Cultural Hijack: Rethinking Intervention edited by Ben Parry has just been published by Liverpool University Press. the book contains a series of essays exploring ‘creative action in the sites of the urban everyday.’ In other words it’s full of pieces about how artists work in – and interpret – the city.
It includes an essay I wrote about my work in the Sheil Park high rise blocks more than ten years ago.
You might not think it to look at the place but, for me the part of Liverpool on which the Sheil Park high rises stood is saturated in myth. During the Second World War my father played in the air raid shelters on this piece of land, collecting shrapnel, pretending to be a Messerschmitt as he ran wild in the blitzed ruins of the city. My mum and dad met – passing notes through the railings that divided the boys playground from the girls – at Bowler Street school. From a balcony high up in the Sheil Park tower block I looked down at the empty space where the school once stood and I could see my dad in 1940 playing football and wowing my swooning 10 year old mother.
In the 1960’s I saw these tower blocks being built. In the late 1800’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to Newsham Park across the road and when we were kids we used to gaze into the boating lake looking for the bodies of children someone told us had been drowned there for being naughty. As I explored Sheil Park and its stories my own stories seeped into the mythology of the place and it became more haunted and strange.
In 2003 we sent out questionnaires to tenants asking them for stories; we spent afternoons drinking tea with people who had lived most of their lives in the sky. Time and time again people told us how much they loved living in these buildings. A woman called Josie Crawford talked to me of beauty. When she woke in the morning she could hear the sound of the milk man all those floors below and in the evening she told me she could see the river and it shone like sweet wrappers. I asked Josie Crawford to write down her feelings about living in the sky and when I came to write the script for the BBC Radio 3 play Superblock about these towers I used Josie’s words almost verbatim because she was a better poet then I’d ever be. The notion that someone could find beauty and value in a building considered to be a dystopian hell hole was inspirational. Josie Crawford had re-imagined this place just as my father had done in the Blitz and now it was up to us to re-imagine the place again.
We imagined a 14,000 foot high rise stretching into space, built from the bricks and rubble of 65 demolished tower blocks. The ghosts and traumas of those ‘deceased’ tower blocks somehow possessed the fabric of the Superblock and contaminated the new building. Some tenants suffered from vertigo and nightmares, some tenants ran amok, some tenants entered into the enervated dream states of the oxygen starved and some feared the world on the ground miles below where, it was rumoured civil wars raged.
If you ask old people to tell you a story nine times out of ten they will tell you about the past. Because we didn’t want this play to be a nostalgic remembrance piece, dwelling on the cobbles and the old flat cap, we asked them to think themselves into the future and to then imagine themselves looking nostalgically back at the year 2003. So characters look back fondly on the hits of Kylie Minogue and the ghost of Rio Ferdinand is seen at night in the Liverpool sky over the sweet wrapper river.
A resident told me a story about an old man she met every day in the lift. He always carried a bowling bag and she always wondered what was in it. She never asked and they never said much more than hello and goodbye. Then one day he wasn’t in the lift and he had disappeared. Old men had disappeared for years from buildings just like this and one could only assume that they had walked away forever, walked into myth. When the council broke into the old man’s flat it was completely empty apart from a self portrait over the fireplace. The man became a character in the radio play whose bowling bag was a kind of miniature removal vehicle. For twenty years he had been systematically moving out of his flat and when he’d moved the last few bits and pieces he was free to wander the globe. The cavities and echo chambers of the high rises became an integral part of the character of the play and I imagined lost children living in ventilator shafts and ducting. Such a child was brilliantly brought to life by the actor Emily Aston as a character called Zoo, lost in the echoing world of the buildings ventricles and veins. Composer Skyray devised ambient evocations of these haunted atmospheres. The building was alive; you could hear its asthmatic breathing.
We held a public meeting at the Flying Picket chaired by Radio Merseyside’s Roger Philips. The announcement by the ‘architect’ that the building of the Superblock was scheduled to go ahead was met with outrage. One tenant rose to her feet and, in withering terms told the panel they ought to be ashamed of themselves for foisting this monstrosity on future generations. She had to be reminded that this was make believe but as she sat down I still think she believed it was really going to happen.
Some of the residents had political points to make; Jim Jones was a left leaning firebrand who had issues with the planners and architects who had built these monstrosities in the first place. Even though Jim had an axe to grind about the way tenants had been treated over the years he was fiercely proud of his home and had declared his intention to barricade himself in when the day of demolition came. (He would actually go on to be cast as a character in the radio play). From Jim’s political perspective and insight we fashioned a demonic, visionary architect, brilliantly played by George Costigan who had come to visit the Superblock and see for himself the nightmare, Ballardian tower he had carelessly imagined for these people to live in. Through the magic of radio drama we were able to confront this monstrous egotist with some of the questions Jim had never been allowed to ask the architects and planners. At the end of his journey, appalled by the monster he created, faced with the fury of some of the tenants and the madness of others, the architect has no choice but to leap to his death from the very summit of his visionary folly.
Before he leaps he has an encounter with the ghost of a small boy – and this boy presented himself to me on the day we went to witness a high rise demolition. As the ghost dust of the collapsing building enveloped the ‘audience’, there in the dust on a hopscotch grid stood a small boy in short trousers looking directly at me and sending a shiver down my spine. His likeness was captured forever by photographer Sean Halligan. That boy was my father in 1940, playing in the rubble of the blitz on a piece of land where the high rises had yet to be built. Time and the world had collapsed, just like the real Sheil Park flats and just like imaginary Superblock.
Thanks to Superblock director Kate Rowland, Alan Dunn, Amy Buscombe, Paul Simpson, Sean Halligan, the cast of Superblock and Jim, Freda and Josie.