The South End
Liverpool is a city of extremes and contrasts. One of these is the division that runs through the city from North to South. It may be often overplayed or misunderstood, but nevertheless, it exists in the consciousness of the city.
The traditional view goes that North Liverpool is the authentic ‘Scouse’ part of the city. Based on the area that fans out from the (in)famous Scotland Road and a population descended in the main from Irish immigrants, it is known as a place of docks, pubs, ‘angels with dirty faces’ children, and all those other pre-war clichés that form part of the identity of the city.
South Liverpool meanwhile is known for generally being the more ethnically diverse party of the city, especially Toxteth and wider ‘Liverpool 8’. It is also known as the place of students. Liverpool University has had halls in the area since the 1930s while Liverpool Hope University, once a teacher training college, and the original Liverpool School of Art on Hope Street, now the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, are all in the vicinity. The South End’s relative proximity to the Everyman and Unity Theatres and Philharmonic Orchestra Hall also contributes to it being seen as the land of the ‘arty types’.
However, as with anything the reality is much broader. The southern part of the city stretches from the suburbs of Allerton, the river views of Cressington, the village atmosphere of Woolton and the docklands of Dingle and Garston to the housing estates of Halewood and Speke and their nearby modern industry, including car factories, pharmaceutical plants and the city’s airport, to the ‘Boho’ strip of Lark Lane and Toxteth, most notorious for its 1981 riot, but an area with a much longer and richer history. Toxteth was for hundreds of years a Royal hunting park, and its large amount of green space still attests to this. When the area was developed it became home to the city’s ‘Merchant Princes’, resident in its many grand Georgian and Victorian houses, and later became arguably one of the first multi-cultural areas of the UK due to the city’s sea connections, long before the mass immigration in Post War Britain.
For my week of curating ‘A Wondrous Place’, I’ve chosen take South Liverpool as my focus. I’ve lived in the South Central area for several years now in a few different places and hope the following posts will cast a little look at the vicinity. Its locations, contrasts and contradictions have inspired a fair bit of my writing over the years, both fiction and journalism. The following posts will all be fiction and just an attempt to capture something of the reality of the area, but something of its unreality as well. They are of course just a few perspectives inspired from a few years of walking around these areas, there are many more besides.
Having planned to do a fiction-led week of curation it was pleasing serendipity that last week’s curator, Sarah-Clare Conlon, asked me:
“Which Liverpool literary figure and library would you point us towards?”
Which also fits in very nicely with my plans to look at the South End.
The library I will point you towards is Toxteth Library, my local branch. A fine building, it sits just beneath the looming sandstone bulk of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, the largest cathedral in the UK and 6th largest in the world. The Cathedral is absolutely huge and well worth the few pounds it costs to go up in the lift and see the view from the tower. The library is also just up the hill from another local landmark, the Cains Brewery. One of the few Victorian breweries still in operation in the UK, its steam often gives a romantic hue to Liverpool’s rich Irish Sea skies and periodically makes the whole area smell of Weetabix.
The library itself was recently refurbished after a National Lottery grant. The Grade II listed building originally opened in 1902. It was a Carnegie library, one of several in Liverpool and hundreds around the world. These were paid for by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish American steel magnate who also paid for New York’s Carnegie Hall. He funded libraries all over the UK on the proviso that local authorities would run them. He must be turning in his grave with the recent cutbacks.
A mural hidden from view for more than 50 years was revealed during the refurbishment. The artwork, known as the Lunette, a neo-classical depiction of knowledge being handed down by the Gods of Culture, had darkened with age and become obscured. The 28ft long, 8ft high mural by W Alison Martin and Clinton Balmer was originally unveiled in 1903 after being exhibited in the city’s Walker Art Gallery.
During the restoration, other features of the library such as the original sash windows and radiators were revamped. New study areas, meeting rooms, a refreshment area and a new basement space for community activities and performances were also opened along with Wi-Fi Internet access being provided throughout.
Toxteth Library also features one of the largest collections of Chinese literature in the city, reflecting the library’s close proximity to Liverpool’s Chinatown, which is Europe’s oldest. The library is worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity and, with a thousand people using it every week, represents how local libraries can still be relevant to local communities even in a multimedia age.
Sadly, Liverpool 8’s other library, Edge Hill Library on Lodge Lane at the other end of Upper Parliament Street, was closed last year as part of UK government cuts. It was the last segment of a complex that once also included a swimming pool and a public ‘wash house’ that represented the best of civic facilities that was once provided for communities across the UK. Hopefully it will find a new community use and there are tentative plans for the Liverpool Carnival Company to take over the building.
This brings me to the local author I will write about. Liverpool in literary terms is perhaps best known for its playwrights and screenwriters (Bleasdale, Russell, McGovern, Cottrell-Boyce) and poets (McGough, Henri, Patten). However it also has a rich vein of novelists, ranging from horror masters such as Clive Barker and Ramsay Campbell to children’s author Bryan Jacques and Booker-prize nominee Beryl Bainbridge.
Another contemporary addition, Niall Griffiths, was born in 1966 on Wendell Street, a stones throw from Lodge Lane, Liverpool 8. Griffiths was born to a family part of Liverpool’s historic Welsh community. Later they moved to the Netherley Estate further out of the city before emigrating to Australia.
They returned after a few years to live in nearby Wirral. Griffiths then spent many years moving between Liverpool and Aberystwyth in Wales, between periods of study, work and partying at the height of rave culture. After abandoning his MA at Aberystwyth University, he wrote his first novel, Grits, which looked the lives of a group of young people in the Welsh town. Subsequently he wrote several more critically acclaimed and award-winning novels set in either Liverpool or Wales and often journeying between both. Intense, dark, unflinching and often at the same time funny, his books look at people on the margins of contemporary society whilst also going deeper to question often the very nature of existence.