Recommended Reads: Writing Liverpool by Michael Murphy and Deryn Rees-Jones

Chris Pak was born and grew up in Hong Kong and is currently completing a P.hd at the University of Liverpool. Apart from sf and music his interests include other forms of fantastic literature, movies, games and photography. He is interested in postcolonialism and environmentalism, which he is studying through the sf theme of terraforming.

writing1Murphy, Michael and Deryn Rees-Jones, ed., Writing Liverpool: essays and interviews (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), pp. 288 + xi.

Writing Liverpool is a collection of twelve essays and six interviews that aim to survey the artistic output and ‘distinctive literary voice’ of Liverpool that Michael Murphy and Deryn Rees-Jones, in their introduction, claim ‘only began to emerge in the 1930s – at precisely the time when the city experienced a sudden and rapid decline in economic fortune’ (1). Published in 2007 it is ‘intended to mark the beginning of what promises to be a new period in the history of the city and its environs’ (2), coming at a time when Liverpool, as we know, had already become a centre of artistic attention as a consequence of its award of Capital of Culture in 2008. Indeed, the editors claim when reflecting upon Liverpool’s famous ‘community spirit’ and its ‘history of social disharmony rooted in religion, race and class’ that ‘The year 2008 may offer an opportunity for the city to pull together; it may equally put previous fractures under renewed strain’ (25). Perhaps this review itself comes at a good time, pointing out as it does a book that allows us to cast a retrospective eye over the last year in the context of its artistic output over the last eighty.

The introduction to Writing Liverpool contextualises Liverpool’s literary output by outlining its central position in the propagation of the slave trade and by indicating that ‘the city was from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century more associated with trade than art’ (1). This is claimed to be the main factor for Liverpool’s ambivalent multiculturalism. With the influx of diverse cultural groups such as Irish, Asian, Chinese, African, Jamaican and American groups new ideas and experiences flow through one of England’s major ports and begin to influence the artistic output and identity of the city. From the 1930s and more obviously in 2008 it has become more and more difficult to pin down a coherent voice and a stable identity for Liverpool.

These diverse influences are insightfully examined in many of the essays. The influence of the American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the ‘Wobblies’, on George Garrett’s writings and his political activism is examined in Joseph Pridmore’s “George Garrett, Merseyside Labour and the Influence of the United States”, where he claims that ‘Liverpool’s status as a thriving port ideally situated for trade between Britain and the United States made for a lively (and often illegal) traffic between the two countries’ (33). In Paul de Noyer’s “Subversive Dreamers: Liverpool Songwriting from the Beatles to the Zutons” de Noyer acknowledges that ‘though it’s undeniable that the transatlantic seaport was unusually accustomed to jazz, blues and country influences’ from America he identifies the main factor in the Beatles’ and Merseybeat’s distinctive sound as residing in Liverpool’s status itself: to be from Liverpool was to feel ‘a certain self-consciousness about the city’s identity, [which] was to be at one remove from standard English reality’ (241). Andy Sawyer in “Ramsey Campbell’s Haunted Liverpool” notes that Ramsey Campbell’s experience with images from American science fiction and horror pulp magazines, ‘fused with others from cinema and prose fiction, seemed to express and exploit his inner fears’ (167) and he makes much of the influence of the American H.P. Lovecraft’s work upon the formation of Campbell’s own style, which eventually becomes rooted in the potential horror of Merseyside’s landscape.

Nor is the examination of cultural influence upon Liverpool’s own distinctive voice limited to America. Sandra Courtman examines how ‘recent black arrivals to Liverpool joined with descendents of Irish immigrants to create a forum for creative expression’ while also recognizing the paradox that ‘there were feelings that the racial divide in Liverpool was intractable’ (195) in “‘Culture is Ordinary’: The Legacy of the Scottie Road and Liverpool 8 Writers”. She notes how the FWWCP encouraged ‘the racially and ethnically excluded to meet and write about a liminal existence’ (196) and how the ‘Scottie Road writers’ group acts as a powerful conduit for this disaffection’ (198). Courtman’s essay then moves towards a discussion of the founding of the Liverpool 8 group, ‘with contributions from Cheryl Dudt, of Asian descent, and Liverpool-born black, Levi Tafari’, who is interviewed in this collection. She notes the relationship between the Scottie Road and Liverpool 8 community writing groups and quotes David Evans’ comment that ‘The two groups remained distinct however, though whites came into the L8 group’ (203).

The theme of the liminal is the subject of Ralph Crane’s essay “The Liminal Presence of Liverpool in the Fiction of J.G. Farrell where he also highlights ‘the humour that pulses through the veins of the city’ and ‘the idiosyncratic ways of seeing things that are characteristic of the Liverpudlian, [which] are evident in all Farrell’s writing’. Farrell himself left Liverpool for Ireland at an early age yet retains a connection with the city as ‘Liverpool was the gateway to England he passed through in September 1948’ and through ‘the Liverpool-Dublin ferry [which] would remain a presence in his life and also in his fiction’ (90). Indeed, in the subsection entitled “The empire triptych: Liverpool as a gateway to empire” Crane examines Farrell’s questioning and critique of empire and colonialism from a liminal or third space, ‘an ambivalent position, somewhere between colonizer and colonized’ (96). Farrell is himself connected to another Liverpool writer also discussed in this collection: he read the manuscript for Beryl Bainbridge’s A Weekend with Claude, which was published in 1967 ‘and thereafter Farrell laid claim to having discovered Bainbridge’s talent’ (91). Bainbridge’s own life and work is discussed in Helen Carr’s “‘Unhomely Moments’: The Fictions of Beryl Bainbridge’ where Carr draws attention to the fact that her work has been overlooked in academic circles because ‘she has never written in ways which fitted in with what was fashionable at a particular moment’ and claims that ‘Bainbridge is undoubtedly a writer of the Liverpool diaspora, but so far that’s not been a critical category’ (79).

The six interviews included in this collection allow a wide range of writers to give a voice to their take on Liverpool and to articulate the variety of perspectives on a contradictory city. Willy Russell, interviewed by John Bennett, claims that ‘I think that the first writers who come to mind are those from a spoken/sung rather than literary background’ (229) and so draws attention to the essential relationship between the city and the formation of a distinctive voice, claiming as he does that ‘There is something to do with the nature of the spoken language in Liverpool that is as the sky and the light must have been to the impressionists’ (229). Michael Murphy’s interview with screenwriter and novelist Terence Davies extends this range of voices by exploring how his working class Catholic family background and his then unrealized homosexuality influenced his style and is variously expressed in his approach to and in his writing itself. In Dave Ward’s interview with Liverpool-born Levi Tafari, of Jamaican descent, Tafari reflects upon his personal experiences as a member of the black community and he states ‘I think there is a lot of racism here. The black community is still looked down upon and vilified to some extent’ (255). He comments on the rich oral traditions of the Irish, Black and Chinese communities (the last two the oldest in Europe) and argues for an inclusive and personal view of cultural experience when he explains that ‘I don’t divorce myself from the other sides, because I always say that I’m tri-cultural: I have an African root with a Jamaican heritage and a British experience’ (255).

Writing Liverpool explores the diversity of culture and experience in Liverpool from the 1930s without shirking from an illuminating contextualising impulse that connects these writers firmly with the city and its surrounding landscape and to the history that makes Liverpool what it is today. It uncovers the complexity of the connections between Liverpool and its immigrant population along with the accompanying spread of ideas and shows how writers express their experiences with the city from the troubled liminal spaces between stable identities. The editors comment on this in their introduction when they suggest that Liverpool ‘becomes a projection of all that remains undealt with in the continuing negotiation of what it means to be English’ (11). It looks backward from a pivotal moment encapsulated by its Capitol of Culture status, surveying eighty years of writing from a range of perspectives and yet it still looks to the future:

if writing from Liverpool is to continue to matter it will need to re-invent itself in ways that at present appear as indistinct and fragile as the city’s budding transformation from a place that is a shadow of its nineteenth-century self to a city that has ambitions to command the attention of Europe and the wider world. (25)

Writing Liverpool proves itself to be relevant and searching and I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the city’s claims, printed on T-shirts and other Liverpool merchandise, to being the ‘centre of the artistic universe’. There is no better time than now to read it as we reflect on the city’s response to the 2008 award, ponder its possible repercussions or involve oneself in the project of re-inventing Liverpool.

Posted by Chris Pak

1 thought on “Recommended Reads: Writing Liverpool by Michael Murphy and Deryn Rees-Jones”

  1. Hi, Chris,

    An enjoyable and considered book review of Writing Liverpool.

    We’ve quoted you post on the BBC Liverpool08 website – with a link back to your post of course.

    Best wishes,

    HB, BBC Liverpool08

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