Old Liverpool-related articles – The City of Grief by John Sweeney (1989)

The City of Grief

by John Sweeney, The Observer, 23 April 1989

This article was written a week after the Hillsborough Disaster (15 April 1989) when 96¹ Liverpool FC fans were killed or fatally injured in a crush in the terraces at the Leppings Lane end of Sheffield Wednesday FC’s ground. Liverpool were there to play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final.

¹ 95 people died on or soon after the day of the disaster. The 96th and final victim, Tony Bland, died a few years later after being in a coma since the disaster

The cellophane shrine at Anfield has become the focal point of Liverpool as it comes to terms with the Hillsborough disaster. It is so miserable you are often caught out wanting to block the whole wretched thing from your mind, but there is no other place in the city where it feels right to be.

To the eye Anfield is a curiously gaily-coloured shrine, in its reds and blues and whites more like a Hindu temple or a Buddhist shrine than a Christian place of mourning. When the sun shines, the light bounces off the cellophane like the sea. The paintbox colours are given the lie, however, by the one face in every ten or twenty shattered with grief, the thick-set, tough-necked Scousers clutching yet another wreath to add to the whispering. It smells like a florist’s shop.

There is an obvious, pointless thought which comes to mind as soon as you look at the multitude of wreaths. The thought curdled into a sour reality when a freelance photographer, working for one of the ghoul-tabloids now hated on Merseyside with a righteous anger, came up to me: “The desk wanted me to get a picture of a florist’s with all the flowers sold out. I went round a few, but they all looked pretty well stocked up.” To the photographer’s credit, he was pretty disgusted with himself.

Days after the disaster, the cellophane-and-scarf shrine is still drawing huge numbers of people. Their faces tell the stories. Some weep publicly; others walk high into the stands and sob quietly. Still others are there to show their sympathy and respect, but also to see for themselves the spectacle of a city’s mass grief.  The Anfield shrine with its long queue wrapped round the ground provokes comparison with Lenin’s tomb, there is the same reverence, the same sense of a religious need fulfilled.

Two toddlers provided a gentle playlet when they escaped from their mother and darted underneath the temporary plastic tapes put up to keep mourners off the main part of the pitch and headed off for the centre spot. An elderly steward tried to run after them, ducked underneath the tapes, but missed his footing and fell over. He picked himself up, his dignity ruffled, and someone else shepherded the tots back to their embarrassed mum.

On reading the messages on the wreaths, it was hard not to squirm at some of them: the poverty of expression or the grammatical or spelling howlers getting in the way of grief’s message. There is a lot of poetry, much of it gooey: “We all have lost  a dearest one / Was this tragedy meant to be?” At Anfield, the poetry is in the pity. No doubt there was a lot of banal verse written in the First World War, and the Hillsborough disaster may yet produce its own Wilfred Owen – after all, Liverpool is a strangely creative city. To read the messages – “Mr Shankly: look after them” – to see the teddies piled up, red for Liverpool, blue for Everton, to wonder what is the significance of a T-shirt with a growling bulldog on its front, why that is lying there among the cellophane, is a profoundly dislocating experience.

And yet the odd, unexpected thing can cut to the quick. The taxi-driver who took me back into the city after my second visit to Anfield showed a healthy contempt for journalists, he had no interest in football and started off by moaning that Radio City, the local pop station, hadn’t played good, lively music for three days after the disaster. It was a reasonably convincing display of callousness which lasted for a while. And then he said: “I’ve got a shop, you know, and I’ve probably lost about eight customers from a mile radius. I haven’t bothered to find out. I can’t bear to.” The crumpling of the tough guy act was, for me, a stranger, almost unbearably moving.

Disasters catch people unaware, unthinking. No doubt the BBC interviewer who asked Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish: “How do you feel, second time around?” now wishes his mind had come up with something better, but the moment is past.

It is, of course,  second time around for Liverpool: though the tragedy of Hillsborough is largely free of the guilt that stuck to Heysel. The swaggering Victorian office blocks, so reminiscent of that other imperial port Bombay, are flying flags at half-mast, as are the few ships which still ply the ash-grey Mersey. The mood on the streets of the city centre, wide, windy canyons which are much cleaner than London’s, is sombre; cancelled notices on a rock venue, unnaturally empty pubs. But this time round the feeling is not of shame, but sheer grief.

John Peel, the Radio One disc jockey and professional Scouser – albeit a self-depricating one – was at Heysel, but not at Hillsborough. Peel said: “We had a grandstand view. All those horrors have come back to me.”

For Peel, who said after Heysel that he would not go to a soccer match again, Hillsborough has been worse but less shaming. He might even go to a soccer match next season. Was Hillsborough expiation for Heysel?  “It would be a neat bracket to make, but life isn’t like that. Nothing that has ever happened to me has upset me so much.”

But is the shrine just another show of sentimentality in a city too soft on itself for its own good? “Other people may interpret it as sentimentality. If that’s sentimental, give me more of it. It seems to come from a folk tradition: perhaps it comes from the Irish roots. I find it very affecting,” said Peel.

What fascinates him about Liverpool is its separateness from the rest of the country – “like an Italian city-state or a Greek polis” – its otherness. This is perhaps the most elegant explanation for Derek Hatton and Militant’s influence in the city’s politics that I ever heard. “You know that whenever there is going to be a strike, the lads from Liverpool are going to be the most militant, the hardest. There’s a bloody-mindedness about the city which is both frightening and exciting. It does it great harm, perhaps, in terms of keeping business but I find that bloody-mindedness rather admirable.”

Maybe so, but there are other things about the city which are less admirable. If you were to examine all the social indices which measure unemployment, poverty and ill-health, then Liverpool would blip pretty near the top on every one. Its enthusiasts say that the city has great wit and showbiz vitality, true. But many of its successes – John Peel himself, Roger McGough, the poet, Margi Clarke, the actress who starred in the film Letter To Brezhnev, not forgetting a host of dinner-jacket comedians – all live out of the city. There’s nothing ignoble or hypocritical about that: they live in London or the south-east for exactly the same reason that the brickies and sparks and the chippies take the train down on Monday morning – because that is where the work is.

Much has been made of Liverpool’s great media and showbiz boom. The city now has at least three television studios: a BBC one, a shiny new Granada studio built with a tasteful classical portico in the dock where the slave ships used to work out of, and Mersey Television’s Brookside studio in its own little housing estate. In the hotel where I have been staying I came across a showbiz crowd, up from London to record a new children’s series for the BBC called On The Waterfront in the Tiswas slot on Saturday morning. To judge by the number of people who were getting the train back the next morning, Liverpool’s creative input was pretty pitiful.

The media boom looks more like regional tokenism than cultural renaissance. There is culture in Liverpool, lots of it too. “It’s very good for classical music lovers,” according to Dr Michael Myskow, a consultant pathologist at Broadgreen Hospital and brother of Nina, the celebrated “Bitch on the Box,” as her former News Of The World column was called. Nina was in the city to record On The Waterfront. She was catching the early-morning train back to London.

As On The Waterfront gang sank their Beck’s beers, Dr Myskow took me on a pathologist’s tour of the city: “cancer of the colon, the stomach, heart attacks, strokes. There’s slightly more TB here than in Edinburgh but it’s more common than people think, you know. We can treat it now, so it is much less serious than it used to be.”

True to its working class roots, there are a lot of smoking-related diseases in Liverpool. Even at his hospital  they are finding it difficult to stop staff from smoking while at work. Dr Myskow commutes in from Cheshire. The 20-mile journey takes just 20 minutes, a boast which would have people cackling in disbelief if it was made in M25 land. Sourpuss of me, perhaps, to turn a drinking session with childrens’ TV stars – something others would hold as evidence of Liverpool’s exciting nature – into a conversation with a pathologist about TB and cancer  of the colon, but it happened.

Perhaps it’s time to come clean. As a boy I used to worship Liverpool. I was brought up in the posh bits of south Manchester and, at the age of nine, moved to the comically posh Hampshire suburb of Chandler’s Ford. It lacked wit and grit so completely I burnished my northern accent so much it shone like moonbeams on cobbled streets.

Merseyside was special because it was a hero’s city, where my parents came from, met and married. My father, who comes from Birkenhead, trained as an engineer apprentice at Cammell Lairds [shipyard], as the Luftwaffe bombed the place to bits.

Sooner or later, my father and his friends, just out of their teens, were sent off to “bring home the bacon” from across the Atlantic. Many of them didn’t make it, but that didn’t stop my “uncle” Reg from wanting to do his bit. The shipyard would not let him go for some reason. Uncle Reg solved the problem by punching the foreman on the jaw. He was sacked and promptly joined the Merchant Navy to take up his part in the Battle of the Atlantic. It’s that sort of story which comes to mind when John Peel talks of “bloody-mindedness.”

So Liverpool was heroic, until, that is, I spent three days at my grandmother’s at the age of 15 in Page Moss, in Harold Wilson’s old constituency of Huyton. It was probably the first time that I had lived in the middle of real poverty; the discovery that there is nothing enobling about vandalism, cracked panes of glass, stinking rubbish, was shocking.

There was wit: I remember a near-accident between  a  bus and a bread van, with the bus-driver shouting: “Use your loaf, mate!” But that, for me, did not make up for the pervading hunch-shouldered attitude of life and a general, uneasy sense of fear. Last week, to get away from Anfield, I went back.

My grandmother has long since died. The council has tarted up the square she lived on, but no amount of new trees can lift Page Moss very far from its dismal, rubbish-strewn self. The new owner of her former pensioner’s flat was a worried-looking man with rheumy eyes, in a torn black leather jacket. I could hear an unseen woman with a horrible hacking cough, he did not want to talk. Not far away, though, was another pensioner who was more than happy to show off his home-made security defence against the break-in merchants.

Fred – I’ve changed his name – used to be a blacksmith at Anfield cemetery and was proud of his skills. A silvery-haired man who must have been handsome in his youth, he was now in his eighties. His clothes were worn and stained, his cheeks sunken and his mind a little vague. Nevertheless, he was keen to show me his security, in a fashion to the White Knight in Alice Through The Looking Glass: “It’s my own invention.”

Too feeble to be able to shove  a heavy bolt across the door, he had devised a complex system of screws and bolts and pins which did the job. Once locked in, he then bolted four more ugly steel plates across the door. One could not bear to think what would happen to this frail old man, twice robbed, if a fire broke out and he had to get out fast.  Fred was plainly a religious man: he had a series of Christian pictures up on his wall, proclaiming “God is Love” and the like. I asked him about the disaster. He almost spat out the words: “Football is God here, it’s the new God.” And then he said: “Don’t put my name in the paper. They’ll come and get me, you know.”

I then walked across to the row of local shops at Woolfall Heath. It’s genuinely difficult to convey how uncompromisingly frightening they look. Their windows have been bricked in to prevent theft, presenting ugly grey blotches to the eye. Every shop had a double steel bank vault door, even the greengrocer’s. A gang of council workers were working on them, painting them white with anti-graffiti paint, but they had their work cut out, faced with such brutal architecture. Two old ladies chatting told us that “things are getting better, what with the Corpy doing the place up.” One old lady with a heavy squint, perhaps a cataract, in her eye referred to the disaster and said: “We’re not all bad, you know, don’t tar us all with the same brush.”

Near the bus stop at Page Moss, itself on one of those vast pointless steppes which the planners drop in the middle of council estates, someone had spray-painted “Munich 58” in red on a white-topped building. It’s an ugly taunt at Manchester United, who lost many of their best players in the Munich plane crash, a taunt which crops up elsewhere in the city. Quite near Anfield is a memorial stone above a drinking fountain put up to commemorate some Victorian worthy: on this someone has spray-painted painted  a plain “58”. The fan who did this was probably pushing from the back of the tunnel at Hillsborough.

That other football fans will get their own back in kind next season – with chants of “Hillsborough 89” – is depressingly predictable. John Peel said: “Part of the trouble is that the lads like to out-shock each other.”

The spray-painters may be nasty and brutish, but they do not have a national newspaper at their disposal. Easily the most hated group in Liverpool last week – condemned again and again, far more so than South Yorkshire Police – is the media, especially the Sun, the Star and the Daily Mirror.

In death there should be dignity, but part of the horror of Hillsborough was that so many people lost their lives in such a public fashion.

I spent a couple of hours in the pub with Ken – he didn’t want to be fully identified – a Liverpool supporter and electrical engineer who gave the kiss of life twice at Hillsborough and heart massage also twice. Ken’s disgust with the newspaper photographers who worked while he breathed life into collapsed lungs knows no limit. “When you give the kiss of life, it’s like swimming the crawl. You have got to come up for air, and as you do so you look down the length of the body towards the legs. Whenever I took a breath in, I saw these photographers, clicking away. I couldn’t do anything about them. I didn’t have the breath.”

Genuine stories like that have been picked up and spread like wildfire throughout Liverpool. Some of them are true, others are perhaps urban legends. A couple of times I heard the following story. A reporter knocked on the door of a house of someone who lost their son at Hillsborough. The father opened the door. The reporter announced himseld, and the father said: “We want no press here.” The reporter looked through the door, saw to colleagues and said: “But you’ve got two reporters there.” And the father said: “They’re not reporters, they’re social workers.” But they were really from the Sun, so the story goes.

It’s a powerful and damning tale, but one which loses its credibility  a little when you realise that identical stories buzzed around after the Enniskillen bomb and the Zeebrugge disaster. The tabloid photographer who had been hunting deluded florists had heard it all before. There is no need to invent tabloid sharp practice, when a fair amount is plainly evident in newsprint.

A photographer or writer would have been unwise to own up to working for the Sun at Anfield last week. One of the many poems at the ground entitled “You’ll Never Walk Alone” makes the point: “As the photographers look through their lens / What do they reall think? / The helplessness in their heart, / Or just another picture for the Mirror to print?” – the writer had added “the Sin” in red ink.

The local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, which last week won a regional press award, has decided not to photograph any of the 95 funerals.¹ The first one took place last Thursday. As for The Observer, neither photographer Roger Hurchings nor I could face it. The tabloids had heaped agony on agony, blown up and extruded “facts” where they had no need to. The simple narrative of the tragedy was story enough. That and the daily reailty of life in the city the disaster has scythed through.”