Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hillsborough 1989

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, when fans of Liverpool FC were crushed at the Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield. The fans were caged in by metal fences and as a result were unable to escape on to pitch when the crush developed. 96 people died. The Manic Street Preachers later recorded a song SYMM - South Yorkshire Mass Murderer - perhaps not one of their best efforts musically or lyrically, but expressing the sentiment that the disaster was not an 'Act of God' but was caused by the actions of the police and football authorities. A better song is the Liverpool epic Does this Train Stop on Merseyside by Amsterdam, which refers to the disaster with the lines: 'Yorkshire policemen chat with folded arms, people try and save their fellow fans' (Christy Moore has also recently recorded this song).

The following article was written by Jeremy Seabrook immediately after the disaster. Unfortunately much of it still rings true today, not just for football but in terms of the way the wider 'leisure industry' processes crowds for profit - see for instance deaths from fires in nightclubs.

'We were like animals in a zoo' - Jeremy Seabrook (Guardian, 17 April 1989)

Hillsborough has now become yet another placename to add to those that make up the by-now voluminous gazeteer of wasted human lives. Already there has been talk of "learning the lessons of Hillsborough"; but if the lessons of Bradford, Heysel, Manchester Airport and the Herald of Free Enterprise had been even half absorbed, this most cruel visita­tion might have been avoided.

What all these have in common is that they arose from the processing of people through time or space for the sake of experiences provided by the entertainment, holiday and sports industries; as such, they touch upon one of the central purposes of the economy in its most benign guise - that of leisure society. This, it turns out, is dedicated to the necessity of making as much money out of people as possible, in this instance, by making them pay - some, alas, with their lives ­for the privilege of standing for two hours in what are nothing more than overcrowded cages.

Because these experiences are associated with pleasure, it is easy to disregard the dangers, whether these are the use of unsuitable material in the manufacture of aircraft seats, insecure and overloaded ferry boats, or football grounds that prove to be deathtraps. It is only when things go wrong that some deep insight is granted us into the true value placed on human life by the purveyors of entertainment, escape and fun to the people.

"We were like animals in a zoo," said one man afterwards. It was a zoo in which the watchers were primarily electronic: the cameras of the media, the police videos and computers, represent a vast investment in the paraphernalia of surveil­lance, which could monitor every anguished moment, but do absolutely nothing to help. What a contrast this prodigious outlay of money presents with the absence of life-saving equipment. The doctors present testified that there were no defibrillators, and that the oxygen tents were without oxygen; but the presence of all the media hardware ensured that the spectacle of football was swiftly transformed into a spectacle of a quite different genre.

The carnage – how sad that the hyperbole of football writing becomes hideously appropriate – raises intently political issues. Those who insist upon referring to the incident as though it were an Act of God, a sort of natural tragedy, betray only their interest in concealment. The very public display of their humanitarian concern merely masks its absence in the more fundamental matter of preventing the gratuitous squandering of young lives.

Football is perhaps the only remaining experience in our social life where passion - and partisan passion at that - is engaged. Nothing could be further removed from the other characteristic crowd scenes in our society: the people shuffling through the shopping malls, for instance, are self-policing, introspectively concerned as they are upon the relationship between individual desire, money and the prize to be purchased; remote too from pop concerts, where the shared focus of cathartic emotion is funnelled on to a single person, and its ex­pression is without conflict.

But football continues to reach something which neither of these possesses - the pas­sion of locality, and of places once associated with something more than football teams. That Liverpool should have been connected twice with such un­bearable events is perhaps not entirely by chance. For the great maritime city, with its decayed function rooted in an archaic Imperial and industrial past, sport now has to bear a freight of symbolism that it can scarcely contain.

The energies of partisan, mainly working-class male crowds remain, as they always have been, the object of great anxiety and suspicion to their betters. These energies are perceived as perhaps the last vestiges of the turbulence of the mob - unruly, defiant and unpredictable - in a society where all other public passions have been tamed.

The forces released by football provide a glimpse of collective power that has been successfully neutralised in the rich Western societies; a suggestion that such passion could possibly be harnessed to social and political endeavour rather than sublimated in sporting conflicts.

Apart from the sight of the inert young bodies stretched out in the sunlight, perhaps the most chilling images were those of the anguished faces pressed against wire fences. They looked as if they had been taken from the iconography of repression of authoritarian states, and they evoke something quite other than the idea of sport. They bore the tormented expression of those in prison camps; indeed, many spoke of "the terracing that had become a prison", the inevitability of disaster within those reinforced enclosures, where the grisly facts of the quantity of pressure they. were calculated to withstand was conveyed with scientific precision.

We can only guess at what unwanted and redundant human powers are being con­trolled in the use of all this apparatus of containment; what frustrated visions and cancelled dreams are being policed, what doomed alternative use of these energies is being fenced in, sifted through the mechanistic click of the turnstiles. What an irony is the Government's obsession with identity cards in this context, when it is precisely a sense of identity that so many are trying to reclaim in these conflicts between geographic entities that have become, physically, interchangeable. For what now differentiates Sheffield from Nottingham, Manchester from Liverpool, Bradford from Leeds, with their homogeneous housing estates, the sameness of their shopping centres, the identical service sector economy?

There remains also an old class prejudice in the treatment of those who must be systemati­cally humiliated in the pursuit of their afternoon's pleasure. "We are treated like animals," some said afterwards; and in their words is an echo of how Government ministers had described them at the time of earlier disasters. The very idea of "fans" is a humbling social role, a diminishing and partial account of human beings.

Indeed, there could be no greater gulf than that created by the exaggerated adulation that the stars and heroes receive - the inflated transfer fees, the publicity, the column inches and admiring TV interviews - and the abasement and inferiorising of the fans, punters or consumers. The players are mythicised, whisked upwards into an empyrean of fame and celebrity, in which everything they do or say is reported, no matter how trivial; in the process they become remote from their votaries and followers, who are kept in their place as effectively as they once might have been through the mysteries of breeding or station. Part of the process of erecting the infamous steel barriers is connected with enforcing this separation: the pitch is inviolate, the fans must remain content with the wall poster, the autograph, the fantasy.

Already, the aftermath of these tragic disasters has taken on the aspect of a known ritual: the Prime Minister arrives, prayers are offered up, shrines are set up at the scene of the accident, and a fund is opened. It means that these inadmissable horrors have become part and parcel of our social life; they have become familiar. Once again, the real lessons are likely to be that the public enquiry will be a vast exercise in concealment of the true relationship of these unnecessary tragedies to the necessities of what are no longer amiable Saturday afternoon pastimes but are part of a remorseless machine for making money; how fitting that the advertising hoardings had to serve in place of absent stretchers.

More: see the Hillsborough Justice Campaign; there's also a couple of good articles by Merrick at Head Heritage, one summarising the Hillsborough events and the other comparing the policing of football fans with the recent G20 protests.


Graham in Liverpool said...

Excellent piece of writing.

David J Colbran said...

Really great article, I was at Anfield and Hillsborough yesterday as a Liverpool photographer. Your words are a useful reflection this morning.

Anonymous said...

Police murdering scum, i hate the fucking lying police murdering lying scum, they should all go to jail along with thatcher, Blair and the rest of this shithole country