Thursday, 19 May 2016

Hillsborough



So I finally plucked up the courage to watch the BBC documentary about Hillsborough. It wasn’t a matter of being unprepared for what to expect; quite the contrary. I’ve read a lot of accounts of the day, the details unearthed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the outstanding investigative work of the likes of Phil Scraton and David Conn. The details of what happened remain harrowing beyond words; the descriptions of people crushed to death whilst watching a football match. They remain horrifying beyond the power of words to describe. The first hour of the documentary concentrates implacably on this; the confluence of circumstances which led to the deaths of 96 people. At each step in the process you can see where things happening slightly differently would have meant the terror of the day wouldn’t have happened at all; that it wasn’t inevitable. It’s a horror only real life could produce; miles ahead of the effect any filmmaker might achieve. Because it actually happened. Because a long chain of institutional incompetence and indifference led to the point where people died.

It takes as its starting point a police prank; a prank on a junior  for which the officer normally in charge of big matches in Sheffield carries the can and is exiled from Sheffield to Barnsley. Instead, for a big match an inexperienced officer who has no experience of policing big matches is brought in – disastrously, as officers on duty that day recount, he’s overconfident of his own abilities. The ground itself doesn’t carry a safety certificate; it had expired three years before the game and never been renewed. Spurs fans at the 1981 semi-final had experienced a similar crush but no notice was taken; nothing happened so things could carry on. That’s one area the documentary soft pedals; the Football Association’s responsibility. It selected the ground and gave Liverpool, the club with the larger number of fans, the end with the poorest access. It didn’t even bother to check the existence of non-existence of the safety certificate (as apparently no-one in the organisation understood the concept).  Liverpool’s chief executive Peter Robinson made protests against the choice of ground but, as four years earlier at Heysel, his concerns were ignored by authorities. If anything the conditions in the ground had been made worse for fans; the Leppings Lane terrace was not divided into three pens. That the word ‘pens’ is used tells you all you need to know about how football fans were regarded; as basically subhuman cattle, fit only to be fenced in. It’s a mercy that the suggestion of Chelsea’s reactionary chairman Ken Bates, that the fences separating fans from pitch should be electrified, was never taken up – what the casualties might have been if that had been the case is too horrifying to contemplate.

The thing that should be stressed at this point is a point made by the journalist Tony Evans (who was in the stands that day). That this was essentially a normal matchday; fans may have had one or two drinks before the game but there had been no serious traffic delays, nothing to cause a late rush of fans to arrive at the stadium. Yet thanks to the inadequate infrastructure of the ground a crush was beginning to develop outside the ground; an officer on the scene advised of the crush in no uncertain terms and that action needed to be taken. Sadly, with the inexperience of the officer in charge the most disastrous action that could be made was taken and a gate to the central pen of the Leppings Lane terrace was opened. At this point it should be stressed that the terraces were divided into three pens and the ones at either end were relatively underpopulated.  Under pressure an inexperienced officer made a very human mistake. And because of that mistake a crush developed on the centre pen of the terrace as fans rushed to get out of the crush outside the ground to try and catch a match which had already started.

I remember playing football on the street that day, running in at three o’clock so we could be updated on the first half and hear the second half in full (the radio rights only covered second half commentary of most games in those days). Instead we heard the game had been stopped after six minutes and Peter Jones, one of the great radio sports commentators, became a disaster reporter for the afternoon. It was horribly unclear at first; fans apparently spilling onto the pitch but as the afternoon continued the horror slowly unfolded. Pictures of the day now show that central pen; a seething mass of humanity full beyond bursting and with people still trying to enter behind.  It’s fairly calm and normal surrounding it; in the stand above and in the pens to either side. But the middle seethes like a bee hive that’s been attacked, a mass of humanity that looks impossibly tightly packed. John Motson even remarks on it in off-air comments; there’s no unruly mob rush, just a slow build of pressure. And what happened then remains impossibly horrific as Peter Beardsley hits the bar, the crowd naturally surges… people are packed so tight they can’t breather. Police officers recount how they can’t untangle the masses of limbs when they have to deal with the dead. All this time the initial mistake of opening the gate towards the central pen is compounded by inaction, by a lack of direction to open the gates that would allow exit. By total misunderstanding of what’s happening meaning that much of the police were directed to wait on the halfway line to stop a potential charge from the Forest fans. Some police help but it’s the other fans who help; the ones sitting above dragging people out, passing others over the fences, improvising stretchers… the human desire is to help. And the police at that end, when they realise what’s happening, also help desperately, attempting to save lives and get people out. Common humanity prevails, even if the official response remains inadequate with ambulances unable to reach the ground. It’s then a tale of coping with chaos and of relatives trying to discover what’s happened to loved ones. The documentary managed to clearly portray the chaos and horror of the day.

The conjuror’s trick lies in getting you to look where he wants. You know ‘look into my eyes; don’t look around the eyes…’ Their art, fundamentally, is misdirection and getting you to mistrust your own sensory evidence. It’s also the art of the PR man and advertiser, to get you to believe what they want you to, whatever you can see. The Hillsborough cover-up beings excusably; with the officer in charge on the day wanting to cover his own backside. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a human reaction. The fatal opening of the gate became an issue where it was forced by fans, not by police order. In a sane world this lie would soon have been uncovered and exposed by any remotely competent investigation. Instead it became a point to begin an institutional cover-up that wasn’t fully exposed for nearly three decades, blame dodging by the organisations which failed in any conception of a duty of care to the fans; the South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday FC and the FA. The police, with the connivance of the local MP, began by blaming ‘tanked-up yobs’ for arriving late and causing the congestion which led to the crush. They compounded this with details of bodies being robbed and the police being assaulted and urinated on when they were bravely attempting to help. Liverpool fans, like any other set, are no angels, as is acknowledged, but viewing any footage of the day provides no evidence of such behaviour whatsoever. Quite the opposite; tragedy begat natural nobility rather than venal or aggressive instincts.  It was fed via the local press association to national papers and widely reported. Most had the sense to frame them as unproven accusations; the editor of The Sun infamously declared them ‘The Truth’. As facts. That’s why the line from anyone asking why The Sun bore the brunt of Merseyside fury when everyone else reported the accusations is worthless; because only The Sun reported them as facts, a decision purely down to the editor. Again, Tony Evans points out that the first question a journalist should ask when considering whether these were truthful accusations is whether you’d do such a thing yourself; it’s almost impossible to imagine that any sane person would. It speaks volumes of the government of the day and the type of figure within it that one of them declared it to be the fault of tanked-up yobs; an accusation he’s never seen fit to retract despite it being challenged officially several times and always found groundless.

It was Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry that first found it baseless. A subsequent coroner’s enquiry found the whole affair to be an accident; but this was another part of the cover-up with the coroner unscientifically declaring a cut off of 3.15 when considering time of death and causes of death.  It was another aspect of establishment cover-up; a backroom deal that the South Yorkshire press officer tried to declare the end of the matter.  An accident, of course, would mean that it was something that couldn’t ever have been foreseen or prevented without great foresight. Again, this was a great evasion of blame on the police’s part, but one apparently backed up by evidence from officers on the day. The reality was quite different. When Phil Scraton gained access to the statements from officers he found they’d been significantly altered to remove any criticism of police conduct on the day. One officer in the documentary recounted that the police officers of the time carried a little blue book; something sacred in which you recorded what had happened on the day, however minute. And yet… when they were being debriefed afterward they were told not to worry about this (creditably, one experienced officer when told this said to his colleagues to ignore that and record everything down to when they’d last used the toilet). This wasn’t unprecedented; the government was well aware that it needed the police support to survive pushing through unpopular actions and policies and as such had ensured the police became well-paid and backed-up in any investigations. South Yorkshire Police had form; after the notorious incident at Orgreave during the miner’s strike of the mid-1980s the government had backed them up and fed stories of rioting miners rather than investigating stories of police brutality. All this, naturally, led to a total lack of accountability which should be vital to any law-keeping institution.  But there was no accountability. The deaths were declared an accident, the reputation of Liverpool fans were tarnished; the vile element of opposition fans provoking them with chants of ‘always the victims, it’s never your fault’ when Hillsborough was piled on top of the earlier Heysel tragedy (and in the interests of balance, certain elements of Liverpool fandom weren’t shy of replying with equally distasteful chants relating to deaths for other clubs). That it was all so easily believed; that the late 1990s would see it declared as useless to reopen a file on the case with no new evidence compounded a sense that the establishment had closed ranks and shifted the blame to what they seemed to view as a subhuman mass of fans.

Subhuman isn’t too strong a word there; English clubs were banned from European football for hooliganism; many city centres were damaged by fights between fans in the 1980s. The Prime Minister didn’t understand competitive sport or spectators; therefore she was all too ready to believe the worst of their behaviour (as were many members of her Cabinet).  I’ve mentioned the Chelsea chairman’s proposal for electrified fences; measures taken only in terms of extreme security or fencing in cattle. Equally when questioned on the matter the FA admitted that no-one truly understood ground safety; no-one had even undertaken basic checks on the ground before it had a semi-final allocated. No-one listened to Peter Robinson’s warnings based on the semi-final of the previous year and the Spurs-Wolves game of earlier in the decade. No-one at Sheffield Wednesday cared enough about fans to ensure their ground was safe; if there was one positive thing to come out of that day it was the Taylor reports recommendations on improving ground safety. All this has one thing at the heart of it; a snobbish lack of concern for those with less money or whose pleasures are considered less highbrow. Hillsborough wasn’t inevitable; not until extremely close to the tragedy happening. But with those prevailing attitudes something like it was inevitable.  Tony Evans point that it wasn’t a particularly exceptional day, that very little happened to cause the tragedy that didn’t normally happen on any matchday, is the key point. With those attitudes it was inevitable that something like Hillsborough would happen sooner or later. It may not have happened at Hillsborough; it may not have been Liverpool fans but sooner or later the total lack of concern for fans, for paying customers, meant that there would be crushes and that sooner or later mistakes would be made that meant people would be seriously injured or die. It was really a matter of time before some kind of tragedy occurred.

This, of course, is not thinking that would permeate establishment minds. As with most humans we’re locked in our own worldviews and don’t question them, instead fitting facts and events to them rather than letting inconvenient facts amend our perceptions. If the insistence of a terrible accident was made for long enough all this would eventually subside. And it nearly did; a private prosecution against the officer in charge of the day failed as it provided only a hung jury; funds raised by organisations supporting the families of the bereaved in the quest to find out what had happened to their loved ones seemed wasted on that failed case. But at a memorial service at Liverpool’s home ground of Anfield Cabinet Minister Andy Burnham was confronted with a wall of anger as he spoke and expressed official sympathy; creditably he took that on board and insisted on the case being reopened. Eventually that led to a two year long case which ended up utterly exonerating the fans and finding that official institutions had failed them dismally. Every death at Hillsborough was ruled an unlawful killing. The police and Sheffield Wednesday were at fault. The FA, which had issued a non-specific apology a few years earlier, kept very quiet. Sheffield Wednesday had failed in their neglect of their ground. It took more than twenty-seven years for the dead to be exonerated and for actual facts to be established; facts the police had even tried to deny in the courtroom. The Kop singing You’ll Never Walk Alone at a match is a grand and joyous thing but it was as nothing compared to the joy of the families being able to sing it on the steps of a nondescript modern courtroom after the verdicts were announced. Because the details that haunt you aren’t just the descriptions of the carnage on the Leppings Lane terraces; nor the police officer (and ex-paratrooper) involved in rescue efforts on the day suffering a nervous breakdown whilst on duty in his car. It’s the hair; grey, white or gone. It’s the lines time has etched onto their faces; grief and struggle against institutions which let them down. It’s the steel in the eyes; that anger and grief has been forced to fester there whilst the names of their family were dragged through the mud. That it took twenty-seven years to undo a lie originally spread in minutes. That justice took so long to serve some of those who got away with it lived out comfortable lives and died with their sins unaccounted.  Twenty-seven years; not far short of ten thousand days. After watching the testimonies of the officers and fans you suddenly realise the importance of proper accountability and that there was no accountability whatsoever should make anyone deeply afraid. Because if there is no accountability in a situation so obvious, where evidence was clear… when can you trust any institution? How many people in power are actually fitted to it? When can you ever trust an institution again? The financial crash and subsequent actions of financial institutions certainly suggest the answer remains: ‘you can’t’. Hillsborough didn’t only cost 96 lives, it cost decades of other people’s lives (and contributed to many early deaths of those involved in the search for justice). And in the long term it cost a community their faith in society. It’s never a bad thing to learn to question how power is wielded but in the long run that lasting distrust is the establishment’s price for the short term saving of a few reputations.

So yes, I’ve had my heart broken and been rendered furious once more by it. It’s an astonishingly powerful film; almost as powerful as Jimmy McGovern’s 1996 dramatisation of events. If you’re remotely squeamish of strong emotions or descriptions then it may be unbearable but for those with a strong enough constitution it’s vital. Not just if you’re a football fan, or remember the game, but as an expose of a tragedy and how easy it was for the responsibility to be pinned on the innocent. Ultimately it tells you that in times of crisis you should put your faith in the quality of fellow human beings rather than in any uniform they wear or any power they hold. And that if you fight long enough and hard enough, eventually any lie can be undone.  There’s no triumph in the verdicts; it’s simply the treatment of a festering wound that can finally be allowed to begin to heal. The tricks of the magicians have been explained and exposed; the charlatans are undone and all that’s left is the accounting. Maybe, just maybe, the institutions of society can be made to work as they should eventually. And 96 victims can rest in peace.


Thursday, 17 March 2016

Infinity On High (The Lost Time Accidents)



I’m a sucker for novels which treat genres as a game and run rampant, laughing at the idea of easy classification. This is such a novel, a confident melding of science-fiction, an intergenerational family saga, physics, mystery, satire, history and even a classical form of tragedy. We’re dropped in at the deep end, meeting our narrator Waldemar Tolliver who’s engaged in writing a history of himself and his family in an unusual setting in terms of both space and time. The enigma of just what constitutes lost time accidents begins with Waldemar’s great grandfather and a note he leaves just prior to a fatal car accident. This note is the novel’s MacGuffin, inspiring the members of the family to a kind of century long collective madness and one which sets them up in direct opposition to a physicist known to them by the disparaging nickname of ‘the Patent Clerk’. The novel unfolds their opposition to Einstein’s theories at leisure, being careful for much of its length to leave it to the reader to decide whether it genuinely works in context of the novel’s world or whether it’s a delusion related by an unreliable narrator.

It’s this strange theory which allows the author to get at the issue at the novel’s heart; how we’re the physical and psychological product of our ancestors and the recipients of their hopes, fears and neuroses and what that means for us. The ultimate fate of our narrator indicates that, even if we might physically step outside that, we’re largely stuck with the weight their inheritance bestows upon us, unable to escape our family. Family ends up being destiny, determining our way. It’s something of a downbeat thought but one the novel powerfully realises, particularly with the last few lines which, if you’re paying attention, complete the tragedy and the theme of tragic circularity. It might be trying to make a grand statement that’s been made by other contemporary novelists but it wears that gravity of Trying To Say Something Profound lightly; wrapping it up with a comedy, tragedy and a host of interesting and entertaining characters. The events these characters go through are always unlikely but the fascinating kernel most of them have keeps things grounded – the weird aunts, the cult leader, the Nazi great-uncle and the unwilling L Ron Hubbard of a dad are all believable, convincingly motivated human beings who contrive to struggle fruitlessly in the web of their family’s mania. They’re rarely likeable as we can clearly see their faults (often through Waldemar’s eyes and even his narrative exposes his flaws) but Wray’s exceptional at understanding the way people are broken which makes them interesting and portraying that. Thought-provoking, absurdist, challenging and ladled with great lines understand that the impact of a good punchline derives in part from how the joke is told.



(STANDARD DISCLAIMER – The copy I read was an advance eBook provided gratis by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review).

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

....and it was a gas



New York of the 1970s was one of those scenes; a thriving, vital hotbed of freaks, dropouts and weirdos getting artistic whilst the Big Apple rotted around them. It started roughly with the kinky subversion of Warhol and the Velvet Underground and would end up manifesting itself in a myriad of forms; Patti Smith’s punk poetry, the geek funk of Talking Heads, the rampant sleaze of the New York Dolls and the heads down ramalama racket of The Ramones. Even the musical forms which ended up being culturally dominant (disco and hip hop) began as the songs of the marginal. Blondie’s Parallel Lines is a document of that scene; a record of how it grew, evolved, splintered and eventually how it was refracted in one of the finest and most stylish pop albums of all time.

Very little of the book focuses on the album itself; perhaps only in terms of what Mike Chapman brought to producing the album and how remarkably the album was broken by the fourth single; a song buried halfway through side two. In modern times it’s insane to think that a song which still sounds like it should be an instant pop smash was almost sneaked out apologetically. It’s a wise move on McLeod’s part; he’s correctly divined that whilst Parallel Lines is a magnificent pop album what really makes it interesting is how it messes with what pop should be; you can enjoy Harry’s femme fatale persona as performance act or simply as an iconic pop star; you can enjoy the ridiculously infectious songs or enjoy the subversively provocative lyrics; you can enjoy the album or marvel at the sources it’s drawing on. It’s a melting pot of New York influences; punk, power pop, disco and they’d even stir in hip hop later on. In many ways they were as magpie as Bowie but playing with a 50s trash aesthetic rather than sci-fi and mysticism (they’re minor strands in Blondie’s music). Further parallels with Bowie come in Harry’s awareness of the power of image; the band’s at its strongest when Harry has control of the visual imagery. Harry and Bowie share an instinctive understanding of the importance of image and presentation in pop; something they were ahead of the game in as they broke through in the pre-MTV era. What’s really treasurable is how the book reminds us that it’s an underdog story; how no-one thought Blondie would make it let alone be the most commercially successful band of the scene.

The whole thing’s laced with the interviews from important people in the story; the band members themselves and those around the scene at the time. It doesn’t shy away from less glamorous aspects of the band’s story (the money troubles, the state of the area they lived in, the sex and drugs, Chris Stein’s illness) but it’s all covered compassionately and with proper context.  And that’s the triumph of the book; to put the band and album in context of the scene it came from; in its importance in the band’s history and the little tricks they were pulling beneath Chapman’s immaculate pop sheen. A sharp enjoyable tribute which fills in the details lost in the dazzle when the spotlight hit the glitterball.


(STANDARD DISCLAIMER – The copy I read was an advance eBook provided gratis by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review).

Dance Songs '97



I love Sleater-Kinney; they’re one of the last bands for my generation that you could fall in love with, who could mean the world to you and who would who loved the fans as much as the fans loved them. They always seemed aware of the fan reaction and the political statement of being three women playing fast, often angry music. They seemed to want to be the feminist equivalent both the Sex Pistols and the writers of Sniffin’ Glue.  It’s a beautiful ambition. I love that the album Babovic has chosen for the 33 1/3 series is Dig Me Out; whereas Call the Doctor and All Hands on the Bad One feel more obvious choices Dig Me Out is where the ‘classic’ line-up coalesces and things began to take off for them commercially. It’s a portrait of a band on the cusp of their big artistic and commercial break; almost invariably it’s the most interesting point of any band’s career. Even Coldplay’s.

As with the best books in the series this is barely about the album itself; although the circumstances of recording are discussed as they’re important to the record’s mood Babovic wisely realises that the technicalities aren’t important and often the album itself isn’t either. It’s simply the cultural artefact that triggers everything; the eye of the storm. As with the last 33 1/3 I read (Blondie’s Parallel Lines) this is about putting the album into context; its roots, its reception and the consequences for the band and music in general. I’d perhaps have liked a little more on Riot Grrl (although I appreciate there’s not a great deal of room to discuss it a little more beyond depth beyond Bikini Kill would’ve been nice) but Babovic drills down to just why the movement made little impact outside its heartland of Washington state and the UK but Sleater-Kinney did. It’s perhaps a simple conclusion but it might have been interesting to see it linked to Nirvana and Cobain’s inability to marry his purist ethic to grand scale success.   Not comparing female rock stars to male stars is very much the point but equally the comparison could simply be made band against band. Riot Grrl wasn’t equipped to handle mass success but Sleater-Kinney’s willingness to meet mainstream press and the music business whilst maintaining their principles means they were. You can’t spread a message, no matter how worthy, with an insular attitude. My favourite part of the book remained the details of the interactions of fans and band; the late 1990s and early 2000s feel like the last hurrah of fanzine culture and it’s fantastic to see it detailed here. Hey Soundguy sounds like the DIY punk zines of the late 1970s; a love of music (not necessarily technique) combined with a willingness to expose the workings of the system.  It’s about artists genuinely interested in having a conversation with their audience rather than preaching at them; that’s my favourite kind of band and a reminder of just why I love what they mean as much as any individual song or album.

If there’s a minor fault it’s perhaps that Babovic lapses into dry academic tone occasionally but it’s not at the expense of clearly dealing with the issues surrounding the band; it’s clearly as much about using the language of rock criticism to communicate as the band were using musical language to get their point across. That very much feels like the right way to write a book about the band; it covers what makes the band important in a relatively small wordcount.

And now I’m off to play Dig Me Out loud and take myself back most of two decades. Driving you back to the album is always the best sign of a good book.


(STANDARD DISCLAIMER – The copy I read was an advance eBook provided gratis by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review).

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Volcano Day!

Well, book release day anyway.



Along with the three other excellent titles in the series Rose is now available as an ebook from the Obverse website, along with the other three launch titles. I'd recommend waiting for the very sexy print editions but if you want to save a few pennies/are impatient/don't want to fork out for postage run, don't walk, Obverse's way and throw your pounds and pennies at them. Throw them enough and they'll do a funny little dance too.

Plus! Details released of the first two books in the monthly schedule: Simon Bucher-Jones's study of Image of the Fendahl and Jonathan Dennis's take on Ghost Light.  The summaries for both of these should have you slavering in antici...





...pation and wanting to throw more moolah Obverse's way.

Don't let me keep you; please go and make some authors, the editor and the publisher happy little elves.  Thataway!


Friday, 26 February 2016

Examining The Black Archive

The first Black Archive reviews are in and pretty damn fine they are too.  Sci-fi Bulletin has reviewed each of the first four titles:

Rose

The Massacre

The Ambassadors of Death

Dark Water/ Death In Heaven

And gentleman and scholar Nick Campbell has a further look at The Ambassadors of Death here.

Obviously, after reviews like that you'll be wanting to pick up a full set so here's the handy dandy link to snaffle all four of the launch titles.