Liverpool 8, or Toxteth, is on the edge of the city centre, on the edge of the river, one of Britain’s oldest multi-cultural, multi-ethnic areas, having absorbed generation after generation of immigration. In the second world war it was bombed, afterwards it was much neglected- decades of bungled housing schemes and clearances turning key neighbourhoods in to boarded up ghost streets. After the riots of 1981 it was stigmatised. It’s old enough to have been mentioned in the Domesday Book and its widest streets are lined with mansions built by rich Victorian and Georgian merchants when Liverpool was Britain’s second city. This weight of stories told makes it difficult to talk about. Having lived in the post code for five years and on its outskirts for much longer, I’ve learnt that it would take a lifetime to earn the right to describe it. Still, I have my L8, and Adrian Henri of course had his. Living there for most of his adult life, the poet/painter/performance artist conjured in his paintings and writings a shifting collage of the area- it’s pigeons, paving stones, parks, parties, bomb sites and gardens. His L8 was a patch of land where startling forces of destruction and construction battled for beauty; a bohemian, seductive cityscape where love hid around corners, singing in the echoes of alleyways, blooming in the drunken dark. He famously wanting to paint ‘every paving stone on Canning St’, and he iconised the streets he walked by writing or painting over their image: picturing Death striding up Upper Duke Street past the Anglican Cathedral in to L8 (‘Cloak flapping black tall batman collar’), or prostitutes waiting in the Toxteth snow ‘like strange erotic snowmen’. In Where’er You Walk his city streets erupt with flowers and trees to mark the paths of lovers: ‘cobble stones bursting with lillies-of-the-valley… oak trees growing everywhere we’ve kissed.’ Through his layering of past and present, of reality and possibility Henri glamourised the mundane, filtering the kitchens and alleyways of L8 through popular and classical culture. Reading his poems in The Mersey Sound one might feel they have access to a transformative map- a porthole for artists or dreamers to pass through. So, when I was invited to some poetry inspired by the Mersey Poets, I knew it had to be a journey through a real and unreal city, an excavation of the soil of L8 to discover stories beneath.
As the last decade of cultural regeneration in Liverpool has proved, we have to say it to make it so- to find confidence in ourselves in order to transform. Imagining is half the battle. And L8 is good at that. Where there are gaps between buildings there’s space to imagine a new city. The people we interviewed in making Horny Handed Tons of Soil, were doers and growers. On Windsor Street, just beyond the Anglican Cathedral, local women are running community gardens, planting fruit trees along pavement, speaking of ‘a hundred-year plan’ for the area. They erected a community building called Toxteth Food Central and when some kids burnt it down, they built it all over again. On the other side of L8 in Lodge Lane, the young people of the Tiber project are turning the site of a demolished primary school in to a forest and a football pitch. Half a mile over in the Granby area with its boarded streets up, the residents have filled walkways with pots of flowers, dressed the empty terraces in blooms as a message of defiance. Rose tinted glasses offer no vision. L8 is not a paradise or a hackneyed success story, but in an era where central government is abandoning poorer communities, L8 looks round, gathers its own resources, makes something grow.
I went to Granby Street Market one Saturday last July. Local artists, cooks, vegetable growers line up next to bric-a-brac and pot plants. It was sunny and that helped- the tired or unused buildings hung with flowers and bunting. Liverpool Festival Company brought their stilt walkers and puppets, and my two-year-old danced to 90s reggae pulsing out the back of a van. Walking through the stalls, up where the market ended and the dual carriage begins, I heard a sound of tinkling bells… then shouts of toddlers. Looking along the boarded-up houses of Ducie St, I saw a moving huddle of heads and hooves: the women of the Yemeni Society striding at the front in bright colours. Like, The Procession of Christ in to the Liverpool, the children of Granby came riding on donkeys, announcing themselves to the pavement and the sky. Surely Adrian Henri would have approved.
For more information on Horny Handed Tons of Soil tour dates follow this link