Category Archives: Miniplenty

Bulletins from the Ministry of Plenty

Gazing into the Pool of Life

‘Nothing ever lasts forever,’ sang Echo & the Bunnymen and sometimes that’s fine. Nostalgia for the recent past can stop us enjoying the moment and generate fear for the future. Let your phony Beatlemania bite the dust. Just a band.

Once they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, then Liverpool Football Club bulldozed my mum and dad’s first house to make a car park. We don’t mind too much if it means we all get off the season ticket waiting list. All cities are constantly in motion: Liverpool, as a port, perhaps slightly more so. I read recently – prompted by Anna Seghers’ novel Transit – that in their heydays, Marseille was only doing about a quarter of the trade of Liverpool (according to 1850s figures). After the Second World War came the decline and now? None of us are really sure. Regeneration seems to be going great guns, but whether it will stay the course is probably too soon to say. It still feels a little fragile, built on the shifting sands of tourism, shopping and real estate.

The latest round of rebuilding is full of intentions to avoid the missteps and correct a few of the faults of the last one.  Post-War town planners with huge swathes of the city to play with ran wild. Making use of bomb-sites and demolition crews to put in flyovers and high-rises and dual carriageways everywhere they could. In common with a few other cities in the Sixties, Liverpool got a massive tower, officially named St John’s Beacon. Originally it had been a revolving restaurant with breathtaking views of the city, the river and across to North Wales, but when we were kids it was closed and unloved. My brother had dreams of living in it like a Bond-esque super-villain, surveying everyone beneath him. Before he could though, local station Radio City took it over to use as their studios. It must make doing the weather reports a doddle! There is also a viewing platform that is open to the public. Shamefully, I still haven’t been…

So you can imagine how made up I was to find these postcards in a box of family photos on a recent visit home:

St Johns Beacon from Williamson Street

It looks completely alien. Not much of an attempt to blend in with its surroundings. But what a view!

St Johns Beacon towards Anglican CathedralSt Johns Beacon towards Lairds ShipyardSt Johns Beacon towards Liver BuildingsSt Johns Beacon towards RC CathedralSt Johns Beacon towards St Georges HallSt Johns Beacon towards Tunnel entrance

We only managed a guess as to dates. The tower itself was built in 1969. The Stork Hotel in Queen’s Square – popular with actors performing at the Royal Court and Playhouse theatres, as well as part of Liverpool’s unofficial gay quarter from the ’40s to the ’60s – was demolished in 1975.

The high-rise flats labelled as Everton Heights were built in 1965, before being so memorably sound-tracked by  Peggy Lee’s song The Folks Who Live on the Hill in Terence Davies’ exquisite Of Time and the City:

Henderson’s department store is also marked on the map. This was rebuilt in 1962 following a fatal fire that prompted a change in the law relating to fire safety in big stores. It traded under this name until 1975.

The College of Commerce became part of Liverpool Polytechnic, now Liverpool John Moores University, in 1970.

That would mean the postcards are from after 1970, but before 1975.

I have always been fascinated by the late Sixties and early Seventies in the UK. Initially believing the hype that the Sixties was swinging all over the country, when you watch films like Withnail & I, the 1971 Get Carter, or the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you realise how great the myth-making was. Much of the country was living so far away from the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that it might have been happening on another planet. I remember watching Get Carter for the first time and remarking to my Dad, ‘Wow, every woman over 16 and under 60 really did wear miniskirts then.’ To which he replied, half-sad, half-wistful: ‘Yeah, but it was never the ones whose legs you wanted to see.’

Then there is Danny’s lament from Withnail & I:

They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.

Perhaps the reason we cling so hard to the Sixties mythology is it was one of the last times we had that confidence, that perceived unassailability. Shankly would spend the late Sixties and early Seventies rebuilding the Liverpool team, to the extent that there is a brief gap in the roll of honour. The Beatles split in 1970. The Albert Dock would close in 1972 and come dangerously close to being knocked down, filled in, or used as a rubbish dump.

These days Liverpool seems much more at ease with its past, although there will always be disagreements about where the line gets drawn in respecting our history and being hidebound by it. While the views from 450 feet up are spectacular, it does you good to get your head out of the clouds every once in a while. A city is an arrangement of bricks and stones, sure – and Liverpool is blessed with beautiful buildings – but it’s also a collection of stories and the backdrop to lives lived, by those who are settled there, those who came and passed through and those were there once but are now far away.


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26 July 1945: when Britain became a socialist country

Britain was pretty skint in 1945, but our grandparents managed – even after six years of war and the ‘Hungry Thirties’ – to build the NHS, replace bomb-damaged and decaying Victorian slums with new homes, open up education to all, establish a welfare safety net and nationalise industries into models of occasional efficiency. (Quibble on that last one if you like, but taxpayers pay more for the ‘private’ rail companies now than they did under the not particularly well-loved British Rail.)

It wasn’t perfect, but social mobility and equality was at a more even level than it is 70 years later. Of course, today’s Tories hate their achievements and are seeking ways to dismantle that society at every turn. Their intention was always to punch so many holes in the welfare state that campaigners wouldn’t know which part to mend first. And so we see the NHS – which they call a ‘mistake‘ – attacked. The seriously disabled and terminally ill being told they are fit for work. More children living in a poverty that won’t even be acknowledged any more. Meanwhile, corporation taxes are only for the little companies. This is no accident, this is by design.

My grandad once told me, as he gave me a copy of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to read, that this was the book that won it in 1945 for Labour. Although everyone knew that Churchill had been an immense leader during the War, they feared a vote for the Tories would mean again losing the peace as their fathers had done after the Great War. Promised ‘A Land Fit For Heroes’, instead they returned to unemployment and poor housing.


As The Guardian recorded:

The country has preferred to do without Mr Churchill rather than have him at the price of having the Tories too.

It’s a terrible shame that we are having to learn again that, for the weakest in society, that price is always too high. So, as my grandparents’ generation passed a copy from hand to hand, so I pass on to you a (free!) copy of Tressell’s masterpiece. More than a mere political tract, it is a very human story of the tragedies that ensue when work doesn’t pay and unemployment is fatal. Far more radical than any Labour Government – even Atlee’s – ever managed to be, it is a call to action as well as a cracking read. One that the Labour leadership contenders could do with reading in celebration of today’s anniversary.

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London belongs to… who?

If you haven’t yet read London Belongs To Me, Norman Collins’ epic tale of a South London street and its inhabitants, now might be a good time to do so.

As dusk falls, the Park in the background becomes vast and mysterious, and the gas lamps that light your way along the main paths dwindle into the distance like lanterns in Illyria. But somehow or other it remains London, with the buses that cruise up Park Lane twinkling through the railings, and the air filled with the roar and rustle of innumerable wheels. Yes, it’s London all right…

How much longer that will be the case remains to be seen. The gas lights have long gone and the buses are now diesel-electric hybrids. Other, less cosmetic, changes are also afoot.


It is a given that laments such as this one and this one have been written ever since shortly after the Great Fire (‘I remember when all this was plague pits!’). But from reading such stories at a safe, half-the-globe-away distance, it appears that my old life in London – minor job in the City, nice flat with decent landlady, The Dolphin for cheap nights out, Fabric for a payday splurge – no longer exists. Sadness and some anger results.

When I first arrived in London, there were still artists living in Hoxton Square, as incredible as that seems now. They were pushed out further and further, from N1 to Hackney, some heading down to Deptford. Faced with the prospect of living in Zone 6 by the time this ends, a few brave souls have cut their losses completely, leaving London to those who think £800 pcm is reasonable for a flat where you can boil the kettle and brush your teeth without leaving the comfort of your bed. Eventually, the culture of what almost no one still calls ‘The Big Smoke’, with its feel of a hundred slightly-connected villages, will be that of Dubai, or parts of Switzerland.

I was once asked where the centre of London was and I couldn’t begin to say. Is it Trafalgar Square? No, that is for tourists. Residents usually only go there to change buses. Oxford Street? Best avoided in summer, the January sales and before Christmas. Instead of one midpoint, each former village has its own centre and characteristics, usually based upon who has settled there or what their trade was. One of my friends was surprised to learn that her entire post code was full of Portuguese expats when coming home one evening during some sporting event to find all the lampposts, stores and restaurants hung with flags. Choosing between bagels or curry on Brick Lane, seeing a quiet Bethnal Greet street come alive every Saturday with families going to the synagogue at the end of the road, dancing to the Skatalites in Finsbury Park. Talking nonsense in the open-all-night Italian cafés of Soho, my first taste of Jamaican ackee and saltfish in Lewisham, hearing of someone who went on holiday to Poland and came back with what he thought were rare treats, only to be told they were selling the same brands in the local corner shop… it was easy to track the ebb and flow of established communities and recent arrivals (often via food).

Similar renewals have always been part of London’s story. The most notorious slums in the city once stood not too far from Covent Garden. The neighbourhood of opium dens that Dorian Gray frequented are now full of yellow brick and glass buy-to-let blocks. The old City fell once to the Luftwaffe’s bombs – which just missed St Paul’s – and then again to the planners, the brutalists and futurists. The fogs and ‘pea-soupers’, so dense that they are almost another character in tales as diverse as the Sherlock Holmes stories, the debut of George Smiley (and John le Carré) and Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, have been consigned to the past. Still, hours of entertainment can be had walking around and trying to imagine what was once there. One weekend I stumbled across Cable Street – scene of the famous 1930s battle – by taking a wrong turn under a flyover.

London does encourage flights of fancy: I don’t think I ever took the bus over Waterloo Bridge without thinking of Terry and Julie and humming a little. I always expected to see some of Michael Frayn’s characters from Towards the End of the Morning as I stumbled out of a Fleet Street boozer at closing time. Despite the near constant tinkering – as Mark Woff once noted: ‘London, it’ll be great when it’s finished’ – scenes of Gordon Comstock’s Hampstead tedium, the impossible-to-escape pubs of Earl’s Court in Hangover Square and of course hints of all of the Dickens still remain, tucked away. Perhaps London changes, but Londoners rarely do. It is a broad club. I think I know one true, born and bred Londoner, everyone else being later transplants, but it doesn’t take long until you’re ‘part of the furniture‘. Then you can enjoy all the fun of going back home for a visit and playing a game of ‘Guess how much this costs in London’, with friends who think you must have lost your mind to want to live there.

Even on a fairly median wage, it always seemed possible to get a glimpse of the other London. The 1%’s town hovered at the edge of our vision like something out of China Miéville’s The City & The City: champagne bars on the client’s tab, openings at galleries, a Soho rooftop party complete with hot tubs. Once accidentally going clubbing to the kind of place the young Royals used to drink in, or the time a celebrity came over to our table at a cabaret to admire my friend’s dress, another evening at a private club that almost had a secret handshake on entry, the night we blagged into the Gaucho Club and were bought drinks by John Diamond (one of the best conversationalists, even though using pen and notepad). It is easy to write your own legends. But some of the best times were at the opposite end of the scale: £5 to get into The Ultimate Hackney Warehouse Rave with all my pals, a Friday evening at Tate Modern, weekend lazing in Regent’s or Victoria or one of the other amazing parks. London living wasn’t always out of the reach of the non-bankers.

Now though, it seems the monied classes have grown tired of their fun being invaded by the plebs. As Focus E15 and Islington Park Street have discovered, there is a cleansing going on. We poke fun at the Sixties town planners, deride and tear down their visions of the future rendered in concrete – including the playgrounds. But they understood, perhaps better than their counterparts in Paris or other segregated capitals, the vibrancy that comes from having the money and the talent in close proximity. When all the proles have been moved to the Outer Zones, when the record shops of Soho are shuttered and the street markets redeveloped – when London is essentially Singapore with worse weather – why will anyone, including the mega-rich, bother with it?

Well, perhaps it is no longer our problem. Escape to a life that doesn’t involve having to get on the Northern Line in rush hour. Head to the regional cities, with their quality of life, branches of famous department stores and exquisite cultural gems. Go wild in the country and pretend you don’t care about fast broadband anyway. Or move further away, for all that I constantly hear about how expensive Tokyo is, I used to live in the equivalent of Zone 1 in a studio flat and still had cash left over for fun and fripperies. Couldn’t make a cup of tea without getting out of bed first though. Damn.

What’s inevitable in all these ‘farewell London’ laments is that the people going are of a certain age, bringing up children or looking to move beyond flatmates and stumbling off night buses. It is entirely right that they should be moving to somewhere leafier and leaving the bright lights to the youth and eternally young. And if you are feeling like you have to leave, but are not quite ready to be put out to pasture, when you reach your new destination: make it shine. Support local arts and community groups. Grow things. Regenerate (sympathetically) and nurture. Use your London nous and contacts to develop and mentor. Then perhaps we will finally see the long-promised rebalancing of Britain as being more than its capital. Who does London belong to? As it was with the Ancient Britons, the Romans or the Huguenots, as for the West Indians, Poles and Chinese, it may belong to you. Through generations or for the blink of an eye, the true London spirit is to enjoy it while it lasts.

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Margin notes: Dockers and Detectives by Ken Worpole

While the buildings, gardens and artefacts of the pre-industrial world and land-owning classes are studiously preserved, there remains a cavalier attitude to the industrial heritage, and to the material cultures of working class people and the singular worlds they created and inhabited.

Dockers and Detectives Ken Worpole

Folklore has become the last redoubt of working-class identity in many but not all British cities, taking symbolic shape in the streetscapes and landscapes of remembered places.


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News From Nowhere

Established May Day 1974, News From Nowhere celebrated forty years in business in 2014. Forty years of supplying the people of Liverpool and beyond with books and information, to empower, bring about social justice and to sculpt the world we live in.


Gandhi famously stated,

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Independent, not-for-profit, workers’ co-operatives – like this valuable book store – help people to realise this missive. I have been dipping into the Bold Street premises, and encouraging friends and colleagues to do so, for many years. Here I have been introduced to a diverse cast of authors such as Rumi, Sarah Waters, Edmund White, Ruby Wax and Gerry Potter, to name a few.

ruby wax

It is also an integral gathering place for book launches, debates and activist talks. Last year Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else by James Meek was just one example of the type of informative interview one can expect from this book lovers’ church.

High streets are becoming increasingly a blue print of sameness, with no real differentiator between them. You could be in any UK town or city! The usual suspects take up retail space, the abundance of mobile phone shops, discount pound dealers, loan sharks and – the most deadly of shark – the convenience express stores. Every little doesn’t always help. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that treasures like News From Nowhere are appreciated, not overlooked, but used and used frequently. Once they are gone, they are gone!

Increasingly on a day-to-day basis, small independents face financial struggles. It is a tempestuous economic sea to try to navigate through. Everything from seasonal slumps in trade, competition from the bigger bookstores, chains or supermarkets and rising overhead costs, tries to drown business and wash away the remains before noticed. Even the festive trade and the traditional purchasing of book tokens as gifts is on the decline.

What was interesting this holiday Liverpool, like most city centres, had the European Christmas Markets. False-looking wooden huts selling overpriced craft and novelty gifts were plonked in front of shops in desperate need of trade. If I were an independent trader this would serve to fuel a festive bonfire of bitter, bitter resentment. Increase the competition at the time when local business needs support instead, that makes sense. But I guess it is all about the profit, I wonder how much extra revenue can be gained for the Council? Hopefully they can then start to clear the chewing gum plastered pavements or seagull poop that naturally marbles all the concrete. I do wonder if European visitors have British Christmas Markets, stalls selling watch batteries and traditional British fare like Roast Beef and Spotted Dick. (Of course, not on the same plate.) Eating a German sausage and drinking mulled wine outside the flashing neon blue and white X of Halifax Bank, is not festive, it is actually depressing.

So please, please, please do not forget the local businesses. News From Nowhere needs people to support them and there are a number of ways that you can:

  • DONATIONS – whether financial or as unwanted books that they can sell second hand
  • INTEREST-FREE LOANS – long term or short term
  • CREDIT LOAN – repaid in books and other purchases
  • REGULAR STANDING ORDER – for example £5 or £10, as a donation or a credit loan

In addition, you can search and order more than 1.5 million titles on their website. ORDER FROM THE REAL AMAZONS!

News from Nowehere

The future of small independent stores really lies in all of our hands. We need the sparkling stores of individuality to add a bit of Technicolor in an increasingly charcoal cityscape full of the bland. Loyal support will keep them open. Let’s not lose them!

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On homesickness

Who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile?

– George Orwell, Burmese Days

To be quite honest, having travelled back on average once a year for the slightly more than four years so far spent outside the UK, to call it ‘exile’ is to overstate the case slightly. In these days of free internet calls and the journey not taking three weeks by boat, it is a bit daft to consider oneself banished far from all the good things of home.


Can’t be trusted in the sweet aisle, clearly…

That said, a relative bought a print of the Albert Dock and Three Graces in Liverpool for my wall in Japan and there are some mornings it is difficult to look at, the ache from not being able to walk into the frame is too much. Missing the city as if it were an old friend is a strange feeling – the flesh and blood should have a bigger call on the emotions than bricks and mortar – but as I have been exploring this festive season, there is just something special about the Pool of Life.

Missing it too much, however, can feel like a betrayal of the other city I call home. Life in Tokyo is great, if not without its minor annoyances, just as would be the case with anywhere. The trick that homesickness plays is to mask all the deficiencies of home, while throwing a shadow over all the benefits of away. Then you are in danger of becoming one of those awful bores, lacking any sense of perspective, that have been plaguing expat life since at least the Thirties:

He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

– Burmese Days (of course!)

The flip side of that is that, since returning, I find myself looking at my fellow shoppers, diners and train passengers wondering which of them ‘looks a bit UKIP’. A recommendation from brazzo70 in the comments on this post to check out Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe 2014 underlined all the ways in which the home country is leaving me behind (who in the hell commissioned Tumble? Danny Dyer in Eastenders? Nigel Farange appearing on anything? WHY WASN’T I CONSULTED ABOUT ANY OF THIS?)

 In an attempt to stave off the next bout of pining, measures have been implemented to bridge the gap. A Christmas present to myself was an annual subscription to Private Eye, so from later in the month you can expect to hear howls of outrage from my direction about a week after the original story first breaks. I also managed to register to vote as an overseas voter: this is open to all who left within the last 15 years and were registered before they left. Watch out, David Cameron!

All I need to do now is arrange for regular shipments of Maltesers…


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Taking the baton

We are losing them. That generation, the ones that built the mythology. Slipping away into hospital beds and sheltered housing, winding down without a lot of fuss. The ones who brought you up on what it meant to be a Scouser. The ones who walked down Scotland Road when it was still Scottie Road, when it had a pub on every corner, not a flyover. They could tell you tall tales of boats packed so tight into Albert Dock it was possible to walk across over the decks without getting a wet foot. They could never talk of St John’s Market without distinguishing it by saying, ‘the new one, of course’, even though it had been open longer than you have been alive.

They were our link to the old, great Liverpool – which they knew wasn’t that great, not if you were a docker working short hours or your lad was lost on the Titanic and the bosses wanted you to pay for his uniform – but still eulogised. They were radicalised, but not into firebrands, into the socialism of Bill Shankly, with:

everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards.

They grew up in a city of ocean liners and never closing your front door, not Harry Enfield stereotypes and ‘gizza job, mate’. The Eighties bewildered them then, as they probably still do.

They didn’t have much but they still raised you right. Looked on in bemusement at your pile of Christmas toys as they recalled their happiness at getting a tangerine in their stocking. Made sure you did well at school at the same time as understanding that there was more to be learnt than you could do at a desk, questioning everything. You knew that although they had left their schooldays before their teens they held more knowledge than you could acquire at university. They loved you without measure but encouraged you to go, feel the pull of the river, calling you to explore the rest of the world while never fully escaping these streets and the love they hold. So proud of you that they would die rather than say it, covering it up with a web of gentle teasing, nicknames and family in-jokes. Still, you never doubted it for a second. You were from the best place and the best people there could be.

Even though, of course, none of us are really that ‘from’ there at all. I used to stroll down Dale Street on a lunch break and try to picture it as it was when my great-grandparents arrived, fresh off the boat. Muck instead of tarmac, horses everywhere and a forest of masts beyond the Pier Head. I have probably seen it in old photos. But, although I couldn’t imagine the feel of it – were they anxious, missing home, relieved to be making a new start – in a somewhat rootless existence, there was comfort to walking the same stones as the generations who had come and gone before I was even thought of.

liverpool salthouse dock

Faces I have only seen occasionally, on the few misty family photos that have survived, and still they gave me strength. Whatever gets thrown at you, you will get through, just as we got through. Famines and wars and disasters, loves and laughter and all the mad whirl of life. Survived on tea and chip butties and plates of Scouse.

I came back for the birth of my son, and I try to picture telling him about Scotland Road, ships and Shankly sometime around 2028 when he will be old enough. And I think of how distant it will all seem. I hope that one day, when he is walking around whatever comes after the Liverpool One, he will hear the echo of those distant footsteps – of the ones who walked before him. And he will know, wherever he happens to be living, that some part of this is home.


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