Of Time and the City

by Chris Bertram on November 13, 2008

When I first started going out with my partner Pauline, in the early 1980s, I had a somewhat dismal opinion of Liverpool. She wanted to show me how great the city could be, so she insisted on taking me to the Palm House in Sefton Park. I rather vividly remember how distressed she was to find that the beatiful structure of her childhood was derelict and vandalized. My father, whose mother came from the city often recalls a visit just after the war, to a city that was incomparably exciting. He remembered the overhead railway, the buses, the underground – a place alive.

That Liverpool is the subject of Terence Davies’s wonderful poetic treatment, “Of Time and the City”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1232790/ (“Official site”:http://www.oftimeandthecity.com/index.php ). He takes the city of empire, of shipbuilding and docks, of sport, of children playing on working-class streets — the city of his childhood — and traces its decline and collapse through the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, he indicates, through music — especially his use of Mahler’s 2nd — that there is life yet and the possibility of return. It is hard to give a flavour of the combination of image, music, poetry and personal recollection that Davies conveys, but he tells us of a place that is badly damaged but still has immense weight and grandeur (aptly evoked in his shots both of industrial landscape and of great Victorian buildings like St George’s Hall). Of course it is a film that will mean most to those from the city, perhaps especially the legion of exiled scousers. But it said a lot to me, with a more episodic connection, and even those who only know it from a distance will love Davies’s work. Get to see it if you possibly can.



willyredmond 11.14.08 at 6:01 am

It is a page from an accounts log kept by the Corporation of Liverpool, which records the wages paid in 1911 to a scullery maid working for the City Hospital in Parkhill, who signed her name “E. Rigby”.

The document belongs to Annie Mawson, who runs a charity in Cumbria teaching music to children with learning difficulties and other disabilities. She received it from somebody working in McCartney’s office after she sent him a letter describing how she had taught a severely autistic boy to play “Yellow Submarine”. Now she hopes that the money raised from the sale will go towards paying for a permanent premises for her charity, the Sunbeam Music Trust.


novakant 11.14.08 at 7:54 am

Thanks, having watched the trailer about twelve times now, I might as well go and watch the whole thing.


toby 11.14.08 at 11:19 am

Alan Bleasdale’s “Boys from the Blackstuff” was a great series of 4 TV plays, a comic and melodramatic evocation of working-class Liverpool in the late Thatcher years, when the cities’ industrial and trading base seemed to be completely collapsing. Remember Yosser Hughes: “Gizza job”, “I could do that”.


Michael Turner 11.14.08 at 11:28 am

Oh God, I have to see this movie. I hope it makes it to Japan on DVD at least. (It’s hit or miss — sometimes it takes years for this kind of thing to get over here.)

A grandfather on my father’s side, a vaudevillian turned salesman who died too young, was a Liverpudlian. Friends couldn’t understand why the scenes that choked me up in “Titanic” were of the nobodies, especially that scene where they are purposely caged below deck as the ship is sinking, so that the lifeboats could be reserved for their supposed betters. All of my grandparents were nobodies who crossed to America in ships like that one, ships built in Liverpool and often stopping off there to pick up more huddled masses.

I’m probably too mixed to be anything but a Woollyback. Still, I sometimes dream of visiting and going through the phonebook, calling random Turners, and asking if they knew of any distant cousin rumored to have boarded ship for New York in the early years of the 20th century, to try his luck on the stage in America.

The city’s population decline after 1931 is dramatic. Looks like the Fab Four were just a tiny droplet in the bailing bucket, too — the scouser diaspora peaked around that time. Yet, if Jane Jacobs was right, Liverpool is the kind of town that could — and should — be fleshed out again, especially as the need to become energy-efficient matters ever more. Liverpool could be what I’ve started calling “Green Bananas”: targets for economic stimulus projects aimed at more urban, more environmentally sustainable living, especially for aging developed nations; a way to spend jobs-program money as if there were a tomorrow, and a nice sweet tomorrow at that, if you do it right. (Also, “banana” is a way to avoid saying “recession”, for those of you who don’t know about that wry Herbert Stein bowdlerization.)


Charlie 11.14.08 at 2:19 pm

OK, but this sort of thing has to stop:

“Terence Davies is one of the most respected filmmakers in cinema today. His work has been honoured by awards from around the world. His dark and powerful trilogy, all set in Liverpool, Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983) develops powerful themes of forbidden sexuality, Catholicism, violence, loss, death and childhood. But it is in his 1988 film Distant Voices, Still Lives, again drawing on his Liverpool roots, that these become exquisitely blended with a gentle warmth and humour and a transcendent sense of hope beyond the miseries of difficult daily life. It is also here that the auteur finds a particularly unique visual style – tableaux of characters that come slowly to life, the sense of the outsider observing through windows which can be snowy, misted or distant and an exquisite sepia palette, painted in places with muted pastels. This visual style combines with his themes and his stories to give him a very original voice.”


Steve LaBonne 11.14.08 at 3:41 pm

I live in the hinterland of another decaying, once-great city, Cleveland, OH. So I can really relate both to the nostalgia and to the hope that these cities hae a future.


peter 11.14.08 at 3:50 pm

The Sefton Park Palm House has now been fully restored (partly thanks to donations from Paul McCartney), and is often the location for weddings, parties, etc.


Phil 11.14.08 at 5:17 pm

Why does he stop in the 1980s and indicate that there is life yet and the possibility of return? Seems like an odd place to stop to me, there has been huge investment and redevelopment of Liverpool since then (European City of Culture). Though I am sure there are still areas of high deprivation and a lot of criticisms of the regeneration.

A minor point I know but I was struck by the references of shipbuilding to Liverpool. I did a quick google and there was a big firm in Birkenhead making warships but most shipbuilding was in Glasgow, Belfast and the Northeast. Now Sunderland there is a city that has really struggled to recover from its decline.


nick s 11.16.08 at 6:54 am

I’m not a Scouser, but coming from where I come from, I know what you’re talking about. When Policy Exchange came up with its silly ‘pay northerners to move down south’ thing earlier this year, it hurt: not least because I could imagine the Oxbridge twits who wrote it — for whom ‘the north’ is what you pass on the way up to Edinburgh for the Fringe — since I’d been to college with similar people.

Why does he stop in the 1980s and indicate that there is life yet and the possibility of return?

I’ll speculate: there is a reason why, this far on, so many people hope Thatcher won’t be cremated, and they’ve been holding their bladders for a long time. The page won’t be turned till then.


Upstate (New York) 11.18.08 at 8:33 pm

I never dreamt that the Lower East side of New York City, were my father lived as an impoverished immigrant child and where I was educated as an engineer, would come back as chic sought after real estate (at least parts of it), but it has. The Bronx (an inner city boro of New York) has gone from a vibrant middle class ethnic part of the city to a burnt out ghetto resembling parts of war devastated Europe, but is now being revitalized.

Perhaps all cities follow cycles of boom and bust, of decay and resurgence. Grass once grew in the streets of Rome. I plan to see Of Time and the City. Is it to be shown in the States?

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