Even as a boy, Jeff Young is in love with a city – Liverpool. The city is his muse and the inspiration for much of his work as a dramatist. He describes himself as a television aerial, tuned in to the echoes and ghosts of the city’s past lives. In this book, he draws not only on his own experiences – remembered and misremembered – of growing up in Liverpool in the 1960s, but goes back further to his grandparents’ lives and beyond. He compares the city he knows with the impressions of visitors like the photographer Cartier-Bresson, the psychologist Jung and the writer De Quincey.
Young interweaves a number of threads in this memoir. His starting point is his family, and his recollection of them in the context of their homes – homes that no longer exist. He returns time and again, with an embittered nostalgia, to the fact that so much of the city he knew, that his family knew and were part of, has been destroyed. He writes a polemic against planners and developers whom he regards as Philistine, lacking in imagination, and motivated principally by greed, knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing as they ‘regenerate’ the heart of the city at the expense of the history of the communities who lived there.
He chronicles his metamorphosis, which he describes in Kafkaesque terms, as he engages as a youth with the cultural life of the city – through cinema, music, second-hand bookshops, Mathew Street in the Beatles era and afterwards – and finds his own artistic voice to tell his story of the city and its characters. Outside influences permeate, too – from the books he devours, obsessively, but also through the pictures which come into the family home through the television. The iconic images of the Vietnam war, which was ongoing through much of Young’s childhood, seep into his recollections of the games he played as a child. The songs he recalls his family singing are a soundtrack of the popular music of the era, anywhere in the English-speaking world.
Throughout the book, Young is walking, first with his mother, then alone – he describes walking as ‘an act of transformative magic’, a way to connect with the ghosts of place, and a way to see the city through the eyes of his mother, his grandfather, reading the city like a book. The tone is melancholy and elegiac, but also joyous and quick to see funny incongruity – a distinctively Liverpudlian tone which is perhaps inevitable in a city with an Irish and Welsh heritage.
Ghost Town has particular resonances for me – although my own experience of living in Liverpool is brief and recent, my father was born there and the whole family were part of the Liverpool Welsh community. In the early 1900s, my grandfather skippered tugs in the Mersey docks where Young’s grandfather was working with draught horses. The streets of Kirkdale where Young walks are the streets where my father was brought up. But even without this personal connection to the subject matter, anyone with an interest in psychogeography, social history or memoir will find this book a treasure to be savoured.
- Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadowplay is published in hardback by Little Toller Books (£12.00) To order a copy go to www.littletoller.co.uk
Lisa Tulfer is a freelance writer and translator. She writes articles (history and place writing) and poetry, and blogs at TheThreeHaresBlog.com. She is currently writing her first book, alongside translating a collection of Dutch language short stories into English.