Monday, 6 August 2012

A REMINDER OF SOPHIATOWN IN TOXTETH


Learning often comes unexpectedly. Recently I was wandering through the ‘Welsh Streets’ in Liverpool’s Toxteth district. Because of my interest in social documentary and heritage I have spent many hours with my camera walking around the silent streets of ‘tinned up’ houses in Liverpool 8. This is one of several areas in the city where a whole community has been cleared of residents, their properties having been compulsory purchased in preparation for demolition – all part of the council’s grand regeneration plan.

Madryn Street as a poetry and songbook!

One of the ‘Welsh Streets’ is Madryn Street where Ringo Starr was born. (There is still some debate about whether no.9 should be preserved as a national treasure!) I noticed that most of the small terraced houses along Ringo’s side of Madryn Street have had sheets of song lyrics / poetry pasted onto their sealed up doors and windows. Most of the lyrics are entirely appropriate (Ghost Town, Anthem for Doomed Houses, We Shall Not Be Moved etc.) resulting in the whole street becoming a cultural installation. I photographed several of them before the sun, wind and rain hides their messages.

 One of the poems was called ‘The Day They Came for Our House’. The prose included “Armed with bulldozers / they came to do a job / nothing more / than hired killers”. The poem was credited to Dan Mattera – that’s all I knew from the photocopied sheet of lyrics - so I educated myself later in the day. It  was written about the clearance and obliteration of Sophiatown in the 50s and early 60s in South Africa. Sophiatown was a vibrant, urban, multi-cultural community – one of the oldest black suburbs of Johannesburg. Under apartheid, it was cleared, demolished and rebuilt as a white suburb (renamed as Triomf). The township had been famed for its culture of writing, art and music – notably jazz and blues. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were both Sophiatown residents. 

Don Mattera ('Dan' is a misprint) was an activist in the struggle against apartheid but he subsequently became a poet, writer and journalist. ‘The Day They Came for Our House’ was published in Mattera’s book ‘Azanian Love Song’ in 1983. To my shame I didn’t know the history of Sophiatown and hadn’t read any of Mattera’s books or poetry until I researched these things when I returned home. I’m glad I did – the shameful story of racial clearances in South Africa is something that we should all know about. Sometimes learning comes from unexpected sources – in this case my walk down Ringo’s old street resulted in my learning about 50yr old events from 6000 miles away!






Wilfred Owen's 1917 poem - 'Anthem For Doomed Youth' reworked for condemned housing



5 comments:

  1. Update on Welsh Streets - see Liverpool Daily Post link that outlines plans to save a few houses in Madryn Street and Kelvin Grove. so, it looks like most of the Welsh Streets will be demolished! http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/2012/08/25/public-get-first-glimpes-of-plans-for-150-new-homes-in-liverpool-s-welsh-streets-100252-31694577/

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  2. I have discovered that the poems were placed on the Madryn Street houses by a group called 'The Unknown Poets'- bringing attention to the likely demolition of most of the Welsh Street properties. They did the same thing in 2010. They were reported as saying "While we don’t think it will save the houses, it will have brightened up people’s lives in some small way. We turned a derelict street into an open-air gallery."

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  3. Dear Alan - this is wonderful! I'm writing a book on Sophiatown & its legacy around the world(s) and I only came as far as Bedford in GB for now! Would be a pleasure to get into conversation. Many greetings from Germany & keep up the writing - Katharina

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    1. thanks Katharina - would be happy to talk to you. I guess that the Sophiatown poem in Madryn Street counts as part of the worldwide legacy! Let me know if you want a photo for your book.
      Alan

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  4. 'Anthem for Doomed Houses' is a reworking of Wilfred Owen's famous WW1 poem 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'

    What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
    Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
    Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
    Can patter out their hasty orisons.
    No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
    Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
    The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
    And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

    What candles may be held to speed them all?
    Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
    Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
    The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
    Their flowers the tenderness of silent maids,
    And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

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