This time on our literary tour through the pages of my novels, we return to 1980s Liverpool and visit Toxteth, an inner city area through which the characters of You’ll Never Walk Alone frequently pass.
I doubt that many people outside the UK will have heard of Toxteth, and even anyone who has will probably associate it only with the headline-hitting riots of the summer of 1981. As it happened, I moved to Liverpool that autumn, although initially to a different part of the city, but three years later, I’d moved to the south of the city and was living in bedsit in a large, three storey dwelling on the edge of Toxteth. It was on this house, complete with its Chinese landlord, who lived in the room opposite mine, that the house occupied by the main characters in the You’ll Never Walk Alone was based.
At one time, Toxteth had been rather grand. In the 18th and 19th centuries the district became home to the wealthy merchants of Liverpool, alongside a much larger, poor population, living in modest Victorian terraces, who came from all around the world to work as dockers and builders. Come the late 1970s, Liverpool, and Liverpool 8 in particular, had been badly hit by economic stagnation and unemployment, sowing the seeds of a growing unrest that escalated and eventually led to the riots. You can read more about ‘The Summer Liverpool burned’ here.
By the 1980s many of the large Georgian and Victorian houses were converted into flats, mainly occupied by students and others on very modest incomes. Crime levels rocketed, especially house-breaking. My landlord, on whom the fictional Tony Wong is based, owned a second property on Princes Road, one of the main thoroughfares in L8, and I put minor characters, Mark and Stu, in a very similar basement flat (‘The Bunker’). We briefly visit the Bunker in a later chapter and the security measures described are no exaggeration. I remember them well, since a succession of my friends lived there in the mid-80s.
It was one evening in 1984 that a friend and I were walking back to my house from that very basement flat. We happened to come across a couple of young guys who were trying to push start an old van. By chance, I bumped into one of them up by the University only a few days later. Reader, I (eventually) married him; but that, as they say, is another story.
Moving onwards towards the city centre, as we do in today’s book excerpt, we walk down the formerly grand boulevards with their blackened exteriors and boarded up windows, passing St Luke’s ‘bombed out church’ (seen in a previous tour), then crossing the road past ‘The Blackie’, which was once a chapel and later a community centre. It was so-called because the walls had been blackened by the soot and smoke over many decades. Finally we come to Liverpool’s Chinatown, the oldest Chinese community in Europe, but it’s getting late, so we’ll come back and have a proper look around here another day.
In the following excerpt, Tony Wong takes an after-dark walk into the city centre. Why Asmar, his tenant Cynthia’s cat, follows Tony into town isn’t immediately apparent, but let’s just say that later on in the story it was just as well he did.
It was this journey, in which Tony Wong was not alone as he ventured into Chinatown, which partly inspired the title of the novel. The fact that it’s also the title of Liverpool Football Club’s well-known anthem is (largely) coincidental. The song, You’ll Never Walk Alone, was written by Rogers and Hammerstein for the musical, Carousel. If you’re not familiar with it, you can listen to a selection of excellent renditions by moseying on over to see Jen Goldie who, by happy coincidence, just happened to post them earlier this week.
Excerpt from You’ll Never Walk Alone
Tony Wong had been woken by the beep of his Casio watch. He lifted his head from the cushion and listened. The house was quiet. He pushed the coverless duvet over the back of the couch and stood up. He pulled on his suit trousers and tucked the shirt he had been wearing earlier that day into the waistband. He pulled on socks and pushed his feet into scuffed white plimsolls.
Shuffling past the coffee table, he approached the wide bay window and drew aside one of the heavy curtains, the velvety fabric was stiff and slightly sticky to the touch. Peering around the curtain he checked outside. Pools of orange light illuminated the empty street, reflecting in the puddles of the day’s rain. Letting the curtain fall back into place he picked up a folded note from the table. He re-read the Chinese symbols and stuffed the note into his pocket. Then he put on his jacket and took his keys from the chest by the door. He unlocked his door and listened. The hallway was silent. He glanced at Cynthia’s door opposite and saw the post-it note by the payphone on the wall. He didn’t stop to read the message.
He opened the front door with his key. The large panelled door swung open easily. Streetlight played on the frosted glass casting awkward patterns on the tiled floor of the hall. Tony stepped out and carefully locked the door behind him. His tennis shoes were silent on the worn sandstone steps that led down to the path. At the foot of the steep driveway he turned and headed towards the main road.
Asmar detached himself from the garden shadows and padded silently behind him. His red-gold coat glowed in the light from the street lamps.
Tony Wong trudged purposefully towards the city centre, the cat following. The midweek traffic was light: just the occasional black cab. Up ahead a police car, blue lights flashing, siren off, crossed the intersection of Princes Road and Duke Street. The tall red brick houses with their blank, black windows were silent. Once the dwellings of rich merchants, some had been converted to bed-sitters over cheap shops, whilst the many boarded up and blackened buildings were the legacy of the notorious riots which had happened a few summers ago.
Man and cat crossed Berry Street by the bombed-out church on the corner with its well-tended public gardens. The church had remained unrestored, a monument to the devastation of the city of World War Two. Trying to ignore the sounds of the couple who were busy in the grounds of the community building known as The Blackie opposite, Tony pressed on. He heard the man grunt and swear, then saw him push the girl away. Tony glanced towards them and saw the man zip up his jeans, while the girl straightened her short orange skirt. He watched them part without a word, he to the cab rank while she, on spikey white heels, stalked back up the hill towards the cathedral.
The lights were still on in the Nelson Street restaurants, the boundary between club land and Chinatown. Two men holding takeaway cartons swayed past Tony Wong. ‘All right, China?’ one asked him cheerfully. The other mumbled something and they both chortled as they staggered off up the road.
Asmar remained out of sight clinging to the shadows, skipping up and down through the basement areas and railings.
A few yards further on Tony Wong paused and looked around. Sure that no-one was watching he darted down the passageway into the back entry of the famous Chinese pub which in English was called ‘The Nook’. He picked his way along the rubbish strewn alleyway trying not to think about what might be lurking there. The cat followed carefully along the top of the wall avoiding the glass shards which had been set in concrete on the wall-top as a security measure. Turning the corner, Tony Wong scampered up the steps at the rear of the building. As he opened the door, light flooded the entry. He closed it quickly, trying to ignore the flurry of scurrying amongst the rubbish.
Asmar settled down on the wall and waited.
Image credits: Liverpool Echo, Liverpool City Council