This extract, taken from Ghost Town, explores Jeff Young’s connection to Lime Street and its former cinemas – a street he regarded as having fault line that divides magic and dreams on one side, and cynicism and greed on the other.
It began with a fox. I was sitting outside my house one warm summer evening, shortly after dusk, with my friend Paul Simpson. Our house is close to the river, beneath an enormous sky, and when night falls, if the street lights are broken, our street is plunged into charcoal darkness. As a car drove slowly down the street we saw the feral embers of a fox’s eyes. It moved in slow motion, mouth full of takeaway wrapper, aware it was being watched. Then it dissolved into shadow, back into the dark.
It occurred to me that this fox would make a powerful familiar, an animal guide that I could adopt as a spirit of place. I’d been thinking about a fugitive version of the city that coexists with the real one, an occult echo, rather like the mirror cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in China Miéville’s The City And The City. This is where the inconvenient and awkward live. This is the city I prefer. I like people who don’t belong and don’t want to. I like the places where those people congregate: the back alleys and boozers, the doorways around the corner, the invisible city where ghosts dwell. I took the fox to be an emblem of this shadow-city. The word ‘feral’ is often used as an insult; I wanted to reclaim it by putting the animal back. The people I loved were feral creatures, disobedient and wild and kin to beast. I saw the same quality in the buildings and streets I loved – there were feral buildings and streets, damaged and wayward, neglected, overlooked and dispossessed.
And I often thought about people from childhood and school, the ones who didn’t belong, who slipped through the cracks, who went unnoticed – the boy who smelled of wet-the-bed; the fat boy who looked like he belonged in the 1930s; the boy who smelled of phlegm; the boy with terrible skin and an asthma contraption. Half-forgotten stories began to emerge from the depths of memory: the boy who was blinded with a fishing hook; the kid who left school at fourteen and went to work on the pig farm, unable to read and write; the transit camp Ophelia; the boy who wore dresses.
When the Everyman Theatre asked me to write a new play I began walking the city with my friend, the writer Lindsay Rodden, who became my dramaturg. Time and time again we were drawn to the ruins of the Futurist Cinema on Lime Street. I would tell Lindsay stories of my childhood, of my whole Terence Davies-hued love for palaces of dreams. I began to write about my feral characters, placing them in buildings like the Futurist. Character and place were one and the same, the ultimate dramatic unity. The people and the place would represent otherness, the wild city where foxes roam at night. I wanted to celebrate disobedience.
As Lizzie the firebrand says in the play: “No one needs a dirty old fleapit full of snotty kids and weeping mums. They kind of wiped the Futurist off the Things To See And Do list. They let it die.”
Conveniently the building was falling to pieces. Its fate was written, but it wasn’t going to give up without a fight. My characters seized the building and squatted in it, determined to bring it back to life, even as the dust fell on their heads.
All of this is key to my emotional – and philosophical – attachment to the city. If Liverpool didn’t exist – and increasingly my personal vision of the city doesn’t exist – then somebody would have to invent it. My characters proceeded to do so. The question they kept asking was, ‘Who owns the City?’ It certainly wasn’t the people.
I remember watching certain films in the Futurist, even though I almost certainly watched them elsewhere. The first time I ever saw Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece, A Matter of Life And Death, it was most likely on television, but in my memory, I watched it in the Futurist. One of the first scenes I wrote in Bright Phoenix was the one where the gang bunk into the Futurist and act out the opening sequence in the film, in which David Niven, having crashed in his burning Lancaster bomber, falls in love with June, the beautiful radio operator. Blowing clouds of cigarette smoke, the kids laugh and swoon at the great romance of it all until they’re thrown out by the usherette. Watching the flickering shadows of the film projected onto the walls of the Everyman, while the characters mimic the voices of Peter and June, was like gazing into a haunted space where cinematic magic, distorted memory and elegy for a lost building came together in a seance. It was the closest I could get to a resurrection ritual. I tried to make the play a song of praise to dissidence and disruption, to the liberating potential of the imagination.
I used to think of Lime Street as a place made from films. It had three cinemas, and the movies spilled out of them, flooded the street and animated the pavements with mystery, desire and drama. You could watch the street in the same way you’d watch a film. Over the years it became degraded, an increasingly negative space where the carnival of city life gave way to despair and ruin. When the cinemas closed down and the Scala became a lap- dancing club you could sense the vitality of the street turning to torpor. The rough edges that had always been there grew rougher. Instead of a street it became a gutter.
I grew to think of Lime Street as a fault line – a cultural and imaginative rift between magic and dreams on one side, and cynicism and greed on the other. In Bright Phoenix, the street ruptures, opens up like the sutures on a wound. In an early scene, Spike the one-eyed derelict sees a vision of night-crawlers falling into the city’s bowels: “The city ripped the length of Lime Street. Buildings fell. Drunks, dogs, mad bastards, taxis full of hen nights, legless beggars … fell between the cracks into the guts of Liverpool.”
Egged on by Spike, the gang maraud through the city at night, bringing the abandoned remnants of old buildings to the Futurist, intent on creating a Phoenix. They are utopian gleaners, making a new city out of the old.
As Spike says: “Places are closing down all the time – community centres, boozers, libraries, swimming baths. And once a building’s closed, it dies before your eyes. The roof caves in, cellars flood, windows smash. And they wait. They wait so long that people forget the building’s there. Knock it down, done for.”
In a crack in the cladding of the Lime Street development a buddleia is growing – a small shoot at first, but then bigger, stronger. The wild weed is returning to the new ruins of Liverpool and the tarmac is beginning to crack. Out of the gaps crawl feral men, wild women and beasts. I hear a howl. Listen to the street opera of Liverpool, to the feral song.
The night belongs to the fox.
Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadowplay by Jeff Young is out now via Little Toller Books.