Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

George Garrett’s name weaves through the history of working class activism in the 1920s and beyond. As well as being a prominent organiser and  totally determined fighter for what he believed in, he was an extremely gifted writer. His short stories are wonderfully formed and on a par with anything that may be considered to show ‘literary’ genius; he also wrote plays and was a well-read and more than competent literary critic. This is the more remarkable considering the conditions he was working under, the lack of formal education, his total commitment to and involvement with political actions, and the grinding poverty and injustice all around him. He was also an extremely gifted chronicler of events. His Liverpool 1921-1922 gives intensely human insight to what was happening at a time when unemployment in  Liverpool had topped 60,000. The Workhouses was turning away the starving from their doors. Ex-servicemen who had been heroes a while before were selling their medals to survive.

We’ll be looking at his stories from The Collected George Garrett edited by the late Michael Murphy (whose premature death deprived us of bringing back to attention yet more of those parts of the city’s history so often forgotten or glossed over).  Nerve Magazine from Catalyst Media, Autumn 2006, has an excellent and concise overview of Garrett’s life and significance by Francis Boyce. So important is his place in history and Liverpool literature that we shall be giving several posts to discussing these.

Born in 1896 in Secombe where his father had a confectionary business, after hard times fell the family moved to Park Lane where his father became a stevedore. In a city riven with sectarian anger, Garret’s father who was a Loyal Orange Lodge member and his mother who was of Irish Catholic stock, the boy became sickened by the ongoing antagonisms. At school he witnessed the desperate poverty of many children wearing deceased grandparents’ hand-me-downs, and the disgusting humiliation, violent assaults and general bullying handded out by priests and teachers. His short story Apostate is a semi-autobiographical tale of such religious abuse.

He first became involved with industrial action during the Transport Strike of 1911 when he worked as a coal barrower on the docks.  A year later, propelled by the sectariaan atmosphere at home, he stowed away on a ship bound for Buenos Aires. The next four years saw him visit many places as a crew member, and he returned to Liverpool in 1918 only to discover that the land fit for heroes was a mass of poverty and unemployment. he went to the United States and there joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). Still a young man, his travels and experiences, and his belief in fellowship among all peoples of the world would lead him to address fellow workers in Liverpool in 1921 with these words:

Fellow workers, it is all very well criticising the alien as one of your speakers has been doing, and telling you that he is the cause of your unemployment. It is not so. The present rotten system is the cause… All workers are slaves to the capitalists no matter what their race, colour or creed is, and there is more slavery under British Imperialism and the Union Jack than under any other flag. You Britishers, you sometimes give me a pain. I don’t tell people I’m a Britisher. I had no choice in being where I was where I was born. How many of you have the guts of the Indians who are following Ghandi in India today, or following Michael Collins in Ireland? There people are only trying what we should be doing, breaking the bonds of their serfdom.

Such a speech would have been as radical then as, for some, it would still be today.

Garrett was one of the organisers of the Liverpool section of the 1922 ‘Hunger March’ to London. In his eye-witness account of the march, Garrett reported how the marchers came upon the local workhouse at one town on their way:

A high-wire netting divided the workhouse grounds into sections. Through this, wives conversed with husbands, and children with their fathers. Some of the marchers stared in amazement as little tots pressed their lips to the wire in awkward kisses for their fathers, stooped low on the opposite side of the wiring.

After the march, as one of the organisers Garrett was blacklisted. He went back to the United States where he wrote plays, returning to Liverpool in 1926 as the General Strike was petering out. In the next five years he worked  nine months as a casual docker. During the next five years he only found two weeks’ work.

We’ll return to looking in more detail at Garrett’s life and times during this period. To conclude this introduction, here’s George Orwell’s assessment of the man:

I was very greatly impressed by Garrett. Had I known before that it is he who writes under the pseudonym of Matt Low in the Adelphi and one or two other places, I would have taken steps to meet him earlier. He is a biggish hefty chap of about 36, Liverpool-Irish, brought up a Catholic but now a Communist. He says he has had about nine month’s work in (I think) the last 6 years. He went to sea as a lad and was at sea about 10 years, then worked as a docker. During the war he was torpedoed on a ship that sank in 7 minutes, but they had expected to be torpedoed and had got their boats ready, and were all saved except the wireless conductor, who refused to leave his post until he had got an answer. He also worked in an illicit brewery in Chicago during prohibition, saw various hold-ups, saw Battling Siki immediately after he had been shot in a street brawl, etc. etc. All this however interests him much less than Communist politics. I urged him to write his autobiography, but, as usual, living in about two rooms on the dole with a wife (who, I gather, objects to his writing) and a number of kids, he finds it impossible to settle to any long work and can only do short stories. Apart from the enormous unemployment in Liverpool it is almost impossible for him to get work because he is blacklisted everywhere as a Communist.


(George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier Diary, in Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, eds. George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 1.An Age Like This, 1920-1940 London :Secker & Warburg, 1968, p 187.)


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Of all the poets who are connected with Liverpool, perhaps the greatest is C.P.Cavafy, a twentieth century Greek cultural icon, although he was born in Alexandria. From a wealthy family, his father had business interests in Egypt, London and Liverpool. After his father’s death, Cavafy’s mother brought him in 1872 at the age of nine to Liverpool where he spent part of his childhood being educated. He lived first in Balmoral Road, then when the family firm crashed, he lived in poorer circumstances in Huskisson Street.

One of his most famous poems is The City which is reproduced below. Since Cavafy had roots in Alexandria, Greece, Constantinople (Istanbul), Paris and London, his city -although most influenced by  Alexandria where he was known as ‘the poet of the city’ – his city in the poem could be any city.

The City

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.

Another city will be found, better than this.

Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;

and my heart is — like a corpse — buried.

How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.

Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look

I see the black ruins of my life here,

where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted.”

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.

The city will follow you. You will roam the same

streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;

in these same houses you will grow gray.

Always you will arrive in this city. To another land — do not hope —

there is no ship for you, there is no road.

As you have ruined your life here

in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

Sir Sean Connery backed by music of Vangelis go to make for a sugary sweet version of Ithaca; again, it seems more than about a particular place or set of myths. Coming from a great seaport such as Liverpool, it resonates the more.

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"The Day of the Dead": Adrian Henri

A quite unusual picture of Hope Street! Artist and poet Adrian Henri was at the centre of the thriving cultural scene in Liverpool 8, especially in the Hope Street area. He taught in the art college, and was often to be seen upstairs in O’Connors Pub at the corner of Pilgrim Street – now a costume hire shop but then on the circuit that took in the Everyman Bistro, the Philharmonic (pub), the Cracke and The Pilgrim. Henri performed his poetry along with the likes of The Scaffold (including Roger McGough, John Gorman and Mike McGear ) and as leader of the poetry-rock band Liverpool Scene.

In the painting, among the figures in the crowd are artists and writers William Burroughs, Alien Ginsberg, Frida Kahlo, Ed Kienholz and Henri’s Liverpool painter friend, Sam Walsh. In the main painting shown here the white suited, pipe-smoking figure on the far left is Malcolm Lowry. Lowry was the alcoholic author of the brilliant novel, Under the Volcano. He was brought up in Birkenhead and referred to Liverpool as that terrible city whose main street is an ocean. Apart from the opening chapter, the novel is all set on the Mexican Day of the Dead when the hopelessly drink-soaked Consul who is the subject of the book dies. There is a very good overview of Lowry himself in a Guardian article.

Henri also painted another imaginative piece, The Entry of Christ into Liverpool. This refers back to James Ensor’s 1889 painting, The Entry of Christ into Brussels. It is fascinating to see how we can put imaginative ‘maps’ or ‘representations’ over the everyday city we inhabit.

The Entry of Christ into Liverpool

Figures in the painting include the Beatles, John Gorman and Roger McGough (Scaffold), William Burroughs, Charlie Mingus (jazz musician), Arthur Dooley (the Liverpool sculptor), James Ensor as Christ on the donkey, and many of Henri’s friends.


“The Liverpool Scene”

From Henri’s poem, The Entry of Christ into Liverpool:

City morning, dandelion seeds      blowing from wasteground
smell of overgrown privethedges.   children’s voices
in the distance.    sounds from the river.
round the corner into Myrtle St.   Saturdaymorning shoppers
down the hill
cheering and shouting in the distance
children running
icecream vans
flags breaking out over buildings
black and red green and yellow
Union Jacks   Red Ensigns
stretched out against the blue sky
over St George’s Hall
now the procession

Obituary of Adrian Henri

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We recently featured a post about Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, who died in the old Liverpool Infirmary and was buried as a pauper. During this centenary year of his death Liverpool sees twelve months of activities around the theme of City of Radicals. In our group we have, over the past  year, looked at some of the major radical figures in Liverpool’s history and many of the historical events that will receive coverage in 2011. The City Council has published some details of what we can look forward to:

Organisations across the city will host a series of events to mark a century of cultural, social and political radicalism in Liverpool.

And the city council will be kicking-off the celebrations by marking the centenary of Robert Tressell’s death – one of the great socialist figures of the twentieth century, who inspired generations with his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Tressell, born Robert Noonan, died in Liverpool on 3 February 1911 when he and his daughter were en-route to Canada.  He was buried in a cemetery in Walton, which is today on the same site as Rice Lane City Farm.

Working with the Bluecoat, Liverpool City Council has commissioned prestigious artist David Jacques, shortlisted for this year’s Northern Art Prize, to produce artwork which will reflect Tressell’s importance.  David has received critical acclaim for his work around trade union and memorial banners and will draw on twentieth century posters, adverts and press cuttings which focus on industrial struggles.

As part of the anniversary, a banner showcasing the work will be erected on the side of a prominent terrace of listed buildings on Dale Street.  The banner will also help in protecting the external façade of the terrace as well as improving its appearance.

David said: “Tressell is often seen as a rite of passage if you’re in any way involved with politics of a Leftist slant.

“The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was significant for me because it addressed economics among other things and it did this in an accessible way, by weaving the subject into a story.  For the most part its analysis still stands up and it’s a useful point of reference given the economic crisis we’re living through now.”

Other plans to honour Tressell include a series of special events on the 3 February including a wreath laying at the Tressell plaque located at the former Liverpool Infirmary, a ceremony at his graveside and an evening at the Town Hall where the impact of Tressell will be debated.

Public readings of the book will take place in Dovecot, Walton, Sefton Park and Toxteth libraries, and in March, the John Moores University Roscoe Lecture Series will dedicate a session to the author.

Liverpool  city council’s cabinet member for culture and tourism, Councillor Wendy Simon, said:  “The significance of Tressell’s book cannot be underestimated and has been described as one of the greatest English novels which highlights class conflicts.

“As he’s buried in Liverpool it’s important the city marks his cultural contribution.  The planned series of events will be thought-provoking and bring this influential character to the attention of the next generation who will be able to get an insight into life 100 years ago.

“And the Tressell events just mark the beginning of an exciting year which will look at Liverpool’s century of radicalism, including workers’ uprisings and struggles.”

Visit the Council website for more. The City of Radicals theme runs alongside the Year of Social Justice which was referred to here.


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We are starting an archive of materials which represent Liverpool’s connection with literature and the arts. Starting with Daniel Defoe we’ll be exploring the wealth of materials up to the present day, including novels, poetry, art, theatre, film and television. Not to mention music!

Here, Denis reflects back on his youthful encounter with Casabianca, the poem with perhaps the most famous opening of all, “The boy stood on the burning deck…”  Felicia Dorothea Hemans who wrote the poem was born in Dale Street, Liverpool.





Dormer High School in Warwickshire, was, what might be called, a kitchen-sink school.  It was a Roman Catholic school that, mainly, served the offspring of the Irish who moved from Cork in the early 1950s, when the car manufacturer, Fords, closed down the factory there and moved it to Leamington Spa.


Even though Dormer was a typical secondary modern and most of the pupils were destined for Flavels, Fords, Lockheeds or any of the other factories that provided ‘Jobs-For-Life’, the ethos of erudio pro erudio was unspoken but dominated.  If we asked a teacher what use a certain topic would be for a job, we would, inevitably be told, ‘none’.


The library shelves contained modern as well as classical literature (some, like Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, would horrify Educationalist of today) and in our English classes we would be introduced to some of the finest poetry ever written.  Mainly, I recall only the Romantics, such as Coleridge, Byron , Wordsworth or Shelly.  But a poem that stuck in my mind was Casabianca, written by Felicia Dorothea Hemans.


Casabianca was the name given to a twelve year old boy; the son of a ship’s officer on board L’Orient , a French ship, destroyed by Admiral Nelson in 1798.  It was said that the boy remained in his post, even though the ship was being destroyed, hence one of the most famous opening lines of a poem:  ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’.


The author, Felicia Hemans (nee Browne) was born in Dale Street, Liverpool, in 1793 –  although she later moved to Flintshire, in Wales.  Her first collection of poetry was published in Liverpool when she was only 14 years old, catching the attention of no less a figure than Percy Bysshe Shelley, who she later felt to be ‘a dangerous flatterer’ and she put an end to their correspondence.  During her life Hemans sold more volumes of poetry than any other poet, except Byron. (more…)

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