Hillsborough: The Name That Became A Moment

December 1, 2013

by Martin Odoni

TEMPORARY EDIT:

THIS IS A MESSAGE FOR A SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY FAN ON THE ‘OWLSTALK’ FORUM. HE GIVES HIS USERNAME AS ‘KivoOwl’ (I admire Internet-users who post complaints to other people rather than to the people they are complaining about, almost as much as I admire the courage not to use their real names).

Thank you for sharing this essay on the forum. But please, if you are going to take issue with what I wrote, address it to me, rather than bitching to others behind my back. There is a reply space at the bottom of every article on this blog, USE IT.

Furthermore, I would also ask you to consider avoiding blatant quote-mining. It’s fair to suspect that a large number of the people reading that thread will not actually bother to read the full article. Therefore, they will be quite unaware of what I wrote after the passage you have copy-pasted – details you have mysteriously not included in your excerpt. Here is the important qualifier that I wrote afterwards; –

“I was being irrational, of course. Life does go on, it has to, especially after nearly a quarter-of-a-century, and pulling down the stadium would have achieved nothing.”

This is a clear and explicit acknowledgement that what I was feeling was not rational or realistic. I also admit in other parts of the article, which you have again left unmentioned, that I was conscious of not being very fair to the place. This article is an account of my emotional reaction to being there, it is not a statement of policy or long-term aims, and your attempt to portray it as some kind of declaration-of-a-feud or something is nothing short of cynical. It does you no credit.

_____

I did something very random and ad hoc today. Well, it’ll be yesterday by the time I’ve published this. I can’t exactly say why I did it, or when I decided to do it, or even when the idea to do it first popped into my head. But at some point after I got up this morning, I decided quite out of the blue to go to Sheffield. (Today was the twenty-fifth anniversary of me breaking my leg in a traffic accident, so it might have something to do with that. Though I can’t say what.)

For any follower of Liverpool Football Club, Sheffield is never an easy city to contemplate. Not because it’s an exceptionally ugly city. I mean, it is – in fact it could just pip Plymouth, Glasgow and Wolverhampton for the coveted title of the dreariest British city my eyes have ever had the misfortune to be directed towards – but that’s neither here nor there in this instance. Instead, the foreboding is brought on by the knowledge that it was the city in which turned British sport’s darkest hour, and Liverpool supporters were at the heart of it, a toll of victims to the tune of over seven hundred injured people, ninety-six of them fatally.

Now Sheffield is a city I am fairly familiar with, not so much intimately, more just as a place I pass through on the train or motorway while travelling to more scenic parts of the north of England (such as, just for instance, any of the others). But today, I decided to visit it for its own sake, and not for the accident of it being between where I live and somewhere I want to go to. And I knew that one of the places I would have to venture to while I was there would be the Hillsborough Stadium, venue of the 1989 Disaster.

I was not at Hillsborough when the crush happened, as I have made clear elsewhere. In fact, until today I had never set real-life eyes on the stadium, seeing it only in film and photographs. Inevitably, I did feel a twinge of unease on this bright, cloudless, freezing winter morning, as I boarded the coach that would carry me across the Pennines from Manchester to South Yorkshire, but I put that feeling down to the routine trepidation I always feel when visiting somewhere new. Some of the scenery between Manchester and Sheffield, especially around High Peak, is very beautiful and dramatic, but I am very familiar with that from many years hiking the Hope Valley. So even though I enjoyed the view, it did nothing to surprise or startle me.

But as the coach passed through Stockbridge, on the outskirts of Sheffield, I happened to see one signpost that mentioned that the district of Hillsborough was only a couple of miles ahead. I had not realised when setting off that the route the coach would follow was going to pass through Hillsborough itself at all, and so, on seeing the words on the sign, I could almost hear them being ‘shouted’ at me out of nowhere; sort of like being sat in a peaceful summer meadow without a care in the world, only for an English Defence League rabble-rouser with a megaphone suddenly to appear next to you without warning and throw all verbal caution to the wind right by your earhole. It was, I have to say it, a real shock, and not a pleasant one.

What I hadn’t yet twigged onto though was that the next few moments would be even worse. Because the coach wasn’t just going to pass through Hillsborough.

The journey went through a parish called Middlewood, and that gave me another addition to the growing collection of knots in my stomach. I knew from checking up on the Internet before departure that Middlewood was the terminus that I would have to head for on the tram in order to reach the stadium, so it was at this point that I realised that we would be passing very close by indeed. Maybe even get a view of it in the distance. No! I thought, I’m not ready to see it yet! My plan had been to arrive in the city centre, catch a tram north to Hillsborough, and sort of gently work my way towards it, gradually psyching myself up along the way. But instead, if I saw it while I was on the coach before I was ready…

And then, good grief, I did see it, and not just in the distance. The coach was actually heading right past the stadium towards Penistone Road, the major arterial road of northern Sheffield. And it was the West Stand that was in view as well. Not the South Stand, nor the Spion Kop, but the West Stand, where the horror of that spring day in 1989 had unfolded. And most jarring of all was that one of the roads the coach crossed as it passed through a junction was called… oh no

Leppings Lane.

I glanced through the window to my left and there I briefly glimpsed that notorious bend in the road with the narrow entry-space for the West Stand. I had seen so many photographs, so much video footage, of that little corner of Sheffield over the previous twenty years or so that I more or less had every detail memorised. I had never been there before, and yet I knew it better than some places I had visited a dozen times. But seeing it so early in the day was another shock that I wasn’t quite psyched up for.

I spent the remainder of the coach ride breathing a little harder than is perhaps healthy, and quietly trying to slow my pulse. The sensation was completely unexpected, like seeing someone a clear foot taller than you heading your way in a darkened alley on a moonless night – panic. That reaction shouldn’t have happened, I had to remind myself. I wasn’t there during the Disaster. This is the sort of reaction a survivor of the central pens should have when they get here, not me. The calm, rational inner voice was correct, stoical and authoritative. And it was almost completely ineffective. I was in shock. The expression on my face must have been something Hammer-Horror-esque – there were a couple of girls with hair dyed ‘unorthodox’ colours (that’s a nice way of putting it) sat in seats off to my left, and I realised that they were both giving me startled looks, as though half-expecting me to have a fit. I don’t know, but I might have made some very odd noises with my throat over the previous couple of minutes.

Another unpleasant moment on that journey came a few minutes later, when the coach headed up a road called Snig Hill. I was sure I recognised the name from somewhere. And then I realised where – at the top of Snig Hill I saw a large, officious-looking building with a sign on the wall proudly declaring, ‘South Yorkshire Police Headquarters’. I immediately turned my head away, feeling not panic this time, but disgust. Damn, why did National Express have to choose a route that takes me past both the stadium and that bent-cop-shop?

After arriving at the Sheffield Interchange and hurrying from the coach to the nearby tram-stop, I spent a few precious minutes trying to decipher the ancient, obscure hieroglyphics that formed the passenger information on the ‘SuperTram’ noticeboards. I finally worked out – I will never be able to explain how I worked it out having never gained a Degree in Egyptology – the correct platform to stand on, the correct tram to board, and the correct stop to change at. I was going from the Sheffield Interchange to the Hillsborough Interchange, and from there I would catch a second tram heading for the stop called… oh no… ‘Leppings Lane’.

If there’s one thing I’ll say for Sheffield – and it’ll probably only ever be one – its tram service urinates from a giddy altitude all over the one used back in Greater Manchester. Sheffield trams are taller, giving plenty of headroom, and are longer and more spacious, meaning there tends to be more room for extra passengers than the ‘Metrolink’ stock can offer. They also have smoother rails, and so the rides tend to be more comfortable. An automated female voice often implores you as the doors close to, “Please hold tight!” which can be very disconcerting at first, but fortunately, reasons to hold tight on the Sheffield SuperTrams prove less numerous than the ones on the Manchester Metrolink.

As the tram rolled through the streets of Sheffield, I took in an awful lot of mediocre architecture, struggled not to laugh out loud at the truly pathetic excuse the city has for a ‘Cathedral’ (seriously, when I first saw Manchester Cathedral in the mid-1990’s I thought it was just a rubbishy church and didn’t realise for about three years what its status was, but Sheffield Cathedral makes it look like York Minster. I guess I was just spoiled by all those years of living in Exeter – now there’s a city that knows how to get a Cathedral right), and shook my head a lot at yet another once-mighty industrial city of the north of England that had been abandoned to cynical decline. I reflected with a sigh that Sheffield has more parallels with Liverpool than some of its more parochial occupants might care to admit, the decline in particular. But where the two cities diverge counts against Sheffield far more than against Liverpool. Too much of Sheffield is overgrown with the worst, most hideous types of utilitarian industrial buildings. Many of them aren’t even used anymore, and are left to rot, adding an extra overtone of squalor and decay to the already-pervasive air of unthinking overdevelopment.

As we reached the foot of Netherthorpe Road, signposts began to appear with directions towards Hillsborough once more. I also saw signs to the ‘Medico-Legal Centre’, which had had a role to play in the aftermath of the Disaster. I found my pulse quickening in that unwelcome way again. My ‘gradual-approach’ plan had been completely scuppered by the unexpected sight of the stadium on the way into the city, and somehow I could just sense the growing proximity. I didn’t want to see it again. Not yet. The words ‘Leppings Lane’ were still circling round the inside of my head, searching for the best bit of cerebellum to land dizzying kicks to, and by and large, finding it.

Finally, the tram reached the Hillsborough Interchange, a busy shopping area with narrow streets, announcing itself by means of a couple of very obviously phony medieval turrets. I stepped off the tram very slowly, and had to take a few moments to catch my breath again. I came to a decision not to catch the tram towards Middlewood, but to walk the rest of the way. The idea behind that was that the walk would give my body a chance to burn off a little of the adrenaline that was pumping through my system, but also that it would delay my arrival at the stadium a little longer. (I was wrong about that in fact – I was to arrive at the stadium without any tram ever overtaking me.)

The walk was only about half a mile. That would normally be child’s play to a guy who has routinely done seventeen-mile hikes in all weathers around the Hope and Sett Valleys, but it proved uncomfortable on this occasion, as my nerves were now jangling so much it was even slightly painful. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, but I had precisely zero appetite. The enormity of where I was going, of what I was about to see, was hitting me where it really hurt, and to a depth that I really hadn’t anticipated at all.

Gradually, as I headed along Middlewood Road, the blue-and-white colours of the walls and rooves of a football stadium started to peep into view over the dark, evergreen treetops lining Hillsborough Park.

There it is, I heard myself whisper, the scene of the South Yorkshire Police’s greatest ever failure. And the starting point of their greatest ever crime. There was probably, it saddened me to ponder, quite a substantial list of challengers for that title. My thoughts briefly drifted to the miners who were attacked by the police at the Orgreave Coking Plant in 1984.

I soon found Leppings Lane tram-stop – demonstrating that unique logic that all Britons possess in abundance, but only Yorkshire has perfected, it isn’t actually on Leppings Lane. I turned down a road that skirted the north edge of Hillsborough Park, called Parkside Road, fittingly enough. I went past a Primary School, and kept my eyes fixed firmly on its walls so that I didn’t have to see past it to the leviathan that loomed so ominously in the background. I could now feel my palms sweating in the icy cold air.

And suddenly I was at the end of Parkside Road, and standing on the junction with Catch Bar Lane. On the opposite side of the road was the entrance to Hillsborough Stadium. I had arrived.

I’m here. I’m actually here. I’ve found the horror. I’m at the horror.

I saw the famous footbridge over the River Don, leading up to the front entrance. I looked above it to see the mighty club sign on the front wall ahead, the blue circular owl emblem that had been the official club badge of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club since the stadium had officially been part of the district of Owlerton in the late-nineteenth century. I suppose the emblem looks quite handsome to some people’s eyes, but mine saw horror.

The Sheffield Wednesday Owl emblem.

The Owl emblem that dominates the badge of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.

I turned and walked past the Hillsborough Disaster Memorial without looking too closely at it just yet – I wanted to do a complete circuit of the stadium, and to come to the Memorial last. So I headed along Catch Bar Lane with my head bowed, towards the junction with Leppings Lane. I thought to myself as I walked, Horror. Horror. Horror.

Now, I’m not trying to suggest for a moment that this was in some way more difficult for me than it must have been for survivors of the Disaster to return there later. Absolutely not. Just consider the example of Mark Edwardson, who is a reporter for the regional BBC news programme North West Tonight. At a tender age, he was a survivor of the crush in the central pens, and he only revisited the stadium to do a report for the twentieth anniversary in 2009. As we can see from the short film he made that day, it was an incredibly difficult experience for him – it couldn’t possibly have been anything else – and it must have been similar for so many others.

But at the same time, for people like me – that is to say people who weren’t there and who hadn’t actually been to Hillsborough until a long time after the event, but have spent a long time studying the Disaster and learning many of the innermost details of what happened – there is a parallel difficulty with finally going there. A different problem, certainly a lesser problem, but still a problem. It is not the difficulty of reliving dreadful personal memories, it is more a difficulty of vivid imagination, and it stems from what we might call the A-Place-Becomes-A-Time phenomenon. By that, I mean something that has happened with a great many major or dramatic events in history; when something major occurs, especially something that leads to the loss of many lives, the name of the place where it happens somehow becomes the name of the time that it happens too. When discussing the Hillsborough Disaster, sometimes we need a shorthand for it, so we just call it ‘Hillsborough’, and so the moment of the Disaster has somehow taken the name of where it happened. The dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in World War II is treated likewise; the first bombing was at Hiroshima, and so the moment when it happened has eventually been named ‘Hiroshima’. The explosion of the Piper Alpha oil rig is known as ‘Piper Alpha’, the Lockerbie Bombing is known as ‘Lockerbie’, the Tiananmen Square Massacre is known as ‘Tiananmen Square’, the slaughter of British troops at the Battle Of The Somme is known as ‘The Somme’, and so on.

This isn’t a problem as such, but it does have an unfortunate side-effect for those on the outside looking in, one that we’re probably not aware of, at least until we finally see the location for ourselves. That side-effect is that it stigmatises it. For the last twenty-four years, I have associated the name ‘Hillsborough’ with a human crush that took ninety-six lives, and maimed hundreds of others. I long ago ceased associating it with anything else, even its original meaning. So as soon as I hear the name, I don’t think of Sheffield, I don’t think of a district, I don’t even think of a stadium as such, I think of a human tragedy. And the main reason for that is that I never saw the Hillsborough Stadium before today, I have no personal memories of it, and so the main point-of-reference I have for it is the horror of the Disaster itself. It means that the name ‘Hillsborough’ in my head is completely interchangeable with the word ‘Horror’. I can’t tell one from the other without concentrating really hard. The name suddenly has a new, secondary meaning that is far louder than its original meaning, and that interferes with my perception of the place itself.

The stadium at Hillsborough, I am fairly sure, is not particularly pretty, but then I have never a seen a ‘pretty’ football stadium. Anfield, and indeed Goodison Park, in Liverpool look very, shall we say, ‘industrial’. St. James’ Park in Exeter looks like a plastic rain-shelter that would collapse in a strong breeze – in fact, I’m half-convinced it really is one. Old Trafford in Manchester looks like a dirty porridge bowl with spikes sticking out of it. The City Of Manchester Stadium at Eastlands looks like an alien spaceship decorated by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. Ibrox Park in Glasgow looks like a crashed alien spaceship decorated by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. Don’t get me wrong, these are great stadia, with one obvious exception. (I mean, really. Old Trafford? What a heap…) But to look at them from the outside is an exercise in Puritan-style self-chastisement. No language on Earth, to the best of my knowledge, has ever invented the expression, “As pretty as a football stadium”, and there is good reason for that. My honest impression of Hillsborough from walking around it was that it looks like a multi-storey pharmaceuticals warehouse with the roof caved in. That sounds quite bad enough of course, but for the first ten minutes or so as I toured its outskirts, my view of it was something akin to Sweeney Todd’s parlour. This was because when I saw it, I recognised it enough from the many pictures I had seen down the years to hear the name ‘Hillsborough’ in my thoughts, but then heard the name subtly changing to ‘Horror’. It meant I just couldn’t be fair to it.

The Leppings Lane sign on the junction with Catch Bar Lane

The Leppings Lane sign on the junction with Catch Bar Lane.

I saw a sign on the wall at the junction that said ‘Leppings Lane’. I thought for a moment, given the old-fashioned engraving style and the almost total loss of paint that it must have been the sign I had seen in video clips from the day of the Disaster, but I would later find a likelier candidate right next to the entry concourse of the stadium. I turned right, and feeling the weight of every step I took, walked for the first time in my life along Leppings Lane. I walked past an electrical appliance store called Flair that had a notice in the window imploring me to look it up on Facebook – oops, for some reason I keep forgetting to – and across a bridge over the river. And then I arrived on the corner, the bend in the road, and I found myself standing on the edge of the entry concourse to the West Stand of Hillsborough Stadium. There were a couple of people milling about here, heading for their cars that were parked up in the middle of the concourse. There was also a fair bit of traffic rumbling past on the road behind me – despite its name suggesting quite a minor road, Leppings Lane is in fact a very busy thoroughfare. Otherwise it was quite still. It felt eerie.

I glanced back over my shoulder and was genuinely amazed at just how much narrower Leppings Lane really is than television pictures made it look back in 1989. It’s true what they say about the curvature of a camera lens, it exaggerates and distorts. I just couldn’t believe that, back in 1989, the South Yorkshire Police had allowed such a huge crowd to build up on such a narrow street without noticing a lot earlier how seriously out-of-hand things were getting.

I looked ahead once more and surveyed the concourse. It was, again, smaller than the pictures from 1989 might suggest, and it really scared me to realise just how many people had been crammed into this area all those years before. The very fact that I was standing on that same bit of ground that they had been was certainly not lost on me. The lay-out today is of course somewhat different from then. The perimeter wall with the turnstiles and exit gates has been rebuilt completely, and quite a lot closer to the rear wall of the West Stand. Ominously, I saw that one of the turnstile banks was called ‘C’. It is next to an exit gate, called ‘Exit Door 5’, rather than an exit gate itself. But I still can’t help feeling that it would have been rather more sensitive to give it a different name altogether, given how close it is to the position where Gate C once stood.

The questionably-named turnstile Bank C, next to Exit Door 5.

The questionably-named turnstile Bank C, next to Exit Door 5.

The tunnel leading into the former ‘central pens’ – now a mercifully-unfenced bank of seating – is still on the other side of that wall, but I couldn’t see it. I felt relieved about that. Somehow my imagination had turned that tunnel into the jaws of an insatiable, ravening monster, chewing the lives out of any poor innocent who happened to venture near it. On reflection, if I’d seen the tunnel it would almost certainly have evaporated such a ridiculous image, but at that moment I wanted more than anything else not to be able to see past the perimeter wall.

I walked up to one of the exit gates, which was the only one left that was still made in a similar heavy-iron-concertina-style to the ones that had existed in the late-1980’s. I put my hand on it and gave it a gentle shove. It moved somewhat of course; concertina gates are foldable, they’re designed to have give. But it was also noticeably made of very tough material, and clearly well connected to the railings at the top. The gates back in 1989 had frontal steel slats to protect them too, which this one didn’t. And to think – some people still imagine that the exit gate was set to collapse under the weight of ‘stampeding fans’ in the moments before the Disaster! Absolute codswallop! You’d need Optimus Prime in lorry mode to crash into it face-on to bring down a gate like that!

The perimeter wall and West Stand.

The perimeter wall and West Stand of Hillsborough. An old-style concertina gate is on the right of the picture.

Above the perimeter wall, I saw the letters spelling out ‘Sheffield Wednesday’ on the wall of the West Stand had lost their coloured plastic faces. I couldn’t help feeling that it rather summed up the club and its general treatment of the visitors’ end of the ground down the years very succinctly. It was also worrying though. The West Stand was looking, albeit from a distance, decidedly tatty and unkempt, which suggested to me that the club was perhaps letting standards slip again.

The Leppings Lane end, looking a bit shabby and unkempt again.

The Leppings Lane end, looking a bit shabby and unkempt again. Does not suggest good things about the standards of upkeep.

I was feeling a deep chill that owed nothing to the wintry weather, so I slowly trudged away from the concourse before it could freeze me to the spot completely, and took a right turn off Leppings Lane onto the neighbouring street, Vere Road. This was a terrace, of the non-footballing variety, but with Cambridge-style front entrances to the back gardens of the houses. Glancing along these passages I could see the North Stand of the stadium looming forbiddingly over them. It seemed so wrong.

As I walked, I considered the bizarre double-way that Vere Road had played an important role in the Disaster, one good, one bad. The bad was that the Liverpool supporters had all had to enter the stadium through the Leppings Lane concourse, whereas the Nottingham Forest fans had all of the turnstiles in the East and South Stands. Twenty-three turnstiles crammed into one narrow concourse versus sixty turnstiles spread widely around half the ground. There were no turnstiles in the North Stand, and that was because it backed directly onto Vere Road. This is not a declaration of war on Vere Road, you understand, nor is any implication intended that the occupants were somehow at fault, but the bottleneck that the Liverpool supporters had been lumbered with would never have been an issue if only there had been turnstiles in the North Stand to allocate to them. The good was that many of the people living on Vere Road helped survivors of the Leppings Lane terrace to contact their loved ones in those pre-mobile-phone days to reassure them that they were all right.

Penistone Road/Spion Kop end.

The Penistone Road/Spion Kop end of Hillsborough, perhaps declaring itself a little too confidently for its own history?

At the end of the street, I arrived on the dual carriageway of Penistone Road, with its Spion Kop entrances. As I walked, I looked up at the giant letters emblazoned on the wall, still declaring after all these years with unrestrained confidence, “Sheffield Wednesday – Hillsborough”, and I felt a flash of anger. I heard the loud roar of heavy traffic as it raced past, and the flash of anger turned to a surge of fury. I thought back to 1989, to the day when nearly a hundred people were killed on the other side of these smug, overgrown walls, and I started to think, “How dare they? How dare this bloody football club look so proud of itself? How dare it look so bold and brash and loud? How dare it say, ‘Hey, look at us, aren’t we great?!’ to everyone who drives past? How dare all these people just keep driving past this leviathan without a thought about what happened here? How dare this blasted monstrosity, this fetid heap of steel and concrete, this festering virus of a stadium… How dare it still be standing at all? They should have pulled it down, brick-by-brick, the day after the crush!”

Me outside Hillsborough, 30th November 2013

Me outside Hillsborough, 30th November 2013. The expression on my face says exactly what I was feeling – anger and sadness.

I was being irrational, of course. Life does go on, it has to, especially after nearly a quarter-of-a-century, and pulling down the stadium would have achieved nothing. But still, in spirit, it felt wrong, and so cruel, that life had been allowed to go on, and that the stadium hadn’t suffered the same fate its former death-trap character had inflicted on ninety-six people whose only folly had been to go and watch a football match. As I crossed over the river once more and headed around towards the South Stand, mercifully getting away from the noise of the traffic on Penistone Road, I had to take a zig-zag route through a couple of side-streets, giving me a chance to calm down with the stadium more or less out of my sight.

I eventually emerged back on Catch Bar Lane once more, and quickened my pace to complete the circuit of the stadium and to take a proper look at the Disaster Memorial by the footbridge.

The half-hearted Memorial to the victims of the Disaster.

The Disaster Memorial Stone outside the front entrance of Hillsborough. A somewhat half-hearted gesture perhaps.

The Memorial is set behind a curved brick wall that, although below waist-height, makes it difficult to see from the road – if it really had to be built on a busy main road, at least it could have been made visible. I must admit I am suspicious about that. The wall seems unnecessary, and I am given to wonder whether the real reason Sheffield Wednesday Football Club put it up was precisely so that it would make it difficult to see. The Hillsborough Disaster is a detail from history that the club has often lapsed into guilty silence about – something it would rather like just to go away. Unsurprising, given how dangerous the stadium was back in the 1980’s. Hence it took a shamefully long time – fully ten years – after the Disaster for the club even to arrange for the Memorial to be constructed.

Tributes of many colours.

Tributes left on the Memorial are perhaps more impressive than the Memorial itself, as they are more personal.

While it is certainly far better than there being no acknowledgement at all, as there had been for most of the 1990’s, I have to say that what I saw is not a very impressive effort. It is a low stone block, quite smoothly sculpted into the shape of, er, a low stone block, emblazoned with the words, In memory of the 96 men, women, and children who tragically died and the countless people whose lives were changed forever. FA Cup semi-final Liverpool v Nottingham Forest. 15th April 1989. ‘You’ll never walk alone.’

A nameless tribute.

‘In memory of the 96 men, women, and children who tragically died and the countless people whose lives were changed forever. FA Cup semi-final Liverpool v Nottingham Forest. 15th April 1989. “You’ll never walk alone.”.’

Although the stone-masonry work is rather fine, the Memorial taken as a whole is superficial. It is poorly-sited, too close to a busy road for anyone to visit it in peace, and if the low wall is meant to compensate for that, it is a feeble gesture. When the monument speaks of those who fell, all it gives is a number – ‘96’ – and numbers have a way of dehumanising death. Only names keep the humanity and the dignity of those who have fallen intact, but not one of the names of the victims appears on the Memorial outside Hillsborough. It is hardly meant to be a contest of course, but it certainly pales before the splendid Memorial on Anfield Road in Liverpool, with all ninety-six victims named and the ‘Eternal Flame’ burning below its middle. While there is something to be said for restraint and understatement when remembering the dead, there is more than an echo of the metaphorical ‘queasy conscience’ about Hillsborough’s attempted tribute.

I admired some of the tributes that had been placed on the Memorial and the railings behind it. Scarves and banners of many a team beyond Liverpool, a rather sweet soft toy of a Welsh Dragon, an eloquent written tribute to Paul Carlile by his family, and a row of framed photographs line the front. There was even a copy of Christopher Whittle’s personal account of the Disaster, With Hope In Your Heart, protected from the elements by a polythene document bag. These tributes showed far more feeling than the Monument they were placed on. Sadly, this might arguably lead to people getting a false impression of the Monument itself.

I reached into the little strapsack I had been carrying all the way from Salford and pulled out an old Liverpool scarf that read ‘League Champions 1979’ on each end. A touch dated these days, you might say, but in fact, it was already a dated item when I first owned it. An uncle of mine back home in Devon had got it for me as a birthday present in 1984. I haven’t a clue where he got it from, but I was always fond of it. But that was almost thirty years ago, and I had brought it with me because I now felt I had a better purpose for it than just pinning it to one of the walls in my flat. I carefully draped it over one of the railings that was already very crowded with other scarves, tying one end of it to one of the spokes.

I rested my hand on the scarf for just a moment, then turned and walked away from the Memorial, away from the Hillsborough Stadium, up Parkside Road to the nearest tram-stop. I’d like to be able to say that I didn’t look back at any stage, but it wouldn’t be true. I frequently glanced back over my shoulder, unable to ignore the presence of that thing, that place, that moment, so many years into the past and yet still so inseparable from its present. The attempts to separate it by burying or ignoring it are not going to work, as the tributes left on the Memorial show; there are just too many people that such a separation would hurt. They have already been hurt long and deeply by many such attempts.

Hillsborough was always a place. But on the 15th of April 1989 it became a time as well, it became a moment. A dreadful, dark and cruel moment. A defining moment. What I found when I went there today was that it was a moment that the club still seems desperate to deny, to ignore, to forget. But to do so would be to forget itself, to forget what it is, to forget its own nature, to forget how it got where it is now. Everyone has those moments in their past. Even, it seems, football clubs.

Given that professional football is, in the end, just a bunch of adults kicking a ball around in the grass like overgrown schoolkids, it is fair to say that nothing truly important happens at a football ground, bar in the most exceptional circumstances. But ninety-six people dying must surely count as the most exceptional circumstances – perhaps the only truly important thing that ever happened at Hillsborough, therefore.

When something is important, it must not be denied, it must not be ignored. And it must never be forgotten.

From what I saw at Hillsborough, it seems that there is still a need to make sure that the club remains conscious of that.

_____

More about the Hillsborough Disaster; –

Ticketlessness Was Not A Factor, And This Is How We Know

The Toppling Gate

Is Thatcher Guilty? If So, What Of?

More On Thatcher – That Quote That Never Goes Away

The Air Of Shock Should Itself Be Shocking

Digging The Dirt

Changing Statements

What Exactly Is Sir Norman Bettison In Trouble For?

Meet A Silly Old Dear

More On That Panorama Documentary

In Its Correct Historical Context

After A Year The Sun’s Apology Is Still Not Accepted – And Nor Should It Be

The Institutional Guilt Lies Not Only With The Police

Where Was I?

The Crush Barrier-A Smoking Gun?

Hillsborough, Heysel, Valley Parade and Ibrox: Why Are Stadium Disasters Always Prone To Urban Mythology?

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6 Responses to “Hillsborough: The Name That Became A Moment”

  1. Bridget Says:

    A very emotive piece which had my heart thumping along with yours.

    • hstorm Says:

      I was rather startled by the strength of my own reaction to being there. It suggests I’ve studied the Disaster a little too much for my own good over the years.

  2. mrjnh Says:

    Superb, very touchingly written; & indeed those names, & especially that moment, should never be forgotten. It is a massive stain upon the 20th century UK establishment. Many thanks for recording your journey, Martin.

    May they RIP, every one of them; & may true Justice be found JFT96


  3. So beautifully written that I found myself right there with you and experiencing every emotion and then some.

    • hstorm Says:

      When I was setting off, I hadn’t really expected to write an account of the visit, but the surprising mix of very intense emotions the day triggered in me kind of forced me to do it. It worked as an outlet, and also made it easier to understand it all for myself. If readers were moved by it, I would say that means I did the right thing in writing it.


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