During lockdown 2020, one of my Messiah of the Slums readers, Brian (b.1948), sent me a heart-rending message. It impressed and touched me deeply. It is printed in italics further down, under the title Brian gave it, “Street Kid”. (My reply to him follows, at the very end of this post.)
Brian’s articulate depiction of his life in the postwar Liverpool slums struck me as especially salutary given that the UK is facing economic catastrophe as a result of cross-national efforts to combat Covid-19. It also prompted certain personal reflections of my own on Liverpool, past and present. For example, In the late 1930s Liverpool tenement where she was born, my mother, aged two, saw a ghost of a Victorian man in a top hat carrying a bag. Apparently, in the nineteenth century – i.e. before the tenement had become multiple occupancy, administrated by a ruthless private landlord – a well-to-do doctor had lived there.
Perhaps my mum’s Victorian doctor ghost came to remind us that all that neighbourhoods really can decline, something that seems inconceivable to people living in them during times of plenty. Mum’s psychic channel was jammed when the inner city slums were cleared in the 1940s. The family was relocated to a new-build council house in Page Moss, on the outskirts of the city. The scale of the improvement that the new council house effected on my mum’s life is akin to that portrayed in Willy Russel’s Blood Brothers, when protagonist Mrs Johnson is suddenly liberated from her grim, privately-rented slum and given a lovely council house near the countryside. Each time my mum sang (to us kids!) Cilla Black’s charming and clever Liverpool Lullaby, she evoked the something of her own early life in the Liverpool tenements. This vicarious portrait supplemented my own, first-hand witness of the despair and sheer deprivation wrought on 1980s Liverpool by neoliberal fanatic, Margaret Thatcher, and her ghastly facilitator, Derek Hatton.
Today, I await with dread the socio-economic fallout of lockdown. By some measures – not least the radical diminution of GDP, the current global financial crisis looks likely to exceed that of the 1929-39 Great Depression. Social, economic and health strategies put in place by the post-World War II Labour government have so far circumvented a return to the kind of poverty that Brian is describing in his “Street Kid” bio (below). Some temporary comfort can be taken from the current government’s Keynesian wealth-distribution and the Prime Minister’s apparent personal commitment to the NHS as a public, not private, body. The longer term forecast from the Bank of England is not hopeful, however.
Liverpool is far more prosperous now than it was in the 1980s. Year-on-year economic gains are reflected in today’s social and physical landscape. Arguably, however, a conspicuous drug and firearm subculture has grown proportionately with the surplus value that drives latter-day, relative prosperity of the city. While drug-related problems have increased across the UK as a whole, Liverpool, because of its maritime location, has become the go-to nationwide broker for drugs and firearms outside of London. This brings me back to Brian’s “Street Kid” message.
Brian’s message reminded me why I wrote Messiah of the Slums. Set in fictional Merseyside gangland, the Messiah of the Slums narrative closed in on the explosive and devastating combination of grinding poverty and a flourishing drug underworld.
Today, a fundamental precariousness afflicts Liverpool’s status quo. Projects such as Liverpool One and the failed Carillion Royal hospital are floated on debt. Online shopping preferences and Covid-related mass unemployment could stymie the actual and projected revenues which service some of these loans. Moreover, Liverpool’s economy is significantly focused on its higher education sector. Covid-19 has pulled the rug from under UK universities, especially with regard to crucial foreign student revenue. Meanwhile, the multiple, hastily erected student residences that keep nudging into Liverpool’s skyline stand empty. By reaching for the stars in this way – i.e via glamorous, large-scale projects arising from debt and/or outmoded retail expectations, rather than cash receipts – Liverpool may not have a financial foothold strong enough to withstand the recessionary onslaught that is to come. It is to be hoped that our city’s business leaders and local government consolidate budgetary and social resources and strategies to ensure that impending Covid-19 economic fallout does not topple Liverpool into the kind of poverty that my family, Brian and the majority of Liverpool people lived through in the last century.
“Street Kid” [Brian’s June 2020 message to Charlotte Pickering.]
Hi Charlotte, I have just finished reading Messiah of the Slums for the third time. The only possible reason I can give for this repetition is that the book has affected me in ways I didn’t initially foresee. I have been trying to figure out why I felt it had become so important to me.
I think I have finally figured it out but first I have set my analysis in some sort of context. I will start with a simple statement and then hopefully go on to explain. The “slums” in the book – I have lived there and was raised there. There are echoes of my first twenty years of life laid out before me in your book. When I first read it, I did so simply as a book, albeit a great book.
I can only say that during that first and subsequent readings something took hold of me. In short, I came to recognize myself, except the Messiah in my slum was a four-foot-eleven-inches Irish grandmother who weighed in at about six stone.
I was born in one of the worst slums in Liverpool – The Dock Road.
The house was built in 1848 and in less than a generation a Liverpool newspaper described my area as, “An Island of Misery in a Sea of Desolation”. Victorian hyperbole for sure, but a true description, nonetheless. My birth home consisted of three rooms, one on top of the other. The ground floor was the kitchen/living room and my uncle’s bedroom i.e. the couch. Above that was my grandparents’ bedroom. Above that was a small room we termed the garret. It had a double bed in which I slept along with three siblings and my mother.
The house had no heating/electricity/gas/running water or toilet. The outside loo had no flushing toilet and we got our water from a standpipe in the yard. Food was often scarce, beatings more frequent.
I didn’t get to meet my father until I was about thirty-six years old. Up until that point my mother had always told me he had died in the war. She lied. I didn’t know him and subsequently no father-son bond was ever formed. He died in 1979 surrounded by a new, adult family.
Charlotte, I am not given to exaggeration or dramatization, but the truth is we lived in abject poverty. I was a street kid, aggressive and even violent at times, always in trouble, a petty thief. I was so bloody angry with the world and everyone in it. These problems would eventually become more serious resulting in several stays in a psychiatric ward and two attempts at suicide.
I was burning up with rage and didn’t know why. I suffered from depression and still do from time to time. My first instinct was to attack anything or anyone I perceived as a threat either emotionally or physically. This of course led to socializing problems. The fact that no actual threat existed is by the bye. I pushed everyone away from me, believing they were out to hurt me.
I was sexually abused in a park toilet and often physically abused by my grandfather. My mother was cold – nothing motherly about her. She was “just there” in the same sense that the couch was “just there”.
When I was twelve years-old we moved from the old slum to a new one, in Kirkby, which offered all modern amenities – trees and grass – and no soot-black buildings. But the black anger accompanied me. To make matters worse my mother brought my tormentor to live with us – my Grandfather. And therein lies another story…
This is a short resumé of why I think your book has had such an impact on me. You cast your literal nets and dragged up some creatures from the deep. I hasten to add that what came up in your nets you are not responsible for. I love your book and treasure it.
Every story has a beginning and an end, or so the saying goes? Where does this tale end or to be more precise at what point am I? At seventy-five years, I can say truthfully that it has been a long and troubled road…But I made it! An old man who sits content with his triumphs and regret for his sins, I often wonder, Why me? Why did I have to hurt so much and for so long? My personal belief system gives me the answer: “I needed teaching a lesson”.* It’s as simple as that.
* Given all Brian’s suffering, including the appalling neglect and abuse he suffered as a child, I was rather unsettled by his conclusion, “I needed teaching a lesson”. It felt like yet another act of harm towards Brian. Brian explained that, although he was born Roman Catholic, he is now a committed spiritualist. According to this belief system, he explained, one returns to mortal existence in order to work out mistakes or situations arising in previous existences.
My reply to Brian/Street Kid, June 2020