Harking back to the disaster decade

Growing up in the 80s was a strange business on all sorts of levels. But speaking as one who reached the most impressionable age – 9, 10, 11-ish – in the latter part of the decade, there was one respect in which it stood out more than most.

I mean, of course, the disasters. That extraordinary series of accidents and incidents which mars my otherwise magical memory of those ineffably exciting years. Perhaps it’s just a case of perception, and the apparent pile-up is merely a reflection of just how impressionable I was. But even looked at objectively, there’s been no other period in my lifetime when so many catastrophes – encompassing such a horrifying range of settings and scenarios – unfolded in so short a time.

The-Hillsborough-memorial-002

What exactly am I referring to? Well, I probably wouldn’t include, say, the 1983-1985 Ethopian famine, since that unfolded over a longer period and lacked the suddenness needed to crash into a young boy’s mind. My disaster decade probably began with the Challenger Disaster in January 1986 – truly, stuff to stir the imagination of a seven-year-old – and continued with the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy in 1987. After that, in rapid succession, even for a kid experiencing the giganticism of time, there was the King’s Cross underground fire, the Piper Alpha explosion, the Clapham Junction Rail Crash, Hillsborough and the Marchioness disaster.

There may be others I haven’t mentioned; there may be some I have which don’t quite compare in scale or circumstances. Either way, it was a vivid, terrifying time, and I remember wondering what grimness could possibly be coming next.

Of course, having been young at the time, my lingering memory isn’t so much in the detailed, scandalous specifics of how each event unfolded. It’s more in half-remembered news reports or glimpses of where I was when I heard the news (the front garden, helping to a paint a fence, when Hillsborough happened). Above all, for me personally at least, it’s in that most ephemeral of responses to disaster: the charity pop single.

It was the fashion at the time. After Band Aid and USA for Africa, it became the default response to tragedy. There wasn’t a single for each of the major disasters – though the Pet Shop Boys’ King’s Cross offered an eerie, unofficial pre-echo of the underground fire – and, in truth, the majority of charity singles, then as now, were prompted more by ongoing campaigns (Comic Relief, Sport Aid, the GOSH Wishing Well appeal) than specific tragedies.

But whatever the context, I remember being very keen to collect these records. I still have the Zeebrugge and Hillsborough seven inches, plus virtually all the campaign records up to the early 1990s. I don’t want to overstate my youthful altruism, but it definitely felt like a positive way of responding to the horrors of what I’d seen on TV. I don’t suppose I really understood how it made a difference any more than I questioned the charitable integrity of participating artists. But that wasn’t the point. As a music-loving 10-year-old, the only action I could take was to march down to W H Smith, Our Price or Woolworths and spend my pocket money on a single. So that’s exactly what I did.

I mention it now because of The Justice Collective’s newly-released version of He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother). As I bought my copy on Wednesday, it occurred to me that this kind of charity single – celeb-packed, event-specific – felt like something of a throwback: an old-fashioned way of answering injustice and suffering.

And then I realised: what could be more apt? The legacy of Hillsborough’s outrageous aftermath has been the inability of the victims’ families to move on from their grief. They have been frozen emotionally in time by a web of conspiracy, deceit and lies. So it’s only fitting that He Ain’t Heavy feels a little anachronistic. By harking back to those heady, frequently horrifying days, the single reminds us where these people have been trapped all this time. Its release, one hopes, will bring another wave of catharsis to match those brought about by the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the quashing of the original inquest verdicts.

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Posted on December 21, 2012, in Football, General, Nostalgia and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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