Jeff Young released his new book Ghost Town in the middle of a pandemic; Getintothis’ Matthew Eland talks to him about The Futurist, psychogeography, and stalking Captain Beefheart.
When Liverpool author Jeff Young published Ghost Town – a time-hopping, poignant and occasionally hallucinatory volume that’s part memoir, part lament, and part psychogeographical celebration of the city – he had no idea that world events would conspire to give the book’s title a new, unintended meaning.
‘People have said, “Oh god, it’s like prophecy,” you know? I mean, yeah, the title is because of the memory ghosts and the ghosts of parts of the city that used to be there.
But then there was that footage of the mounted police riding through the city. And all you could see was the horse’s head and these empty streets. It became almost like a cowboy ghost town in a way.
I think the title is just like an accident in some ways, a kind of coincidental title. Some people pick up on it and go, “Wow, you called it that,” you know, it’s like it accidentally came out at the same time as the virus.’
Jeff’s evocations of Liverpool, with all its ‘thrilling dissonance’, demonstrate his love for the city of his birth, leading us to assume that lockdown must have been especially painful. But he’s actually been confined to his house since September 2019.
‘I’ve got an autoimmune problem. And then that triggered off psoriatic arthritis. I had this huge chain of events where we had… last year was a really difficult year with deaths in the family. And from that I got post-traumatic stress.
It’s really debilitating. You know, the arthritis is really painful. And the autoimmune system makes you vulnerable to everything.
The worst thing about medication is fatigue, it just wipes me out. There’s like this, collision of all these different things piling in on each other.
So when when the Coronavirus kicked in and the lockdown happened, I was just like “what the fuck?!” [laughs]
One of the side effects of all of that stuff, medication and so on, it’s like brain fog, your brain closes down and you become a hell of a lot less intelligent than you were. [laughs]
And so it’s really difficult to do anything. It’s partly like, got no stamina, no energy, and it’s hard to be creative in any way. So many artists, musicians, and writers, it’s like their work has gone out the window, but mine was already crashing.
So I’ve kind of just accepted it and resigned myself though. For now, this is what it is. I live a very quiet life. I potter about. [laughs]
And I haven’t really seen the city. I keep seeing these tantalizing glimpses of the strange in the city center, you know, the deserted streets, and I’d love to go for a little wander around there.
I’ve got friends who occasionally send me tantalizing photographs from their bike rides in the city. So I miss it a lot.’
Despite the book coming out at such an odd time, its release feels incredibly timely. There are a lot of people confined to their homes with free time on their hands. They’re thinking about their environments, and their lives, and the ways they think these should be. Is now a perfect time for this captive audience to receive Ghost Town?
‘Well you know what, it’s a mix of things.
A lot of people say this is the book for this time, for this moment. And then I’ve seen social media stuff where people have said, you should read this book, or wait until the lockdown’s over, because there’s quite a lot of sadness in the book.
I think some people just don’t want to be exposed to the melancholy at the moment.
And of course the book shops all closed. And so it’s not quite out there, in a way.
We were going to do a book launch and readings and there would have been festivals, and they’re all cancelled.
So the book feels like it’s in lockdown too. It feels like it’s sneaking out. It is reaching some people and I think when it’s allowed to go out there and the book shops open again it’ll go dashing out there.‘
The now-demolished Futurist cinema on Lime Street is a key motif in the book.
At one point Jeff quotes at length from the marketing blurb provided by the developers. Its description of the frieze on the front of the new building, created to ‘immortalise the development, buildings, business, people and heritage of Lime Street’, is completely at odds with the gaudy reality of the Lidl, student flats and empty units that they’ve actually installed.
How do these kinds of developments affect the psychic make-up of the people who live, work in, and use the city?
‘I think hugely. I think it affects the psychic makeup of the people and I think it affects the psychic makeup of the city itself. I think it’s possible to psychically damage the soul of the city.
And I think it’s about carelessness and thoughtlessness. And I think like, the kind of thing I’m trying to get at, in the book about Lime Streets and the Futurist is that those places, those cinemas are kind of community places, they’re gathering places.
And the architecture of those buildings, the cinemas and the theaters and concert halls, they weren’t built carelessly. They were built with great thought for the people that would use them. If you look at Lime Street now, it’s got two amazing beautiful pubs book-ending the street.
And in between, it’s just this empty, soulless nonsense, it’s completely lacking in charisma or character.
I think it matters to the dignity of the people and the dignity of the city to give them something meaningful and beautiful, and no way that anybody could persuade me that the buildings that replaced the Futurist are in any way meaningful.
So I find it very, I find it offensive, I find it very personally, I’m affronted that… there is a statement from the city council somewhere that says, that’s what the money provided, that’s the best we could do.
But you can, you can try a bit harder, give it some dignity and beauty.
I’ve written about the Futurist in the past, and I wrote a play based in the Futurist for the Everyman. And so for me, it’s very personal, from childhood, going with my parents through to teenage years, every visit to that cinema and every walk down that street had meaning.
And I think I say in the book, no one’s ever gonna ever say again last night I went down Lime Street, you know, I walked down Lime Street, unless you go into the supermarket to buy some…’
At this point, Jeff tails off, perhaps aware that we’ve stumbled on another of the book’s COVID echoes – the item referred to in the book is a ‘bumper pack of toilet roll’.
‘The COVID prophet,’ laughs Jeff. ‘I think if you’re the custodian of the place or the city, you owe it to that place to treat it with care.
And I think that nobody’s done that, lots of examples across the city but that’s, that is the one. That is the rawest. That’s the most painful.
And to put some vague references to what used to be there on the facade. It’s cheap. It just doesn’t answer anything.‘
The city plays a major role in the book, but it’s his family who are the most prominent.
There’s Jeff’s mother, a proto urban explorer who leads him through the alleys and back streets; there’s his father, whose fall down a factory chimney is the subject of one chapter; and there’s his Grandfather, turning blind as an old man, whose mental map of the city is being erased by the bulldozers outside.
What was Jeff’s inspiration in combining these different strands – the personal and the architectural – into one book?
‘It begins with my grandfather. And it goes back to the title, Ghost Town. I’ve often seen him. He died in the early 1970s. But I sometimes think I see him.
He was a Carter. He had teams of horses and he carted goods from the docks. And those people were the lifeblood of the city.
The traces of them are still there. Every time I see a cobblestone on Falkner Street I think of the rattling of the wheels of the carters going over. I wanted to honor and to pay respect to those generations before me, you know, originally coming over from Ireland in the late 1800s and being an integral part of the city.
So there’s that. And the route to it becoming a book was the series of pieces for Radio Three that were broadcast a couple of years ago. They were essays, three 50-minute talks. And three of those were Liverpool based.
One of them was Amsterdam. And one of them was about a time I spent living in Cornwall.
When the publisher saw the texts of those five radio talks, they were interested in the Liverpool sections of the broadcasts. Their thinking being that they were the truest to what I was trying to get across.
I sent the publishers about 12 other possibilities for other sections. And then I think we ended up with 18 sections, which became chapters in the book.‘
Some of these sections take in the Everton of Jeff’s childhood, some of them the Maghull canals and woodland of his adolescence.
There’s even the illegal flea markets of the seventies and eighties, in a Kirkdale blighted by managed decline.
Jeff draws vivid pictures of some of the characters that haunted these wastelands, people who might otherwise have passed noiselessly into history.
There’s Orlando Paso, ‘undefeated Welterweight Champion of Nigeria, winner of the 1958 Collister Belt’, now a gentle soul collecting ‘gaudy trinkets’ and ‘Crying Boy paintings when nobody else wanted them because it was a cursed image that caused houses to burn down.’
There’s the Dog King, a ‘demonic, wild-haired and bloodshot-eyed’ man with ropes tied around his body, each one with a dog on the end, ‘staggering in whichever direction the strongest or hungriest dog wanted to go’.
‘Those places were crawling with those kind of characters, and we still see them, but they’re not… if you have a street market, any market in any city in the world, characters gather.
I think places like markets and pubs, old men’s pubs, old school pubs, those people are there; there are less and less of them, there’s always new characters to take their place.
But I’ve always been fascinated by these people. You know, Cherry Blossom, or Boot Polish Head as we used to call him, who painted on his own hair with boot polish.
Just delightful eccentrics. But they don’t think they’re eccentrics. They think that they’re living their lives.
Orlando Paso was just an astonishing human being and you don’t hear about him very much.
When I’ve googled him I’ve found one or two bits. I found a boxing brochure, a program with the bill of that particular evening in the boxing ring; there’s not much, but he was incredible.
He used to have signed photographs. When people expressed their interest in who he was, he’d reach in his bag and you’d get a signed photograph.
And yeah, the Dog King. Terrifying vision! [laughs] It’s like something out of Goya.
They just fascinate me and I still kind of collect those people when I’m wandering around the city.
There’s that old lady again, you know, Elsie Barmaid. She’s in the book, and I still see a woman today, who I like to think might be Elsie Barmaid as an old lady, you know.
And she wanders around the city shouting at people, and I think, is that Elsie? So I think that makes the city really special and strange.’
This version of the city is bewildering, and it’s reassuring when we bump into a familiar face. Jeff confirms for us that the book dealer Gerard Reid who pops up in this chapter is that of Reid of Liverpool on Mount Pleasant.
‘Gerard used to come down the markets. He was already selling books but he didn’t have a shop.
Very often you’d pick up a book and he’d say, this is an Irish writer, Sean O’Casey, read it, don’t sell it. He’d pass the book to me, and I’d take it home and read it.
I owe Gerard a lot. I’ve told him this, he won’t have it! I told him, anything I ever learnt from books I learned from him.
In those days there were loads of loads of book shops in the city, back in my childhood and through into the 70s. There were like 12 book shops, not necessarily second-hand book shops, but browsing shops. There’s only a handful now and Gerard’s is one of them.
No, he’s one of my gods. [laughs] I still go in. I still go in sometimes and then in the winter, he’ll offer you a sweet, or a cup of tea, or a nip of whiskey. Yeah. That’s a bookseller!‘
The Kirkdale chapter is sountracked by the rare blues records that Jeff finds on the markets. He listens to Charlie Mingus’ Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, which feels ‘like the soundtrack to this wounded city.’
He tries to impose music elsewhere, too. Thursaston reminds Jeff of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, summoning up ‘glimmering fires in strange landscapes, astronomical awe and the bittersweet melancholy of sunset sadness.’
As an inveterate crate digger, how important was music to Jeff in the writing of the book?
‘I’ve always written to music. Mood setting. If I’m trying to get my head into a particular kind of atmosphere, I’ll go through a room full of records and CDs and find whatever piece of music matches the mood.
I think one of the things that happens in the book is that particular records that are found on junk markets or in secondhand shops, I quite often associate them with the place where I bought the record.
Rummaging through a market store through a cardboard box full of albums and what is this, you know, looking for weird stuff and all the rare stuff. And so finding old Howlin’ Wolf albums or Charlie Mingus, down at the street market in Kirkdale, was magic. Taking it home and putting it on your record player. Oh, my God.
In the writing of the book, I spent a lot of time around those streets again, the Kirkdale and Everton streets, and Mingus just kept popping back into my head, it was just a stunning record.‘
Music is also integral to the Underground Republic chapter of the book, which relates the author’s time in the pre-punk, pre-Eric’s Mathew Street.
Anyone familiar with the KLF and Toxteth’s Day of the Dead will be familiar with this occult version of Mathew Street, with the pool of Jung’s dreams and its ley line. But it’s still exciting to read about this period in the area’s history.
It’s a world away from the stag and hen do’s and the Beatles memorabilia of today. What was it about the place that made it such a wellspring of creativity?
‘I think an awful lot of creativity comes out of hardship.
It’s a mixture of things. It’s hardship or struggle; that includes poverty or unemployment. Boredom is good [laughs]for creativity, misfits, people who don’t fit in.
It was that it was a secret place. It was a back alley with a pub, and the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun, and the host of The Cavern, because they demolished it. The Cavern was a car park.
In the book I call it Underground Republic because you go through these gateways into this tiny area in the city where most people didn’t bother to go; you’d go if you were going to the White Star or the Grapes for a pint, but lots of people went just to hang out in the street, you know, particularly once the Liverpool School opened, it was like, these people are as weird as we are, you know?
And then when people like Ken Campbell come into the city, in that same building, it took on this kind of science fiction mystical vibe as well. If Ken Campbell is in that street making theater based on Robert Anton Wilson books, then something’s going on. [laughs]
And then of course Bill Drummond was around, you know, Bill Drummond was the carpenter for Ken Campbell and a lot of that ley-line mythology, you know, comes from Bill really.
You’ve got The Grapes on this side of the road, you’ve got the Liverpool School on the other side of the road. You’ve got gay clubs, dotted around when it was a very clandestine operation. You’ve got the ghost of The Cavern. And that was it. That’s quite a heady brew.‘
Captain Beefheart comes to town for a gig at Rotters Club in October 1980. Jeff spots him ‘standing bemused in the street’ outside St John’s, looking up at the monstrous shopping precinct as if trying to make sense of it.
Jeff was afraid to approach him because of his ‘strange energies’; in the book he describes his retreat to a nearby escalator, where he goes up and down, ‘watching the magus standing there as if he were casting a spell or conducting an exorcism’.
Does he ever wish he’d spoken to him, and what does he think Beefheart thought of St John’s?
‘I wish I’d spoken to him. He was too formidable.
I’ve been into Beefheart since the early seventies. It never occurred to me that I’d get to see him perform. And of course when he performed, this was sort of round Bat Chain Puller time.
Bat Chain Puller had been for years this holy grail because it wasn’t available. Roger Eagle had a cassette and he played it at Eric’s in 1977. Everyone’s going ‘oh my god it’s Bat Chain Puller,’ y’know. A version of that became Shiny Beast.
And so to see Captain Beefheart on stage was phenomenal. But just to see him before the gig standing in the street was like, this magic man, this shaman.
I think he was thinking “what the fuck is this?”, y’know [laughs]. St John’s precinct. And it wasn’t even the glamorous level of the precinct where the shops are, it was the underground car park, just along from the Penny Farthing pub. What are you going to do if you’re Captain Beefheart and you’ve landed there?‘
One of the book’s most distinctive features is its photography.
We see individual elements of the city made strange by their isolation on the page, like the statue of Mercury in his aviator’s goggles on the side of the St George’s dock building.
We also see moments of extraordinary serendipity: in the narrow column of sky above Sweeting street, with its relict cranes and huddled, scrolling figure, we spot a plane, suspended at the top of the frame.
There are also the family photos, which allow us to put faces to the names in the book.
‘The photographs in the book were taken by a man called Graham Shackleton, who just walked with me.
We walked for hours and hours and hours and I just told him stories. It was just me, walking down the street with Graham, telling him a story about why this place matters or why this building matters.
Unbeknownst to me, he was firing off shots. And so in that sense, that side of the book is a bit of a collaboration. I actually think Graham should get more credit for that. But he’s quite shy and retiring!
Again, it’s like going back to the ghost thing. The photographs should have the feel of like when you buy a secondhand book and you open pages and something drops out, and it might just be a bus ticket, or it might be an old book mark or an envelope.
And the photographs should feel like they’re just tucked into the pages of the book. I hope that’s the way it comes across.
I wanted it to be like a found object. I’d like to find it. I’d like to go into Henry Bohn’s on London Road and find it. God, this is weird, what is this?
Occasionally people have said to me ‘why aren’t the photographs captioned?’ It doesn’t tell you what the photograph is or where it is. But we never wanted that, we just wanted them to be ghost-like and a bit of a mystery. And you can make your own associations.
The family photographs were fairly recent discoveries. Me and my sister particularly, going through old boxes that we were finding tucked away in my parent’s house and my sister’s house, photographs of my Mum and Dad on their honeymoon.
They were a huge source of inspiration for the book.
The photograph on the cover is my Grandma when she was a little girl, with her brother Tom. We only found that, I was probably 6 months into writing the book and that photograph turned up.
There’s photographs of my sister and my sister died during the writing of the book and she’s in the book, so in that sense it’s a memorial.
Photographs are incredibly potent. You don’t need to say anything, sometimes they’re just there, aren’t they.’
The photographs taken in the present day illustrate that despite all the damage done to the city in the name of regeneration, there are still ‘hidden and forgotten’ nooks and crannies that evoke the childhood excursions taken throughout the city with his mother.
If Jeff had to pick his top three favourite places in Liverpool, which would they be?
‘Leather Lane is one of them. We used to walk from Exchange Station up at the top of Moorfields, me and me Mum. We’d never walk down the proper main street, she’d always find back alleys.
She was just like an explorer, she was like an urban explorer. Leather Lane is intact. It’s a narrow alley but it used to be full of really quirky shops. Cobblers and philatelists.
There’s still a little bit of that there, but of course at the bottom end of that street you’ve got Rigby’s pub, so you’ve got a really good boozer.
Roughly across the road from that is Sweeting Street. Which used to be quite a sleazy street. When I was a teenager you used to have newspaper stalls there that basically sold pornography, but there were also cellar clubs.
There was a club called Metro. So you’d go there and you’d see Deaf School play. They had a residency, so you’d go to a Deaf School gig.
So Leather Lane, Sweeting Street, and that little labyrinth of streets just off Hope Street. Which, there’s a photograph at the beginning of the book.
With Bellew’s coffee merchants, I think it’s called Back Hope Place. It’s a beautiful photograph in the book and everything’s cobbled and it’s got like a… [leafs through book]it’s that one. [Ed’s note: this is Hope Way]
If you’d asked me 20 years ago it would have been Mathew Street, but I can’t even go to Mathew Street any more, it makes me feel ill. [laughs]
Ten years ago it would have been Wolstenholme Square, where the Kazimier was. That’s a place with counter-cultural history. I like the kind of slightly unauthorised places, the places bordering on the dodgy. [laughs]
That’s why Mathew Street had The Cavern. That’s why it had Eric’s. Because they were a bit rough around the edges.
It’s nice to see streets being done up – Castle Street looks amazing now, Castle Street looks like a European street; it could be in Lisbon, it could be in Paris.
But I’d rather nip off down a back alley. Might get a bit of trouble down there, but it’s worth a look isn’t it?‘
With Jeff’s health troubles and the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been an odd time to release a book. It’s also been difficult to make plans for the future.
But what next for Jeff? Can we expect a follow-up?
‘I think there’s a sequel. There are so many stories to tell. The book only really touches on my arrival in Liverpool 8 in the early eighties, in Falkner Square and so on. I’ve lived in nearly all of those streets, Falkner Street, Falkner Square, Huskisson, Sandon Street.
It was still quite an Afro-Carribean community. There were a lot more pubs and shebeens – y’know, drinking dens – and I think a lot more street life.
I’ve written about that time and place in theatre pieces, but yeah, there’s another book. And I’m knocking on now! [laughs]
I think the book takes us up to around about my mid- to late-twenties. I’ve done a lot more since then. I’d like to explore that.
It depends if any publishers will have me! [laughs]And then… that’s it. My main thing is to get better, get healthy and then come up with another magnum opus! [laughs]’
Jeff hopes for the book to ‘come out of hibernation’ once lockdown is over; to do a launch and some events when the time is right; perhaps even a gig.
The timing of its release has been uncanny, given its subject matter. In many ways it’s very appropriate – despite it being a book with one eye on the past, it still feels contemporary and relevant.
‘I think the very nature of the book, the way time is not linear, the way time is layered and the past comes into the present… nostalgia can be quite a negative energy-sapping thing, whereas I don’t think the book is nostalgic, because the book is trying to bring the past into the present and to have a conversation about now and tomorrow.
I think ultimately it’s a book about [long pause]treating the city as a place to have those conversations. And to look after it properly. And each other, obviously. I think we should treat the city as if it’s a living thing and take care of it.
It’s not just about the economy, it’s not just about commerce and consumerism – it’s got blood, and it lives and we keep injuring it, wounding it, and that’s not healthy.
So that’s what I think!‘ [laughs]
Ghost Town is out now, courtesy of Little Toller Books.
Photos by Graham Shackleton