Tuesday, June 20, 2017
FOR THOSE OF US WHO LIVED THROUGH HILLSBOROUGH, THE STORY OF GRENFELL TOWER IS HORRIBLY FAMILIAR.
It is September 2014 and the seat I am sitting on has suddenly become uncomfortably hot. It is no ordinary seat. I guess it must have cost a fortune. The seat is in a witness box and the witness box is in a very strange courtroom.
I am in Warrington amidst the gleaming new builds of the Birchwood Business Park. It is a place of corporate HQ's and lots of carefully tended green spaces.
This unlikely setting is the two year home to the Coronor's Inquest into how and why ninety six of my fellow Liverpool fans were crushed to death twenty five years earlier in the cages of Hillsborough's Leppings Lane End Terrace.
On 15 April 1989.
On the very worst day of my life.
I have had a long wait for this day. A twenty five year wait. And now I am no longer just another voice in the wilderness. No longer are my words being silenced and ignored care of a cover up to end cover ups. Not any more. Things have changed. The public mood has turned and the politicians are following with a new found zeal. The purse strings have not just been loosened, they have been cut and thrown in the bin.
And so here we are. Lots of us. I am on the stand. In the spotlight. In front of me I can see at least thirty wall mounted TV screens and each and every one of them has me on it. To my right sits the coroner, a small, bird like man who gave me a miniscule nod when I swore myself in. In front and to my right are the jury, surrounded by a bevy of suited and booted court clerks.
The public are slightly in the background.
Except they are not merely the public. Most of the public are families who lost someone on the the worst day of my life. Looking at them makes my throat feel dry. A voice rattles around my head.
Don't let them down, don't let them down, don't let them down.......
To the left are reporters. Lots of them. Some scribbling. Some 'live Tweeting', some just watching.
And front and centre are the lawyers. How many? At least twenty. Maybe thirty? Lawyers for everyone. The South Yorkshire Police, The FA, The Ambulance Service, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, Sheffield City Council....
And the families.
Most of the eye watering legal bills are being picked up by the tax payer, mainly the rate payers of South Yorkshire. Only the families have had to shake the bucket. Thankfully the people of Liverpool have filled the bucket to overflowing.
Nobody has thought to stump up for a lawyer to look after me or any of the fans who have been summoned to Birchwood Business Park to tell the story of the worst day of our lives.
Not to worry. You see, I have been told in very clear terms about how there is absolutely no need to worry. It has been carved in stone. This Inquest will be 'non adversarial'. No witnesses will be treated as hostile.
So no need to be anxious Mark. Everyone will be on your side. All we want is the truth.
And for the first couple of hours everything has been as promised. One of the Coroner's two 'in house' lawyers has taken me meticulously through my journey in and out of the living hell that was the Lepping Lane Terrace.
But now things have suddenly changed. Big time.
As soon as the Coroner's lawyers finished up a small, aggressive looking character jumped to his feet with the look of someone itching for a fight.
Non adversarial? Maybe not.
"QC Beggs. I represent the Police Commanders."
For half an hour he has laid into me and basically accused me of being a lair and a fantasist. Luckily I haven't found it too hard to stand my ground. I have after all spent the last few months of my life debating all kinds stroppy Unionist MP's in the count down to IndyRef. Being slagged off by nasty little men in suits is something I have become all too familiar with. So this is what you get if you splash out £800 an hour for the services of one of the Establishment's most vicious attack dogs. As soon as his direction of travel becomes clear, I deploy a technique I read about in the memoirs of a guy who had been on the receiving end of Gestapo interrogation. Imagine the bastard is naked. Suddenly he isn't so frightening any more.
So I mentally strip Beggs QC of his expensive suit and suddenly he is nothing more than a nasty little man defending the indefensible for £800 an hour.
For the third time he picks up of a copy of a letter I had written on Tuesday 18 April 1989 - a letter I had sent to politicians of all colours. A letter in which I made clear my willingness to give evidence about what had happened any time, any place, anywhere.
Beggs adopts his very best sarcastic voice and reads out the final paragraph with a sort of sneering mockery. A younger me had chosen to end the the letter with a line of poetry. Wilfred Owen. 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'
'What passing bells for those who die as cattle."
He more or less throws the copy of my letter.
'You finish your letter with a reference to Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth". Do you see?"
"Other than the error -- it wasn't 60 years earlier, it was in fact 72 years earlier -- you thought that was an apposite way of ending it off; yes?"
Unbelievable. He's nit picking me on the dates!
Apposite? Oh yeah, it was bloody apposite alright.
But of course this dreadful little man has no idea. I very much doubt if he was a football fan in the dark days of the 80's when we were corralled into cages by the police and their dogs. Like cattle. We were moved through the streets like cattle and once were inside the stadium we were penned like cattle. Crammed. Squeezed. Threatened. And we knew it only too well. For years we had developed our own response to the cops on the horses, the cops with the Alsatians straining at the leash, the cops fingering their batons.
We would make mooing noises. All of us. We would make like a herd of cows. To make our point.
For years we warned things would end in tears. In tragedy. In a suffocating, rib snapping nightmare. And for years our voices fell on deaf ears. Who were we when all was said and done? Scum. Troublemakers. The 'enemy within'.
So we mooed like cows.
And on 15 April 1989 we weren't herded into cages to eat hay and wait for milking time. We were herded into cages to die. The Leppings Lane Terrace wasn't a barn.
It was an abattoir.
Was it any surprise nobody had been interested in listening to our concerns? Our warnings? Of course it wasn't. We didn't really expect anyone to listen.
We were deemed to be bad people on so many different levels. Football supporters in general were painted as being the very scum of the earth by the tabloids. Those were days before football became hip and middle class. It was a game for poor people played out in dilapidated stadiums where the only new investment came in the form of metal cages.
It was cheap weekend entertainment for the very worst elements of the lower orders. Hooligans and troublemakers. Thatcher was still hell bent on passing new laws to demand all football fans carry ID cards as they traveled to and from the match. We were clearly not fit to be worthy of the civil liberties the rest of society enjoyed. Decent society.
And of course the very worst of football fans in the eyes of the red top papers were us. Liverpool and Everton fans. Scousers.
This really put us right up at the top of the league table of those elements of 80's society deemed to be 'enemies within'. The Sun knew exactly what it thought of Scousers. Lazy, thieving, shirking, scamming bastards. The city was the last redoubt of resistance to the Thatcher wrecking ball. We were labelled as Militants, commies, Trots, agitators, criminals.
Derek Hatton and Yosser Hughes.
As our dear friends at the other end of the Manchester Ship Canal were so fond of saying...
'Hey Rock n' Roll.... Scousers on the dole...'
What do do call a Scouser in a suit?.....
So of course nobody listened to us. Nobody gave a damn about us. We were of no worth. We were to be kept down. We were expected to know our place.
So complaints of brutal police treatment and inhuman caged terraces were shrugged off as typical whinging. Trouble making. Just more bollocks. yada yada yada....
Only when 96 of us died live on TV in front of a watching world did people finally start to listen. Well. It was more a case of cover up a lot and listen bit. But they finally took notice. The cages were ripped out and the old ramshackle death trap stadiums were replaced with what we have today.
So I guess you can probably see why so much of the unfolding story of Grenfell Tower is sickeningly familiar to those of us who walked away from the Leppings Lane End Terrace with our lives in tact.
For years the residents have been warning about how their block was a death trap waiting to happen. They went on and on and on about it and nobody listened.
Why? because they are like we were back in the 80's.
The bad people. The ones the tabloids never tire of attacking. Poor people cheating their way to benefits. Disabled people scamming their PIP. Immigrants taking our flats and jobs. Muslims planning to blow us up. Young people itching to riot.
Little people. Poor people. Bad people. Inconvenient people. Troublemaking people.
People to be ignored.
And they were ignored. Completely ignored. When we tried to complain to mounted police officers whilst we were being herded through the streets like cattle, they would threaten us with the back of the van and a police cell. When the residents howled out their rage and fear in blogs, they received letters threatening them with court. They were not simply ignored: they were actively threatened.
And in the end the death trap they warned about became an actual death trap. Just like the Leppings Lane End Terrace became an actual death trap.
Thankfully there are some very big differences between June 2017 and April 1989. Thankfully we live the era of camera phones and social media. A Hillsborough style cover up is all but inconceivable, though it is still prudent never to say never.
But will social media force those in charge to listen in the future to those deemed to be too poor or too troublemaking or too foreign to deserve a voice?
We'll see I guess.