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. Continue reading “Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey”
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, Frederick Richards Leyland, a Liverpool shipping magnate from Speke Hall 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. Continue reading “Whistler’s falling-out with the shipping magnate from Speke Hall”
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. Continue reading “The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past”
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
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).
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
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
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
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
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 1954
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
- Liverpool, Bright Phoenix: a tour by Jeff Young: Seven Streets
- Jeff Young’s notebooks: his personal blog
- Liverpool’s Everyman theatre wins Stirling prize: Guardian
- How buildings learn: Evolving The Ev: A Sense of Place blog
- Great Expectations: A Sense of Place blog on the Stirling win
- The Futurist Cinema 1912 – 1982: a resource to promote & Inspire the restoration of Liverpool’s first purpose built cinema.
- Dave Sinclair’s photostream on Flickr
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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:
- The Drowning Season: excellent post about the Tryweryn on the Footless Crow blog
- Flooding the Tryweryn Valley: BBC Welsh history clip
- The village drowned to give another nation water: Independent, 2010
- Tryweryn: 50 years since bombing of reservoir dam: BBC News
- How the kora came to mankind: extract from Andy Morgan’s book, Finding the One
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, 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
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 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 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
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 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
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.
Ethel Singleton and the Princess (Liverpool Daily Post)
I received a sad email today that brought memories flooding back of a different and (sometimes, it seems) lost world of solidarity. In 1968 I was a student at Liverpool University, hoping to become a journalist and meanwhile dabbling a bit in that line of work. I learned from housing activist friends the astonishing news that the university had a bit of a sideline going, too: owning slum properties in which working class families were surviving in conditions more redolent of the 1860s than the 1960s. The tenants, however, had formed a tenants’ association and started a rent strike. The secretary of the tenants’ association was Ethel Singleton, and this post is a tribute to her.
For today’s email came from Ethel’s daughter, Kim Singleton, informing me of her mother’s death: ‘After battling Alzheimers for a number of years, Mum died last night, peacefully in her sleep aged 81′. This is the story of how I came to know Ethel, her husband Jim and their three children.
The student newspaper expose of Liverpool University’s slum housing
I wrote this about their circumstances in a piece for the Liverpool University student newspaper:
Melville Place is about five minutes walk from the Union, the street of downcast houses, some of them boarded up and rotting, can be seen from the fourth-floor windows of the Social Studies Department.
The street looks much like the rest of Liverpool 8, and, like much of the area, houses people living in squalid and insanitary conditions reeking of the Victorian age.
But Melville Place is special, for a good number of these houses are owned by the University.
Between 1955 and 1960 the University bought up property in the street as part of its precinct-development plans, bought it apparently without inspecting it, and handed lt over to Liverpool Improved Houses Ltd to be managed until demolition in 1970.
Since then, the residents say, no one from the University has been round. They naturally feel bitter: “As far as they’re concerned,” says Mrs. Singleton, at number fifty, “we’re just a nuisance because we’re on property they want knocked down. ”
Mrs. Singleton lives at number fifty with her husband and three children. Her house is one of those owned by the University and managed by Liverpool Improved Houses Ltd. It’s a three storey, 7-roomed house, but the family live in two rooms on the ground floor and sleep in one bedroom on the first floor. The top floor is a wreck: walls just crumble when touched, huge cracks gape in the walls, a door leans on its hinges, and the back bedroom floorboards dip perceptibly as the whole building leans outwards. Rain pours in through the roof.
Liverpool University’s slums in 1968
In fact, the University owned a total of 130 slum properties adjacent to the campus, in which families experienced appalling housing conditions. The University had bought up streets of dilapidated Victorian terraces in advance of plans to extend the university campus. But it was struggling to rehouse the tenants and the housing association it employed to maintain the properties was failing to carry out repairs. In October 1968, hundreds of tenants, spread across thirty six Abercromby streets, had joined the Abercromby Tenants Association and had began to withhold all of their rent in protest at their situation. News of the strike reached students at the University, who began to assist the campaign by leafleting and providing a room in the union for meetings.
The Doyle kids, sharied one bedroom in a University-owned house
In the weeks that followed, while the rent strike continued, there were meetings between student representatives and University officials. But the University’s position remained unwavering: it was not directly responsible for the state of the properties – that was the job of the housing association employed by the University – and it had been assured that the City Council anticipated being able to rehouse all the families concerned within twelve months. “It is, of course, very regrettable that people should have to live in these conditions”, the University conceded.
Students join the tenants’ protest
When students and tenants learned that the new Senate House, situated a stone’s throw from the University-owned slums, was to be officially opened by Princess Alexandra, the reaction was outrage. Resentment among the tenants about Senate House had been growing as they saw the expensive new administrative block being built on their doorstep, complaining that huge amounts of money were being spent on it whilst their homes rotted. Now, to add insult to injury, £5000 was being lavished on preparations for the royal visit. The tenants, supported by students and ATACC, the city-wide Tenants Coordinating Committee, decided to picket the royal opening.
Students and tenants unite to picket Princess Alexandra in Vine Street
On 15 May 1969 over a thousand tenants and students assembled outside Senate House as Princess Alexandra arrived to open the building. Later, the princess chose to visit nearby Vine Street. Across the entrance to the street was a banner with the words,” Come and visit the slums of Vine Street.”
Liverpool Echo: ‘Slums this way eyeopener for Princess’
The protest received national media coverage. Even the Daily Mail gave it front page treatment (the lesson being, perhaps, if you’re planning an effective protest, do it within earshot of royalty):
Mrs Ethel Singleton, 35, secretary of the Abercromby Tenants’ Association, which organised the demonstration with students’ help, said : “The Princess need not have come to talk to us about our grumbles, but she wanted to find out what the demonstration was all about. I explained that the demonstration and the ba nners we were carrying were nothing personal against her. She said she understood. Then we got down to talking about the conditions in our homes.
“When I told her there were no bathrooms, that we had to use outside toilets, and our only water supply was a cold tap, she was really taken aback. She asked how we bathed our children and I told her we did it in a tub in front of the fire.”
The Daily Express: ‘It must be awful, said the Princess’
The December 2009 issue of Nerve, the cultural and social issues magazine published in Liverpool by Catalyst Media, included an article by Jim and Ethel Singleton’s daughter, Kim, entitled ‘Revolting Tenants: The Great Abercromby Rent Strike of ‘69‘.
Not far from Senate House in 1968
A year later, Jim and Ethel Singleton would feature in the documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield’s first film,Who Cares? Made whilst he was a student at Essex University using a borrowed camera, it has been described as, ‘honest, raw and confrontational … a 16-minute black and white observational film that successfully communicates the resentment felt by a close-knit Liverpudlian working class community, angered at the demolition of their homes by the local council and forced to leave a neighbourhood where the same families had been living for generations, relocating to alienating high-rise flats on the outskirts of the city.’ provides a vivid insight into the housing conditions that sparked the demonstration that greeted Princess Alexandra when she opened Senate House.
The Singletons were rehoused and remained active politically; they feature again in Nick Broomfield’s third film, Behind the Rent Strike (1974) about the rent strike undertaken by 3000 tenants in Kirkby in 1973. You can see a video from 2009 of Ethel and Kim Singleton discussing Nick Broomfield’s films Behind the Rent Strike and Who Cares here. This YouTube extract from Behind the Rent Strike features Ethel:
In fact, I can think of no better way to remember Ethel than with than these perceptive words from the film:
Ethel Singleton: ‘Maybe it’s just, Nick, that I’m so sceptical…that the working-class position will ever change. I know it could change, in actual fact – the working-class position could change, but it won’t change through the media. And that’s why I’m so sceptical about the media. It won’t change through films, television, papers — it will not change because as you’ve just said it’s middle-class views. It’s controlled and owned by the middle-class who put across what is in their best interests, so in actual fact I’m very ckeptical about them ever changing the working-class position. They just cannot. The only people who can change the working-class position are the working-class themselves.’
Nick Broomfield: ‘Well what do you think of me making a film down here?’
ES: ‘Well I don’t think anything about it. You can come in, you’ll make it and it’ll have no effect. It’ll make people think for a few minutes and that’s all. But the position of the working-class won’t change. It won’t change by you making a film, or for that matter any other film-maker coming in. It just won’t make any difference. There’s been dozens of film-makers we’ve seen on local estates.’
NB: ‘Why do you think I’m making it then?’
ES: ‘I’m asking you that! Why are you making it? It’s only personal self-satisfaction, that’s all that it must be. How can you get the injustice of it all unless you actually feel deeply enough about it? And the only way to feel deeply enough about it is for it to be bloody well happening to you — and it’s not happening to you, because at the end of the three months you know that you can go back home.
I mean, how many of the working-class are actually working at something that they want to do? We have this constant economic pressure on us all the time, of trying to make ends meet, of trying to give your kids the best that you can, and the best is very little, believe me. The process of it never changes. They live a constant illusion: all the time that somehow, someday they’re gonna get out of it. Or maybe their children will do better than them. And that’s why there’s that constant struggle by many parents to try and get their kids out. But it is just really an illusion, because our position never, ever changes. Never.’
- International Women’s Day – Ethel Singleton (Museum of Liverpool blog)
When the Liverpool One complex opened in 2008 it incorporated a once-shabby open space named Chavasse Park, named in commemoration of Noel Chavasse, son of a former bishop of Liverpool and the only man to be twice awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery during the First World War. Knowing something of the extraordinary acts of bravery that earned him the double VC, and having had read some of his remarkable letters home from the Western Front, I knew his grave was one place I wanted to visit on my recent WW1 trip.
This hero from Liverpool wasn’t even a frontline soldier, but a medical officer. However, he was awarded the double VC for some of the bravest and most unselfish acts of the entire war.
Noel Chavasse grew up in Liverpool, where his father was the Bishop of Liverpool (he launched the project to build the Anglican cathedral). Noel qualified as a doctor and was 30 when the war broke out. Like most families, the Chavasses were deeply affected by the war. Noel’s brothers, Bernard, Aidan and Christopher, also served in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Noel and Aidan were not to return – Noel died in Flanders, and Aidan was one of the Flanders missing (his name is recorded on the Menin Gate at Ypres).
Aidan Chavasse: one of the missing, his name recorded on the Menin Gate, Ypres
With his background in medicine, Noel Chavasse served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as Medical Officer to the Kings Liverpool Regiment in Flanders. He was in the trenches at Sanctuary Wood, near Ypres, and experienced the horrors of the battle of Passchendaele. Throughout his time in Flanders he wrote home regularly to his family. These letters provide a graphic and moving account of trench warfare and record his increasingly critical observations on the brutality and waste of the war. His father, the Bishop, had some of them printed and privately circulated back in England.
Noel Chavasse’s letters form the core of Ann Clayton’s book, Chavasse: Double VC, from which these examples are taken.
Marching away to war
The Liverpool Scottish, leaving for the front in 1914
‘Thank you for the parcel of clothes for my RAMC boys. They are not Liverpool Scottish lads, but are detached from a St Helens Field Ambulance (5 of them) to look after water carts etc. They are poor boys and are not well off like most of our Liverpool Scottish, so they need better clothing and are very grateful. This is our last night in Old England. I don’t quite know what lies ahead, and I rather dread the thought of roughing it through the winter, but I have got devoted to the battalion. I have inoculated and vaccinated them, had all their teeth put right, and settled up their feet, and I think now that as far as fitness goes, they want a lot of beating.’
‘Even marching from the station [St Omer] yesterday through the crowded streets, they marched past as if they were marching from Sefton Park, but finer and steadier than ever Liverpool people saw them march. I believe and hope fervently that the Liverpool Scottish will ‘get into it shortly’, and that if they do a great boost will be given to recruitment.’
– 5 November 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p71.
We hate the war worse than we thought we could.
The Liverpool Scottish under fire at Bellewaarde Farm, 16 June 1915
Noel Chavasse records the death of Captain Arthur Twentyman, the first Liverpool Scottish soldier to die. The Liverpool Scottish occupied trenches in the Kemmel area, five miles south of Ypres. They suffered their first fatality on 29 November – Captain Arthur Twentyman, killed while attempting to return to British lines. The combination of severe winter and trench warfare soon depleted the strength of the Liverpool Scottish. From an establishment of 26 officers and 829 men recorded in November, the battalion had dwindled to 370 able-bodied men by January 1915.
‘We heard the sad news by telephone from the trenches. He had been over rash – he was screened by a hedge, but not sufficiently, and was shot through the heart. I feel very sad about it because I liked him the best of the whole lot, and he has always been invariably kind to me… and I miss him very much. That evening the Colonel told me he wished me to take my stretcher-bearers up, and bring him down. At first the zip, zip of bullets hitting the sandbags close to one’s head was rather disconcerting, then it became just part of the general environment. At one point we had to get past a gate where a sniper lay in wait. I went by doing the 100 well within 10 sec…. We had to rest 5 times while crossing a ploughed field as the Captain was very heavy on the improvised Stretcher (2 poles and a greatcoat). On the way I saw a group of 10 dead Frenchmen. Next evening, the men came out of the trenches. The young chaps were haggard, white, and stooped like old men, but they had done gallantly…. 2 men have lost their nerve….Two days ago the King inspected us from a motor car, and now we are to go back to the trenches, tomorrow night. We all hate the war worse than we thought we could. Today, we are the supports. We are on a hill and look over a plain towards the spires of Ypres, for all the world like Oxford from the Hinksey Hill.
– 5 December 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p80.
Knee-deep in mud: another graphic account of life in the trenches
Liverpool Scottish trench, 1915
‘Our men have had a terrible experience of 72 hours in trenches, drenched through and in some places knee-deep in mud and water. To see them come out, and line up, and march off is almost terrible. They don’t look like strong young men. They are muddled to the eyes. Their coats are plastered with mud and weigh an awful weight with the water which has soaked in. Their backs are bent, and they stagger and totter along with the weight of their packs. Their faces are white and haggard and their eyes glare out from mud which with short, bristly beards give them an almost beast like look. They look like wounded or sick wild things. I have seen nothing like it. The collapse after rowing or running is nothing to it. Many, too many, who are quite beat, have to be told they must walk it. Then comes a nightmare of a march for about 2 to 4 miles, when the men walk in a trance…and in about 3 days, they are as fit as ever again.’
– 11 December 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p82.
The tortured city: Noel Chavasse describes the effects of the German shelling of Ypres
The ruins of Ypres Market Square, 1915
‘Every now and then there passes overhead a thunderous shriek, like an express train tearing through a small station. This is followed by a dull roar, these are the real Jack Johnsons on their way to level an ancient city to the ground. I don’t know what thunderbolts of wrath were hurled on the cities of the plains, but they could not have been more terrible than those forged by the Hun. We hear them pass all day and we hear them crash and looking over tangled and shell-pocked fields we can see great pillars of smoke and dust rising from the tortured city.
It is wonderful to see how quickly but how graciously Nature tries to hide the hideous scars made by man in the countryside. I have now lived for a month in a shattered village 400 yards behind our trenches. When we came at the beginning of April, all around was a stark, staring, hideous abomination of desolation. The place was a ruin and wreckage of homes, with an awful collection of refuse left by French troops and a stink of decaying organic matter.
Now the shells of the houses are being veiled by blossom, in the rubbish flowers are forcing their ways up to the sunlight, and a kindly green veil is being drawn over all the unsightliness and shame of the outraged homestead. Meanwhile, between the bursts of cannonade, the birds sing ever so sweetly and are building everywhere. I found one only yesterday in a dugout. Every morning I walk across green fields, drinking in the sunlight…’
– 2 May 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p107.
In this letter, Noel Chavasse describes the extent of destruction in Ypres by June 1915 (though not naming it for fear of the censor):
At the time of writing I am in a trench on short rations which we don’t like half as much as shortbread. We had to go through a city of which you have heard a lot and it is now all knocked to pieces, it is practically only a rubbish heap. You pass between rows of empty houses all gutted by fire and only bits of the outer walls standing, some are absolutely levelled to the ground, and one passes between heaps of smouldering rubbish. When we went through there were two big fires blazing and the whole city is given over to the flames. The smell is appalling. I was afraid a great many people are buried in the cellars under the debris.
– 5 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p116.
A sad but necessary job
The Liverpool Scottish near Hooge, 16 June 1915
This letter was written to Madeleine, the daughter of Professor Twemlow, with whom Noel had become acquainted whilst at Liverpool University. The Twemlow family lived on Upper Parliament Street, a short walk from the Bishop’s Palace on Abercromby Square. The letter provides a vivid account of his life under fire in the Hooge area, just outside Ypres. He also describes in a very matter of fact manner, the ‘sad but necessary job’ that led to his reputation for bravery and selfless concern for the soldiers.
As we carried our stuff to the trenches we had to pass through a little copse. It was about 11 p.m. and in the copse a nightingale sang most sweetly. This was most remarkable because bullets were spattering through the trees all the time and frequently shells burst quite near so that its song was drowned. But it did not mind and continued singing all the time. It sings every night and I love to hear it.
When we got to our dug-outs we found we had a hot spot because they are played upon by a machine gun. We found this out to our cost two days ago because as one of my poor stretcher-bearers was chopping up some wood to boil some tea the Maxim gun suddenly let off and a little shower of bullets kicked up the earth all round him. One bullet pierced his head and he dropped unconscious. He lived still when we put him onto the ambulance, but we hear he died on the way to hospital.
I have now had 4 stretcher-bearers killed and one wounded, and one has had to go home with a strained heart and another because his nerves gave way after a very bad shelling. That is 7 out of 16 already. Last night I had a bad but necessary job. I had to crawl out behind part of the trench and bury three poor Englishmen who had been killed by a shell. I am going out after another tonight. This is the seamy side of war, but all is repaired in the feeling of comradeship and friendship made out here. It is a fine life and a man’s job, but I think I shall be glad to get home again.
– 5 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p116.
The attack itself was somewhat on this wise
The site of the battlefield at Hooge in 1919
The battle of Hooge took place on 16 June 1915, and the Liverpool Scottish played a major part. The objective was to capture the German trenches that lay between the Menin Road and the Ypres-Roulers railway, where a salient had been formed, bulging into the British lines. This is Noel’s account:
I have not been able to write for some time, but I have much to tell you now. All leave was cancelled, and we were told…that the Battalion would take part in a charge on the German trenches… The attack itself was somewhat on this wise. Our brigade had to take a thousand yards of trenches. Another battalion was to take the first line. We were to rush over and take the second line, and then they were to come over us again, and take the third line. The artillery were to bombard each line before it was taken. As a matter of fact our men made such a splendid rush that they carried all three trenches in fifteen minutes, and even penetrated the 4th line. But the artillery continued to shell the advanced trenches, according to order – the smoke obscuring everything. A great many of our own poor fellows were wiped out by our own shells. Then for some reason the people on our right gave way, and the Germans also began to come round us on the left, so our men were in the air at both ends, and had to retire to the first line we had- taken, and at one place to our second line. In this way a great many wounded fell into the German’s hands, among them three great friends of mine — Kenneth Gemmeil, and Captain Ronald Dickinson (the latter, I fear, dying), and Captain McKinnell, who went on ·leave with me. The remnant of our battalion was relieved the same night. 130 men reached the camp out of 550 who had marched out the previous day; 2 Officers (both Lieutenants) were left out of 22. The trench is a great gain, as it commands a very extensive view of our part of Belgium.
All the next day I had to look after my 11 wounded, and to try to shelter them from the sun under the mud wall. I then made a tour of the trenches, to see if any wounded were lying out, and learnt that one had been heard to cry from a trench between the lines, and got a bullet through the shoulder for his pains. A brave Officer had slipped out and given him a drink. J also found a great many wounded Germans and English – in ‘dug-outs’ in the trenches, but none of our men. I reported them, so that they could be carried back at night. When it was dark I brought up a stretcher, and an Officer of the regiment holding the trenches crawled out to the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole where the poor Scottie was lying. When we crawled to the hole I found that it was an Officer, such a nice chap, with a broken thigh. You may be sure he was glad to see us. The other Officers went back to get the stretcher, and the poor wounded chap put his hands in mine, and we sat in the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole, holding hands like kids. Then we got him into the stretcher, and ran him back to the trench, where many willing hands helped to lift him in.
Just after, Germans were heard crawling in front, and we expected the trench to be attacked. They gave me a spade. But nothing happened, except that a Maxim of ours swept the ground where they were. We got him back, and dressed him, and saw him carried off to hospital.
And then I went to see another bit in front of another part of our trench. The Engineers were there already, putting up barbed wire, and they had searched the ground thoroughly, but we found and carried back a poor chap from another regiment.
Then I was beaten for a bit, but a drop of brandy made me feel all right, so I did one more little crawl to search some ‘dug-outs’ in front of another part of our line, but only found dead Germans.
– 20 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p121.
Letter to a twelve year old
Attending to wounded in an advanced dressing station on Hill 60
This letter was written to Cecily Twemlow, aged 12 and describes aspects of trench life and Noel’s work as a Medical officer.
Advanced Regimental Aid Post,
You know of what Regiment but
You don’t know where exactly – In Flanders.
July 23rd. 1915.
My Dear Cecily,
Just after I had got back from leave we were ordered back to the trenches. We were not able to take up much of a line, as we are only 200 fighting strength but we have a nice little compact piece of trench to manage. I will explain it to you. First, there is the fire-trench about 1SO yards away from the Germans. This trench is fairly comfortable and although we have been in the trenches 9 days I have only sent 3 sick men to hospital. We draw lime-juice for them instead of fresh vegetables and meat and we send a petrol tin round on all hot days at noon and give each man a good cupful. We also give them a great treat. There are potatoes in a farmhouse close by and we buy them for the men. You should see how they fry them on little fires they make out of chips of wood in tins. But best of all a stream flows through the trench. It comes from the German lines and has been poisoned with arsenic and they must not drink it but I have got basins made out of biscuit tins by a clever Sergeant of mine, and have canvas baths brought up and the men wash three at a time.
Behind this trench is a wood and through the wood a little fort called a redoubt (I think that is how it is spelt). In this little fort are 50 men, who if the Germans break through the first line never leave it but fire on the enemy all round, till they drive them back or get wiped out.
Then close by the fort is the sapper trench and at one end of this trench, I have my Advanced Dressing Station and live in a little dug-out I have had built. In two other little dug-outs live two medical orderlies and four stretcher-bearers. These are round a little square, and in the middle of the square we are building a large dug-out with one side open, and large enough to hold four stretchers. This is our hospital. From this medical square, a communication trench goes back for ‘half a mile to a road and there is also a path over the fields for night.
A way back by the road is a large house, in the cellar of which I keep a medical corporal and four men. Here I send seedy men for the night, and they can have a stretcher and a blanket and milk, eggs and bread, and are very comfortable, and soon get well. Here too I keep most of my dressings and bad cases are properly dressed here, after I have given first aid in the trench. The ambulances come here every night and take the wounded men away. Of course, any man who can walk can get back to the dressing station in the daytime down the communication trench. The bad cases must wait till night and be carried down the path.
I am writing this in my little dug-out. I am very cosy. It is very wet outside and the men go slosh, slosh, along the trench and so I have drawn the curtain (a sand bag) across the little window (a real little window with glass) and am waiting for my supper – fish (sardines), thick bread and jam. A fine feast, if no-one gets hit …
Your affect. friend,
– 23 July 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p127.
A smell of death hung on the damp air
Sanctuary Wood in 1915
Noel provides a vivid account of the attack on Sanctuary Wood in late September 1915, ‘the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line’.
I have been the witness of as gallant a charge as ever took place, which has ended, so far as we are concerned, in our line here being exactly the same as it was before; but two regiments at least are cut to pieces. I doubt if much attention will be paid to it in despatches; yet it was the biggest thing that has happened since we came into this tortured spot, and as usual everybody responded to the call of duty, and blood was poured out like water, and lives cast away as carelessly as old boots. I am sick of seeing men sent out to die in the mud which is the mould of former battalions ‘gone under’; but it will always be a delightful honour to lend a hand to the wounded heroes, and so in spite of all, in a selfish sense, this year has been the happiest of my life.
Our Brigade was in reserve. There was a barn for the men and good dug-outs for the Officers. We had hardly laid down when a terrific bombardment took place. The Huns did not make much reply, but some shells dropped very close to our dug-outs I believe; I was too sleepy to notice much that happened. At 7.30 a.m. batches of prisoners arrived and I went out and inspected them. The first batch was pretty good; afterwards there were some very poor, low, types of men; but among them was one Officer who gazed about him with defiance and hauteur, and marched off with head erect and stiff back. He was only nineteen, but everybody liked him. In the afternoon the bombardment began again…
Finally, we reached the wood, and I got my men settled in about 11 p.m. The wood we were in was full of dressing-stations, and I wandered about till at last I hit on one. It had been the dressing-station of a Highland regiment, but the doctor and stretcher-bearers had been sent off exhausted, and the relieving doctor was trying to tackle the work. His relief when I offered our stretcher-bearers’ services was very plain. The trenches; he said, were choked with wounded. He could not cope with it. The R.A.M.C. had gone to lend a hand, but they were insufficient. I asked our Colonel’s leave, and he said he thought it was our duty to do all we could. So I called out my poor, sleepy, tired men, who came with splendid grace, saying that they knew how they had appreciated help given to them after June 16th. I was now wide awake and fresh as a goat. We had the communication trenches pointed out to us. It was a dark night, but lighted up by the flares shooting up nearly all round us.
The trench first led through a dreadful wood. The trees, stark and blasted, dripped with rain. Straggling briars were the only vegetation. The ground was pocked with shell holes, through which poured muddy water. A smell of death hung on the damp air. Bullets snapped amongst the splintered and blasted trees, and every now and again a shell fell and burst somewhere.
We hurried on, picking our way by the spasms of light, and suddenly found the trench ended in a large shell hole, in which floated the body of a Highlander. A Highlander limping back from the trenches — the only thing near us – pointed out our direction, and we emerged from the wood, and saw before us a muddy, shell-stricken rise of clay, on the ridge of which were our trenches.
I have described this place in detail, because by many it is supposed to be the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line. It is indeed the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Bunyan alone could describe its weird horror. It fairly grips the heart … Just here about a little party of wearied men who had charged so gallantly told us that close by in a bomb store two men had lain wounded and forgotten for nearly two days, so my men set off to bring them in. I believe that these poor fellows would not have been found for another two days if we had not heard of them, for no reinforcements were sent there.
It was now getting near morning, and all my men were gone, but I had a haversack full of dressings, and helped by a capital medical corporal, searched among the trenches for the wounded. Some of these were pitiful beyond words, but bore their sufferings with a patient courage, of which mere words are not worthy. I thought I might as well wash the mud away, and put a dressing on, even if we could not get them all removed at once, but the Officers near spared a man here and there. My men, though very tired, came back in the early morning for a second carry, and one by one the worst cases were borne away down the stricken slope, through the dismal wood, to the dug-out dressing station, where the doctors made good my clumsy trench efforts, and then despatched them to the collecting post, from which they had to be carried a mile through mud to the ambulance wagon.
At 4 a.m. some men came trooping along from advanced trenches, because they were not safe by day, as they were shelled. They reported that these trenches were full of wounded. These were the very advanced trenches, dug in front of our wire, out of which the men jump for the charge.
I could not bear to think of our wounded lying in trenches which would be shelled. They get so terrified. So I went up with my faithful orderly, to see how many there were. We found in one sector about nine. We got two of them dragged down. It was a long and tedious job…
– 28 September 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p136.
The mud was fearful
British stretcher bearers carrying wounded in deep mud
Here Noel describes the attack on Guillemont, August 1916, in which the Liverpool Scottish suffered heavy casualties. It was here that Noel Chavasse performed the acts of bravery in searching for wounded in front of enemy lines for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation states that ‘under heavy fire, he carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey…Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men…His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.’
‘We found an R.E. man. My S.B. Corporal bent over him and found him bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut it off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood….
The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud. We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.’
– 26 September 1916. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p163.
Brandhoek New Military Cemetery
Noel Chavasse is buried in the New Military Cemetery at Brandhoek, a little village just west of Ypres. It was here, in May 1915, that Field Ambulance No. 81 of the British 27th Division established a dressing station as medical units were pulled back from Ypres in the face of German attacks. Brjtish serviceman soon began burying their fallen comrades in a field adjojning the dressing station, which became Brandhoek Military Cemetery. Brandhoek remained a site for medical units, from field ambulances and dressing stations to large casualty clearing stations, throughout the war.
In the summer of 1917, in preparation for the major Allied offensive which would become known as ‘Third Ypres’, three
casualty clearing stations were sent to Brandhoek. Land was also set aside for two new cemeteries, Brandhoek New Military
Cemetery and Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No. 3. The former contains over 550 burials, including those of 28 German soldiers, all dating from 1917. Over 500 British officers and men werelaid to rest here in July and August 1917,including captain Noel Chavasse, one of only three men in history to have been awarded theVictoria Cross twice. All three of the Brandhoek cemeteries were designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architect of the Menin Gate Memorial.
It’s a small cemetery, tucked (like the one where I found the grave of Edward Thomas) behind the back gardens of a quiet street (though when I arrived the street was noisy with machinery digging a trench to lay new mains water pipes) . On one side, back gardens with greenhouses and vegetable plots; on the other a field of maize, reaching taller than I am.
The approach to the cemetery
Noel Chavasse was awarded his first VC for ‘the most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’ during the attack on Guillemont, in the Ypres salient, in August 1916. The second VC was awarded posthumously for his bravery in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in August 1917.
After setting up an Aid Post in a captured German dugout he was wounded in the head during an attack. Chavasse returned to his aid post after treatment at the Main Dressing station at Weiiltje. For a further 2 days and nights without rest or food he carried out further treatment on wounded men. He received two further serious wounds but refused to leave his post. Several times he searched the surrounding area under heavy fire for wounded, eventually receiving a mortal abdominal wound from a shell which penetrated the dugout. He was evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station but died there on 4 August 1917 (the third anniversary of the outbreak of war).
This is the account given by Ann Clayton in her book:
Early in the attack on 31 July, while standing up and waving to soldiers to indicate the location of the aid post, Noel was hit by a shell splinter. It may be that his skull was fractured… He was, however, well enough to walk back to the dressing station at Wieltje dug-out, where the wound was dressed. He was told, or at least advised, to stay in the dug-out until he could be taken back to the casualty clearing station for proper treatment. But he refused, declaring that there was no one to take his place. So back he went to the aid post on the Passchendaele Road.
There was very little food, a shortage of water, and the constant scream of shells overhead. Again and again the stretcher-bearers went out to fetch the wounded, and as night fell Noel collected his torch from the box of medical supplies brought up by his orderlies and systematically combed the torn-up area that the Germans had fled from only hours earlier. This was not no-man’s-land as such, as it was now in the possession of the Allied forces, but it was under continual bombardment, from the guns of the retreating Germans and from Allied artillery, whose shells might fall short at any time.
At about eight in the evening it began to rain. Sergeant Bromley, in the headquarters trench beyond the Steenbeke, was appalled by the conditions in which men were having to fight:
‘The rain continued incessantly throughout the night, and in a very short time our trench became merely a muddy ditch half full of water, and our condition became absolutely filthy . The night brought a certain amount of relief from hostilities, but the climatic conditions became even worse, and we simply stood and shivered until daylight came. What an indescribable scene presented itself as dawn came, and we looked back to our old trenches. Mud and water everywhere, stranded limbers, dead men and mules, damaged tanks, broken trees etc., made a scene of desolation comparable only with the Somme.’
For the next 24 hours, Noel continued to treat the wounded. At some point during August 1, Noel received a wound which would normally have required his removal from the battlefield. He was hit twice in the head and suffered intense pain, but carried on caring for the wounded. Then.within hours, Noel was wounded again, this time mortally when, early on August 2, as he was taking a rest at his first-aid post, it was struck by a shell:
What had happened was that another shell had entered the aid post, this time during the night while Noel was sitting in a chair in the lower room, leaning on the table in an attempt to get some sleep. All the occupants of the dug-out were either killed outright or wounded so seriously that they were immobilized. Herd recorded that a primus stove in use in the dug-out was untouched and still alight, but a man who had been using it was dead, presumably from concussion, and with no visible wound. It is ironic, after all his brave sorties into no-man’s-land at Hooge, Guillemont and elsewhere, that Noel should have been felled inside his own aid post.
He had received four or five wounds, the worst being a gaping hole in the abdomen from which he bled profusely. Nevertheless, aware that relief would be a long time in coming, he managed to drag himself up the stairs and out along the remnants of the trench to the road. He stumbled and crawled along this lane in the darkness, in the direction of Wieltje, the filthy mud of Flanders entering and infecting the wound… He stumbled across a dug-out occupied by Lieutenant Charles Wray of the Loyal North Lancs. Regiment, who later sent an account to his local newspaper telling how Chavasse examined his own wound because the medical personnel went to help his men.
He was taken through Ypres to the 46th Field Ambulance and then on to the 32nd Casualty Clearing Station, but his face was unrecognisable and he had suffered that serious wound to the abdomen. After an operation on the abdominal wound, he found the strength to dictate a letter to his fiancée in which he explained why he had carried on working in spite of his injuries, insisting that ‘duty called and called me to obey’. Noel died at one o’clock in the afternoon of 4 August 1917. It was the third anniversary of the outbreak of war.
The grave of Noel Chavasse
Noel’s grave has the only headstone in the world to have two Victoria Crosses engraved upon it. The inscription, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’, was chosen by his father. There is are other memorials to Captain Noel Chavasse at his old school, Liverpool College, in Mossley Hill, Liverpool – and in Abercromby Square, where a statue dedicated to Chavasse, commissioned by the Noel Chavasse VC Memorial Association was unveiled in August 2008. It’s by Liverpool sculptor, Tom Murphy.
The Chavasse Memorial in Abercromby Square
- Noel Chavasse: the First World War doctor who braved hell for others (Telegraph)
- Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC and Bar
- On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets
- Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone
Before I left for my trip along the cemeteries and memorials of the Western Front I had been fascinated by a talk given by the Chinese-born author, Xiaolu Guo for Radio 3’s The Essay in which she discussed the part played by the Chinese Labour Corps on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme. They are almost entirely forgotten now, but between 1916 and 1920 the British Army recruited around 100,000 labourers in China who were shipped to Europe to work in harsh and dangerous conditions at the Front. And, following on from yesterday’s post, ten of these ‘coolies’ were shot at dawn for murder, or offences relating to murder. Mainly illiterate and socially isolated, many Chinese workers eventually succumbed to traumatic stress disorders brought on by the war and turned to violence, rape and murder in their despair and loneliness.
In her talk Xiaolu Guo told of travelling to Noyelle-sur-Mer with Li Ling. a 52 year old woman from Qingdao whose daughter Xiaolu had taught 15 years before in China. Li is the granddaughter of one of the Chinese labourers or ‘coolies’ who died along the Somme during WW1. Xiaolu explained that in China, ‘coolie’ means ‘bitter labour’ or ‘bitter strength’. Bitterness, she added, is an important concept in Chinese, ‘something that has to be accepted … part of life’. In China hard physical labour is viewed as something which can keep a person alive, so ‘coolie’ does not bear the negative connotations the term has in the west, where it is associated with imperialism and exploitation, having been used from the 18th century to describe the slaves despatched from China to serve the west in various parts of the world.
Li’s grandfather was illiterate, so he sent no letters home. His war service left no documentation, only his labour number – 4621 – given by the British government on the Chinese shore before he embarked for Europe. He was 19 years old, just married to a servant girl, and had a 10 month old baby:
He had been seduced by the promise of earning one French franc per day and was told he would be at least ten miles from the firing line, nowhere near the Front. A few weeks later, with a rising number of casualties on the Western Front, 40,000 coolies were also recruited by the French Army to dig trenches in northern France. After being sprayed head to foot with disinfectant, and having had their ponytails chopped off, these men were packed like cargo and shipped towards the West.
In the winter of 1916, after the massacre on the Somme, the British government was desperate for manpower. China agreed to supply Britain with ‘bitter labour’ and from 1917 onwards, large numbers of Chinese (altogether 100,000) were recruited by the British in Shantung Province, as volunteers – but under military discipline. The initial British Chinese Labour Force encampment on the Western Front was at Noyelles-sur-Mer, on the Somme estuary.
The entrance to the Chinese Cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer
Noyelles-sur-Mer was where Xiaolu Guo and her companion Li Ling were headed, Li Ling hoping to find the grave of her grandfather. Xiaolu described the moment when Li found the grave:
Noyelles-sur-Mer is one of the graveyards where the largest number of coolies are buried. There are 842 gravestones carved with Chinese names, along with the numbers the coolies were given by the Labour Corp. Li Ling, holding her flowers, searches each stone for her grandfather. I help her, scanning those strange yet familiar Chinese names. After looking at about 300 gravestones, we find the right one. The stone is covered in moss, yet the man’s name and number are clearly visible:
Li Changchun, British Chinese Labour Corps 4621. Died 12th January 1919.
I am surprised. So he died here not during the war but after the war! “How?” I ask Li Ling. She doesn’t know. Did he die from a random explosion during mine clearances? Or from starvation? Or was he killed for desertion? There is no clue. Only some blackbirds flapping their wings in the distance. Then, beside Li Changchun’s Corps number, I see this phrase:Faithful unto death.
I look away. I can’t bear the hypocrisy let alone the indifference with which this phrase has been foisted on this man. My eyes wander along the rows of Chinese names. The inescapable wind buffets the graves, otherwise there is silence. I look back. Li Ling is carefully placing her bunch of yellow chrysanthemums on her grandfather’s tomb.
The conditions under which the Chinese labourers were employed on the Western Front were harsh, even by the standards of the time. Their contracts stipulated a seven-day working week of 10-hour days. Daily rates of pay ranged from 1 to 3 French Francs. Apart from a few demonstrations demanding better working conditions and food – a notable example being one at Etaples in 1917 – which were ruthlessly suppressed by British troops, there was generally little in the way violent protest or strikes.
From the start there was a mutual understanding that the celebration of certain essential Chinese customs, such as Chinese festivals and the ceremonial disposal of the dead, would be allowed. On the other hand, there was a strict policy of maintaining the segregation of the Labour Force from the military canteens and the civil population, particularly white women. Accordingly, other than when working, the labourers were rigorously contained within their camps.
An entertainment at the open-air theatre of the Chinese Labour Corps at Etaples, 23 June 1918. Note the fence segregating members of the audience (Imperial War Museum)
These men did not take part to actual combat. They supported the frontline troops, unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and filling sandbags. Some worked in armaments factories, others in shipyards. However, when the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches. According to the records around 2,000 of them died during the war, most from the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. Those who died, classified as war casualties, were buried in several French and Belgian graveyards in the North of France. The largest number of graves is located at the Chinese Cemetery of Noyelles sur Mer close to the Somme estuary, where 849 men are buried.
An article on the Western Front Association website, Forgotten Hands With Picks And Shovels, provides details of the 10 Chinese labourers who were executed by the British Army. The ten (all listed as ‘coolies’ in the official records) were all executed by a British firing squad – shot at dawn – for murder, or offences relating to murder.
All the death sentences of the Chinese Coolies were passed between 1918 and 1920, and all the offences took place on the western Front in either France or Belgium in 1918-19. There is no explanation in official documents for these capital crimes: perhaps the stoic but socially isolated Chinese workers succumbed to stress brought on by the war, turning to violence, rape and murder in despair and loneliness.
In the town hall at Poperinge , near Ypres, a First World war execution post is on display – said to be the one to which was tied, on 8 May 1919, Wang Ch’un Ch’ih of the 107th Chinese Labour Corps, sentenced to death for murder. He is buried at Poperinge Old Military Cemetery.
The firing post at Poperinge Town Hall
Researching this piece, I was surprised to learn from a BBC report that three of the Chinese men recruited for the Labour Corps are buried in Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool – amongst the 445 Commonwealth war graves from World War One in that cemetery. They would be men who fell ill en route from China, and were hospitalised on arrival in England. Anthony Hogan, researching the local remembrance website, tried to find out details of the three men – but it appears that the writing and the names in translation on the headstones may be incorrect. He writes:
The men would have been brought back to the UK injured or sick and taken to hospitals.The Belmont Road hospital is where these men may possibly have been transferred as it dealt with a lot of non British war sick and wounded, plus its location was around 1 1/2 miles from Anfield cemetery.
- BBC Radio 3 Essay: listen to Xiaolu Guo’s essay (available for one year on iPlayer)
- Xiaolu Guo’s essay: read it on the 14-18 Now website
- Chinese labourers in Northern France during the Great War (Nord Pas de Calais 14-18 website)
- Chinese Labour Force: Wikipedia
- Forgotten Hands With Picks And Shovels: Western Front Association website
- Deserters, mutineers and the German soldier who warned of the first gas attack
- On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets
- Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone
In the last couple of weeks a surprising sight has materialised in the middle of Liverpool: a field of poppies, swathes of red flowers densely massed against a background of green. It’s a stunning sight, but also one that is, in this glorious summer overshadowed by the storm clouds of war in eastern Europe and the Middle East, inescapably symbolic.
How did this poppy meadow, on derelict land below the Anglican cathedral, get here? Earlier this year, members of Liverpool’s Chinese community sowed native poppy and cornflower seeds on vacant land stretching from the Cathedral towards the Chinese Arch. The act was part of a project linking local business and community groups with partners in China. The land was sown with locally grown wildflower seed from Landlife, the local environmental organisation that fifteen years ago established the National Wildflower Centre located near to the Liverpool end of the M62.
The poppies have flourished in recent weeks, and after catching sight of them from the bus, the other evening I walked down and captured these shots on my phone’s camera .
Red poppies: symbol of hope and good fortune in China
It was a glorious evening (a group of us, old friends from university days, sat outside Camp and Furnace savouring the warmth as darkness fell); so why, as this lovely summer stretches on, have I felt a vague sense of foreboding?
Clearly, the feeling was reinforced by the sight of those poppies with their inescapable associations (at least for the British). But, more than that, I couldn’t get out of my mind – as terrible news emerged from Gaza and eastern Ukraine – the feeling that we might be living through a re-run of another glorious summer, exactly one hundred years ago. This is Paul Fussell writing about the summer of 1914 in The Great War and Modern Memory:
Although some memories of the benign last summer before the war can be discounted as standard romantic retrospection turned even rosier by egregious contrast with what followed, all agree that the prewar summer was the most idyllic for many years. It was warm and sunny, eminently pastoral. One lolled outside on a folding canvas chaise, or swam, or walked in the countryside. One read outdoors, went on picnics, had tea served from a white wicker table under the trees. You could leave your books out on the table all night without fear of rain. Siegfried Sassoon was busy fox hunting and playing serious county cricket. Robert Graves went climbing in the Welsh mountains. Edmund Blunden took country walks near Oxford, read Classics and English, and refined his pastoral diction. Wilfred Owen was teaching English to the boys of a French family living near Bordeaux. David Jones was studying illustration at Camberwell Art School. And for those like Strachey who preferred the pleasures of the West End, there were splendid evening parties, as well as a superb season for concerts, theatre, and the Russian ballet.
For the modern imagination that last summer has assumed the status of a permanent symbol ofor anything innocently but irrevocably lost. […] Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.
Never such innocence again. It appears that I’m not the only one sensing the parallel. In yesterday’s Guardian, Larry Elliott explained why he thinks the crisis following the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine will not escalate into a full-scale economic war. Europe’s energy requirements and economies are too intertwined with Russia:
The European Union will talk tough but fall shy of imposing wide-ranging financial and trade sanctions as punishment for the Kremlin’s alleged role in the attack on the Malaysia Airlines jet. Meanwhile, hopes that Putin is putting pressure on the separatists in Ukraine boosted share prices.
And yet. Elliott, too recalls the idyllic summer of 1914, when a little local difficulty in Serbia seemed just a tiny cloud on the distant horizon:
Events of a century ago show that the optimism of markets is not always to be trusted. It was only in the last week of July 1914 – once Austria-Hungary had delivered its ultimatum to Serbia – that bourses woke up to the fact that the assassination in Sarajevo had the potential to lead to a war involving all the great European powers. Up until then, the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was seen as merely a local affair and nothing to worry about.
Still, life goes on, the weather is glorious, so we head off to the beach.
‘Hot town, summer in the city’: we head for the beach at Formby
The thing about poppies is, they will grow anywhere.
Hope Place: the Byrnes tuck into scouse and artisan bread
‘We were fine until he came along. With his history this and history that.’
Sarah and I saw the Everyman’s new production Hope Place on the same day that the European Union’s court of justice ruled against Google in favour of the ‘right to be forgotten‘ by search engines on the internet. While the appellant in the Google case wanted past financial mistakes forgotten, Michael Wynne’s play pokes around among the kind of things that families prefer to sweep under the carpet.
The Everyman has a reputation for putting on productions that tell local stories, but as Michael Billington observed in his review in the Guardian, ‘you could hardly have a more localised piece than this’. Wynne’s play is set in one of those three-storey early 19th century terraced houses that line Hope Place opposite the Unity Theatre, a five minute walk from the Everyman, while several scenes are set in the buildings which were precursors of the Everyman on the Hope Street site. It opens with a prologue set in 1699 on the misty, marshy ridge of Moss Lake Fields (along which Hope Street runs today), and later scenes take place in Hope Hall (a dissenters’ chapel in 1838), a late 19th century music hall, a Temperance Hall, and the post-war Picture House which preceded the Everyman.
The 19th century map of the area projected as a backdrop
So there’s a sense of Liverpool’s history (reinforced by the 19th century map of the area projected as a backdrop to Peter McKintosh’s multi-level set), and of the changes experienced by those who have lived and worked here through past centuries, but Wynne’s main interest lies in families – and where the memories – often myths – passed down in families come from.
The opening scene has a touch of Ayckbourn about it: after their mother’s funeral, four sixty-something Byrne siblings have gathered at the house in Hope Place Four where they all grew up. The eldest, Maggie (a great performance by Eileen O’Brien) has lived there all her life, and is the one most haunted by its memories. There’s brother Eric (Neil Caple), repeatedly phoned from the next room by his wife who demands more whiskey; Jack (played by Joe McGann), once an engineer and now a tourist guide whose stories play fast and loose with the truth; and Veronica (Tricia Kelly), the embittered, money-grabbing sister.
Also there are Veronica’s daughter, Josie, and her new boyfriend, Simon (Ciaran Kellgren), who’s ‘posh’ (he comes from Birkenhead). He’s also researching local history for a PhD. He thinks the Byrnes would be perfect material for his thesis.
And so we’re off down a path well-trodden through the years at the Everyman. As Susannah Clapp remarked in her review of the play for the Observer:
At Hope Place you hear the sound of a play hitting a spot, talking straight to an audience. And the audience talking back. … Michael Wynne’s play, set just down the road from the stage on which it’s performed, full of Liverpool names and Liverpool jokes, gets grunts and guffaws of recognition.
As the opening scene unfolded I did wonder whether we were in for another rose-tinted and nostalgic tale of hard-living, wisecracking Liverpudlians. But Wynne’s script, while still getting laughs out of some of the old cliches (posh Wirral, dour Mancunians, etc, etc) in fact interrogates and inverts the old Everyman tradition.
Commissioned by the Everyman to produce a script that evoked local memories, Wynne has come up with a play that questions the nature of memory – what is remembered, what is preferred forgotten, and what turns out to be false memory. Maggie has lived on Hope Place all her life in the house that her family have occupied for generations. Her mother’s funeral and the arrival of her siblings, along with Simon and his interest in oral history, reactivate memories that each Byrne sibling has buried. For Maggie most of all, Simon’s questions bring the past to life in a way that proves painful.
To begin with, each one of them regales Simon with stories of a carefree childhood. Eric recalls ‘a happy childhood …happy family … We all get on, always have. Just a normal family. Me dad went out to work, on the docks, and me mum was at home. Just a dead ordinary family, no big secrets.’ Jack, the tour guide, ‘part of the number one industry in Liverpool now – tourism’ (who in one surreally funny scene turns up dressed as Sergeant Pepper) is so used to telling tall tales that Maggie retorts, ”I never know if you’re telling me the truth or a story’. For his part, Jack admits to perpetuating Liverpudlian myths:
I’ve always liked a good tale. ‘I’m not the most factual , but for me it’s more about the experience rather than facts and the honest truth. I want them to go away having heard the best stories … Maybe I might say that I sat next to Cilla in school. Or Wayne Rooney’s me nephew. I’m not hurting anyone, am I?
It’s noticeable how each member of the family, when they sit down with Simon and his tape recorder, try to recall – or create – the sort of memory that they think the researcher is looking for. ‘I’m doing this all wrong’, one exclaims, while Simon challenges another, ‘Is that his memory or your memory?’
Hope Place: shards of memory
Bit by bit, Simon’s probing elicits shards of family history and snapshots of how the area has changed through the centuries. He discovers that the Byrne siblings’ father was born in the largest workhouse in Europe, that once stood on the land now occupied by the Catholic cathedral. For Maggie, Simon’s persistence begins to unlock her childhood memories, and one specific memory she has long buried.
Rachel Kavanaugh’s production brilliantly captures the way in which, once triggered, memories can flood the present, evoking pleasure or reigniting pain. A question from Simon, an old photograph, or a box of her mother’s belongings brought down from the loft – any of these can suck Maggie backwards into the past. Sound and stage lighting emphasise the time shift as younger versions of the characters populate the stage, played vibrantly by talented child actors.
I did have one reservation about consistency in this unlocking of Maggie’s memories: at the end of the first part Maggie appears to be falling apart, losing her marbles, as the memories come flooding back. Condemned to continue living in the house where she was brought up, she resists Simon’s investigations. Yet, at the start of the second act, she is a transformed woman: snappily dressed, searching the internet on the second-hand laptop she has acquired, and building a family tree around the kitchen door. Moreover, she’s had enough with ‘fine’, the ubiquitous response that everyone has when asked, ‘what was your childhood like?’ Fine, she says, means nothing more than ‘Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egocentric’.
It’s worth also mentioning here that the second half opens with a cracking scene, a rowdy revue with Michelle Butterly as Lily Lloyd singing ‘There was I, waiting at the church’, evoking the 19th century music hall that once stood on the theatre site. It’s a great scene, but seems to have very little connection with the rest of the play. It should also be mentioned that Michelle Butterly takes on seven different characters during the performance, including that of the recently-deceased Lottie Byrne.
As the play draws towards a resolution, there’s a great scene in which the Byrne siblings meet once again around the kitchen table and tuck into bowls of Maggie’s scouse – but with the 21st century addition of artisan bread: ‘Three quid. Full of seeds, nuts and bits of wood. One bite and your teeth are across the room.’ I liked that: I wonder if it was a reference to the sourdough loaves from the Baltic Bakehouse down the road to which I, too, have recently become addicted?
It’s now we learn that there is a family tragedy that no one has been prepared to talk about, and Michael Wynne’s gentle satire asserts the importance for a family of confronting the past and distinguishing false memory from the truth. Because, unlike in the Google case, the truth cannot be erased and, not face up to, curdles.
Many towns have grown up around rivers which have later been covered in (Liverpool and London included). Beneath the city streets, waterways continue on their ancient courses in underground culverts. Nice was once such place, where the Paillon, a river fed by mountain streams that flood each year with the melting of the snows, for much of the 19th century divided old Nice from new, poor from rich, servant from master. Then, in 1883, the Paillon was culverted, paved over, and became an unknown presence.
But last October, in a dramatic beautification of the city landscape, a new, linear park – the Promenade de Paillon – opened following a major urban renewal project that restores, at least metaphorically, the Paillon to its original place in the heart of the city. Continue reading “Nice: a river runs through it”