Animals – Unedited

Three months ago The Guardian published a piece of mine about Hillsborough. It was heavily edited–understandably so due to the timing and their political sensitivities–but it introduced some inconsistencies. Now that the 3-month exclusivity period has expired, and Cameron is no longer PM, here’s the unedited original.


It started before we were even dead. While we pulled crushed blue bodies from a sea of red and carried them on advertising hoardings to the field, the authorities were already giving statements to the press that we were drunk, unruly; that we robbed our dead, spat at the police, and pissed on the injured. The smell of sweat and urine from dead, dying and injured Scousers didn’t stop us. We pulled lifeless children from the crowd and willed them to breathe. We hoisted unconscious bodies over high fences to safety, or give them room to die. We gave the kiss of life to those that no longer needed it. Broke down the barriers that penned us in. We were livestock, faces pushed into the bars, searching for air to fill lungs that had no room to breathe it in.

We were the lucky ones, those of us that were not corralled into the central area of the Leppings Lane. We would only have a life of nightmares that wake us up on sodden beds and struggle to hold back tears, burying our faces in the dark, held tight to the breasts of our wives and husbands. We were left alive. The broken and battered carcasses on the glorious green grass of Hillsborough were the ones that suffered most. And while they suffered, we were the ones that unknowingly gave the lie to the headlines already being written in London. We found our friends, treated wounds, consoled our families and covered the faces of our dead while ambulances were held outside the stadium for fear that what the police told them was true; the animals had broken from their cages and were out of control.

How readily the rest of England believed it. Anfield, our home, was swathed in funeral robes. The pitch was knee-deep in wreaths and flowers. We draped our scarves and banners from the goal and from the barriers on those famous terraces. Where our family of forty-thousand once cheered and sang, we now drifted soundlessly, sat where we normally stood, wrote poems, and sobbed as we left teddy bears for children that would never hug them. We mourned in our sanctuary while England whipped itself into a frenzied, frothing outrage at those thieving, murdering, fucking Scousers. Police records were being re-written. CCTV footage was being confiscated. We were told our dead belonged to the state until after they had been desecrated by autopsies in search of incriminating evidence. Our dead children were being blood-tested for alcohol.

We were being threatened by police advisors, telling us that if we made a fuss we could expect to have some dirt dug up on our dead. Pipe down. Keep quiet. Shut up. Or else your dead will be dragged through the mud as well as trampled underfoot.

The stories in the press grew ever more obscene. We didn’t have tickets so we broke a gate down and poured in. The red horde trampled over our own children to watch a football game for free. We were no longer the cheeky Scousers, always on the rob, always looking to get something for nothing, always with a quick smile and ready wit. We had graduated even from a reputation as Commies and union activists. We were the looney lefties who took on Thatcher, who led the transport strike and were baton charged on Bloody Sunday in 1911 when we went to hear Tom Mann talk about the corruption of parliamentary democracy. We were the agitators who stood behind William Roscoe to campaign against slavery, even as the merchants built us into the second city of the empire on the trade of human lives. Scousers founded the first school for the blind in the world, the first school for girls, the first lending library, the first school for the deaf, and the first school of tropical medicine. We were the militant Trotskyists who gave free milk and lunches to schoolchildren, built the world’s first public park, cleared the slums, and introduced social housing. And now we had completed our despicable downward spiral and had shown ourselves to be the scum we were. Oh how the media loved it, and oh how England lapped it up. Our city was economically eviscerated, our heart and soul torn out, and now our reputation finally lay in tatters. Thatcher’s managed decline of Liverpool was complete.

Once upon a time, Liverpool was the busiest port in the world and four out of every ten of the world’s ships docked on the Mersey. The world came to Liverpool and Scousers sailed the world. The term Scouse came from Labskaus – a name that Norwegian or German sailors gave to a thin stew made from scrag ends; cheap cuts of meat, usually lamb. To call a Liverpudlian “Scouse” was to try to demean him but we owned it and wore it like a badge of honour. It’s not surprising that we tend to look out rather than in and perhaps this, rather than jealousy of the city’s successes, is why the country so readily believed we were a law unto ourselves. When we stood at Anfield, forty-thousand strong, and sang our club anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” we sang it for each other. YNWA became a song of struggle, solidarity, and hope. A prayer to our patron saints who looked down upon us and blessed us. It wasn’t just a club anthem, but our national anthem, and Liverpool was a constant thorn in the side to not just the authorities; we pricked the conscience of a nation that allowed itself to be cowed. The Scouse diaspora extended around the world, but it was rarely welcomed in England. Not after the newspapers revealed the “truth” of the murderers of Hillsborough.

Except we don’t tend to lie down, us Scousers. We’ve always fought back. That is what makes us dangerous. Especially when armed with the truth; the real truth. A truth that has taken twenty seven years to finally be accepted. The police cover-up. The tampered police statements. The new inquest. The child who cried for his mother 30 minutes after the police told her he was already dead. The official, public apology from the Prime Minister, the bastard child of Thatcher’s privilege. And now, possibly, prosecutions for those complicit in the slaughter of 96 ordinary, sober, football fans on April 15, 1989. Most of those to blame are dead already, or too old to be punished. Thatcher, may she burn in a hell of her own making, went senile and never admitted her part. And people tut and shake their heads and wonder why we want to dance on her grave and trample her memory into the dirt.

Even now, after the lies have been exposed, after the public apology, after being vindicated and praised for our actions on that day, we still hear the chants of “Murderers” at football games. After Thatcher’s papers were finally de-classified, revealing the scope of her plans to crush the city that stood up to her, we are still called thieves and bin-dippers—another word for scavengers. Twenty-seven years after Hillsborough we still get told we revel in the morbid, “always the victim, never your fault.” Outside of England we are known for our musical heritage, our sport stars, our comedians, our poets, our writers, our altruism, our heart. Scousers are proud of our wit and humor. We are prouder of our political will to stand up for what is right. Our resistance to those who would have the world believe we murder our own. Today, after 27 years, the courts agree that the burden of guilt that has lain heavy on 96 graves can finally be lifted and placed on the sloping shoulders of those that have evaded justice for a generation. Although there are signs our rehabilitation has begun it will probably take another generation before England admits it.

But we are Scouse, not English, and we know who we are. We know what we did. We don’t need you to tell us. We remember what happened that day at Hillsborough. We remember who the animals were that day. And we remember that when we walk through a storm we hold our head up high and we never walk alone.

Naming the Ghost

What sadist places a maze of pre-fabricated, high-rise flats to re-house the inner city slums between two wealthy golf courses?

I consider myself a skeptic and, in the absence of the dis-proof of a “God”, an agnostic rather than an atheist. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t believe in a higher power, I do. And she manages the money, pays the bills and tells me when I forget to put stuff away. But while I don’t tend to be the hard-nosed “show me the science” type of naysayer, at least not anymore, the fact remains that I don’t put any faith in a conscious spiritual power that is responsible for my existence and capable of helping me win the lottery. But equally, that skepticism about taking an absolute stance on matters of our spiritual and physical selves means that there are things I believe in at which, perhaps, other skeptics would scoff. Like ghosts.

But then, I find ghosts easier to believe in because I’ve seen one.

At ten years old, I was already displaying proto-atheist tendencies and refusing to go to church with my Mum who, accidentally, had rediscovered her own faith when she decided the kids needed the moral guidance of a church she’d stopped attending. We were Catholics, of course, as many Scousers of Irish heritage were, so I attended St Cyril’s Catholic primary school.

Cyril’s was lodged in Naylorsfield, the more westerly of a string of three council (for which, read “public,” “government,” or “cheap houses paid for by the local authorities to keep the poor people from dying in posh neighborhoods”) housing estates. Netherley, where I lived, sat between Naylorsfield and the snooty-sounding “The Woodlands.” St Cyril’s Junior School wasn’t that large, perhaps 300 children (75 children to a year spread across 2 classes, and ages from 7 through 11) and we were all from one of the three council estates. Posh kids had their own schools up the hill in Woolton and Gateacre and Allerton.

The council estates were fairly new-built on the outskirts of Liverpool, abutting farms and open countryside. They were built to house the people who had previously lived in the inner-city slums and, perhaps, to get them out of sight. Being poor isn’t very pretty, apparently. Or very smart either.

One of my two best friends, Martin Humphries, still had an imaginary pet spider named “Bidey” at age ten, and it happened to be smarter than Martin. My other best friend was Steven Harris who was the fastest runner in the school and marginally smarter than Bidey. Stephen Harris lived in “The Woodlands” and occasionally I’d go to see him during the holidays. Stephen wasn’t allowed to come to my estate to see me because Netherley was too dangerous, but that was okay because it wasn’t too far a walk Stephen’s house. All I had to do was turn left out of our house, turn left down the street past my Nanna’s house (she lived at number 22 and we lived at number 7), past a school, past Skellington Fold (which was just the coolest name for 4 blocks of flats!), and walk through the underpass (honest, Mum, I didn’t go across the main road) under Caldway Drive, and from there it was open fields.

Kind of.

There were houses to the right, off Wood Lane, which formed the lower part of The Woodlands, but in front of me, and

Halewood Plantation and Workhouse used to be adjacent to where Netherley was built a century later.

 to the left, was open fields and farmland. I had escaped the world of Liverpool council estates and could almost hear the birds coughing. The field in front of me was, perhaps 200 yards long and bounded on the left by a small brook (Netherley Brook?) and trees and brambles. At the end of the field the trees on the left joined with a copse on the right, leaving a narrow gap. Beyond the gap. The fields opened out again even wider for another 300 or 400 yards with woods and farmland on the left, and Wood Lane and houses on the right. Stephen lived at the very end of the field, at the corner where houses met Netherley Brook and the woods. (I’ve decided that this must be the same Netherley Brook I’ve seen pictures of and named as such.)

Stephen and his sister, Jane, who was a year younger than me and a little hottie, for as much as I knew what that was, would play in the woods and near (and sometimes in) the brook. We’d swing over the brook from overhanging trees, play hide and seek, and sometimes we’d just tie Jane to a tree and go play football. We didn’t, however, ever threw bricks at a hornet’s nest while someone’s brother was urinating on it, requiring hospital treatment for many, many, many stings in sensitive places. No. We didn’t, but my cousins did!

So after a long day’s playing and climbing trees and tying little sisters up, it was time to go home. Back through the top field, through the gap in the woods, across the bottom field, under the underpass (I told you already, Mum, I didn’t run across Caldway Drive and that Shaun’s a liar!), past Skellington Fold, past the school, past my Nanna’s house and home.

Half-way down the top field, there was a tree-stump. At least a hundred yards from anything. I know, because it was the starting point where we used to play hide and seek sometimes, and it was at least a 30 count before you got to the woods to hide. One day I noticed a kid sitting on the stump as I was walking home. In Netherley, you generally learned not to look twice at any kid you didn’t know so I tried to pay him no attention and carried on walking, studiously looking down. As I passed within, maybe, 30 yards of him, I looked up. He was just another kid, a little older than me perhaps, but by no more than a couple of years. He was wearing the oddest clothes. Brown pants that finished at the calf. No shoes. An off-white shirt that would later become popular with the New Romantic movement of the 1980s but which, when I first saw it, looked more like the 1880s’ vintage. I smiled a tight “I’m tough” smile and nodded slightly. Unfortunately I also waved in a very “Oh Shit! I just blew my cover about being a tough-guy” kind of way. That could be fatal in the Netherley I grew up in, but he just smiled and nodded back. I remember thinking it was best to take no chances though, so I put my head down and walked on a few paces more staring at the grass three feet in front of me. Wary, I looked back after 10 paces or so to see if he was following.


He was not on the tree-stump. Not crouching behind it either (it really wasn’t that big of a stump) and I spun to see where he was. There was nothing to hide behind for at least 100 yards in either direction but he was gone. It had been maybe 6 or 7 seconds since he nodded at me and there was no way he could have just vanished like that. I got scared and started running. In seconds I was into the darkening woods, through the closing gap, across the lower field that had grown to six miles long, over Caldway Drive, (Okay, so yeah, I did run across it that one time, Mum. Honest, it was only once.) past Skeleton Fold, past the school where I had nightmares about Roman legions marching, torches blazing, over the playing fields in the dead of night, past the scary Alsatian that was tied up by a heavy chain so that it only ate one kid a day, past my Nanna’s who was developing Alzheimer’s and went a bit crazy sometimes, and into the house and my bedroom and my bed.

I may even have peed a little.

I don’t remember telling anyone because, of course, I didn’t want to be laughed at, but I do remember that I only ever went back to Stephen’s once. And I walked the long way round through the lowers Woodlands estate were we once found my Dad’s missing car, glass smashed and minus an engine.

After that summer, I went on to grammar school because I’d passed the Eleven-Plus with good-enough grades to get into St Edwards College. Stephen and Martin Humphries went to the local comprehensive school. Bidey, I seem to recall, went to St Francis Xavier and then on to Oxford, but I may be mistaken.

It was haunted by druggies and addicts during the 1980s, but was the Haunted Wood given that name for older reasons?

So here’s the odd thing. Okay, another odd thing. Years later when Al Gore got around to inventing the internet, a whole new world of nostalgia opened up. People started taking pictures of where they lived and posting them on the web, and genealogists and amateur historians and people like me who had nothing better to do started feeding the world-wide web with data, and more data and more and more data than had ever been accessible from one place, any place, ever before. And one of those pieces of  information is a black and white photograph of the woods where Stephen and I and Shaun and Richard and the hornets used to play. And the photograph is titled, “Haunted Wood.” There it is, right there on the left, see?

Taken by Paul Farley on a visit back to Netherley. There is a fascinating piece written by Paul and Naill Griffiths (from where this picture is taken) about how Netherley came about and what it was like growing up there and it’s definitely worth a read, if even for its social history value. Sadly, I can find no other explanation as to why this wood is called Haunted Wood other than a reference to it being haunted by druggies and addicts. But it seems right. It fits.

I’ve searched more and more into this over the last few years, and still cannot find out why the wood may be so-called, but as soon as I heard the word “Haunted” I remember that I’d heard it called that before when I was a kid. It was something the older kids used to say and maybe it was just a generational thing that stuck for kids of my age and continues to resound in middle age.

Another odd thing is that where Netherley and The Woodlands estate were built was the site of a Victorian dump. Previously a part of Little Woolton, the part of Woolton down the hill from Much or upper Woolton Village, it also bordered Halewood Plantation and the Workhouse, where poor people went when to work off their debts. (see map) It stands to reason that kids would work the plantation and the workhouse in the 1800s, just like my ghost perhaps.

So now that I feel I know much more about where my ghost might have lived, and worked, I was determined to give him a name. Looking for period names, I searched through the archives of burials registered in Much Woolton and came across Joseph Cragg, aged 12, buried January 28th, 1835. His brother, Thomas Cragg, was only 7 when he was buried the very same day.

Haunting, isn’t it?

Links that provided images and research information: