I have often wished I could step back in time to see the Mersey in its golden years brimming with vessels setting off to distant climes. To hear the trains on the Overhead Railway bellowing past, shunting workers to and from moored boats. The stomping of those who cannot afford the fare traipsing under the archways that were known as the ‘Docker’s Umbrella.’ Hands unloading cargoes of exotic treasures. The incessant din, the clamour, the smells of a bustling vibrant port, the ‘Pool of Life,’ as Carl Jung labelled Liverpool. In Ten Years On The Parish, George Garrett paints a vivid picture of the riverside city in 1913,
With its seven mile dock road running parallel to the River Mersey, and its elevated street railway overlooking both. The road itself, straight but not very wide, which flanked the line of docks at that time stretching from the Herculaneum to the Hornby was, except on Sundays, daily congested by two long streams of horse-drawn traffic, two slow moving processions moving in opposite directions at a set pace, and carrying merchandise of every description as piled up evidence of the din and activity aboard the ships in dock, ships whose ports of call touched every part of the seven seas.
The very name Herculaneum sounds impressive. Nowadays we only need to replace the horses with cars and he could have been describing The Strand during the peak commute hour.
This is the first time Ten Years On The Parish has been published in full since it was written in the late 1930s. It is a work that reveals hardships and unflinching observations of the poverty experienced in Liverpool between the World Wars.
The parish was the back alley short cut to the grave. It was cynically referred to as the ‘fish factory’ where applicants were methodically scooped out, boned and drained before the final boxing up.
Garrett’s writing reveals a man of principle and a character that demands admiration. He is the very epitome of resilience. In the introduction to the work, Frank Cottrell-Boyce sums the writer up,
Garrett was all about truth. He worked hard to discover truth. He worked hard to express it. And most of all he lived it.
We also see that George Garrett was a man of ambition and drive. He is caught as a young stowaway and tries to explain his actions,
‘I’m very sorry sir’, I said. ‘Honestly I am.’ Had it been in my power I would have bought him all the best chewing tobacco in the world. I thought I could impress him by using a big word learnt by me before coming aboard.
‘I hope nothing detrimental happens to you, sir,’ I said. His forehead wrinkled in astonishment.
‘Eh? What’s that?’ Spit. His face relaxed once more. ‘Oh aye.’ Spit. ‘Never mind it can’t be helped. You’ve got to start somewhere. Come on.’
In describing this encounter with a hardened sailor, George Garrett gets to the very essence of the man’s character that I feel represents the almost indefinable Liverpudlian spirit, which contains toughness blended with a subtext of tenderness. The book illustrates an uncompromising, graphic account of the unemployed struggle in Liverpool and the first Hunger March of 1922. Garrett’s personal struggle is highlighted in parallel with those of his class trying to survive the Great Depression of the 1930s.
His expressions are so much more than the observations of George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. George Garrett could not dip his toes into poverty solely to record and register what it was like. he had no other choice but to live it. George met George in February 1936 and the famed author encouraged the working class writer to pen his autobiography. Orwell was indeed, ‘very greatly impressed’, by Garrett. Ten Years On The Parish allowed Garrett to tell the ‘true story of unemployment’ and repair the ‘damage’ he felt had been done by Orwell’s book.
The paucity of employment described is unsettling:
The workless were everywhere…. standing about in groups, they grumbled and spat, as they criticized the government for breaking its promises. Many of them still boasted of their share in winning the war and argued about the value of their medals. These were something to fall back upon. Later the pawnshop windows were piled up with them. They had changed hands for a few pence. Mutterings of disillusionment followed. Men spoke bitterly as dupes. They used the term ‘scrap heap’. Its meaning became clear to me. At the early age of twenty-four I was on it.
The insidious way poverty effects domesticity is brutal:
I was quickly down to the pawnshop level. All my clothes went in, next the bedding. We had a spell of sleeping on the bare mattress and using the flock tick as a blanket. The empty table provoked many a quarrel. There were sighs and snarls and crazy thoughts of theft, murder and suicide.
The desperation of trying desperately to get out of the poverty trap:
…men of fifty had dyed their hair and shaved off their moustaches. Young men resenting the move were loud in their abuse, ‘Go and wash the blacking off your head,’ they would shout as the old men slunk away, mumbling. But jobs came no quicker to any of them.
There are striking parallels with then and now. On returning to America to seek work, Garrett describes the situation being,
Not as favourable as 1921, unemployment, wages dropped, only employment seasonal occupations ‘Americans for American jobs.’
This echoes the current American dictum, that the man who currently occupies the White House is known to say ‘Make America Great Again’. Donning a baseball cap with the said slogan emblazoned upon it, that has actually been manufactured in China. In the UK, we have Food Banks, which is in itself diabolically disgusting, and from Garrett we can see that the food voucher scheme was just as humiliating and soul destroying,
The food vouchers could only be exchanged at a few grocers listed by the guardians. Walking into one of these shops tested any poor recipient’s self-respect.
The Parish – like the contemporary welfare state – is harsh, unfair and full of rigid dogma. It is a far from Christian environment and the bureaucracy that people endured is hard to fathom:
A typical Parish official, a callous busybody preying on widows and deserted wives, prying and looking into cupboards. Kicking off about a pan stewing with mutton pieces in it or a cheap cake on a table… It was no use a woman saying she had stood in the queue for a couple of hours outside the stale cake shop that disposed of cake leftovers.
The second part of the book chronicles 48 letters between Garrett and his New Writing editor, John Lehmann. They are evidently from two distinctly different political worlds. Through their energised correspondence we gain an insight into the working relationship between a working class writer and his editor. Like a painter’s sketchbook or a musician’s demos, it is exciting here to see the nucleus of creative ideas, for example, in a letter from Lehmann dated 4 July 1936,
Why not write the story of that march? Can you make it between 3,000 and 6,000? Or two, of about 4,500? Let me know. This is not a commission (I’m afraid I have to say that now, owing to a recent misunderstanding with an author) but an urgent instigation if you like. Make it racy – but an eye on the libel, obscenity, sedition and other mumbo-jumbo laws.
Garrett’s brutally honest explanation of his circumstances is written unfiltered:
My domestic circumstances are really too hard. First I live in a tenement which is about as away by Euston station. Secondly, I have a wife and five boys (including a baby) now I must terrify them into silence or ‘wait’ until they go to bed. This is generally near midnight. By that time, I am too physically exhausted to do much writing… And as conditions are at present, I have as many lashes to me as a ship in dry dock. All this is to show you how difficult it is for me to send you anything at the moment. I wish I could.
As I read the desperate exchanges between Garrett and his publisher, I felt extremely uneasy, with a strange kind of guilt. If I was born in his day, I too would suffer the same everyday struggles he did. George Garrett was from the same class background as me. As a contemporary writer, I have the luxury of a den, a spare room crammed with art books, a bookcase like a fiction tree that blossoms with paperbacks to be harvested, books given away and culled to charity stores regularly. A comfortable couch to leisurely read when my mind needs an escape, a music system (latest technology and retro vinyl) and most importantly, a small desk. I have even given this designated space a pompous title (albeit my tongue is firmly in my cheek), The Blue Room writing studio.
The thought of not having anywhere to write and to scribble in peace is horrible. Garrett’s plight is shocking and made me realise how lucky I am. I will never again curse the schoolyard that backs onto my flat. At customary break times there is a sudden roar of sound lifted directly from Lord of the Flies, whereupon the kids battle their way through 30 minutes recess. I generally time my breaks in my working day in the studio to coincide with the kids. It’s like going back to primary school but without the milk and nap in the afternoon. Also, if I so desire and want to continue writing, I can, for all I need to do is close the double-glazed window blotting out the cumbersome noise.
Our friend George Garrett did not just have to put up with the direct noise in the room but the general day to day living of those families either side of him, above and below. I imagine it would be the equivalent of setting down to write in the middle of Lime Street station during rush hour.
Garrett wore many hats in his lifetime and is a working class renaissance man for he was a merchant seaman, a writer, a playwright, a radical activist and a founder member of Liverpool’s Unity Theatre. He could also possibly have been a male model looking at the front cover image!
His catalogue of work, despite the hardships he suffered, is exceptionally impressive. He wrote three plays overtly influenced by the new realism of American playwright Eugene O Neill (writer of acclaimed ‘Long Day’s Journey into the Night,’ recognised by the fabulous actress Jessica Lange as the greatest American play). He penned several short stories and wrote invaluable documentary reportage about poverty in the 1920s and 30s. He wrote his last story in 1937 and then was actively involved with the Unity Theatre up to the War and during the 1940s. Theatre was a way to express his ideas without the need of any filtration through agents, publishers etc.
Alan O’Toole claims that George Garrett’s time at the Unity Theatre was ‘an enterprise which took both literature and the ‘message’ straight to the people on the streets.’ Now, thanks to this formidable book, we gain an insight into the man, his life and struggles. I only wish he was here to see this book finally in print – and for the record, I believe it is better than the George Orwell book!
On 1 May 2017, a Mayday parade through Liverpool was held by Writing on the Wall. The procession was held to launch Writing on the Wall’s WoW Fest 2017, with the theme ‘Revolution’, as well as to celebrate the publication by Liverpool University Press of George Garrett’s autobiography, Ten Years On The Parish, Edited by Mike Morris, Tony Wailey, and Andrew Davies and foreword by Frank Cottrell-Boyce
The focal point of the parade was a gigantic model of George Garrett, created by renowned model and puppet maker, Brian Hanlon, and based on Garrett when he led the Liverpool contingent of The First Hunger March to London in 1922. It is currently on display in the foyer of the Liverpool Central Library.
Ten Years On The Parish is available to buy at News from Nowhere or online. But if you are in Liverpool, please do purchase from ‘the Real Amazons’ at News from Nowhere.
Find out more about George Garrett from The George Garrett Archive