I am one of the luckiest people alive, to have grown up on a Liverpool council estate from the nineteen fifties to seventies. To be precise, my early years were spent in a house owned by a private landlord but that is irrelevant, not until Margaret Thatcher introduced right to buy during my teenage years, did we become that terribly quintessential English thing, proud home owners. Or, should I say, proud former council house owners.
The people I grew up with were poor. We were all poor. We had nothing to boast of in terms of material possessions. We didn’t own a car or a telephone until I had left school. But in terms of the friendships we formed in the midst of adversity and poverty, we were a wealthy community.
There was also an added extra dimension to my life, full of richness and culture. I had an Irish nana and a half of my family, which had remained and farmed on the West Coast of Ireland.
My visits to the family village in Ireland depended on how often my nana won on the bingo. I would sometimes wake in her bed, to find her sitting on the end, having enjoyed her customary night time Guinness, singing Danny Boy to me and telling me that we would be “away home” at the weekend to Eire. The most exciting thing was, that I never knew when I was coming back.
I remember relatives, chasing my nana, pleading with her to bring me back to Liverpool, because I had to attend school. “She’s in school” my nana would reply and I was, in the village school my nana had attended when she had been a girl. I got there and back on a donkey. I poached salmon in a curragh in the middle of the night with Irish uncles, attended the fair, watched the tinker make us a new pan, and cut the peat for the fires. The images of a magical harvest using sythes and a thresher are burnt onto my mind and will always be with me. My nana was a case, as they say in Liverpool. A gregarious personality. She was a woman who was a legend in her own village and her name was Nellie Deane.
My days in Ireland were very different from my life back in Liverpool but there was a common thread, which ran through both my Irish village and Liverpool council estate and that was an overpowering sense of community. In both places, the neighborhood was self-policing, self-healing and people supported and cared for each other.
I will always remember, walking along the road with my friend, laughing and chatting when suddenly, she swore and without any warning whatsoever, a slap came from behind across the top of her head. It was a local policeman walking behind us. He grabbed my guilty and shaking friend by the arm and marched her up the path to her mother’s back door, where she received her second slap within minutes. Now, I am not an advocate of smacking, but I do know that until this day, my friend has never sworn since.
We all feared the bizzie on our street and if you didn’t fear the bizzie, there were plenty of adults around to fill his boots. No one stole from anyone else. There was no crime other than drunken brawls outside the pubs on a Saturday night.
When a neighbour had terminal cancer and begged his family to end his days at home, each woman on the street took it in turns, whilst his wife, the only breadwinner went out and did two jobs. He was bed bathed, taken to the toilet, fed and nursed to his last breath by the people who cared for him and lived on his street.
The only family in the neighborhood to own a car, took his children with their own, seven of them squashed in the back seat of a Ford Anglia for a camping trip to North Wales on the weekend before he died to spare the children from the constant demands to be quiet.
On the days before pay day, when money for food ran out, the women would club together and feed the streets children from a large pan which had at one time or another fallen of the back of a big ship on the docks.
People were proud of their homes with houses divided by the sides of brightly painted old tea chests. Windows were polished and gleamed, steps scrubbed and cleaned and there were babies everywhere.
This sense of community was not a transient thing. It ran deep and those people who shared in it, remembered. As a teenage, I was shocked to discover that the people I called aunty and uncle were not actually related to me, they were just neighbors. I enjoyed an extended family made up of people who because they had known me since I was a little girl, felt a responsibility towards me.
As a three year old, stood at a bus stop with my father in the poring rain, I remember a man and his pretty wife walking across and holding an umbrella over us until the bus arrived. I clambered up onto the green leather seat, just like those on the back-benches in the House of Commons and peering through the dirty window which smelt of cold glass and steel I asked my father who the man was. That was Danny Doherty said my father, and he is the kindest man you will ever meet.
Many years passed. I had long left Liverpool and the warmth and security of my close community and in two thousand and one, I stood for the General Election in Hazel Grove. One dark night, sat in the Conservative office with my loyal helper and good friend, Chris Martin, I spied a letter on the office desk and my eyes fixed on a little gold sticker on the back of the envelope, it was from a Mr Danny Doherty. The memory of myself as a three year old came flooding back.
I opened the letter and it read, ‘please accept this donation to help with Nadine’s election. Her father was known to us and he was one of the most decent men you could ever wish to meet.’ I was so shocked I had to sit down. My father had died tragically when he was fourty two. I had found him in his bed when he had been dead for seven days. I had gone to work my straight seven nights on the trot shift at the Royal Liverpool Hospital. He had put the milk bottles out, chatted to his neighbor and then taken himself to bed. He never woke up. I returned home and when I opened the door with the key, found the chain was still fastened, on the inside. There had never been a day when I haven’t thought about him since. And, here was someone else, from the past, from my solid community who remembered him too.
The people I grew up with remembered each other and I in turn, now remember those people. There is a backcloth to my life and they are there, their ghosts and voices. I remember them all. Each story and event, each secret I was ever told. Each moment I lived through. But, they weren’t all good times. Bad things happened too and in my writing, as well as drawing on the memories of the past, I have to painfully record the bad too.
Writing The Four Streets has been my way of remembering and recording many of those events. Not only my times, but those which happened to others.
Recently, I have spent many Sundays in Liverpool, back on those streets. It took some time to adjust to how much the Liverpool community has altered. The fish shop owned by Frank and Lita, where one of my grandmothers sourced all her gossip has been replaced by a betting shop and in the Old Swan, where another granny lived, I counted one betting or loan shop, after another.
There were no police visible. No kids playing out and the roads are covered with sleeping policemen the size of mountains to stop the gangs speeding along the street.
The entries were blocked with iron gates to keep the drug dealers out and one historic and architecturally beautiful building after another has been torn down.
My heart weeps.
Where has the heart of the city I grew up in gone? Why have the streets been allowed to degenerate to the position they have. Why do neighbour’s no longer care for each other as they did?
I am aware that Liverpool is very different from any other city in Britain. It faces Ireland and America and it is not part of the North West. That is the privilege of Manchester, Burnley, Blackburn, Runcorn, Warrington and every other North Western town. Liverpool is it’s own country and capital. It compares to no other and none can hold a candle to its origin or history. The Irish fled the potato famine and poured through the gates of Clarence docks and brought with them the deep and carefree friendliness imbuded in all Irish men and women. The streets those people settled onto developed a unique culture and an accent all of their own and it was rich and marvelous. It was creative. Poetry, writing and music were appreciated in the poorest households.
The post war days of struggle and the tradition for everyone to let their hair down in the Irish Centre or the pubs on a Saturday night, along with my own childhood experiences in both Liverpool and Ireland have provided me with more material than I could ever live long enough to use in my novels. And I do it, because I have to. I realize now how special those days were. How lucky I was. I lived through a part of Liverpool’s history, which demands that every experience and word be recorded because sadly, I don’t think those days will ever come again.