By Mark Frankland
THESE days I manage a charity. We work a lot with veterans. I spend much of my time just sitting quietly and listening. The lads tell me about how their brains have got all screwed up by the things they have witnessed. The things they have done. They go back to the places from their past which I once watched on the news. Ireland and the Falklands and Bosnia and Iraq and Afghanistan. Bad, bad days. Times when their lives arrived at the ultimate dark place where nothing makes any kind of sense. Only the horror. And night after night their fractured brains drag them back to those fleeting moments when the horror enveloped everything else. A horror that sticks to the memory cells like glue. Dogged. Relentless. Memories summoned by a certain smell, a certain shift in the wind, a certain kind of light, a certain type of noise.
And I never, ever say that I understand. Because I don’t. Like most of my generation, I am blessed for I have never been sent to a war. The primordial desperation of the battlefield is alien to me. I’ve never seen a mate blown to bits. I’ve never had to digest the damage a short burst of my SA80 has inflicted on a fellow human being. I’ve never seen people reduced to pieces.
But today I realised that maybe I understand I little better than I realised.
This morning various Twitter messages recommended last night’s ITV documentary on Hillsborough. So I used a spare hour to call it up online and watch. It isn’t the first such documentary. Over the years there have been lots. And Docu-Dramas. And articles in the press and discussions in the studios. And a couple of years ago thirty thousand of us turned out at Anfield because twenty years had slipped by.
I’ve always been reasonably OK before. Well, the 20th Anniversary hit me pretty hard to be honest. The fact that I am writing this is proof that I lived to tell the tale. I lost no family that day. No close mates either. It was of course the worst day of my life by a country mile and I fervently hope it will remain that way. I got by. In the days that followed I was consumed by a raging anger more than anything else. We all were. Anyone who followed their team through those dark days of the Eighties was well enough used to the antics of the police. We were treated like sub human pond life. We were herded about by snapping Alsatian dogs and police horses. We were penned in. I worked in the animal feed business back then and it always struck me that the animal rights activists would have a duck fit if cows were ever treated in the way that football fans were treated. Almost every cattle shed I ever stood in was an upgrade from the terraces we visited on Saturday afternoons.
Hillsborough was the culmination. 20,000 of us were placed in the care of a police force that had taken itself beyond the law. They were the ones who built conservatories on the back of their Miner’s Strike overtime. They had been granted years of knocking people around whilst a blind eye was always turned. They were the masters of their South Yorkshire universe and seemingly convinced that everyone else’s rules were for everyone else. Not them. On that day I asked a copper if my dad could take a short cut through the barriers to the stand where he was sitting. Dad was on his crutches at the time. Sixty years old and riddled with arthritis. And the response of South Yorkshire’s finest to my polite request?
“Fuck off you Scouse bastard.”
I made to argue the case and his big hands hovered over his truncheon. Dad eased me away. He knew the score. Everyone did. This is South Yorkshire. These bastards are a law unto themselves. Maggie’s shock troops with the memory of their triumph at Orgreave fresh upon them.
20,000 of us were to be fed through four useless, rusting turnstiles. Outside the turnstiles was a walled in yard. Like the kind of place you gather cattle outside an abattoir. The police were supposed to make it safe but they didn’t. The South Yorkshire police weren’t about keeping their fellow citizens safe. They were more into beating them black and blue. Doing their very own version of the Charge of the Light Brigade against massed striking miners in T Shirts and trainers. Hammering their riot shields with batons and howling out “Zooooloooo!” Waving their twenty quid notes and laughing at those who wanted no more than to save their jobs and communities.
So they didn’t bother with the health and safety bit.
They blew it. They cocked it up. Because in the end they didn’t give a shit. We were nothing to them. Scouse Scum.
Once everything started to go to hell the bosses panicked and opened up the gate and duly delivered 2000 fans into the tunnel of death. Into the cages. Into hell. Into the next world.
Then they lied about it and carried on lying for 23 years.
Last night’s programme was different to the others I have watched. There was all sorts of CCTV I have never seen before. I kept expecting to see a fleeting glimpse of a much younger me. Frozen in a moment of time. Shocked. Confused. Scared. Horrified.
Watching it made me shake. Lost pictures flickered back to life. Lost memories came up and out of the swamp. A return to the unimaginable horror of six minutes past three on a sunny, sunny spring afternoon in Sheffield. In South Yorkshire. In times gone by.
In the days that followed I was really British about it. I wrote letters. And for the one and only time in my life I used the letters after my name. I signed off Mark Frankland BA Cantab. As in this guy was at Cambridge University so maybe you might take time out to listen to what he is saying. Because nobody was interested in listening to a word we had to say in those desperate days after six minutes past three on that sunny, sunny afternoon in South Yorkshire.
And the response was very British too. I got a call from Paddy Barclay who was brilliant. I got a personal letter from Michael Heseltine who vowed to do all he could. I got a secretary’s one liner from Kinnock and Thatcher. Then on the Wednesday, me and dad went along to a lunch thing that our local MP put on every month for local businesses. The guest speaker was David Waddington who was the Home Secretary. I guess there must have been over a hundred of us in the room and from what I can remember his speech was as dull as ditchwater. I wasn’t much in the mood for his self-satisfied waffle. No doubt he crowed a lot about how many the Tories were locking up and how far they were flinging away the key.
At last he sat down and coffee was served. I have a memory of me and dad ordering in scotches. And then all of a sudden the Right Honourable David Waddington, Her Majesty’s Home Secretary for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, marched across the room to our table and sat down. No doubt he wanted to schmooze some party donor or something.
But no. Not that. He fixed me with a stare from his small, nasty eyes.
“You were at Hillsborough weren’t you?”
A hint of anger. A ‘do you know who you are talking to?’ sort of look. And then how the hell did he know anyway? But he did know of course. Because those were still the days of the IRA who would have liked nothing better than to blow Maggie’s Home Secretary into a million pieces. So they had security checked the guest list. And something had red flagged my name. I wonder what it had flagged? Cambridge Man causing trouble over the Hillsborough thing? He was certainly not in tea and sympathy mode. Soon he was wagging a fat, angry finger in my face and lecturing me about how everything was down to drunken Scouse fans. Christ it made me mad. I’m not any kind of violent guy but I felt like planting the smug bastard. A couple of bland faced types in tight suits seemed to stiffen. For the second time in four days Dad put a hand on my shoulder. Then it was the South Yorkshire police. Now it was the bloody Home Secretary. And the message was the same bloody message. We are us. You are them. The Enemy Within. So watch it. We don’t like your type. Your type should know your place…
In the end I asked him a very simple question. I asked where he had been at six minutes past three on a sunny, sunny Saturday afternoon in South Yorkshire. And with anger written through every line of his face he confirmed that he had not in fact been in the killer cages of the Leppings Lane end. And with that I suggested that he might refrain from lecturing me about what had happened. And grudgingly he stood up and stomped away. Back South. Back to London.
It was my first experience of the secret side of the British State where the dark stuff goes down. I felt a sort of chill run down my spine. Already the cover up was being quietly snapped into place. The Establishment was gearing up to look after its own. Just like always. Like Peterloo and Amritsar and Bloody Sunday. We were to be added to a long, long list.
It’s gone on for twenty three long years. We have sung out ‘Justice for the 96’ and ‘Stand up for the 96’ and we have boycotted the Sun. And nobody has ever gone to jail or been held to account. Pensions have been paid in full and that worthless piece of pondlife shite Kelvin McKenzie gets to strut his stuff on Question Time.
The documentary finished and I stared at the screen for a while. Part angry. Part rattled. Mostly completely haunted. Because those grainy CCTV images had lifted me up and taken me all the way back to that sunny, sunny afternoon in South Yorkshire.
The day the sky fell in.