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Hillsborough

Andrew Hussey recalls the tragedy that changed football and made it seem as if an obscure curse was

The new quarter of Liverpool One, the second phase of which was unveiled in October 2008, and which connects the old city centre of Liverpool to its shiny new waterfront, is a triumph of design and urban planning. The shops themselves are something of an irrelevance – it’s just a standard British high street – but the witty and clever shapes of the buildings and streets are breathtaking in their ambition. Most crucially, they show the true grandeur of Liverpudlian history.

Its new vistas link the river to the Welsh mountains and then the sea beyond – all the elements that have made this city what it is. Like Antony Gormley’s life-size statues, which stare out to sea from Crosby Beach a few miles to the north, Liverpool One is about turning outwards to the world beyond. Liverpudlians have often been accused of introspection and self-pity; so it seems appropriate, at the end of the city’s “Year of Culture”, that Liverpool is looking forward in the 21st century with a new-found confidence and pride.

All of this is, however, a long way from some of the dark memories of the city’s recent past. Throughout the 1980s, Liverpool seemed to be fighting a war with the rest of Britain. Its decade began with the Toxteth riots, in 1981. These were an outburst of anger and despair at the way in which Liverpool seemed to be slipping quickly into poverty and isolation and out of the mainstream of British society. From there on, it felt as if the Thatcher government was fighting a civil war against the city. It is this that explains the strange politics of the period – these were the Militant years, when, with a combination of Trotskyism and thuggery, the narcissistic Derek Hatton and his cronies held the city to ransom.

In retrospect, one of the most incomprehen­sible aspects of this decade was the widespread support that Hatton and his mates enjoyed. But on closer inspection it seems hardly surprising, when you recall that unemployment rates in the city were the highest in Europe. By 1989, Liverpool was exhausted and battered. This was all the more painful because, at the same time, Manchester – Liverpool’s great rival only 30 minutes down the M62 – stood ready to steal the cultural agenda with a fashion and rock-music renaissance led by the E-fuelled scallies of Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.

But we in Liverpool still had football. Merseyside teams had dominated the English League through the 1980s; Manchester United were then no more than a confused shambles. The London teams were not much better. Liverpool may have been a wrecked post-industrial wasteland, but football offered a source of local loyalty and pride. The Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, in which 39 fans had been killed by a falling wall during a riot just before the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, had dealt a blow to the city’s footballing culture. Liverpool fans were soon heartily sick of the chant “Murd-er-ers!” which regularly met them at hostile grounds. But by 1989, even those scars were beginning to fade.

The atmosphere on 15 April, as Liverpool supporters set out for an FA Cup semi-final clash with Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, was festive. The Reds, under Kenny Dalglish, were at another peak and if they could beat Forest – not a problem, everyone assumed – the stage might be set for a classic all-Merseyside FA Cup final (Everton were playing in the other semi-final). Spring was just breaking through, and it was a spectacular two-hour drive or rail journey from Liverpool to Sheffield through the finest scenery of the Peak District.

No one could have predicted the horror that was waiting at the other end of the trip. The facts of the afternoon are as brutal as they are simple. At 3.06pm precisely the referee, Ray Lewis, blew his whistle and called a halt to the match. He was compelled to do this by the police, who were signalling to him that people at the Leppings Lane end, where the Liverpool fans were clustered, were spilling on to the pitch. Overcrowding outside the ground had forced the police to open an exit gate and fans had surged on to the already congested standing terrace.

The obvious reaction from bystanders was that violence had broken out and that this was a pitch invasion. Yet it quickly became clear that this was not the case, from the high-pitched screaming of fans being crushed to death against the stark blue security fences that kept them penned in. On the pitch, some of those who had scrambled over the fence lay dying on the grass, gasping for breath. Others lay dead, their faces blue and bloated. Those who could walk or stand rushed to carry bodies to safety on advertising hoardings. The final death toll was 96.

This was a catastrophe unprecedented in football memory. But what came next for Liverpool fans was, if anything, worse. First was the long journey home. Lime Street Station and the surrounding streets were stilled into silence. Those who trudged back were grey and ashen, as if returning from a distant massacre. In this most Catholic of cities, there was an unvoiced and obscure belief that some dark vengeance was being wreaked on Liverpool fans for their role in the Heysel disaster. There was, also, anger at the evident incompetence and callousness of the police, whose actions had created the deadly situation in the first place and who left people dying on the field. At an untouchable level, beyond understanding or articulation, there was also survivors’ guilt. This would go on to be one of the deepest psychic wounds left by Hillsborough.

The long civil war conducted against Liverpool and Liverpudlians from the south was not yet over. The next assault came from the Sun newspaper, whose editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, decided that Liverpool fans had not suffered enough. On the Wednesday following the disaster, as families arranged funerals, the Sun devoted its front page to the headline “The truth” and went on to describe how the Liverpool fans had urinated on corpses, robbed the dead and attacked the police. Nobody had seen any of this, least of all a Sun reporter, because it did not happen, as was later established. Yet this was not simply an insult to the dead and their families. It also opened up a new sense of anger and doubt in the city’s collective identity: Who are we that people should believe such things of us? Why are we so hated? These were the questions that Liverpudlians began to ask themselves. To this day, the Sun is despised in Liverpool.

The official inquiry into what had happened at Hillsborough was conducted by Lord Chief Justice Taylor. His report returned a verdict of accidental death, even though evidence of neglect by the police had been established. A private prosecution brought by bereaved families against the senior police officer in charge of the match, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, failed to reach a verdict. To the trauma of bereavement were added the frustration and humiliation of injustice.

Hillsborough was about the individual families that suffered. Their agony is captured perfectly in one of Adrian Henri’s late poems, “The Bell”, which describes the poignant sound of the bells of Liverpool Cathedral tolling for each of the victims. But Hillsborough is also an integral part of the story of Liverpool. It is the story of a crowd being killed live on television in front of your eyes. These people were little different from the working-class Liverpudlians of the 1960s who had inspired Bill Shankly’s greatest teams with their passion and collective sense of belief. The scenes of singing and scarf-waving on the Kop had been shown in black-and-white newsreels across the world.

This was the mob, the crowd, the working class in a group and in action, but it was nothing to be feared. The humour and dignity of this crowd were iconic. These images announced to the world the cultural vibrancy of ordinary people and their pleasures. To this extent, Liverpool fans were as crucial a component of 1960s pop culture as the Beatles.

By the end of the Thatcherite 1980s this same crowd had become the object of scorn and derision. To be working class, to be a football fan, to be unemployed and northern was to be scum. It is hard to write about the 1980s without feeling this way, no matter how primitive such emotions may seem to the present-day sophisticates of the post-Blair left. The year 1989 was when everything changed – music, football, politics. For the people of Liverpool, literally and metaphorically crushed by the blue fences of Hillsborough, it would still be a long, uphill road to Liverpool One and the 21st century.

Andrew Hussey’s most recent book is “Paris: the Secret History” (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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