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.
Remembering can be a practical process too.
I visited the memorial ceremony for the first time on behalf of the Peter Greewood Memorial Trust. http://www.pgmtrust.org.uk . Peter died with his two sons.
This year the Club did not grant the Trust the opportunity to hold a collection before a match rather to enter and loose out as a Charity Partner.
The widow of Peter remarked to me that clapping and ‘remembering’ 56 does not keep a lasting legacy trust running.
I asked a Club Ambassador at the ceremony what he thought of the actions of the Club. He was not impressed. We hope that a collection match is able to be made available to the Trust next season.
John, I think one of the key drivers of revisionism has been Liverpool’s (the club & city) response to the Hillsborough disaster. That has come to define that club, and its supporters, as much as their success on the pitch. I think the latter generation of City fans have appropriated the ’56’ as our own ‘narrative’. It follows that it seemed to first emerge in the 2012/13 season and the ‘fairytale’ C1CF appearance. To my memory, we’d never had a ’56th minute’ applause before, let alone (the very public) flag passing.
An excellent piece of writing from a very knowledgeable supporter.
I was 12 years old when the fire disaster occurred and I wouldn’t watch my first game at Valley Parade for another threr years.
Although I was in attendance on 11 May 1985, I feel that it’s important that I pay my respects to the 56 supporters who lost their lives along with the hundreds of people who suffered both physically and mentally.
We all deal with death in different ways and I feel that we should respect each other.
My apologies. My post above should say: not in attendance on 11 May 1985.
Thank you for a thoughtful and moving article.
A good example of some light that emerged from the darkest of events, is the annual Valley Parade Memorial Football tournament. Initiated at the time by members of the Prison Officers Association who wanted to do something, every year for the last 34 years, Bradford Council Sports Dept & the POA have brought together 11 & 13 year olds kids from local clubs, Bradford & Lincoln City Youth academies and Bradford’s twin city Ham in Germany.
My son took part in this, a memorial event that remembers but also brings a younger football loving generation together.
Please accept my absolute praise for such an insightful piece. I wasn’t at the game and had never been to a City game until the new stand opened aged 9. I’ve had 30+ years of pure live for the Bamtams since regardless of what division my interest is the same year in year out. Every year on May 11th I have a minutes silence wherever I am, last year I was in court and went to the toilet cubicle to be alone even though I was about to face the toughest day of my life I knew it was not a patch on our brothers and sisters that day. I cry like a baby whenever I see or partake in a a remembrance of that day that not only on a human level was it shocking but added to that our very own Bantam brothers and sisters of all ages perished that day along with Lincoln Citys. I’m pretty sure my emotion for my club is as deep as it is partly due to the impact of 1985 and how proud we are for how we recovered through adversity despite the odds in true Bradfordian fashion. Something I’m doing myself to some extent. The depth of emotion for my club and inspiration of restoration against the odds is another positive legacy and I’m sure I’m not alone amongst our true fans across the globe who harness this in such a way. I count myself privileged to be a City fan no matter who owns, manages or plays for us. I’ve got my freedom back now and will be at a friendly game chomping at the bit in 6-7 weeks time.
and God Bless all that survived.
Thanks for this article John. I find “the 56” and the hoodies with it emblazoned on, the hashtag, the minutes applause (in the 57th minute as some have pointed out”, the “Always Remember the 56” to the tune of a fucking novelty ska song, to be completely abhorrent.
Some of our fan base have become ridiculously precious and ostentatious in their marking of the anniversary. Bearing in mind there were 11000 of us there, and many of those will no longer be with us, I feel the way we dealt with it back then as a club and a community is being lost, and a new generation is failing to recognise that the disaster affected far more than the 56 poor sods who died.
I’ve seen people tweeting annoyance that tthere was no minutes silence at play off games on Saturday. Why would there be??? It’s OUR history and OUR disaster. Why do people need others to make a big deal of it? As you say it’s a recent phenomenon, for the first twenty years we remembered the day, and the aftermath, with quiet dignity. Not so now. And yet despite the many social media posts, there’s only ever a few hundred atvthe actual remembrance service on 11th May. Too many seem to use the fire as a way to get attention, a virtue signalling nonsense that does nothing to respect the dead and those who survived.
Leon, I agree.
As a 21year old lad I stood on the pitch and witnessed the stand burn to the ground.
Everyone chooses to mark the anniversary in their own way, a minutes silence of reflection suffices for me.
The Hoodies and the applause are not something I subscribe to at all.
I’ve often felt an extra modicum of comfort from the fact we have such a low key, private and dignified way in which we deal with our tragedy.
“What did they have in common other than to die together?”
Martin Fletcher lost his father, younger brother, uncle and grandfather.
Whatever anyone feels about his publication and its conclusions, I feel that naming him in this article is insensitive.
The point could have been made without naming him.
As others have recognised, I am expressing my unease with the ’56 branding’ as the focus of remembrance and you choose to overlook my comment about acknowledging the individuality of those who perished.
What happened to the Fletchers was truly awful and none of us will ever comprehend just how tragic it was that three generations of the family should have perished that day. The individual and family tragedy of the Fletchers should not be forgotten when talking of the ’56’, nor that of other families. I am neither seeking to overlook the experience of individual families, nor wanting to elevate the experience of one family over that of others but I am highlighting the fact that recognition of individual tragedy is obscured by the simplistic focus on ’56’. I agree entirely with Leon’s observation that it constitutes virtue signalling and which I consider belittles the tragedy.
Readers of my article have commented on this website as well as on social media / twitter about how the act of remembrance has changed in recent years. By virtue of the fact that Martin Fletcher wrote a book on the subject (the release of which was accompanied by considerable publicity and extensive debate) it is pretty difficult to overlook its place in the narrative about the remembrance of 1985 and of how it has changed. What he wrote about the disaster caused offence to many of the survivors and families of the victims but I have deliberately steered away from that controversy. Nevertheless you cannot write about the past whilst blind to key moments. To overlook mention of his book when writing about the remembrance of 1985 would constitute a fanciful version of events, the sort of mythical interpretation of history to which I refer and of which you are surely aware.
We, the fans, are the highly visible aspect of the remembrance, but we should be aware of the bereaved. For example a bereaved person may have no other link to the football club other than the fact that their relative died on the club’s premises. For them whether we clap in the 56th minute is an irrelevance. Trivial, self-indulgent even.
However, I digress. All I was trying to say is that, while Martin’s book is indeed part of the narrative, given his severe loss I do wonder whether his name might have been better to have omitted from the article?
I know that he has felt unwelcome in Bradford since the book was published. Cause and effect some might say. But, let’s try and show Martin some empathy.
It is not unreasonable/insensitive to seek to address the allegations made in Martin Fletchers book and their impact on how the fire is remembered particularly given the way in which they were promoted in the national media at the time. The Fire was always remembered in an understated and stoical manner but also with great charitable generosity in keeping with the nature of the people of the City. Those who have suffered the most admirably have been able to grieve without the need to blame and have accepted that the fire whilst avoidable was a product of its time and resulted from a myriad of long term factors. It would be nice if our remembrance could remain without the affectations
The point about people wanting some sort of immediate sound bite about history from someone not there seems a common trait. I was contacted 6 months ago by a lady from The Board of Trade for info of a great great uncle of mine who died in ww1, as if I would know any pertinent anecdotes or insights into his experiences during his time.
I think the best thing those of us who weren’t there can do is just to stand side by side with our fellow city fans and just be there.