Following the release of his latest book, Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadowplay, we speak to screenwriter and author Jeff Young about Liverpool’s architectural trajectory and the uncertain future of stories swept aside by brazen regeneration. You can find an extract of Bright Phoenix on our website here.
On the first Saturday night of nationwide lockdown, Merseyside Police shared footage of mounted officers riding into an empty Concert Square. The scene in the video was vacuous.
Gone was the ever-present thud of bass, the breaking of bottles, collective merriment and hedonism. The only perceptive sound was horseshoes on street cobbles stained with memories of years gone by. “Ghost Town”, was a two-word comment left below the video by JEFF YOUNG.
The screenwriter and author’s aside was a simple observation, but also a nod towards his most recent book of the same name, Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadowplay, released in February – a full month before Liverpool was in the grip of the pandemic.
“A few people have said to me over the last few weeks, ‘Oh, what a prophetic title to choose’, but it was never intended to be any sort of prophecy for the situation we’re in,” says Young, talking over the phone from his home in Aigburth. “The footage is a desolation. A wild west style scene; the horse riding through the deserted town. Seeing a place that is normally so over populated at that time of night so quiet is quite dystopian,” he adds.
Where the weekend’s images appeared ghostly for their momentary absence of human activity, Young’s book hinges on the essence of human connection to the city’s streets and buildings. These ‘ghosts’, which Young recalls, draw on his personal memories and the dreams of a city lost to redevelopment. For Young, the failure of the city’s architectural dreams are the most prevalent ghosts of all. “My fundamental belief is that architecture is nothing without humanity,” he continues, “and without humanity, it’s the absolute erasure of the city heartbeat.”
The failure of Liverpool’s contemporary architectural trajectory was visibly clear prior to the pandemic. The removal of sincere human presence and interaction has dogged much of the city centre since the arrival of St John’s Precinct, Young notes. Further thoughtless planning followed at the turn of the millennium as Liverpool received its capitalist makeover. But these actualities only grow more apparent when the lens is widened, and the people are removed from the scene all together – as we have seen over the course of the last week. “The newer developments, such as that on Lime Street, are alienating. There’s a clear lack of empathy for the people in the city and the people who move through the city,” Young comments. “Taking the people out of the city, as is happening now, you see the only reason so much of the city centre exists is for commerce and consumerism. Maybe this current situation can be a wake-up call.”
This drive for a consumerist central hub in Liverpool is perforated by towers offering short term rents and the ease of inner-city living. But as we’re drawn inside, these spaces become as isolated as Liverpool One, Lord Street and Church Street. The flats in the city centre are devoid of continuity and human energy. This is a far cry from the dreams of St Andrew’s Gardens, more commonly known as the Bullring, situated just off Brownlow Hill, a housing project built in the 1930s and now home to students. “One of the visions of the Bullring was that all neighbours would face the other neighbours. It’s a Viennese school of architecture design. It’s built so you can see one another and have contact,” says Young, commenting on how our failures to realise the buildings’ social potential has grown more prevalent as we continue mandatory isolation. “It’s community focused, the opposite of alienation. It’s embracing,” he adds.
Throughout the book, Young pores over similar stories pulled from locations built with its people in mind – lambasting those that do the opposite. As Young argues, architecture is integral to the social experience of society. Physical presence, accessibility, placement and fulfilling expectations for the needs of the landscape are all essential to ensuring municipal dreams don’t become ghosts, haunting the hollow facades that come to whitewash the cityscape.
Jeff Young introduces a chapter from Ghost Town and warns of sleepwalking towards ‘city-death’
In 1948, three years after the Second World War, the City Architect, Alfred Earnest Shennan contributed to a book called Liverpool, Past, Present, Future published by the City Council. In his chapter devoted to The Future Shennan wrote, “Can we of this generation evolve for our city the maximum of material and spiritual good, building on the achievements of our predecessors and conjuring phoenix-like a new city out of the enormous evil of the war?”
Together with his fellow architects J.F. Smith and Gordon Hemm, Shennan made the case for a Utopian vision of the future metropolis, asking, “Shall we not aim at beauty, dignity, hygiene; speed and safety of movement; the general convenience and happiness of the people?” He saw an opportunity to create a dynamic new city, one that honoured and respected the past but also embraced the future with “impulse and momentum”.
Forward movement was essential but the remains of Liverpool’s history would be gathered up and swept along by the velocity of his vision. “If our standard of living is to be maintained… we must have knowledge and wisdom at the helm… to provide worthy environments for our citizens and train the enfranchised masses in political sanity… self-reliance, self-respect and good citizenship.”
He had in mind a city of thrilling architecture and vibrant public spaces, rising from the rubble of the Blitz, designed and maintained by benevolent custodians, a place where the enfranchised masses felt themselves to be participants in its day to day life and in its future. Gordon Hemm’s artists impression of this Futuropolis is a science fiction cityscape straight out of 60s TV cartoon The Jetsons. However, very little of this vision was realised, and arguably there hasn’t been a vision to compare to it since.
One of Shennan’s finest achievements is the Art Deco Forum cinema on Lime Street. This palace of dreams is now empty and gutted and these days it’s mainly used as a convenient place to hang an advertising billboard. A building that was once one of the heartbeats of the city, once the very embodiment of velocity and vision has been treated with contempt.
Now, my mother was Alfred Shennan’s secretary and this building has a special place in my heart. Not only did my mother work for the man who designed it, it was also one of the places we would go to watch films when I was a child, in the days when Lime Street was a vibrant destination, when queues for the cinema often stretched around the block. For me, partly because I associate this place with memories of childhood, this is a place of nostalgia; I have written about this street on numerous occasions and the equally neglected – now demolished – Futurist cinema is the setting for my play ‘Bright Phoenix’, written for the Liverpool Everyman. The play is about dissidence and community, knowledge and wisdom, empowerment, political sanity and good citizenship – all those idealistic ideas that Shennan wrote about in 1948.
Lime Street was once a place charged with the energy of its citizens; a vital artery pulsing with life. Walk down Lime Street today and the new development that replaced the Futurist looks like a cut-price kitchen unit, or some dubious type of packaging material, the sort used to wrap a cheap fridge. This was presumably someone’s bargain basement idea of ‘The Future’. It fails on almost every level.
Nostalgia can be somewhat problematic, sepia-tinted and morbid if we ‘let it be’. But what if we re-imagine nostalgia and use it as a form of subversive divination that brings past, present and future together? Instead of discarding the past we create an altered state where the invisible city of memory literally regenerates and takes its place within the city of today, an imaginative space where the barren consumer-zones are rewilded with vitality, playfulness and visionary energy? What if we reclaim the word regeneration from property developers and repurpose it with beating hearts and dreams?
The American city activist Jane Jacobs believed that cities were, “…composed of movement and change… the art form of the city… an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and.. .is always replete with new improvisations.” This dance interprets the city as a place where human activity is of paramount importance. It moves the focus from top down property, business and commerce interests and empowers the public realm with ‘the ballet of the sidewalk’. You will see this on Bold Street where the independent retailers, cafes and bars are buzzing with ideas and imagination. The artform of the city is in evidence.
In the 1960s there came another future and its name was demolition. The wholesale destruction of the city’s very centre erased Liverpool’s magnificent market place and replaced it with the imaginative failure of St John’s Precinct. The city has never recovered from this. Go to any city in Europe and the importance and vibrancy of the market place at the centre of things is evident. Liverpool’s centre is diminished but this brutal erasure was once seen as The Future.
There are at least two kinds of city-death; the first is demolition, which is not just a death of bricks, mortar and concrete but of the dream inside the building and the memories it contains. The lives lived within. The second kind of death is the type of ‘progress’ that proceeds blindly, and pays no heed to the first. It’s a mixture of entropy and amnesia, it often occupies contested spaces and it ignores storytelling.
The city should be allowed to grow organically, like Balzac’s Human Comedy, an ever-changing, metaphysical project haunted and enhanced by ghost-memory, where the vital memory of the past nurtures the pulse of the present and sustains the dynamic future. Don’t erase – or exorcise – the ghosts. Let them live in the shadows, let them whisper their stories.
Words: Jeff Young / @jeffyoungwriter
Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadowplay by Jeff Young is out now via Little Toller Books.