The first time I walked along Canning Street I was awestruck. It was 1973 and I’d just started at the University. And one lunch time I went out of the back entrance of the Eleanor Rathbone building where I’d just started going, and crossed Myrtle Street into Liverpool 8. Yards later I was in Canning Street, still now the most magnificent terraced street I have ever seen in my life.
Its magnificence at that time though was like that of an ancient relic. Because it looked like it was crumbling away.
Nowadays it’s hard to remember how Canning Street and its surrounding Georgian Terraces were back in the mid-seventies. How poor so many of the people who lived there were. How exploited they were by the private landlords who’d split the magnificent terraced houses up into so many tiny and badly maintained flats.
Because now, though there is still plenty of social housing in the Canning area, there have also been flats selling there in the last few years for a quarter of a million pounds. That day back in 1973 I could never have imagined that.
But just how it all felt back then has been brought back to me in a book of lovely photographs that I’ve recently found. It’s by Paul Trevor and it’s called ‘Like you’ve never been away.’ (It was apparently an exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in 2011, but it passed me by.) And every time I open the book I’m taken back to the times in the early to mid 1970s, in Liverpool, when I began to find my way in life.
This ‘waking up’ kind of began a few years earlier. In 1966, along with a quarter of the British population, I’d watched a Wednesday Play on BBC 2 called ‘Cathy Come Home’ about homelessness, unemployment, and the rights of mothers to keep their own children. And, living in a world where I’d thought things were only getting better, I was shocked to find there was a Britain that still existed where life for many was little better than Dickensian.
But I was only twelve years old, so there wasn’t much I could do. Other than notice the big ‘Shelter’ posters that started to appear, as ‘Cathy Come Home’ turned into a campaign.
A few years later though, in 1972 when I started working, I found myself drawn to housing. And I travelled into central Liverpool each day, from my home in the comfortable suburbs, to a different world.
I got a job in the City Council housing office on Benledi Street, just off Scotland Road. It was a little brick fortress where about twenty of us ‘managed’ 14,000 tenancies in North Liverpool. In truth it was more like crowd control than management. There were good people in there, but most of the old hands despised the tenants and referred to them all, collectively, as ‘deadlegs’.
Some days I’d be sent off to the sub-office in Netherfield Heights, at the top of the hill in Everton. On the way up there I’d pass The Piggeries. These were three high-rise blocks, built as recently as 1965 and already on their way to being uninhabitable slums. Crosby, Canterbury and Haigh Heights, as they were really called, had recently staged a rent strike, because of the appalling conditions and the Council’s failure to maintain the blocks. Most Council employees entirely blamed the tenants, of course. But, spending some time at the local Repairs Office, on Shaw Street, I was shown how to prioritise and file repairs requests. And told to put requests for Piggeries repairs ‘in that box down there’. At the end of the day ‘that box’ was emptied into the bin.
Liverpool City Council had played a pioneering role in developing high quality public housing earlier in the 20th century – and we’ll return to that another day. But by the early 1970s its energy and standards had declined. And so I decided to put my own energies elsewhere.
‘Cathy Come Home’ had led to the setting up of ‘Shelter’ the national homelessness charity. And Shelter in turn had put much of their money into the initial funding of small, locally based, radical housing associations. Such as Notting Hill Housing Trust and Liverpool Housing Trust.
I first tried to get a job with Liverpool Housing Trust (LHT) in 1973, but got nowhere. So I went to University and carried on working for the City Council during the holidays. Until 1975, when I finally managed to talk my way into LHT as a volunteer.
There were about 25 of us at first, managing around 2,000 homes and tenancies. A much higher ratio than the Council. We believed in small teams, managing small areas, where we could get to know all of the tenants we were housing. And we believed in housing people who were in the greatest housing need. We were working mainly in Canning, nearby Granby, (where I’m involved again now) and Walton. And for the first few years it wasn’t like working at all. I’d arrived at my housing campaign and was overjoyed to be there.
But more of that another day.
To end, a precious memory. It’s late August 1975. I walk along sunny Canning Street and round the corner into Falkner Square, to enter LHT’s office at 38 & 39, for the first time. The office windows are open and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’ – released this week – is belting out across the Square. I am home.
You can watch ‘Cathy Come Home’ here. The whole 77 minutes has been uploaded by its Director Ken Loach as a public service. It changed my life.
And you can buy ‘Like you’ve never been away’ here. It’s only £9.99. And it’s ‘only’ photographs. But it sums us up, us Liverpool people, and the places we’ve sometimes had to make the best of, as well as anything else ever filmed, photographed or written. Photos published on Walker Art Gallery site.