Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Blood, sweat and tears that made Liverpool

AFTER THE BOMBING. Digging for survivors, Scotland Road.

AS Liverpool prepares for its stint as European City of Culture, due in 2008, people are keen to make it a success. I was given my badge for the event last year, which shows they are looking ahead. Liverpool has a rich history of course, and plenty of culture to show, from its fine buildings to the Philharmonic and the "Fab Four", as well as providing most of the comedians I listened to on the radio as a lad, and many of the actors we see on TV.

But some people are concerned now to make sure the "Year of Culture" does not omit Merseyside's greatest asset, its working people, and their struggle against adversity, which gave rise to humour, but to great resilience and courage as well.

Most films and books dealing with the World War II blitz concentrate on London, but as Britain's biggest westward facing seaport, handling vitally needed supplies from the United States, and Canada, Liverpool was a major target for German bombing, suffering and eventually triumphing at least as much as London. During the worst week, seven nights from 1st-7th May, 1941 around 681 planes dropped 870 tonnes of high explosives and over 112,000 incendiaries on the area, killing over 1,700 people and making around 76,000 homeless.*

When I first visited Liverpool with my parents as a child, whole areas around the city centre were still blackened ruins. On a later visit I was treated to a ride on the elevated railway along the waterfront, nicknamed "the dockers umbrella". Gazeing in delight on all the ships we passed, and the cargoes being unloaded, I amused the grown-ups by recognising the flags of so many nations in port, and trying to identify funnel markings.

The bomb damage has been cleared. But so, sadly, due to shifts in trade but also to economic policies, has the thriving maritime industry of which Liverpool was so justly proud. The overhead railway, which had once carried millions of passengers, closed on December 30, 1956 because neither the city council nor the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board came up with money for its maintenance.

It was not just ships that came and went from Liverpool, of course. To its shore came those fleeing Irish famine and European tyrrany. Many went on to the Americas and Australia and other places, not always voluntarily. Like Bristol, the city was a player in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Later, along with working people from Wales and Scotland and England came the African, Somali and Chinese seafarers to settle and found communities. Like the scouse, or stew, from which they take their name, your Scousers are made up of many flavours and ingrediants.

These are the people who built Liverpool, and Merseyside, who kept its port and factories runing through the blitz and provided many of the crew on Atlantic convoys without which Britain would have been denied munitions and daily bread. After the war the government set about deporting no longer wanted Chinese seafarers just as it had done Africans before. There was also the shameful post-war episode of orphan children shipped out and abused as cheap labour to sustain the "White Australia" policy.

But intelligent working people have resisted attempts to divide them, whether by religion or "race". They know the value of solidarity. Even the Toxteth "race riots" of 1981, sparked by a clash between police and black youth fed up with discrimination and poverty, became an "integrated" riot, of young people united against the police.

During the dockers' struggle a decade ago, dockers from Merseyside travelled the world gaining solidarity and support. Had the British labour movement pulled its finger out similarly, and not been tied by leaders who helped 'New Labour' betray the dockers, they would have won. Because they didn't we have all lost.

The bitter lessons learned have not been forgotten. But nor, on the positive side, have the international links built then. At the weekend I was in Liverpool meeting members of the United Socialist Party founded by sacked dockers, and former councillors, and we discussed what could be done about the war in Lebanon, as well as more local issues.

In the afternoon we had a meeting remembering building worker Des Warren, with a very moving film about his experience in prison for fighting for workers' rights, and how it effected his health. A campaign has begun to re-open the Shrewsbury building pickets' case and have their sentences reversed. Much to the discomfort I'm sure of those union leaders who would prefer a quiet life getting along with Blair and Brown, we have our memories.

In between, there was time for a short report from ex-docker Tony Nelson who was just back from a meeting with the Maritime Workers Union of Australia. He went on to speak of an ambitious idea for an event as part of Liverpool's "Year of Culture" - an international event, with a conference at the dockers' social club, the Casa, and exhibitions, celebrating the working class, from wherever they came, who built this city and became the source of so much wealth that others enjoy. I reckon it's the kind of idea that can grow and win enthusiasm and support. Soon as I hear more I'll be posting information about this project and how to get involved.

* For more on Liverpool during the Blitz see:

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