Remembering but not forgetting

By John Dewhirst

It is now 36 years since the Valley Parade Disaster and inevitably, with each passing year the number of people with first hand recollection of what happened becomes smaller. The majority of current City supporters were not born in 1985 and likewise, the number of those in their teens or adult years in 1985 are now a small proportion of the fanbase.

The talk on social media is of remembering what happened on 11th May 1985 and never forgetting. Yet how do you remember something of which you have no memory? For the families of the bereaved and injured, of those impacted by the trauma of having been in attendance that day, there is little chance of forgetting the events and the aftermath. But what of the younger generations for whom 1985 was a time they know nothing about either because they were not born or simply too young to comprehend?

Every year we mark the Armistice Anniversary and ‘remember’ the fatalities of war. With regards World War One for example there are now no survivors left to tell their story. Instead, we rely upon a collective, inherited memory that has been reinforced by countless stories of what happened and which ensures we cannot forget.

With regards the Bradford Disaster, little is known of it elsewhere in the UK and for that matter I doubt that many of today’s Bradfordians are even aware of it. Nevertheless, the story of what happened is both relevant and inspirational: of how communities in the district were united to overcome; of how individuals were responsible for exceptional acts of bravery; and of how the football club was rebuilt through solidarity among supporters.

Instead, it seems that the story of the disaster has become a focus only on the number of fatalities. Yet whilst important that we remember the number who perished, so too there are other aspects of what happened that deserve to be given recognition. The fixation on that number – 56 – has been a phenomenon of the last 10 years, seemingly a badge of honour for younger fans and quite alien to how the disaster was commemorated in the past.

The irony is that if the focus on a number is the way the disaster is to be remembered in the future, it could be at the cost of overlooking – forgetting perhaps – other equally significant matters, not least the experience of the survivors. To equate the disaster with ‘56’ alone is a gross simplification, an injustice to the narrative of what happened and a distortion of the memory.

The man responsible for ensuring that the story of the disaster was recorded for posterity, Paul Firth passed away only a few weeks ago. We owe him a massive debt for his energy in writing his book ‘Four Minutes to Hell’ in 2005 and for steadfastly refuting many of the myths and unsubstantiated claims that have been spoken about 1985.

Paul’s legacy was to ensure that the story of the disaster was not reinvented by journalists and his book is recommended reading for anyone wanting to understand what actually happened on 11th May, 1985. As we remember the disaster it is Paul Firth that we should thank for his efforts, making sure that we do not forget what happened all those years ago and that the memory is understood.

Categories: Opinion


11 replies

  1. I was there on that awful day. Fortunately stood on the Kop not in the Main Stand. The heat and the flames will never leave my memory.
    Please never ever forget the victims of the fire. Not just today but always

  2. Hard to believe how much time has passed, as a 14 year old in the Bradford End the memories are still vivid. My Dad was injured and spent several weeks in hospital, as you say the impact reached far beyond the headline number.
    A day all present never want to forgot but find it hard to remember

    • Also in the Bradford End as usual Mark, with my 3 brothers and friends – an old boy who used to always stand next to us treated himself to a seat in the main stand that day and I dont need to say anymore. Always remember the 56, their families and everyone else who was affected by that terrible day – it must never be forgotten what happened o 11/5/85

  3. Saturday May 11 1985.At 12 pm,me my wife and 2 children decider not to go to the game.At 2 30pm we changed our minds and rushed down to the ground,parking places were hard to find that day but we managed to find one out side the belle view barracks.3.05 pm we got down to the ground made our way to the stand ,only to be told the stand was full,so we stood on the kop.we always sat in the same seats although we were not season ticket holders.At half time my wife and my daughter would queue up for the half time drinks.I thank God that we were turned away from the stand that day and were able to live to tell the tale.

    • Always a quiet and respectful remembrance for me in terms of remembering the fans that lost their lives along with injured both physically and mentally on that fateful day.

      I never really got my head around the magnitude of what happend after witnessing the whole horror show unfold in front of my eyes. But I do remember well the City of Bradford coming together as one to Mourn and heal the pain and hurt.

      The brand “56” I find crass and can’t really get my head around the hoodies worn by fans as tributes.

      I’ve only managed 2 visits to Centenary Square in the last 35 years as its just too painful for me.

      I will spend time remembering and reflecting on the events on May 11 1985 as I do on this day every year.

      Never forget.

  4. I was there in the paddock in front of the main stand x memories will be with me always xx

  5. Fair play John you’ve articulated exactly how I feel about the ‘56’ brand. Ive railed against it myself as have many of my generation and older. 11 year old me in the Bradford End was only really affected in the sense of being part of such a tragic incident. The 56 overlooks a you say the survivors and everyone’s families, but also the emergency services, the doctors and nurses, everyone affected.

  6. Always a tricky one this.

    Those of us that were there that day will remember in our different ways. Each person’s experience was different, but I know for sure that it will live with us forever

    I suspect that if you transported a WW1 veteran to the present day and showed him the BBC’s ‘festival’ of rememberance he wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable with how we remembered the conflict.

    Similarly we can’t expect the younger generation to mark / remember that day as we do. All we can do is hope that some of them will look behind the ’56’ moniker and educate themselves about the experiences of the wider community.

    Perhaps if one or two of them do that then something good will have come out of this ‘branding’ that I find so distasteful.

  7. The commemoration of the disaster will be inherited by younger generations just as it is now our prerogative to determine how the Great War is remembered. Older generations cannot dictate the future memory but I believe it is important to make the point that survivors were victims too and to encourage awareness of how Bradford people responded to the disaster.

    In the immediate aftermath the emphasis was on helping the survivors because they – and not the dead – were the people who needed the support. Paul Firth’s book is an excellent record of what happened that I would encourage all City supporters to read.

    For the record I think the 56 branding / hoodies are crass but each to their own. To give benefit of the doubt I think it is genuinely the case that a lot of younger fans have little idea about what happened in 1985 and the aftermath. After all how many people under 45/50 years grasp that VP was a derelict ground with a wooden stand let alone the circumstances immediately following. Again I believe it comes back to ensuring that the story is told and hence the importance of Paul’s book

  8. I was there, in the Bradford End as usual, I saw things that day which will be with me until the day I die, I found Paul Firths book very difficult to read, it brought back memories that I had hidden away at the back of my mind, but a very good book and well worth a read. I don’t really see why people find the 56 “branding” crass or offensive, the Burns unit benefit greatly from the t shirts, hoodie etc and the people who are behind this don’t do it for personal gain, but I suppose we all see things differently.

  9. 23 years old in the Kop that day – still there in soul every day remembering.

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