A mourning mother’s search for what really happened brought her to the heart of an entire city’s push for the truth, and her quest is powerfully portrayed in the upcoming ITV series ‘Anne’
Anne Williams made me cry.
It wasn’t the first time I’d shed tears over Hillsborough, but this time it was different. I’d wept with rage on the evening of the disaster but after that my eyes were dry. At least in public.
I’d sob silently in the night, though, usually in anger and shame. It was invariably in the aftermath of a social encounter when someone said: “Come on, just admit it, drunks broke down the gates and caused it. I used to go the match, I know what it was like.”
Stuff like this has been said to me casually and repeatedly over the decades.
In America, a woman asked where I was from. When I told her Liverpool, she said: “That’s where you crush your own people to death, isn’t it?”
On those nights I cried: angrily because I had not smashed their smug faces and left their stupid mouths bleeding and toothless; in shame because I had not done anything to stop them saying the same thing to others like me in the future.
Then I spoke to Anne Williams, whose story Anne airs over four successive nights from Sunday on ITV1. It is not too strong to say that this woman changed my life.
Anne’s son Kevin was one of the 95 people who died on 15 April 1989, after a crush on the Leppings Lane at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest (the 96th victim, Tony Bland, died in 1993; the 97th, Andrew Devine, in July of this year). The coroner ruled that all those who lost their lives in the stadium were dead by 3.15pm. A policewoman later came forward and said that Kevin asked for his mum at 4pm.
The image is haunting. A child lying in a gymnasium, surrounded by dead bodies, pleading for his mother. It is the stuff of nightmares.
Take football out of the equation. This was in the aftermath of a huge public event, with hundreds of police officers on duty and with the ambulances of the emergency services a matter of yards away. But no one came to the aid of a teenage boy who just wanted his mum.
At first Anne accepted the version of events provided by the authorities. After all, these are the people in whom we are supposed to trust. When she was told that Kevin may have been alive after the coroner’s cut-off time, everything changed. The series charts her journey from mourning mum to indefatigable campaigner. To the very last she did her best for Kevin.
In the second half of the 2000s, when the campaign for justice hit the doldrums, Kevin’s story seemed to be the most compelling. It blew open the established fictions enshrined by the 3.15pm cutoff time. Anne was trying to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights after being blocked at every turn in the UK. She needed money to do this. By 2008 she had endured 19 years of struggle.
I told her story to someone connected with the Dubai bid to buy Liverpool. He was rich and a fan of the club but as far from the image of a Kopite as possible. This was a middle-aged Tory who knew relatively little about what happened at Hillsborough. He was appalled and volunteered to donate a significant sum in an instant. I got Anne’s address from a third party and sent off the cheque. She called me.
At the time I was the football editor of a broadsheet. I tried to use that position to shoehorn a mention of the disaster into any written piece or media appearance where it was appropriate. It felt like a lost cause. Very few outside Merseyside cared.
The one thing I did not want to do was talk to any of the families of the dead. I was not worthy. I’d done too little. I felt ashamed.
There were other reasons, too. Unity within the families had fractured. Schisms had appeared which remain today. Some disapproved of Anne’s action. Under the surface there were many resentments and jealousies. The best thing to do was to try and stay out of it.
So the conversation with Anne was hard. She thanked me. I told her I’d try to raise more cash and attempted to end the call by saying: “I don’t know how you have the strength to go on.”
Her answer shocked me. “I don’t know how you have the strength,” she said. I couldn’t think. It felt like I’d been winded. I could hear her continue.
“I lost Kevin. It’s horrible. But I didn’t see what you saw. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. I dream about Kevin and it’s lovely until I wake up. I wouldn’t want your nightmares. It must be terrible for you survivors.”
I’m not a survivor, I said when I got my voice back. I was just there. A witness, perhaps, but not a survivor.
“Oh, you’re a survivor,” she said, with certainty.
After hanging up I went back to my desk and started crying. I was in such a state that I didn’t even think of hiding in the toilets. Everyone ignored me even though I bawled for, it seemed to me, hours.
A survivor. Only people in the pens, who had a near-death experience, were survivors. I’d spent 19 years telling people and myself that I was just there, nothing happened to me, all the bad stuff happened to other people. Anne cut through the bulls***. She’d spoken to hundreds like me and knew what she was talking about.
“One of the many things that was wonderful about Anne was the way she reached out to survivors, fans and people who were going through a hard time trying to process what had happened,” Kevin Sampson, who created and wrote the series, said. “Even 33 years on, many, many people still can’t find peace of mind and Anne understood that grief and made herself available to anyone who needed to talk.
“We’ve tried to honour that in the drama.”
After my conversation with Anne, life made more sense. The flashbacks and death-ridden dreams did not stop but they came and went with a little more understanding. I didn’t stop wanting to hurt Hillsborough deniers but I stopped hating myself for not exploding in violence. Later, I found out about post-traumatic stress disorder but that short exchange with Anne was the best therapy.
I met and spoke to her a few times after that. I would never claim to know her. But I experienced her generosity of spirit. She was a difficult person to deal with at times but the series goes a long way to explaining why.
Maxine Peake, as Anne, is magnificent. She delivers Sampson’s unsentimental script with breathtaking power. The force of a mother’s love drives the series.
For the show’s creator, getting it onscreen was not just a labour of love but a public duty. Sampson is another survivor. “It’s important to continue to inform and enlighten the mainstream about how disasters like Hillsborough impact upon everyday people and communities like themselves,” he said. “That’s the message: this could happen to any of you.
“In this country, when a civic disaster like Grenfell happens, there is an institutional, immediate, default reaction – a shifting of responsibility, a blurring of truth, an insidious implication that the victims somehow contributed to their own fate and an ultimate absence of accountability. The state and the authorities will delay and obfuscate and grind any resistance into submission – or they’ll try to.”
Anne would not be ground down. Her legacy is not just a piece of brilliant television but is present in the campaign for a Hillsborough Law, which requires a duty of candour from public officials that will make it illegal to lie about or misrepresent their actions while on duty. The Hillsborough Law has its public launch next Friday, alongside an initiative by a group of Merseyside MPs to have the disaster added to the national curriculum. Everyone can learn from Anne’s experience.
Anne Williams made me weep again, five years after the original incident. This time it was when she died of cancer in 2013. Again I sat at my desk, chest heaving, as colleagues averted their eyes. It felt like an allegory for the entire struggle for justice.
There are times during the mini-series when it will be tempting to look away. The nation has done that too often since 1989.
Anne should make you cry. Watch it. Do not avoid it. Kevin could have been anyone’s son or brother. His death was avoidable. It thrust his mother into a spotlight she would have done anything to avoid.
The lies that followed were even more unnecessary and linger on today. This television series is essential viewing to anyone seeking the truth.
‘Anne’ begins on Sunday 2 January at 9pm on ITV