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