‘I remember, we came down to the docks, and it’d been given over to pigeons.’ – Dermot, Liverpool.
It takes a while to get up this morning in Liverpool. Mind and body are aching from too many drinks taken at a local lock-in the night before. Over the course of talking with Dermot, a friend from the North End of Liverpool, I’ve learned three things:
- There’s a very important divide between the ‘North End’ and the ‘South End’ in Liverpool. People speak different, look different, and probably have lesser or greater incomes depending on which part you’re in.
- Don’t confuse Liverpudlians with either people from the Wirral (these are in fact ‘plastic Scousers’) or from St. Helens (they are ‘woolly-backs’).
- There’s been a decades-long practice of blacklisting workers and activists in the UK, the scale of which is only starting to come out. It is probably continuing.
Though he comes from a family of shipwrights, Dermot worked on the docks before training as an electrician. He had a steady career working on building sites across the country. He participated in the strikes on the Jubilee Line Extension during the 1990s, though was not particularly active in them. But like around (at least) 3 213 workers, his name was put on a blacklist, a register of names checked by building contractors when vetting potential employees. Whole groups of workers on other public projects like the Millennium Dome, or the Royal Opera House, or the Pfizer plant in Sandwich, Kent, have found themselves on these lists, often on the most tenuous of links. Once their names are on this list it becomes virtually impossible to find work.
The impact can be economically and emotionally devastating for workers and their families. Until 2009 it was widely believed that there was no blacklisting. Those denied employment were accused of paranoia. Then on 23 February 2009 the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the offices of the Consulting Association, a small company with registers and records of 3 213 men and women. Forty-four companies had been paying a £3000 annual subscription fee, as well as a charge of £2.20 for individual details. Between April 2006 and February 2009, construction firms paid just under half a million pounds to the CA, demonstrating how widely and frequently it was used.
‘We live in an age in which conspiracy theories abound – but the blacklisting of building workers by big construction companies via the Consulting Association was no theory – it actually was a real live conspiracy.’ (House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, Blacklisting in Employment: interim report 2013).
In British law, shockingly, blacklisting itself is not illegal. It is merely an infringement of data protection. Workers could be listed for raising a safety issue, or seen reading a left-wing newspaper or attending a protest, or for simply being disagreeable to their managers. Though most of the CA’s information came from building contractors, there’s been evidence more recently that Special Branch local departments and trade union officials inside Amicus also passed on information. Look closer and some of the paranoia seems justified.
Take out a blank sheet and a pencil, one could soon draw links with an insidious culture of illegal surveillance and corruption at the highest levels. Incidences like the long-term undercover surveillance of legitimate protest groups and grieving families whose male relatives have been murdered by the police, or the cover-up and media smearing of dead Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, or the consistency of links between the Murdoch press and British leaders, or the decades-long cover-up of child sex abuse or sexual assaults against young women by parliamentary figures.
Each is an appalling indictment against the network of individuals and institutions that make up the British establishment. But blacklisting was, to be honest, something that I didn’t quite believe in either, until Dermot told me all about last night and this morning. He shows me publications and tells me about his research at Ruskin College at Oxford University, where he has just finished a dissertation studying the effect of blacklisting on workers’ families.
Some of the records are actually quite funny. Here’s what might prevent you from ever working again:
‘Glasgow, is an extreme troublemaker, worse than any Communist.
Sold Socialist Worker.
Glasgow, pipe fitter, bad all round.
Organised petition over homelessness
While at xx, drew H&S issues to the attention of site manager
Union steward – work and this man do not agree!! Problems!’
These appear in the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee report. But how did Kerr work? From a series of recent reports it seems that he largely used the telephone, gathering information from sympathetic contractors and well-placed spies. He would retain one trusted contact within each subscribing firm. But he was also aided by unwitting left-wing newspapers and bookshops which he regularly visited:
‘I read – I obtained – I made it my business either by subscription or by traveling around a lot of very interesting, I have to say, radical bookshops that existed in London. There used to be a very good one in Camden, which closed, the Compendium. There was another one in Charing Cross and in Caledonian Road called Housmans. They used to be helpful.’
The 2009 raid was poorly conducted though. Only five percent of the CA’s files were seized, and these were later returned by the information commissioner to the CA! Ian Kerr and his wife, the two running the organisation, obviously destroyed the files afterwards, preventing workers from discovering what information was against their names. These CA files were however privately seen by the government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but their contents have not been made public (Keith Ewing, Ruined Lives: Blacklisting in the UK construction industry. A report for UCATT, August 2009).
Before the CA there was the Economic League, set up in 1919 to ‘reinforce support for democracy, personal freedom and free enterprise’. Its blacklist was used for decades, and had files on forty Labour MPs, but it was wound up in 1993 after its activities were publicised. The CA has been wound up, but too little has yet been done to prevent another organisation taking these subscriptions, building these lists and starting again. London’s Crossrail project is already beset with accusations of blacklisting.
So, what happened to Dermot, you’re wondering? After years of applying for hundreds of vaguely-related jobs, he finally managed to find work in a dangerous and unpopular trade, nuclear waste disposal. He’s been doing this at various sites for some time now. Nuclear waste is an equally illuminating and disquieting area, but first, we must finish our breakfast and head out to explore.
Dermot’s taking me on a local’s tour of the town, the best way by far to see a place.
We step out into Wavertree village, a long high-street filled with pubs that ends in a twee little green on one side, and connects to Liverpool city centre on the other. Families would travel out here on days off for the fresher air and relative serenity, away from the industry and the docks. The pubs did a good trade, perhaps a little too good – drunks were a problem. So during the 18th and 19th centuries, Liverpool built several lock-ups: round-shaped brick structures that drunks, petty criminals, refugees and other undesirables would be locked into for the night and then released the next day, or brought to the local magistrate. Liverpool has a particularly special relationship with them: one of its two football clubs, Everton, has a picture of one on its crest.
The bus takes us into Liverpool’s city centre, a small and compact place. One immediately appreciates its spaciousness: the streets are wider and feel airy, lighter, than say the compressions of a market town or the dense sprawl of London or Manchester. There are less people hurrying about too, and most areas have a feeling of being partially deserted. I find it pleasant and relieving, and wandering across Liverpool is probably the most pleasant urban experience I’ve had so far on this trip.
We disembark by a cluster of old and new university buildings and walk down to ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’, the affectionate nickname of the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Just look at it! It’s a bizarre and dream-like structure built between 1962 and 1967. Sir Edwin Lutyens initially produced a design in 1930 for what would be the second largest cathedral in the world, one suitable for Liverpool’s largely Catholic, largely Irish working population during the early 20th century. But it was far too costly and ambitious to realise – its huge dome and characteristic panoply of labyrinthine red-brick arches are feasible but unimaginable – and the Second World War put a stop to it. The crypt was completed by 1958, but the city’s Catholic church commissioned a less expensive design for the building itself, something appropriate for the needs of the present and the future.
Wandering inside, the effect is profound. One is never more than twenty-five metres from the altar, and the circular shape of the structure brings the congregation into a kind of equal fellowship of worship. It feels very light, airy, and without any burden of doom or gloom. The various colours of the stained glass penetrate into the space like a light-show. There are artworks on the walls by local artists, and small chapels built into the circular walls allowing for more quiet reflection. It is a positive, perhaps even hopeful place. For all the problems of Catholicism and the Catholic Church, there is something impressive about this structure, and that it was paid for by the working-class Catholics of the city.
‘They did it with dolls and with raffle tickets;
they did it with pools and bingo;
they did it with socials,
and tired old men standing outside churches
in the wet with a bit of a box in their hands.
They did it with silver paper and tupenny legacies;
they did it with cigarette and Green Shield stamps;
they did it with old newspapers and wedding rings;
with treasured heirlooms and bits of this and that.’
Norman Cresswell puts it thus when the cathedral opened in 1967. The crypt by contrast is a far more sober, restrained and emotionally repressed space. There’s something wonderful about the arches too, and one feels at certain moments like having discovered a secret temple-grotto in the dark recesses of a cave, but it doesn’t impress me in the same way. These days it’s more often used for worship than the cathedral itself though, and there’s a well-known ale festival here too which we’re sadly on the wrong day for.
But refreshment’s found nearby in the Casa Bar, a pub bought and owned by a cooperative of Liverpool dockers. It’s situated on Hope Street, the lovely name for a lane that links Paddy’s Wigwam to the imposing and morbid Protestant cathedral on the other end, a nice attempt at bridging the city’s old sectarian divide. There’s a backroom where local union and political groups meet, including the national rank and file which Dermot tells me about. There’s a mural to Che Guevara and to Cuba, and a wall with dedicatory plaques from the pub’s supporters, from union leaders and MPs to local dockers and their families. Around the pub are photographs and memorabilia from the Spanish Civil War, in which many young Liverpool men volunteered to join and fight as part of the anarchist militias or International Brigades. One included Jack Jones, later a major trade union figure. It’s striking the range of social backgrounds here, from university professor to casual labourer. It’s a superb boozer, proudly socialist yet unpretentious, a cool place to drink. We drink up our pints of Guinness and head out.
Next stop on our left-wing tour of Liverpool is the former Unemployment Centre, a once-bustling centre situated in the old school for the blind. During the eighties and nineties this place gave employment and legal advice for free at an immensely painful time for the city. ‘There’s no straight line with Liverpool, it’s always been great highs and lows’, Dermot tells me. During the Thatcher government of the eighties, the city was particularly rocked by unemployment and a decline in its infrastructure. The city was hard-hit by policies that allowed for declining industries to close, and its proudly socialist Labour traditions peculiarly aggravated the Tory leaders of the day. Home minister Geoffrey Howe called it ‘the hardest nut to crack’, claiming its ‘concentration of hopelessness’ was largely self-inflicted. They planned to abandon the city. Liverpool’s always had too much guts and pride to allow for that.
Between 1983 and 1987 the city’s Labour council adopted the revolutionary socialist ideas of the ‘Militant tendency’ and took on the Thatcher government. The local Labour party adopted the slogan ‘better to break the law than to break the poor’, and set about building thousands of new homes, schools, parks and sports centres, creating new jobs in the council, whilst abolishing the ceremonial role of Lord Mayor and selling off his horses. This at a time of massive unemployment and cuts to government spending. Imagine it now…
Along with Lambeth council in London (my home borough, wey!), Liverpool led a rate-capping rebellion, refusing to set a cap on its government spending in order to provide for its peoples. It didn’t all go smoothly – forty-seven of its Labour councillors were evicted in 1987 in punishment for setting a deficit budget, and its leader Derek Hatton was expelled from the Labour Party. But they remained popular, and never lost a city-wide election or general election. Labour politics and ideas have retained an influence in Liverpool, albeit a diminishing one. Unemployment is a huge problem in the city today. Whereas once there was this unemployment centre, today there is only the punitive antics of the local jobcentre service. Liverpool needs some kind of revival of this strategy.
Ordinarily the building’s closed, but today it’s been opened for the Liverpool Biennial. There are contemporary artworks and films being shown inside. I am unfortunately too stupid to understand them, I suppose, as they all appear as mock-children’s drawings or pretentiously curated objects discovered on streets. Still, Dermot and I get to snoop around the peeling walls of the place and discover a charming statement of the pride and energy that once characterised the place in a mural within one bulb-shaped roof. It’s rapidly disintegrating, but this alone deserves pride of place at the Biennial, I feel.
On the other side of the road is a charming Victorian boozer called the Philharmonic. The place is decorated like an opera-house, with the names of famous composers adorning smaller chambers that open up onto a small but cavernous watering hole. Look up, down and all around, and one’s eyes catch evidence of the meticulousness of this building’s craftsmanship, from small figures here or there to the stained glass above doors and in windows. Even the toilets are grade I listed, and beat even Rothesay as the finest pissoirs I’ve encountered.
We refresh ourselves again, and drift out, wandering through the diminished remains of the city’s Chinese community, once massive but now increasingly dispersed. There’s the bombed-out cathedral nearby, which local volunteers have transformed into a peaceful garden where art is made and children play. Shrubs and plants thrive in the soils where once sorrowful or hungover worshippers trod towards their pew, whilst a yoga class of sorts carries on in the background. It’s another pleasant and enjoyable surprise to this city, so well-disposed towards its citizens.
Here there is space to walk and to think, air to breath, and a friendliness and civility that is to be cherished. We drift towards St. George’s Hall by Liverpool’s main train station at Lime Street. The array of Victorian structures is extraordinary, yet they neatly fit together with more modern attempts, rather than juxtaposing or antagonising their neighbours, like in Manchester. Thoroughfares are wide and clean, and there is no obvious sign of dereliction. Liverpool may be struggling with unemployment and poverty, but it takes pride in itself despite a certain change in circumstances. There’s a small tube system here and an excellent local train and bus service. This is a good place to be, and one of my greatest surprises of the trip. I’d expected pollution, dirt, dereliction and casual aggression. None of that here. Only friendliness and warmth, an ease in navigating about, an enjoyment in walking slowly and looking around.
The city seems to facilitate that, whether we drift into the remarkable central library, with its open information desks and family history sections one can readily access, or the marvellous terrace view from the top. Or whether we’re drifting through the large and privately-owned Liverpool One mall, a place that’s taken a predictable drubbing from some left-wing grouches but is actually a pleasant place to wander through, observe one’s fellows and shop around. Space, room and a certain slowness are facilitated here over the manic speeds and stresses of the average modern city.
There’s costs with all this. Dermot points out the shops with ‘to let’ signs, but soon tires of this, there being so many around Lime Street and elsewhere. There used to be cinemas here, or fancy jewellers on Bond Street, but the new mall has crushed their trade. Any city council ought to make appropriate preparations for this before allowing the construction of a new shopping centre either in the town centre or outside, but this is a failing I’ve witnessed everywhere. We have another drink in Doctor Duncan’s, a nice old boozer named after the city’s (and country’s) first medical officer, who brought sewers, street cleaning and improved sanitation to its cholera-ravaged communities. The place is owned by Cain’s, a Liverpool institution whose beer-brewing arm has sadly recently gone out of business. It’s only Liverpool organic brewery ales for us.
From the city centre we head towards Liverpool’s former docking area by the Mersey. We pass through Exchange Flags, a large open square with a peculiar bronze monument to Nelson in its centre. Shackled to the figure of Victory are four manacled prisoners which attempt to represent Nelson’s military successes, but appear more like the wretched figures exploited by the slave trade on which Liverpool thrived. A sign reads ‘England expects every man to do his duty’, whilst nearby a young man plays generic indie covers with impeccable accuracy.
Via the Liverpool One mall, we wander down towards the Liver Building, an ambitious concrete structure built in 1911 that faces the Mersey. Two birds stand on the top, with a daft legend attached that were the two birds to fly away, the city would cease to exist. There’s a string of impressive early 20th century buildings here, from the white marble of the Italian Renaissance-alike Cunard Building to the grand baroque features of the Port of Liverpool building. We wander through the Albert Dock, now regenerated with a series of local museums, cafes and a branch of the Tate gallery, peering into windows and gazing out at the Mersey. It’s fully integrated the old dock structures into its design, whilst various boats including one Dermot used to service sit in dry-docks nearby. Compared to Salford or Glasgow, the regeneration of these docks is remarkably effective, especially as Dermot describes what they were like before.
We circumnavigate around the docks and the complex of buildings around them, passing a partially-built conference centre and bland hotel before discovering the Baltic Fleet, a classic old boozer which seems to have improbably escaped the demolition ball. They’re playing post-punk and serving up some fine cheap booze. We talk about nuclear energy.
‘I’m not exactly a fan of nuclear energy, but…’, his pause trailing into silence. Dermot sees a difference between the possibilities of old-fashioned fission, the splitting of the atom which produces so much radioactive waste, and fusion. Fusion could theoretically produce energy with only water as waste product. Its energy would be clean and sustainable. Research has taken place at Culham in Oxfordshire. There are promising signs but no technological breakthroughs yet. The ITER plant currently being built in the south of France might be promising. Yet the ‘very primitive’ method of fission is being used again at the UK government’s new nuclear plant being constructed at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. Though some new technologies are being used, it will still result in the same problem of a huge leftover of nuclear waste for future generations to attempt to dispose of.
And how exactly do you dispose of nuclear waste?
It’s surprisingly primitive. ‘They basically just rub the rods very hard with a cloth, then throw the cloth into a barrel and into the sea’. Barrels were buried put under the sea until leaks began contaminating the waters. Sellafield on the Cumbria coast is now one of the most polluted parts of Britain. These radioactive rods must first be cooled in ponds before disposal, but even these are open to the air. Dermot has seen birds fly in and out of these ponds. From what I can conclude, there seems to be an active and continuous contamination of the surrounding landscapes happening which few outside the world of nuclear energy are aware of. It strikes me as a great and unknown crime against the living species of these islands.
It’s been a long day of exploring. Tired, we head back to Wavertree, eat and drink wine, and share more familiar stories of our lives.
Next morning, and Dermot’s heading back to Oxford, and I back into Liverpool. I wander around the town’s shopping precinct by the small Central Station, picking up supplies and watching the passers-by. There are so many here, but few bear carrier bags or seem interested in much else except being here too, like me, amongst the life of the crowds. At times I’m resting my back against the windows of chain stores, happy enough to listen to the buskers and the chatter in the air, watching these forms pass by like a ‘botaniser on the asphalt’, as Walter Benjamin puts it.
Heading up Bold Street, there’s a well-established left-wing bookshop called News from Nowhere, established over forty years ago. It’s the kind of place one might’ve found Ian Kerr snooping around two decades ago. My books have been spoiled by the rain and I seek something to feed my brain with. Mark Thomas’ The People’s Manifesto and Mark Perryman Imagining Nation: England after Britain seem suitable sustenance. I pick up a copy of Nerve, a magazine of community arts, culture and radical politics in Merseyside, a wry if occasionally righteous publication.
Outside, I get a copy of the Big Issue in the North from a friendly but tired seller who most of the bookshop’s patrons ignore. Inside there’s reports the number of people receiving three-day emergency food rations from foodbanks has grown by 263% in the last year alone, to a figure of around 913 318. All this at a time when securing a foodbank referral, or having the means to even cook what one might receive, are all in jeopardy. On the radio in a café later I hear one woman in the Wavertree foodbank asking David Cameron to simply visit the place and find out how real the problems of malnutrition and hunger are becoming.
I retrace our steps back towards Albert Dock. There’s a choir of female refugees singing on the ground floor of the Maritime Museum, coordinated by Migrant Artists Mutual Aid. The songs are a touching contribution to a series of events around remembering slavery. On the third floor is an extensive exhibition about the slave trade. Liverpool was a major port for the slave trade, and the city developed and thrived from the proceeds of slavery from the mid-18th century onwards. Liverpool ships transported around half of the three million black Africans taken across the Atlantic by British merchants.
That’s the dirty ‘reveal’ behind much of the city’s wonderful Victorian structures: they were built upon the sweat and blood of men, women and children stolen from their homes and cultures and endured a kind of existence worse than any modern prison. Though Hull and Bristol also thrived, Liverpool possessed the canals and transport links that allowed it to gather the textiles, metals, crafts and guns that were sold to enterprising African slave dealers in exchange for their captives. The peoples of this continent have never been compensated for this overwhelming atrocity, nor have their societies been allowed to recover. The debts that developing countries still owe to western states became so well-known for a time that they’ve since acquired the depressing invisibility and acceptance of normality.
The exhibits are upsetting and moving, demonstrating the dependence on the slave trade for much of the British industrial revolution – cheap raw cotton from the United States, from slave labour, was imported into the booming textiles towns of the north. Control of the trade of spices, sugar, coffee and tobacco via the power of the Royal Navy and the boom of merchant capitalism provided the wealth and means to invest in new industrial innovations, from larger ships to canals and railways. Those fine civic structures I’ve been admiring in Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool or elsewhere, or those elaborate townhouses: each is built on the blood of slavery. Perhaps it is naïve to mention compensation, the figure owed would be too great now, too irreversible. But the exhibition here is one message of that atrocity which must become better known and understood if the peoples of these islands today are to learn anything at all from the uglier sides of our shared history.
The museum tints my vision in a darker hue, and I gaze up at these structures with a little less trust, though with the same awe as before. I wander around the Pierhead before heading back through Liverpool One. I lunch in Subway where a cheap meal-deal and WiFi access allows for a few hours of writing. The pub opposite promises live tarot card readings for those who pop in for a pint of Fosters or Dog on the right night. I head back up the Dispensary pub on Renshaw Street for a final jar in the city, opting for a Plum Porter. The place is a little quiet and there’s no conversation at the bar, so I sup that down and pedal back to Wavertree, the taste bittersweet. The evening’s spent in a relaxing way, talking and eating with Sandra and her two daughters, a spot of reading, and a good night’s sleep.
Thinking about Liverpool today and the legacy of its historical struggles, I page through an old copy of Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn’s Liverpool: a city that dared to fight (1988). Their predictions for a revolutionary future are typically optimistic in outcome and overdramatic in prognosis:
‘The collapse of British capitalism, which was partially obscured by a credit boom prior to the 1987 General Election, will be enormously compounded by the coming world recession. This in turn will result in a sharp deterioration in the living standards of big layers of the British working class. In their millions they will move to defend their rights and conditions. … In the miners’ strike and above all in the study of the Liverpool experience these workers will find the weapons to carve out a new world. We hope that this account of Liverpool’s struggle can play its part in the rearming of the British working class for the mighty battles to come.’
Taaffe and Mulhearn may be right on one level: social inequality and low pay have worsened since 1987. The poor are no longer simply poor: they are also hungry or malnourished, cold, possibly criminalised or at least made skint by benefits punishments. They are far more likely to have mental and physical health problems, and their children will find the path to senior positions in the media, politics or professions strewn with obstacles. But Liverpool’s weathered even their pessimism. Liverpool the City of Culture, Liverpool with its rediscovered confidence in its docks, Liverpool One with its genuinely enjoyable public spaces to sit, stand and gather.
Liverpool, the indefatigable. Its bravura is like those Liver birds, a story it too recognises is a myth, but one it plays up to, lives up to and makes its own. There’s no other city like this in the world. It looks back to its past, and to its people, but looks ahead to the mixed fortunes of the future with an equanimous pride. ‘The secret to freedom, courage’, as one local museum quotes Thucydides, expressing millennia back the spirit of this place. I’m looking forward to returning again.