Home » memoir

Tag: memoir

Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadowplay, by Jeff Young

This book is a memoir, and many of those have been published over the years (and a couple reviewed on this very site). Like some of those other memoirs, it is a series of reminiscences on family and place. But it’s a slightly different beast to the other memoirs. It’s main selling point is that it comes from the pen of Jeff Young, a writer with TV and theatre credits to his name, such as the play Bright Phoenix.

The book has a dream-like quality, with reality, dream and (science) fiction becoming intertwined and difficult to separate. The young Jeff walks unharmed through gangs of older boys you’re sure are going to pounce. His solitariness, the muse for his writing, may be a shield.

Strangeness and time

The book isn’t chronological, as such, and neither are the wonderful photographs that separate each chapter. We see Jeff and a friend wandering Everton in recent years, a suburb which has largely disappeared since their boyhoods. Here they experience something of a timeslip. A revenant from a previous era floats through the scene and heads towards town. We’re following (maybe literally) De Quincy’s travels through the city, but through the eyes of a Scouser. These are geographic travels around town that summon old things, memories and people. This isn’t the last time slip; neither is it the last time Jeff will look up from his reverie and find the city emptier – cleared, demolished – than he remembers it.

View of Liverpool from Everton Park
Everton Park, where Jeff Young and companion meet a revenant

Dreams invade the narrative, and shape it. Russian tanks are rolling into Prague. Or are they only doing this in dream? Remembrances of coinciding events prove false – the moments occured years apart, but are forever significantly linked somehow in Young’s mind. He distinctly remembers seeing Daleks: Invasion Earth (1966) at the Grosvenor cinema… which closed in 1963. A dramatic incident on matchday years before, involving a police horse, is burned indelibly on his mind… except he wasn’t there; he’s absorbed a tale his mother must have told to a neighbour. The important thing to state is that he knows all this, and it’s part of the story.

Science Fiction writer China Mieville gets two mentions, with one for his City and the City. Young doesn’t mention the fact that the TV version was filmed in Liverpool, but at least for me this is a story through which reality and fiction become blurred.

Landscape and memory

At some point in Young’s life the family move (are moved?) from the inner city to Maghull, and there’s a whole new landscape to explore. The boy takes to it naturally, and the terraces of yore are replaced with fields, jiggers with ditches and the canal.

Photo of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal
The Leeds-Liverpool Canal, where Jeff Young spent part of his childhood

If his TV work (including EastEnders and Doctors) brings creativity to coverage of the ‘everyday’, then this talent is brought to bear when recalling memories of the 1950s and 60s in Liverpool and then Maghull. I was reminded by the tone of the thing of Ronnie Hughes of A Sense of Place, especially of Ronnie’s own ‘checking up’ on his home town. The tone conjours feelings of nostalgia and warmth towards its subject, without the cloying ‘we-wuz-happy’ of many memoirs.

As he grows up, he haunts new landscapes, like Mathew Street and its various popular and mythical inhabitants. Liverpool in the 1970s experienced a creative boom, giving life to Eric’s and Ken Campbell’s Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun. The landscape is often of dreams and whimsy – important whimsy – populated by Ken Campbell, Bill Drummond and more. It’s a timely reminder that Liverpool’s culture didn’t die with Merseybeat.

Historic Architecture

The thing that surprised me is just how closely Jeff Young’s life and work has intertwined with the historic Liverpool landscape. In Bright Phoenix kids break into the old abandoned Futurist cinema, breathing new, if temporary life into something that meant a lot to them and their parents. Young has an ‘architectural hero’ in the form of Peter Ellis. His mum sneaks into Oriel Chambers with him (or rather he sneaks in with her), and he has moments trying to understand its strange (and, at it’s opening, unappreciated) beauty.

There’s an example of his insight into architecture and change when it comes to Rowse’s tunnel ventilation building. He notes it looks more futuristic, with its streamlined statue of ‘Speed, the Modern Mercury’ than anything that came after, like the car parks, the (late) flyovers and the footpaths in the sky. And he’s got a good point. He rues the possibility that the Tipping Buckets fountain in Beetham Plaza might be relocated, replaced with a hotel for visitors at the very moment a reason to visit the plaza is removed.

Photo of George's Dock Building, Liverpool
Speed, the Modern Mercury, on George’s Dok Building

It turns out that Alfred Shennan, architect of many Liverpool cinemas (including the Grosvenor) was once his mum’s boss. As Young himself says, the map of Liverpool is in his blood – “This place is myself” (p133). It’s as much an admission as a realisation. So when a little of that landscape is destroyed, it saddens him. Referring to the replacement of the Futurist with a Lidl, he points out:

“No one will ever again say that last night they went down Lime Street, unless in a story about buying a bumper pack of toilet rolls.”

And this just about sums up how a playwright can articulate something about changing Liverpool better than most of us. (And maybe such stories will be all too common in 2020!)

The book

This is a book which recalls a childhood and adolescence that may not have happened quite this way. But that just means that it evokes the nature of memories so much the better. There’s an admission all the way through that any of the recollections could be subject to change.

True, there are people in desperate circumstances, like the market scenes where the items for sale are as in deepened straits as the customers. But this balance lends further realism, a way of witnessing dark times through the eyess of a young person who knows – expects – nothing more. A boy who wants nothing more than “whatever we have” to never end. Ignorance is bliss, even with 20:20 hindsight.

The book unexpectedly provides great insight into what it’s like to witness the changing of a city. Sometimes it’s gradual, changing with the viewer, and sometimes it’s sudden, as when he returns after an absence to an unrecognisable landscape. He’s expanding outside what we might expect of him, and he proves himelf up to the task, as we all are.

The book itself is a beautiful object, a perfect size for long reading sessions – and I nearly absorbed the whole lot in a couple of hours! It’s beautifully produced, let down only by the low resolution maps (I know!) on the inside covers. In some ways it’s similar in feel to Our Liverpool by J.P. Dudgeon, but more positive, perhaps more honest, but capturing more truth of life because of  it. It balances the hindsight of adulthood with the genuine memories of a child.

Many years ago, Young swore to leave Liverpool behind forever. But times, and people, change, and this cements his return.

Get the book

Book cover of Ghost TownDisclosure: I must give my thanks to Little Toller Books for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Ghost Town by Jeff Young was published in 2020 by Little Toller Books. You can get it from Amazon UK (affiliate link) or direct from Little Toller’s website.

Images

All photographs are released under Creative Commons licenses. Follow the links to find out more details.

Views of the city from Everton Park by Radarsmum67, via Flickr.

Leeds & Liverpool Canal Towards the M58 Bridge by Ian S via Geograph.

Liverpool: detail of Queensway Tunnel building by Chris Downer via Geograph.

Candles, Carts & Carbolic: A Liverpool childhood between the wars

Is this the best Liverpool memoir? It’s certainly different to all the rest.

There are plenty of memoirs and autobiographies written by people who lived through some of Liverpool’s darkest days (or, at least, they lived in Liverpool’s darkest areas – not many memoirs by the Victorian gentry). Some are semi-fictionalised, like Her Benny, and Helen Forrester’s Twopence to Cross the Mersey, while others form the basis of photo books, like Scotland Road: the old neighbourhood, by Terry Cooke. Still more are dotted around the Web, shared on Facebook and passed around. Read more

Our Liverpool, by J.P. Dudgeon

Cover of the book Our Liverpool, by J.P. Dudgeon
Our Liverpool, by J.P. Dudgeon

Our Liverpool (subtitled Memories of Life in Disappearing Britain) is part of the Disappearing Britain series from Headline Publishing, and the third oral history volume from author J.P. Dudgeon, whose previous include Our Glasgow and Our East End.

When I first picked up this book I wondered how an outsider would portray the city, and how they’d get into the community. I also wondered whether it would have much to say about the landscape of Liverpool, as that’s what this website is all about. I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised. Although it takes some time to settle down, Dudgeon pulls together interviews new and old (as well as some written sources) to paint the landscapes of Liverpool in vivid strokes. This book has added a new layer to what I think of as the landscape of Liverpool.

Memories, Maps and personal histories

The main body of the book consists of interviews with local residents. Some were conducted by the author for this book while others were found in the archives of Liverpool Record Office. The book opens with a Beatles anecdote (perhaps inevitably) from a chap in a town centre pub. After that it takes in stories from dozens of other Scousers, including professional historians like Eric Lynch and Mike Royden. These experts give both historical detail as well as personal accounts, and add a variety and sheen that might otherwise be missing from an ordinary oral history.

The first thing that surprised me was just how far back this history goes. There’s a sketch map of Liverpool in the 13th Century, and discussion surrounds the older important places such as Toxteth and West Derby, as well as the Vikings and the Norman invasion. These early book chapters take the reader through to the end of the nineteenth century, the call of the sea (a recurrent theme) and the horrors of the slave trade.

Unfortunately, I found a couple of odd bits of history in these pages. This is George Lund’s take on the origins of the name Toxteth:

“The first settler was a Viking man called Tokey, and “teth” means “settlement”, or “landing place”. Well, they couldn’t call it Tokeyteth, so they substituted an “x” and called it Toxteth.”

I’m not sure who ‘they’ are, but their scientific approach to name creation seems a little out of place (perhaps I’ll let him off as this is a quote in an oral history after all!). Another odd one is the Toxteth riots, briefly introduced on p8:

“Toxteth, at its zenith, marked out Liverpool-born black people as being at the forefront of change on a world scale, a fact that so troubled the then recklessly conservative Establishment that they brought the whole scene to a violent close, triggering the infamous riots of 1981”

This summary of the causes of these riots seem to have lost something in the editing process. The origins of the riots are discussed in more detail later on, but finding this near the beginning of the book worried me as to the extent of Dudgeon’s historical knowledge.

The first few chapters suffer a bit from this over-keenness to buy into the spirit of the town, and the odd skipping around topics (Williamson’s Tunnels are tossed in just after slavery, perhaps just to maintain chronological order), but once the book gets going, it settles into a pacey, emotional, passionate and compelling story of the city told through the eyes of its inhabitants.

Liverpool through the ages

Our Liverpool is a people’s history of the city. While not consisting of landmarks (as such) or maps, what comes out is exactly what historians of pre-writing periods have been trying for years to achieve: a psychological landscape of the region.

What are the landmarks, boundaries and territories in people’s minds? These are of huge importance to local people (as the book successfully shows); they are shared and they help bind and separate communities. Where prehistorians are completely lacking in this type evidence, Our Liverpool ensures that we will never wonder what it felt like to live in Liverpool up to the 21st Century.

For me the book depicts ‘landscapes’ like Scottie Road, the Seamans’ Home, even the Pier Head and the sea herself as stages on which life takes place. The sea especially takes a starring role: it pulls young lads to the navy, it bounds the city on one side, it brings in people and steals them away and it is the lifeblood of trade.

The chapters covering the 1930s, 40s and 50s are coloured with some nostalgia. The 1940s especially seem to have been a golden age in Liverpool. Maybe this is because certain interviewees have particularly fond (childhood) memories of this time, or perhaps because this was just before communities were ripped apart and shipped to the four corners of Merseyside in the following decades. As you can see, location (landscape) is everything to society in tough times.

Chapter 11, ‘Sixties Transformation’, is the longest chapter, as the decade was perhaps the one which most shaped the people of Liverpool for years afterwards. Whereas earlier chapters show the importance of large areas, suddenly ‘territories’ are the clubs you go to, the pubs you drink in and the community centres you frequent. Race and religion become increasingly divisive (and inclusive) as area-based community solidarity was broken up by the Council wrecking ball.

This theme carries through to the end of the book. Scotland Road is turned into a sterile dual carriageway devoid of housing. People move away and where you live seems to become less important as family ties to an area are broken. It’s implied that this is a major contribution to the breakdown of society, and I for one wouldn’t argue against it being a factor.

It may be through rose-tinted spectacles, but people paint a picture of a lost time where violence was honest, short lived and bare-fisted, and no grudges were held. These days, it seems, knives, guns and drugs put a new edge on gangland rivalries which the community cannot absorb, as there is no community left.

By this point in the book Dudgeon seems to know his subjects much more closely. He becomes a passionate neo-Scouser giving voice to the people he found in Liverpool, a voice often lost or ignored. Perhaps his initial outsider status helped him gain the trust of the people he spoke to.

Conclusion

So is this a book for the local historian, or a nostalgia-fest for the armchair sociologist? I was a bit sceptical at the start, and was worried by the strange historical details in early chapters. But having read through the trials and tribulations of these Liverpudlians, and seen how the roads, streets and lanes of their city create the psychological landscapes which shape every aspect of their lives, it’s like a new layer has been added to the maps found in the archives. The territories walked by these people are just as real and clear cut as the boundaries on a ward map, as enabling and constricting a feature as was the Pool itself which lent life to the young town.

It’s a book which will be of interest to those who enjoyed the Lost Tribes of Everton, and is a document which will be of invaluable help to present and future historians wanting to know how people used the landscape, how they crossed it during their daily movements, and how it shaped the people they are.