Hold your head up high: an interview with Margaret Aspinall

When Margaret Aspinall’s son James failed to return home from his first away football match, at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989, she was utterly devastated. The tragedy changed her life – as it did many others – turning an ‘ordinary’ mum into a tireless campaigner for truth and justice. Her story is inspirational, not least as an example of what can be achieved when people stick together and refuse to give in, even when the odds are stacked against them. I met Margaret at the Hillsborough Family Support Group’s Anfield HQ last month to talk about family, justice, courage and the biggest cover-up of recent times

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the headquarters of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, a small office off a corridor of Anfield Sports and Community Centre. The only thing that sets it apart is the translucent red paper taped over the narrow rectangular window set lengthways in the middle of the door. From the outside it looks like stained glass, like a church window, and this is what I am thinking when I grasp the hand of Margaret Aspinall, founding member of the group and its chair since 2008. A year ago, I watched Margaret, whose son James died in the tragedy, address the vigil to mark the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report, which exonerated supporters of blame and exposed perhaps the biggest establishment cover-up of recent times. She told the hundreds of survivors and supporters gathered outside Liverpool’s St George’s Hall that they should forgive themselves, that it was not their fault – they were the heroes. I saw how much that meant to people, and how much Margaret and the other campaigners meant to them. It was an incredible moment.

I remind her of the speech as we sit at the end of an old boardroom table, donated by Liverpool Football Club (‘Bill Shankly might have sat there’, she tells me), which also pays for the room. ‘It still angers me,’ she says. ‘How awful for those people to come away from that game feeling guilty. How dare they do that to those people? They had no reason to feel guilty. Without them there would have been a lot more than 96 dead. It upsets me to this day.’ For many survivors, 12 September 2012, the date of the independent panel report, is etched on their memories almost as clearly as the date of the disaster itself. But for Margaret the memory is bittersweet. Sweet, she says, because ‘I felt I was giving them a gift, a gift they should have had 24 years ago’; but also bitter because, for once, ‘I felt I was neglecting James, I wasn’t thinking of James’. She continues:

When we went to the vigil and saw all the people there, it was wonderful. I felt as if everybody was smiling. For the first time in a long time, the city was smiling. There was no dark cloud anymore. It was gone and the whole city was smiling. It was fantastic. But the following day, I was really bad. It hit home to me about my son and what they had done to him. I wasn’t in a good place.

It is a reminder that, for the Hillsborough families, it is not – and never can be – about winning or closure. As Margaret says, they will ‘always be losers’. But giving up, she says, was always out of the question, even in the darkest times. ‘If you give up you are giving up on the child you have lost, and you are giving up on the fans who were there that day and all the supporters who have been backing us all these years. We just couldn’t. They always picked us up again to carry on the fight.’

It is difficult for Margaret to talk about what happened on 15 April 1989. Her pain and sorrow are plain. She falters often, again and again pulled back to the reality of her loss, still raw and vivid. It was 18-year-old James’s first away football match. He travelled by coach to the game, an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium – a ground without a valid safety certificate – with his friend Graham Wright, who was 17. They arrived at the ground early and made their way to the central pens – pens three and four – of the Leppings Lane terracing. What happened next is well known. The central pens were already heavily overcrowded when the police ordered the opening of a large exit gate allowing 2,000 more people into those pens. The tunnel gate, which would have prevented those people pouring into pens three and four, was not closed. James and Graham were among 96 people who were crushed to death. The slow and uncoordinated response of the authorities meant that of the 96 who died only 14 were admitted to hospital. Supporters administered first aid and used advertising hoardings to ferry the injured out of the stadium. Police reports of ‘crowd trouble’ meant ambulances were not allowed onto the pitch. It was the city’s darkest day.

Margaret’s husband Jimmy had also travelled to the game, while she remained at home. There was a long wait for news. ‘I didn’t find out James had died until 6am the following morning,’ Margaret says. ‘You can imagine the stress and the strain, all night not knowing whether your son was alive, whether he was in hospital, hoping for the best, that he wasn’t going to be one of the fatalities. Unfortunately, he was. It was James’s first away game. And, unfortunately, it cost him his life, along with 95 others. It was a terrible time, not just for me but for the whole family. I think it was worse for my husband because he was up there on that day. James was behind the goal. Jimmy was in the side pens. And then looking for James, going to the hospitals, phoning me up to see if I’d heard anything – I’d heard nothing – it was an awful time.’

When Jimmy identified James he was asked by police whether his son had stopped at a pub on the way to the game. Other parents were asked the same thing. With hindsight, Margaret believes, it was obvious that the ‘dirty tricks campaign’ had begun. The behavior of the authorities towards the families in the aftermath of the tragedy rubbed salt into their wounds. ‘They were treated as if they were nothing,’ Margaret says. ‘You find that your son has died – and this happened to a lot of the families – you go up, hoping to be able to cuddle your child, and you get a glass screen with your child in front of you on a trolley. The only thing you want to do is go in and cuddle them and give them a kiss, and you get told, “Sorry, you can’t do that, he doesn’t belong to you no more, he belongs to the coroner”. I think at that time that is the worst thing anybody could say to a mother who has lost a child. I think anyone would tell you the same thing. No matter how old you are, when you are dying or you feel you are going to die, the person you ask for is your mum. That’s what makes it more heart-wrenching, when you weren’t with them, and you think, what was he thinking? Was he saying, “Where are you mum?”, “Help me mum”? You were there when I took my first breath, where are you for my last? That’s the hardest thing a mother can take. That does not take away from the father’s feelings, it does not take away from brothers, sisters, grandmothers, grandfathers, what they feel, but I think with a mum, it’s different, and it always will be.’

The agony of the families was compounded when the Sun newspaper published its now infamous report on the tragedy; a litany of falsehoods headlined, simply, ‘The Truth’. It was obvious, Margaret recalls, that the cover-up was under way, and that there would be a concerted attempt to blame the supporters for the disaster. The families needed to show a united front. The Hillsborough Family Support Group was formed in June 1989, chaired by Trevor Hicks, who lost his two daughters at the game. Margaret was reluctant to get involved at first, she admits. ‘I’ve got to be very honest with you. When the group was set up I thought nobody loved their loved ones more than I loved mine. I’m being very honest. I thought none of them would have loved the way I loved my child. It’s a terrible way to be, I know. It sounds absolutely awful but that was just my personal loss. I wasn’t worried about anybody else. I could just see my own grief, my own devastation, my own personal loss, how my children were going to miss their older brother. I just couldn’t see beyond that, which was not nice at the time, but I think if everyone is being honest they would say the same.

‘When the group was set up, I didn’t want to go to a meeting. I remember the social worker, Antoinette, saying to me, “Margaret, go and meet some of the families, it may help you”. I said, I don’t want to meet other families, they’ll never feel the way I feel. No-one will feel the way I feel. But I got talked round and I went to the first meeting. I remember seeing all these people and their families – I took my sister-in-law and my brother-in-law with me just to support me. I didn’t want to see these people and I thought, if they’re with me I can just walk out. And then I saw their faces. I walked into this room and it was darkness really. I don’t mean there were no lights on. It was bright but the whole room just felt dark. I saw so much pain in people’s faces and I saw so much grief, and I also saw people were angry like me, so angry, and it’s an awful thing to say, but I was glad about that, I was glad to see that pain, I was glad to see that anger, because I wasn’t on my own. And that made me realise, even in them moments, that they loved their loved ones just as much as I loved mine. It still makes me sad now. It made me feel we’re all the same, they’ve lost their loved ones the way that I lost my James, and we have to do something for them, for them innocents.’

Margaret became an active and committed member of the group, never missing a meeting and eventually becoming a committee member. ‘In the early days of Hillsborough, when families were absolutely devastated, it was a job to keep the families together,’ she remembers. ‘It was a difficult time for Trevor who lost his two daughters. But he did a brilliant job.’ In the midst of their ordeal, the families had to learn to engage with the law, deal with the police, and cope with the media spotlight. Grieving was impossible. In August 1989 the interim Taylor Report rejected claims that the fans were drunk and concluded that South Yorkshire Police were at fault for the tragedy. Lord Taylor described the actions of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield – the officer in command at Hillsborough – in not directing incoming supporters away from the overcrowded pens as a ‘blunder of the first magnitude’ and the ‘prime cause’ of the disaster.

The families thought the truth had been established. It should have restored the good name of the fans and made good the slur against the city. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that there was insufficient evidence to justify proceedings against the police or others. The inquests that followed in 1991 returned a majority verdict of accidental death – a dreadful blow to the families. They had questioned the coroner’s decision not to consider evidence after 3.15pm on the day of the disaster, but their protests were ignored. A judicial review of the inquest decisions backed the coroner’s handling of the case. In the meantime, disciplinary action against Chief Superintendent Duckenfield was dropped when he retired from South Yorkshire Police on health grounds. Justice for the 96 who died in the tragedy seemed further away than ever.

In December 1996, Jimmy McGovern’s film about Hillsborough was broadcast on ITV. The drama aimed to prick the public’s conscience about Hillsborough and to raise the public profile of the campaign. In the wake of the renewed interest, Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered a ‘scrutiny of evidence’ to ascertain whether or not there should be a new inquiry. Despite having at his disposal almost all of the evidence later drawn upon by the independent panel, including dozens of police and witness statements, critical of police, which had been altered, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, in 1997, concluded that there was no case for an inquiry. The fresh evidence did not add anything significant to what was already known about the disaster, he argued, while the editing of statements was nothing worse than an ‘error of judgment’.

In 1998, the family support group began its own private prosecutions against David Duckenfield and his second in command at Hillsborough, Superintendent Bernard Murray. Margaret and Phil Hammond, then vice-chair, and the group’s solicitor, Ann Adlington, who was seconded from Liverpool City Council, painstakingly reviewed all the documents, including the amended statements seen by Stuart-Smith, highlighting the material they wanted barrister Alun Jones to present to the judge. It was ‘hard, hard work’, Margaret says. She and Phil often worked from seven in the morning to 10 at night preparing the papers, giving all their time voluntarily. The case came to trial in 2000. After six weeks, the jury at Leeds Crown Court acquitted Mr Murray of manslaughter and said it had been unable to reach a verdict on Mr Duckenfield. The judge, Mr Justice Hopper, ruled out a majority verdict and refused a retrial, on the grounds that a fair trial would be impossible.

It was a bitter blow for the families, and especially for Margaret and Phil Hammond who had done so much of the back-office preparation for the trial. ‘Coming back from Leeds, I’ll never forget, there was no sound on the coach,’ says Margaret. ‘Everyone was so quiet. It took them all back to the very beginning. We were all on our knees, to be honest with you. We thought, how do we ever get up from this? And we just thought, enough is enough. But then you come back home to all the emails and texts from people who are backing you, fighting with you. How can you give up on them?’

After 15 years as chair, Trevor Hicks decided to step down, and Phil, whose 14-year-old son Phillip died in the tragedy, took over. Margaret became vice-chair. In the meantime, the European Court of Human Rights rejected a challenge to the original inquest verdict brought independently by Anne Williams (who founded the Hope for Hillsborough campaign group), the mother of 15-year-old-victim Kevin Williams, who claimed her son was alive after 3.15pm. While the families continued to press for full disclosure of all the facts about Hillsborough, with the support of some MPs, including Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle, it seemed that all legal avenues had been exhausted.

Phil Hammond suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2008, brought on, Margaret suspects, by the huge amount of pressure he had put himself under in preparing the private prosecutions. Margaret took over as chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group shortly before the twentieth anniversary. One of her first jobs was to organise the memorial service, at Liverpool’s Anfield ground, to mark the anniversary. No politician had ever been invited to speak at the service but Margaret took the decision to invite Andy Burnham, who was then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It was to prove a key turning point. Around 30,000 people attended the service, more than double the 14,000 who attended the tenth anniversary service. There was a feeling that this was one of the last opportunities to increase public awareness of the campaign for justice. Though Mr Burnham’s speech was warmly applauded, he was interrupted by chants for ‘justice for the 96’. Visibly moved, the Liverpool-born MP raised Hillsborough in Cabinet the next day. Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed to back a new inquiry. The Hillsborough Independent Panel stemmed from that meeting.

Under the chairmanship of James Jones, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, the panel began examining papers in 2010. The government promised full disclosure of all relevant information. The panel reported in September 2012, the day, Margaret says, that ‘we finally got the truth out’ and the ‘dark cloud’ hanging over the city of Liverpool was lifted. The panel found that police had deliberately altered more than 160 witness statements in an attempt to blame Liverpool fans and that 41 of the 96 who died could have survived, prompting calls for fresh inquests. It also found that the source of the notorious Sun newspaper story was a local press agency informed by South Yorkshire Police officers and local MP Sir Irvine Patnick. Prime Minister David Cameron gave a powerful and unqualified apology to the families in the Commons and, in December 2012, the High Court quashed the original inquest verdicts, and Home Secretary Teresa May ordered a fresh policy inquiry into the disaster.

The families were invited to Liverpool Anglican Cathedral to hear Bishop Jones set out the panel’s findings. ‘I’ll always remember, I was sitting near Sue [Roberts, Secretary of HFSG] and Trevor, and my husband and son and daughters were behind me,’ Margaret says. ‘The first thing Bishop Jones said, was, “I know what you’re all thinking, have we found anything new?” Then three words: “Yes we have”. Then [panel member] Phil Scraton told us how they took the blood alcohol levels [of the victims]. Most of them had nothing. But when that didn’t work, they took the criminal record of each and every one of them. That didn’t work for them either. Then we heard about the ambulance people altering their statements. I knew a lot but that was new to me. It was bittersweet. I felt so delighted for the fans. I can’t remember whether I said it to Trevor or to my son. I just said, “Our city has been exonerated”. But then you hear about how many of them, potentially, could have been saved, and it knocks you back. Some people fainted when they heard.’

The campaign continues. The truth is out, but the families continue to press for justice and accountability. It has taken up 24 years of Margaret’s life – 24 years during which she has been unable to grieve for her son. It has changed her, in ways she wouldn’t have imagined. She is – despite her protestations – an inspirational public speaker, able to speak to audiences from the heart. She has learned to talk to people from all walks of life, without fear or hesitation. ‘I was just a mum who looked after her children,’ Margaret tells me. ‘It was difficult to deal with politicians because I have never had to deal with politicians. I never had to deal with police in my life. I’ve never had to do anything like that. But you learn as go along, as the families have learned. Every stage is a learning stage and I’ve had 24 years of learning this. For every door that closed in our faces we were determined to make sure we opened another. As we went through the Taylor report, the generic inquest, the scrutinies, the judicial reviews and the private prosecution, you learn so much and you learn, my God, how these people can cover themselves up. Trevor and Phil were my mentors. I worked in the legal office with Phil, and I learned an awful lot from that.

‘Nothing fazes me now. Whoever I meet they are just another human being, they’re nothing else. It can be the Prime Minister, who I’ve met, but at the end of the day he’s getting paid for what he does, he’s just doing a job. They are not different and they are no better than anybody. We are all equal, except some people have more money than others. That’s the only difference. So I treat people like that. You could be the Prime Minister, you could be the Queen, to me you’re still just a human being, nothing more, nothing less. Nobody is better than anybody else. I can talk to anybody, and I will say how it is. I will not gloss it over. If I’ve got something to say I’ll say it, and if they don’t like it that’s tough. If I don’t like what they’re saying it’s tough on me. But nobody, nobody can ever kid the families up, ever, because we have all learned so much.’

One of the positive things to come out of Hillsborough has been the willingness of people to support the campaign, the response of ordinary people, not only in the UK but all over the world. She hopes the campaign can act as an inspiration for people around the globe who are fighting against injustice. ‘One thing I always think of, if a cover-up can be on the magnitude that this was, for 96 people, what goes on with single, lone voices? How many people out there are on their own with no-one to back them? If they can do that, on a vast scale the way they did, what could they do to the lonely ones? That concerns me. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had great support because thousands of people were there that day. I hope it will never happen in the future because people now are very aware about cover-ups. I think they are learning a great lesson from Hillsborough. I would say to people never give up, ever, if you think there has been an injustice, you must fight, get as much backing as you can, from MPs, from ordinary people, they’ll always help, but learn lessons from Hillsborough and don’t ever give up. And always, if you have to double check on anything that might go wrong, or are asking where we get the evidence for this, go back into the archives of Hillsborough and you’ll learn a great deal from it. People will always back a campaign against an injustice; they will not back anything that is false.’

Without support and the strength they’ve taken from it, the families would never have achieved what they have achieved, Margaret says. It has been difficult, there have been tensions and disagreements, but the families have kept the fans and the 96 at the front of their minds. ‘I don’t think we’ve done a bad job, the families,’ she adds. ‘Twenty-four years is an awful long time. Yet we are still together, fighting for what’s right, and for what is good for our country, as well. It’s been hard. We don’t always get it right. We can’t please everybody all the time but we do know we’ve always had the interests of the families at heart. The Hillsborough Family Support Group is bigger than any individual. When people ask me to do talks I’ve got to be very careful because I am representing the vast majority of the families of the 96. You’ve got to be careful you do your best for them. It’s been a hard, hard slog but we’re getting there. On 12 September 2012 we finally got the truth out for all the fans and for the city itself. The next stage – and the most important stage, for me and the families – is to get the right verdict on the death certificates, and for those who were responsible to be brought to account. That’s what we’re aiming for now.’


Spaces to think, question and create – we need them more than ever

We are witnessing an assault on the humanities, nationally and globally, to the extent that many academics now feel it necessary to ‘defend’ the humanities – something that would have astonished any previous generation of scholars – and to warn of a growing crisis which could threaten their very existence.

In Australia it seems likely that A$100 million funding for the humanities and the social sciences will be ‘reprioritised’ to where it is ‘really needed’, principally in medical research. The language of the debate there may be tonally different, but it plainly echoes the UK government’s emphasis on science and research and in particular on so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and its treatment of other disciplines as nice-to-have but not essential.

In the UK we have seen the beginnings of a debate about the value of the humanities, but it is, in the main, a depressingly narrow debate, focused on their contribution to employability and the economy. The culture secretary, Maria Miller, has argued – ‘claimed’ might be a better word as (as is so often the case with the austerity rhetoric of the coalition) there is no real argument, only an unsupported assertion of necessity – that ‘in an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.’

Of course, it is much easier to defend investment in medical research, for example, than it is to defend investment in the humanities. The benefits of medical research are clear, measurable and comparatively well-understood. The case for the humanities is more difficult to set out, particularly against the backdrop of a policy and media environment which is stubbornly resistant to abstract or difficult thought or to any opinion which overtly challenges conventional thinking. No doubt the decision of the UK government to withdraw the university teaching grant for the humanities was made, in part, because it was a cut that would be hard to argue against, given the way debate is constrained.

We need to remind ourselves that not everything that is valuable is valuable in terms that can be expressed on an abacus. Much of what is most valuable in our lives is valuable for reasons which are not particularly easy to understand, that involve reflection, thoughtful articulation and learning. But that is no reason to dismiss or overlook them.

It is not only economic considerations that guide our choices, even in times when money is tight. In fact, when times are tough it becomes even more important to look beyond the economic concerns which regulate much of our everyday behavior, to reach towards some vision of how things might be different and better. A broad, general education and an understanding of the humanities and social sciences become all the more important.

I was in Edinburgh recently to meet a group of adult education students and activists interested in broadening and deepening the debate about Scottish independence in the run-up to next year’s referendum. The debate, as reflected in the mainstream media and the rhetoric of the two campaigns, was characterised as dull, sterile and negative, with the focus on the economy and projections, often negative, about what economic life in Scotland will be like in five or 10 years time.

No-one, of course, would deny that these things are important. But, beyond the mainstream, the debate is much wider, as was reflected in the discussion the students had. This touched on questions of value and social justice, history and literature, politics and political education, but was, above all, about culture and identity. As one student, Andrew Morrison put it, ‘Economics is important, but the issue is identity’. It is questions of culture and identity that are truly enlivening the debate, and which, I suspect, will be foremost in people’s minds when they walk into the polling places.

I was reminded of this conversation when I read James Kelman’s short column on Descartes in Saturday’s Guardian. Painting with a broad brush, Kelman traced ‘almost every literary tradition’ back to Descartes’ profound philosophical scepticism and, in particular, his emphasis on ‘the primacy of the individual perception’: ‘A sceptical voice, the child questioning the adult, the artist challenging convention, the individual challenging authority; casting doubt on infallibility and the imposition of authoritarian control.’

Five centuries later, philosophical scepticism and our insistence on the primacy of individual experience remain strongly linked with our reasons for valuing the humanities. Crucially, the humanities teach us to think – for ourselves – in creative and critical ways, to argue and to respect the arguments of others, and, most of all, to question. It also helps us to develop new visions of what the future might be, to challenge conventions and to think about how things might be different.

These are critical resources, particularly in times when the outlook is bleak and people are unsure of how to move forward or to change things they see as plainly wrong. While no-one (again) would question the huge value of medical research, we, as a society, also need to be able to reflect on the legitimate limits and use of medical research, to consider the conventions and how we might change or improve them, to maximise the benefits for humanity, with in a set of agreed boundaries. The humanities help us to do this.

As Richard Taylor argued recently, we need a broad, cultural education, and not just for children and young people. Adult education for active and informed citizenship is an absolute condition of democracy. Adult education is closely linked to the democratic process. It gives people a safe, neutral space in which to gather and discuss issues of concern, to think critically about the world as received through the news media and to engage in an imaginative and open conversation about how things might be. Given the pressing challenges we face as a society – from wealth inequality to climate change to the democratic deficit – this is more necessary than ever. It is much more than a nice-to-have. We need more spaces to think and more awkward customers. Adult education produces both.

Of course, education itself is not exempt from this kind of critical questioning. The cuts to higher education funding have resulted in heightened questioning of the value of higher education, what it is for and what its wider civic and community obligations are – and I think this is welcome. For too long, parts of the academy have been far too remote from communities, from ordinary people – and have been far too happy to remain so. This has begun to change. There is no room for complacency. Academics in the humanities and social sciences must do more to demonstrate the wider value of their work – not through soundbites and with abacuses, but by slow and careful engagement with people and communities. You can’t really be told about the value of the humanities. You have to experience it.