By Kenn Taylor Images by Robin Clewley and Graham Smillie
Growing up in an overspill estate of Birkenhead, with Liverpool being a short bus ride away, the city always seemed to be the nearest place where things happened. Where those posters and flyers led to. Where independent shops and venues existed which gave further glimpses of a world of art and culture. One that seemed fascinating but also closed off. Later, when I did enter that world, I found that while it did open up so much for me, some of the cultural scene was indeed elitist and exclusionary. Remote from how many people in Merseyside lived their lives. Trying to navigate a way into the creative industries when you had no family connections or real understanding of how it all worked was not easy, and there seemed to be nothing to help you to figure it out. It was experiences such as these that later led me to spending much of my career doing community cultural projects.
Birkenhead itself did have its own cultural gems, including the brilliant, long-established Skeleton Record Exchange, where I would visit regularly to part-ex CDs so I could buy new ones. Trying to get the best deal so I could hear enough new music in a time when there were few other options. Skelos and its big, brightly painted red arrow are, I am pleased to say, still going. Meanwhile the music chain stores in the ambitiously-named Pyramids shopping centre, which represented the future in Birkenhead in the 1990s, have long shut down.
Birko was the classic boom town of the 1800s, which grew rich quickly off the back of the shipyard set up by the Laird family. This wealth paid for the fine Hamilton Square, the largest concentration of Grade I listed buildings outside London, and Birkenhead Park, the world’s first municipal public park, with Europe’s first street tramway running between them. Since then, the town’s fortunes have been inextricably linked with the rising and falling tides at the shipyard which still looms over Birkenhead physically, psychologically and economically. The dramatic vista of Hamilton Square, with its station tower promising FREQUENT ELECTRIC TRAINS, retains its visual impact though. However, for the moment, many of the buildings around the square are empty, including most of the Town Hall itself.
For a long time, the centre of Birkenhead was dominated by its post-war shopping centres, while this older part of town slowly died off. However, as retail struggles, new attention is being paid around here. The founders of the key Liverpool region music magazine, Bido Lito!, have set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) and turned an empty building into a new 350 capacity music venue. Called Future Yard, it’s planned to be the UK’s first carbon neutral grassroots venue. As a precursor, they painted THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD in bright pink letters on the front while work went on inside. The venue builds on the Future Yard music festival held in 2019, which took place over several locations including the historic remains of Birkenhead Priory. Hidden behind an industrial estate, the Priory, which includes the oldest standing buildings in Merseyside, represents the history of ‘the headland of birch trees’ before the industrial revolution. Its tower gives dramatic views across the Mersey and the waterfront, with you standing high above the massive vessels in the shipyard propped up precariously for repair.
Future Yard’s venue opening was hit by Covid, but they have delivered online shows and have an array of gigs lined up as restrictions lift. As a CIC, Future Yard has a social mission which asks questions like: ‘How do we leverage the social and economic power of music in struggling towns?’ and ‘How do we provide new career pathways into the live music industry?’
Nearby meanwhile, in what was once the Borough Council’s Treasury building, a new venture called Make Hamilton Square has opened up, set up by another CIC which already runs successful studios in Liverpool. Housing creative workspaces, it also includes a new small urban farm and an events space. Make similarly has a social mission which includes: ‘to remove barriers to people joining the economy, by making things themselves and becoming self sufficient’.
As central Liverpool has redeveloped, areas which I knew as largely derelict have become the Ropewalks and Baltic Triangle and cultural centres in a way I couldn’t have imagined. As sure as the wind blows though, cultural spaces in them have been threatened by redevelopment. As such development in Liverpool grows, could Birkenhead become a new local mecca for culture and music? Or is this just the cultural scene being pushed further out – a ‘temporary utopia’ to facilitate more traditional forms of redevelopment?
Hopefully, with Future Yard and Make being CICs planned with sustainability in mind, this could make the difference. Future Yard recently received financial support to buy their own building. A long way from trashy but cool venues existing until their landlords get offered a better deal. If these initiatives and others like them are to succeed, they need to be able to control their spaces and receive proper protection and support long term from institutions, authorities and funders.
Still too many young people in Birkenhead and many places like it are not given enough opportunities to experience creative arts, develop their interests or get their own work out there. Despite everything that’s happening at the moment, places like Make and Future Yard are progressing and offering people new spaces to grow in. Projects such these could create a situation where those FREQUENT ELECTRIC TRAINS are bringing more people to the town than they’re taking out. They point to a different kind of future for Birkenhead. A different kind of future in general.
The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. So completes Dark, one of Netflix’s best original productions. A series deeply loved but that never quite seemed to break through to the mainstream imagination.
But I have a feeling its influence and popularity will be long lasting.
Dark draws you gradually into its world. The first few episodes – a missing child, troubled police officers, a small German town filled with secrets – felt like the kind of Scandi-Euro murder drama that has increasingly become a cliché with diminishing returns. Yet, little by little, the speculative nature of the series creeps out from the cave at its centre. Soon enough, you’re dealing with things across space and time and of intense philosophical and technical complexity.
What really sets Dark apart though, pushing it beyond so many other good series, is that it never loses its emotional depth. Your feeling for many of the characters is matched only by your fear and anger towards the ever-expanding cast of people that seem intent on manipulating and destroying them.
Dark leads you by the hand to a place where it presents you with a litany of big, horrifying questions. What we do to each other. What we do to ourselves. What we cover up. What we try to forget. What we will do to get what we want. But also, what we are prepared to do, what we would sacrifice, what we would go through to prevent suffering in others.
Trauma. Jealousy. Grief. Power. Control. Betrayal. Lust. Fate. Free will. Life. Death. The search for meaning. The desperate grasp for salvation and the flight from endless darkness. Choices that we all hope we’ll never have to face, but which certain characters get wrapped into ever more terrifying spirals of. Not just on our plane of existence either, but on so many other levels that become ever more labyrinthine.
Dark’s genius though is that throughout, the characters remain painfully, relatably human, as the series always retains at least one finger grip on lived reality. Fundamental questions about existence, quantum physics and morality, are threaded perfectly between the joys of shifting popular culture and the angst of teenage love. You spin me right round, like a record baby.
These factors alone would render Dark a remarkable television series. Yet more things set it apart.
Its stellar casting, as different actors play characters at different ages, in different ages, but without a blink of disbelief from the audience except of the uncanniness of resemblance. Striking design and cinematography across a small number of settings, the series contained entirely within Winden, the centre of the characters universe. So many of the shots could be photographs, I was not surprised to learn that director Baran bo Odar had shown every department the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson and told them “that’s our look”. The visual impact of the series deepens over time as the same locations, symbols and colours loop through the lives of different characters, creating a powerful sense of recognition and unease. The soundtrack too, varied from Nena to Ben Frost, is often subtle but always resonant.
Dark is not without its flaws. It is incredibly hard to sustain all of this, especially the twists, without it becoming tiresome. They just about manage it by the skin of their teeth. The third series is clunkier, with less intense, thrilling drama and more extrapolation as it tries to cope with the various threads unwound in the previous two. Occasionally, the plot straining the seams can be seen, as so many different lines of speculation are pulled back together so rapidly you get whiplash.
There are also a few points in this final season when you sense the programme falling a little too much in love with itself. Too many swipe cuts like an 80s kids’ TV show; a few too many melodramatic montages in which the characters stare into the middle distance as a song plays over. Some of this is part of the programme’s mise-en-scène, but this season pushes it towards self-indulgence. These things can be forgiven though, such is the power elsewhere.
The weight of Dark on you, can feel as dense as the uranium in Winden Kraftwerk. Throughout the last few episodes, such was the emotional investment, I kept gripping the chair at some of the more awkward moments, willing them not to fuck it up. As it draws to its resolution though, on that Winden crossroads. Well. The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. Somewhere, somehow, sometime.
One of my earliest memories is watching on television the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course, I have other early memories of less geo-political consequence. But seeing the joy of the people stood on top of the narrow, graffiti-covered wall as they smashed it down, really did stick with me. Even if at the time I had limited understanding of what was happening or why it was important.
From then on, the Berlin Wall that no longer existed, held a fascination for me. My father had left school at 15 but had a huge knowledge of history and I absorbed this interest. While the Merseyside I grew up in was a place in itself where the weight of history was everywhere. The wall coming down would also have unintended consequences here too. The end of the Cold War meant a big drop in orders for the shipyard that Birkenhead had been built around. The yard’s subsequent closure was a devastating blow to the area. So many British towns are like this – trapped in a death spiral of dependence on a deeply cyclical defence industry for the want of anything else. Such places are usually where the military recruit from as well for the same reason. As Elvis Costello, who grew up in Birkenhead, wrote in Shipbuilding:
It’s just a rumour that was spread around town / Somebody said that someone got filled in / For saying that people get killed in / The result of this shipbuilding
I remained interested in Berlin as I grew up. Our school arranged its only ever foreign trip to visit WWII sites in Germany and Poland, including of course the now unified German capital. While I wasn’t sure my family could afford it, I was incredibly excited at the prospect. However, I needn’t have worried as my class was labelled the ‘bad class’ and not invited. Something which incensed me. Yet as an awkward young teenager I didn’t, as I probably should have done, march to the headmaster’s office and demand a fair deal. Rather I just took it as another sign that, even if history was one of the few things I was interested in and good at, there wasn’t much point in trying at school and I might as well piss around, so I did.
It would only be years later, after dropping out of education, going back in and eventually completing a degree, that I made it to Berlin. And I loved it. Returning many times since at different stages in my life.
Like most visitors to the city, I went to find traces of the wall which I’d watched the destruction of broadcast live hundreds of miles away. There are various fragments in different states of condition around Berlin. Probably the most prominent is the East Side Gallery, which was covered with murals in 1990 after the fall of the wall. It is also one of the most striking.
When I first saw the East Side Gallery in 2007, it was still on the fringe of a rapidly changing Berlin. Quiet, with only a handful of similarly interested tourists milling around. The murals, now around 17 years old, had faded and been tagged a great deal. On one of the murals had been written over in marker:
‘I am claiming this space. I am defacing the visual record of a history which is not my own. But why not? This sight is now a site which has been split from the continuity of Berlin culture. It is heritage which belongs to tourist culture. We are recording our own history, here, now, and I was here.’
This powerful statement was a harbinger of things to come. On repeat visits, I saw the area around the East Side Gallery develop more and more. When I returned 10 years on, the murals had been repainted, the site now visited by many more people. It seemed incongruous for such raw expressions from 1990 to be really bright and fresh again, even if necessary to preserve them. Huge construction sites lined the opposite side of the road from the wall, with developments all along the river Spree. A vast entertainment arena had been constructed and its illuminated advertising sign towered above the wall. To return only every few years and see this pace of change in snapshots was uncanny. While the negative impact of this aggressive speed and scale of development on some of Berlin’s communities is well documented.
I often thought though of that earlier statement written on the wall, dismissing its preservation as a relic for visitors. It would have been worse to prevent a new history being written around the site of a wall that has terrible memories for most Berliners. Just so as people like me could observe a place in the dramatic, run down state it held after the fall of the wall. That this once divided city was once again growing and attracting people and that day to day life was now taking place right over many sites associated with past darkness, was largely positive. Even if development should have been done with more care.
Another noticeable memorial to the wall are metal strips in the pavement which trace its line around the city. I took an early ‘shoe selfie’ over a section marked ‘Berliner Mauer 1961 – 1989’ when I first visited. As I was travelling on my own, it was a way of locating myself in the story my photos told. On later visits, I happened upon similar markers in different places and took the same shot. Creating my own personal record through time of my visits to this city. Shoes, jeans and me changing along with Berlin.
What way will history flow next? Will we see the rapture of people pushing back against capital’s seemingly intractable might, or will the walls start closing in once again? Whether we want to seek out history, or carry on regardless over it, we do need to remember what we hate and treasure from it. The Berlin Wall is gone, but it should linger in our consciousness like all dark history, as a reminder of the depths we can go to. The ghost of the wall snaking its way under pavement cafes and past entertainment arenas remains ever relevant, looming over all of us, not just in the city which it once cleaved in two.
Just how far out can you go in mainland Britain in terms of isolation? With a journey many miles down a long, empty, country road, an owl flying low at the windscreen at one point, and a long, single track road before you reach the destination, this place certainly felt like a candidate.
At the end of that private road there’s a luxury hotel. Not for the likes of you and me. I am here not as a real guest, but because a friend had bagged a job there.
Adjacent to a mighty loch, it is as rural a Scotland as you could possibly imagine. Scenery flowing off into the endless distance. Dramatic landscapes in every corner of your vision: mountains, forests, streams filled with huge glacial rocks. Orange highland cows. Even the multi-coloured moss seems dramatic.
In isolation, in a vast landscape, things seem to have greater visual power. A strikingly white solitary house. A lone, worn-out boat. A fallen tree. At this altitude, and with few buildings, the slightest change of light or shift in the clouds that touch the mountain tops is instantly noticeable.
The hotel itself offers luxury in such seclusion. Old red leather chairs, worn but in the way that loos classy, not knackered. A roaring fire in a grate, the size of a small car, surrounded by dark wood and polished brass. A table lamp in the shape of a stag. The hotel itself looks ancient, but in reality is a fake. A Walter Scott image from the Victorian era.
What’s it like to live out here? I fear that the quiet and lack of stimulation would drive me mad. But there is plenty to do. Walk. Swim. Climb. Build. Read. There’s television and the internet but even then, my friend tells me, you do feel distant from everything. Terrible things happening on the news feel like dark fairy stories from far off lands, rather than things that will reach you here.
This has an allure, like some Arcadian fantasy of times past perhaps. But then this place is predicated on selling that. Charging an astronomical amount for the experience of ‘proper Scotland’. The staff, while they may also appreciate the fresh air and idyllic location, have to labour most of the time while those paying to be here can just enjoy it all. Hike the hills, fly in helicopters, drive fast cars, drink expensive whiskeys. Though labouring here is, my friend assures me, much better than some of the other places we had both laboured.
Of course, we can’t afford to even eat in the hotel. Instead we go over to the nearby inn for a pint, before driving the long way back to the nearest town to truly catch up. Nevertheless, I can see the attraction of this place, of going out to the furthest reaches. If you really have the money, you can pretend the world is not like it is. And forget, perhaps, the role you played in making it that way.
Claire Walmsley Griffiths is a photographer from Blackpool, Lancashire who explores the possibilities of human connection through photography. She uses a camera as a tool for conversation, engaging with the psychology of people, place, identity, what community is, was and what it might become. Claire talked to Kenn Taylor about her work, her experiences as an artist and the cultures that she wants to explore and platform.
Kenn Taylor: How did you become a photographer?
Claire Walmsley Griffiths: I went to study fine art in Northampton in 1998. I started to photograph things to draw or paint from. Then I found people like Sophie Calle and Nan Goldin. What photography did for me, I just found it very accessible and much more of an accessible language in general for the audience. I became interested in how audiences could become involved in artwork or become part of that experience. And I think I’m still really interested in that.
It felt very different being at university in the south to what it was like in the north. A lot of pretence. I remember on one occasion one of my peers at art school calling me a ‘pleb’. It felt really obvious that I was from the north even though I’d never really considered it before. But also feeling very protective to the north and to Blackpool. I’m an overly-protective person of the place I live, but it has so many qualities that do not get celebrated.
Blackpool is often used as the poster child for ‘broken Brexit Britain’ by journalists and photographers. What do you feel about that, photographers coming in looking for a particular narrative they’ve decided on even before they arrive?
It is easy to feel that jolt when the media reflects images back at Blackpool, to say ‘this is your life’. Images that might suggest lack of hope or no alternative. As someone who lives here, it can be very difficult and there is a feeling of, where is the bigger picture?
It’s what we have been fed in Blackpool over a long period of time. I don’t think it’s helpful. Not that I’m like everything should be brilliant or Disney. But I think you have a lot of power with a camera and where you point it and that needs careful consideration. It’s really tempting for people to photograph the dark side of Blackpool. It’s too easy. Street photography has changed a lot in recent times. I think it was Susan Sontag who referred to taking a picture as an ‘aggressive act’. Perhaps social media has allowed people to question it more and also be more mindful of the camera’s power. But the stories that often get told of Blackpool are often not by the people of Blackpool. I think you have a right to document or photograph your own story.
Do you feel Blackpool gets ‘used’ or ‘othered’ by the media? This happened a lot to Merseyside in the 1980s and 90s when I was growing up there. Do you think the media commissioning more locally-based artists would create more balance?
I am interested in the psychology of a place, how residents, creatives and local artists feel in response to this consistent narrative. Othering is an easy route I guess especially using a medium such as photography because how much of creating a photograph can be non-reciprocal for the subject, it’s dangerous ground. I think there is a different narrative though in places like Blackpool that often does not get explored, through social and community approaches. Everyone has a right to be creative, it’s part of the human condition. People need to feel part of something, in a conversation or their voice valued.
What did it feel like capturing those Covid lockdown images that became part of the #WorkTownGhostTown project [commissioned by The Grundy, Blackpool]?
Initially I did really enjoy the sense of peace, and there was a feeling of it being very ethereal. You could really see the buildings of Blackpool, when you look above and see the old architecture. I’d never really been able to do that as much previously I think because of vehicles going past. But then I really began to think about the performance industry and the music industry in Blackpool and the buildings that they take place in. Thinking about being younger and not being able to go and have that experience of meeting friends or drinking in pubs, or being able to dance and have a shared experience. I just really began to feel for those people and I started to speak to some of them and photograph them.
I went out again on the last day before the second lockdown, and I went on to Central Pier. It was completely quiet and I started to talk to the man who had the darts stand. If you’re someone who has grown up in Blackpool you probably will have done a job like that. He let me take his portrait and I wanted to make sure he was happy with it. He was just someone who worked for the stall owner, but he really seemed to love it. And that’s a really interesting aspect of taking photographs of people, just having time to listen to their story if they’ll share it with you.
The space of the Pier without people felt very unique, but it is really important that we do have people coming through Blackpool and spending money to support these small businesses, these music venues, grassroots venues that attract unique acts.
You did a series, Seasonal Workers; is it important for you to show the story behind the seaside artifice?
I do think it’s really important. The seasonal workers stuff is ongoing. I photographed some horse and carriage owners having their, sort of, MOT last year. Their stories seem so important for Blackpool, the seasonal jobs make up part of Blackpool’s heritage. The horse owners I’ve met, they absolutely love their horses and seem to do it more through a connection to their animals than for the job. The generations of people who own the horses and donkeys, they go back for years and years. I think the carriage owners have had a very hard time with their season cut short.
Is it important to you to tell these stories, I’m also thinking of your Retired Performers series?
I think I’m just more and more interested in the shared experience and how people can connect and photography feels really accessible for that. The reason Retired Performers came about is I was photographing a circus festival. I met this lady and there was a photograph of her as a young person and she said ‘I used to be a foot juggler’. I said ‘what’s a foot juggler?!’ And she said ‘I used to spin people on a plank on my legs’. Then she said ‘oh yes my husband performed for Hitler’. Only in Blackpool! So she was the person who sparked the idea.
It was completely different to what I anticipated the project to be. I learned a lot through doing it. I wanted 30 people who had worked professionally in Blackpool. It’s like an underground scene really, all the retired performers know each other or have connections with each other, so they were introducing one another to me. They loved the experience of being able to talk about what they’d done. I wanted it to be a collaboration. I wanted them to feel happy with their photographs and that they were aware of what was happening with the work as much as possible. I wanted to create or encourage an exchange between sitter and audience. An invitation to be part of that backstage life, what goes on behind the curtain of and how we can feel part of that. The series of images allowed me to invite performers back into spaces such as The Tower Ballroom or Winter Gardens theatres where we kind of co-created an experience.
Is that one of the things you enjoy about social practice, connecting with people?
Within photography, I do like social documentary. I’m interested in that. But people like Mary Ellen Mark who was photographing her own life and stuff going on around her, just feels more genuine. I think it takes years and months to build those relationships. That, or it’s already going on around you or it has a strong connection to you. I am interested in people, I guess this is all about having that collaboration and finding a way to build relationships. That level of trust, that you’re already part of that community or have a connection to it. I think that’s really important.
What do you think of socially engaged practice as a term?
It’s a tricky term. I prefer socially based to socially engaged in some ways. I feel like it’s an inherent thing in people to want to be involved in the community. I think it’s within care workers, nursing professions, teachers. Socially engaged practice is something I came across by chance really. I guess it has been discussed as community art in the past. But the idea that you might be able to collaborate with a group of people to make work or give people a camera to tell their own story is really powerful.
Do you separate your socially engaged work from your other photography?
I don’t think I separate it from stuff I do generally. If I was photographing for tourism, if they let me arrive early and talk to people, that’s really helpful. If I’m photographing some civic event or street performance it feels uncomfortable if I haven’t said hello to people or found out a little bit about them. And the photograph seems better if I’ve had that experience already or if they know who I am.
Do you feel you were doing ‘socially engaged practice’ before you knew of it as a term? I definitely do feel that. It’s because I’m in that community and I am that person from a one parent family, who’s had someone close to me with addiction, who’s had a friend that was homeless at a young age. I am that person and so are they, but we are also people with a bigger story. I keep thinking about how it is easy to demonise people who are living through difficult circumstances. That those voices do not have a chance to be heard and the stories that get communicated through other mediums are often regurgitated in the same old ways. I am interested in projects where the voice is a collaboration or the story or image highlights hope and space for exchange.
Tell me about your Retired Ravers project?
Retired Ravers is in process currently. I’ve been documenting an ex-cinema space that was later a nightclub and that has now been taken over by a theatre, come art space currently being regenerated by that very community. So it’s an amazing space, the perfect space to invite in people who were in that scene.
I’ve been thinking about that loss of community and shared experience and coming together isn’t happening at the moment. But I have spoken to someone who had been there in the late 80s rave scene in Lancashire and they were quite keen on the darker drug taking aspects being addressed, leading onto darker times for some people, so I’m just considering that at the moment. I see a lot of demonisation of addiction which is really damaging for people in recovery. Perhaps it’s a class problem, you have to pay for good recovery programmes. It just opened a new layer to what I had been thinking about photographing that counter culture.
I’ve also come across quite a few women who were involved in the scene who would want to remain anonymous if they were to become involved in the project. I’ve done some test shots where I’ve photographed people anonymously, so just a soft light silhouette around people. Again I’m thinking of it as a collaboration with the sitter and the idea you could take a journey with people being involved in the project. One of the questions I want to ask those people is, was it a very accepting scene, but things feel very polarised now. Did they feel that youth culture would stay with people forever? The idea of freedom and liberty within that scene that perhaps some people felt. At its best that’s what it promoted. It feels like the places folks congregate or have a shared experience creates a kind of tangible energy.
Through your work in Blackpool as a photographer, what do you think you have discovered about community, and its future?
I am interested in how we come to believe limitations and our place in the world. That as human beings we look to identify with groups, that is my take on community – how we feel when sharing a story or relate to one another is powerful. It feels like people need to feel like they are part of something and how do we find that?
How important is class, and in particular working-class cultures, to you in your work?
I do feel like, what’s wrong with being working class? It used to be a celebrated thing and people shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I would like to see more celebration of all those working-class codes, the Working Men’s Clubs, Bingo, Rose Queens, everything. At Uni in the south, especially studying fine art, the last thing my peer group were interested in were working class stories and values, but it still gets fed back to us by media created by some who perhaps have not had that lived experience. I feel like there is opportunity now to see, hear and experience art and photography created by communities and working-class artists who are able to tell their own stories or collaborate in an empowering way. It feels like we are heading into a time where there is nothing to lose as long as we all keep listening, viewing and communicating whilst checking our own routes to what we believe is our destination.
– I never thought I’d live in the countryside. – This isn’t the countryside, it’s the edge of a city.
In Yorkshire though, the rural and the urban have a more indistinct relationship than elsewhere. Something not always appreciated by those born there. For those of us who moved in though, the ability to walk in an hour from Bradford city centre to, yes, up on a wild and windy moor, is not taken for granted.
The place that meant most though, was the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. I’d known the same waterway at its other end too. Liverpool though, is a river city, dominated in every way by the huge estuary. The canal there is an afterthought, just another body of still water amongst the many docks.
In West Yorkshire though, the canal has a central function, having helped define the districts and towns that it passes through. The shape of the cities too. When I shifted once more in my life, this time from London to the outskirts of Bradford, the Leeds-Liverpool became, by accident, hugely important to me.
Another canal, the Regents, had played a significant role in my brief time living in London. The dense urbanity of East London was exhilarating. To the point when I sometimes had to grip to manage the intensity of feeling. Like it had been in Liverpool too at its absolute best, but that was a deeper, more personal feeling of shared experience, communal understanding and expression. In London, it was an external force and you knew you were just a tiny cog spinning in it, which had its own allure. The canal represented calm in London. A long straight place to head along without a particular purpose. Somewhere to burn off energy when collected fears and ghouls and ideas threatened to overwhelm.
Moving from Bethnal Green Road to Bradford district meant no longer trains to Liverpool Street thundering past the front of my flat, instead expansive fields and skies. The canal though was a rare constant and still a place for mental space. In London, this had meant a deep walk through every shade of urban life, in that city now mostly polished to within an inch of its life. In West Riding though, it was a walk through increasing ruralness, striding into ever wider, open spaces. All along the way, the black and white mile posts at various angles of lean, reminding me that my origins in Liverpool were just a, long, walk away.
Without needing a car, the canal was a place to head where tension could be felt lifting from the shoulders, often with every step. Where tasks, troubles and frustrations could be put aside to go deeper about ourselves and everything else. On the surface, a straight graded route next to the murky mirror shimmer of water which required no thought or strain to navigate. Really though it is a winding, up and down route through the path of least resistance. The idea of this once deeply capitalistic functional waterway, now vintage leisure route, as a way of working out a way through lives which had involved some wandering and some extremes, was not lost on us. The passage of time felt slowed and so better to consider it.
It helped. Both of us. Not having to think about the direction helped us to figure out where we should be going. Sometimes, breathing in as we passed further out with nothing around but fields sweeping away in the distance into hills, that same exhilaration again. Where you almost need to grip something, but now, sucking in fresh air rather than the dense electric hum of the city.
There have been more moves since, but I find somehow the canal keeps coming back. A much needed place to pace along the path of least resistance and think about then, now, the future, nothing at all.
Lying on my back on a bunk bed, on a very long, very bare train. Going a very long way through a very bare landscape a long way from anywhere.
At this point, I’d been travelling on it for so many days, that whenever the train stopped and I briefly stepped onto the terra firma of a platform to buy food, I had sea legs. Well, train legs. So used to the constant shaking and rhythm of the railway journey that, removed from it, everything seemed unbalanced and off kilter.
Being on a train for so long, there is nothing but time. To be filled in many ways. Looking out for the arresting moments between endless tress and endless desert. Games. Chat. Drinking. Lots of drinking. Someone brought a laptop with downloaded films and music, which in back then seemed over the top and now seems like common sense.
With me always being a late adopter, I’d brought books. Although like everyone else I’d been very affected, if not traumatised, by the animated film, I’d never actually read Watership Down. She had recommended it in her usual passionate way, so I thought, why not get a copy for my travels. In what was no doubt another daft attempt at maintaining a connection.
So, with an incongruity recognised by myself and others, I found myself reading a novel about anthropomorphic rabbits filled with descriptions of the lush, green and wet English countryside, whilst sat on a train going through the depths of dry, summer, eastern Siberia. With this being August, Siberia of course was nothing like the snow covered images of popular culture. A week earlier we had sunbathed near the Kremlin. As you do. It was odd but all the more vivid to be down the, er, rabbit hole, of this book about the loss of an arcadian England, whilst being on the other side of the world in a moving metal box going through a striking but unforgiving landscape.
Of course, wherever you go though, you are still you. I dived into the depths of this book and this journey, trying to concentrate on reading whilst also sucking in the vast stream of everyone and everything going past. On this bunk in the quiet afternoon though, in the world of rabbits as the eternal human struggle, I still found myself thinking of her and the chest pressing gulp of the pain swept back in.
Back then though, the wider world seemed brighter. This journey just another example of it opening up ever further, ever faster. Here we were crossing continents, a multiplicity of backgrounds filled with camaraderie, in a world of expanding global interconnection, dialogue and understanding.
Yet the warnings of how thin a veneer this all was were already on display here. A guide telling us of the racism he experienced all the time. Russians more than happy with Putin telling us ‘we need a strong leader’. The call to Free Pussy Riot provoking indifference, ‘they shouldn’t have behaved like that in a church.’ No one likes us, we don’t care. What now stares us in the face as the growing threat to democracy in the 21st century was all there lurking in the background. We had thought then perhaps that this was just the leftovers of an old world that was dying. Really though, the post 2008 trauma was still just sinking in. The thwarted ambitions and dreams of millions, many struggling now even for a basic standard of living. Their sense of injustice ruthlessly diverted to other targets by those in power, so they could maintain the status quo, despite its diminishing returns for the majority.
The world has turned darker in the last decade. So many of the places we visited then, even if it still possible, we might not choose to now. Borders going back up. Minorities oppressed. Rights shredded. History coming roaring back to bite. Wherever you go, you are still you and you take your experience and culture with you. Sometimes though, what you see when you go elsewhere follows you back home much later.
I live a second hand life amongst second hand things. Over the way on the high street, the brands come and go. And nowadays, they mostly go. What I sell they never bothered with though: old books and bits and bobs. These days the customers have an infinite selection of books and bits and bobs at the click of a button. Funnily enough though, they still come here. Long after those places with supply chains, brand strategies and HR policies have caved in. My shop is, I’m told, part of what is called ‘experiential retail.’ So, my old bones and my old stock in this old shop, is in the same category then as Harvey Nichols and those coffee shops with big lightbulbs. Fair enough, I’ll take that. Though I don’t make as much money as them of course. I barely make any money at all. This is a vocation. Like being a priest, or an artist. At least artists get the girls. Priests too I reckon. Me, I get dust and people haggling over £10 for a leather bound volume that’s taken up space on my shelves for too long. Oh, but they love to browse. People older than me even looking for something specific from their past, to teenagers who think it’s like something from a film in here. So authentic one of the students said to me once. I guess so. They used to come for the prices, now they come for the authenticity. No skin off my nose, as long as they still come. I guess that’s something those brand strategists forgot about when they tried to predict what people wanted. I have been here for so long, with few pretensions but to survive and to work with things I like. And I have seen plenty of things I like come and then go again. Running a place like this, it beats punching a clock. There’s not much stress, no restructures or redundancies, but it takes up all your time and all your life. Thing I figure about authenticity, such as it is, is it usually comes through toil and pain and that is what most sensible folks want to avoid. Even if doing that leaves them pallid and bitter.
The stock here is never ending, I don’t even know what I really have. Good luck to the soul who has to deal with it after me. What are they going to do about the authenticity when I’m gone eh? There’s plenty of people who want to experience authenticy, who try to buy it, but they don’t have the commitment. Me, I long ago stopped giving a shit. I read and I know and I observe and I understand, but for what end I don’t know. They’ll carry me out of here in a box and, unlike some people and places, I don’t think I’m quite authentic enough to be preserved by the National Trust. So, all of this put together over all these years will go to a fire sale, skip, then conversion into flats. Sell the fittings to one of the students for their loft apartment.
At least I’ve been surrounded by things I’ve liked. Never had to work too hard. Been able to watch the sun coming in through the window and move slowly across the sky as it illuminates the flowing dust in bright shafts. Like a monk me, but without the shaved head and yes I do take contactless. I think even the monks do now too I reckon. Authenticity is hard to get, but trust me, when you have it, it means little. You still have to haggle over £10 and sit watching others watch you. I’ve had plenty of time to read. Lived all sorts of lives through these books and records and things. But it was all second hand. There’s still more knowledge and experience and art in all of it than you could ever get through in a lifetime. And looking after it all has meant I’ve done little with what I’ve learned. Though I have learned enough at least not to think about it too much anymore. I read and I know and I observe and I understand. For what end I don’t know.
Those 1950s American cars are a key symbol of Cuba under Communism, giving a bit of old glamour to all those Lonely Planet images and travel documentaries. They’re real enough, seen all over Havana. Many however are like ‘Trigger’s Broom’ – having had so many parts replaced they’re more new than old. There’s no denying though that they’re still cool. In Cuba, they are a key part of that desire for ‘difference’ that attracts people to a place. And their owners are only too keen to earn some extra cash taking visitors for a ride along the sea drive, the Malecon, under the sun and close to the spray of waves.
Less well photographed though are the Ladas. The reason the old American cars are still there of course, has largely been the lack of something to replace them, due to the ongoing economic blockade. Though now they’re so famous they are likely to always remain, as visitors will always want something of the past that meets their expectations. The Ladas from Mother Russia though, were the main replacement car for all those decades after the Revolution. They were popular locally for their ruggedness and relative modernity, though of course the Ladas themselves are now also ancient. While less well known as a symbol of Cuba, Ladas are a big part of the modest traffic that runs around Havana, in particular being used heavily as taxis.
I had little naivety about Cuba’s ‘alternative’ system. While there’s a general lack of the hunger and homelessness that marks much of the UK, in turn you are faced with a Government which tolerates no alternative political parties or dissent and heavily restricts its citizens. While basic needs are generally met, the standard of living is also low. Those old cars may have a certain romance and now a tourist income for their owners, but having to constantly repair a forty year old refrigerator has less allure.
The famous free education in Cuba also doesn’t always translate into liberation. In my final Lada taxi to the airport I spoke at length with the driver. He had a master’s degree in IT but saw little point in using it in Cuba when he could make more money by driving. As well as have more freedom, not having to work for the state. He talked about how he felt his education was wasted and how, like many, he wanted to leave. In turn he asked me about IT work in the UK. I said as far as I knew, it was well paid, but highly competitive. And that a lot of IT jobs were now being ‘offshored’ to other countries where labour was cheaper. He was aware also that we had to pay for university and asked how much it would cost to study for an IT masters. It took me a bit of time to work out the maths and then convert it into to Cuban currency. He was aghast at the expense. “Yes, it’s a real problem,” I said. “Especially if you’re from a poor background.”
We were pretty quiet after that as we did the final leg towards the airport, pondering the madness of our two systems. Neither of which anyone really believes in anymore, both slowly falling apart. This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in September 2020.
The relationship between Liverpool and Ireland is well documented. The relationship between Liverpool and Wales less so, yet just as deep. At one point, Liverpool had the largest urban settlement of Welsh speakers. From teaching to building to retail, the Welsh were a key part of the region’s fabric. The National Eisteddfod was held several times in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Relations were not always cosy though. In particular when Liverpool Corporation constructed the Llyn Celyn reservoir over the Welsh speaking village of Capel Celyn, helping fuel Welsh nationalism in the 1960s. Liverpudlians too, were also part of Wales. From the earliest opportunities the working class had for holidays, Wales represented open space, clear air, leisure and countryside.
Even now, Liverpool may no longer represent the economic powerhouse for Wales, especially as Cardiff has grown, but it’s still the closest major urban settlement to North Wales. A place to study, to go out, to shop. While, despite the advent of cheap flights, Wales remains popular for holidays and days out. And both still hold a pull to each other, particularly for the young of each place, long after cars replaced paddle steamers as the quickest route between the two.
Possessing dramatic landscapes and cultures fired with passion and poetry, they are places separate but intertwined. Hills and tall buildings just visible through the distance on brighter days from up high. For populations with experiences so different, how each viewed the other was and is so much about perception, projection, longing. The Welsh idea of Hiraeth, is something many from Merseyside are also familiar with even if they couldn’t put a name to it. A bittersweet longing for homeland, for a lost golden age, even by those who never knew it or never left in the first place. A yearning to return to something which no longer exists, or maybe never did, but is a feeling which always remains.
In urban Merseyside, Wales is a place to escape to. Peace and space and blinding light. The intensity of openness. A bucolic place of nature, of school outward bound adventures, as much about crisps and kissing as mountain climbing and canoeing. Cheap, accessible holidays and golden if chilly beaches. The romantic weirdness of Portmeirion. Steam trains that go from nowhere to nowhere but at least the landscape looks pretty. This though, of course, ignores the vast holiday industry driven by Merseyside, Manchester and Birmingham, the undulating, boxy sea of caravans along the coast. There are the pseuds too who pretend they’re not tourists, that claim they come for the ‘real Wales’. What is real North Wales though? There’s the real of lakes, mountains and beaches, but also the real of intensive agriculture, nuclear power stations, Japanese factories and RAF jet bases. The holiday parks too are just as real.
In North Wales, Liverpool is a place to escape to, especially for the young. Noise and density and blinding lights. The intensity of urbanity. The possibilities are bigger in London of course, but also much further and harder away. Good times, clubs and music, different people and alternative cultures. Freedoms away from small town oppression. Anonymity and maybe even opportunity. A life closer to the edge, even if it’s easier to fall off. But of course, what is the ‘real Liverpool?’ All of this but also, pleasant suburbs, vast parks, technology hubs and polished shopping centres, like so many others. What both places have is a fierce awareness of themselves and their cultural uniqueness, but that sometimes blinds to what is more universal and what is shared. As well as that, living in cultures so strong, can create a drive for some to escape from it.
The city in the distance. The hills in the distance. The distance is what matters, near but far. Something to daydream of, to work towards, to long for. A projection in the back of the mind, both real and unreal. The closer you get, the more the longing fades and you begin to think what you saw in the distance was a chimera. The longer you stay, the more you think back to what you have left and realise, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe. Fresh eyes. Hiraeth again. The intangible feeling.
And it is everywhere. Strive to break from hard lives or particular places and we find we always take them with us. When we achieve our escapism, we find it’s just another different reality. What we’re looking for has never existed and it never will. Yet we still always look for it. In the distance, just out of sight.