Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

– Alfred Edward Housman, A Shropshire Lad

To celebrate my birthday tonight, my daughter took me to see Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City at the Phil – second time for me, and I enjoyed it even more than I did at the premiere last October. As I said to Sarah as we left the screening, can there be any other city that has had a visual love poem composed for it such as this?

‘The golden moments pass and leave no trace’, Terence Davies says at one point, quoting Chekhov. And this is a golden portrait  of Liverpool before the fall – which for Davies came with slum clearance and the construction of the tower blocks and outer estates that destroyed the working class communities and traditions of his childhood. Ironically, his eulogy is composed from traces left by newsreels and movies that recall people and places with an elegiac intensity.

We love the place we hate, then hate the place we love. We leave the place we love,then spend a lifetime trying to regain it… Come closer now and see your dreams. Come closer now and see mine. says Davies as he invites us into the film.

The film opens with a quote from artist Felicien de Myrbach: ‘If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented’, originally said with admiration in 1898, when Liverpool was the second city of the British Empire, but here there’s a sardonic tone to Davies’ narration.  What follows is a very personal look at how the city changed from the 1940s to the 60s, the decade when Davies came of age and began making films. The narration includes quotations, poetry by Davies, and very personal memories, combined with images selected and edited with utter precision. These things combine to form an impression of the city that’s deeply moving simply because it comes from straight from Davies’ heart.

His sharp wit comes through in several pointed comments about British society, mainly to do with the monarchy and religion –  and the English attachment to displays of pomp and triumphalism while the working class suffered some of the worst slums in Europe. One of the most passionate sequences asks how the futuristic building programmes of the sixties turned so suddenly into grim urban blight, alienation and isolation. But Davies presents his argument with a wry twinkle in his voice that often has us laughing.

‘No meat on Friday, confession on Saturday,emerging cleansed and pleasing to God. Despite my dogged piety, no great revelation came; no divine balm to ease my soul, just years wasted in useless prayer.’

In the narration, Terence Davies speaks these lines: ‘But where are you, the Liverpool I knew and loved? Where have you gone without me? And now I’m an alien in my own land. Tread gently, stranger, as you softly turn the key to unlock time and cause the years to fall towards their end. Speak low, love, but speak wisely for frail time hangs by a thread above the world with only hope to keep us safe. Tap lightly at the door, then close it with a silent shock but never ever yield to the night’.

Amongst the poetry quotations in the film are the following:

I reason, Earth is short –
And Anguish – absolute –
And many hurt,
But, what of that?
I reason, we could die –
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?
I reason, that in Heaven –
Somehow, it will be even –
Some new Equation, given –
But, what of that?

– Emily Dickinson, I reason, Earth is short

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

– T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets, Little Gidding

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth…

The houses are all gone under the sea.
The dancers are all gone under the hill…

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter…

– T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets, East Coker

This is not simply a portrait of a city, it’s a sublime film about nostalgia for a lost past, growing up and learning to live with success and failure.

Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
– T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land


2 thoughts on “Of Time and the City: love poem to Liverpool

  1. Wonderful. This has a particular resonance for an exiled Merseysider. Absolutely love the stills you’ve picked here, especially the last one of the shafts of sunlight bursting into the warehouse.

    This is comfortably my favourite blog, please keep them coming.


  2. Thanks for your generous comments, Andrew. Glad you enjoy the posts. I hope the focus on Liverpool culture and history, photography and literature will continue to entertain and inspire.

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