Niall Griffiths: Go to the city at the western edge of the country and then go to the edge of that city, the north-eastern edge, the very rim, beyond which you’re not in Liverpool any more but Lancashire. The place is called Netherley, and it lies between Prescot, Knotty Ash, West Derby, and Knowsley; it’s little more than a large housing project called the Woodlands Estate, abutting farmland.
I was brought up on that estate, from the age of around three to nine. So was Paul Farley, although I didn’t know that until very recently, when we met for what I assumed was the first time in the Philharmonic pub in the city centre.
Which part of Liverpool are you from, Paul? I asked. Estate on the outskirts. You wouldn’t know it, he said. I might do. Try me. And a couple of hours passed in reminiscence. Remember the chippy? The white bridge? Paul mentioned my brother’s name, closer to himself in age. So we had to go back. I hadn’t been there for thirty years.
Paul Farley: Niall Griffiths’s elder brother Tony was one of the kids I went egging with during the springs when I was ten, eleven, twelve. Thirty years later, Niall and I are rediscovering a childhood we didn’t know we almost shared.
The night before we return, I parachute in using Google Earth: the planet, Europe, Britain, north-west England, Merseyside, and there, bulging out like a tiny hernia into the green, is the estate where we grew up, the circuitry of its streets and squares, the last place in an unbroken accretion that blooms outward in all directions like grey lichen from the mouth of the Mersey. I drop right down and steer by the main roads, hoping to recognize old haunts among the rooftops and car parks, fields and waste ground, the crowns of trees dark against olive greens and khakis. I struggle to make the imaginative shifts in scale, to put myself back in that time and place and to understand how, for fifteen years, this was my universe.
NG: The urban renewal strategy for Liverpool, which began in 1964, was initiated by William Sefton, Labour leader of Liverpool City Council in the 1960s and ’70s. In effect, this would see huge areas of ‘slum’ housing cleared and 95,000 new dwellings built over a fifteen-year period, both in the limits of the city proper and on peripheral overspill estates. Over 78,000 buildings were to be demolished, more than seventy per cent of all dwellings in the inner-city area, thirty-six per cent of Liverpool’s total housing stock. Prioritized in 1966 were the demolition of central slums and the construction of 32,000 new houses, both in the central belt and in the outlying areas of Netherley and Cantril Farm, to be completed in 1973 at a cost of £138,193,000.
Architectural blueprints were drafted according to the ‘Camus’ system of ‘fully industrialized pre-fabricated systems of construction’, which would see Liverpool overtake even London as a city of skyscrapers. Terraced rows were replaced by new blocks, both high- and low-rise, of flats and maisonettes, often adjacent – at Netherley, for example, off Brittage Brow, high-rise bulks cast shadows across the minnowed low-rise ranks at their footings. Not any more, however; the high-rises met gelignite and the wrecking ball in the 1980s.
PF: It still feels like the end of the line. We’re standing outside the parade of shops opposite the bus stop, wondering why there are hardly any people about on the street, why it’s so quiet. My memories of this place are densely populated: of gangs at bus stops, of hanging round outside the off-licence, the chippy. Mr Walker, the newsagent, a hunchbacked Yorkshireman who caught me stealing Marvel comics some time in the middle of the 1970s and told my father, who wiped the floor with me; the chandler’s, which was really a hardware store, all galvanized mop buckets and mousetraps and that sad metallic smell, where we were sent for candles during the miners’ strikes; the launderette, where I saw a boy shit into a top-loading dryer; Ernie the butcher, who paid me fifty pence at weekends to go into the bay at the back and break down boxes with a Stanley knife; the off-licence, or ‘outdoor’, ram-raided long before that phrase had entered the language; the cake shop, all iced buns and custard slices and things dusted with hundreds-and-thousands displayed on paper doilies.
Opposite these units there was also a haberdasher’s we called the ‘wool shop’, a unisex hairdresser’s, a bookmaker’s (the ‘betting shop’) and the chippy, run by the long-suffering Mr Lau. There was even – and this seems so absurd now – a cylindrical advertising hoarding, a ‘spinorama’. It must have cut a dash on the architect’s maquette.
NG: Waiting at the bus stop, a teenage boy recognizes Paul. He attends Paul’s old school, and has been given a collection of his poetry to read by his teacher, who also taught Paul. The boy is excited and exuberant; his enthusiasm is touching. Minutes earlier, Paul had told me how the flat landscape of the fields and barns over the brook had always evoked for him, when young, the works of the Dutch masters, an observation that he could never, then, share with his peers, for fear of indifference at best or some kind of punitive consequence at worst. Go from that to this boy, here, thrilled to meet a living, published poet, telling us about the millennium centre his school has built. Behind him, on a free-standing brick wall, reads the word shep. I remember that wall and that painted word. They’ve been there for more than three decades.
PF: The subway has been filled in. Half of the shops have not only closed but have been obliterated. Only the main parade survives, and there are two places open for business today. One is a general store on the site where the chandler’s used to be.
I ask the woman serving, and she remembers names, places. We’re about the same age, and so we’re able to meet halfway by revisiting each shop in turn. Mr Walker died years ago, she says. His shop was being ransacked repeatedly, and he lived above, in a flat. One time the thieves smeared the steps with margarine so he couldn’t get downstairs. He closed soon after, and she explains how, one by one, all the others pulled down their metal shutters for good. Whatever was fiery and vital about the place in memory seems long gone. It’s like returning to an extinct volcano.
NG: The row of shops is now mostly a row of metal grilles. There’s a small general store, surprisingly free of the shatterproof perspex shuttering around the counter so often seen in shops on these outlying estates, a hairdresser’s and beautician’s where the cake shop used to be, and the supermarket is now the Woodlands Christian Revival Centre.
The chandler’s (not surprising that, even this far from the sea, there would be a chandler’s in a city where the main road is the ocean, as one of its sons, Malcolm Lowry, said) is no more. The fish and chip shop is gone – flattened, obliterated, no trace of it, some scrubby grass in its place. A portion of chips from there used to cost five pence.
Sometimes, if we were persistent enough in our harassment, Mr Lau would chase us away shouting as he held a meat cleaver. The underpass which ran beneath it to the other half of the estate has been filled in. The off-licence too is closed. The Community Centre is still there, but its bingo nights have long gone; they died with Audrey, the organizer and caller, the sweet lady in the shop will tell us when we ask.
PF: A whole hidden economy flourished around here for a while. Mobile shops – essentially, the immobile shell of an old Luton or a caravan, even a shipping container would do – sprang up in every street, selling loose ciggies, milk, sweets: you could pay through the nose for the essentials. do not ask for tick as a punch in the gob often offends. Things came to your door: ciggies, booze, clothes.
Clothes were suddenly important. When I became a teenager in the summer of 1978, everybody was wearing tight Levi’s; mohair jumpers were giving way to Slazenger and Pringle pullovers, Polyveldts or Kickers shoes, or their knock-off versions, bought from Great Homer Street market. Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls were re-whitened with house emulsion once they’d started to fade; fake Kickers leaf tags were cut from bus seats. The first silky synthetic sportswear was coming in – Le Coq Sportif, Sergio Tacchini – but the style hadn’t settled into what was to become known much later as ‘casual’. We were supremely faddy, and we were tribal. Clothes conferred insiderdom and belonging, and could mark you out from the kids off other estates. One winter there was a short-lived craze for wearing neoprene and Velcro windsurfing boots. I see myself, for the first time in decades, as one of a gang wearing windsurfing boots and deerstalker hats, walking through a concrete subway that isn’t there any more.
NG: At the newsagent’s, I would buy Letraset action transfers, favouring those that depicted dinosaurs or, for some reason, El Cid’s battles. Such fun, calculating the scenarios, the control over the landscape, a positioning of paper and a quick scribble with a pencil and there it was, your idea of how things should be. There were abstruse skills to be developed; by hybridizing the kits, and with careful and selective partial rubbing of the figures on the transfer sheet, you could make a man’s legs stick out of a tyrannosaur’s roaring mouth.
Once, I took twenty pence into the newsagent’s and attempted to buy four transfer kits; it was explained to me that, with each one costing twelve pence, I couldn’t even afford two. But I don’t want two, I said; I want four.
Why do I remember this incident? In such detail? The electric lights reflecting yellowly off the saleslady’s lacquered hair. Her growing amused exasperation at my inability to grasp the maths. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t afford two because I wanted to buy four. I think, in the end, she put four pence of her own money into the till so that I could take home two.
PF: My family moved to Netherley at the beginning of the 1970s, part of a great wave of rehousing. I’d been born near the city centre of Liverpool and spent my earliest years living in Wavertree, in a terrace that backed on to the railway at Edge Hill. Both my parents’ families lived in the streets close by. Then there were compulsory purchase orders and we were being shipped out to Netherley. Because they had four kids, a house was allocated to my parents (with a garden to follow), and I remember going with my mother to pick up the keys from a Portakabin. I ran through the new house, claiming ‘my room’ out of its echoey blank spaces, and am mugged again by its newness whenever I pass a building site nearly forty years later: the smells of raw timber, putty, wet cement and industrial adhesive transport me right back.
I can remember seeing all the old bits of furniture being carried from vans into these new, boxy flats and houses: dark-wood wardrobes and chests of drawers, sideboards, bow-fronted cabinets, radiograms, goose-neck lamps and mangles. Over the next few years, the back fields and lanes became littered with them, and the bonfires of those first autumns burned high.
But we’d carried our stories out here with us, too, and these proved more durable than the furniture we brought and the room dividers and fake-fire surrounds and white goods our parents went into debt for. They must have missed having an open fire. The houses had central heating, which meant a dull metal grille at ankle height in the living room, but soon anyone who could lay bricks and point found work building a fireplace for somebody. These become more ambitious as the decade wore on, room-length ranges with huge chimney breasts high as the ceiling, like something out of The High Chaparral or a Hammer horror, depending on the signature style of the brickie, and at their centre a fascia of plastic coals and logs.
NG: The urgent need for new housing resulted in a lack of municipal development, and on the Netherley estates there was a ten-year gap between the first wave of residents and the completion of the main shopping and leisure facilities. The few local shops that did exist often added a scarcity-value surcharge on to their goods, and public transport services were often substandard, reducing many lives to stultifying cycles of work and sleep.
Added to these problems was the quality of the housing itself: the Netherley high-rises were built cheaply, with linking decks between blocks saving on the number of lifts and staircases, making the project imposing and repetitive. The blocks were generally declared a mistake even before they were completed; the cluster of mid-rises quickly became known as Alcatraz. There was damp. Vermin. Poor systems of waste disposal and drainage. Concrete walkways and underpasses that seemed light and open in the airy offices of the planners proved dehumanizing and atomizing in hard practice. A poll revealed that, within the space of a decade, four out of five tenants desperately wanted to leave.
PF: In the 1980s, the estate achieved notoriety, a byword in the city for poverty, crime, addiction and squalor. In fact, its reputation attracted wider attention: Beryl Bainbridge visited in 1983 on the Merseyside leg of her English Journey: Or the Road to Milton Keynes in Priestley’s footsteps. If the Russians could see ‘the infamous Netherly Estate [sic]’, she wrote, ‘the Eastern bloc would send food parcels and donations’. Magnum photographers Peter Marlow and Martin Parr produced images of dereliction and abandonment, ruined swing parks with climbing-frame ships emerging from the valley mist like the Fata Morgana, the deserted landings of flats barely a decade old. If they’d visited just a few years earlier or stayed longer, though, they’d have discovered a different place.
NG: Appleby Walk, that’s where I lived. Next to Scafell Close, and other thoroughfares with Cumbria-referencing names. How are these things decided? To whom was such nomenclature an interesting idea? No high-rise blocks on this part of the estate, these are gridded terraces of five or six two-storey red-brick and slate homes built around central squares of grass which would be used as football pitches, often heavily fouled with dog shit. I remember running across one once, alone, late for the school bus, and tripping and falling face-first into a coil of cack.
PF: The place I point out to Niall bears little resemblance to the house where I grew up. But the estate always was a work in progress and by the time I left in the mid-1980s, a programme of demolition and rebuilding was already well under way. My walk to school took me through Brittage Brow, a canyon of damp and dangerous ‘deck-access dwellings’ (industrial, pre-assembled high-density housing) and I’d study the way the wrecking ball went about its business every day. Things were left abandoned for years, half finished. Roads seemed to change their minds and just stopped. Unpredictable foot-worn ribbons and diagonals soon cut across greens and along verges everywhere, what the urban geographers call ‘desire paths’. Even language has proved provisional: the street names have been changed, the postcodes and house numbers shuffled. My childhood and adolescence took place on shifting sands: I watched it all go up, and I saw it all come down.
To some extent I must have absorbed and simply accepted this rate of change, but I wonder now how it was for my parents’ generation; for those who’d grown up decades earlier within social networks and spaces where everything seemed to exist in a more reliable and recognizable relationship to everything else. Huge economic and social forces made and shaped places like this, then seemed to dump us here, sealed off from history, from our own pasts. There was nothing like a broad mix of social classes or incomes: all the people we knew were semi- or non-skilled, working class, and all of our fates were bound to the caprices of a shaky global market and a local economy that had yet to reinvent itself. I suppose I grew up surrounded by the ways in which the unlucky ones reacted badly, or didn’t adapt, or failed to cope, drinking themselves stupid, damaging their families, hanging themselves from the cock loft. Many – my parents included – slowly turned inwards.
NG: It’s cold today, and the frost that has carved the grass into grey lancets has yet to thaw. The goalposts painted on the gable end of Kirkbride Close have long been scrubbed away. We’d play ‘shite’ against that gable end, too; you’d take turns to kick a football against the wall and the other player would have to return the shot. Miss the wall once and you were awarded an ‘s’; miss again and you were given an ‘h’, and so on. It was best to blast the ball against the wall as hard as you could so your opponent would be more likely to miss the return and have to chase the ball. It must have been terrible for the residents of that house, but I remember being shocked and hurt when I was bellowed at by them; God, we were only having a kick-about. Grumpy ahl get.
PF: Niall remembers the white bridge too, and we walk down towards the woods that begin where the houses end, scrubby and dendritic after the rectilinear world we’ve just left. We talk about being on the very edge of the city, and I realize just how keenly I’ve felt that, even from an early age.
As a kid, I took the Cold War very personally, and would lie in bed at night worrying over the effects of an all-out nuclear strike on Liverpool. Perhaps the Russians wouldn’t bother with us: I knew the seaport was in decline, not because I understood how gross tonnage had been in free fall since the 1960s, or how container trade had shifted to other, more profitable commercial hubs (in 1981, Felixstowe had become the country’s biggest container port), but because my uncles and grandfather had stopped going to sea on the liners years before.
Still, I’d lie awake counting the blast rings. Ground zero was the Pier Head, the centre of a circle with a radius demarcating the edges of the city centre: total devastation. The second ring reached as far as the Picton Clock: widespread structural damage, fires, etc. Netherley, six miles out, was in a zone where there might be pockets of survival.
I must have been very taken with the acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction, because I wrote a poem in school that ended with the line, ‘They’re all fucking MAD.’ I was sent to see the Head of English and didn’t write a poem again for a long time.
NG: We cross the white bridge over Netherley Brook, at its junction with Mill Brook, a concrete and steel structure that spans a few feet of dirty water and under which, I thought, Gila monsters lived. I’d often take running leaps across the brook or the sluice gates – sewer jumping, it was called – or swing across it on a knotted rope tied to a tree branch. There were many fallings-in. The brook borders fields, across which we’d trespass, once to see a heron feeding at the pond; I can feel again the thrill as I watched it take off, pterodactyl-big, those huge beating wings, the ghostly silver and grey of its colouring. To keep us off the fields, farmers would often release bulls into them, or ferocious dogs, or, sometimes, load their shotguns with rock salt and shoot at us.
The woods hereabouts are today supposed to be junkie-haunted, but I see no evidence of that; no syringes, no burnt scraps of foil. Not even any empty bottles or cans. There’s mud, and slime, and graffiti, and a not-quite-pleasant smell, but there are also many robins, thrushes and blue tits in the trees and I have no reason to suspect that the red-bellied sticklebacks I would see flashing with fire in the water are now gone. Water boatmen, too, their reflections on the muddy bed as if they were holding pompoms. The farm over the brook was a threatening and perilous place but there was magic on this side.
PF: The woods still feel like the brink, and the white bridge is like the border between us and another world. This was a prime hang-out, well away from the main road, and a good place to swig cider or smoke hash or sniff solvents. Beyond it lay open country, impossible places like Tarbock or Cronton where they spoke completely differently. Farmers were feared. Open country appealed, but was circumscribed by anxieties: hounds with mantrap jaws, bird-scarers, barbed wire. The urban had crept up on the rural and something of a siege mentality prevailed.
We were forever going on expeditions, sorties into a wilderness of drainage brooks, arable fields, sewage farms, disused railways: in today’s A–Zs, the white pages, the blank edges.
This is where Tony Griffiths and I and scores of others raided the nests of blackbirds and dunnocks and song thrushes, building up our sense of what birders call ‘the jizz’: knowing a bird from a glimpse of its flight or a snatch of song, understanding its likely habitat. Skylarks were very common and we spent hours trying to find their eggs. The skylark was regarded as cunning, its song petering out as it dropped back to earth, always landing some distance away from its nest and scuttling along the ground to distract and confuse us.
NG: I remember it as an urban upbringing but it wasn’t, really, and I’m startled, on this return journey, at the proximity of the green fields and the brooks and the copse of trees still standing, unconcreted. Netherley feels urban, undoubtedly, with the almost palpable pulse and pull of the big city a few miles away to the south, and images of the estate removed from the surrounding green belt would certainly suggest atypical inner-city housing developments, but I can remember a dawn chorus and can smell, here and now, cow dung and grass.
This is borderland, where the urban becomes the rural; the zone between ways of life, between specialized vocabularies, two localized lexica. As I recall, no one I knew had their place of work over the yard or so of sluggish brook; all worked in the city, or in the factories that lined the arterial roads into it, or down towards Speke or Garston or Halewood. The rural was there, close enough to smell, touch, taste; one bound over the brook or six paces over the bridge and you’d land in that world. Yet it remained very, very far away.
PF: We were great den builders, and for two or three summers dens were a huge part of my life; spaces cleared inside overgrown whitethorn hedges, fully carpeted with offcuts, furnished with pallets and those abandoned dark woods, ventilated to allow fire-setting. Some nights we’d go lamping with our neighbour Billy, who kept lurchers and Patterdale terriers.
Somebody discovered a Victorian dump on the town side of Netherley, and digging into its black oily earth littered with the broken clay pipes and Bovril jars and highly prized soda bottles from another age, I realized how this ground had once been deemed beyond the pale, a suitable site for the disposal of waste, out of sight and out of mind before the city had gradually caught up with its past. At that dump, in these fields and woods, we learned how to explore and find pleasure in our surroundings, and it feels to me now like the last moment when a generation of young lives could be lived largely out of doors.
NG: My mum and dad, they’re up to something; they’re giving each other glances, wordless and serious. They don’t say much when we’re eating, nor when we’re sitting in front of the telly, but after a while my mum gives my dad a nod and he says, Kids.
We all turn to look at him.
How d’you fancy moving to Australia?
Netherley fell away for thirty years.
PF: Niall talks about how his father picked up on the estate’s gradual change for the worse. He must have sensed it was going down the nick. Leaving at the age he did, I can’t really talk to Niall about Netherley Comprehensive. It’s difficult to describe the utter boredom I felt during my time there (I mostly remember it as waiting at a particularly dodgy bus stop for five years) and it’s difficult trying to examine your own adolescence. I want to write that my sulkiness and increasing truculence and instability were mirrored by what was happening around me, but it must have all been so much more complicated. What I can say is that discovering art and books saved me from myself. The world didn’t end at the white bridge.
NG: My family left the estate for Australia when I was still a child. Alcohol, and other drugs, would become illicit pleasures for me a few years after I left Netherley, but my secret vice growing up was found in books. Reading wasn’t done. Reading wasn’t for us. You were trying to be something you weren’t, if you read. Ideas above your station. Who do you think you are? No house had books in it. No reading material of any sort, really, beyond the Liverpool Echo. Yet the culture was an oral one, with stories told and passed down, of the old countries, of wars. The power of words was acknowledged, and the thrill I’d get from encountering their written forms in jumble-sale books, read huddled and hidden in the woods or alone somewhere in the fields, blurs and becomes one with the happy shocks I’d glean from cider and amphetamine crouched in similar places in later years. This isn’t a bad thing, for a confused child with a mischievous streak to associate reading with rebellion. In no way is this a bad thing.
PF: Were we always happy here? Niall remembers the violence of the place, its casual, routine cruelties. Dogfighting was rife. Every now and then, somebody would turn up with a ferocious new bull terrier that would wreak havoc with the local canine and feline population before vanishing as quickly as it had arrived. People gathered at this bus stop at night to watch ‘the show’, a demolition derby of stolen cars and handbrake turns.
It was a vulgar, brutal environment in many ways. Being spat on was normal. Faces were stoved in. A knife fight between two brothers ended with one of them bleeding to death outside the off-licence. My abiding sense is one of vigilance and a deeply ingrained wariness. Trouble would arrive suddenly, unexpected and grotesque.
One day in school, a lad I knew called my name down a corridor outside the music rooms; he kicked a ball towards me and I automatically received his pass, trapping it with my instep, but it was heavier than I’d expected, rock-hard underfoot, and it took a few stunned seconds for me to realize it was a pig’s head.
NG: There was much cruelty to animals committed by children with gleeful sadism, indifference, or with a peculiar sense of duty. Water rats were pulped with stones or burst open with sticks. Baby birds and frogs were tied to fireworks. Nests were plundered of eggs and then ‘scragged’ – basically torn to bits.
Apart from egg collecting, peer pressure never affected me in this regard; I felt the same revulsion at such acts then as I do now. I recall a pet caterpillar popped open like bladderwrack between a bully’s fingers. One boy turned a long flat pole – pointed at one end, forked at the other, and used to prop up washing lines – into a cat-killing spear; he hammered long nails through the pointed end, painted flames and forks of lightning on it, tasselled the other end with feathers, putting a high level of creativity into his cruelty. He’d hurl this weapon at cats and, if the initial strike didn’t kill them outright, chop them in half with a spade.
Children made their own entertainment in those days. What’s that boy doing now, I wonder? What kind of man has he become? Do those animals kick screeching and hissing into his present?
PF: Council estates are repositories of clichés, and one of these is the trope of escape. The bright disadvantaged child who realizes there must be something better and who overcomes all kinds of travails and adversities to find a way out, usually ending up in higher education. I suppose this is what happened to me, although I wouldn’t ascribe too much will or determination to my younger self. I never found anybody else to share the thrill of paperbacks or the exotica of colour-plated art books with, and so for a long while I can remember leading a kind of double life, and might have settled for that.
And then a fluke.
Word got round that I was a good draughtsman and I started to draw for money. The people I’d grown up with had me painting their baby sons and daughters, their fighting dogs, their favourite album covers. Somebody said I should study art, so I took my work along to Mabel Fletcher Technical College in Smithdown Road and that really was the end of Netherley.
NG: Never entertain the notion for one second that in any way was it a bad place to spend most of a childhood. I left just as the desolation that would come with the Eighties was beginning to be felt, signalled by the thigh-high decorative brick walls around the green by the shops which were, overnight, smashed to utter rubble. The destruction of that decade had yet to be visited on the city, and outlying estates like Netherley would constitute the front line.
I would return to the city during the years of desperation, but to other, more central parts, when I would hear stories of the no-go areas of Netherley and the neighbouring projects, the robberies and stabbings and shootings and addictions. Bandit country, that kind of thing. You were brought up there? Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t bad then. And it’s not bad now.
PF: Another cliché: you never really leave. I lived in Netherley for far longer than I’ve lived anywhere else since, as if the escape velocity I somehow achieved has kept me moving right through my twenties and thirties. I’ve never known any other place so intimately, in such great detail, and it still feels like the last place I really, fully inhabited.
NG: Maybe we don’t, can’t, choose what to remember. Maybe we can’t control what blunders and tumbles into our days. Because one of my clearest and earliest memories is of walking along a concrete embankment leading down to some garages and the sun was behind me, casting my shadow somewhat slanted and elongated across the concrete in front. It seemed a big and steep slope to me then, but I barely notice it now.
I was with my sister and my cousin and we were heading, probably, towards the woods and the brook; maybe I was going to show them where the Gila monsters lived. And the sun threw my shadow before me, long-limbed and angled obliquely, and I thought to myself, It’s a good job these two girls have a big boy like me to look after them. I am five.