Menu
A+ A A-

No Friends of State; Port City Writers and The Sea.

When George Garrett entered New York harbour as a stoker aboard the Franconia in 1917, he signed the ‘aliens’ (crew list) register, not as an English national but Irish. This was not altogether surprising, although born on Merseyside, both his parents were from Ireland, he was brought up in a heavily Irish and dual heritage neighbourhood in the middle of Liverpool’s Sailortown and the firemen he was working with came mostly came from the North end of the City and consistently returned an Irish Nationalist member of parliament.  This sense of dual identity returned me to other aspects of port cities which Steve Higginson and myself had been working on for some time, the result was small article entitled The Temps Manifesto which was published ten years ago.
 
George Garrett was ahead of the game. He formed part of the classic ‘meteque,’ looking both to ‘home’ and ‘away’, and inhabited the same, in between, world of other port city writers. He was defining himself by what he felt culturally as opposed to his ‘identity being foisted upon him by the imposition of state borders. Reading the work of other Liverpool Irish Seaman writers notably James Hanley over the last thirty years it seems important to understand how some of the characteristics of their work, particularly how the context of   ‘place’  played such a feature in their writing as much as the social, cultural and economic issues that surrounded them. The problem is what if that ‘place’ is not stable and built upon movement?
 
The Temps Manifesto (2005)) asks why Liverpool like most port cities differs in major characteristics to its own Nation State. It describes a typology of the city’s defining features which includes concepts of time, employment, movement, markets, music and poetics. It concludes with the seamen and writers that began publishing in the inter-war period.  The poetics interweaves the idea of the sea across other features of the typology. This essay attempts to show how these sentiments were shared by other writers in European port cities who also had difficulty with their nation states, at distinct moments of a post war world.


 
The classic meteque – of people looking both to home and to away, defines their work as it does their cities. This hybrid nature informs an essential element of the ambiguousness evoked towards the nation state; often heightened by its reaction to phenomenon such as war, mass migration, crisis of capital or Cultural Revolution. Writers from the port cities of Hamburg, Marseille, Naples, Gdansk and Istanbul will be considered here before starting and returning to Liverpool as a focus of attention. Their cities have historically been linked with the ebbs and flow of population and cultural change which have made them all to a lesser or greater degree melting pots, city states - irrevocably altered by great or terrible events. As Paul de Noyer says of Liverpool, ‘a city born between slavery and famine’ (De Noyer 21)
 
Part of this hybridity is the contrast of the “intense locale” between the parish of home and the endless possibilities of being “away” We return to the question of what makes Port cities different whether from employment conditions, movement, music or poetics and how this reflects in the hybrid way the writers frame their work, Their relationship to their own nation state brings us to the ‘idea of the sea’ and the concept of the Other as the defining features of what characterises them both. They are home and ‘away’ at the same time.
 
The context of this hybridity in the origins of the port city differs from the history of Agriculture or indeed the cottage production that grew into heavy industry. In the Storyteller Walter Benjamin (1936) notes the historical distinctions between the stories of the peasant and the trading seaman. It was Ken Worpole, in his book Dockers and Detectives (1983, 2008) that used Benjamin’s concept to sketch out significant differences in the cultural life of port cities. It was a sadly unrecognised literary historian from Liverpool, Alan O’Toole who passed over his research to the author, his colleague in the Worker Writer’s Federation; and who first illustrated the linkage of seaman writers of Liverpool Irish ancestry with the city and their ability to look beyond ‘home’.
 
There were no great state celebrations in Liverpool at the end of the Second World War except a thankfulness that it was over yet no other British port had lost as many seafarers. At the time when George Garrett’s, Liverpool,1921 -22 was first published in 1949, over 70,000 crammed into Goodison Park to see Ireland play England in celebration at the formation of the Irish Republic. The crowd sang along with the new lightweight boxing champion of the world Rinty Monaghan who stood and crooned ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’. This situation was reversed in 1966 when the English FA moved a scheduled world cup semi final away from Everton’s ground to Wembley, TheEmpire Stadium so as the National team could play in London against Portugal. Scousers were deemed not patriotic enough. It carried resonances with one of the Admiral’s of the Spanish Armada who commented about the city being, ‘a free land of cheap food and wine and full of Catholics’
 
If Port cities are different, on the one hand reflecting an intense localism of their own waterfront and immediate interior but also having the option of a different plane of experience, a motivated movement out across time and space towards the endless horizon of sea and sky, then their ancient descriptions as “settlements” betrays another truth. They were far from settled. Port cities were full of the restless, the dissatisfied, the turbulent and angry, “beyond the pale “transgressives; their shifting populations came from many places – the poor driftwood seeking to escape, the huddled masses of famine, oppression and war. Port cities know how to mourn but also how to dance; historically their people were described as vagabondi.   
 
The uniqueness of O’Toole’s research was to link identity and class at sea to other issues of such as solitude (James Hanley), experience of the port, the jail and the tramp (James Phelan) and the curiously explosive worlds of being at home in the dockland parish and away on the skyline (George Garrett). It was exemplified in what he wrote in a long piece (unpublished) on Garrett’s work, of the home as the intense world and away, the far horizon and freedom of the sea but with the similar confinement of a ship’s forecastle or the belly of its stokehold. In all of these writers we read the poetry of confined spaces and the emotional life of characters driven to the edge This freedom might have been curtailed in other forms of confinement but it possessed a different set of dynamics not found around the kitchen table.
 
 
The key themes in their work is an individual sense of justice which is characterised by imprisonment, (Life in Phelans case), class confinement and breaking out but there is also a freedom in seeking expression for themselves in the dual nature of their identity. Born within a year of each other between 1895 -97, their non-fiction bears the stamp of social conscience whilst their fiction is outraged at petty tyranny and consoled by small victory. Whether Hanley’s Grey Children (1937) Phelan’s Ten a Penny People (1938) or Garrett’s Liverpool -1921 – 1922 (1949) the themes echo the troubled relationship between state, nation and citizen. They write of the poor people who inhabited their cities but within them there is always the constant tension, the itch to be ‘away.
 
They were fascinated by time, time spent in different places, other than Liverpool’s teeming waterfront In terms of employment all of them jumped ship, in that most casualised movement of labour, in particular along the coast of the Americas, from Halifax Nova Scotia to Buenos Aires. They were fascinated by movement and music, of quayside and city.  Phelan extols the ‘easy musical life of New Orleans’, Hanley taught himself to play classical music, Garrett sang in bars in New York as well as giving renditions of Eugene O’Neil’s early one act plays. In terms of their politics all were of the left and republicans but as in the case of so many writers they didn’t join organisations and if they did they soon left. But whether Individual (Hanley) Collective (Garrett) or Republican (Phelan) justice was always central to their work as much as ‘the forest fires of their imagination’  
 
Perhaps O’Toole’s most important observation was these writers’ ‘Otherness’,
they were from Liverpool but operated and lived out their lives as if they were from different places (Until his death Hanley lied about his place of birth, choosing Dublin over Liverpool. At his trial Garrett was asked if he ever accepted money from a foreign Government, ‘Yes’ he replied. The prosecution rubbed its hands, ‘the British Government’ he continued, ‘I’m on the Dole.’ James Phelan refused to speak at his trial and death sentence and was forever known as ‘The Silent Witness’) It was as if Jorge Luis Borges dictum was present in their lives, ‘if you want to write about one place then imagine yourself in another, if you want to write about New York then imagine Buenos Aires’ (Christ Interview 12). America through Liverpool via Garrett, Wales through Liverpool via Hanley, Ireland through Liverpool via Phelan and then to the sea; they provided not a Liverpool ‘School’ but a common theme, a theme of looking  away in contrast to the solidity certainties of home.Their otherness is similar to writers from other European port cities; the ones considered here all carry a resonance with this hybrid character.           
 
It is what makes them “not quite” German, French, Italian, Turkish, Polish, still less English. Like the cities they inhabit there exists within them a distinct historical sense of themselves and how the ‘idea of the sea’ conjures with their work. For these writers the immediate waterfront and far horizon exhibits a sense of freedom no matter how illusory. It is why historically people gravitate towards port cities. The rhythms of the maritime world are different to the rural and later to the processes of production structured by industry. This more informal sector of the economy has always provided an alternative to industrial time discipline. The tyranny of the clock has equally been associated with centralised processes; the routine of the discharging of ships within the dock and a time order consonant with the tide has produced an oppositional culture as irregularity, instability and mobility provided common features of waterfront life. These writers exhibit all these tensions within their work.
 
FirstHubert Fichte; from Hamburg, his major themecentres on the city and characterises Sexuality, Family and Seamen between the Saint Pauli waterfront and ‘away’. In the mid sixties Fichte published his first novel. He then had a regular column in the magazine Kronket. One year after publication of the Orphanage (1965) he criticized the German State in an article called – Your friend and aide: "Shall the baton displace arguments, humour, and understanding from the side of the police in this young democracy, burdened with such an evil mortgage?" (Kronket, Nr. 8). In this early elliptical novel, Fichte explores the circular world of leaving, and coming back, in between is an enforced staying, which re-enforces his sense of otherness.
In the ‘Seventies Fichte worked more and more on ethnology; he traveled to the port cities of Brazil. He was engrossed by the culture and ancestors of the early seamen and the indigenous inhabitants and the relationship between home port and distance. This occupied his research in the Haitian and Trinidadian docksides of Port au Prince and Port of Spain.  His description of the work based on these travels, like Xango (1976) and Petersilie, (1980) was "Ethnopoesie". With these works, he created a technique of combining history and poetry. At home, his domestic ethnology was completed with his series of St Pauli interviews, the WolliIndienfahrer. The relationship of St. Pauli as the intense locale of the Hamburg waterfront and its relationship with the West Indies and the Spanish Main on the far horizon consumed him as much as the idea of the sea as a global highway.
Jean Claude Izzo writes of Marseille. He situates his novels between first second and third waves of immigration to the French port city. Intense locales, far horizons, Belle de Mai generations of seamen and Dockers, syndicalists and communists; Izzo’s Marseilles is a city in constant tension between immigrants, the sea and the wider trajectory of the French state. His trilogy of detective novels, Total Chaos, Chourmo andSolea ( 1996) imagines Marseilles as a wholly immigrant city; a world of tension between the old Spanish and Italian  immigrants  into which Izzo was born, the French themselves  and the new waves of the Maghreb and equatorial French Africa. A subsequent strengthening of the State (including his experience of National Service in Africa in 1963) exacerbated by the white exodus of the “pied noirs” from Algeria to Marseille in the Fifth Republic add to the tension of the city. Ironically, most of these ‘Quasi Algerians’ –like the father of Albert Camus – were ‘Northerners,’ emigrants from Lorraine and Alsace  after the losses to Prussia in 1871 yet  Marseilles was the French city that reminded them most of “Home”. Into this melting pot environment, Izzo writes “only the poor lived by and dreamed of the sea “.
 
The fact that Izzo’s hero is a Detective Inspector, himself an immigrant, only makes his ‘otherness’ more profound in his relationship to the State.It is the intense localism of the waterfront and its relationship to the far horizon that provides the themes and tensions in his books between State agencies and its ‘Other’population but there is also a deep love of the city that rides alongside it. At the novel’s conclusion, Iizzo writes of this idea from across, the Maghreb and Arabian Sea “At last Marseilles, revealed. The way the Phoenician must have seen it for the first time from the sea, one morning many centuries ago; the same sense of wonder, the port of Massilia…white at first then ochre and pink; a city after our own hearts,” Marseille is pictured across history as open to the hinterlands of all its ‘comers and goers’; as paradoxical as Borge’s New York, quintessential yet ‘not quite’ French.
 
                          Elana Ferrante’s Naples is a city painted against itself on a canvas of family and gender. The sea does not feature in her work except anecdotally yet the idea of it is never absent; a vector for the ever present and constant paradox between staying and leaving. Sevenmillion departed Naples from between 1870 – 1910, on the great emigrant ships that sailed to the Americas. She asks “Do only the ones that come to be more Mafia, more gangster, come from different lands?”  Writing in 2008 Ferrante states that the garbage in the city streets of the ‘intense locale’ is nothing new; it has decades of history running behind it. “That organized crime controls the garbage industry and runs a staggering number of illegal dumps, everyone has known for a long time. That illegality flourishes, and very profitably, under the umbrella of the law thanks to the intervention of politicians and the State is not even arguable — it’s something that has been happening forever.”
 
                          In her novel Troubling Love from the time her self taught, poor artist father instead of painting moons and mountains and lakes  of Southern Italy starts to make likenesses of the photographs of mothers, wives and lovers kept in wallets of the American seamen who came to Naples with the Sixth  Fleet, life got better. It meant that the family were able to eat each day. That her mother’s supposed lover had instigated this business only made the chaos of the city seem as normal. Ferrante asks in Troubling Love (2007) what are the conditions of gender and identity in a place that is constantly locked between coming, staying or leaving? 
 
 
The daughter searches for her mother’s past in the chaos of the port and in the meantime discovers her own idea of the sea. It is the angry humour of casualism born out of such chaos that provides the legacy.  She writes “If the ultimate proof that in Naples there is nothing to be done, there remains only the quiet impotence and occasional ecstasy of those who manage to get by in the rot.” Sat at a café’ by the water’s edge, before departing, she muses on the otherness of her situation, “I am my mother and my mother is me “
 
By contrast, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul is a city drowning between cultures. What has happened to the great Cosmopolitan City of Istanbul? He asks. The Istambullu citizens’ great source of satisfaction is to watch the ships passing on the Bosporus. Pamuk in his classic Memories and the City whilst celebrating Istanbul sees it gradually retreating from a great cosmopolitan centre to an island within a country. From a city that spoke four or five languages, there came a call from the State “Speak Turkish citizen”. Pamuk’s book of Istanbul celebrates the intense locale and the sea but he also asks where is the far horizon? Does modernisation simply mean Westernistion, Nationalism and the State, he wonders?
 “To savour Istanbul’s back streets, you must first and foremost be a “stranger” to them  the vines and trees that endow its ruins with accidental grace, a collapsed building, a row of houses abandoned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews as a nationalist State bore down upon minorities., a cascade of domes and rooftops.” Istanbul’s greatest virtue is its peoples ability to see the city through both Western and Eastern eyes – separated by the water. It is this world that conveys identity but one of a curious hybrid kind.  From Catholic Constantinople to a centre of Orthodox religion then the Pashas of the Ottoman Empire and Islam, this shifting of the city poses for Pamuk questions for the State to answer. “The backwardness of the Ottoman Empire was huge and cosmopolitan whereas the Turkey of Europe is secular, modern but small minded.” Always his hope is the sea, the sea that runs right through the heart of his city and away from the grimace of armed borders.
Because of this cosmopolitanism Pamuk has often been led into controversy with the Turkish State for his support of the autonomous rights of ethnic minorities; especially with the rights of the Kurdish nation and the Palestinians, which questions both the internal and the distant the legacy of Christian and Ottoman Empires. The State has put him on trial for his views. It calls into question Pamuk’s allegiance especially from a port city where the big skies always seep away from any centralising narrative, embellished by his hybrid spirit.
Stefan Chwin’s port city of Gdansk captures both similarity and difference in a way that is off centre from Pamuk but which articulates the same theme through the eyes of an individual. Gdansk is the Baltic port caught between place and difference, Nation and State. Chwin’swork captures the hybridity of this world between, identity, national borders and the sea. He outlinesthe paradox of existing in different countries while remaining in the same place as much as Borges could ever imagine. Gdansk might be the seaport of a Polish nation but it is also the Danzig of Germany up to the First World War. The ports dual identity is what interests Chwin, from the German ‘corridor’ and Free Port until 1939, the Nazi annexation, and the Soviet “liberation” to the present day Polish port city of Gdansk where the statue of another hybrid Joseph Conrad gazes over the harbour.  
 
This transitory world of moving from one culture to another yet geographically staying in the same place is reflected in Chwin’s Death in Danzig (2005) here the language is between being home and being away and about being in two countries at once. It causes the central character Hanneman to exclaim.”Perhaps the real trick is to die at the right moment,” or indeed when to be born. Chwin echoes Pamuk when he states that whilst working on the book, he ‘had the impression that I was entering a world where I had already been, that I recognised old streets, houses, trees objects and people as if I had seen it all before’
 
The contrasts are echoed by the idea of the sea. The death of his lover in a ferry accident just immediately before the nine thousand, four hundred souls who perished on the great ship the Bernhof taking “ our eastern Germans” back from Danzig to Hamburg towards the end of the war in 1944  provides a strange existential moment as profound as in the work of Ferrante or Hanley. This is the world of those who have had to leave and those who have come to reclaim a national territory and those who stay, in an upside down world  normally characterised by the traditional emigration routes.  Borges, another port city writer and failed Argentinian notes that incriss crossing the great oceans, “no wave returns to its exact same source.” Chwin would agree. It is only the idea of the sea that lessens his pain. Like Marseille, it is only the sea that keeps Danzig/Gdansk alive.
 
Returning to Liverpool, Brian Jacques’s novels concern the “once upon a time and far away” world of children’s literature. It is a narrative that exists between fantasy and reality, home and distance. Seamen from Britain, France, Spain and Colombia (Cartagena) on The Spanish Main are central to Jacques’s FlyingDutchman quartet yet the themes of confinement remain the same as those early Liverpool above. The original audience for Jacques’ were visually impaired children who were caught between being “constrained” and powerless yet excited by far horizons. These children at the School for the Blind in Liverpool were drawn to this ex seaman’s tales, a particular dynamic of change that explores and transforms trapped bodies across time into huge voyages and discoveries. Jacques’s world is of a maritime economy full of hybrid characters whose escape is the sea. There is a great deal of Borges in his imagery.
 
 What links him to the others is his juxtaposition of the intense locale and the far horizon.  Like the earlier writers who had been to sea and worked on the docks he bases his animal characters on his own family along the waterfront. Jacques brings to his writing, that fire of the imagination as seen by ordinary people without the gift of sight. His first book was published in the year of James Hanley’s death in 1985, - “The neglected genius of British Literature” - was The Times description in its obituary and similar to Jacques’s project is the metamorphosis of the sea on a structure of being.
 
 One of his last works is the Angel’s Command (2006) where his characters remain forever young as their body’s stream away across history. They assume a freedom yet a collectivity about them in the same way as Fichte portrayed the ancestors of Hamburg sailors in the ports of Brazil or the same dockside bars and 42cd street culture where George Garret drank and sang in New Yorkaboard the Franconia.in 1917.
 
The fact that Jacques chose to paint pictures via stories for children –even after his adult plays were published and performed – made his project more visceral. The struggle to bring a sense of freedom to those incarcerated in their corporeal beings but not done down by those chains echoes the same imagination of Hanley with his great quintet of books, “The Fury’s” (published between the 1930’s and  the 1950’s.) In some ways Jacques both resumes and completes Hanley’s great modernist project of those caught between the intense locale and the far horizon.  His work is no more fantastic than the national poet of Greece Constantine Cafafy (d 1933) who came to Liverpool as a boy and prayed in the newly opened Orthodox church on Princes Boulevard (1872) and who throughout his life neither lived in Athens nor Greece but after Liverpool resided in Constantinople (Istanbul) and for the rest of his life at home in his port city of Alexandria. Here from the hybridity of the Greek Diaspora he constructed his great poems of the everyday and the ancientagainst the constant of the sea.
 
All these writers bring to their work this hybrid world of “home” and “away”.
The idea of the sea made Port cities post modern before the term was invented. It is their nature to be sited on the ‘edge’ of their nation states but they also overflow the boundaries of any single custom or national identity. These cities have always been ‘in the mix’ and bear little in common between the ‘edge’ and the central domain of the nation state.  In contrast, for the State to thrive it needs the sedentary settlements of the middle and a rarely moving centre. It needs a backbone, a sun and stable field. Within a historical context; transitory people do not easily embrace the impositions of permanent institutions. Like its tidal waters the port is a place always on the move. Whilst all of these writers do not share the same political persuasions, the concept of justice beyond the framework of the State is always present in their work.
 
The early Liverpool writers , Hanley, Garrett and Phelan raged against poverty and confinement : Fichte’s transsexual persecution, Izzo against State promoted racism in France, Ferrante’s fury with the  corruptions of the Italian Mezzogiorno , Pamuk's  trial, Chwin’s incandescence with both German and Polish Nationalism  are all redolent of Alfred de Musset’s point made almost two centuries before, that “summoned fellow writers to refuse cooperation with the enterprise of the  politicians, the prophets and the preachers of closely guarded borders and gun-bristling trenches.” (Bauman 80)Brian Jacques’s assertion, with his French and Irish background, that he is not much of an Englishman but a very patriotic Scouser could be said of all these writers in relation to their own nation state, the same with Garrett who posted his ‘Irish’ notice on reaching New York harbour.
 
The trace still echoes of a maritime economy. It is the work of another Jacques; Derrida, another  ‘meteque’ neither of one place nor another, born in Algeria, to parents of Jewish faith, a citizen of France but with his heart in all ‘otherness’, who questioned the validity of any centralizing narrative . If translocation is the space between words then Derrida's mission was to keep open a place in cultural production for where the marginalized or transgressive, the vagabondi might make a mark. He questioned the dominant cannons of literature made use of by the State just as Walter Benjamin made the distinctions in storytelling between the peasant and the trading seaman. (Demuere 17) Container ports may now “contain” new developments outside these historic port cities but the same pull of intense local, far horizon and idea of the sea still remain long after mass shipping has gone.
 
Time, movement and poetics operate differently at the port. Port cities are ultimately and simultaneously vectors of intense localism and far horizons, intense devotion or chronic disorder. The idea of sailertown gives them that remainder. Garcia Marquez in Cartagena de las Indias, Marakami in Kobe, Portalobos in Vera Cruz, Sabbato in Buenos Aires or Jorge Abado in Salvador are just some of the writers that could easily fall into the same category of “estrangement” from their own nation state. So how does a city like Liverpool imagine itself, inward to the land or outward to the sea? Only one thing is certain, the city will continue to be tugged by the contradictory flows of the themes and ideas expressed by the duality of the writers above. Whether the idea of ‘Sailortown’ defines the city or whether the idea of being ‘away’ comes with the extension of Cruise liner terminals and a casino economy built on retail and music in  major new shopping emporiums is another question.  What remains is a resonance of a topographical past in the present. Port cities make hybrids of us all; the State will always struggle with something of mixed origin or composition at its edge.

Liverpool, March 2015

Tony Wailey
Last modified onMonday, 20 April 2015 18:47
Rate this item
(0 votes)
back to top