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

    Sunday, October 03, 2004
    I'm glad I resisted asking the host on the coach whether I could buy a copy of Martha Rosler's film Liverpool Delving and Driving. On later investigation I find that her other hour-long films cost about £1,000 to buy and not much less to hire. I can wait till it shows on BBC4 (or the surprisingly good - for art programmes - Five).

    Went on Martha's coach trip today and it was interesting, though, as I blogged last week, you can't concentrate wholly on a film/lecture about the city when the city is going past outside the window, showing all its colours. Which is why I would like to see the film again, because Martha's sources are fascinating and will bear closer inspection.

    I picked up on two in particular: Herman Melville's seafaring novel Redburn, which spends much time in the port in its prime, at once the wealthiest and the most impoverished place. Rosler dwells for a while on Melville's haunting description of the impoverished people of Launcelott's-Hey, where a sickly woman Redburn was trying to help, would not raise her head to him:

    Observing her arms still clasped upon her bosom, and that something seemed hidden under the rags there, a thought crossed my mind, which impelled me forcibly to withdraw her hands for a moment; when I caught a glimpse of a meager little babe - the lower part of its body thrust into an old bonnet. Its face was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor; but the closed eyes looked like balls of indigo. It must have been dead some hours.

    And linked to that, Rosler also uses a novel for older children, James Heneghan's The Grave, the story of a foster child with no family in his 'real' life in 1970s Liverpool, who stumbles into a pit in an excavated schoolyard and finds himself mysteriously transported back to rural Ireland in the grip of the potato famine of the 1840s, and investigating the story of a previously-hidden mass grave.

    This is grim stuff, but it serves as a reminder that, at the height of Liverpool's trading prowess the city was second in the world league-table of child mortality, less worse only than Dublin. Calcutta was third.

    Rosler's tour is good because she has taken care to link texts to places. The Melville quotes are read while the coach takes the subterranean cross-Mersey trip via the Wallasey road tunnel and emerges onto Scotty Road, at the city's deprived dockland edge, where Launcelott's-Hey may well have been. We hear the hidden history of the Liverpool Jewish community between Hope Place and Princes Road, base of two of the city's celebrated synagogues. Chinatown gets similar treatment. While we pass through the 'old' road tunnel we learn that we are not at the bottom of it - there is another tunnel beneath, cut for a tramline which was never built. And wheeling down past the Metropolitan Cathedral the film reminds us that this area was once dominated by a massive workhouse complex. As we pass the Cathedral's swanky new visitor centre we are read extracts from the LIVERPOOL WORKHOUSE BATHING REGULATIONS:

    The only flaw in this seamless filmic-realtime documentary is the piece on the wartime bomb damage, because by then the coach is wheeling back towards the Museum steps rather than being in the places described as the worst-hit during that terrible blitz: Bootle, where only fifteen per cent of the houses remained intact, and "the area south of Lord Street - which has never fully recovered."

    That area does still look like a bomb-site, but that's because it's the focus of a lot of regeneration just now, and soon, they tell us, it will be Paradise. Post-war reconstruction. Only sixty years on.