Or ‘Seaport: A Life in a Book’This book came out originally in 1964 when I was ten years old. And though I had my adult-side library ticket by then it must have been a reference only book, as I have no memory of bringing it home. Instead I would sit in the North Liverpool library of my childhood and pore over it for hours. Fascinated by such a gorgeous book about the place that, even then, I considered myself lucky to have been born in. Much of which I hadn’t yet seen. My Liverpool was a Ribble bus to County Road and Stanley Park, near where I’d first lived, or all the way into town, with occasional rides on the ferry, back and forth, back and forth.
My parents, having lived through the war years in Vauxhall and Bootle next to the decimated docks, had been glad to move their little family out to the new northern suburbs where everything was new and life could only get better. And Maghull back then was a fascinating place to grow up in. Between our house and the library there was still a farm where you could watch the great big sow suckling her piglets. And the surrounding streets as they got built filled up with footballers from Everton and Liverpool who we would constantly pester for autographs. But also, of course, by 1964 the Beatles were among us and together with this book only added to my fasciation with the place I was actually from, my Liverpool.
So I would sit there in Maghull branch library, gazing at places I hadn’t yet seen and dreaming of finding them. Then over the decades that came I would find the book occasionally in the Liverpool libraries I by then lived near, and notice that in a way, the book and those early dreams were shaping my life.
Eventually a copy of the 1993 reprint of the book entered my life. The father of my partner Sarah, Frank Horton, was dying of lung cancer. And having seen how often I would look through ‘Seaport’ while visiting him, tenderly passed the book over to me, saying “I think it’ll be more use to you than me now.”
It’s one of my greatest treasures and I’ve long thought of writing about it on here. So here goes. No clever editing, we’ll just leaf through the book, and skipping back and forth across the decades since Liverpool in 1964, I’ll tell you the story of my life.
The author, Quentin Hughes, is no relation to me by the way. But he was a friend and colleague of Frank in the Architecture Department at Liverpool University. I met him a couple of times around Frank’s death.
Big credit too, for the photographs we’re about to look through to Graham Smith and David Wrightson. All I’ve done here is take photographs of their photographs, their book.
‘Seaport’ is written at the time when Liverpool is describing itself as “The City of Change and Challenge”. And in eight sections, beginning with ‘The River and the Docks’ and ending with ‘Arrivals and Departures’ it walks around the nature of that challenge whilst also showing us the treasures we must protect.
In the Foreword Graeme Shankland, the planner of much of the change to come, says this:
“It will be the pressure of public opinion not just in Liverpool, but in the world, which will secure the future of Liverpool’s heritage shown here. Foreign visitors do not yet see Liverpool as one of Britain’s main tourist attractions; the next ten years can change this. When they do come they ought to see not just what is shown on these pages but the combined and more poignant power of the new seen and designed together with the best of the old.”
Well it took a lot longer than ten years.
In 1964 it was news to me we even had docks at the south end of the city. So in 1965 when we were driving around Liverpool in our brand new dark blue Ford Cortina (ELV 397C) I said to my Dad, “Can you take us down there?” And got my first sight of the South Docks where I’d spend so many adult days. As part of Liverpool Housing Trust building the path that eventually meant you could walk from the centre of town to Otterspool, all along the river. Then as the social enterprises got going in the 1990s, happy days down here with Liam Black and everyone at the Furniture Resource Centre.
This is one of the places in Liverpool I consider myself to be from. My Dad’s family lived in several shared houses around Stanley Dock and I’m often back here for work or just because.
These last few years of writing this blog I’ve several times walked round the financial district of Liverpool but still consider myself something of a stranger there. Oriel Chambers though fascinates me. Growing up it contained Liverpool’s poshest restaurant, so posh I only went there once with a couple of friends who’d got married that day. We knew we were pushing the boat out being in there at all, but were astonished to find dining in there the elderly remnants of a Liverpool upper class who clearly came in every day for their tea.
Since then the beautiful Peter Ellis building has had more mostly empty hard times than good ones. But we still have it and it’s still gorgeous.
This is the passage next to Tower Buildings. And it was this picture, along with several others in the book, plus the fact that children had more freedom then, that started me walking seriously. I always want to know “What’s through there?” and from the middle 1960s I started an exploration of Liverpool that hasn’t finished yet.
To Quentin Hughes the Overhead going had left “an impressive motor road of dimensions quite unusual to our cities.” To me its loss is still mourned on every North or South Docks walk where I look out for and photograph the few pieces of evidence it was ever there with a reverence others might reserve for sacred relics. I’m so glad I rode on it just the once as a baby and would so love us to have it back.
The glass roof there in the Shankland Plan never did happen but over the past few years café society certainly has. These days when I say “I’m going to town” I pretty much mean Bold Street. The sitting around drinking tea and talking that I call “work” is often done here. And actually I’ve worked here since the early 1980s when we opened Liverpool Housing Trust’s office above the Oxfam Shop on the corner of Newington. An office I later passed on to the Big Issue when I was a volunteer writer for my first social enterprise friends.
One of the many ornate Liverpool pubs I dedicated much of my time to in the 1970s and 80s. A lot of that time I’d call “Union Work” as we sat working out our strategies on beer mats. Or, again on ripped up beer mats, “Housing Work” as we worked on development and decanting plans. Golden days.
Seeing this picture today shows me that the cobbles on the plateau now in the same pattern as the floor tiles inside are of recent vintage and certainly weren’t yet there in 1964.
And the great hall itself? Present in my life at infrequent but important gatherings. Seeing Roxy Music there in 1972, putting on their make up in the corridor outside the Small Concert Room. There in 1983 to see my friend Andy make his election address, standing for the Labour Party at the General Election. His address interrupted by Michael Foot’s late arrival. Later on having lunch with Sarah one of our first times in a café that was briefly there. I once met Quentin Hughes himself here, late in his life launching another book we’ll look at one day. Then during the life of this blog standing in tears in our thousands, the families of the 96 on the steps there, the day we got the truth about Hillsborough.
I’d seen this picture in Seaport but had no idea of the actual grandeur of the Canning area until the day I started University in 1973. Because of always wanting to know “What’s through there?” I walked out of the back door of the Eleanor Rathbone building and into my future. Of my first girlfriend Pat getting a flat in Falkner Street where I’d spend much of my University days, of talking my way into volunteering for Liverpool Housing Trust in Falkner Square and then them taking me on and working around here and in Granby for the first time. Then long after me and Sarah have become ‘a sense of place’ the two of us strolling happily round these streets with our cameras making the film for LHT being 40 in 2005.
Not that I ever went there then. I was a Catholic boy and I remember having to ask special permission from the priests to even go into a Protestant church, as we called them. Now and for many years it has been one of my favourite places to sit in and contemplate, and also to climb to the top of and photograph the City, the River and Liverpool 8. Hence now thinking of this one as “The Cathedral” and the other, though much loved, as “The Catholic Cathedral”.
Actually the Edwin Lutyens crypt of a much bigger cathedral that never did get built. I remember being brought here by school to see the model of what got built and opened by 1967.
In May 1967 me and my friend Paul Du Noyer were two of the many altar boys during its opening celebrations. A great honour which I still treasure. Though my own belief in a god did not survive my adolescence and has not returned since.
Next the images at the centre of Seaport that changed my life from the moment I first saw them.
The story Quentin Hughes is telling here is one of poverty and squalor that needs to be swept away while the ‘City of Change and Challenge’ preserves only our gems. And I’m immediately intrigued. Surprised at the poverty but not at all sure about the sweeping away. In these days I go to a family wedding and the do afterwards takes place in a hall at the bottom of one of the tower blocks that are replacing the terraces in Everton (a hall I will later work in for Liverpool Housing Department). Intrigued I will keep on climbing that same hill, for my work in housing to begin in 1972 and for many years afterwards. I will see the sweeping away of the remaining terraces and then the sweeping away of the tower blocks. And these days I stand at the bottom of the hill outside the miraculously still there but extremely fragile Eldon Grove and wonder whether these were the changes and the challenges we meant?
Well one side is Princes Park, but for these last 5 years and counting I’ve often walked through here to Granby, where so many of us have put our hearts and our souls into making sure the four precious remaining streets get saved by and for the people who live here. Which they are being, to our great and abiding joy.
First seen by me around 1965 when I came to stay with some cousins who lived just off Aigburth Road. But since 1977, when I moved from Walton to the south of the city, my central walking and thinking place. All the major changes, joys and agonies of my life have been brought here for a walk and a think. And always will be now.
And do we get a mention from Quentin Hughes back in 1964? Yes we do, very nicely too:
“The outlines of Liverpool have been softened by the amicable association of the sexes on equal terms; softened too by the meeting of races, hard edges rubbed off in the clash of Welsh commercialists, the flood of Irish immigrants and the absorption of West Indians, Africans and Chinese. From this melting pot of races has emerged a vital working class characterized by its resilience, its patience in the face of often appalling conditions and its extreme sense of humour.”
Well, discuss? But well meant.
The 1993 edition ends on a part celebratory “Postscript.”
Catholic one still to get the grand and welcome steps of its Hope Street entrance.
Thanks once again to Frank Horton and to all of the public libraries of my life for this one.