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

    Saturday, September 18, 2004
    Scrapped / not scrapped
    Nothing too surprising in the second in The Guardian's series on life in 2020, Our nation in 2020: new diet, climate change, the continuance of religion and the benefits of wireless technology all feature. Nothing which couldn't be predicted by a close look at today. Tom Bentley wonders about how our national identity might alter, and points out that the alteration may happen without our realising it: "like our faces as we age, our cultural identity can change imperceptibly." It's only when we see ourselves from a new, unexpected angle that we see how the overall appearance has changed, and "Such reinterpretations of national identity are often triggered by an unexpected event: the abdication crisis of 1936; the blitz; Suez; the intervention of the International Monetary Fund in 1976; the 1984 miners' strike; the death of Diana - all had an impact on our national sense of self."

    He might have added the 1995 dockers strike, which was probably the final nail in the coffin of the trades unions murdered by Thatcher's forces on the coalfields a decade earlier. 500 Liverpool dockers were sacked, so they decided to picket the Mersey docks until they were reinstated. As Jimmy McGovern has pointed out, "the dispute was virtually ignored by the British media," and so with his help the ex-dockers became filmmakers to record their perspectives on those sobering seminal months which seemed to mark the end of the British Labour movement.

    Yesterday I sat on the grass at Chavasse Park and pored through Jimmy Jock, Albert and the Six-Sided Clock, John Darwell's photographic record of the Mersey docks in 1993, which I'd bought for three quid from the Bluecoat's bargain bin bookshop. Opposite me as I read, glowing gold in the afternoon sunshine, was the Albert Dock, built at the height of the city's imperial trading success, now a flagship in the new economy of the city's cultural industry. Darwell's excellent work gives a few pages over to the Albert Dock, but focusses mainly on the working northern docks close to where I was born and raised.

    It was a time of great change, as he writes: "At its peak, more than 20,000 men were employed on the docks alone. Now less than 600 men work the entire dockland system. Ironically the amount of cargo passing through the docks is at record levels."

    This was still true two years later when Patrick Keiller took his film cameras around the docks. In the 1999 book-of-the-film Robinson in Space Keiller notes that "Liverpool is the major UK port for trade with the eastern seaboard of North America. It has a successful container terminal, imports more grain than any other UK port, handles most of the UK's scrap-metal exports and a lot of oil, and has a new terminal for Powergen's coal imports."

    (The film's narrator says that "Liverpool imports coal for Powergen from the USA and Colombia and exports enormous tonnages of scrap, mainly to the Far East and Spain.")

    "This commercial success," Keiller continues, "belies the spectacular dereliction of the waterfronts of Liverpool and Birkenhead. While it may appear that this dereliction is a symptom of a decline in their traffic, and that Liverpool's impoverishment is a result of this decline, it is nothing of the kind. If Liverpool as a city is not what it was a hundred years ago, this is not because its port traffic has declined, but because, like so much other economic activity, a port does not occupy space in the way that it used to."

    This is still true. Three miles downriver from the scrubbed-up and gleaming tourist warehouses, it is all emptiness punctuated by mountains of coal and scrap metal.

    Lamenting the passing of our manufacturing base, in the Guardian Jonathan Glancey writes provocatively that by 2020 "we will have become a self-satisfied fringe nation, a people of insipid, if bloated, insignificance in a world dominated by more energetic and productive economies," but then suggests that "We might just become the workshop of the world again," our low-paid immigrant labour producing goods for the dominant Chinese market.

    I wonder ... but I feel quite confident that whatever the future holds for trade, the docks will carry on playing their part, even if vastly shrunken in size, and their people will still eke out a living from them, even though many fewer in number.