It is one of those moments of excruciation, locked in time and etched in granite on the mind. The jolt it caused, was so disruptive of peace of mind, that my whereabouts on hearing of it have become indivisible from the event itself. Trauma does this: much like 9/11, the Omagh bomb, Bloody Sunday, the death of Bobby Sands, or the Loughall Ambush, the moment survives, determinedly refusing to yield its slot, regardless of what else competes for space, in the vaults of memory. If there is a Darwinian explanation for its survival, I am unsure what it might be.
Thirty years ago today, a Saturday afternoon, saw me in a prison cell. The red steel door was open but leaned to so that noise from the daily life on the wing would not intrude. There were no televisions in the cells then, so we relied on battery powered transistor radios for following sporting events. It did nothing to detract from the enjoyment but made us even more reliant on the vagaries of imagination to conjure up the moves as they were taking place. It often proved revealing when later we got a chance to look at the goals on television and see how much they either resembled, or failed to, the picture we had mapped out. Even during the stimulatory deprivation of the blanket protest, on our own wing, we could audibly follow the 1979 FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Arsenal, because the orderlies and screws were watching it on television in the wing canteen, the volume sufficiently loud to allow it to weave its way as far as the end cell at the bottom of the wing.
A close friend had been arrested earlier in the week in relation to a booby trap bomb device on the Grosvenor Road. He and a woman had appeared in court, jointly charged, earlier that day. I have a memory of listening to the court report on Downtown News and then switching over immediately to the game. It was an important one – an FA Cup Semi Final, with Liverpool trying to make amends for falling at the final hurdle the year before as they stood poised to take the league and cup double. It was a fete, maybe a fate, they would produce again in 1989, but at that stage we had no way of foretelling this.
On the inside of my upper right arm is a 96 tattoo. Its location means it is rarely seen but that is not the purpose of getting ink. They are not there for the public but for me. Nor would I ever get a tattoo because it is colourful or aesthetic. They are there because they symbolise something of serious import to me, my children, my wife, the blanket protest, humanism, freedom from prison, Charlie Hebdo, Stalingrad, the right to think.
Each time I have travelled to Anfield for a game, visiting the shrine has always been more important than the match. It is never anything less than an emotional experience. The youth of most of those killed, 10, 14, 15 year-olds amongst them, adds to the horror, the poignancy, the depth of loss. I guess that is why it angers me so much that on occasion the team do not step up to the plate and do what they are supposed to do, play soccer authentically as if it were an eternal flame, as a tribute to those who died in their pursuit of just that.
For this reason I remain wholly unforgiving of Bruce Grobbelaar the Liverpool goalkeeper on the day. His transgression occurred not at Hillsborough but elsewhere. While ultimately he was found not guilty of match fixing, I share Donald MacRae’s view expressed last year of not being "convinced entirely by Grobbelaar’s account.” I am not convinced at all. Neither was the house of Lords which awarded him £1 for the damage to his reputation.
For a player - whom the fans that lost their lives had come to watch - to later throw a game amounts to 96 unpardonable insults. While not on a par with the treachery on display from Danny Morrison towards six of the 1981 hunger strikers, in the hierarchy of unforgivable acts constructed in my mind, it is a close second, so emotively charged are both events.
Nor should there be any forgiving or forgetting in respect of the role of accomplices in the unlawful killing. Thirty years ago today after 96 people died, there was neither empathy nor compassion from the Tories, the Sun, South Yorkshire police, just calumny, slander and perversion of justice.
Phil Scraton has written what is said to be an outstanding book on the disaster, the preeminent account. I have it at home but have not yet picked it up to read. I have looked at it many times. There is an aversion to inviting the raw anger it has the power to induce. Yet endlessly circling it without making any approach seems a timid option: a hesitancy to risk the pain that an enhanced understanding would bring. The apprehension is the same as when Ten Men Dead first appeared, the seminal book about the 1981 hunger strike. Many of us were reluctant to pick it up for the first time. Then when we did, we could not put it down. Today I purchased on Kindle – my hard copy print is frustratingly small – Hillsborough The Truth. Tonight seems, not a good time, but an appropriate time, to open the first page of Phil Scraton’s book.