The Folks Who Live(d) on the Hill: Of Time and the City

Photo: Bernard Fallon/Strand Releasing

Nothing, like something, happens anywhere—or so the poem goes. 

In Of Time and the City, Terence Davies reflects on how seemingly everything happened some place: Liverpool, the city that, if it “did not exist…would have to be invented.” But Davies’s film is not really about our shared hometown—it has none of the objectivity of the city symphonies that it bears passing similarities to. Rather, it’s a film about the experience of having lived in Liverpool; an autobiography, yes, but one informed by, and interrogative of, the notion that what it means to have grown up there is somehow unique. 

I first saw the film in the days leading up to my grandmother’s funeral, as I tried to shake off a sense of unreality that felt at odds with the act of going home. She spent her entire life in Liverpool, much of it in a flat above the newsagent she ran with my grandad. Both the shop, and that first house, were pulled down in the slum clearances of the 1960s and early 1970s, and I never knew either of them. Yet I heard the stories, told in overlapping raptures on long Sunday afternoons after church, as she and my dad held court together. Davies’s film is structured like a memory and told like fiction—on first watch, it felt, somehow, like just one more hour on one more Sunday, sat cross-legged on the floor of the house she’d lived in since the clearances made her amongst the last to leave Anfield, over 50 years ago. 

Davies recognizes that life when you’re a child plays out in categories—football, cinema, and church giving way, eventually, to desire and death—and it’s only when you grow up that all of that becomes a jumble. Your life is only known in the telling. “We leave the place we love, then spend a lifetime trying to regain it.” Or so he says. Leaving Liverpool is like original sin, the wisdom gained complicated by an unshakable sense that you have betrayed yourself. All I’ve ever wanted since is to look at my city and once again find it beautiful.

The film succumbs to the constant temptation to map Liverpool’s changing face against your own. Davies’s childhood, like my father’s, was marked by the slum clearances, the first step in the seemingly endless process of regeneration and reification that continues to mar the city to this day. As we recover, still, from the Thatcherite starvation that saw us chillingly considered beyond repair by virtue of politics alone, the skyline has taken on a disturbingly neoliberal churn. In 2008, when Liverpool was named the European Capital of Culture and this film was made, it felt, for a moment in time, that we were heading forwards, pulled out of an economic mire by hands across the Channel. 

But now no such altruistic support exists, curtailed for a whole country by Brexit, and instead of sliding back in we are unrecognizably renewed, that glint of hope twisted by broadly unregulated capital. Now, whenever I go home, there is the shock of the new, the grasp of private equity-backed student housing and twee independent food markets tightening evermore. This is not the place I knew, nor is it the place Davies did—but how can you grieve something that is, in form if not in essence, still there?

Suffering from the constant nostalgia of an unresolved past becomes inevitable. The film is a polemic, one about how municipal intervention and the lack thereof can create a ghost town. It’s about how a place once so great could be allowed to rot, to rust unburnished in full view of a country that didn’t, and perhaps doesn’t, care. But it’s also about the most desperate and profound longing, that impossible desire to return to something intangible—to have known then what we know now, and in the process save something of ourselves. 

*

Being from Liverpool can sometimes feel like a millstone around the neck. There is almost no other place in the world where you are aware, from the day you are born, of the weight of history, community, and all the wrongs that have been wrought against you. Much of this sociopolitical consciousness is both right and righteous, and it broadly serves you well—but some of it, too, is myth, self-taught and consequently unyielding. Scousers are perhaps uniquely self-regarding, but we tell ourselves we have to be—who will care about us if we don’t? They keep trying to be rid of us, and we are, as if we could ever forget, constantly reminded of it. All of life is about learning to forgive yourself but there is not enough psychotherapy in the world to heal that wound, one that extends city-wide, carried by twopence across the Mersey.

And Liverpool, despite the popular perception, is not a socialist paradise. Davies’s film is sometimes shockingly conservative, but this is an attitude that pervades the city. His derision for The Beatles sounds familiar to anyone who has heard elderly relatives talk of all the times when John, Paul, George, and Ringo were just boys from the pool hall. But it is also convinced, seemingly, that slum clearance was a bad thing, and this isn’t necessarily true. When I spoke to my dad, his brothers, and their friends at my grandmother’s funeral, the one thing that stuck out was their insistence that the houses themselves (and so much of this film is about architecture) had to go. The crime was the destruction of the community, the scattering of inhabitants to Netherly, Canny Farm, and, heaven forfend, Skelmersdale, where no one had ever heard the “witty lyric and the well-crafted love song.” 

Nostalgia is itself inherently conservative, the misplaced belief that the world was better in some abstract past. It is why contemporary psephological wisdom would have it that people become increasingly right-wing as they get older—the more you have to remember, the more you want to preserve. Sometimes I find that I am so nostalgic I feel sick, but what am I longing for? Millennials will be the first generation to remain on the Left in their middle age because there is nothing for which we can yearn. There is no version of this film that twinkles with digital camera footage of megaclubs, the old Museum of Liverpool Life, or the Duck Bus, while Girls Aloud’s “Life Got Cold” plays. We have no unsullied past, only that which is unremembered. 

There is an argument to be made that the film’s nostalgia verges on the remembrances of so-called “proper binmen,” the online byword for a strain of performative British memory devoted to the virulently right-wing notion that the country has, somehow, gone soft. Davies is a socialist, as, overall, is his film, but in its total conviction that our national character has declined, that he is a stranger in a strange land, it has more in common than he may like to believe with the grandfatherly cranks of “Memory Lane” Facebook groups.

The post-war world was not, in fact, young but rather so very old, and has Benjamin Buttoned itself back from the brink. The twentieth century’s vicissitudes finally wore off and it emerged, perhaps inevitably renewed, into the harsh, unforgiving light of Blairism. The parallels between the time of Davies’ childhood and the making of this film are stronger than he may think—war, be it in Korea or Iraq, was ubiquitous, and poverty incessant. So much of Davies’s narration is sardonic, rooted in the kind of wit any Scouser can recognise, because it is hard not to laugh, bitterly, in the knowledge that nothing has changed. Maybe there is an Uncle Monty-esque character to how he speaks here, but it is true, also, that this is a film about an end of an age, and that in itself requires both brimstone and elegy. And when he almost twinkles with his love of Dirk Bogarde it brings to mind my grandmother again, who was by no means a cineaste but who loved nothing more than the Doctor films and her private idea of his misbegotten heterosexuality.

In Ephesians, St. Paul warns of the dangers of nostalgia, of flesh and the devil, and Davies quotes it here. But everything biblical is at once cinematic, and everything literary is technicolor—it is Flesh and the Devil (1926), Now, Voyager (1942), The Good Earth (1937). Davies talks of life consisting only of “home, school, the movies, and God”—an adolescent Holy Trinity for those of us for whom the boundaries of the city were screamingly claustrophobic. In Mariya Takeuchi’s citypop homage to Merseybeat, she sings: “Back in the days when you wore collarless suits and received kisses from girls every night / Liverpool was shining.” Sing us one of the old songs, my grandma would say. 

*

When we were young, my dad wrote a half-finished memoir, but before we could even read we knew it all by heart. The title was Kicking A Ball Down Havelock Street, a tale of football, played and watched, in the 1960s Anfield slums. Havelock Street was a road now long razed to the ground, the city’s steepest, that ran near the area my dad grew up in—“Mount Everton,” it was nicknamed, for the height of it. The title speaks to a local idiom, that even the most inept footballer could still manage it (or rather, and maybe more often, the opposite, uttered in frustration when a Liverpool player dropped a clanger). As I’ve fixated on it in my adult life, it feels almost more like a statement about inevitability: a truth, universally acknowledged, that we end up where we start. 

History doesn’t so much repeat in Liverpool as it stands to a still. I, like Davies, was carried away from Catholicism and slum clearance and the turgid reality of my class by the lightning-like discovery of Gregory Peck’s mere existence; being thirteen, and having holes in the soles of your shoes, and finding that someone so glamorous could ever have existed and never even have known what New Brighton was. So I wished and wished for more and more, carried away by MGM, music and melodrama. Now I have all I ever wanted and I find that I’m nostalgic for leaving school to sneak into foreign films, and coming back late into the night, undetected, and unknown.

The thing about Catholicism, though, is that Henry VIII was probably right—we are in service of something other than king and country. And for me it wasn’t papism, or even really God, but cinema, art and all the things I imagined they stood for. If the purpose of monarchy is to quell the roiling masses, as Davies so adroitly observes, with facile pageantry, then I was never going to be an easy mark—Betty and Phil have nothing on Powell and Loy. Royalty is spoiled by politics, poverty, and Preminger.

At one point, he practically spits:

“…yet another fossil monarchy justified its existence by tradition and deluded itself with the notion of duty. Privileged to the last, whilst in England’s green and pleasant land, the rest of the country survived on rationing in some of the worst slums in Europe.”

Perhaps we are a stagnated nation, after all—the sovereign face is no longer the same, and yet it is just as risible as ever. Poussin might have called it a dance to the music of time, but, of course, a monarch has no rhythm.

*

In his theory of cinematic “crystal-images,” Deleuze writes that the virtual realities of memory and photography converge and collapse with their actual source. Every photograph is both present and past at the same time, and this is true regardless of who, or what, they show. Déjà vu, maybe time’s cruelest trick, is merely “a recollection of the present, contemporaneous with the present itself.” The crystal-image is the cinematic representation of being within time, of the splitting into what Eliot called “time present and time past […] and time future contained within time past.”

Davies’s film is almost exclusively concerned with the prelapsarian, with a beauty that exists precisely because it is time-past. In the film’s closing moments, as the camera walks the streets he no longer recognizes, his malaise is what encloses that crystal-image: “Where have you gone without me? And now I’m an alien in my own land… Oh, the times, oh, the fashions.” But what of those of us for whom it was never quite home, one generation removed from slum clearance and with memory endlessly schismatic because of it? It is not so much a chip on the shoulder but a wrecking ball to the collarbone, deepened with the inherited memories of a managed, yet arrested, decline. We cannot crystallize the times of seasons, of streets, that were never really ours.

Life in the Anfield of old, Davies’s Anfield, and my Anfield by default, is somehow both memorialized and forgotten. I could tell you everything about going to Queenie’s for 20p and your tea, sixty Benson & Hedges in my grandad’s taxi, MAD magazine stickers in the shop, the Underhill Street gang, Larch Lea, the Lido Club, the old church, playing in the debris as your world was demolished. But they aren’t my memories and I don’t know them—do other people know a past that was never theirs so well? Is it another symptom of my unusual upbringing that I can recite to you all the details of my father’s childhood, a world quite literally knocked down and never revived? Is it Liverpool, or is it just me?

Davies cedes his voiceover only thrice, each time to unnamed women, all of whom sound like my grandmother. They tell their lives stoically because they know nothing else, and they appear, tied to ritual, cleaning their front steps as their houses collapse. “It’s a sin to grow old, you know.” The winter of their discontent, our discontent, extends to entire childhoods, entire lives, and yet is longed for anyway. He asks us to remember, and he asks us to forget. 

2008, the modern world of this film, is somehow just the same. Ringo on the roof of St. George’s Hall, celebrating, at last, a return of something. A lost Donizetti opera, Emilia di Liverpool, performed on New Year’s Day. My dad’s unending, mercurial sorrow. The city spills over now with glass-fronted apartments and a lifestyle that seems so much more glamorous, more aspirational, than the one Davies mourns the advent of here. Maybe it’s the logical, sinister, conclusion of something that was nascent then, but it seems like it’s new—if the recession curtailed an upwardly mobile middle class in my city, it engendered foreign money, rampant gentrification and the final, conclusive demise of the community that raised my father. 

We took a detour, one Sunday after church, to see the road where the house my dad grew up in once stood. The irony of the slum clearance was that, unlike almost every other square foot of the city both then and since, it has barely been redeveloped. We drove and he pointed out where everything would have been, a spectral tour of a history I still can’t claim. And then he said “there,” pointing to the plot of the home I’d heard so much about—and lo and behold, a tree was growing.