Written by one of the group:
Parts of the city I have never visited. The bits I do know I know nearly nothing about. I have picked up a few things about history in South Liverpool but they’re all just bits and pieces. Where I live (Allerton) wasn’t even part of Liverpool until 1913. I have read a bit recently about Allerton and been to see the ancient Calder Stones and the thousand years old Allerton Oak. I’ve looked at a few old maps, and found out about the history of some of the buildings. What I know absolutely nothing about is what the lives of ordinary people were like. It’s as if they didn’t exist.
There are many books and so on about Liverpool, and I’ve read some of them, seen telly programmes and so on. Some of the things I’ve gone a bit deeper into but the deeper I go, the more turns up about any particular subject, and at least one thing I know for sure is that I don’t know very much at all really. Some people, amateurs and professionals, spend years of their lives researching one little aspect of one little bit of history: certainly when I read some of their stuff, especially about things that interest me like Vikings, the Slave Trade, labour history, and working class life generally, I’m grateful. But I always feel like I’m scratching the surface.
So I guess I’m saying that although I’m not daft and have done a fair bit of reading etc. I don’t really know that much about the City now or in the past. In fact, it occurs to me that the past and the present can’t really be separated. The same is true of Lancashire, England, Britain, Europe and the World. I guess too, if I’m honest, I fool even myself into thinking I know a lot, sometimes almost everything, about these things.
Perhaps my giving in to the temptation of certainty to do with things I don’t really know much about is a common human trait? What makes it more surprising is that over the years part of me has always known that the main part of the word ‘history’ is the word ‘story’. I don’t mean that all history is fiction like a made up story. I mean that different people tell different stories about how they see the past and present. For instance, I have read histories written about Palestine which differ very widely even though they agree on the basic facts. In later years I’ve taken to reading histories of Britain, or indeed Liverpool, that are very different from what you may call the ‘official’ versions. I know that people who felt excluded from mainstream history have taken to writing their own versions. Black history, feminist ‘herstory’, for example. These days many films or documentaries on television challenge the usual or ‘dominant’ versions of particular histories or events. Personally, I’m in a position where I see the mainstream media constructing or making history about the present day which are more than open to challenge. An obvious example of this locally is the ongoing challenge to many mainstream accounts of the Hillsborough disaster.
I don’t want to end up by being suspicious of all interpretations but I am on the alert to ask questions such as: who or what is left out? what is emphasised? who made the interpretation and where were they coming from? whose interests are served by this or that interpretation? does the interpretation or account seem to be claiming that it is telling the whole story?
It’s all much closer to home in one way. If or when I try to track my own immediate family history I’m struck by how much of it is hidden or supposed to be hidden. There are certain things I know which were hidden from me when I was a kid, and to this day I am still not thought to know about them. When I was a kid, I was surrounded by uncles and aunties and cousins, though just the one grandparent, then they all faded away to different worlds, and, of course, many died. I note that my parents hardly ever talked about their own parents, and they never talked about the War. I had to find out secondhand when I was much older the bits and pieces I know now. When my Dad died I was given a briefcase which he put all his important things in. Old birth certificates, death certificates (including one for an aunty I never knew I had), ration books, faded postcards and so on. My Nan had done some family history research which got back to 1832, and there some documents including a copy of a will from a sea captain ancestor who left £850, a lot in those days, and some other interesting stuff. I was able to work out a fair bit about the facts of my family, but it’s the gaps, the breaks, the silences that carry most weight, the weight of the unknowable now.
Like most families in Liverpool, mine had ancestors who not so long ago came from elsewhere. On my Mum’s side, her Dad left Dumfries to make a new life here. My Dad’s side came from East Anglia via London (my great granddad was a diver on the Thames). Cities everywhere attract people looking for better opportunities, and the shift from rural labour to industrial was of the scale of a revolution. They joined the ever changing flux that was Liverpool. The expansion of the ship builders and related industries (my Mum’s Dad was a rivetter at Cammell Laird, most of her brothers were stokers) saw the city swelling in size, still absorbing the massive influx of Irish, and to a lesser extent Welsh and Scottish, plus the seafarers from all over the world who settled here. As the main Atlantic port, it had a huge transient population of those waiting to board ships as emigrants or merchantmen, some of them settling in Liverpool rather than sailing; adding to the transient population, of course, were the thousands disembarking from ships.
There have been thousands of words written about the meaning of Liverpool stemming from this population flux, its place as a port and aspects of the city related to it. The more I read histories of the city, the more I think I’m reading about the histories of many different cities laid on top of each other at the same time but all connected. I don’t get the feeling that there was one still identity. I think, by the way, that this is true about other things too: ‘working class’, it strikes me, has lots of different layers of meaning.Also, of course, the borders of the city were changing all the time, and as I said earlier, Allerton, for example, only became part of the city in 1911. I just wonder whether it may still be the case that so many histories can be written today, that they can all come from different points, that even the ‘history of the present’ is not one thing but layer on layer of different, sometimes competing stories.