LIVING is the second volume of Mersey Minis, a series of small books celebrating Liverpool's 800th anniversary. Living continues where the first volume, Landing, left off. While Landing looked at people’s first impressions, Living reflects more of the life of the city and its environs. Beyond the choppy river and the massive dock walls, visitors are finding their feet and starting to explore this ‘best built town’.
Americans at leisure, immigrants looking for lodgings, newcomers looking for adventure or acceptance, these evocative accounts capture the sights, sounds, smells and psyche of the bustling, bemusing and sometimes scary big city. Many are talking about the Liverpool of old, but their accounts are strikingly modern. They do the same as tourists and visitors do today. They compare and contrast. They stare in amazement and admiration at the huge dray horses, the strange modes of transport, the elegant shops, the new parks, the gin palaces and grog shops, even the Liverpudlian fashion sense! And they gripe, in time-honoured fashion, about the chilly weather, the soot-grimed stone, the ‘frowning’ buildings and the fog.
Some early visitors were almost certainly indulging in a little industrial espionage, checking out the new docks. Another 19th century traveller enquires about the city’s emblem, the Liver Bird, long before the Liver Building graced the waterfront, and is answered in typically gnomic fashion.
Living also looks at the working and domestic life of the city. From dancing to the dole, shopping and strife, tower blocks and tunnels, Living has high life and low life and everything in between.
Some of these extracts have been unearthed from obscure journals and memoirs, bringing back to life long-forgotten layers of the city and its business. The biographies at the back of Living are necessarily short, but they reveal a little bit more about these extraordinary – and ordinary – lives, and along with the book list will hopefully prompt further reading.
-- Deborah Mulhearn
Surrounded by large late nineteenth-century houses, ringed by a sandy ride where middle-class little girls cantered self-consciously past on horses hired from a local riding school, Sefton Park forms a valley bisected by a string of lakes, the largest of which, ‘The Big Lake’, had boats for hire in summer and, when frozen in the winter, became black with skaters. On the other side of the lakes, dominating the landscape, is the Palm House, a large, circular, domed building of steel and glass in imitation of the Crystal Palace. When it was cold it offered a steamy refuge to expressionless men in bright blue suits and red ties, many of them missing an arm or leg. They were the institutionalised wounded of the 1914-18 war, and would sit all day smoking Woodbines on the fern-patterned Victorian benches. Behind them grew a contained circular jungle, its tropical trees and plants neatly labelled, and here and there a small marble statue of a coy nymph or simpering maiden with a quotation from a poet carved on her plinth. In summer the men sat outside on similar benches.
Statues ringed the exterior also, life-size and representing historic figures in the arts and sciences. Before I could read, my father invented false identities for those frozen worthies. A Swiss botanist, he assured me, represented the Prince of Wales, while Galileo, holding a globe of the world, he maintained to be Dixie Dean, the celebrated footballer. Beyond the Palm House the park levelled out to form a great plain big enough to accommodate the annual fair; below it a steep hill swept down to one of the little lakes.
At the bottom of this hill were two stone posts designed to discourage cyclists as there was then only a few yards across a road before the iron railings which ringed the water. I had at one time a small yellow motor car with push pedals and on one of our visits to look at Dixie Dean and the Prince of Wales my father made the following proposition. He would squat behind me on the yellow pedal car, in itself a rather precarious operation, and we would then free-wheel down the hill between the posts, whereupon I would have to turn the wheel abruptly to the right in order to avoid the railings. At five or six, for I can’t have been any older, this seemed a perfectly reasonable if exciting thing to do, for I trusted Tom entirely and the danger didn’t occur to me. We did it, gathering considerable speed, and shot between the posts missing the railings by a few inches. The mystery is that I cannot imagine what got into my father. It was most unlike him, and either or both of us could have been killed or badly injured. He told me not to tell my mother who wouldn’t understand and I never did. Perhaps though, like Maud’s driving, it is a false memory.
The topics of conversation in Liverpool are perhaps slightly lighter than London. Here, as there, however, the discussion usually drifts towards issues common to all, so that the foreigner can swiftly join in the conversation. Once the usual topic of conversation (which in this country is dictated by etiquette, such as weather and good health) has been discussed, you would find yourself in a very regrettable position if you had no knowledge of, or interest in, trade and politics.
Almost all the men of this city have travelled and seen foreign countries, know about foreign custom and traditions, which makes them more tolerant towards foreigners. The women on the other hand are truly English in the full meaning of the word, and they lack higher education which is easier to access in big cities such as London than in provincial ones. To make up for it, they have created for themselves thousands of needs and affectations to express both their wealth and good position in society, but that would make someone unaware of those manners feel uncomfortable and embarrassed.
The virtue of freedom is highly valued by the Liverpudlians which other Englishmen don’t have nor aim at obtaining. However, it can’t be denied that boredom presides here until the dinner table is vacated by the ladies, leaving elbow-room for the gentlemen to drink wine and discuss politics.
I used to think caftans were the thing to wear, all loose and flowy and easy to put on. But, of course, I’d have been lynched for wearing anything like that in Liverpool. That’s another daft thing: nobody objected to people walking around in shoes which piled your toes on top of one another, and with mounds of white margarine in your hair, but if you’d trolled down Lime Street in a caftan – WALLOP!
I’d always wondered why players from inner city areas like Toxteth weren’t being given the chance or making the grade, even before I played with Liverpool. People from our area were looked upon as troublesome. The clubs said at the time that they hadn’t spotted any talent. I was fortunate that I was playing for a Sunday league team and the manager Eric Dunlop knew a scout at Liverpool and he pestered and pestered him and eventually I got asked for a trial. They must have known I was black because he was known for multi-racial teams. I thought I had broken the mould but I was forever shouting about it because there were better players than me around who didn’t get the opportunity. There’d only been one black player at Everton, Cliff Marshall, and it was widely publicised about the racial abuse he was receiving, so maybe young black players didn’t relish the thought of going into the clubs.
Liverpool is not part of England in the way that New York is not part of America. It is more Welsh, more Irish, a shifty, shifting outpost of defiance and determination reluctantly connected to the English mainland, more an island set in a sea of dreams and nightmares that’s forever taking shape in the imagination, more a mysterious place jutting out into time between the practical, stabilising pull of history and the sweeping, shuffling force of myth.