James’ Park, but I seldom went to watch them play, because, after a handful of experiences of watching a game from the terraces of various grounds in the early-1980’s, I’d come to find it a grimy, uncomfortable, nervous business for someone so small. I would probably have coped far better by the time I was a teenager, but as is so often the case with kids, I didn’t really notice any of the changes in myself until puberty set in.
So, on that date of 15th April 1989, when the worst stadium disaster in British history sent shockwaves around the country, while I would like to claim that I was doing something profound, or at least heavily football-related, when the news reached me, the truth is extremely mundane. In fact, all I was doing was messing around with a video recorder – oh, how advanced that technology seemed then. About a month earlier, being a naive thirteen-year-old, I was under the impression that the bi-annual Comic Relief telethon, Red Nose Day, was genuinely funny. No really, I did. So I had irritated the rest of the family by taping about four hours of it on the VCR for posterity. On this Saturday afternoon a month on, I was sat in the living room with my brother (then a chatty, rosy-cheeked five-year-old playing with Starcom toys – remember them? They had magnets in their feet) and father, watching the Red Nose Day recording back, and trying to persuade myself that all the chaos and poorly-staged set-pieces weren’t excruciating to watch. I found a videolog of Billy Connolly reuniting a father with his two lost children in the civil war for Mozambique genuinely heart-wrenching. And we all found the magic trick by Paul Daniels that went wrong because of curdled milk – it would take much too long to explain here – amusing for entirely the wrong reasons.
And it was around this point, if I remember rightly, that my mother came running into the living room. I don’t recall what time it was, but I think it must have been some point between 3pm and 4pm. She couldn’t stand Red Nose Day, so she had been in the dining room, listening to the radio instead.
I had been aware, of course, that Liverpool were playing in an FA Cup semi-final that day, but it hadn’t really been on my mind that much. I was very confident Liverpool would win, and in any event, at the time I was rather ‘taking a break’ from being a football fan, probably through having watched too much of it on TV in previous years and grown slightly bored.
But when my mum came running in, I leapt to my feet with a guilty start, thinking I must have done something wrong, and trying desperately hard to think what it might have been. But she zipped straight past me to the television and switched the video recorder off. “Turn on the other channel!” she cried, fumbling with the poorly-designed controls on the front of the TV. “There’s been a crush at the football!”
I didn’t quite understand what she meant, and knowing that she didn’t like football any more than she liked Red Nose Day, I spent a brief moment trying to figure out what could possibly interest her in what was happening at the game. But then she managed to switch the TV to BBC1, and within seconds, to my abject horror, I understood all too well.
I can’t remember exactly what images I saw. For some reason, memories from long ago have a strange tendency to turn into mirror-images in my head. For instance, in my mind, I always have an image of the Heysel Stadium Tragedy happening at the opposite end of the terrace from where it really happened, and similarly with Hillsborough, my actual memories of it from the day seem to have the crush occurring at the Kop end of the stadium rather than Leppings Lane, so in my head all events appear to be happening to the right of the main BBC camera’s position and not to the left. But what I do seem to remember is the sight of various people in a seated upper tier hauling stricken fans up out of a standing area, and a football pitch full of people, some of them being carried away on what appeared to be stretchers. (We know now that the ‘stretchers’ were in fact advertising hoardings that had been torn down.)
As a ten-year-old, I had seen numbing chaos on the TV screen as I sat through Heysel. And through the intervening years, I had become almost desensitised to disaster, so frequent a feature had it become during the mid-to-late-1980’s e.g. the Valley Parade Fire, the Clapham Junction Rail Crash, the Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster, the Piper Alpha Explosion, the Lockerbie Bombing*, and on and on. It is in fact terrifying just how disaster-prone Britain had become during that period, and I had half-stopped noticing it. It was simply part of the way the world must be, I had come to assume, which is scary in itself.
But this time it really hit me. I couldn’t take in much of what the presenters on TV were saying – I assume from re-watching some of the footage in recent years that they were Bob Wilson and John Motson – but one thing I remember very distinctly is that I kept hearing numbers. One of them was an emergency telephone number for relatives. The other was a death-toll. “People are dead?” I muttered. The number fifty seemed to keep filling my ears, and so I assumed, correctly as it turns out, that I was hearing the then-current estimate for how many had died. That immediately carried my thoughts back to the fire at Bradford City four years earlier, where over fifty had also died. With my limited, juvenile mind of the time, this new tragedy sounded impossible to me. These people were apparently dying because too many of them were in a tight space? How could a tight space be as dangerous as a runaway fire? Alas, the naivety of youth.
Little did I know that the death-toll wouldn’t stop there, but at that point I was feeling quite different from how I had felt witnessing previous disasters. After Valley Parade, after Heysel, after Zeebrugge, after Lockerbie*, and others, I had felt genuinely very saddened, but not personally affected. This time, I felt connected to what was going on, even though I had not been there. Indeed I had never set foot in Sheffield in my whole life at the time.
The reason I felt personally involved of course is that I was a Liverpool supporter, and the people dying were Liverpool supporters too. It’s a shallow, almost tribal reason to care more, but it was still true. So I kept watching, the horror greater than I probably had any right to feel.
The rest of my memories of that sombre evening are dominated by newsflashes on the TV, each one reporting a death-toll higher than the previous newsflash, which made the whole experience a dizzying, out-of-control blur. I can’t remember all of the exact figures that I heard, but I seem to recall one newsreader saying fifty-three, another channel saying no it was fifty-seven, establishing the disaster as the worst in English sporting history, then another newsflash updating to say it was something like sixty-six, equalling the Ibrox Disaster of 1971, before finally (or at least I had thought it was finally) Moira Stuart, with her eternally big hair and android-like, unblinking facial movements, announcing that the figure was now set at seventy-four, thus making it the worst disaster in British sporting history. I think that must have been the point when my brain just couldn’t process anymore. Any number higher than that just would not go into my head, I half-consciously decided, so that had to be it, that had to be the final total. There could not have been any more people killed. Not just by watching a football match.
Alas, a couple of hours later, Martyn Lewis appeared on the screen and announced that the death-toll was ninety-three. My memory may be wrong on this, but I seem to recall myself actually arguing with the TV set at this point, so little could I process the ever-growing total. “No!” I cried, somehow convincing myself that the earlier report was definitive and that the later report was somehow the result of a silly miscount. “It’s seventy-four! It’s seventy-four!”
It wasn’t seventy-four. It was ninety-three. And soon it was ninety-four. And a couple of days on it would be ninety-five. (Four years later, Tony Bland’s life-support machine would be switched off and it would be ninety-six. Although I shudder to speculate how many the real total is, when we consider those who have died after being unable to cope with the mental trauma of the Disaster.)
I seem to remember hearing at some point in the evening about the rumour of an exit gate being broken down by ticketless fans – which for loyalty reasons I reflexively dismissed – and the subsequent refutation of that, but I can’t recall exactly when I heard either of them.
And that is just about my whole memory of the day itself. As you can see, I was not closely or intimately involved in it at all, but even so, the Hillsborough Disaster has had a strong effect on me in a very indirect way ever since. And even if, at the time, my reasons for defending the supporters and criticising the police were more about club loyalty than intellect, study of the real story of the Disaster over the next few years showed me that I happened to be right. I’ve occasionally been in really bitter fights over the Disaster with uninformed people while living in Scotland, and later in Manchester (how predictable) since then, and I still don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of that.
Before I finish, one other memory from April 1989 bears mentioning.
Being a schoolkid, I had a pre-school newspaper round at the time, posting the national dailies to houses in the St. James/Stoke Hill parishes of Exeter. Around 7am on the 19th April, I was poised to deliver my first copy of that day’s issue of The Sun, and saw on the bundle of sheets in my hand the words “THE TRUTH. Some fans picked pockets of victims. Some fans urinated on the brave cops. Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.” (I didn’t memorise them word-for-word at the time of course, although in later years they became indelibly etched on my cerebellum.) Even at that young age, I could already work out in my head how implausible some of the accusations in that notorious article were, but I also knew straight away that these accusations were now going to be all over the country, and once publicised in this way, they could never be ‘un-publicised’. I was so shocked that even our poisonous British tabloids could print anything so vile that I wanted to throw the ‘newspaper’ in the nearest bin. In hindsight, I probably should have, but I was afraid of getting into trouble if I did so, so I delivered it.
I finished my round in an angry daze – the newsagent who employed me was angry with me that evening because I’d become so distracted by those headlines that I’d gotten several deliveries wrong – and I was very quiet in school all day. I never spoke of it to my parents when I got home either, but I had spent most of the day honestly wanting to set fire to something, as though that could somehow burn the lies away.
I don’t know whether anything above really conveys why the Hillsborough Disaster matters so much to me. I’m not even sure if I know why myself in fact; I don’t think it’s just club loyalty anymore. I do feel a wider hostility towards corruption in the police and media in general, which have undoubtedly played huge roles in the history of the Disaster, so it may have something to do with that. But in a way it doesn’t matter why, and questioning such feelings on the basis of “Well I wasn’t involved, so why should I care?” encourages both selfishness and myopia. What matters is that it did matter then, and it has exposed other issues that still very much matter now, issues of the unaccountability of the British legal system, and the money-dominated motivations of the media, among others. And in truth, the needless deaths of nearly a hundred people by bungling institutional incompetence can never stop being important just because time has passed.
Surely those are good enough reasons for it to matter to anyone. And the reasons it should matter to everyone.
*A fellow pupil at my school in Exeter was one of the victims at Lockerbie in fact, although I didn’t know her personally as she was a couple of years my senior. Sadly I do not recall her name, but I know that she had started boarding at Exeter School about a year earlier. She had failed to settle in the West Country, and being homesick, she had travelled back to Scotland for the Christmas holidays. Her house was apparently one of the ones that was destroyed when the Boeing crash-landed on the village. At the time of the bombing, I was in hospital with a broken leg, but I remembered seeing photographs of the girl in a local newspaper, and pictures of some of her classmates in tears when the news was broken to them. Again, I did not feel personally affected by Lockerbie, but I probably should have.
EDIT: Some of my memories of Lockerbie are wrong, I’ve discovered. I’ve just checked this link to the website of Exeter’s main local newspaper, and it turns out the schoolgirl, whose name was Melina Hudson, was on board the plane itself and didn’t live in Lockerbie – indeed, she wasn’t from Scotland at all. She was also only in Devon as part of an exchange program, and not as a long-term student. Apologies for the misinformation there.
ANOTHER EDIT: My mother has read the above, and she has sent me the following supplementary details; –
“A vivid memory Martin. I can tell you the time you learned about it: I was listening to the 3pm News and it was, of course, the first item, so I dashed into the living room a few seconds after 3. As you say, the carnage was already well established by the time we saw the live broadcasting.”
I’m not sure this is accurate though, as the game wasn’t stopped until 3:06pm, and hardly anybody outside the Leppings Lane end of the stadium even knew anything was wrong until just before that moment. I suspect it was a 4pm news bulletin she was listening to.
Other articles about the Hillsborough Disaster:-