Tag Archive for 'Hillsborough'

Bright field of dreams

I was introduced to The Bright Field by a friend, Robin, whilst we were on a course a few years back.

The Bright field

The Bright Field [Buttermere, Cumbria ©AlastairCutting]

Curiously, it is Hillsborough that has brought the poem very much back to mind. Let’s have a reminder of the poem first, and there is an audio/file of RS Thomas reading it himself linked below:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

The Bright Field
by R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)

Audio file via PoeticTouch.

 

But why Hillsborough bring this poem to mind?

I’ve blogged before that I was a local curate at the time, and involved in some of the immediate aftermath. One of my strong memories, as I walked back down ‘the tunnel’ a couple of times afterwards, was the contrast of the bright green playing field in the sun seen from the shadows of the tunnel.

Tunnel 1989

Tunnel 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The field is so inviting. You can see it. You can almost touch it. There’s ramp, a slope down to it. It’s just … there.

There is an American sports movie called the Field of Dreams, encapsulating the draw – particularly but not exclusively  – for some men to sports, to team games, and to the playing field, or pitch, or ground.

Hymns don’t often make good theology – though they may be better at theology than movies are. But even here we may get glimpsesof heaven, as Ray Kinsella found in the film.

John Kinsella: Is this heaven?
Ray Kinsella: It’s Iowa.
John Kinsella: Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven.
      [starts to walk away]
Ray Kinsella: Is there a heaven?
John Kinsella: Oh yeah. It’s the place where dreams come true.
      [Ray looks around, seeing his wife playing with their daughter on the porch]
Ray Kinsella: Maybe this is heaven.
            The Field of Dreams – 1989 Phil Alden Robinson Universal/TriStar

Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to treasure in a field, and to a pearl of unfathomable value, of great price; in Matt 13:44-46. Both are images that R.S.Thomas specifically references in the poem. Not a great surprise, perhaps, for the Welsh priest/poet that he was.

That field. Seen it. Forgotten it. But now having seen it again, illuminated, incandescent, Thomas goes on: I realise now that I must give all that I have to possess it.

These sports grounds, these football fields are often a focus for hurrying on to a receding future, [or] hankering after an imagined past. Many memories of matches remembered; of dreams and hopes for the future. The rise and fall of emotion; the tears wept, the joy unconfined. They hold a sense of the numinous about them – the singing, swaying, the shared liturgy and language – even prayers (!) – they are almost religious in their fervour. No wonder some talk of sport as their faith, of the great venues as their cathedrals, temples. Bill Shankly, powerfully linked to Liverpool, is famously quoted as saying “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

I was recently reading back some of the witness stories of a number of Hillsborough survivors, and the camaraderie, the shared experience was a powerful memory; some saying the ‘we all came last year and we wanted to all come back again this year’ before the full portent of this particular pilgrimage unfurled before them.

Even after the catastrophe, faith remains a part of the story. I recalled in the previous blog post how 4 fans came in to our local church on the Sunday morning, just hours later. To another one of those ‘thin places‘ where heaven comes closer to touching earth. To come to seek, to pray, to place a loved one lost in to the hands of God. Nearly every anniversary since the first, there has been significant input of hymns & prayers, along with speeches & memories, at each of the ceremonies.

In the poem, Thomas looks: to the miracle … to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Looking back to the 15 April 1989, though much remains sharp in the mind of each of those most closely affected by Hillsborough, inevitable some of the memories become a little faded, a bit more transitory each year; the images of the ever-youthful 96 remain unchanged, even as ‘those who are left grow old‘. Perhaps that is why there is still such a strong sense of hope around Hillsborough – a very Liverpool – characteristic, the city with two cathedrals linked by a street called Hope.

For RS Thomas, the brightness that has shone on this field leads at last to the eternity that awaits you. May it lead to eternity for you too.

 

The BBC has a Profile of each of the Hillsborough 96, and the Liverpool Echo has created an image grid that links to each of the 96 too.

 

 

 

CLICK HERE TO RETURN TO THE BLOG

Hillsborough +20

My wife held the phone out the window… Her Liverpool-fan brother had hoped to see the match taking place literally at the bottom of our road, just 400m from our door of our new home in Sheffield. However, the closest John got this time was absorbing the sound of the atmosphere of fans passing our house towards Leppings Lane over the phone.

This was 15 April 1989. The occasion: the Liverpool vs. Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final taking place in Sheffield Wednesday‘s home-ground – Hillsborough. Before the day was out, Hillsborough’s name would forever become linked with the events beginning to unfold. These are some of my personal reminiscences of the following hours, never previously recorded – sorry for the long, and rather over-personal post.

We were not around during the actual start of the match, as we had visitors with us for the day. We had moved just three weeks before to the parish of Wadsley, on the north-west edge of Sheffield, where I was the new curate. We had gone out to walk in the Peak District, on the west edge of the parish, which also stretched east into the centre of Hillsborough. Pausing for an ice-cream from a van, the girl serving asked if we had heard about the match – we asked what the current score was. She said it had just been abandoned, and there was an emergency. They were calling for help from doctors and clergy. Two of our visiting friends were clergy.

Hillsborough 1989, in Independent: Getty Images

Hillsborough 1989, in Independent: Getty Images

So, back to the house quickly to find some of my spare ‘clergy shirts’ (with dog-collars). Pam was swamped in hers; broad-chested Andy could hardly button his. We went, as requested over the radio, to the hospital to await the arrival of the injured casualties from the ground. It soon became clear few were going to arrive. Many were dead, but very few were injured and hospitalised – despite there being over 40 ambulance available near the scene.

After waiting for some time, as the evening drew on, our friends headed back to their parishes. I had met up with the vicar of our parish, David, and he and I were re-directed back to the football ground. We walked through the Leppings Lane tunnel, stood on the terraces, amongst the bent and broken metalwork where fans were crushed to death. Coach loads of families from Liverpool were beginning to arrive. It was the Liverpool fans who had been at the Leppings Lane end, and all those who died were Liverpool fans.

There had not been many large-scale disasters in the UK before this, and national disaster procedures were not at all well prepared. On this occasion, clergy were joined by social workers with counseling skills, and asked to partner each other as families arrived. Perhaps it was a particularly agnostic or suspicious group of Sheffield’s social workers who looked across at the group of clergy, but for whatever reasons, they decided that perhaps they would be better partnered amongst themselves, leaving clergy out of the loop. As families disembarked from the coaches however, they immediately recognised the significance of the dog-collars and Sally Army uniforms, and flocked towards them, rather than the group of social workers.

Once inside the gym-turned-make-shift-morgue, some details were taken. Many families were already aware that their members had died – it was mainly groups of fans standing together, and when one of the group had died, the others immediately passed the information on, mainly by land-line home phones of local parishioners of mine, as it was long before the predominance of mobile phones.

I will not ever forget the wall with dozens of Polaroid photos of the deceased stuck on it – ‘do you recognise your son from any of these photos?’. Did I mention we did not have many good procedures in place?! 20 years on I am part of the Gatwick airport emergency chaplaincy team, and regularly train in case (God-forbid) of a future disaster. Our plans and procedures are so different; partly as a result of Hillsborough.

I was with ‘Andrew’s’ family. He was in his early 20s. Tall, strong, fit. A most unlikely crush victim. But he had had the life breath squeezed out of him.

By 3am, David the vicar said to me that probably one of us ought to go back home to bed, and lead the services on the Sunday 16th morning. It was a couple of weeks after Easter. We decided David was still deeply involved; I would go home, sleep briefly, then lead the services in church. Many parishioners were shocked by what had happened so close to us. A number of people had opened their doors to the fans, wandering around in need of refreshment and needing to contact families and friends back in Liverpool. Some of my folk shared the gruesome experience of the unfolding horror.

I was just about holding it together for the service, when the door busrt open, and 4 red-clad fans came in to be with other Christians in church in prayer on Sunday. A young lad of about 14, we were informed, had lost his mother yesterday in the crush. I can’t remember what plans I had had for the service – they promptly went out of the window. Our welcome as a church, and our prayers, felt so inadequate; but were so warmly received. I wish I had known their names.

A few days later, ‘Andrew’s’ family were back at the Sheffield city mortuary, for the formal identification. I went with them again. Then a few days later I went across to Liverpool, and at the request of the family, read a lesson at his funeral service. (Later I was embarrassed by the fact that there was another woman clergy colleague, much more experienced and pastorally sensitive than me, who had also been involved – but as a woman deacon, the Roman Catholic clergy leading the service did not know what to do with her, and I was the one who ended up reading.) Years later I saw ‘Andrew’s’ mother on tv, still involved in Hillsborough related campaigns.

Again a few days later, and the bishop of Sheffield, David Lunn, very wisely got the clergy who had most closely been involved, together for a bit of a de-brief. The Archbishop of York, John Habgood was there: as was one of the clergy involved a year before at in the Kegworth disaster. It was a most helpful and cathartic experience. It directly dealt with post-traumatic stress issues for me. Except for one thing…

There were a couple of tv crews there too, later, asking questions of those involved. I kept a very low profile. I waited until all the cameras were put away, and then takled one of the reporters. Much of the coverage was – rightly – focused on “Liverpool – a city in mourning“. But as I had shared in the shock and tears of members of my own congregation, I reminded the reporter that Sheffield too was a city in mourning. The football ground now the focus of the disaster had in the past regularly accommodated nearly three times the number of fans quite safely. Here were others who ached with pain for those who had died too. Thank you, said the reporter, I will bear that in mind. And a moment later, with a tap on my shoulder, he was back, with cameras unpacked again, asking me to go over the conversation again.

In a classic piece of sub-miss-editing, the trailer that went out before the main national news that evening said ‘local vicar speaks out against Liverpool’. I rang my bishop, in horror, claiming I was sure I had said no such thing. He wisely counseled me to await the actual broadcast, where indeed I had not, but simply pointed out Sheffield also shared in the grieving that Liverpool was experiencing.

Hillsborough Memorial, from Wiki

Hillsborough Memorial, from Wiki

The following year, 15 April 1990 fell on Easter Day. For me, for us at Wadsley parish on the edge of Hillsborough, no day could have helped us to better deal with the thoughts and emotions of the year before.

So, what reflections, 20 years on? David became chaplain to Sheffield Wednesday, a post he relished for a further 15 or so years. For me personally, to have been involved in Hillsborough was a painful, but rare privilege. It has been profoundly formative on my role as a parish priest. It has helped me find particular meaning in the resurrection story of Jesus. I am not sure I have any new answers that will make sense to others – but it has been a consistent bolster to my faith over the last 20 years.

May those who died, rest in peace. May those who grieve, also find peace in Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

CLICK HERE TO RETURN TO THE BLOG