Film Review: Almost Liverpool 8, a portrait of Toxteth in the 21st century

Toxteth. Liverpool 8. Sometimes just running those two phrases together can get people hot under the collar. One thing we learn from Almost Liverpool 8, a new documentary from Dartmouth Films is that the name ‘Toxteth’ was hardly heard before 1981, that watershed in the area’s history. I didn’t know this, having got so used to seeing the word on old maps of Liverpool all the time. It wasn’t the only enlightening part of the film.

It’s easy to see Almost Liverpool 8 as an attempt to reclaim the postcode and the Toxteth name from the news media. Luckily its creators have found a unique angle to do this. This isn’t trying to be a polished tourist information brochure; it’s more real than that. Truth is at the heart of it, and the question of who owns that truth.

The Toxteth Landscape

There are countless talking heads on screen, but the Toxteth’s landscape is the star of the show from the get-go. The opening scenes flick like photographic slides (albeit tiny slices of film) from terraces: Victorian worker and grand Georgian – to the Florrie, to 80s and 90s houses to the rejuvenating Granby. This photo/film montage leads into an introduction to Don McCullin, a photographer and our eyes and ears on 1970s Liverpool.

Don was an ‘outsider’ initially, perhaps a decade or two before the time we’ll come to. He worked on the trains as a young lad in his native London, but his first job took him via Euston to Lime Street and, more significantly, Edge Hill, four times a week.

Young McCullin began to explore Edge Hill alone, on foot, and fell in love with the place, and the wider city. In his later years he became a professional photographer, and was on Merseyside in the 1970s to document the then rapidly changing landscape.

Toxteth People

If the earlier snapshots showed just how varied Liverpool 8 is physically, Almost Liverpool 8 now introduces us to the people of Toxteth. A few are shop owners (newsagents, restaurants), one a photographer, another (Barry Chang) a beekeeper. Plus there’s Joe Farrag (source of the above name-related fact), Ronnie Hughes of A Sense of Place and Roger McGough of… well, Roger McGough (and, of course, The Mersey Sound). There’s the next generation too. A woman who set up two salons, and P3Lz, rapping her Fixed Sights, as well as the afore-mentioned restaurant owner with his young family.

Adam Saleh, newsagent, and Mo

These people give their sense of Toxteth and the way life is there. Farrag reminds us that the great attraction of Toxteth, historically, was that it was close to the south docks. Businesses built up to serve sailors on shore leave (yes, including those types of businesses…), of which the Granby Market might be the inheritor. Today’s market’s affordability, to sellers as well as buyers, is its key feature. You don’t need to make money to have a stall. You can come and chat – it’s part of the glue that holds the community together. Hard-nosed commerce would just get in the way of being here.

What is Toxteth?

The variety of landscapes and voices quickly demonstrate that Toxteth/Liverpool 8 isn’t a thing. It’s many things, a collection of things, a recipe with places and people as its ingredients. It’s certainly tight-knit, and loved. Pride is everywhere. These labels – ancient name and modern postcode – can be used to foster a sense of solidarity as much as they were used to blacklist this part of Liverpool once upon a time.

Liverpool 8 (and by extension Almost Liverpool 8) is also a source of wisdom. Chang the beekeeper compares bees and humans. He acknowledges the crucial role bees play in pollination – without them there is no food. But he also highlights that they (at least those bees in his own hives) would get nowhere if they adopted humanity’s tendency to play every-one-for-themselves. They work for the hive, which is for each other. They’re role models. Perhaps this is how Liverpool 8 functions: a hive of activity.

Back to McCullin: Don’s photography is the thread that runs through the film. He holds forth on how he saw Liverpool in the 70s. Never coming across like a shocked anthropologist, nor patronising the survivability of the natives, he admires the place. He was soon part of it.

The time he was photographing – the 1970s – was a period of ‘slum’ clearance, and you can hear those quotation marks in McCullin’s voice. Mistakes were made, he says, and we’re still suffering the consequences. Future homes were demolished, though he knows the Council believed what they were doing was the right thing. Again, we’re learning lessons and making comparisons. What Would The Bees Have DoneTM?

Perhaps unusually, we don’t hear of the places people ended up when they were moved out of their terraces; this film is laser focussed on L8, and gives us room to let our gaze rest on these streets, both from then and in the now.

Girl and Puddle

A single photo of Don’s does the rounds among the interviewees: that of a girl jumping over a puddle, the grey rain-soaked and cleared streets of Toxteth behind her. I won’t spoil the details of how this pans out; suffice to say that it conjurs all sorts of reminiscences and reflections. Ronnie Hughes brings out the old maps to see if he can locate the spot. It’s taken for granted that the landscape is different now.

Ronnie also notes that ‘middle class areas are never shown in the rain’. This is working class Liverpool. And this observation lies at the heart of Almost Liverpool 8: what gets communicated about a place like this, and how does this rub off? What unconscious biases do photographs, and the choices made when taking them, add to the conversation? Especially in light of later events and media coverage. Who gets to say what Toxteth is? Who gets to form its reputation? Don? P3Lz? The news media? Dartmouth Films? This review(er)?

P3Lz, Fixed Sights. Toxteth’s creativity takes many forms

Ronnie tells us he doesn’t like history (it can devolve into ‘trainspotting’). I get the feeling he’s thinking specifically of how the study of the past risks fossilising it, getting lost in the detail; missing the story, the people. History can prevent a place changing, moving on, just as much as it can give it positive identity and an anchoring history. The trainspotting type of history (“it wasn’t there; it was over here”) can weigh a place down.

As McCullin says, Liverpool (and Toxteth) people have always said “we won’t be judged”. Buster Nugent says Toxteth “always rises from the ashes”. This kind of optimism, that justice can be reclaimed, depends on being able to leave those ashes behind. And what is justice if not truth?

Toxteth is almost Liverpool 8

Eugene Lange, of Urban Griot, perhaps identifies some of the most important facets of living, which the community of Toxteth embodies well. “You’re never just you”, he says, echoing the sentiments of the beekeeper, you’re part of the world, in a relationship with it. Remember, he says, we’re genetically part Neanderthal, the rest of the world is in our very genes.

Granby Street Market – buy, sell or just come along

One thing that struck me is that every person featured in this film has, to some or other extent, a Scouse twang in their accent. That goes for the Barry Chang with his largely West Indian voice, the newsagent from Aden-via-Cardiff and the restauranteur from Norway. You can bring yourself into Liverpool, but Liverpool will insinuate itself into you too!

If anyone needs evidence that Liverpool 8, or Toxteth, is not the place of the 1970s, but is also the place that grew out of the 1970s, and all the history piled up before then, Almost Liverpool 8 is that evidence. Toxteth is ‘almost’ the place we think it is, but so much else, and maybe ultimately indefinable.

Most importantly, if this film holds anything like the truth, it’s a great place to live and work.

The film is a loving portrait, locally made with pride, that’ll make you smile, laugh out loud, maybe even well up. It’s a letter to the wider world about the truth, the present, of the place. It’s a message from the people in it, like the actor Brodie Arthur, saying: “We’re here; we exist; and we’re fuckin’ shit hot.”

More info

Almost Liverpool 8 will be showing at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on Wednesday September 1st 2021 at 7:30pm.

To find out more, and book tickets, go to the Almost Liverpool 8 trailer web page.

The Ancient Crosses of Lancashire

Happy New Year all! This year I’ll be concentrating on more maps of Liverpool and the surrounding area, with only a smattering of news when it suits. First up: a lovely little book from 1902, detailing one man’s niche interest…

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Maps of Landscapes

I recently visited that there London, popping into the London Review Bookshop (a bricks-and-mortar relative of the London Review of Books – definitely pop in if you’re in the area!), where I stumbled across Maps, the first in an annual series of compilations by Five Leaves Press. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in ages, and I had to share it here. Continue reading

Toxteth – Some distant childhood memories.

The following blog post is a bit of a departure from the normal round of news or analysis.

I was approached by Derek Tunnington who was born in Leeds but grew up in Toxteth, and has many memories of his childhood in Liverpool. What follows is his account of those years.

I’d really like to hear what you think of this. Is it the kind of thing you’d like to see more of? Do you have similar stories to share? Let us know in the comments, or contact me directly. Continue reading

Photograph of the front of Croxteth Hall

Five fossils of Liverpool’s founding year

On August 23rd Liverpool celebrated 804 years as a town! OK, so it’s no ‘2007’, but it’s a good time to have a look back the best part of a millennium. There are quite a few things which were laid down in 1207, the evidence of which is still visible today.
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Photograph of the monument to Edward VII outside the Museum of Liverpool

7 ways in which Liverpool *is* the Museum of Liverpool

The new Museum of Liverpool opens this week, to great fanfare and after what seems like a long wait.

‘Museum of Liverpool’ is a very fitting name too, because this is a museum about the city, and about the people. It’s the largest national museum dedicated to a city in over a century, and opens in a year when the M Shed in Bristol, the Cardiff Story, and Glasgow’s Riverside Museum Project bring similar attractions to those places.

But just as the Museum of Liverpool will capture the city in a nutshell, the city beyond is a museum in itself. For starters, it contains objects that have survived from the past into a new use in the present, but unlike the museum, they’re not on here for display’s sake.

But, in a sense, Liverpool is the Museum of Liverpool: Continue reading

Photograph of a Viking longboat, taking during the 600th anniversary of the foundation of Liverpool

Liverpool Heroes 3: Vikings in Liverpool

OK, so perhaps the Norse are as far from the ‘Liverpool Radicals’ we have in mind in 2011 as it’s possible to get.

They’re distant in time, left little visible trace in our city, and went about changing society through the delicate application of pointy-horned helmets.

But of course none of that is strictly true. There are traces of the Norse presence on our doorstep, and may have paved the way for Liverpool itself to be settled half a millennium after they first arrived. Continue reading

A photo of early morning sun among the woodland of Sefton park, Liverpool.

Woodland on Merseyside and the Mersey Forest

The year 2011 was declared as the International Year of Forests by the UN (see the Echo for some of Liverpool’s plans). The very modern Mersey Forest has seen 8 million new trees planted since 1994. But there’s a much longer and fascinating history of woodland and forest in this area.

The origins of the woodland

As the glaciers of the last ice age began to retreat about 12 – 10,000 years ago the dry land left behind became tundra. Shrubs, moss and lichen only slowly populated this cold, dry landscape.

Only gradually did the first woodland – larger plants such as juniper, then birch, hazel, elm and oak – establish themselves. By around 5000 years ago more familiar woodland – oak and elm – had become permanent features of the landscape. It was around this time that humans made their first impacts on the natural environment.

Prehistoric woodland

The earliest periods of human activity in the north west of England are the Mesolithic and Neolithic (the middle and new stone ages). As the effects of melting ice had not fully taken effect, the sea was around 20m lower than it is today. If you’ve visited the Crosby coast you’ll know just how shallow the slope of the land is, and so the coast was 15-20km further out than it is now.

Not only humans and animals occupied the land, but also the trees of the widespread oak woodland. Sea level rose and the land was flooded. The waters submerged these trees and protected them beneath layers of water and silt. The petrified remains of tree stumps can therefore still be seen at low tide right across the coast from Anglesey to Southport.

As well as the drowned trees, areas further inland suffered from periodic flooding and water-logging, creating marshy ground, ponds and streams.

By the Neolithic, gaps appeared in the woodland, with humans felling trees. The cleared land was then used for their first attempts at farming.

Into the Bronze and Iron Ages (and the Roman period), wherever people settled they cleared the forest. The climate became colder and wetter again at the beginning of the Bronze Age, and so marshlands and bogs spread to replace tree cover.

Medieval Merseyside

Place names are one of the major sources of evidence for medieval settlement in the region. These rarely give clues about the woodland (they mostly talk of ‘British farm’, ‘boundary river’ and ‘settlement’). An exception is West Derby (deorby = enclosure with deer, or a hunting park). Also, we know that Edward the Confessor had a hunting lodge in the area (possibly on on Lodge Lane). This suggests that the landscape (perhaps for many miles beyond West Derby itself) was covered in trees and pasture. This made a suitable habitat for the deer.

It’s important at this point to define a special use of the word ‘Forest’. A Royal Forest was not just a collection of trees. It was a space likely enclosed by a pale, a large bank and ditch. The pale might even have a fence on top, and came with a whole host of regulations, privileges and restrictions on its use.

Roger of Poictou was one of William of Normandy’s allies in the invasion of 1066. William rewarded him with the Hundred of West Derby, bringing Toxteth, Croxteth and Smithdown into one royal forest. This cemented West Derby’s administrative importance, and paved the way for Liverpool’s birth two hundred years later.

Toxteth and its Park

Toxteth remained a fenced-off royal park for hundreds of years. In fact, the restrictions on building or farming in royal parks began to hinder 16th century Liverpool’s growth. James I eventually ‘disparked’ Toxteth in 1604, and entrepreneurial farmers rapidly took advantage. The farmers transformed the newly available land from tree-and-pasture to pastoral and arable.

While there was no longer much royal passion for hunting in Liverpool, the city grew rapidly in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Farming, industry and housing nibbled away at the edges of rural Lancashire. It was only in the late 19th Century that the city made efforts to preserve some of these green and pleasant areas. The rich merchants who lived in Toxteth wanted to escape the increasingly polluted city. Poorer workers in the inner city and inner suburbs (Kirkdale, Everton and eventually also Toxteth) could also benefit.

For this reason we have a string of parks around the old city boundary. Two of these – Princes and Sefton Parks – have remained undeveloped. They have remained so since the time they were part of Toxteth Park. However, whether any of the trees there today have such a long pedigree is questionable!

Woodland on Merseyside

We leave off where we came in: with the Mersey Forest. This modern project is the successor to the ‘green lungs’ of Liverpool. These were the parks (Sefton, Newsham, Stanley) opened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also restores some of the natural woodland which covered the area for millennia before Liverpool started to thrive.

The ancient woodland of this part of the world developed gradually after the last ice age. Prehistoric communities slowly cleared the woodland, using the land to farm and rear animals. This process was slow at first, of course. Eventually royal order fenced off a lot of the woodland, protecting it from change by royal order.

Over the past 200 years industrial and commercial concerns saw the clearance of almost all the woodland. The city’s benevolent (or self-interested) rich put new walls in place, protecting parks for all the city’s inhabitants. Still, the environment deteriorated in the face of human action until the later years of the 20th Century. Preservation of natural resources became a much more prominent concern, and in 1994 the Mersey Forest was created. The partnership billed the project as ‘woodlands on your doorstep’.

Mersey Forest

The project, via the Mersey Forest partnership, has had great success in regenerating woodland on Merseyside, as set out in their ‘5 Facts’:

  • Through community and partnership working, we have planted more than 8 million trees.
  • To date more than 6,000 hectares of new woodland and improved habitats have been achieved, an area 500 times the size of Wembley Stadium.
  • Since 1994, more than 70% of the woodlands in The Mersey Forest have been brought into management to secure their long-term future.
  • For every £1 invested in The Mersey Forest, £8 of outputs is generated, thanks to the way we maximise our funding.
  • 60% of people living in The Mersey Forest use their local woodlands – with nearly 20% visiting at least once a week.

Liverpool has a long forest history. It has made plans for Merseyside’s woodlands to continue to thrive for millennia more.

Image: Golden Park Woods (Early morning sun among the Oaks and Plane trees of Sefton park, Liverpool) by Ben Mitchell, released under a Creative Commons license.