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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, April 20, 2007
    Mersey: The river that changed the world
    As 2008 approaches the 'Local Books' section of our, um, local bookshops are getting noticeably fuller, with a pleasing mix of small-press memory lane biographies, academic histories, photobooks of all descriptions and reprints of classics such as Margaret Simey's polemics and Robert Griffiths' 1907 gem The History of the Royal and Ancient Park of Toxteth Liverpool.

    Pleased to read in the latest issue of Source, the magazine of the Mersey Basin Campaign, of their forthcoming publication of a book immodestly titled 'Mersey: The river that changed the world'. It may have been more accurate to call it 'Mersey: A river which changed the world a bit', or more pithily 'Mersey: A World River', but 2008 seems to inspire bombast. However a look at their blog, and a read of the extract in Source suggests that this will be well worth reading when it comes out this autumn.

    Source editor Matthew Sutcliffe writes, 'we feel the time is right for a beautiful book honouring the Mersey's 20-year transformation'. The extract [download pdf], an account of life on the Liverpool docks today, accompanied by some excellent photos by Colin McPherson, is keen to underline that the port is now more productive than it's ever been, and challenges the notion held by 'scousers of a certain vintage' that the heyday of the docks was at the height of the British Empire. Correct challenge (if at odds with the title of the book), but the language used in it raises suspicions that this might be closer to a publicity tract for Peel Holdings (owners of the port, and also Liverpool John Lennon Airport, the Manchester Ship Canal and Trafford Centre, and, since January, Cammel Lairds) than a piece of honest social history.

    However, this suspicion is offset by another aspect of the book: its intent to tell the human stories of people whose lives and work have been tied to the river, including a Mersey River Pilot, a sea angler, an oil terminal worker and, interestingly, Michael Hestletine, Minister for Merseyside in the 1980s, whose legacy it will be interesting to contemplate, hopefully with the help of this book.

    If it ignores the pain of the people experienced during the dockers' dispute of 1995/6, the historic struggle against what one writer called the 'new depths of brutalism' in global capitalism (well documented by Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy), then 'Mersey: The river that changed the world' will be the poorer. But I'm hopeful that this will be quite a truthful book, and it will certainly be good to look at.