ESSAY Nicholas Murray

NWR Issue 118

Darkness and Light: Liverpool Imagined

First, let’s look at two images.

One is the 1983 Penguin Modern Classic cover of James Hanley’s novel, The Furys (1935); the other is the DVD cover of Terence Davies’ 2008 documentary, Of Time and the City. They are separated by eighty years but there is a striking similarity in the way, first, in 1983 and, second, the British Film Institute in 2009 chose to illustrate these two very powerful imaginative versions of Liverpool. The blackened brick, the woman on the doorstep, the ragged child. What exactly is going on here? I suggest that this is Liverpool from Central Casting. Grimsville. But what makes writers and film-makers insist on this dark picture of my city? Is it justified by the facts? Certainly, if one explores the accounts of Dickens, Melville, and Hawthorne in the nineteenth century, or social historians such as John Finch in his 1842 Statistics of Vauxhall Ward, Liverpool or Hugh Shimmin in his 1857 Liverpool Life, or Pat O’Mara’s The Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy (1934) or the autobiography of Bessie Braddock (1963), there is no doubt that nineenth- and early twentieth century Liverpool, for a majority of its people, was a tough working-class city. Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a priest in the parish of St Francis Xavier’s, noted in his diary in 1881, having witnessed a May Day procession in the city, ‘for the thousandth time with sorrow and loathing the base and bespotted figures and features of the Liverpool crowd’...


Nicholas Murray is a poet, literary biographer and winner in 2015 of the Basil Bunting Prize for Poetry. He lives in rural Powys and his latest poetry collections are A Dog’s Brexit (2017) and The Museum of Truth (2018). His poems, essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines. He is a Fellow of the Welsh Academy and with Susan Murray runs the Powys-based poetry imprint Rack Press. His Crossings: A Journey through Borders was originally published in extract form by New Welsh Review, and by Seren in 2016. This is an edited extract from ‘Darkness and Light: Liverpool Imagined’, an essay in Nicholas’ entry, placed third this summer, to the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018 Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection entitled 'Writing and Engagement'.

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