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TRCH David Suchet

Danny Rhodes Author and Forest Fan on Hillsborough

4 September 14 interview: James Walker
illustrations: Raphael Achache

Football in the eighties: Dilapidated stadia. Cages. Hooliganism. Belonging. Kenilworth Road. Heysel. Bradford. And then Hillsborough. Danny Rhodes’ third novel takes us back to 15 April 1989 and a match that would change the lives of fans forever...

You were at Hillsborough. Tell us about it...
Where to begin? I went as part of a group of fans who had been supporting Nottingham Forest religiously for about five seasons.  Our teenage years were shaped by Forest. Everything had been slowly building to the crescendo of that game (including the identical fixture the season before). Forest were in great form. There was a palpable feeling among us that we could go one better and reach the FA Cup Final, the ultimate prize in those days beyond the league championship, not the cheapened competition it is today. We travelled by train full of expectation and excitement and witnessed instead Britain’s worst sporting disaster. Most of us were either on the brink of turning eighteen or had just become men. We went to Hillsborough, stood and watched the disaster unfold before us. It’s difficult to describe the sudden transformation from joy and anticipation to horror and bewilderment.  But we were only witnesses. We weren’t in Leppings Lane. We weren’t in pens three and four…

I’m guessing fictionalising this story has been cathartic and part of the healing process…
Absolutely. I think I compartmentalised Hillsborough. It was something I rarely talked about and something the group I attended football with barely mentioned in the past 25 years. Until recently, and the creation of the novel, when I tried to bring it up in conversation with people the discussion wilted very quickly so I just stopped bothering. Writing the novel has given me the opportunity to meet Hillsborough head on. I feel I understand it much better now. I’ve received some lovely feedback from Nottingham Forest supporters thanking me for addressing the tragedy from a non-Liverpool perspective, for telling their story through the character of John Finch.

Why now? And how has writing such an intensely personal book affected you?
I visited my publisher in the summer of 2011 and pitched a number of ideas for future projects.
One of those was a book about Hillsborough. With the 25th anniversary on the horizon the general feeling was that this would be a good time to address the subject. I knew nothing of a forthcoming inquiry. What I also didn’t foresee was the detailed research, the pouring over documents, the old friends I would find myself getting in touch with, the memories I’d dredge up, the hours spent on YouTube watching old Forest games, the emotional journey I was about to undertake. All of this came later. It has been an intense three years and my biggest problem now is that having finished the book I’m struggling to write anything due to the lack of intensity in comparison to writing Fan.

The relationship between Forest and Liverpool wasn’t great even before Hillsborough...
Historically my understanding is that there’s some bad blood reaching back to the late seventies. Forest had the reputation of being a defensive, destructive outfit who played on the counter attack. Of course this tactic at its best meant they could be formidable, as they were when they destroyed Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford in 1977/78. Essentially, Liverpool didn’t like their dominance being challenged by a provincial club. Look for the reaction of the Liverpool players after their controversial League Cup final replay defeat of 78. I always enjoyed Liverpool coming to the City Ground because their away support was always massive and Forest always gave them a good game. Those fixtures were often around Christmas or New Year, adding to the spice. Trips to Anfield at that time were not so enjoyable. Forest just got hammered. What irks me the most is the Liverpool fans singing their infamous ‘We hate Nottingham Forest…’ song at Old Trafford in the ‘89 FA Cup replay after Hillsborough. That upset a lot of Forest fans.

There are many reports in your book of crowding issues from across the country that clearly illustrate Hillsborough was a tragedy waiting to happen…
It didn’t take long for me to discover the various near misses that occurred at Hillsborough during the eighties and the list of Official Reports at the start of the book is taken directly from the Taylor Report. He begins by asking the question why all those reports did not prevent Hillsborough from occurring. Forest fans will recall the Highfield Road away cage which was ugly and always rammed. I met someone the other day who was reminding me of a non-all ticket game at the Baseball Ground in the late eighties which was similarly dangerous. We accepted it as part of the experience then but interestingly my group of mates and I had already moved to seats for both home and away games by the 88/89 season as we were sick of the terrace experience. Tragically, it takes a disaster like Hillsborough for change to occur.

The book is very difficult to put down as it's written in short sharp sentences, a bit like The Damned United by David Peace. Why did you choose this particular narrative style?
I’ve always written in short direct prose. I think I picked it up while reading a lot of American Literature in my younger years. Readers noticed this in my first two novels, but as I’ve become more confident, so my writing has become yet more clipped. I started writing the book in the summer of 2011 and was reading a David Peace novel at the time - by sheer coincidence - called 1974. I did read The Damned United much later and probably borrowed the second person match day narration from it.

It’s hard to categorise the book as it crosses genres; operating as a work of fiction, sociological inquiry, as well as reportage. Why did you go for this multi-layered approach rather than a straight forward work of fiction?
The simple answer is it just happened this way. So much of the novel is based upon real experience from both my life and the lives of others that much of it wrote itself. The match reports just seemed to give the piece further grounding in reality. I opted in the end to focus mainly on the two FA Cup runs of ‘88 and ‘89 as they are central to the narrative, the gradual build-up of anticipation that culminated in Hillsborough. There were so many other games that could have been included. The factual stuff relating to Bradford , Heysel and Hillsborough is intended to give readers an overview of those events, a starting point if you like. If readers are interested I’d encourage any of them to download the official reports and read them cover to cover. I ought to add that younger readers - and by ‘younger’ I mean readers in their twenties - are coming to these events with little or no knowledge in many cases so for them these sections have been educational. I know that because readers have told me.

At the heart of the book is the question of social justice. Given recent revelations about police corruption I wonder whether this is a sign that things are getting better, in that issues are finally being debated, or just the tip of the iceberg.
I wonder if this is just history catching up. I imagine there are things happening now that we’ll only come to fully understand in a couple of decades. Obviously you have to employ a certain amount of hindsight and, I think, take into account the socio-political climate of the age in which the events occurred. I’m personally not one for applying current moral and ethical ideology on the events of the past.

The verdict for the current Hillsborough inquiry is expected around April 2015. What would you personally like to see happen?
I don’t want to say too much on this, as the wheels of justice are currently in motion, other than I’d just like to see closure for the families and all those affected by the disaster.

One question writers are often asked is "What story are you trying to tell?" Do you think there's a particular theme running through your books?
All of my novels tell stories of working class people and all involve some sort of social commentary. I’m a firm believer in the idea of writing something that says something, of using this thing I can do to create something of significance and relevance. Or at least that’s the intention. Asboville questions the effects of labelling young people and creating social outcasts before they are old enough to have learned what life is about, Soldier Boy debates the advantages and disadvantages of young men entering the services and Fan explores the effects of tragedy while asking the reader to consider the role of football in society and to examine the various ironies and contradictions created by the implementation of the Taylor Report and the subsequent birth of the Premier League.

You can invite four Forest players over for dinner. Who would it be and what would you cook them...
I’ve tried to do this and it’s impossible. I think I’d just hold a huge BBQ at the publisher’s expense and invite every Nottingham Forest player who turned out in the shirt between 1977 and 1990. Cloughie and Taylor and the backroom staff would be invited too. I’d harass them all with match day memories they’ve probably long forgotten. I’d invite the current crop of Forest players along too to make them aware of what it should mean to play for the club.  If you know your history and all that…

Fan is available from Arcadia Books for £11.99

Danny Rhodes' website

 

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