I was made in England. The place of one's beginnings, the surrounding landscape, the names and words current in childhood are important to us all, but more especially to writers. Nothing makes sense until time has gone by; the past is always more real than the present. Think of Dickens and his poverty stricken Camden Town boyhood, of Jane Austen and her seemingly uneventful existence in Southampton and Winchester, of D.H. Lawrence and his Nottingham background, William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, of Charlotte and Emily Brontë on the Yorkshire Moors.
My place was Liverpool, that once great shipping port with its Pier Head and Landing Stage, its seven miles of Docks – the Albert, the Gladstone, Salthouse, Canning – fronted by the Cunard offices, the Custom House, the Goree Piazzas and the magnificent Royal Liver Building, its winged birds tethered beneath the flying clouds. All were built in a previous century and gave a framework to my life.
I was fortunate that my father wanted to show me what had determined his own maturity; he trailed me round the business sector of the town, stabbing a finger at the warehouses that had stored his tobacco and his cotton, detailing doorways he had stood in while working out deals, windows he had gazed from when adding up percentages. He ranted about the sailing ships of his youth waiting for the tides to change, of the construction of the docks, of how the monopolies of the great trading companies, the Hudson Bay, the East India, the Royal Africa had been broken. There were tears in his eyes; he was grieving for a Liverpool long gone.
Before I was born an elevated railway had been built from the Dingle to Gladstone Dock. It was the first of its kind and Chicago copied and still retains one similar. In my pixie hood and rabbit fur gloves I sat opposite my father on the juddering carriage seat as we peered down at the warehouses stuffed with grain, sugar cotton and tea, at the giant ocean liners stuck in the black jelly of the Mersey river.
On summer days he walked me round the cemetery of St James's Place, jabbing with his umbrella at the tombstones overgrown with grass, hooking back the prickly holly to expose the long flat tablets engraved with the names of boys and girls all dead before their time – the orphans of the Bluecoat School. Beside the grave of Felicia Hemans he recited the verses of a poem she wrote, the one about the boy who stood on a burning deck whence all around had fled. Nearby reared the grand mausoleum of Mr Huskisson, the unfortunate statesman who, in 1830, attending the inauguration of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was foolish enough to descend onto the track the better to admire its first train. It ran him over.
Copyright Beryl Bainbridge 2008
Disclaimer: the views expressed in the copyrighted poems and essays are the views of the author alone, and are not endorsed or otherwise by the BBC or Arts Council in any way whatsoever.
John C Taylor
At 50 years old I find myself, to a certain extent, in agreement with Beryl. Liverpool has changed, this of course is the natural way of things, any city that does not change with stagnate. It's not always easy to accept, but it has to be. Change for the sake of change is never good. We must trust that the changes being made are for the better, for the future, as the future will not wait. I was made in a tenement block in Garston, (Speke Road Gardens, a name with a sense of humour as the gardens were not well kept and often used as a toilet for the local dogs). It did me no harm, even though the tenements often had a reputation for being enhabited by criminals, whereas only a small minority of the residents were ever dishonest. And we did have inside plumbing, the street opposite did not, (Vineyard Street), once famous for providing wine to the Vatican. The tenement is now gone torn down several years ago, will I miss it, Not a chance.
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