This blog post is a broad strokes posting about my experiences watching my father at what should have been the latter end of the his ‘Hillsborough’ experiences. There may be some negative comments from those who know more about this subject because this particular tragedy is more sensitive than most. However, this is a first hand account of my experience with my father and not a critique of anyone else.
I’ve said this before, I have no emotional investment in the tragedy – it happened to other people and while I would offer my heartfelt sympathy to all those who died and have suffered in the subsequent decades, I was not one of them and nor would I ever claim to be.
When you meet my father he is an upbeat, ‘la-de-da’ kind of scouser, he appears relaxed, intelligent and genial. The truth though is a little different, he is a driven and focused man, intelligent but haunted and perhaps, actually there’s no perhaps about it, blinkered. He has very much been at the heart of the Hillsborough campaign to seek what the victims families describe as ‘The Truth’. He was the one who identified his brother, he was the one who took it upon himself to fight the fight and reclaim what he saw as his brothers name and if you listen to him you would believe he was out to change the world.
Setting the scene: Let me roll back about eight years, I was living in Cambodia with my partner running a pet shop, veterinary surgery and design agency and one not so significant day I received a message that my estranged brother had died at the age of 29. For a number of years I had been without any contact with my family and I was happy with that. However, I resolved that, in the light of the death of their son, I would contact my parents to pass on my condolences.
I did this and thought no more of it if I’m honest but out of it I re-established a friendly relationship with my father and despite the loss of his son he was in a good partnership, a good job and all the trappings of a decent life.
However, Hillsborough always loomed large over him and even in those early days it stalked him, it was easy to see. His partner, the much missed Pam, was a perfect antidote to the darkness that the tragedy was, she wove a positivity around him that stopped the dark thoughts consuming him.
However, when Pam died unexpectedly things changed and the hardliner no longer had a balance and the people that surrounded him appeared to be those who believed too wholeheartedly in ‘the cause’ or couldn’t offer my father a counter argument to his actions.
It appeared from my outside position looking in that reality had started to slip away and a series of unfortunate events around the death of Pam left him vulnerable. However, there was a change in the wind when we announced that UltraBaby was to be born and he would become a grandfather, something that to outside observers should (and maybe did) fill his heart with joy and the reason for this rather long winded post.
When he was around he was a doting grandfather and we enjoyed him, hoping he would be a positive influence on the child and vice versa. We hoped that becoming a grandfather might remind him that there was life beyond the Hillsborough tragedy and that while it does no harm to pay homage to those that have passed, it is the living and ourselves that we should dedicate ourselves to.
It was not long after the first birthday of UltraBaby that I started to realise that our calls were not being answered as regularly and that if we didn’t make the effort to call then we didn’t speak to him, video calling which the baby enjoyed was becoming even rarer. I put this down to the fact that the Hillsborough inquests were taking up much of his time and while I would suggest to him that he needed to take it easy I was very aware that he was not listening.
So as the inquests came to their conclusion I stopped calling, I stopped trying – telling the GingaNinja that, ‘he is welcome to miss out on his granddaughter just as he missed out on his children’.
He says he stayed away from myself and my brother during our childhood because it was to our benefit and I am required to believe that he thinks that is true.
He claims the effort of fighting my mother was having a negative effect on him and us – that to a point I believe. However, I am confident that the early days of Hillsborough were as much responsible as my mother. And this is understandable, however, UltraBaby is a generation beyond that – this rationale, this excuse holds much less validity.
When I joined the Hillsborough to Anfield Run in May last year I had hoped this would bring a conclusion to the core of the tragedy – that finally he could start to move on. Instead though I heard these words ‘let’s take a bit more of my brother home’. He repeated these words about the 96, ‘let’s take a bit more of them home’.
My heart sank.
The inquests had ruled, you’d won back your brothers name, the names and innocence of the other 95 victims was assured, nobody was in doubt that the fans were innocent of wrong doing that day.
The brother he spoke of was already home, statements like this that littered the event, especially from my father, seemed to confirm that the tragedy would always be the most central thing in his life. I’m not sure that his brother, mother and sister would ever have wanted him to dedicate so much of his life to this and while they would be proud of him standing up to he counted they, I hope, would be dismayed by the high cost he has paid.
I was already filled with trepidation about this trip, the amount of time they’d allocated to run the distance, the stops and several other concerns and even as I arrived at the hotel I almost turned away, calling the GingaNinja saying I thought this was not the place for me (she agreed and I was right). She told me to call them and say I was injured and just return home, but I couldn’t, that felt as much like the wrong thing to do as running the event.
In truth, I very much enjoyed meeting up with Dom Williams (the event organiser) and Earle Jackson once more but my father had his Hillsborough shield on, mister media, mister anti-Thatcher, mister Hillsborough. That veneer, that armour isn’t nice to be around.
We didn’t fight but there was a tension and when I was feeling sick and with nasty glute pain about 35 miles in I had to stop running. This was double edged, firstly I had wanted to finish the run and I wanted to run the 5km race the next morning in Liverpool and secondly I was running 74 miles across the Isle of Skye a mere 5 days later. I chose common sense and my own aims over the H2A, which probably wasn’t very well received but my own wellbeing took priority over this event.
My father and I didn’t speak during the event, we haven’t actually spoken again except for one, two WhatsApp message exchange, where he asked me to explain myself… and I did… saying much of what’s been written here, but also going further, both wishing him well for the future and also suggesting that we are unlikely to speak again given our equally stubborn natures.
This has become a reality.
My failure. I am in part to blame for this breakdown in communications, I thought I could take him away from Hillsborough and help support and encourage life beyond the walls of the tragedy but I was misguided and I should have left this well alone. I was wrong to turn up to the WNWA96 and the H2A Run 2016 because it highlighted to me things I probably didn’t want to know and left me feeling bereft.
What I do know though is, and I’ll paraphrase the old saying about power to suggest that, ‘Hillsborough corrupts but absolute Hillsborough corrupts absolutely. Listening to him on the radio at the inquests, reading some of the articles, interviews he had given (in particular to The Daily Mirror) and talking to him during the inquests showed clearly to me that he had become lost. How he needed the balance that Pam gave him and how I realise I could never offer what she did as a balance to his (and I quoted his own description) ‘darkness’.
I’m not exactly sure when he became SPK, campaigner but I know the man I reconnected with less than a decade ago wasn’t ‘SPK, father’. When I first noted the changes in him I coined the phrase ‘Victim 97’ because I assume that somewhere deep in the Hillsborough tragedy that my dad died too.
So I asked the question at the start of this blog post, ‘who is more important, the living or the dead?’ and I think what I’ve come to understand is that it depends on who you ask and what you’ve been through. But, for me, it is the living that we should really concern ourselves with. The dead don’t care about ‘The Truth’ and maybe it’s important to accept that if you do things for the dead – you’re actually doing them for yourself. Perhaps though the most important thing is that once you have the answer you sought it’s time to let it go and return to the land of the living, but this is just my opinion.
UltraBaby. In my final WhatsApp message to my father I made the suggestion that he ‘didn’t have time for the granddaughter that he claimed to cherish’ and I stand by that. She will never be allowed to forget him but she will never be told about Hillsborough or his role in it – I don’t see the point.
Throughout my life I’ve maintained that it is your actions that make you who you are but sometimes it’s the small things that give you humanity and this is what I will focus on as my daughter grows and asks about my parents. I will tell her all about the man who was my father, the man who could run marathons, the man who drove a bus for a living and then a taxi and then worked helping adults with severe mental difficulties. She’ll know he was an Everton fan and she’ll know he ran with her during her first race – the rest doesn’t matter. What I tell her about my mother remains a mystery even to me.
Conclusion. I’ll end with this, if the Hillsborough tragedy has taught us only one thing then I hope it is to live. In all walks of life you can honour better the dead by living the ‘life most fantastic’, you can’t honour the dead by giving up your own life in pursuit of their memory, that surely only ends in tragedy.