Birkenhead, England

By Kenn Taylor

With all the will in the world/Diving for dear life/When we could be diving for pearls
Elvis Costello ‘Shipbuilding’

Even the tiniest sound bounces right round thee hall as me feet kick through the bits of rust and crap that lie dotted around the concrete. The floor’s damp in places were the leaking roof has allowed puddles to form, mingling with the left-over grease te form shiny patterns. Bits of pipe and rod lie in piles, one of the old side cranes sways and a piece of the plastic sheeting that covers the holes in the walls billows out. Lookin up and down the vast expanse, I try an remember what it had been like when this place mattered, when it was filled with dozens of machines an hundreds of people thundering away, making ships hulls rise out of base metal. When I stared at Laird’s in ‘63 as an apprentice there were twenty thousand people working here ye know. 20,000. Say that number again and try to imagine the sight of twenty-thousand people leaving work at once. To arrive aged 15 was overwhelmin.

I still remember going to work for the first time. I was apprenticed to a guy who had been in the War. My foreman introduced me to him after getting me papers from the office. He was a decent guy, good teacher. You had to get the job done like, it was all piecework then and he wasn’t happy if your slack lost him money. It was hard bastard work too, and nowhere to wash, going home in shitty, greasy clothes, doused in red lead. He told me about the old toilets they’d just got rid of, just a bloody trough with a bar across it, all these fellahs inside sitting in a row like budgies discussing Tranmere Rovers and asking each other for lights. The noise in the yard was horrendous too, sitting in a tank with three or four riveters going at it, that why so many of them are deaf now. But it was still better than Dock labourin or sitting on a production line. You put up with it to learn a trade. The money wasn’t bad n’all. Three years in I was a fully fledged tradesman and as long as you got the job done, you could have a chat and a fag and a brew. Watch the sun go down over the river. Talk about the lasses and the football and then go down to the Royal Castle for a pissup. It was all startin to end even then though.

I met Martha at a dance on the ferry. Looked top in my togs I did, no Docker could afford a suit like I had. We danced an, as it started to go dark, I pointed to the hulls on our side of the river and said tha I was building those ships. “All by yourself eh?” she said and laughed. I told her to come along to the launch and she did. To see thee whole town and a big chunk of Liverpool out on launch day was a dam good reward.  Me and Martha went to the cinema afterwards. And after that we were rarely apart.

We got one of the new Council houses out on the Ford estate in ‘69 and our Paul was born a year later. You’d didn’t hang about in them days. It was a good house, three bedrooms and a small garden front and back. The kind that me mam would have dreamed of, and we hadn’t been too badly off living in Tranmere. The estate was allright too. There was a pub, that was all I needed, and loadsa grass for the kids to play on. There was even a swimming pool over on the Woodchurch. We saved up and got a Ford Escort an rented a caravan in Rhyl. Tracey was born in ‘71 and we called it a day after that. The money was getting a worry too by then. The nuclear sub contracts had ended and Lairds were laying off left, right and centre. I ended up taking redundancy that year because I’d heard they were taking on at Vauxhalls in Ellsemere Port to make the new Viva. I always swore I’d stay away from factory work, but they pay was better and it was more secure. I had a family to keep together now.

I hated it though, the endless, dull rhythm of the line. Supposed to be a modern factory and yet here we were stuck in this massive, dark building with machinery towering above us at all angles. It was less noisy than the yard but the work was so constrictin. Me neighbour used to ask why, with the employee discount, I didn’t buy a Vauxhall. I told him, “I build the damn things; I’ve got more sense than to buy one.” The hopes of more money were largely dashed too, if I could get to work without stoppages then maybe. I’ve always been a union man, paid my dues to the GMB since I was an apprentice and I remained so at Vauxhalls. We’d walk out first sign of any bullshit from the bosses but these guys looked for reasons to kick off, all these hot-headed young lads going onto me about the dialectical materialism and the revolution. “After the match and me tea I’ll think about it,” I used to tell them. I got spat at by one of the little shits once. Then there was the infighting and the grab for membership between AEU, GMB and T&G. Workers of the world unite they say. Ha, maybe if we could stop fighting each other for five fucking minutes. I think, deep down, most of them were trying to do some good you know, but they probably ended up making things worse. The layoffs were starting to bite here too. The Yanks at General Motors who owned it threatened to shut the whole of Vauxhalls down at one point. When we did all go out, I refused to cross the lines of course. I may not have agreed, but I knew better than to show the bosses our divisions. Agitation or not, the moment you break ranks they’ve won. That’s the classic way, divide and conquer. I may not know much about dialectical materialism but I know that. But thing were starting to hurt at home now. The kids needed school uniforms. We had to let the caravan go.

Things weren’t any better at Lairds though. They finally got the new, massive construction hall built, about twenty years after every other yard on the Continent. But the ships got less and less, and the workers got less and less.

I was laid off by Vauxhalls in 1980, one of three thousand. You don’t here of such big layoffs anymore. Not because they don’t happen but because companies have got wise to how damaging that can be. They wind factories down slowly now, demoralising everyone till you’re glad to be given you P45 and go without a fight. We were just one of many getting laid off round here by then though. Dunlop, Lucas, Standard-Triumph, Meccano, Tate and Lyle, GEC, you could go on forever, the numbers were astronomical. Lairds continued to shed too. Mike, the lad next door, was the only son of the neighbours and he was still in the yard, clinging on. Must have been on one of the last proper apprentice intakes. There was talk of converting to build oil rigs for the North Sea boom. “Some hope at least then,” I said. “Some hope, yeah,” he said.

By then I was just one of many unemployed. Martha still worked in the Sayers on Hoole Road and cos of that we weren’t entitled to full benefits either. I had to take the car off the road. It was all coming down and I had no idea how to fight it. I began to wonder if those lads talking about a revolution might have been right. I mean this fucking country voted that iron-knickered cow back in even after what she’d done to us.

Everythin round here got worse and worse. The drug problem really started to kick in, especially around the towers. Kids on Heroin, I mean Heroin, Opium. It’s all so accepted now, but that was something out of the films when I was young. Our lovely new house began to show its true colours too, with the damp and the bad rendering. My dad, who’d been a Brickie, came round and tutted at the half-arsed construction. That was not long before he’d died. He’d been a long-standing union man too, couldn’t believe all that we’d fought for so long was being taken back, and that we were lettin them do it.

I went to the Labour Exchange in town of course, but there was never anything doing. We were all chasing the same disappearing jobs. So I spent more and more time in the pub, The One O’clock Gun. We’d all sit in there, the ex-Lairds men, and drink. I’d always been a drinker, me only real vice, but there was nothing now to stop us. Martha was at Sayers all day, the kids in school. They were doing okay, Paul was good at metalwork and woodwork, or CDT as they’d started calling it. Tracey was good with her numbers and that. So I was on me own. I wasn’t going to sit at home, so it was either the bookies or the pub and I figured it at least at the pub I was guaranteed to get somethin for me money.

I jus needed somethin to keep me occupied, to get us through the day. And being with the lads in the pub it was like the old days in the yard. Cept of course we were spending money not earnin it. I realise now my wife and kids should have been me priority, but I’d become selfish. I’d worked so hard for them for so long and they still needed me and I couldn’t provide for them. I could have been there for them at least, that’s what out Trace told us later all she wanted. But I wanted to be away from them. They’d got me stuck so I couldn’t get out. It wasn’t really their fault a course, but that’s the way I saw it anyway, and I couldn’t deal with it.

It got so I was drinking at home too, arguing with Martha. I slept in till I went the pub. I pissed meself once and she woke up in it. Screamed at me and literally threw me down the stairs, where I stayed ina heap till morning. I woke to find our Paul in his school uniform lookin at me with concern. “You better get going, you’ll be late for school,” I offered. He looked at me, with his face trembling, and then ran off.

Paul and I stopped talking. When I was workin we used to go to all the Rovers home games, but I couldn’t afford that now. I probably wouldn’t have been arsed tho even if I did have the money at that point, truth be told. The pub was closer and better. He’d struck up a friendship with Mike next door, even though he was a few years older. Mike had got his cards from Lairds that year, and so spent all his time fishing at Arrowe Brook and started taking Paul with him. I stayed in the pub and watched the miners go at it. “This is it”, said Ernie, Guinness in one hand, lead for his mangy dog in the other. “If the miners can’t win were all buggered.” Ernie lived in the sheltered housing block. He’d been in Birkenhead for the General Strike in ‘29. I knew then that he was right. I think we all did.  The lads at Lairds had occupied one of the oil rigs they were buildin in protest at job cuts. They’d been arrested and sent to Walton prison, on the same block as murderers and rapists.

The final straw had been over Paul. He’d been missing school to go fishing. Martha was giving him a bollocking when I came home pissed. She started having a go at me then and I had a sore head and I’d just been jostled by a bunch of fucking kids and the Yorkshire miners had turncoated and there was no need to shout so I lashed at her just to stop the noise. None of it is an excuse I know. I never said it was, but that was what happened. She just quietly picked herself up. Tracey started wailing, Paul started punching me in the arm. Martha got them all I walked straight out. I lay on my side and fell asleep.

I stayed there till morning then went straight to Threshers for a bottle of Grouse. When I came back her sister was there with that spare-prick of a husband of hers. They lived in Greasby and thought themselves a cut above. Ha. So they owned a house rather than rented one. Big deal, just as crap as ours, they couldn’t really afford the mortgage n’all I knew. The way they paraded around you’d think he was a fucking lawyer or somethin when he was actually just some sort of manager for Kwik Save and she worked in a flower shop. They were getting Martha and the kids’ stuff. Martha wasn’t there. Her sister scowled at me and spat at my feet. I didn’t flinch. The husband said “You ought to be ashamed.” Not taking that off that tosser. And I swung at him, drawing back at the last-minute. Just enough to make him lurch backwards and his lip quiver. Cunt.

After that things were simpler. I drank. Eat. Shat. Slept. Made no real effort to see the kids other than the odd drunken phone call to Martha when me emotions got the better of me. I was an old drunk and that’s what the kids in the street called me. Martha and the kids stayed at her sisters till they got re-housed on the Woodchurch. I drank and watched Colombo and the football at home. It was getting harder to go the pub now. It had become taken over by little gobshites who wore sports tops an training shoes like they were track stars, so-called hard men that used to make us move if they wanted a seat.

But at least we were famous once more our little town. Ye see Birkenhead was now famous for having the highest rate of heroin addiction in the UK, not for building ocean liners.

I saw our Paul walking down the road one day. I was pissed and I shouted to him. He didn’t recognise me at first. When he did his eyes narrowed and his face when into a snarl and he shouted “Fuck off you wife-beating bastard” and turned to go up Mike’s path. “Paul, it was just the once. I was wrong but I’m sorry son.”

“Fuck off you alchy cunt.” He looked a lot older than when I’d last seen im.

“But I’m your dad.”

“FUCK OFF”. He started jabbing furiously, repeatedly at Mike’s doorbell. Mike opened the door and Paul dashed inside. It was time for another drink.

I went to see Mike later. He was still unemployed too. His dad had died now so it was just him and his frail ‘ol mam. Paul was still coming round. They went fishing, they talked, even went the match now and again. I realised then that he’d been there for him more than I had been for my own flesh and blood. Mike told me that Paul was slipping away from even him though.

It was then I started the struggle. If I was to mean anything to me kids then I had to stop the drinking. It was just me now anyway; the lads didn’t go the pub anymore. There was too much grief from the little scallies. I joined the Alcoholics Anonymous at the Community Centre on Beech Street. There were a few ex-Lairds men there, all ages. But lots of others too, even a Doctor. It can happen to anyone. I began the cure. I found God. I stopped drinking.

There were lapses though, specially when I got home one night and saw an ambulance outside Mike’s. Not his mother, she’d passed away peacefully a few months previous. He’d hanged himself. Left a note saying he had nothing to go on for now so he might as well pack it in. He was always the solitary sort but I never figured him to do that. I had to have a drink after that.

I found out later though somethin even worse. He’d done himself about two weeks before they found him. No one went around you see. Till Paul did. He hadn’t seen him in a year. He was in trouble and went round to ask for some advice. He saw it was all dark and, what no one else had noticed, the pile of mail, so he went over the back gate and saw him hanging through the rear window. Smashed the back door in and had to face two weeks of decay. I nearly lapsed again when I heard that off Tracey.

She started to come around ye see. She had a husband now too, going out since 14, married at 18. She worked for the Council as an accounting technician; she’d done a course at Borough Road Tech. They had a house in Moreton now. Her husband was a nice fellah too. He worked for the GPO but was talking about becoming a driving instructor. They were planning kids and she wanted to reconcile with me. What about Martha. Got another man, younger brother of that spare prick her sister married. A tax officer no less. Christ, some families eh? I felt a lot of regret, but also a pang of happiness for her. Me new faith helped me cope with that and if Trace was willing to forgive then I felt blessed. But what about Paul? It was then she told me about Paul finding Mike.

Paul had dropped out of school not long after he’d moved to Martha’s sisters. He was 16 and went on an YTS at some window firm in Bromborough. They treated him like shit so he packed in, don’t blame him, and he ended up on the dole, gettin to be a family tradition. When they all moved to Woodchurch after the divorce went through he got in with the wrong sort. He needed to belong somewhere, Tracey said. He got into all kinds of trouble shoplifting, taking drugs, vandalism. He got caught graffiting the rail bridge on the old steelworks line by the transport cops. He got away, but his mate got caught. If his mate dobbed in him he knew he’d go down as he’d already been collared for that before. That’s when he went to see Mike for help and found him dead. Trace said he just went into the drugs full on then. Trace only got to find all this out when he went around to hers looking for money. He looked different she said, older and colder. She said we had to be strong together to try an help him. It was all so, so much, the easy relief of the drink called me again, but I knew then that would be the end of everything. This was my last chance. I never drank again after that.

We tried so hard to find Paul. Went to all his old haunts, tried his mates, spent weeks with no luck. Everyone kept stum. We didn’t give up though, me, Trace and her hubby. It was 1992 by now. The announcement came on the radio that unless a buyer was found, the owners would close Lairds next year. ‘Post Cold-War lack of demand for military vessels,’ was the reason the suit gave on the news. Maybe, but much more to do with Thatcher’s government getting £140 million in European Union aid in 1985 on condition of closing nine British shipyards I think you’ll find matey. Our death warrant signed eight years before the sentence was carried out.

Even then it seemed incomprehensible that they wouldn’t be ANY shipbuilding. That tosser Wilson called it “The death of a town” on Granada Reports. “Only putting it out of its misery” I murmured at the box. I mean what else was there here. Heroin. Heroin and my son.

We heard not long after that he’d held up a Spar in Pensby at knife point for the till money. The police were after him as well as us now, but they didn’t have much luck either.

Eventually they did find him, dead on the floor of a bedsit in Oxton. Not an overdose or the AIDS though. Apparently some guy he’d tried to rob had turned around and stabbed him and he’d staggered back to his digs and died. The papers called it poetic justice. I cried till I was hollow.

We buried him in Landican Cemetery. The wife and her lot laid off having a go at me for Trace’s sake. We exchanged no words though. Only glances. All lost in our own private grief. I looked for a long time at the two Liverpool cathedrals ye can see across the river from the Landican, high up on the ridge above the town. I was lookin for some sort of guidance I think, but none came.

I kinda lost me faith then. I thought of killing meself, but there had been enough death already. And it’s a young man’s game that. I didn’t have long to go, that would just be impatience. And I’ve got Tracey and her little one, Hannah. They come around to the house sometimes, but mostly I go to hers. It’s got worse around her. The drugs aren’t as bad since the tower blocks got knocked down, but there seems to be more trouble. There’s even jobs now, they opened a big ASDA on the Woodchurch on top of the old CO-OP factory. But I think you can earn more money selling the drugs and I don’t blame them sometimes. At least then you don’t have to have to put up with some spare prick like that fucking ex brother-in-law of mine telling them what to do. I worked hard but we were free, we had responsibility, we had our own skills which they needed, we were building something, we got paid decent wages.

Even me, the old ex-alchy, managed to rejoin the world of work eventually, fulfilling that cunt Blair’s idea of having us all working away till we collapse. Gives me somethin to do I suppose. So I sit here in the remains of Lairds, in the Portakabin with me flask and the TV and Alan and Nathan and Pete sharin the shifts, keeping an eye on all 150 empty acres. Twenty-thousand people down to four in twenty years, not a bad achievement for the Iron Lady and the Western world I think. And here we wait, until they decide what to do with it all. I go wandering aroun now and again, trying to remember when this big, old place was more than just a collection a decaying sheds full a rats and rusting metal.

They’ve already knocked part of it down. Watchin them blow up the cranes was a real wrench. There’s talk of making tha whole thing into a ‘mixed-used’ development; shops, flats, offices, a marina. And, in the old main building hall, would ye believe it, a snowdome!

New jobs they say. Get the kids to hand out skiing goggles. That’ll get them off the streets. Birkenhead, we used to build big ships, now we do skiing. Better than Heroin I suppose.

Apparently, there’ll even be a museum here as part of it about all the shipbuilding that used to go on. I do wonder if they’ll they’ll put me in it. Yeah, I can see me and my Paul and Mike and the rest of us in glass cases. Here be relics of people who tried to get one with their lives, but their lives ceased to be of any profit to anyone so it was taken away from them. Now, you best do as you’re told or you’ll end up like them. Go forth and Ski.

Yeah, I think that would be a fitting tribute.

This piece was published in Issue 13 of The Crazy Oik in April 2012.

The Memory of a Hope

The boom and bust of Council housing and the Modernist ideal

By Kenn Taylor

“Ideology collapses and vanishes, utopianism atrophies, but something great is left behind: the memory of a hope”. Henri Lefebvre.

As a child, on every walk to and from my Primary School, I would pass a large plaque that fascinated me:

 The Woodchurch Estate

On completion will contain the houses and other buildings necessary to the fully developed life of a community of some 10,000 persons. The land was formerly part of the Royden Estate and was purchased by the Birkenhead Corporation in 1926. Building operations were inaugurated in 1946.

That plaque, on the first house built on the estate, I have no doubt helped spark what would become my fascination for history, a desire to know just why things were the way they were. Its hope, for a new community started a year after the end of World War II, also resonated with me.

Older, and my curiosity having pushed me towards an understanding of Modernism and social housing, I came to realise how standing on the edge of the valley where I grew up, between Arrowe Park and Bidston Hill in Birkenhead, it was possible to look upon the rise and fall of Modernist social housing.

The Woodchurch estate began construction immediately after WWII, a shortage of wood meaning metal windows and concrete ceilings where the norm. Despite this, they were pretty decent houses, built in a self-consciously cottagey style. The shops even had windows with ‘bullseye’ glass panels that suggested a vintage far earlier than the 1950s. They represented the optimism of decent, sound homes for everyone after the horrors of two world wars and the shocks of revolution, totalitarian dictatorships and the Great Depression. The same world shifting factors that, combined with technological advance, helped lead many artists and intellectuals to wish to break away from the past and create what we now understand as Modernism.

Estates like Woodchurch has their roots in the model industrial villages such as Port Sunlight, down the road from Birkenhead, developed by William Hesketh Lever for his soap factory workers, and the ‘Garden City’ movement that inspired Letchworth and Welwyn the south of England. Places that gave ordinary people far better living conditions than were the norm in Britain after the Industrial Revolution. In the post-war era, such estates were constructed en-masse to replace the vast amount of housing stock destroyed by the Blitz and cope with the rapidly rising population. The plan was to finally take working people out of the city centre slums that dogged Britain’s urban areas.

Banked by plenty of grass, with shops, schools, a park and a leisure centre, Woodchurch was a pretty decent place to grow up. The dramatic Modernism of my childhood church, St Michael and All Angels, a still-today stunning pyramid of aluminium, concrete and pine, seemed to represent the high point of the estate and the new ideals of the era; of light and space and new materials that would lead to a better society.

But if you look across to where the Woodchurch developed as time wore on into the 1950s and 60s, you can see where the dream began to fade as the idea of the ‘new village’ was lost and replaced with something much more stark. Instead of the earlier cottage-type houses, they now built maisonettes and tower blocks. Influenced by the visionary designs proposed by Le Corbusier and others, these structures were seen as the physical embodiment of the new society being fashioned after the war. Their new materials and designs were also easier and cheaper to construct than the earlier houses, making them popular with local authorities with tight budgets and growing populations. The neighbouring, later estate, Ford, now renamed Beechwood, was built at the zenith of such ideas.

Largely denied the facilities of Woodchurch, Ford/Beechwood’s green spaces were fewer and there were even more concrete towers and flats. The houses themselves were both structurally and aesthetically poorer. Modernist certainly, but built quickly and cheaply and with none of the heart or soul that went into St Michael’s Church. The estate was also more isolated its crime and social problems inevitably much worse. A 1984 World in Action documentary ‘On the Scrapheap’ highlighted its decaying fabric only a few years after construction. The Modernist dream of a better world through design had collapsed.

Thus in this largely unremarkable corner of North West England it is possible to look at the gradation between the start of the boom and then the end of the dream of post-war Council estates. What we must remember though, is that Modernism’s failure was not the root of its intentions; that of a better world for all, but that it ran away with itself. The human concern that had led to the development of such estates was lost in a zeal for new ideas, grand plans and overarching solutions. With supposed utopias developed by elites dropped straight from drawing boards onto fields often miles from everything their residents knew, and needed.

It wasn’t just the fault of architects and planners as some would have it, or even those often equally well-meaning local authorities who adopted their ideas, but that in the sheer mass scale of post-war rebuilding, the spirit of their intentions was lost. With the desperate speed in construction and limited budgets, the facilities, transport links and industry that had been vital to the success of the ‘factory villages’ and  ‘garden cities’ that such estates had been influenced by were lacking, often resulting in just banks of isolated, poorly-built housing. And, with the post-war boom waning and government policy turning away from social housing as a right for all, these issues were further compounded by lack of support and economic malaise.

Modernist social housing was the product of a hope for a better world. That hope was lost amongst the absolute self-belief in the righteousness of these new ideas and indifference to the needs and wants of people. The notion that just in building new housing to new designs in new locations, it was possible to remake society was both arrogant and naïve. Communities, human beings, are far more complex than that, and in their desire to “Make it new!” as Modernist poet Ezra Pound demanded, they forgot who they were meant to be building that world for. Both Woodchurch and Beechwood have now seen most of their later tower blocks and flats removed, but that first house, with its hopeful plaque, remains.

What we should take from this is that good intentions can be easily be lost in the fervour of a new idea. If any plans become too big, too inhuman, they risk forgetting why they began in the first place. We may like to revel in new ideas, new designs, new perspectives, but they should never be taken as gospel, for one day they too will be rejected. There is no endpoint.

Whilst acknowledging their failures, we must remember were such Council estates came from, the idea that ordinary people deserve a decent place to live. There may be no utopia possible, but there is always hope for a better world, even in the darkest of times, and it is perhaps in this that we find the real beauty when we look back on Modernism and social housing.

This piece appeared in Issue 17 of The Shrieking Violet in February 2012.