Gutted Arcades is an extract from Jeff Young’s book Ghost Town, in which the writer charts the life of a city, through haunted places of memory and loss, summoning the ghosts of loved ones, and long departed heroes.
My mother liked to trespass – she didn’t call it trespassing, she called it having a nose. We’d have a look round the Corn Exchange or go up the back stairs of an insurance building, slip into the Oriel Chambers and sort of just … breathe. We were breathing in Victorian dust and the pipe smoke of Dickensian ledger clerks; drinking in shadows and gloom and beams of light. We’d stand on fire escapes and gaze across the rooftops. I was short-trousered and eight years old and I was madly in love – with a city.
We used to watch the Watchers, the old men standing at demolition sites. Flat caps, raincoats, smokers coughing and spitting. They were mute witnesses to death, and their grief at the end-days of vanished places that meant so much was palpable. I’d watch them with my mother, who was teaching me the city: it was a living thing that needed our protection and love and the way to do this was to walk its sandstone pavements and just drink it all in. Memorise it.
The city was a collage of thrilling dissonance – Victorian splendour, a Lancashire Chicago, May Blitz bomb sites next to collapsing slums and Viennese-style tenements, bang next to the 1960s science-fiction eyesore of the shopping precinct, the banal Futuropolis of some deranged city planner.
We’d walk for hours through a Liverpool seemingly ripped, torn and riveted together again, a bricolaged city of back-alley labyrinths, cigarette kiosks, strange arcades and collapsing fruit warehouses; of dusty bookshops, oyster bars and sooty railway stations. But most of all, I remember the cinema queues in the rain on Lime Street, just like the black-umbrella queue in Distant Voices, Still Lives – it was a city always more beautiful in the rain.
This city is my muse; its unruliness and awkwardness, its rebellious spirit, its ugliness and beauty filter into the stories I write and make the work wayward and disruptive. I have written characters inspired by the particular atmospheres of certain back alleys and ruined buildings. I have tried to imbue a story with the melancholy beauty of Liverpool’s psychedelic sunsets. I had the feeling – still have the feeling – that the city was a living novel and we were walking through its pages. When I was a child it was a pop-up book. When I was older it was Dickensian, or a sprawling Scouse Ulysses, full of mystery and gassing and mad characters and adventure. My mother and I were characters in a book being written by some unseen author. Each walk was a chapter, each building was a paragraph, and the spaces in between the words were alleyways and streets. The margins were the river and sky and the pages were alive with the thronging crowd. My hand in my mother’s hand, we slipped through the great adventure. When I read this city-book now, its pages come alive with images that shimmer and loom … there’s the old man wrestling with a conger eel on the ferry-landing stage, and there’s me seesawing on a gangplank, with my Billy Fury quiff.
When I was seventeen I picked up a copy of Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine in a bookshop in Exchange Station – a station used by Lowry, en route to Norway in 1931 – and I discovered that Lowry had been a haunter of Liverpool’s streets and cinemas, too. He knew the places my mother knew, he rode the Mersey ferry in the rain as we did, went to the same theatres and picture houses. He describes his hero, his alter-ego, Dana Hilliot:
His whole being was drowning in memories, the smells of Birkenhead and of Liverpool were again heavily about him, there was a coarse glitter in the cinema fronts, children stared at him strangely from the porches of public houses. Janet would be waiting for him at the Crosville bus stop … while silver straws of rain gently pattered on the green roof … ‘Where shall we go? The Hippodrome or the Argyle? … I’ve heard there’s a good show on at the Scala.’
When I read this in 1975, I got that short-circuit feeling I get when a book makes a direct connection with my own life. Malcolm Lowry went to the Scala, where I went to Saturday matinees! Malcolm Lowry rode Crosville buses! The same ones we took home from Skelhorne Street. He even mentioned Great Homer Street, where my dad had a stall selling junk at the indoor rag market.
He later writes:
At half-past seven, by the clock on the Liver Buildings, he returns on the ferry from Liverpool … he smokes his pipe in silence … Outside it has started to rain again, a colourless dusty rain … Liverpool sweeps away from him in a great arc. Through the rain-scarred windows he watches Liverpool become rain …
If I’d always felt the city was a novel, here was proof. Malcolm Lowry rides the Mersey Ferry, the same Royal Daffodil we’d take across the river to Seacombe! I remember the excitement of sailing on that very boat, watching as we surged home towards Liverpool and waiting for my favourite moment, when the boat buffered up against the enormous tractor tyres hanging off the landing stage. And the trips on the old New Brighton ferry, often with my grandfather, and the walks along the promenade watching the teddy boys flirt with girls clustered around the gallopers and waltzers.
The Pier Head was the most exotic place in the city and my memories of those visits are almost hallucinatory. Ships from all over the world docked here. Timber piers splintered and collapsed into mud-stained waters. Bookies runners and pickpockets loitered by cigarette machines, spitting on the pavement, eyeing up the prostitutes. It was like a Liverpool version of the carnival in Lowry’s Under the Volcano, an assembly of misfits and magic men in the wild hullabaloo of the Mersey. Professor Codman would be there with his wooden-headed puppets, and there was a tramp we called Old Man River, always looking out to sea and whom I used to dream was the source of the Mersey, the river pouring out of him and flowing all the way to New York.
Everyone who ever felt like a stray dog came down to the Pier Head on Sundays and the presiding spirit of anarchy in this place was Hughie Smith, Liverpool’s Harry Houdini, a man wrapped in chains and tied in a potato sack, a writhing, struggling genius in a vest. I was in awe of him as he thrashed around on the ground like a sack of cats, eventually emerging from captivity, taking a bow to the crowd as the bottler went around the gathering with a hat, collecting sixpences and threepenny bits. Sometimes he would invite people in the crowd to pick up a sledgehammer and smash a concrete slab resting on his chest. One time I saw him being hanged with a rope noose, then carried to Yates’s Wine Lodge, where he was revived with a glass of Aussie white. He was a one-man carnival, exotic and unsettling. No one ever explained to me why a man might let another man padlock him up in chains and tie him in a potato sack; he was just accepted as one of Liverpool’s unruly characters. In the mad circus parade of the city, Hughie could have been a character dreamed up by Lowry.
Ultramarine is the book where Lowry keeps being pulled back to Liverpool – back into Liverpool. As he says in his poem ‘Trinity’, ‘Imprisoned in a Liverpool of self / I haunt the gutted arcades of the past.’ He can’t resist the pull, he keeps dropping Liverpool rain onto the novel’s pages, keeps sauntering down Paradise Street on his way to a memory of a date in a long-dead cinema, and taking that storm-battered ride across the river on the Daffodil.
Liverpool night and weather seeps out of its pages and into the reader’s dreams; luminous visions of the city, brief glimpses of heartache and loneliness, lit up by department-store windows, street lights and shipyard workers’ lanterns. It’s as if the further away from Liverpool he travels, the more the city haunts him; he is infected with glimmering ghost-images, perhaps the visions that wake him from delirious sleep with a jolt. He strolls ‘slowly in the direction of Egremont Ferry, along the desolate promenade, and past soaking walls where sodden advertisements are clinging like wet rags’. New Brighton beach is black, the Mersey is viscous, and Lowry wakes, seasick drunk, as if he is waking in the Mersey mud, and furiously inks the memory onto the page before it slips away.
And I’m walking with him. He’s still haunting the city after all these years, since he left the place and never returned. From the age of seventeen, I’ve been following Lowry down back alleys and into derelict cinemas. When I was working recently with retired merchant seamen on a project called ‘The Lighthouse Invites the Storm’, about Lowry’s decision to leave Liverpool, we watched the tides rise and fall, watched for ships that hardly ever docked here, looked at the rocks and mudbanks of New Brighton where Lowry used to walk, sat in the pubs he drank in.
And he’s there, disappearing up the shadowy staircase of the Forum on Lime Street. I recently went inside the Forum, which closed down in 1998. My mother was the secretary for its architect, Alfred Shennan, builder of cinemas and synagogues. And there in the Forum’s faded Art Deco splendour I saw ghosts. Perhaps. My mother fleetingly glimpsed by the ice-cream kiosk. Lowry sadly eyeing up the half-demolished Futurist and Scala cinemas on the other side of Lime Street.
If Liverpool is a novel then this chapter is the saddest part. In August 2016, I stood watching the demolition of the Futurist, where my mother took me to matinees when I was young, the cinema that became my own favourite building and which I would use as the setting for my play Bright Phoenix in my own futile attempt to save its life. After a long and deliberate decline, imposed on it by the philistines who run the city, the cinema was disappeared, almost overnight. Standing next to me was Malcolm Lowry’s bewildered ghost, confused, battling the Furies, watching Liverpool slowly being erased.
Another ghost – my mother’s – walked through the demolition site, sounding a warning against future ruins. Her city was being assaulted once again by fools, and she’d come back to draw attention to their stupidity. Bright Phoenix was a hex against these destroyers and a hymn to dreams and dreamers. In the 1960s, the Watchers witnessed the market hall being demolished. And now here I was, some sixty years later, just like them, on the verge of tears, watching my palace of dreams being reduced to rubble and dust.
In Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place Lowry brilliantly compares Pompeii to the ruins of Liverpool on a Sunday afternoon. And there they are, towering over Lime Street, over half the city – the ruins, the buddleia and rubble and dust. Out of the ashes banal monsters rise in kit-form. Everywhere you look there are cranes. The first thing they build is the lift shaft, rough concrete-slabbed blunt instruments, sky-stabbers like Anselm Kiefer’s The Seven Heavenly Palaces. But there’s nothing heavenly about these ugly shafts in this archaeological era of vapidity; soon they will be clad in even more banal facades, for these are the lift shafts of budget hotels and student accommodation. All of it meaningless, thoughtless and temporary.
If you walk the streets of Liverpool today you can still just about go trespassing by making yourself invisible. If you get lucky, you can climb through a vent and feel your way through the gloom of a cinema or ruined pub. You can walk your way into the stories. You can move like a poltergeist through the dusty corridors of old shipping offices and you can just about still imagine the city that my mother knew, that Lowry knew, the strange arcades of dreamers. This is how I think my way into the city, into ‘the Liverpool of the self’.
At the end of a day’s wandering my mum and I would queue up in Skelhorne Street bus station, a cavernous place stinking of diesel and doughnuts. These days Skelhorne Street is a nowhere place, an emptiness; thanks to the monstrous slab backside of the new chain hotel on Lime Street it will never see sunlight again. In those days, it was strange and ancient, Hogarthian and dodgy. I can still see the limping pigeons, their feet burnt off from walking through puddles of scalding oil, and the bus conductors having a pint in the station bar, demolished long ago.
And we’ve all been to the pictures, or the Christmas show, or for Battenberg cake in Lewis’s, but I’ve also been on fire escapes and rooftops and I’ve seen the city from the edge of the great grey sky.
My mother taught me Liverpool; she was the guide into its shadows, into the hidden and forgotten. When I walk through Liverpool, and when I write and think about it, I summon up my mother and try and see it through her eyes. I have used my blind grandfather in the same way, have tried to see the city through his blindness, to feel what he must have felt when the city he knew was being demolished. He would walk through a memory of the city that was no longer there. My mother, grandad and Lowry are connected by imaginative filaments, and together they create a spell. I can’t quite explain it – I don’t want to explain it. The important thing is that they are alive inside my kaleidoscope of muses and they help me to write and to dream.
My mother is still there, years after her death, up on that fire escape, or walking just ahead of me down Leather Lane and Hackins Hey and leading me into the cinema ruins – the Mother-Muse, flitting through the pages of the city, through its gutted arcades.
Jeff Young is a writer for radio, television, stage and screen. He is one of BBC Radio Drama’s most acclaimed dramatists, having written over thirty broadcast plays. He also writes essays for Radio 3. For television he has written for Casualty, Doctors, Eastenders and Holby City. His most recent work for theatre was Bright Phoenix for Liverpool Everyman. He has worked on many arts projects in Liverpool, including with Bill Drummond. He is also a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the Screen School of Liverpool John Moores University.
Photograph copyright Graham Shackleton