Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

The months drifted by, and to complete my plan to walk the Mersey from source to the sea I still had the section from Warrington down to Widnes to do.  On what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far, four of us set out on a walk through 250 years of industrial history.

Setting out: with Tommy, George and Bernie
Setting out: with Tommy, George and Bernie

I had conceived the idea of a 12-mile hike, walking the length of Sankey Brook from St Helens, passing to the west of Warrington to reach the Mersey at Fiddler’s Ferry and then along the Mersey to Spike Island at Widnes. The reason? I remembered from O-level History that the Sankey Brook Navigation – also known as the St Helens Canal – was Britain’s first canal when it opened in 1757, the precursor of the ‘canal mania’ of the late 18th century.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 3
Stanley Bank canal wharf on the Blackbrook branch

The actual starting point of the Sankey Canal is in the centre of St Helens, near to the Tesco store (originally, the canal stretched further, past the later Pilkingtons’ glass works, but that section was infilled in 1898, when Pilkingtons extended the glass works). However, in order to have a place to park the car, we began our walk at the Sankey Valley Visitor Centre on the Blackbrook branch, just outside the town centre.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 2
Stanley Bank Wharf: the derrick sculpture

There were four of us – myself, Bernie (with whom I’ve walked the Sandstone Trail, and who is shortly leaving to walk another leg of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim trail through northern Italy), Tommy (who has just completed research for the Reader Organisation into Siegfried Sassoon’s connections with Liverpool) and Tommy’s brother George (like the rest of us an adult educationalist who once taught in Hampshire where he often walked the South Downs Way, something I hope to do myself some day, and who left the comfortable south for St Helens. He was based in an adult education centre that, in a hallucinatory manner, we found ourselves passing repeatedly during the day, the result of errors of navigation on my part).

There were no mistakes in finding the Sankey Valley Visitor Centre, and it seemed we were off to a good start. Near to the Visitor Centre is Stanley Basin, once a loading wharf for coal which arrived from a nearby collieries by means of an inclined plane. Nearby are the remains of Stanley Iron Slitting Mill, built around 1773, which processed iron ingots, forged at Carr Mill and transported here along a branch canal. The ingots were heating and rolled, then slit into sheet metal bars for the local nail-making industry.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 1
Stanley Bank Wharf: Tommy inspects one of the sculptures

And there you have the reason for the construction of the canal: the need to move coal in large quantities to serve the burgeoning industries around Liverpool and in west Lancashire. There are two sculptures at Stanley Bank Wharf, designed to commemorate this industrial history. One is of the kind of coal cart in use around here in the early 18th century, the other is of a wharf derrick.

The creation of the canal brought about the growth of St Helens and the industrial development of the town. Before its construction, the movement of goods between the expanding port of Liverpool and the outlying areas had been extremely difficult. Horse drawn carts were the major form of transport – along roads that were just rough tracks and which were virtually impassable in winter. The biggest problem lay in moving quantities of heavy coal, needed for the growing industries of Liverpool and surrounding areas.

I used to work at the FE college in the Old Swan district of Liverpool. Before the advent of the canals and the railways, Old Swan had grown up around inns that offered refreshment to hauliers and their horses who led packhorse trains into Liverpool down the lane from Prescot through Old Swan, sometimes with as many as fifty horses roped together, panniers loaded with coal from the Lancashire mines for Liverpool. They would make the return trip with American cotton from the docks bound for mills in the Manchester area. That was how it was until the canals and the railway came.

The Sankey canal was built principally to transport coal to Liverpool from mines around St Helens, and was first conceived as a navigation: instead of digging a completely new canal, the idea was to make the Sankey Brook navigable by barges. The plan was supported by Liverpool businessmen who employed Henry Berry to survey the route (Berry had previously worked with Thomas Steers, Liverpool’s first Dock Engineer, on the Newry Canal in Northern Ireland, the UK’s first canal). Berry was Second Dock Engineer for Liverpool, but was released for two days a week by the Dock Trustees to work on the canal.

However, a problem emerged: Henry Berry’s survey revealed that the Sankey water course was too small to convert into a navigation. At the time the idea of digging a new canal across someone’s land was as about as popular as a proposal to frack is now.  Indeed, Parliament had just refused permission for a canal in another part of the country. So the promoters resorted to a bit of subterfuge, presenting the scheme to Parliament as the Sankey Navigation, but with clauses embedded in the bill which allowed the engineers ‘to make cuts, canals, trenches or passages for water, in, upon or through lands or grounds adjoining or near to the River’. Parliament approved the scheme and work began in 1755.

Map of Sankey canal
Map of Sankey canal in 1833

The St Helens Canal opened in November 1757, with over 95% of its original ten mile length cut through new ground, making it the first canal to be dug in England (though, because this was proposed as a navigation, some histories give the accolade to the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal, opened in 1761, that eventually brought coal from his mines in Worsley, near Manchester to the Mersey at Runcorn.

St Helens 1824 (www.sthelenshistory.co.uk)
A view of St Helens in 1824 (from http://www.sthelenshistory.co.uk)

The St Helens canal was an outstanding success, reducing the cost of transporting coal to Liverpool and leading to cheaper coal. New industries boomed; for example, in 1779 a copper smelting works was opened at Blackbrook. The ore for the works was mined in Anglesey which was one of the largest producers of copper ore in the world at that time. From there it was shipped to the Mersey and up the canal to Blackbrook where the ore was smelted into copper.

The Old Double Lock
The Old Double Lock

Leaving the Stanley Basin things got off to a shambolic start, the result of rubbish map-reading on my part which resulted in us circling St Augustine school playing fields at least twice (that night I dreamed I saw St Augustine) and heading off down the wrong brook (Sutton Brook, not Sankey Brook). By the time we had orientated ourselves successfully the clouds had parted and the day was seriously warming up.

Finally on course, we came to the Old Double Lock, the first staircase lock in England, built in 1757 with two chambers. It is known as the Old Double Lock because a second lock staircase, the New Double Lock was built a mile to the west in 1770.

Sankey Brook 2

Sankey Brook 1
Along Sankey Brook

This was a walk through classic ‘edgelands‘ territory, as defined by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their book, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, so I expected something different to what we found. Robert Macfarlane provided a succinct definition of the terrain in a review he wrote of their book:

The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.

We certainly encountered several of those items.  There were brownfield sites and allotments upon which so many sheds had been erected that it looked like a shanty town, and we skirted the transit hub that has grown up on the site of the old USAF airbase at Burtonwood (Asda, et al) and the Gemini retail park that boasts IKEA as its main attraction. But although we were following the course of an old canal (sluggish in parts, filled in for the most part), this was cleaned-up edgelands.  Land that had once ranked amongst the most polluted on earth has now been transformed by St Helens and Warrington councils into the Sankey Valley Park, a pleasant, almost bucolic corridor hemmed in by industries, housing developments, railway lines, dual carriageways and a motorway.

Broad Oak Basin fishing ponds
Broad Oak Basin fishing ponds

For instance: a short distance beyond the dried-out Broad Oak Basin, where coal from Broad Oak Colliery was brought by tram-road to be loaded into boats, we found several old sections of the canal that remain in water as fishing ponds, wooden platforms for the fisher-folk helpfully provided by the local council.

Havannah Flashes

Havannah Flashes 4

Havannah Flashes 2
Havannah Flashes

At Havannah Flashes there is an attractive stretch with areas of open water edged with tall, golden rushes.  The Flashes are the result of ground subsidence after the nearby Havannah Colliery mined too close to the surface.

Sankey Valley 1
Following the line of the in-filled canal

Along this stretch the canal has been in-filled, but further on the water returns. It was here that we came across a team of council workmen restoring the canal bank where the stonework had been collapsing into the water.  They were also installing sandbag-like rolls of rushes to support the banks and resurfacing the path.  It was good that such work was still proceeding, even in times of austerity (Our Local Voice, the website of an independent group of volunteers from the local area, states that, unlike most of Britain’s other canals which are the responsibility of the Canal And River Trust (formerly British Waterways), the Sankey is the responsibility of the three local authorities through which it passes – St Helens, Warrington and Halton).

Sankey Valley 2

At times we would have water on both sides – canal to our right and brook to our left. Along other stretches the canal had been in-filled, and sometimes the path followed the course of the buried canal.

Sankey Valley 3

The canal disappears in the stretch skirting the edge of Newton Common, but after Penkford Bridge, which carries the main road from St Helens to Newton-le-Willows, the canal is once again in water.

Sankey Valley 4

Penkford Bridge was originally a swing bridge, but now is permanent with very low clearance. We saw a lot of this along the way: in some cases the canal had been in-filled for a road crossing, making it seem extremely unlikely that the canal could ever be reopened in its entirety, even though that remains the long-term aim of the Sankey Canal Restoration Society:

There is only one ‘First Canal of the Industrial Revolution’ – it’s the Sankey, and it should never have been allowed to fall into the neglected state it was in by the 1970’s. We intend to ensure that the canal’s primacy is fully acknowledged, and that funds are found to return it to full navigation.

In the meantime, the Society’s volunteers continue to protect and restore, where possible, the canal’s remaining infrastructure. We came across several examples of this on our walk: locks which had been buried by infilling, but now partly uncovered by Society volunteers (as at Newton Common Lock, just before Penkford Bridge, and at Winwick Lock, where we stopped for lunch.  The Society is currently concentrating on their ‘Linking the Locks’ project which seeks to open up navigation again to the lower sections of the canal between Fiddler’s Ferry and its river entrance at Spike Island, Widnes.

Sankey Viaduct 1
Approaching Sankey Viaduct

Soon we were approaching the highpoint of the walk – at least in terms of industrial archaeology. The nine arches of the Sankey Viaduct were designed by George Stephenson in 1830 to carry the Manchester to Liverpool railway line, the world’s first passenger railway, across the Sankey Canal and Sankey Brook with enough clearance to allow Mersey flats, the barges for which the canal was constructed, to pass beneath with sails raised (as can be seen in the 1831 print, below).

Viaduct across the Sankey Valley, from Bury's Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1831
Viaduct across the Sankey Valley, print from Bury’s ‘Liverpool and Manchester Railway’, 1831

It must have seemed like a new wonder of the world at the time, but must have sent a chill through those working on, or investing in the canal. In fact, although the advent of the railway saw canal earnings fall, to counter competition from the railway, a further extension of the canal was cut from Fiddler’s Ferry across Widnes salt marshes to the Mersey at Widnes, opening in 1833.

The viaduct is now designated a Grade I listed building, its listing describing it as ‘the earliest major railway viaduct in the world’.  According to the Spartacus Educational website:

The Sankey Brook Navigation Company objected to the building of the railway and made life difficult for George Stephenson and his team of engineers by insisting on a 60 ft clearance over their canal. William Allcard was given the responsibility of designing the Sankey Viaduct and came up with a nine arch structure. Each of the arches is of 50 ft span and rises from massive sandstone slabs quarried locally, including at Olive Mount [in Wavertree, Liverpool]. Thousands of tons of marl and moss, compacted with brushwood, was used to increase the height of the embankment. The Sankey Viaduct was built of brick with stone facings and cost the company over £45,000 to produce.

Sankey Viaduct 2

The sight of the viaduct had us all recalling history lessons at school in which we learnt about the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and how, when it was near to completion, the directors of the railway organised a competition to decide whether stationary steam engines or locomotives would be used to pull the trains. In October 1829, five engines competed, running back and forth along a mile length of level track at Rainhill. Stephenson’s Rocket was the only locomotive to complete the trials, and was declared the winner.

A year later, the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway took place on 15 September 1830, with the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, riding on one of eight inaugural trains. Huge crowds lined the track at Liverpool to watch the trains depart for Manchester.  But the day was marred by mishaps.

The trains left Liverpool on time, with the Duke of Wellington’s special train on one track, and the other seven trains running on a parallel track. About 13 miles out of Liverpool the first of many problems occurred, when one of the trains derailed and the following train collided with it. However, there were no injuries or damage, and the derailed locomotive was lifted back onto the track and the journey continued.

At Parkside railway station, near the midpoint of the line, the locomotives made a scheduled stop to take on water. Although the railway staff advised passengers to remain on the trains while this took place, around 50 of the dignitaries on board alighted, including William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool. Distracted, he did not notice the Rocket approaching on the adjacent track. Panicking, he fell  in front of the train, suffering serious leg injuries and died that night.  Not surprisingly, this provoked a flurry of concern about the safety of the railway. However, a report in Mechanics Magazine the following month strove to calm fears:

We shall only observe, that no inconvenience whatever was felt by any of the passengers, even when moving at the extraordinary rate of 20 and 25 miles an hour. The motion, on the contrary, was smooth and easy beyond any thing hitherto experienced on the smoothest turnpikes of Mr. McAdam, so much so, that we could read with the greatest ease, and even manage to write a letter. In a very short time we became quite unconscious of the rapid motion, and at the highest speed which we attained, we could observe the passengers, among whom were a good many ladies, talking to gentlemen with the utmost sang-froid. From all that we have observed, we should consider the rate of 25 miles an hour, on a level, or nearly level, road, as perfectly practicable and safe.

Sankey Viaduct Illustration from the “Penny Magazine, 1830
Sankey Viaduct: an illustration from the Penny Magazine, 1830

The viaduct is still in use, but the last sailing barges passed under its arches in 1919. The canal was abandoned north of this point in 1931, and the path now follows the line of the towpath, with the in-filled canal bed to the right.

Sankey Viaduct 3

As we passed underneath the arches, we noted the graffiti painted along the parapet; terrifying to think of youngsters out there on a narrow ledge 70 feet above the ground!

Sankey Viaduct, 1930 (c National Railway Museum)
Sankey Viaduct in 1930 (c National Railway Museum)

Nearby was the site of the Sankey Sugar Works, opened in 1855 and the last industrial user of the canal.  Raw cane sugar imported through the Liverpool docks was converted at the refinery into the finished white product.

Sankey Sugar

The Sankey Sugar Company was eventually taken over by a Dutch firm in 1924. The refinery ceased operation in 1959, leading to the closure of the last navigable section of the canal in 1963. The canal above the sugar works had already been abandoned in 1931.

All four of us walkers were old enough to remember bags of Sankey Sugar from our childhood.

A short way beyond Sankey Viaduct, we found the canal back in water at Bradley Lock, where the upper lock gates are still in place.  On the OS map I noticed that we were passing through Mucky Mountains Nature Reserve, and wondered how it had got its name. It turns out that the ‘mountains’ are mounds of waste from a nearby soda making works. Musprat’s Vitriol Works produced two tons of waste for each ton of soda.

Sankey Valley 5 Sankey Valley 6 Sankey Valley 7

Despite the Mucky Mountains appellation, this is a picturesque stretch of the canal, edged by wooded bluffs splashed with white blackthorn blossom. Swans were nesting on the Brook, and the damp, shady places beneath the trees were carpeted with celandines. Above the canal here is Vulcan Village, once the site of engine works established in the 1830s, where railway locomotives were built and repaired (apparently, the foundry sent a locomotive to India every week for a century until it closed in the 1990s).

Swans nest Celandines and shadows

Beyond Vulcan Village the canal ran close to the West Coast mainline for a while.  Here the route of the canal and towpath has been obliterated by dense tree planting, and we had to follow a detour down a lane before reaching Winwick Lock, where we paused for lunch. Although the lock has been filled in, the stonework is visible and the remains of the gates are still in place.

Winwick Lock
Winwick Lock

After a restorative lunch we set off again in blazing sun, now heading towards the M62 motorway. There is no sign of the canal here: in 1974 British Waterways decided to use the canal bed for tipping rubbish, creating a long in-filled section down as far as Bewsey Hall.

Approaching the M62 Approaching the M62 2

South of the motorway we passed Winwick Quay, where a group of attractive, though dilapidated, buildings once housed the main maintenance depot on the canal. The buildings and former stables, are grouped around a yard, now used by small businesses.  In another setting this would have made attractive holiday homes, but here it’s a real edgelands site, hemmed in by railway and motorway, and buffeted by the constant roar of traffic.

Winwick Quay 1

Winwick Quay 2
Winwick Quay

The main building, built in 1841, was a large wood and metal workshop. Timber bridges, gates, decking and fencing were all made and repaired here. The forge produced countless items of ironwork needed to keep the canal and its vessels functional. The yard was a resting and feeding point
for horses and mules hauling their boats to St Helens so horse fodder was also stored here.

Winwick Quay 3
Winwick Quay: the dry dock

A few yards further on from Winwick Quay is the dry dock, the only remaining dry dock on the Sankey Canal. It was built entirely of sandstone with stepped sides that allowed workers to get down to the floor, where you can still see the sleepers oon which the traditional Mersey Flat boats would have rested while being repaired. Once the boat was inside, the dock gates were closed and the water drained off via a small culvert in the western wall. After the repairs were completed, the dock was filled again and the boat floated out.

Sankey Valley Park Warrington 2 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 1

GCHQ outpost perhaps?

We were now skirting the fringes of Gemini Retail Park, home of Ikea, Toys R Us, M&S, and the rest – a further symbol of the economic changes that have occurred in this area. On the far side of a high security fence we spotted this silent and mysterious-looking building, painted in battleship grey. An outpost of GCHQ perhaps?

Sankey Valley Park Warrington 3 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 4 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 5 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 6 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 7

Now we were following the Brook through Sankey Valley Park on the western edge of Warrington, a very pleasant landscaped linear park, bucolic in the afternoon sunshine. The buried line of the canal has become a broad, grassy meadow.

Gatehouse Bewsey Hall
The gatehouse at Bewsey Hall

It was the school holidays, so the park was thronged with families, especially around the entrance to Bewsey Hall and Gulliver’s World theme park. Part of the estate belonged to the monks of Titley Abbey, Essex. The Hall was originally built on the site of a monastic grange known as ‘Beausee’ or ‘beautiful site’. The present building dates back no earlier than 1597. We didn’t have time to explore the grounds, pausing only to look at the relatively-modern half-timbered gatehouse.

Sankey Bridges
Sankey Bridges

The landscaped linear park continues – with the canal once more in water – as far as Sankey Bridges where there is a series of canal crossings. One carries Liverpool Road and was originally a swing bridge, then later a lifting bridge. Beyond the road bridge are two others. The first is a narrow swing bridge for emergency use if the road bridge was out of action. Beyond that is a railway bridge.

Heading for Fiddler's Ferry
Heading for Fiddler’s Ferry

Now the canal bears right, heading directly for Widnes. When the canal first opened in 1757, it went straight ahead here, through Sankey Lock, where boats joined the final part of the Sankey Brook to reach the Mersey. However, there were difficulties and delays due to tides and the winding nature of the Brook. The extension we now followed to the right, leading to Fiddlers Ferry Lock, was opened in 1762, at which point Sankey Lock ceased to be used. Soon the cooling towers of Fiddlers Ferry power station appeared in the distance.

Fiddler's Ferry 1
Fiddler’s Ferry power station

Now we’re on the Trans-Pennine Trail, with the railway that serves the power station running alongside the canal, on the inland side. From here to Spike Island it’s a long, straight hike, hemmed in on one side by the railway and the canal, mostly overgrown with dense rushes, and on the other by high fencing that seals walkers off from the river bank and the lagoons which provide the 195 million litres of water which the power station consumes daily from the Mersey.

That is, except at Fiddler’s Ferry Reach where the Ferry Tavern looks out over one of the most beautiful vistas of the river that I’ve encountered anywhere on the Mersey. Here, the river makes a broad sweep with views across to the flatlands of Moore Nature Reserve and, further south, Wigg Island Nature Reserve at Halton.  Beyond rises Windmill Hill, a bluff of red sandstone surmounted by Norton Priory.

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 3

From earliest times, Fiddler’s Ferry was one of the few places where the Mersey could be crossed by ferry on the long stretch between Birkenhead and Warrington. And as at Birkenhead, the ferry crossing was operated by monks – in this case from Norton Priory near Runcorn.  The ferry ran until it was closed when the Manchester Ship Canal was constructed. Interestingly, the traditional spelling was Fidlers (one ‘d’), although the power station and maps now spell it ‘Fiddler’s’.

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 2

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 4

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey
Fiddler’s Ferry Reach on the Mersey

This is a beautiful spot, making a good deal more understandable the idea of day day-trippers coming here to watch the boats and the river, and visit the Ferry Tavern. Because, between 1856 and 1950, that was a regular thing: trains would bring day-trippers from Liverpool, Warrington and other places to the railway station that once existed on the line behind the inn. The pub was built when the canal extension opened in 1762, though almost certainly it would have replaced an earlier one.

The ferry Tavern
The Ferry Tavern

On the Ferry Tavern website, there’s an article  written in the mid-1990s by local historian Colin Mason which captures the special quality of this place:

The solitude of the place is what is most striking, and entirely in keeping with the shrill cries of the curlew and gentle, monotonous lapping of the mighty river only feet away. Tired of the city, there have been times when I have craved this sort of quiet oneness with nature in the raw, on the marsh, with the salty air rushing eastwards from the Irish Sea.

Step over the level crossing which carries coal to the Fidlers Ferry Power Station some distance away, and cross the bridge over the first navigable canal, the Sankey Brook Navigation, 1757, and you are indeed in a calmer world, isolated almost from the stress and bustle of a modern industrial society.

Famous, in a manner of speaking, in these parts for at least 200 years as an inn of some repute, The Ferry at Penketh could have been the settling for a Dickensian drama in a sepia film where young boy meets chained convict bound for Australia, on the marsh at night.

While a page on the BBC website that records recollections of the area before the power station has this evocative memory:

As children, well before the power station was built, one of the places to visit was Fiddlers Ferry which we travelled to on our home built bikes. We swam in the water there, fished for tiddlers and refeshed ourselves with jam butties and a bottle of Tizer. Fiddlers Ferry was a rural retreat away from the chemical and soap works which polluted the area.

The Ferry Tavern at Fiddler's Ferry by  Frank Ward
The Ferry Tavern at Fiddler’s Ferry by Frank Ward

You can find a selection of wonderful old photos of the Tavern on the history page of the pub’s website. That’s where I found the oil painting of the pub by Frank Ward who was ‘manager of the old sheep dip factory at Fidlers Ferry’ according to the site. The painting is not dated, but must be late 19th or early 20th century, since Ward was born in 1875 and died in 1922.

Fiddler's Ferry Marina
Fiddler’s Ferry Marina

Nearby is Fiddler’s Ferry Lock which provides access from the Mersey for the boats and yachts that are moored up in Fiddler’s Ferry Marina, located on a section of the canal, and accommodating a commercial boatyard and a yacht club.

Fiddler's Ferry lock 2 Fiddler's Ferry lock 3 Fiddler's Ferry lock

Between 1762 and 1833 Fiddlers Ferry Lock was the end of the Sankey Canal, where boats joined or left the tidal River Mersey. A second lock, now filled in, was built a short distance to the west, to enable more boats to lock through with each tide. The locks became disused after the canal was extended to Widnes in 1833. Fiddlers Ferry Lock was restored in the 1980s by Warrington Council and now provides access to the marina.

Fiddlers Ferry power station and canal
Fiddlers Ferry power station and canal overgrown with reeds

By now it was late afternoon, and with the temperature rising, the pub not being open, and the miles covered, it was a matter of thirsty boots, as Eric Andersen put it in his sixties folk song.  Moreover, from here the canal seems to stretch on endlessly, heading straight as a die for Widnes. It’s a dull and uninteresting hike with the canal silted up and overgrown with reeds, and the path hemmed in by the railway on one side and the high fence that cuts off the walker from the river on the other.

Fiddlers Ferry power station
The ever-present Fiddlers Ferry power station

The cooling towers of the power station loom constantly to the right. We mulled over the curious fact of a coal-fired power station once fired by coal from mines literally up the road, but now relying entirely on coal imported from the far side of the world. I wonder how long the plant will continue to operate if the movement to leave fossil fuels in the ground gains momentum?

Mersey view 1
The view from Widnes Warth

There is one breakout point, however.  A couple of miles beyond the pub it is possible to walk out onto the river bank at Widnes Warth Nature Reserve and drink in the panoramic view that takes in a sweep of the river looking across to the Wigg Island Nature Reserve on the opposite bank  and Norton Priory on the bluff beyond. ‘Warth’ is an old dialect word for a river bank or a flat meadow beside a river or estuary; I wonder if it appears in Robert Macfarlane’s latest lexicographic book, Landmarks?

Between the canal and the river, paths and viewing points have been constructed, with information boards to alert visitors to the diversity of wildlife it’s possible to see on the marshes.

Future Flower on Widnes Warth
Future Flower on Widnes Warth

It was there that I found a striking art work called Future Flower. In 2007, Widnes organised an international design competition to create a piece of landmark public art for the Widnes waterfront, as part of a wider programme of environmental improvement.  The winning entry, Future Flower was designed by the architectural practice Tonkin Liu. It’s a 14 metre-high piece that appears to grow out of the land, and move gently in the wind. Mini wind turbines transfer energy into pulsing red lights at night. Future Flower was designed to reflect the transformation of an area of former industrial dereliction, and took inspiration from the collision of industry and nature in this place where light reflects off the water, and the wind shimmers in the reeds.

I paused for a moment beneath the petals of Future Flower and thought of the monks, rowing travellers across a river teeming with life centuries ago.  As late as the 1760s the right to fish the abundant river cost as much as £400 a year when over 40 different species of fish thrived in its waters, including sea trout and Atlantic salmon.

Within two decades, however, the industrial revolution had begun its profound transformation of this part of the Northwest, as Manchester became the world’s first industrial city, and Liverpool the great port of the British empire. From the first cotton mills new industries grew, and the population exploded as workers flooded in to the area.

By 1877, the landscape through which we had walked was a toxic industrial wasteland. Due to the pollutants poured into the Brook by the local Leblanc alkali works, it was reported that:

The mud deposited in the Sankey Brook, near St Helens, has been found to contain no less than 2.26 percent of arsenic. … The water of the Sankey Brook is so acid that iron fittings cannot safely be used in the barges and lock gates.

By 1891, 500 acres of Widnes and Ditton Marshes were buried under an average depth of 12 feet of toxic galligu from soda works along the Sankey Canal. The land surrounding the canal became a polluted wilderness as the industrial waste and domestic refuse of St Helens was dumped wherever possible. Mature woodlands, for many years home to a great variety of wildlife were destroyed to provide even more space for tipping.

The limited sanitation of the time was completely overwhelmed. After the cholera epidemic of 1848 in Liverpool that killing hundreds of people, the city built a new sewage system. It saved lives, but emptied directly into the Mersey. By the 1960s the raw and partially treated sewage of five million people was being disgorged into the Mersey and its tributaries. Meanwhile, all along the Mersey a huge variety of polluting industries – chemicals, abattoirs, tanneries, detergent manufacturing, even food processing – poured toxic effluent into the river.

In recent decades, however, there has been a transformation, largely due to the work of the Mersey Basin Campaign launched in 1985.  Dr Peter Jones of North West Water Authority explained the scale of the problem faced back then in a Campaign publication, Who Saved the Mersey?:

When I joined North west water in 1974 the rivers in the Northwest were gruesome, whether you looked at the chemistry or the biology, by any indicator the Mersey was as bad as you could get. This was the birthplace of the chemical industry worldwide, so we had dangerous chemicals of all kinds – lead, mercury, nickel, cadmium, as well as organic chemicals like solvents. Thirty years ago, if it was a man-made chemical you could pretty much find it in the Mersey.

Today many forms of wildlife – otters, salmon, seals and sea birds – have returned to a cleaned-up Mersey.

Mersey Flat
An abandoned and decaying vessel

Approaching Spike Island, we came across a ruined vessel slowly rotting and subsiding into the canal. Was it a Mersey Flat, the type of doubled-ended barge that once worked the canal?

Spike Island was the name given to the area between the canal and the estuary at Widnes. It was once occupied by a chemical works, and numerous railway sidings and waste dumps. The area has now been landscaped, its maze of abandoned chemical factories, rail lines, canals and docks reclaimed as an attractive green space with views down towards the Runcorn Bridge.

Spike Island is also home to the Catalyst Museum, the only science museum in the UK solely devoted to chemistry. The Museum is housed in the former office block of Gossages’ Soap Works, makers of Magical soap bars, and later absorbed into the Unilever conglomerate.

Unfortunately, it is not possible at the moment to complete the walk along the canal to Spike Island: preparatory work for the second Runcorn crossing means that walkers are now re-routed inland around a lengthy and noisy diversion across busy dual carriageways.

Footsore and weary we had finally reached the end of the canal. In serious decline by the 1860s, its condition deteriorated and by 1898 the Ravenhead Branch had been closed. By 1932 the whole canal beyond Newton Common Lock was also abandoned. Sankey Sugar Works continued to use the canal until 1959, but the canal was finally abandoned in 1963, ending 200 years of industrial history.

In the sixties and seventies, much of the canal was destroyed, with long sections filled in with rubble from slum clearances and factory demolitions. The lock chambers, once bustling with activity were destroyed and the old lock gates were damaged beyond repair.

But now new life has been breathed into sections of the canal as we discovered.  A radical environmental clean-up means that wildlife has returned and a pleasant linear park created for leisure activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, and – in part at least – boating.

See also

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

One Saturday morning some time in the mid-1980s, when home-grown art works and photographs were displayed for sale on the railings outside the Bluecoat Arts Centre, I bought this moody photo, taken in 1984, of the Seacombe ferry arriving at the old wooden landing stage at Pier Head.  It’s either early morning or a late winter afternoon. Shot by a photographer who has signed the print, but whose signature I can’t decipher, this iconic image has hung in our hall since we moved in here some thirty years ago.

Ferry Cross the Mersey, 1984
Ferry Cross the Mersey, 1984

I love this photo. For me, it’s as evocative of the city I arrived in as a student in the sixties as Gerry Marsden’s lyric:

Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way
So ferry ‘cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay

I always see the city back then in monochrome, like this image. The ferry in the photo would be either the Woodchurch or her sister ship, the Mountwood, both of  which have plied the river constantly since coming into service in 1959 (it was the Mountwood that featured in the film Ferry Cross The Mersey, inspired by the Gerry & The Pacemakers song, and in the opening titles of The Liver Birds.

The Woodchurch  had a complete refit in 2003, returning to service as the Snowdrop (all the Mersey Ferries now have flower names; the Mountwood is now the Royal Iris).  I like to think it’s the Woodchurch in our photo, since it has now been transformed into a dazzling, colourful mobile artwork which, I’m certain, none of us back in the sixties when Gerry sang about it, or in the eighties when my photo was taken could ever have imagined. Imagine. This:

Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2014
Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2014

The hallucinatory paint job is the work of Sir Peter Blake, who was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial in partnership with Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW, the World War 1 Centenary cultural commemoration body.  Because, behind the dazzling, psychedelic colours, this work is actually a First World War memorial.

Dazzle Ferry 1

Dazzle Ferry 2

Dazzle Ferry 3

Dazzle Ferry 5
Setting forth on the Razzle

The Biennial website explains the ocular principles behind 1WW dazzle ships and their links to contemporary art:

Dazzle painting was a system for camouflaging ships that was introduced in early 1917, at a time when German submarines were threatening to cut off Britain’s trade and supplies. The idea was not to ‘hide’ the ships, but to paint them in such a way that their appearance was optically distorted, so that it was difficult for a submarine to calculate the course the ship was travelling on, and so know from what angle to attack. The dazzle was achieved by painting the ship in contrasting stripes and curves that broke up its shape. Characterised by garish colours and a sharp patchwork design of interlocking shapes, the spectacular ‘dazzle’ style was heavily indebted to Cubism.

Dazzle painting was invented by a marine painter, Norman Wilkinson, a future President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the application of ‘dazzle’ patterning to over 2,000 ships, later made a series of paintings on the subject.Though the practice has largely (but not entirely) fallen out of fashion in the military, ‘dazzle’ remains a source of inspiration to artists today.

Peter Blake, Design Motifs for Everybody Razzle Dazzle
Peter Blake, Design Motifs for Everybody Razzle Dazzle

So, as well as being a moving artwork, those who board the Snowdrop can learn more about the history of dazzle and the role that the Mersey Ferries took in the First World War from a display developed by curators from National Museums Liverpool and Tate Liverpool.

Peter Blake's Sgt Pepper album cover
Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper album cover

Peter Blake has had a long association with Liverpool over the years – most famously with the cover he designed for the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album in 1967 – but his Scouse connections go further back. While doing his National Service in the RAF, he would sail from Liverpool to Belfast, and in 1961 his Self Portrait With Badges won the junior section of the John Moores Prizes. He gave the £250 prize money to his dad.

Peter Blake, Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961
Peter Blake, Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961

Blake’s self-portrait shows his equal respect for historical tradition (he based the image on Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait The Blue Boy) and modern popular culture (Blake replaces blue silk with denim, and embeds references to his love for American youth culture – his baseball boots and badges, and the Elvis magazine).

Peter Blake, The First Real Target, 1961
Peter Blake, The First Real Target, 1961
Peter Blake, A Souvenir of the Peter Blake Retrospective, Tate Liverpool, 2007
Peter Blake, A Souvenir of the Peter Blake Retrospective, Tate Liverpool, 2007

Eight years ago, Tate Liverpool hosted Peter Blake: A Retrospective, the largest since an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1983, where I was able to see such works as the Self-Portrait and the delightful The Meeting’ or `Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney, painted after in 1983 a trip to California where he stayed with David Hockney, an ironic re-working of Gustave Courbet’s painting The Meeting or ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’.

'The Meeting' or 'Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney' 1981-3
‘The Meeting’ or ‘Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney’, 1981-3

Peter Blake’s work has always reflected his fascination with all aspects of popular culture, and the beauty to be found in everyday objects and surroundings. Many of his works feature found printed materials such as photographs, comic strips or advertising texts, combined with bold geometric patterns and the use of primary colours.

Peter Blake, Liverpool 2008, Capital of Culture, 2012
Peter Blake, Liverpool 2008, Capital of Culture, 2012

Blake’s works capture childhood images from the fifties and the optimistic youth culture of the sixties. His work is permeated with a nostalgia for childhood innocence.

Peter Blake  and the Dazzle Ferry
Peter Blake and the Dazzle Ferry

Everybody Razzle Dazzle: short Tate film

Those who take the ferry are entertained by the number that provided the inspiration for Peter Blake’s title – ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley:

A few years ago, we spent a a whole, sun-kissed day on the ferry Snowdrop – taking the Mersey Ferries cruise along the Manchester Ship Canal.

Apart from being dazzled by Peter Blake’s ferry, I continue to be besotted with the magnificent beauty of Liverpool’s waterfront – especially as seen on a day of clear blue skies, when the temperature on the Mersey was the same as at Nice on the Mediterranean.

Pier Head April 14

Pier Head April 14 3

Pier Head April 14 2
Brutal juxtapositions at the Pier Head

See also

Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall

Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall

Peacock Room 2

Detail of the reconstruction of the Peacock Room at the Bluecoat

Ruskin famously put down Whistler with his sneer on seeing his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket that the painter was ‘a coxcomb asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.  Whistler promptly sued him for libel.  At about the same time, the tempestuous Whistler, who didn’t suffer fools gladly (and anyone was a fool who failed to understand his work) was having another mighty  difference of opinion with his patron, the Liverpool shipping magnate from Speke Hall, Frederick Richards Leyland, who had commissioned Whistler to decorate his dining room. The resulting Peacock Room was rejected by Leyland as a gross act of vandalism, though it is now considered one of Whistler’s greatest works.

A reproduction of one wall of the Peacock Room forms the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Bluecoat, part of the 2014 Liverpool Biennial programme, A Needle Walks into a Haystack.  It’s a small exhibition, consisting of several etchings from local collections, a couple of watercolours and a couple of oil paintings.  But it’s intriguing, nonetheless, highlighting a row with local connections, and revealing works by Whistler squirrelled away in the archives of the Walker and, more surprisingly, Liverpool Central Library.

Frederick  Leyland, the owner of the Bibby Shipping Line, and his wife Frances were generous Whistler patrons. Frances, a beautiful, lively woman, was, according to a rumour spread by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (another artist patronised by Leyland), Whistler’s lover.  In later years, Frances Leyland denied the rumour, but did add that had she been a widow she might have married Whistler. Certainly, the artist was a ‘never-ending guest’ (his words) at Speke Hall, and the Bluecoat exhibition begins with the painting Whistler and the Leyland Family in Speke Hall, painted in 1875.

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Whistler and the Leyland Family in Speke Hall, 1875

The woman about to play a shot is Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Dawson, sister of Frances who is portrayed in the red dress, seated next to Whistler, who looks as if he’s been at the laudanum. For several months the family were under the impression that Lizzie was engaged to Whistler, but it became clear eventually that there was no engagement. To Frances right are her daughters Fanny, Florence and Elinor, while to the left of Whistler is Jane, Frances’ other sister. The man at the far end is Frederick Leyland’s first cousin Thomas Layland (different spelling) who was married to Jane. Thomas was an architect and gifted amateur painter – Whistler would arrange for some of his work to be exhibited in London – and some art historians think it likely that Thomas painted this portrait of the Leyland family.

Whistler, Speke Hall, No. 1

Whistler, ‘Speke Hall, No. 1’

Whistler stayed with the Leylands at Speke Hall several times, including the period from January to March 1875 during which he worked on several etchings of the house and the nearby area. One of these, Speke Hall: The Avenue aka Speke Hall, No. 1 is in the Bluecoat display. Kathleen Lochnan commented on the composition:

Whistler employed … the compositional structure which he had learnt from Japanese prints, selecting a high viewpoint, “tilting up” the background, and constructing a shallow picture space. The long, lean vertical format of the etching, which emphasizes the distance between the figure and the house, resembles that of the Japanese oban print … [he] isolated the foreground figure, silhouetting it against a white ground in the Japanese manner, … The position of the figure, seen from the rear in a three-quarter pose, appears to have been adopted from Japanese prints. In the ukiyo-e woodcut, a rear view of this kind is often used to show off the beauty of a kimono.

Whistler, Speke Hall

Whistler, ‘Speke Hall’, 1875

On 1 February 1875 Whistler wrote from Speke:

The etchings and drypoints are getting on famously – I have quite got back into my old delight in the work and think I shall have some pretty things to show you soon.
At the time, he was working on five etchings of Speke Hall and the vicinity, including Shipbuilder’s Yard, The Little Forge, Speke Shore, and The Dam WoodWhistler’s biographer Elizabeth Pennell writes:

‘Mr Leyland gave Whistler commissions to paint his four children, Mrs Leyland and himself … and Whistler made long visits at Speke Hall, Leyland’s place near Liverpool. … The record of these visits is in the etchings and dry-points of Speke Hall and Speke Shore, Shipping at Liverpool and The Dam Wood and the portraits in many mediums. The house was not far from the sea, which he loved to paint. But often days passed without his finding the effect he wanted… But Speke Hall always put him in better mood for work, and when the sea failed he turned to the portraits … There are pastels of the three little girls, sketches in pen and ink, and the fine group of dry-points.

Whistler, Speke Shore

Whistler, ‘Speke Shore’, 1875

Whistler, Shipbuilders Yard, Liverpool

Whistler, ‘Shipbuilders Yard, Liverpool’, 1875

Whistler, The Little Forge

Whistler, ‘The Little Forge’, 1875

While Speke Shore looks as if it was sketched at nearby Oglet, it would be interesting to learn the location of the shipbuilders yard and the little forge.

Meanwhile, Whistler was about to embark on the act which would bring his relationship with the Leylands to a dramatic end.  Frederick Leyland had bought an elegant townhouse at 49 Prince’s Gate in Kensington, London, and had engaged the British architect Thomas Jeckyll to remodel the dining room in order to display his collection of  porcelain.

Jeckyll covered the walls with 6th-century wall hangings of leather that had been originally brought to England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Aragon. They had hung on the walls of a Tudor house in Norfolk for centuries, before they were bought by Leyland for £1,000. They were painted with her heraldic device, the open pomegranate, and a series of red Tudor roses, to symbolise her union with Henry VIII. Against the walls, Jekyll constructed an intricate lattice framework of walnut shelves that held Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain.  Over the fireplace was hung Whistler’s painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, to serve as the focal point of the room.

Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain in situ in The Peacock Room

Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain in situ in The Peacock Room

Jeckyll had nearly finished the work when illness forced him to abandon the project. Whistler volunteered to finish Jeckyll’s work in the dining room while Leyland returned to Liverpool, allowing Whistler to work on the room alone.

Concerned that the red roses adorning the leather wall hangings clashed with the colours in The Princess, Whistler suggested retouching the leather with yellow paint, and Leyland agreed to that minor alteration. But while Leyland was away, Whistler grew bolder with his revisions:

Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on ―without design or sketch― it grew as I painted. And toward the end I reached such a point of perfection ―putting in every touch with such freedom― that when I came round to the corner where I started, why, I had to paint part of it over again, as the difference would have been too marked. And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy in it.

Whistler covered the ceiling with imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks.  He wrote to Leyland that the dining room was ‘alive with beauty – brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree’. ‘I assure you,’ he said, ‘you can have no more idea of the ensemble in its perfection gathered from what you last saw on the walls than you could have of a complete opera judging from a third finger exercise!’ He urged Leyland to delay his return to London, so that he would see the room complete and perfect in every detail. Meanwhile, without Leyland’s approval, Whistler invited friends from the London art world around to the house to admire what he had done.

When Leyland did return, he was aghast.  Whistler demanded two thousand guineas for his work, but Leyland refused to pay, adamant that the artist should have consulted him before extending the scale of the work. Eventually, Leyland did pay Whistler – but only half of the amount requested, and added further insult by writing his check in pounds, the currency of trade, when payment to artists and professionals was customarily made in guineas.

Peacock Room 1

The reconstruction of the Peacock Room at the Bluecoat

A bitter feud resulted.  In retaliation, Whistler returned to coat Leyland’s valuable Tudor leather with Prussian-blue paint and on the wall opposite The Princess he installed a mural depicting a pair of peacocks aggressively confronting each other . He used two shades of gold for the design and highlighted telling details in silver. Scattered at the feet of the angry bird are the coins (silver shillings) that Leyland refused to pay; the silver feathers on the peacock’s throat allude to the ruffled shirts that Leyland always wore. The other peacock has a silver crest feather that resembles the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler’s forehead. To make sure that Leyland understood his point, Whistler called the mural of the fighting peacocks Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room. He obtained a blue rug to complete the scheme and titled the room Harmony in Blue and Gold.

After concluding his work in March 1877,Whistler never saw the Peacock Room again. But, despite the feud, Leyland kept the Peacock Room as Whistler had left it until his death in 1892. Twelve years later, the Peacock Room was removed from the Leyland house and exhibited in a London art gallery. It was then purchased from the gallery by Charles Lang Freer, who took the room apart and reinstalled it in his house in Detroit. After Freer’s death in 1919, the Peacock Room was transported to Washington DC, and installed in the new Freer Gallery of Art. The Peacock Room is now regarded as one of Whistler’s masterpieces.

Meanwhile, Whistler had had the last word in the feud with Leyland. In 1879, bankrupted by the costs of the Ruskin trial and with huge debts from building ‘The White House’, his studio-house in Tite Street, Chelsea, Whistler made a painting which he left in The White House for his creditors to discover when they arrived to make an inventory of his possessions.  One of the creditors was his former patron Frederic Leyland.

The Gold Scab, displayed in the Bluecoat exhibition, depicts Leyland as a hideous peacock, seated upon the White House as his piano stool.  Whistler caricatured Leyland’s miserliness, piano skills, and habit of wearing frilled shirts (hence the title, “Frilthy Lucre”). Whistler’s butterfly monogram bears a barbed tail poised to strike at Leyland’s neck.

Whistler, The Gold Scab- Eruption in Filthy Lucre

Whistler, ‘The Gold Scab- Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor)’,1879

There’s another caricature of Leyland in the exhibition – a small, decidedly unflattering, etching of a shaven-headed, thin-faced Leyland looking lean and rapacious and again wearing one of his frilly shirts.

Whistler, Caricature of F.R.Leyland 1879

Whistler, ‘Caricature of F.R.Leyland’, 1879

After all this feuding we enter calmer waters, with a series of Whistler’s Thames-side etchings, now held locally in the collections of the Walker Art Gallery and Liverpool Central Library.

Whistler, Old Hungerford Bridge, 1861

Whistler, ‘Old Hungerford Bridge’, 1861 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler, Old Westminster Bridge, 1859

 Whistler, ‘Old Westminster Bridge, 1859 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler Battersea Dawn (Cadogan Pier) 1861

 Whistler, ‘Early Morning Battersea’, 1863 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler Thames Set Limehouse

 Whistler, ‘Limehouse’, 1859 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler, 'Rotherhithe', 1861

 Whistler, ‘Rotherhithe’, 1860 (Liverpool Central Library)

Whistler Thames Set Chelsea Bridge

Whistler, ‘Chelsea Bridge’, 1871 (Walker Art Gallery)

James McNeill Whistler, 'The Little Pool'

 Whistler, ‘The Little Pool’, 1861 (Walker Art Gallery)

The Thames etchings are followed by examples of Whistler’s Venice etchings, many of which were presented in his 1883 exhibition at the Society of British Artists, titled Arrangement in White and Yellow. Whistler arranged for the walls to be painted in different shades of white, the skirting boards yellow, and he displayed his butterfly signature throughout the gallery. He asked the gallery attendants to wear yellow clothes to match and as a final touch, he made small yellow butterflies for his favourite guests to wear at the exhibition’s opening. The press quickly nicknamed the exhibition ‘The Poached Egg’. The catalogue for the exhibition was a personal compilation of heavily edited snippets from
Whistler’s worst press reviews.

Whistler, The Palaces, Venice

Whistler, ‘The Palaces, Venice’, 1879

Whistler Two Doorways, 1880

Whistler, ‘Two Doorways’, 1880

The exhibition culminates in three magical paintings.  Sunrise Gold and Grey, is a tiny watercolour from 1883, first exhibited as part of Whistler’s major solo exhibition, Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey, in London in May 1884.  Subjects included scenes of Chelsea and the Cornish coast; nocturnes set in both London and Amsterdam; and a series of watercolours of female models in Whistler’s studio.  Most were mounted in unusually wide, flat gilt frames Whistler designed himself.

Whistler, Sunrise Gold and Grey, c1883, watercolour

Whistler, ‘Sunrise Gold and Grey’, c 1883, watercolour (not ‘evening’ as labelled)

As with the previous year’s Arrangement in White and Yellow, Whistler showed himself to be at the forefront of exhibition design. He devised the colour scheme for the show – pale pink walls and light grey furniture, while the works were ‘hung on the line’ and well-spaced out – a radical departure from the conventional salon-style hang in which pictures would cover every inch of the walls. Whistler’s approach was controversial and innovative, challenging long-standing assumptions about the display of art, and paved the way for the minimal style of exhibitions familiar today.

Whistler was unusual, too, in describing his works in musical terms – as symphonies, arrangements, harmonies, or nocturnes. The Bluecoat had one of these – Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Piccadilly,  an atmospheric impression of thick fog through which pedestrians and omnibuses are barely visible, as pale light glimmers through the murk from windows and gas lamps.

Whistler, Nocturne in Grey and Gold - Piccadilly, 1881-3

 Whistler, ‘Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Piccadilly’, 1881-3

In the summer of 1899, Whistler stayed at Pourville-sur-Mer, near Dieppe, convalescing from a recurrent illness. While he was there, he painted a series of nine small seascapes on panel, thinly brushed, and subdued but refined in colour.  One of these paintings, Beach Scene with a Breakwater, concludes the exhibition.

Whistler, Beach Scene with a Breakwater, 1899

Whistler, ‘Beach Scene with a Breakwater’, 1899

This was a fascinating exhibition, enlivened by the story of Whistler’s feud with the local shipping magnate from Speke Hall. Quite what the connection was with the Biennial theme, A Needle Walks into a Haystack, remains a mystery to me. I can’t do better than end by quoting the last paragraph of Sandra Gibson’s review of the exhibition for Nerve magazine:

You can’t help but be drawn towards someone who was dismissed from the US Military Academy at West Point for “deficiency in chemistry”, who lost his map-drawing job because he drew mermaids and whales and sea serpents in the margins, whose girlfriend was the model for Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866) and who collided with the art establishment with such bloody-minded passion that he took John Ruskin to court. It’s easy to get side-tracked into the nineteenth century road movie that was often Whistler’s life but he was an immense figure in the development of Western art. He had the courage to walk his talk and the passionate conviction not to be floored by ridicule. He was a pioneer in the movement towards abstraction, in the acceptance of colour as subject and the concept that art and its environment are one. His public life might have been tumultuous and financially precarious but his inner conviction was harmoniously tranquil and beautiful, otherwise we wouldn’t have the Nocturnes.

See also

The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past

The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past

Mick Jones Mural 2

The Mick Jones mural in the Old Blind School

Do the walls of a derelict building hold the memories of those who once inhabited its rooms?  Recently I visited the old Merseyside Trade Union Community and Unemployed Resource Centre building at the top of Hardman Street which has been opened up for a Biennial exhibition. I wasn’t there for the art (least said about it the better) but because the building holds memories of mine, and I wanted to see inside before it is turned into a swanky hotel.

The Biennial programme describes the building as ‘The Old Blind School’, which it was, but that was not its most recent function. The Liverpool School for the Blind was founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton whose own sight was impaired (more about him later). It was the first school of its kind in Britain, and second in the world after one in Paris. The school made Hardman Street its second home in 1851, after it had begun life on London Road.

Today, on the corner of Hope Street and Hardman Street, there is a white Portland stone extension that dates from 1932.  It replaced the neo-classical school church, designed by John Foster junior, which was built in London Road and, amazingly, moved to this corner site stone by stone in 1851.  There’s a photo of it in 1929, dwarfing the original Blind School building.

Blind school 1929

The Blind School in 1929

The Portland stone extension that replaced Foster’s church dates from 1932 and features a row of bas-relief sculptures designed by John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth’s first husband and a leading figure of modern British sculpture in the mid-20th century.  The bas-reliefs depict the trades taught here: brush-making, Braille, basket weaving, piano tuning, and knitting.

Blind School extension

The Blind School extension dates from 1932

In 1958 the Blind School moved to Church Road in Wavertree where it still remains today. The Hardman Street building was sold to Liverpool Corporation and served as the Merseyside Police headquarters until 1982.  When we lived on Canning Street in the 1970s the extension housed the local police station, and I recall several visits to report a stolen car or a burglary. With the move of the police headquarters to the riverfront, Merseyside County Council was left with a large, empty building.  The left-leaning Labour council agreed to a plan to turn it over to a consortium of trade union, training and community organisations to manage as the Merseyside Trade Union, Community and Unemployed Resource Centre.


Merseyside Trade Union, Community and Unemployed Resource Centre: the name is still there

This was the height of Thatcher’s attack on the power of trade unions and so-called ‘loony left’ councils – and both the county council and Liverpool City Council were in the forefront of the fightback against her policies and the rising unemployment caused by de-industrialization (in Liverpool this meant the closure of workplaces such as Tate and Lyle’s, Dunlops, Meccano, and many, many others).

In 1981, the first Peoples March for Jobs, modelled on the Jarrow March of the 1930s, had left Liverpool for London, led by the Labour leader Michael Foot. Both the march and the idea of Unemployed Centres were born out of a TUC special conference held in 1980, called to address the issue of mass unemployment – pushing towards 1930s levels at that time. The march forged links between trade unions, community and unemployed workers groups and led to Unemployed Centres being set up to develop those links and provide a focus for the unemployed to organise themselves.

The Hardman Street building, which opened its doors in May 1983, served a wide variety of purposes with conference and function rooms for trade unions and other organisations, a Welfare Rights Advice Centre, a small theatre cum cinema, a basement recording studio, a bar which had a bust of Marx placed (ironically?) next to the till, and the famous Flying Picket music venue, developed with funding from artists including Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Yoko Ono and Pete Townshend.

Peoples March for Jobs 1981

The Peoples March for Jobs 1981

Most memorably from my point of view, the building also housed a Children’s Centre, attended by our daughter, and the Women’s Technology Centre, a project to train women in information technology skills which had been established, with support from Merseyside County Council and the European Social Fund, by two adult educationalists, one of whom was my wife.  So, all in all, I got to know the building very well.

The centre closed in 2004, and has stood empty and unused ever since.  But for the past few months the Liverpool Biennial have opened up the building for a group art show called A Needle Walks into a Haystack. I went inside for nostalgic reasons, but I also had a particular objective: I wanted to see if a particular feature from the glory days of resistance in the 1980s was still there.


Walking through the disused rooms, where paint peeled, buckets caught leaks and plaster crumbled, provoked an elegiac mood.  The distinctive odour of rotting plaster permeated the place; cornices and ceiling rosettes had partly collapsed; architraves and window mouldings had crumbled with rot; old cast-iron fireplaces were filled with rubble.


The art was rubbish, and I began to feel angry that neither the Biennial organisers, nor the artists, seemed to have made any attempt to respond to the history of this listed building and the three major functions which it had served.  Talking to a couple of the young attendants, it was clear that they knew next to nothing about the building’s history and were unaware of its iconic status for the city, whether as the ‘Old Blind School’ or as the trade union centre.


My feelings were powerfully expressed by Zoe Pilger in her review of the Biennial for the Independent:

In March this year, cuts of £156m to Liverpool’s public services were announced, which means that half of the city’s 19 libraries are expected to close, as well as the majority of children’s  centres. Against this backdrop of social injustice, the 8th Liverpool art Biennial has just opened.

What is the relationship of art to politics? Do artists and the institutions that commission them have a responsibility to respond to the most pressing issues of the day? Or should art exist as a form of aesthetic escapism, untouched by the realities of everyday life? […]

This omission is most keenly felt in one of the biggest exhibitions, housed in the former HQ of the Merseyside Trade Union, Community, and Unemployed Resource Centre, which closed down in 2004. The sign is still printed above the door, albeit with letters missing. This stunning though derelict building is a symbol of Liverpool’s “gentrification”. The building will soon be converted into a complex of apartments, a gastro pub, a spa, and a restaurant with Michelin aspirations.

For nearly 150 years, the building was also the Old Blind School, and the interior appears untouched. Sadly, it is more fascinating than the art itself. There is a lime-green and pink art deco banister, bricked-up fireplaces, graffiti, a maze of corridors, and, most strikingly, a  ceiling mural of the “people’s march”, which shows demonstrators with fists raised and  banners flying. The paint has flaked off in places. This relic of Liverpool’s radical past seems overlooked, which is a great shame – for me, it is the most interesting work in the exhibition, despite the fact that it is not officially included.

Instead, there is a sprawling group show by international artists. There is a lot of bad art. Baskets inexplicably left in a room, a large white patent sofa shaped like a hand, boxes transformed into sheep, a painting of what appears to be a meteor, another of a space station, yet more of people copulating on a picnic blanket while an 18th-century earl looks on with feverish glee.

The elegant dilapidation of the building is an ideal space to show new, experimental, challenging work, but I found myself more enthralled by the decades of peeling patterned wallpaper, wondering what had gone on inside these walls. I would have preferred to see a bold exhibition that asked artists to respond to the history of the site.


In another online article, Laura Harris also argued that the Biennial had shown itself to be distinctly disengaged with the reality of Liverpool’s present political situation:

Against a backdrop of cuts and arts job losses, the need for curatorial politics is perceivably augmented. Moreover, I believe that the choice of The Old Blind School as the main festival venue — an explicitly politicised, evocative space, set up by philanthropist Edward Rushton and more recently used as a Trade Union headquarters – is a promise of a politics that is traitorously unfulfilled. In choosing The Old Blind School, and failing to develop a social and historical narrative, an unspoken politics goes so resolutely ignored as to be offensive.

The site’s exhibition, A Needle Walks Into a Haystack, declares itself to be about our habits and habitats. Incorporated in the theme is an engagement with spaces and their significance; yet a deconstruction of the contextual history of the building is palpable in its absence. Instead of confronting this history in a socio-politically engaged manner, the show confronts us with impenetrable works coupled with impenetrable texts; we must rely on the pretentious copy of the programme as our interpreter. […]

The Old Blind School site itself is a relic of a struggle that continues … Once the Biennial has closed, the building is to become a boutique hotel and a restaurant with ‘Michelin aspirations’. This is gentrification worthy of the most ardent protest, and if ‘silence becomes a type of knowledge’ in the show, as claimed, the lack of protest from within the Biennial is certainly illuminating. […]

It is not enough to rely on implicit politics. It is not enough to suggest a history and leave it unspoken. Unengaged with a political present and an important social history, the Liverpool Biennial fails a public and a city. It is a missed opportunity to explore radical political alternatives, and encourage dialogue between people who feel largely ignored.


Above one of the first floor staircases is a dome containing the feature I had come to see – a mural that condenses the history of this place into a stirring swirl of images representing episodes from Liverpool’s radical past and present. When the Merseyside Unemployed Centre took over the Hardman Street building from what had been the Old Blind School the management team commissioned Mick Jones to paint the dome in 1986 and he made a tribute not only to working class activism on Merseyside, but also to the man who helped found the Blind School.

The mural that fills the entire rotunda commemorates the Peoples’ March for Jobs in Liverpool, a celebration of all the rage and passion of 1980s political activism.  It was painted in 1986 by the artist Michael ‘Mick’ Jones, son of the Garston-born trade unionist Jack Jones.  As you crane your neck to follow the swirling design, you see depictions in socialist realist images of the 1981 Peoples March for Jobs; young unemployed people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the message ‘Give Us a Future’; Liverpool dockers; marchers who include miner’s leader Arthur Scargill as well as Karl Marx; workers at the Halewood car plant; the house-building programme of the 80s; John Hamilton the leader of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s: the Women’s’ Technology Scheme; and the central image of Edward Rushton, one of the co-founders of the Blind School. There is a companion piece made by Mick Jones in 1993 entitled Unemployment on Merseyside – Campaigning for the Right to Work on display in the Museum of Liverpool. Mick Jones, who also painted murals in London, died in 2012

Despite the building’s mouldering condition, the colours are still surprisingly vibrant, but one large area of the paper and plaster has peeling away and hangs in mid-air.  It seems scandalous to me that a work of such significance for Liverpool should have been left to decay. Laura Harris again:

Peeling from a feature dome in the roof of the building is a mural from the space’s iteration as a Trade Union centre. Workers march together, fists in the air, to a backdrop of industry: a salient reminder of the lost art of protest. As visitors are herded around the Biennial, the mural flakes further and the true significance of the building flutters with it to the floor. The Old Blind School is offering us its own metaphor; as bit-by-bit, festival programme in hand, the people’s history is ignored…

Mick Jones Mural 1 Mick Jones Mural 2 Mick Jones Mural 3 Mick Jones Mural 5 Mick Jones Mural 6 Mick Jones Mural 7 Mick Jones Mural 8 Mick Jones Mural 9 Mick Jones Mural 10 Mick Jones Mural 11 Mick Jones Mural 12 Mick Jones Mural 13 Mick Jones Mural 14

Edward Rushton was one of Liverpool’s great radicals, not only a founder of the school for the blind, but also a campaigner against slavery and poverty.  He wrote poetry, and became a tireless campaigner against slavery and against the press gangs. He was a revolutionary republican, supporter of the American war for Independence, the French Revolution, and the struggles of the Polish and Irish people.Mick Jones has depicted him in the mural, blind in one eye, sweeping forward with representatives of all the causes he fought for cradled in his arms.

Mick Jones Mural 4

This summary of his campaigning work is taken from Nottingham Trent University’s Labouring-Class Writers Project:

Rushton (1756 – 1814) was a poet, slavery abolitionist and co-founder of the first school for the blind in the country. Born in John Street, Liverpool, Edward was the son of Thomas Rushton, a victualler. Apprenticed to a Liverpool shipping company by the age of eleven, Edward was promoted to second mate around five years later after demonstrating outstanding courage in guiding a vessel – which the captain and crew were prepared to abandon during a storm out in the Mersey Estuary – back to port.

While on a slaver bound for Dominica in 1773, Rushton grew so appalled by the sadistic treatment of the captives he remonstrated with the captain to the point of being charged with mutiny. As the only member of the crew willing to tend to their suffering, Rushton contracted the highly contagious ophthalmia, which left him blind.

Rushton’s aunt took him in shortly after his return – his father having now remarried a woman antagonised by Edward’s presence. The injustices Rushton observed at sea led to the publication of his first book-length work, The Dismembered Empire (1782), a denunciation of British rulers and merchants in the framework of the American War of Independence. His disgust at the slave trade was given further voice in The West Indian Eclogues (1787). A decade later he wrote to his former hero George Washington, pointing up the hypocrisy of retaining slaves while fighting for freedom: ‘In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well-earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot’. A similar letter was dispatched to Thomas Paine, but neither he nor Washington tendered a reply.

After his marriage around 1784 to Isabella Rain, Rushton went on to become editor of the Liverpool Herald. This career was soon cut short after he reproached brutal press-gang practice in several articles, and rebuffed his partner’s suggestion of a retraction. This episode in Rushton’s life inspired the poem Will Clewine (1806).

When he became a bookseller at 44 Paradise Street, Rushton’s outspoken political convictions deterred potential custom, but not to the extent of preventing him from living out his life in relative comfort, and giving his children a sound education. In the late 1780s Rushton became a member of a literary and philosophical society – thought to have been the forerunner of William Roscoe and James Currie’s ill-fated radical Debating Society – where the idea of raising funds to offer care for local blind paupers came into effect. The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind opened in 1791. Rushton published a collection of poems in 1806, and the following year an operation by the Manchester surgeon Benjamin Gibson restored his sight, enabling him to see his wife and children for the first time.

Rushton died of paralysis on 22 November 1814 at his home on Paradise Street, just a few years after the death of his wife and one of his daughters. The eldest of his four children, also Edward, became a prominent social reformer in Liverpool’s political landscape, advocating Catholic emancipation and prison reform.

There is a book about him, written by Bill Hunter, which I must get hold of. It’s called, Forgotten Hero – The Life and Times of Edward Rushton. Hunter says: ‘I wrote this book on Edward Rushton in an attempt to rescue from obscurity, this uncompromising fighter for the common people, and to pay tribute to his indomitable spirit.’

Meanwhile, the survival of Mick Jones’ wonderful mural is in doubt. The Hardman Street building was sold to the owner of the Hope Street Hotel in 2010. He intends to convert the building into a complex with serviced apartment bedrooms, a gastro-pub, bistro, chocolatiere and coffee shop, a restaurant, a spa and offices.  There ought to be a campaign to ensure that, as part of the redevelopment, the mural is preserved, along with the carving above the doorway on Hope Street which reads: ‘Christ heals the Blind For who denies / That in the mind / Dwell truer sight / And clearer light / Than in the eyes.’


See also


Bright Phoenix: celebrating the city’s wild, anarchic spirit

Bright Phoenix: celebrating the city’s wild, anarchic spirit

Rhodri Meillir as Spike

Rhodri Meillir as Spike in Bright Pheonix

‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’

At the end of the week in which the new Everyman building won the Stirling Prize for new architecture my daughter treated me to a meal at The Quarter and a ticket to see Jeff Young’s ‘love letter to Liverpool’, Bright Pheonix at the Everyman.

Young’s play opens with Spike, a one-eyed, shambling drunk haranguing a sharply-suited woman – a member of Liverpool’s new networked elite, no doubt – who is promoting a vision of business redevelopment for the shabby scene of dereliction that greets visitors to the city when they emerge from Lime Street station.  Soon we are inside the building that symbolizes Lime Street’s decay, the derelict Futurist, Liverpool’s first purpose-built cinema, now a mouldering shell in which the only thing that thrives is buddleia.

Encamped in the derelict cinema, kind of Occupy style, are a motley group who were childhood friends in the 1980s, and the play alternates its narrative between the present day and the 1980s in order to develop Young’s theme of a regenerated Liverpool turning its back on the magic and mythic city of the past. Lucas (played by Paul Duckworth returns twenty years after leaving Liverpool and meets up with the survivors of the gang of kids who scrabbled and fantasised in the dirt and decay of 1980s Liverpool.  Like Lucas, writer Jeff Young has spent his adult life leaving and returning to Liverpool, most recently coming back for Capital of Culture year, since when he’s stayed.

For the 8-year-olds playing games of make believe by the Leeds-Liverpool canal there are dreams of travel to distant places, re-enactments of scenes from war films seen after bunking into the cinema, home-made planes and fishing for rubbish in the canal (‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’), kisses and fags. They dream of flying, like the wartime bomber pilots, or the old Standard firework that gives the play its title. One member of the gang in particular is flying-mad – Alan (calls himself ‘Icarus’, played by Carl Au with Meccano wings strapped to his back.  He’ll come to a tragic end. The other members of the group, who call themselves The Awkward Bastards, are Alan’s sister, Lizzie, with whom Lucas falls in love, Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) who at eight years is already uncertain about his gender identity, and Spike, an imaginative and impulsive boy whose (literal) entanglement with Lucas has terrible consequences. Rhodri Meillir’s terrific, lurching performance as Spike overshadows everything else in the play, making the sensitive but illiterate child, and the damaged alcoholic he becomes, a compelling, sympathetic figure around whom all the other characters revolve.

Carl Au as Alan 'Icarus' Flynn in Bright Phoenix

Carl Au as Alan ‘Icarus’ Flynn in Bright Phoenix

Twenty years later, Lucas, the only member of the gang to leave the city, returns, and is far from being welcomed by the others.  Gradually we learn of the impact that Lucas has had on the lives of the others, including a series of tragic accidents that tore the group apart. The survivors of the eighties fetch up in the derelict Futurist, where Lizzie (Penny Layden) is camped out, attempting to bring the cinema back to life and revive the wild, rebel spirit of their childhood days. ‘Do you live in magical places?’  she asks, a question that goes to the core of Jeff Young’s vision in this play. Bright Phoenix has been described as Jeff Young’s love letter to his Liverpool, populated by the kind of people with whom he feels an emotional kinship, and set in a place for which he holds a genuine affection.In a recent interview, Young said:

My favourite people are people who live on the margins, in the shadows that might get overlooked, as you said, misfits, who are kind of forgotten. The play is about all these kinds of people. There are homeless characters in it, people who are rejected by the educational system. The characters of the play, when they were children, were really wild and rebellious. When we meet them as adults; we meet them three times: as kids, teenagers and grown-ups. When they are grown-ups, they’re still as wild and rebellious as when they were kids. They still don’t fit in, they still don’t belong. There’s a sense about it that they don’t want to. They deliberately live outside the system. It’s a celebration of that spirit, a celebration of that wild, anarchic spirit. They are non-conformist, they’re anti-establishment, and quite happy to cause trouble!

In the present-day scenes the old Futurist gradually comes to be populated by a motley crew of anarchic rebels. There’s Spike, learning to read and write, spray-painting poetry on the walls; Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) is a cross-dressing torch singer who observes of regenerated Liverpool: ‘We’ve got cafes. Cafes with chairs outside. You don’t get that in Paris’; and wandering in and out is Cathy Tyson in an understated role as a bag lady, Elsie, who remembers when she was beautiful.  She has one great song in the production.

These scenes depend critically on staging that convinces the audience that, amidst the dereliction,  there is magic in the air, but it has to be said that few of the sequences really take flight. It ought to work, as Ovid ‘s poetry is graffitied on the walls, as gorgeously-dressed Stephen sings swooning torch songs from the balcony, and  Lizzie’s Free Radio broadcasts rebellion across Liverpool ‘s airwaves.

But it never really comes together.  The production feels sluggish, stuttering from one scene to the next and between the past and the present.  The occupied Futurist seems under-occupied on stage: too few people, too many halting pauses between scenes. The music is good: compositions by Martin Heslop are played with panache by flautist and singer Laura J Martin and multi-instrumentalist Vidar Norheim (who was, the Everyman notes, voted Norway’s most promising songwriter in 2011).

Jeff Young in the bistro at the Everyman (Liverpool Echo)

Jeff Young

In the aforementioned interview, Jeff Young claimed that Bright Pheonix was a metaphor:

It’s a metaphor for believing in certain values and those values are cultural and about community and that collective spirit. That kind of place is about bringing people together and the importance of the crowd, instead of living in isolation. What makes places like that really powerful is not just the films that are being shown on the screen. It’s the fact that there are 50 or 100 people collectively gathered in there and that matters. The energy of the people together in that room.

The trouble with this production was that the energy and collective spirit to which Young refers just didn’t come across.  When the police move in to close down the occupation, you don’t feel any sense of loss. Young has said (in a recent post on Seven Streets) that he wants people to look afresh at their city, and to re-connect with places that form part of his Liverpool mythology: ‘I want people to explore those places and spaces again. To consider what public space is – what is it and how should it be used.’

Dave Sinclair, Bibby's shortly before closure

Dave Sinclair, Bibby’s shortly before closure

There’s certainly a debate to be had about the way the city has changed in the last decade or so – whether it is for the better, how much has really changed, and whether some things have been lost.  But, in my view, Bright Phoenix did not contribute very much to that debate. That Liverpool has changed since the 1980s is indisputable.  Coincidentally, in News From Nowhere this week I came across a book of brilliant photographs of the city in that decade taken by Dave Sinclair, who was working as the official photographer for the Militant newspaper in the city at the time. His book, Liverpool in the 1980s, contains memory-jolting images of the people, streets, derelict factories, docks and protests that gave Liverpool a very different image nationally in those days.

Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s

Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s

In a preface, Sinclair tells how, after leaving Alsop Comprehensive in 1976 half-way through his A-levels, he webnt to work at Kwiksave on County Road, stacking shelves.  After three years he went to art college where he learned to draw, but most importantly became interested in photography, initially as a form of note-taking for his drawings. He found inspitation, too, in books:

Liverpool Central Library had a fantastic collection of photography books, and I’d spend many hours after college poring over photographs.  Cartier Bresson was there, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, William Klein, Eugene Smith and many Europeans, too, including Don McCullin.  Loads of brilliant books taking up some serious shelf space.

I wish those who now advocate library closures could read that.  Sinclair became especially interested in Liverpool’s urban landscape while studying.  In 1983, he went to Newport in South Wales to study photography and by the beginning of the Miners’ Strike in March 1984 he was spending a lot of time in the Welsh Valleys ‘which was going through something very similar to Liverpool economically, albeit with more hills and space’.  Although his photographs of striking miners were being published in socialist newspapers, the college lecturers didn’t regard them as art.  So he left, and was soon working for the Militant newspaper, travelling the country documenting struggles and strikes.  But he was ciontinually drawn back to his home town where Militant councillors had taken over the leadership of the Labour council, and were coming into conflict not only with Margaret Thatcher’s government, but also with the Labour party leadership for refusing to set a budget. The book contains 160 superb photos taken during the hours that Sinclair spent walking around Liverpool, exploring the landscape of dereliction, but gaining increasing confidence in capturing people.

Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal '82

Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal ’82

In the days before different attitudes toward photographing children in the street, many of the photographs feature children like the young gang in Bright Phoenix – the one above could almost be a scene from the play.

Dave Sinclair went on  to work as the official photographer for Tower Hamlets council in London.  When he went part-time in 2007 he had the opportunity to catalogue his archive, which he placed on the photo-sharing site, Flickr. The photos in the book have been selected from his Flickr photostream.

Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s

Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s

Liverpool has changed – our walk from my favourite restaurant to the Everyman reflected this fact in microcosm: the bustling restaurants (with chairs outside!), LiPa, the street art, the Philharmonic Hall renovation, the huge student apartment block going up on the corner of Hardman Street, and the new Everyman itself.  There’s a debate, of course, about how much this is for the better – there may be plenty of new jobs in the city centre in those restaurants, cafes and hotels that cater for the tourists who now flock to the city and the thousands who pour forth from the cruise liners that dock here weekly.  Down river dredging works have started for the Liverpool2 superport which will allow access for post-Panamax size container ships, reversing Liverpool’s long decline as a port.

Surprisingly, much of Liverpool’s renaissance – symbolized by Capital of Culture year – has held up, despite the banking crash that started that same year.  The rub is that in this new economy, many of the jobs in services and tourism are low-paid, part-time or on zero-hours contracts. But what is mostly taking the shine off the city’s renaissance is the government’s policy of austerity and public spending cuts.

Meanwhile – does anyone want to buy an iconic but derelict cinema on Liverpool’s most mythical street?

The Futurist in 1954The Futurist interior

The Futurist in 1954

The Futurist interior todayThe Futurist today

Inside the Futurist today

The Futurist opened on 16th September 1912 as the Lime Street Picture House, an upmarket city centre cinema. Until its closure in 1982, the Futurist was considered to be one of the most luxurious cinemas on the circuit, originally housing a full orchestra to accompany silent films and a prestigious first floor café, with a foyer lined with Sicilian marble. It was the first in the city to show wide screen Cinemascope films. With a Georgian-style façade and a French Renaissance interior, the auditorium was designed to have the effect of a live theatre with rich architectural detailing and plaster mouldings. Now the interior is probably unsalvageable. Whether the façade can be preserved, and Lime Street rejuvenated is another matter. Perhaps we need some artistic and determined young people to occupy it?

And does a building hold the memories of those who have spent time within its walls? Maybe so.  I certainly have memories of seeing films at the Futurist in the seventies.  But I have even stronger memories of times spent inside another of Liverpool’s iconic buildings, also now derelict, in the 1980s – a building I revisited last week.  More in the next post.

Alex Cox gets into the Futurist

See also

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

‘The harp and the kora appear to us like old instruments, designed for quieter sparser times’, instruments which ‘can seem out of place in this cacophonous world’, writes Andy Morgan in the sleeve-notes to Clychau Dibon, the album that took the folk-roots world by storm last year.  In the magnificent surroundings of the Concert Room in Liverpool’s St Georges Hall the gorgeous music created by these two musicians from superficially-different cultures enthralled a rapt audience as they braided together notes and songs from each of their traditions to reveal unexpected commonalities between the mountains and coasts of Wales and the shores of Senegal.

An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps
An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps

Around 5,000 years ago a hunter sat idly twanging the string of his bow and the idea of the harp was born. Egyptian tomb paintings show musicians playing various size and style harps. and remains of early harp-like instruments have been excavated at the site of the Sumerian city of Ur (the Golden Lyre of Ur) and in Babylonia. From Egypt, the harp migrated along trade routes across north Africa and, in the form of the West African kora – an instrument with 21 strings made from the tough gourd of the calabash – gave rise to a rich musical tradition perpetuated to this day by descendants of the griots of Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and Mali – the equivalents of the Welsh bards.

The harp occupies a central place in the rich cultures of both West Africa and Wales and both nations share a bardic tradition of oral history expressed through music, song and verse.The frame harp first appeared in medieval western Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries; in Wales there has an unbroken tradition of of harp playing for nine centuries. Like the West African griots, Welsh bards, accompanying themselves on the harp, sang, recited poems and narrated stories that have transmitted the legends of Wales down the generations. The Robert ap Huw manuscript from the late 16th century is the oldest written collection of harp music in the world.

A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510
A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita had been brought together by Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, in 2012 in a project designed to braid music of the kora with that of the Welsh harp – vibrant threads envisaged as a multicoloured tapestry.  To begin with, the plan was for a recording on which Catrin would partner Toumani Diabate, the world’s greatest exponent of the kora. But circumstances intervened and at short notice Seckou was drafted in for the project. (You can read more about the origins of the project in Andy Morgan‘s feature for fRoots magazine in June 2013). The album, Clychau Dibon, was released in 2013 and by the end of the year had won the album of the year award from fRoots magazine.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)

The duo’s concert in Liverpool on Wednesday evening  was, we agreed afterwards, one of the best we had ever attended.  Catrin and Seckou came out onto a stage on which two koras and two Welsh harps (one concert size, one smaller electro harp) stood waiting.  The lights dimmed, and the two musicians began to develop the blissful melodies heard on their album.  The way it works in each of the pieces they have developed together is that one partner takes the lead with a tune from their native tradition, while the other fills and improvises around the edges; then, almost imperceptibly, the other musician begins to develop a theme from their own culture.  By the end of the piece the melodies are so entwined that it’s almost impossible to distinguish where on ends and the other begins, or who is playing which theme.

‘Les Bras De Mer’ (live at Theatr Mwldan, March 2013):

Writing about ‘Les Bras De Mer’ in the CD sleeve notes, Andy Morgan explains how the pair braid Welsh and West African themes to create their music:

The island of Carabane at the mouth of the Casamance River and the wide Bae Aberteifi, or Cardigan Bay, are magical places for Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch. Those Bras de Mer (‘Arms of the Sea’) inspire the currents that flow through their fingers.

When they were working on the song Bras de Mer, Seckou remembered this old Welsh tune that he’d once played with another Welsh harpist by the name of Llio Rhydderch, but he couldn’t remember its name. Producer John Hollis found it on the Internet. It was called‘Conset Ifan Glen Teifi’, ‘The Concert of Ifan Glen Teifi’. Teifi is the name of the river that runs through Cardigan. It’s a lush and beautiful Welsh waterway and the tune fitted Seckou’s Manding melody ‘Niali Bagna’, named after an old Wolof king, like a hand fits an old glove. Seckou then added an old Manding melody called ‘Bolong’, meaning ‘The Arms of the Sea’. Finally Catrin overlaid ‘Clychau Aberdyfi’ or ‘The Bells of Aberdovey’. Everything found its place in the whole without coercion, like the pieces in a puzzle or the water of many rivers flowing into each other for their final journey to the sea. That’s how most of Clychau Dibon came together. Strange symmetries. Strange coincidences.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)
Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)

Seckou Keita was born in southern Senegal, in Ziguinchor, a town on the banks of the great Casamance River. He’s a descendant of one of the great West African griot families: his mother was the daughter of a griot whose lineage stretched back centuries, while his father was a Keita, a descendent of the great Manding king Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in the 14th century. Catrin Finch, meanwhile, was born in Aberystwyth, of English and German parents, and grew up in a tiny village near Aberaeron, on the shores of Cardigan Bay.

By the time Catrin and Seckou joined forces, both were recognised as among the finest players of their chosen instrument. Andy Morgan again:

Harp and a kora, woman and a man, Celt and Manding, European and African, written scores and word of mouth; you might expect Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch to be separated by unbridgeable cultural chasms, but you’d be wrong. Go deep and you’ll find strange symmetries and fabulous coincidences that bind West Africa and Wales; bards and griots, djinns and faeries, the Casamance River and the Teifi, Sundiata Keita and the 10th century Welsh King Hywel Dda, the list goes on.

Both players draw upon their ancient traditions. One song from Clychau Dibon performed at the Concert Room was ‘Bamba’, a tune dedicated by Seckou to Amadou Bamba, the early 20th century mystic and Sufi religious leader from Senegal who led a pacifist struggle against French colonialism: a man who devoted his life to the welfare of others, whose deeds have been praised in numerous tales, poems – and songs by West African musicians such as Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Orchestra Baobab.

‘Bamba’ played at Cardiff WOMEX in 2013:

Another example of how Catrin and Seckou build bridges between Welsh melodies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the traditional music of Senegal, Gambia and Mali of roughly from the same period came with their performance of ‘Robert Ap Huw meets Nialing Sonko’.  This was a collaboration that began when Finch dug out a melody called ‘Caniad Gosteg’ from Robert Ap Huw’s 16th century manuscripts of transcripts for harp. Keita listened and responded with a tune he named after the Manding king Nialing Sonko (famous for collecting too much tax from his people, as Seckou explained at the concert) because the tune echoed the pure Casamance kora style of his youth and Sonko was a Casamance king. Finally, Seckou added to the mix an exercise that all aspiring kora players have to master, ‘Kelefa Koungben’.  More history there, too:  Kelefa was another Manding leader from the time when the kora itself was born.  What’s remarkable, on CD and in live performance, is how seamless was the fit between a courtly tune from medieval Wales and the elegant dignity of a kora melody from a bygone age.

One of the most thrilling moments in this enthralling concert was the duo’s performance of the most inventive piece on their CD, ‘Future Strings’. This began in the region of European classical music as Finch explored the theme from ‘Prelude from the Asturias’ by the Spanish composer Albéniz, but soon spiralled off into something almost avant-garde as Finch ran her nail down a bass string and performed a 47-string-long glissandi before knocking out rhythms on the frame of her harp as if it were a conga drum. These gymnastics were then echoed by Keita, performing all kinds of tricks on his strings beating the gourd of the kora. At one point in the piece, Finch was plucking both harps simultaneously.

Here’s an official video of Catrin and Seckou performing ‘Future Strings’ live:

Though most of the pieces performed by Finch and Keita at the concert were from the Clychau Dibon CD, they did introduce several new tunes, including two which – unlike those on the CD – included vocalisations. Introducing ‘Tryweryn’, Finch insisted that – as a Liverpool audience – we should not take it personally.  For this was a piece inspired by the construction, in 1965, of a reservoir (we’ve passed it many times, on the from Bala to Trawsfynydd) which flooded the Tryweryn valley to provide water for Liverpool. The residents of Capel Celyn, one of the last monoglot Welsh-speaking villages were forcibly removed from homes and land owned by families there for centuries.  It was the end of bitter nine-year long struggle to save the village after  a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was passed by Parliament despite bitter opposition by 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs .

Protest in Liverpool attempting to stop the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Protest in Liverpool against the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Catrin spoke of how Tryweryn ushered in a period of bitter conflict in Wales during which the reservoir dam was bombed by Welsh nationalists. Bessie Braddock, a Labour MP for Liverpool at the time, dismissed the plight of Capel Celyn as something that would, ‘make some disturbance of the inhabitants inevitable…but that is progress.’ The remnants of that time can still be seen as you drive through Wales, she said, in fading Welsh Nationalist slogans.

Cofiwch Dryweryn' 'Remember Tryweryn' Welsh nationalist graffiti on roadside wall near Llanrhystud Ceredigion

‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ -‘Remember Tryweryn’ – Welsh nationalist slogan on a roadside wall near Llanrhystud, Ceredigion

Welsh anger over the drowning of Capel Celyn arose again in 2005 when Liverpool City Council issued an apology for its actions: ‘We realise the hurt of 40 years ago when the Tryweryn Valley was transformed into a reservoir. For our insensitivity we apologise and hope the historic and sound relationship between Liverpool and Wales can be completely restored.

Capel Celyn
Capel Celyn before the flood … and today

Capel Celyn reservoir

This new piece was superb, and represented a quite extraordinary performance by Catrin Finch who at one point simultaneously played both electro harp and the concert harp whilst vocalising memories of the lost homes and flooded valley while Keita added a wordless, soulful vocal.

Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita pla ‘Tryweryn’ at WOMAD 2014

For their encore the duo returned to perform another new number with vocalisations, preceded by a short tutorial about their two instruments.  It left you with the realisation that both are incredibly complex instruments – the concert harp, for instance, as well as having 47 strings, has seven pedals (compared to the two on a piano) which each modulate an octave’s strings in three different ways.

This was an enthralling concert in which Finch and Keita successfully created a blend of two different, yet similar, musical cultures to create a joyous experience. ‘Some people spend a lot of money on illegal substances in order to attain the kind of mood this music evokes’, commented fRoots magazine when reviewing the CD.  Couldn’t put it better!

Afterwards long lines queued for the CD.  I bought one, having enjoyed the album up to that point from a download.  But here was something that made  downloads irrelevant: the CD comes packaged inside a with beautiful hard cover, 32 page full colour booklet, with photos and a knowledgeable introduction by writer and journalist Andy Morgan.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, June 2014

This is a full concert lasting one hour – but note that the performance does not begin until the 15 minute point:

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Cilla and sixties Liverpool: recreation of a mythical city

Cilla and sixties Liverpool: recreation of a mythical city

Sheridan Smith in Cilla

Sheridan Smith in ‘Cilla’

Along with seven million other viewers, watching ITV’s Cilla I was lost.  Not expecting much after previous lacklustre depictions of Liverpool during the Merseybeat boom, I was transported by Sheriden Smith’s scintillating  performance in the lead role of the teenage Cilla Black, by the convincing script and uniformly sound acting. The drama recreated sixties Liverpool with realistic locations and accents, but also captured the essence of a mythical city from which exploded all the promise and excitement of the Mersey sound, heralding a bright new future of youthful liberation. Transfixed by it all from a distance in 1963,  from that time on I was drawn inexorably to a city that seemed aglow with opportunities, and in which I settled four years later.

In three episodes, Cilla  written by Jeff Pope and directed by Paul Whittington, lovingly recreated Liverpool in the early sixties, confining itself to the three years that saw the 17 year-old typist Priscilla White, denizen of beat clubs like the Iron Door and The Cavern, transformed into the 20 year-old Cilla Black after being taken on by Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, recording a series of chart-topping hits beginning with ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ to become Britain’s biggest female pop star of the decade.

I was gripped from the first episode which evoked all the excitement of 1960s Liverpool, recreating an exuberant music scene that thrived in countless clubs like The Cavern in which over three hundred groups such as The Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and Kingsize Taylor and The Dominoes (and The Beatles, of course) belted out versions of American pop, soul rhythm and blues and soul numbers learned from singles brought over from New York by the ‘Cunard Yanks’, scouse stewards who worked on Cunard transatlantic liners sailing from the port. This was music the rest of Britain, reliant on the BBC Light Programme’s bland playlist, never got to hear.

This was a city in which young lads bought guitars, formed groups, and learned to play the music they heard on the singles brought across the Atlantic by the Cunard crews – raunchy numbers by names that would not become familiar to the rest of the country until years later – rock’n’rollers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, blues men like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and early Motown artists such as The Miracles, The Marvelettes and Barrett Strong. Rocking along in the audiences were teenage girls like Beryl Marsden and Cilla White – girls who knew the songs inside out and soon were on stage with the lads, belting out numbers with abandon.  Everyone – performers and audience alike – found in these lunchtime or evening sessions a release from the drudgery of their daytime work in factory or office.

The Clayton Squares at the Cavern

The Clayton Squares at The Cavern, early sixties (note the seated audience)

Growing up in a mildly repressive and fairly joyless household in rural Cheshire, the explosion of the Mersey sound and the arrival of the Beatles bearing aloft the banners of youth and freedom, and thumbing their nose at everything staid or square meant Liverpool became for me a golden city, a beacon of liberation.

The city I found when I arrived in 1967 was, of course, very different from this mythical image.  Black, soot-encrusted buildings, endless streets of run-down, red-brick terraces; a port city where already the docks were dying and waterside warehouses crumbled.  The Pier Head was a far cry from the image that Gerry Marsden’s anthem had conjured in my mind: a wind-whipped wasteland where crowds huddled on the land-stage, waiting for the Birkenhead ferry.

The Cavern Club in Mathew Street, December 1963

The Cavern Club in Mathew Street, December 1963

Yet – it was a vibrant place, even if the beat groups had mostly gone and The Cavern and the rest of the club scene was past its heyday. I found the Liverpool Scene and their weekly gatherings at O’Connor’s Tavern, poetry and drama at the Everyman.  I lived in Liverpool 8, the elegant frontages of its Georgian streets disguising the landlord neglect and disrepair that you found inside. I relished the many colours of Granby Street, the jostling crowds at Paddy’s Market, and found amidst the poverty and dereliction a place of great good humour, a teeming mix of identities, laughter and conversation on the buses and in the shops, jokes and singing in the pubs, a pride in the city’s sense of difference – and the football. Two teams, two cathedrals (one unfinished, one an angular modernist masterpiece): in pub singalongs, when it came to ‘In My Liverpool Home’ (as it always did), some would sing ‘If you want a cathedral we’ve got one to spare’, while others, fewer in number back then, marked their rejection of the city’s religious divide by singing ‘we’ve got two to spare’.

Cilla, Billy J Kramer & Dakotas, Beatles, Searchers all-Merseyside special edition Thank Your Lucky Stars 1963

Cilla Black, Billy J Kramer & Dakotas, The Beatles, and The Searchers in an all-Merseyside special edition of ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, 1963

In the first episode, Cilla works by day in a typing pool but at night checks coats at The Cavern and haunts other clubs, angling for a spot on stage. The Beatles have already been spotted by Brian Epstein, and Ringo (who has already replaced Pete Best as the band’s drummer at Epstein’s behest) puts Cilla in touch with him. The Beatles angle is not overplayed – we only see glimpses of them on stage, or as part of Cilla’s social circle. Cilla dreams of being taken on by Epstein, but it seems that Beryl Marsden has beaten her to it.  However, local lad Bobby Willis (played by Aneurin Barnard) is drawn to Cilla, and offers to be her manager.  His first attempt at negotiating terms leads to Cilla taking a pay cut for her appearances.

Sheridan Smith pictured filming Cilla in Liverpool. Credit ITV Granada

Sheridan Smith filming ‘Cilla’ in Liverpool  (photo: ITV Granada)

There’s a lot of convincing location shooting (aided by some effective CGI). Cilla’s family lived above a barber’s on Scotland Road with no separate entrance of their own (her mother always hated that, and would insist that visitors came round the back way). The working class streets around Scottie Road are long gone, demolished in the massive slum clearances of the late sixties that saw people rehoused in the Everton tower blocks or out in Kirkby – so most of the filming was done in the south end.  Cilla’s home was recreated on Duke Street, while for Ringo’s home there were several shots of the lovely terrace that runs the length of Yates Street, off Mill Street, with its raised landing. (Incidentally, the street – one of three built to house workers at the large flour mill that still operates opposite the houses – was saved from destruction by the residents themselves, who formed themselves into the Corn and Yates Street Housing Co-op).

Cilla Black's home above the barber's on Scotland Road

Cilla Black’s home above the barber’s on Scotland Road

The growing romantic relationship between Cilla and Bobby Willis (who did, finally become her manager after Epstein’s death – and her husband, until his death in 1999) is presented with just the slightest touch of schmaltz, and a great deal of humour. Example: after Cilla’s made her first record and her docker dad Mr White has reluctantly agreed her name-change to Black, his workmates tell him he’s ‘a failed minstrel . . . doesn’t know if he’s Black or White’. (Remember the Black and White Minstrel Show? Different times, for sure.)

And here was something I’d nearly forgotten – the religious divisions in the city that meant a Catholic girl like Cilla wasn’t meant to be knocking around with a Protestant like Bobby.

The origins of Liverpool’s religious divide lay in its sizeable population of Irish origin, the result of large-scale immigration in the 19th century, which made it a city divided, like Glasgow, with Catholics and Protestants sticking rigidly to their communities and frowning on intermarriage. There were Liverpool Protestant Party councillors until 1973, and Irish Nationalist councillors had represented the Scottie Road area until after the Second World War (while the MP for Scotland Road was, until 1929, an Irish Nationalist). I remember when I arrived in the city in 1967, being taken aback by the annual Orange Lodge marches and the ‘No Popery’ and ‘LOL’ slogans painted on walls along Netherfield Road.

Cilla came from Catholic Scotland Road, where her mother ran a market stall, while her boyfriend Bobby Willis was a Proddy. This delicate issue was treated with typical scouse humour in the drama: in one scene Cilla’s dad takes Bobby to one side for a serious talk:

Cilla’s Dad: ‘I had a word with her mother and I broke it to her that you’re not a Catholic.’

Bobby: ‘Look, Mr White, I’ve had it up to ‘ere with religion.  Proddy? Catholic? What does it matter?  I care a lot about your daughter: I’m gonna look after her, and I’m gonna respect her, and that’s the best I can do.’

Cilla’s Dad stares at him: ‘I was just gonna say, she’s accepted the situation.  But I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention your persuasion to any of her aunties.  And there’s just one more thing.  Tell the wife you support Everton and not Liverpool.’

Sheriden Smith and Aneurin in Cilla

Sheriden Smith and Aneurin Barnard as Bobby Willis

Bobby was also a singer and songwriter: he did backing vocals on her chart topping hits and wrote the B-side (‘Shy of Love’) to her first single, Paul McCartney’s ‘Love of the Loved’.  His relationship with Cilla strengthened in the second episode, which focused entirely on the few months between Cilla’s disastrous first audition for Epstein to her eventual signing with him, and having a No 1 hit with ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’.  This episode was beautifully composed – a masterpiece that could stand alone – opening with Cilla seeming to have lost her one chance of stardom and ending with her triumphant recording of  ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’

Cilla had been introduced to Epstein by John Lennon, who persuaded him to audition her. Her first audition (the final scene of episode 2) was a failure, partly because of nerves, and partly the fault of the Beatles. She chose to do ‘Summertime’, a song she adored and had sung with the Big Three, but had not rehearsed with the Beatles, who played it in the wrong key.

But she gets a second chance with Epstein, travelling to Abbey Road studios in London for her first recording session with Beatles producer George Martin.  She sings McCartney’s ‘Love of the Loved’ and halfway through the song Martin halts the recording and leaves the booth to have a quiet word with Cilla: could she try not to pronounce ‘there’ as ‘thur’?  They do another take, but this time she’s singing ‘care’ as ‘cur’. When released the single failed to make the top 30.

But for her second single, Martin offers her the chance of a lifetime – a song  already released in the States by Dionne Warwick, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and one that he had in mind for Shirley Bassey.  In the drama he passes the Warwick single over to Cilla – she already knows it.  It’s one of those Cunard Yank discs that any scouse music fan worth their salt would know.

Bobby is not impressed: it’s a ballad for Christ’s sake!  He predicts she’ll lose all credibility with her Liverpool fans if she doesn’t record something that’s more rock’n’roll. But Cilla senses the potential in the song and the recording begins.  In a brilliant piece of direction, at this point we only see but do not hear her performance. Bobby has stormed out of the recording studio, but comes back to watch as she sings through the window of the sound-proof studio door.

Cilla Black in December 1963

Cilla Black in December 1963

The couple return to Liverpool to wait for the charts.  Taking the call from Epstein in the phone box across the road, they learn its gone to number one.  It’s only then that director Paul Whittington gives us the recording studio performance of the song with sound, closing the episode on a triumphant high. Indeed, Sheriden Smith’s climactic performance of ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, might just have been even better than Cilla’s.


Sheriden Smith’s performance of ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’

After the memorable closing scene of episode two, I went to YouTube to compare Cilla Black’s version with Dionne Warwick’s.  To my mind, there’s no contest.  In her rendition Warwick sounds younger and less experienced, even though she has three years on Cilla.  In her version, Cilla Black attacks the song with a passion and maturity that belies her twenty years.  But decide for yourself:

Cilla Black’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’

Dionne Warwick’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’

In under three hours of enjoyable television, Cilla conjured up this ‘wondrous place’ that is Liverpool (recalling the title of a song by Billy Fury, the late fifties rock’n’roller from the Dingle whose statue can be found at the Pier Head, and which Paul du Noyer took as the title for his book, the best that has been written about Liverpool and the music it makes). Specifically, Cilla successfully evoked the mythical Liverpool of the Merseybeat boom years – a mythical city of The Beatles et al that drew me and many others to it, including, in 1965, Allen Ginsberg, who made a special detour to see the place which he famously announced was ‘at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe’.

Adrian Henri  later claimed that Ginsberg’s famous statement referred to ‘the cataclysmic effect of the Beatles and Merseybeat in general, while the visual arts (and poetry) benefited from the sheer headiness, the excitement of the time, as well as the attention generated by the music’.  George Melly observed that ‘the ‘Pool’ feels itself closer to Dublin, New York, even Buenos Aires than it does to London…It’s very aware of its own myth and eager to project it’.

I’ll end with a passage or two from Paul du Noyer’s, Wondrous Place, which begins with a remark made by Herman Melville after visiting Liverpool in 1839 :

In the evening, especially when the sailors are gathered in great numbers, these streets present a most singular spectacle, the entire population of the vicinity being seemingly turned into them. Hand-organs, fiddles and cymbals, plied by strolling musicians, mix with the songs of the seamen, the babble of women and children and the whining of beggars. From the various boarding houses… proceeds the noise of revelry and dancing.

Du Noyer continues:

Liverpool is more than a place where music happens. Liverpool is a reason why music happens. When the author of Moby Dick sailed to Liverpool from New York he found a town obsessed by entertainment: there was a physical appetite for life and he was shocked by its ferocity. […] What is it about Liverpool? Is it something in the water? Why does so much music come from here? Why do they talk like that? Why are Scousers always up to something? […]

Liverpool now is the same as it always was: a turbulent, teeming city, alive with vice and excitement. Old Melville knew it as a seaport above all: young Moby might not have been aware of any river, but he was witnessing its legacy all the same. Life at sea is hard. When sailors are ashore their preoccupation is with entertainment. The port of Liverpool was made to supply Jack’s every need, whether it be for tarts or tarpaulin. Naturally the town was prepared to offer entertainment too. And that readiness became a civic tradition of the town, an acquired characteristic of its people that shaped their very nature. That’s how Liverpool became the cradle of British pop. It was always a town where entertainment was actively sought. The appetite was sharper and the demand was, well, more demanding. […]

Deep in the heart of the place,’ says a local writer Ronnie Hughes, ‘a constant pop song keeps getting written, which lifts its spirits when sometimes it seems nothing else can. This is not a place that’s given up. It’s a proud, boastful Celtic city where the lads dream big and talk big and keep writing a big, tuney, hopeful song that could only come from Liverpool.’

Paul du Noyer concludes his book with this statement:

I rather suspect there are more wonders to come from this wondrous place.


Admirably succinct praise for Cilla from Martin Colyer’s Five Things blog .

You Gorra Luv It!

Sheridan Smith is Cilla Black. Yet another terrific central portrayal by a British actress, here in a tale that could fall flat – like biopics often do – but is great for these reasons: a) The art direction, set dressing and period clothes are never lingered on in that “We’ve spent a bundle on this, we have to show it off” way. They do the job incidentally, while being great to look at. b) There’s a rich seam of humour running through the script, a lightness of touch that tells the story whilst avoiding literalness. c) The music feels live (Smith sang live throughout the whole of the first episode). She also sings all the studio takes and the cute build-up to hearing her finally sing “Anyone Who Had A Heart” – held to the end of part two, even though we see her recording it much earlier, ends the episode brilliantly. The session, overseen by George Martin, has a fabulously-cast bunch of Abbey Road sessioneers with cardigans, suits, glasses and thinning hair.

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