I’ve written of this day before. I’ve written of the confusion, the horror, the fear and the anger of this day before. I’ve told this story before, of where I was on the day that 96 people died. All should remember where they were, how they felt, how disbelief mixed with disgust, how the story kept changing, how blame was deviously directed against the victims by those employed to serve and protect the victims.
I was sitting in the lounge of my parents’ house getting ready to watch Liverpool play Nottingham Forest in the semifinal of the FA Cup. A friend, Ralph Parsons, had come around. Ralph and I were on a break from Rhodes University, our third year in Grahamstown. We loved Liverpool. We still do. We fought for control of the television in our residence, Gold Fields, up on the hill in Kimberley Hall overlooking G’Town. We’d watch them on the telly at the pubs and hotels around the city.
On April 15, 1989, we were in Boksburg, a cool box full of beers in between us to save time. We may have had snacks. I don’t remember. I recall watching the start of the match, watching as Peter Beardsley hit the post at the other end of the ground, opposite to the one the Liverpool fans were in. After a few minutes there was a sense something was wrong, that there was a problem with the supporters. Our first thought? Hooliganism. It was the easy option with no other information. After six minutes the referee called off the match. Then the first reports began coming through about people crushed to death, images of the injured and dying being carried on advertising boards torn down for makeshift stretchers. We sat there stunned. We had no words.
In his autobiography, Bruce Grobbelaar, was perhaps one of the first to become aware of the unfolding tragedy as he was closest to where the Liverpool fans were. He wrote that he could hear them shouting: “They’re killing us, Bruce, they're killing us.” Grobbelaar saw the faces and when he went to pick up a ball from a Forest shot, realised that they were indeed being killed.
“I went to retrieve it, and I said to the policewoman – I thought it was a policeman – ‘Get the effing gate open. Can’t you see that they need it’? And there were screams coming at the time. I kicked the ball upfield, and I went back and said, ‘Get the fucking gate open’. I turned back and the ball went out of play on the left, and that’s when I shouted to the referee. The policeman came on to the field, and the game stopped.”
It has taken 23 years, but finally we know what happened that day. It may bring some closure to the families of the fans, but they will never forget.
At around 11pm most nights, as you catch the elevators down to the tunnels underneath the Stratford train station in the east of London, the strains of singing floated up to you. The tune was familiar. The voice was okay, the vocals familiar up to a point.
“Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I want to got to bed. Highbury, Islington and Clapham Junction and Richmond to your left. Greater Anglia and Underground, please go to your right. These are the ways to go! Show me the way to go home.”
Derek Williams, an employee of Greater Anglia railways, would sing that most nights as I made my way down the elevator and past him to platform three to catch the Central Line to Notting Hill Gate. He was given no brief, no order. He just decided that one day he would change up the way he directed people left or right as they were heading home from the Paralympics. On the first night I heard him I smiled like a loon for an hour. The next time I went past him he wasn’t singing. I asked him why not. He was tired, he said. Understandable. He was singing again the next night after I had unravelled my brain with a few beers at Taps End, a craft beer place in the Westfield shopping centre at Stratford, and we had a quick chat. He’d organised some of the other Greater Anglia employees to help him out and they stood with those big soft sponge hands that remind me of a Bok wing receiving the ball after years of neglect.
Williams wasn’t an official “Games Maker”, the name given to the volunteers, but he did as much as any of them to make these Games the greatest ever. Yup. The. Greatest. Ever. Well, the greatest I have been to. It was my fourth Paralympics. I do not know if I will see a fifth Paralympics. I live by the credo and the sage of Andy Scott, Mr Paralympics to me, who told me in Sydney in 2000: “Remember this. The Paralympians of 2004 have not yet had their accident.” How true that was. The next year Natalie du Toit had her crash and lost a leg. After 2004, Achmat Hassiem had his wrestling match with a great white. I may, as I prepare myself to take part in the 2013 Absa Cape Epic, may yet come a cropper and be watching the Rio Games from a wheelchair or minus a leg or an arm.
What would I do? How would I cope? I think the Paralympics have prepared me for that possibility. It’s a side effect of the Games. You imagine yourself in scenarios, put yourself in their prosthetics, a wheelchair, with no sight and you wonder if you would react the same. What would I look like with a limp? How would I get by with wheels instead of legs? Could I count on friends to get me by? Why is South Africa such a disabled unfriendly country?
You think of wise cracks. Having a wheelchair means always having somewhere to sit down in a bar. It’s hard to get legless when you don’t have any. Hey, the disabled get the best parking. And it’s all true. Being disabled does not mean death. I think I’d be okay. I think I’d be better. Heck, if I could get the same length prosthetics as Alan Oliveira then I could finally be taller. As an American athlete told me on Saturday night: “A year ago his nickname used to be ‘little buddy’. Now it’s just ‘buddy’.”
And so the Games are done, and so am I. We will never see a Games as great as these. London has surpassed all expectations. They’ve made the Paralympics more real. I leave it to Williams to sing you out to the tune of “This is the way to Amarillo”. “This is the way to Highbury, Islington, Clapham Junction and Richmond Services. This is the way to Greater Anglia, and all your London Underground. Shalalalalalala. Shalalalalalala.” Cheers and thanks.
“Mind the f***ing gap!” On Friday night last week, two men in yellow Swedish football jerseys and with not a few beers under their belt followed a London Underground official as he walked them through from the Westfield Shopping Centre through the tunnels and corridors to platform three to catch the Central Line. It’s not a simple journey.
You turn left out of the centre past M&S and into Stratford Station, through the turnstiles on the left, turn left down the escalator, move to the right-hand side of the tunnel, then turn left past the stairs to the platform heading east, down about 50-metres, then turn right, walk straight until you see the sign for “Platform 3’, and turn left up the stairs. Then wait. It wasn’t all that easy for the two beer-up gents from Sweden. They were armed with white canes and while not blind drunk, they were blind.
They thanked the official and then waited for the westward-bound Central Line train to arrive, speaking Swedish, which is a language that sounds like it should come from a six-foot blonde lounging in a Jacuzzi. These two had just come from the Paralympics and looked more Springbok than Stockholm. The train arrived. They went to get on, tapping their canes. One’s foot caught the edge of the train door and he stumbed forward. He laughed. His friend laughed. He turned to him and shouted; “Mind the f***ing gap!” I laughed. They laughed louder still. Then they sat down and Jacuzzi-spoke to each other, repeating the stations as they were read out. “This is Liverpool Street,” said voice of the nice lady on the recording. “This is Liverpool Street!” they gurgled. Then got off. “Mind the f***ing gap,” I implored them. They laughed.
I catch the Central Line twice a day at the Paralympics – once in the morning on the way to Stratford and once on the way back. I hope on at High Street Kensington, take the Circle Line to Notting Hill Gate and change to the Central Line. I do this every day. I could walk along the route with my eyes closed. I could probably do it while almost blind drunk. Actually, I did do it rather drunk just over a month ago after I had a good session at the Prince of Wales with some friends during the Olympics.
Every time I pass through Liverpool Street I think of July 7, 2005, the day that terrorists set off bombs around London, bringing the city to a standstill and leaving it in fear. It was just 90-metres away from the Liverpool Street Station, on the Circle Line, on a train heading to Aldgate, that Martine Wright became a Paralympian. It was the day after it had been announced that London had won the right to host the Olympics and Paralympics. The celebrations were immense in Trafalgar Square on July 6. Wright had celebrated along with the rest of her city and her country. A day later she was sitting some two metres away from Shehzad Tanweer, one of the home-grown terrorists who set off the bombs. Seven people died that day. Wright’s legs were mangled by the carriage. She was cut out, and had lost 75 percent of the blood in her body. She was saved by off-duty policewoman Elizabeth Kenworthy, who tied a tourniquet around one of her legs. She was in a coma for 10 days. She lost both of her legs.
On Friday she played for Team GB at the Paralympics in the sitting volleyball team. It was, she said “one of those things – I believe this is a journey I was always meant to make. You might go through the worst thing that you can ever imagine in your life but you can turn things around. I think this is what the Paralympic Games is all about - showing people out there that, whether you’re disabled or not, anything is possible.”
It’s about minding the gap and knowing that it can always be crossed.
The day may never come, but wouldn’t it be great some time in the near future to hear someone tell a friend, “You’re such a spaz”, and for the reply to be: “Cheers, China. That means a lot to me.”
Spastic. Go on, say it. Spas. Tic. It’s not an insult, it’s a condition, a description of how some people’s muscles don’t work in the direction they are supposed to. Well, it is an insult, but that’s because it has been stolen and warped into one. It’s not supposed to be an insult. A British cerebral palsy charity was once called the Spastic Society when it was formed in 1951. It changed its name to Scope in 1994 because the term had become derogatory.
Perhaps it is time to bring it back. Perhaps we should be proud to say “spastic”. “Gay” has become an insult of sorts, but homosexuals have no problem in calling themselves gay. Dr Phillip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, said recently that he would prefer if people would not use the word “disabled”. I’m not sure how he feels about “spastic”, but perhaps he might want that to be expunged. If he does, then he might have had a little wobble when Orbital and members of the Graeae Theatre Company played Ian Dury’s “Spasticus Autisticus” at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on Wednesday night.
Written by Dury as a two-fingered salute to the Year of the Disabled Person in 1981 as he thought it was a waste of time, calling it patronising, the song was personal for Dury who contracted polio when he was seven years old and was crippled, and sent to a school for the disabled where life was not easy. He used the word “Spasticus” in the same way that the Roman gladiators in Spartacus had stood by their leader and refused to identify him – “I am Spartacus”.
It’s a pretty simple chorus, but then the lyrics, which caused the BBC to ban playing the tune before 6pm lest it spaz out the land, are quite hard-hitting and rather clever:
“I wibble when I piddle, ’cos my middle is a riddle.
I dribble when I nibble, and I quibble when I scribble.
Hello to you out there in Normal Land.
You may not comprehend my tale or understand
As I crawl past your window give me lucky looks.
You can be my body but you’ll never read my books.
I’m knobbled on the cobbles, ’Cos I hobble when I wobble.
So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin
And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in.
So long have I been languished on the shelf
I must give all proceedings to myself.
Widdling, griddling, skittling, diddling, fiddling, diddling, widdling, diddling spasticus.”
It’s not the greatest tune, but it has a chant-ability that makes it a decent theme song to drown out the political correctness that sometimes threatens to stop us from breaking down the barriers between the disabled and the non-disabled.
Here’s the thing. Spastic rhymes with fantastic. That’s reason enough to claim it back from the Spaz brigade. So, when you see a person in a wheelchair, or a woman with polio walking along like she’s dancing to her own internal jukebox, and when that person turns to you and uses the word “Spastic”, stand up and tell them: “No, I am Spasticus.”
The South African Paralympic team do not do political correctness, not when it comes to themselves, and certainly not when it comes to others, particularly those who might think themselves to be in positions of leadership.
On Friday when the South African Paralympic team were hosted at South Africa House, one of the athletes turned to Dr Zola Skweyiya, the South African high commissioner to London, and asked: “So, are you also from South Africa?”