A guest post from George Boyland.
George is a regular contributor to The Guardian’s Readers’ Recommend music blog.
During World War Two, frightened Luftwaffe pilots, seeing the flak over Manchester and Liverpool, would turn back and drop their bombs over the last city before the North Sea – Hull. That city had it bad. But, apart from the East End of London, nowhere had it as bad as Liverpool. Placing London’s battering to one side, add up all of the tonnage of TNT dropped on England by the Luftwaffe, and it doesn’t add up to what was dropped on Liverpool. That was because 95% of American and British merchant ships, practically everything that Britain needed to stand up to the Nazis, came through Liverpool docks. Hitler was well aware of this and consequently gave the city a terrible pounding.
Some cities, with help, rose like phoenixes out of the ashes, but Liverpool was left to its own devices. Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor, poet and author, visited Liverpool in the 1970s and was astonished to see World War Two bomb sites throughout the city centre. It took an outsider’s eye to spot how successive governments had not only neglected the city of Liverpool but also had failed to acknowledge that the city had developed a limp from its wounds acquired in defence of the rest of the country. But then Liverpool famously faces away from England, looking towards the Atlantic, the Americas and Australia, rather than Westminster.
I was born in Liverpool in 1953, eight years after the war. It’s common knowledge that you could play on the streets in those days. There were no cars, except for the doctor’s next door. He had a garage, and I recall several five-year-old girls, after their earliest school days, sitting me down in the sun against the garage doors, replaying their lessons, they as teachers, I the pupil, until I knew the alphabet and my times tables up to ten. By the age of five I was the bane of my teachers. I knew all of the lessons inside out, thanks to those little girls.
Soon I was wandering around the city. The town centre was Fairyland, Disneyland and Oz combined. At Christmas, I dashed between the big stores’ grottos. Not with any money, there was none, I just went to see the magic. TJ Hughes in London Road had Dancing Waters one year and Pinky and Perky the next. Blackler’s had the most beautiful outdoor lights to complement their grotto, and Lewis’s had the most amazing window displays and a guaranteed quality grotto.
I used to go alone until I learned that I could earn money running errands for the housebound; either young mothers with babies or elderly people. My cry was, “Got any messages, missus?” Some would pay you a penny, others threepence. They all added up, and I’d take my baby sisters to the various grottos. They were young enough to be kidded by my claiming to have seen Father Christmas running between Blackler’s, where we’d just left, and Lewis’s. “Didn’t you see him? He just ran in there. Let’s follow him.”
You had to be thirteen to have a paper round, but I invented one when I was nine. “I’m not paying you,” the newsagent said.
But I got the orders for the evening Liverpool Echo by knocking on doors in the surrounding streets. Most people went for it. Not all paid, mind, I didn’t tell them I was doing it for tips. But there was enough money there to justify the round, the money from which I spent on chocolate, Christmas presents and family birthdays.
As I got older, maybe nine or ten, I explored the more industrial areas. Hmm, maybe industrial isn’t the right word. Certainly industries existed in and around the city, but not to any significant extent. The centre of the city was based around commerce, import and export, and the docks were the muscles of that trade. I saw bales of cotton, even in the 60s, being unloaded from horse-drawn carts and swung eighty feet up in the air on hoists and into the top floors of the dock streets’ warehouses. There were bales of rubber, just like the erasers you used at school, except they were two metres by two metres by two metres. Then there was the corn. Huge lorries, twenty foot high, would transport the grain a mile or so to the warehouse where they would unload the corn by chute into the cellars of the warehouses. Any spillages were scoffed up by swarms of pigeons. If the warehousemen weren’t looking gangs of small boys would fill improvised containers with corn before running off to pop their swag in a tin can over a wasteground fire.
There was the brown sugar; soft, golden and melting like the Demerara sunset, stolen by children from the dockers and the rats, before being transmogrified in a tin can over a fire by boyish alchemy into wondrous toffee.
Those crazy boys would risk their lives climbing up broken warehouse walls, dancing across rooftops more lath than slate, just to make dens in a long-derelict bombed building. It was better than home, you could build a fire and relax with people you actually chose to be with, eat popcorn and toffee, and be free.
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