By John Dewhirst
Earlier this year, whilst working at a client’s offices in Berkshire I overheard the commentary of John Helm from the day of the Valley Parade fire when he witnessed first hand the unfolding disaster. It was a surreal, disorienting moment. Upon enquiry during a coffee break I discovered it was being used as part of a fire training course and when I told the presenter that I had been in attendance I was introduced to the delegates. It was evident that the video of the inferno had shocked people who admitted their disbelief of how a fire could strike so quickly and with such devastating effect.
The response of those who saw the film confirms what in my opinion was the ultimate reason for why the disaster occurred. Quite simply none of us could comprehend or had the imagination to consider the possibility of a disaster, this despite the fact we were intimately familiar with the state of the old main stand and its decrepit condition. (The irony of course is not just that the stand was scheduled for replacement that summer but that even when it had been extended in 1907 it was considered to be a temporary structure).
Those who were at Valley Parade on 11 May, 1985 have their own private memories and some of us have been more fortunate than others in putting them to the back of our minds. By virtue of the scale of the disaster – the 56 fatalities, the countless victims and its circumstances – what happened that day could never remain private. By virtue of being televised the Valley Parade Fire was catapulted into a wider, public memory. Apart from becoming a case study for fire safety it has become a metaphor and soundbite for discussion about football in the 1980s, filed conveniently and simplistically for future reference.
When asked by those who had just watched the film, the only observation I could share was that I will never forget the intensity of the heat. In truth that is about all that I can remember, or should I say, all that I choose to recall. The question ‘what was it like that day?’ is invariably asked in innocence but it’s not something that can be answered so easily. I don’t believe it is necessarily about bottling up emotions as opposed to the difficulty finding the words whilst feeling embarrassed to use superlatives.
From a personal perspective it has felt that, during the last 34 years there has been a widening gap between private memories of what happened and the collective, public accounts of the disaster shared in the press and social media. This is to the point where it feels the disaster has been appropriated by others and given simplified, selective interpretations that are quite alien to those of us who were there and who dealt with the aftermath.
Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to what happened in Bradford. The modern-day commemoration of World War One has taken forms that would have been quite unrecognisable, possibly even distasteful to those who had lived through the tragedy. Thirty-four years hence the cultural memory of the Valley Parade disaster is likely to have been given further change of emphasis. The point might then come when accounts of the disaster are virtually unrecognisable to those who experienced it, the same people who went to a football match in Bradford on 11th May, 1985 not for one moment thinking that history was about to be written.
Such is the study of history that future generations pick and choose from accounts of the past to suit what they believe fits the agenda of their time. History becomes as they say, rewritten and myths become created. Indeed, my own research of the origins of sport and professional football in Bradford has confirmed the extent to which earlier accounts of the history have been distorted by myths and superficial narratives.
In 2015, the publication of Martin Fletcher’s book and the ensuing publicity in the press made me question my own sanity. There had always been a broad consensus about what had happened in 1985 among supporters of my generation – i.e. those now aged 50 years plus, old enough to have known the circumstances of the club at the time of the fire. How then could it be that a version of what had happened 30 years before, afforded extensive coverage in broadsheets, could have been so far at variance with the memory shared by people who had experienced the disaster? This was a first-hand example of how historical narratives can be rewritten and of how the voice of self-assured journalists could dismiss recollections that were contrary to what they wanted to tell. (NB It’s not just The Sun that has twisted stories of football tragedies.)
Myths and clichés are commonplace in the telling of sports history and that of Bradford has not been immune. The narrative of Bradford’s sporting history has been distorted to such an extent that it was the motivation for the BANTAMSPAST History Revisited series of books. The sole objective of the volumes in the series is to revisit the evidence. Indeed, prior generations have good reason to dispute a lot of what has been said of them by others in simplistic accounts of earlier events. Versions of history that they too would not recognise if they were alive to hear them.
Paul Firth, whose book Four Minutes to Hell (2007) is necessary reading for anyone wanting to understand what happened in 1985, makes an important observation when he highlights the distinction between an act of remembrance and an act of remembering. As he says, you can only remember what you witnessed. So where does that leave the act of remembrance and its part in the BCAFC consciousness?
The act of remembrance has latterly focused on the 56 fatalities and the totemic significance of the number. The ritual obligation to clap on the 56th minute and the seeming obligation to partake. All of this marks a fairly radical departure from the fact that until around ten years ago the disaster tended to be commemorated on a much more low key basis as well as in private. I wish that the disaster could be remembered for more than just the 56 fatalities and equally important, to acknowledge their individuality.
One of the victims of the fire was 86 year old Sam Firth who had been closely involved with the club for all his adult life, a stalwart of the supporters’ club and a champion fund-raiser whose efforts had helped sustain football at Valley Parade during recurrent financial crises. It was poignant that having spent his life striving to safeguard the future of Bradford City, Sam should perish on the day when his cherished club ended a 48 year exile in the lower divisions.
It is impossible to say what the victims would have wanted and we cannot speak for the dead but my mind often turns to what Sam Firth might have said about the tragedy, its aftermath and its remembrance. But of course, there were 55 other fatalities including 2 who were Lincoln City supporters. What did they have in common other than to die together? Certainly, none of them expected to be martyred that day.
I wish that their individuality could be commemorated, a reminder not only that football embraces people from all backgrounds and ages but that death often comes when least expected.
Of course, we must never forget those who perished but to overlook that there were survivors on 11th May, 1985 is mistaken and prevents an appreciation of how light emerged from the darkness of despair. What happened immediately after the disaster was a focus on getting back to normal and helping the victims (who were not limited to those requiring hospital treatment).
In my opinion the memory of the fire is equally a celebration of the recovery of the football club as a local institution and of the social cohesion as people came together. The unity of spirit in the aftermath was quite unique. In the wake of the tragedy there was agreement that the memory of the dead was best preserved through the rebuilding of Valley Parade and for Bradford City AFC to sustain itself at a higher level. Support for the Burns Unit became another cause. The fire also hastened a re-assessment of stadia safety in the UK. All of which was what the survivors expressed their support for. Additionally, remember how supporters of other clubs rallied in contribution to the appeal fund for the victims. We should not forget individual acts of bravery, those who helped the injured and their families and all the collective acts of humanity.
The memory of how the disaster brought people together in common purpose is one that has relevance in today’s world and is something of which City supporters should be proud. In the act of remembrance we need to be careful that we do not forget.