Liverpool A-Z

 

Alive no longer

 

The curtains are pinned in narrow pleats and arranged across the bay like the privacy drape around a hospital bed. There is lace and ribbon attached to the fall of the thin white cloth and the room is transformed from every day for the ritual of death. Next to the coffin the cards and candles provide contrasting darkness in the enveloping paleness, like bare patches in a fall of snow. The room is packed with standing supplicants, repeating the latter half of the rosary after the very young priest. The firm collective response overrides the grief-full sobs of the tearful.

 

Bill

 

The cobbles are overrun with floral prints, good shoes and suit pants. The air rises, swirls and darts wafting the hum and tinkle of the party inside. Balmy, sweet, softening light wraps across the tall transparent sky and time hangs back, lazy. Three dark daughters, affecting bad humour, exit The Pilgrim, and tap cautiously across the cobbles, moving faster on the flat pavement, around the corner to The Crack. College-pudding music thuds from the bar below as they return minutes later, holding carefully, un-spilling, two pints of mild. He receives their peace offering with a nod and continues, sipping.

 

 

Charleston boy

 

The stone records the name of the young captain, paid for by his grieving shipmates. He died rich, heartbroken, exiled, a profiteer of confederate cotton secreted away in Liverpool warehouses awaiting the glorious victory of the way of the South over the urban Yankee. His gentle, exaggerated manners and Irish Catholic ancestry made his stay here pleasant, in this other place beyond agriculture and industry. He lies in the bedraggled abandon of the cathedral gardens, another ebb of the tide bringing exotic flotsam and non-conformity to the industrial age, another partial homecoming in this place of vagabonds, heroes and subversives.i

 

Duel

 

A Taxi driver adds rev fumes to the cold fug of deep twelfth night at the corner of Percy Street. He taps the wheel to a festive song and glances sideways: two men fight with swords across the road before him, clad in full, thin shirts and high boots. They grunt with effort and rage as they clash and struggle viciously, intent on harming each other. He opens his mouth to shout a warning (to keep off his bodywork) when they disappear. The wide elegant street is empty and the drunken girl in the back of the cab is asleep.ii

 

Esmedun

 

Greasy black smoke curls loosely in flat circles from the turf roofs of the huddled dwellings and hangs in the pearlescent midday light, unable to penetrate the drizzling gleam of the low sky. The solemn mass bell rings with bleak summons as the Earl leads his household in terrible splendour from the oak hall along the brook to the new grey stone apse of the church of St. Clare. The Domesday gift of the Poitou demesne celebrated by an extensive hunt brought forth unimaginable quarry: the still, pallid remains of the lordling, soon to be committed to the frozen ground. iii

 

 

Fight

 

In summer bright, leaf-scented air, full of magical child-size dreams, only felt but not understood, she skips and steps, flicking the edges of her home made, print cotton dress, in the way of small, happy girls. She is going to the library past the swing park and the pub, beside the traffic, full of prickling excitement and joy. The spots of rosy pavement-blood in the cloud of stale-beer drift from the pub freeze her, appalled. “Look, Dad – blood”. Dad hunkers down and shows her his heavy, muscled arm with the teeth marks and bruises. “Don’t worry; it’s his, not mine.”

 

Georgie

 

The man rears through the doors of the pump house, where sails are sown and sold. Sixteen or seventeen in overalls and an oily shirt, indecent without jacket or hat, stretched, vibrating, chest swelling, he glares around. He runs at an older, heavier man in a waistcoat, jacket and tie, who sees him a moment too late to avoid the smack to the ground.

Don’t ever talk to my father like that again. He fought in the trenches while you stayed at home. I’m warning you – next time I’ll finish you.”

He got five years or the army for that.iv

 

Hope

 

Giles Gilbert Scott’s omnipresent cathedral looms over the graveyard and gardens and obscures the view to the river and the vast horizon beyond. The departure and arrival point of the old, disused docks is hidden, by the perpendicular -style tower, reigning sentinel, silent, alive. It reaches its shadow fingers down to the mossed slabs tattooed with copperplate gothic or old English text, pointing to the whispered details of the lives endured. Histories of individuals, families or neighbourhoods who found a place to hold on but were pulled under by childbirth, disease, hunger or endless work, now only a relic-stone path.

 

Irish lights

 

The neo-gothic honey of St Luke’s ragged shell bears petrified witness to the Liverpool blitz. The way the story is told, Auntie Peggy died upright in her armchair with the shock of the bombs hitting the gentle, rolling rise of Leece Street. Over by the part-built cathedral the old, sea-captain’s house shook and trembled on its foundations, and the nineteen year old died of terror. In the extremity of her grief Peggy’s mother renounced her homeland and swore vicious curses on her countrymen who had failed to dim the lights of Dublin and pointed the Luftwaffe the way to Liverpool.v

 

Jurisdiction

 

Stone gestures to a sky empty of clouds and birds but shimmering with the miasma of heat or distance. Taller than man it humms with a deep energy and certainty like a sleeping giant. Three deep grooves score the convex surface as if clawed by a monstrous beast not gouged by men. Over sixteen generations the trees recede and are replaced by structures until the monolith becomes a curio, held behind railings, robbed of purpose and unable to mark the distance required for an accurate shot as it has done for four hundred years, archers no longer the salvation of the realm.vi

 

 

King John

 

Cavernous warehouses rise like sheer cliffs from the rain slick cobbles, opposing shadows meeting to create a deep weave of shade relieved by movement rather than light. Two men fight, blood spattering the stones, watched in equal silence by a crowd leaking into the close spaces between bales of cotton, wagons of rope and wood and the scent of spices and tea. Malnourished arms swing again and again, looser each time until with the scrape of a boot another man steps forward and pulls them apart, shoving one to the warehouse steps: “You’re on.” And the other away: “Maybe tomorrow.”vii

 

 

 

Leave

 

From the single-plaited Shanghai seaman seeking the company of fleeting riverside consorts to the fugitive men of shadow and shame who take cover in the beckoning night, the turbulent, unstable, opposing force of the river port pulls people in from all beyonds, creating a chiaroscuro of race, past, power, poverty by tidal-time, geared to the unloading of the ship and not the prison of the owners clock. ‘Til the irregular, unpredictable city produces ex-sailor Stevie, accompanied by an empty bottle and a spoon, singing “Geisha Girl” and songs of barefoot days, though by common admission no one went without shoes.

 

 

Mr Boot-Polish-Head

 

Five young children in Fonz t-shirts and jelly sandals jostle against the heavy, triangled mesh barrier at the park gates. A man walks past, beautifully dressed in the fashions of a decade ago, staring ahead, his stiff paper collar preventing much movement. He holds a folded overcoat on his right arm. The children mutter to each other as they sneak sly sideways glances, not hiding sniggers of disbelief and derision. As he moves beyond them, steps steady, the bravest and largest sing-songs their name for him. He does not react, but continues on, to meet Josie, who is never there.

 

Not slaves but salt

 

The unique sound of the city has not reigned long here. Few past-children chanted the sing-song elliptical rhythmn of our home – the familiar breath did not emerge from the forests or the visible far shore, not when the marsh and salt plains were worked or when the theatre shared rooms with the cock fight, nor when the lime-kiln still belched and fumed; not until Lancashire mills pulled the Irish incomers from the sea and the two voices blended, impacted, collided creating a new language which ebbs and flows through poetry and music like the tide which gave it life.

 

Observance

 

The woman sweeps along the panelled corridor, running her fingers along the sill and inspecting them whilst simultaneously examining the face of a fob pinned to her cowl. She tsks and shakes her head in preparatory reproof of the novices, turns the corridor and reaches the still room. Again there is only one figure mopping the floor and she bites back her reprimand of triumph and rage, instead taking her habitual position inside the door, and, with folded hands, waits. When the figure sensed her presence she pales, stiffens and runs from the room, shaking. The nun fades, until tomorrow.viii

 

 

Parted

 

Good day to you my love. Dripping for tea and don’t be late home.”

He nods shyly a man of few words still surprised he had married such a beauty, even after these years and four children. He jokes quietly with the other men in the workshop as he begins, the long upholstery pins gripped tight between his lips as he stretches the fabric skilfully over the frame. He coughs unexpectedly and swallows one of the pins. Agonising hours later, perforated and helpless, he leaves this world, her name still on his lips like the last kiss and farewell.

 

 

Queen

 

A parish club of Formica and painted wood drawn in a smoke-stained palette of sepia tones; the faces fudged variations of the same few faces, dewy in the heat and thrum, each table a twig from the same oak, bearing its own shoots and leaf patterns. What was once commonplace becomes rare, worthy of comment, as the numbers thin and narrow like the hair and shoulders of the elders, each one in sad promotion until smaller venues and fewer tables suffice. The language of a generation past its vigour, the crowning title – of the sea, of the sky, of peace.

 

Rodney Street

 

Invisible rain sinks through garments, pushing up shoulders and pulling in necks, to evade the creep and shiver of dampness. Grey mid-afternoon light shot with yellow and lilac, presses down heavily, squeezing between buildings. Occasionally festive lights flicker, peer and retreat into the warm, by firesides and hot tea. Numb toes hurry me on. A blue plate on a grand house built on slavery makes me pause: 29 December 1809. I imagine the servants anxiously listening for the jingle and slam of the doctor’s carriage on another day like this one, when the blue plaque was still unearned, unimagined, meaningless.ix

 

Steps

 

Places of vigorous departure and weary arrival. The beginning of wondrous journeys and the end of desperate quests. Classical, Georgian, wide, not flat, worn in slivered layers like peeled eggshells. Some with ink-blot, scrolled boot-scrapers, others with surviving, spiky railings of elegant exclamation, made particular by uncounted, revealing pairs of boots. Found amidst rows of derelict, seventies council houses, next to born-again bars and old, squalid doctor’s-surgeries, sometimes, magically, beside mounting blocks briefly conjuring spectral horses and riders. They trick us, tiny islands of grace and silence in our clamouring now, pretending they too do not flaunt wealth and success.

 

Tunnel vision

 

The rough, leaning, tree-bark walls of the endless swirling entrance, never fail to evoke the grim glamour and naïve hopes of the 1970’s. With their etched concrete and the false optimism of a city that is teetering off the wrong edge of boom they trail forlorn hope like a deflated party balloon. But there is a moment of relief like the tongue poked out at a tirading teacher seen only by the rest of the sniggering class. A minute, private rebellion as somewhere, unseen, nearby, a supporting column has the words “R. Truetham, 1974” indelibly etched before the concrete set.

 

Urban Splash

 

The spare classicism of the exterior remains, but inside there are changes. An enormous plasma screen rests over the tabernacle, and shining altar-rails no longer prevent blasphemous intrusion but beckon with a tremor of exclusivity. The weighty, drooping beauty of each station of the cross disappears, mute and stiffly pleading as drinks are placed on the candle shelves below. The sulphurous stained-glass images now just dim the light and the oaken certainties of the pews are private, still confessional, booths for dining. The two hundred year meeting place of subversive Catholicism is subverted in its turn by the leisure pound. x

 

Vow

 

St. Patrick’s open arms beckon the faithful in pilgrimage from the pit of the city to salvation as the young priest finds the mouse nest in the organ pipes. Amongst the flowers arranged in tender remembrance of a girlhood friendship and to the faint vibration of each baptism, confession, marriage and requiem two lives become weft and weave, ballast against loneliness and despair. This pattern, so vivid, singular yet mundane and commonplace, transcends to sacrament by the benediction of all the watching souls and is underscored by the wedding march distorted and tinny and bells that only toll not peal

 

Washington Street

 

Old Joseph leans reluctantly, arms wide on the ledge, against the window of the pub. Behind him are reflected the image of three old fashioned cars and a hunched, harried woman who is wraith-like in the noon-day light, caught forever, mid-snap, half way up the cobbled hill. Joseph squints from under his flat cap with no acknowledgement for the camera. The bottles of drink are carefully spaced and spread across the glass shelves behind, promising something he doesn’t recognise. Despite the full years between he can still only see the mud, wasted guts and horseflesh of Ypres and the Somme. xi

 

Xoanan

 

The uneven narrowness of London Road shortly gives way to open fields and the three white mills that turn there. Between them lies a gallows like a precious jewel on a necklace, swaying back and forth to catch the eye. Throngs of all ages, conditions and class have come to view the spectacle of four men to be executed by special commission. These men cast their hopes and futures in the hands of the Young Pretender and found his promises counterfeit, his rebellion failed, his flight permanent. He has escaped and they have only moments and the white mills left.xii

 

Yesterday

 

Silently composing a shopping list, she pulls her coat closed at her throat, moving quickly. The dim blur of sulphur and the hum of traffic recede suddenly, the absence of noise a living thing. She registers the icy lift of each fine hair on her neck, nostrils flaring. Movement at the furthest edge of her vision and a scent on the tinny, metallic air paralyse her. She chokes back terror as the sound returns, a car splashes by the roadside and she is already trying to scratch out the sliding repulsion of wet fur and breath curling around her calf.xiii

 

 

Zygo

 

Ben? Go the machine and gerrrus a Mars Bar willya?

Ger’it yerself, yer lazy bast’id.

Y’know I’ve gorra stay ‘ere…gerrus a coffee while you’re there, eh? Good lad!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

John! John!

Wha’? Wha? Sit down. Breathe, breathe – wha’ happened?

It was horrible…at the machine…I was finding me change and then.. I heard… Music. An’ Singin’. From the chapel. The one I locked at seven o’clock last night. B-l-o-o-d-y ‘ell, I’ve never run so fast in me life. Look - I’m shakin’.

Yer alright now, calm down. Look, Ben – I’ve gotta ask yer…

Wha’ John? Wha’…?

Did yer get me Mars bar…?


 

i There is a gravestone in St James’ cemetery near to the entrance that is a memoriam to a Charlestonian sea captain who died in Liverpool during the American Civil War (1861-1865).Charleston was a key centre for the Confederate cause and cotton cargoes were run out of Charleston and stockpiled in Liverpool early in the war, despite the Yankee blockades.

ii Two duelling figures are occasionally seen at the corner of Percy Street in the early hours of New Year’s Day, according to various taxi driver reports.

iii Esmedun is the original name of the brook that used to run into Toxteth forest in the 11th Century. The road close to where the brook ran is now called Smithdown. Parts of St Clare’s church on Arundel Avenue are considered to originate as early as the 11th Century, at which time the area lay within the control of Roger of Poitou.

iv The Pump House at the Albert Dock was used as a sail makers premises after the 1914-1918 Great War. Sometimes army service was offered as an alternative to imprisonment.

v St Luke’s Church in Leece Street is a shell damaged memorial to the Liverpool Blitz.

vi This stone is next to Booker Avenue Junior School on Booker Avenue and marks the arrow stone for archery practice. This practice was mandatory for generations after the great victories of the English against the French in the Hundred Years War were due to English mastery of the longbow. Mastery of the longbow requires regular practice from early childhood.

vii During the depression there was desperate competition for any work at all and men would queue for the chance for a days work on the docks or in warehouses.

viii There are reports of a ghostly nun who appears only when the room is being cleaned in an ex-convent building now part of a university.

 

ix The birthplace of William Ewart Gladstone, three times Prime Minister, in Rodney Street commemorated by a National Heritage blue plaque.

x St Peter’s church in Seel Street built and consecrated for Roman Catholic worship in 1788, now a bar.

xi Washington Street used to be in front of the Anglican Cathedral where Cathedral Gardens now exist. There were a number of streets running downhill to the top of Great George Square. They were mostly Georgian buildings and had been built for the accommodation of sea captains. They were condemned in the early 1970’s and demolished. New housing was built on the site in eh 1980’s.

xii The Gallows Mill used to be at the bottom of London Road where St George’s Hall now sits. The three mills were also called White Mills and there used to be a pub of that name on the corner. Four of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supporters were captured and tried at Preston after the failed rebellion of 1746. They were jailed in Liverpool and hung at Gallows Mill. They were some of the last people to suffer capital punishment in Liverpool.

xiii This story is located in Hunter’s Lane in Wavertree, which is near to the site of the Bronze and Stone Age remains found in Wavertree Park (known as The Mystery).