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High Rise, Low Life – Mary, Mungo and Midge in Paradise

Going Up

 

Sheil Road flats were considered to be the best high rises in Liverpool when me and my mum moved into the 16thfloor of Kenley Close. Kenley Close and the other two blocks beside it that made up Sheil Park – Kenley Parade and Linosa Close - went up in the mid 1960s, around the time I was born. We were allocated the flat at the start of 1982, which meant we could move out of the temporary hostel we’d been put in a few weeks before Christmas.

 

That was after the house I’d grown up in had been sold. The house was next to Anfield Cemetery, with my back bedroom overlooking the gravestones that loomed in the moonlight as I read in the dark by the window. The sale was part of the deal after my mum and dad’s divorce came through, which stipulated the house couldn’t be sold until I left school. Unfortunately for us, it all went through when the council was on strike, and we couldn’t be rehoused till they went back to work. 

 

If I’d had any balls I would’ve moved out and found a flat, but I was on the dole by then and didn’t have a clue. And anyway, I quite liked the idea of living in a high rise. I thought it might give me street cred, like the tearaways on telly in the teatime kids TV equivalent of Play for Today that produced shows like Four Idle Hands and A Bunch of Fives. In other programmes, a muckabout in an adventure playground would be played out to a reggae soundtrack, while the tower block lifts always seemed to break down for dramatic reasons that helped the story along. 

 

There had been Mary, Mungo and Midge a few years before as well. This featured the everyday adventures of Mary, her talking pet dog Mungo, and Midge, a mouse that played a flute that went higher or lower pitched depending on whether they went up or down the lift of the block where they lived. Artist Martin Creed did something similar a few decades later. 

 

Flute soundtracked lifts notwithstanding, Mary, Mungo and Midge was the BBC’s diversity and social inclusion quota taking kids TV out of middle class suburbia into a cartoon fantasia of inner city living. I wasn’t the only one craving street cred. 

Yet, despite the move into neighbourhood full of animated concrete towers, the grass was green, the skies were blue and the lifts never broke down. In Mary, Mungo and Midge’s world, high-rise living looked really rather lovely.

 

 

On Top of the World, Ma’

 

I never got the street cred, but I really liked living in Kenley Close in the two years I was there. I’d stayed in a high rise before, for a few weeks in Middlesbrough with a couple who were friends of my dad’s who looked after me while he went off to find work. Later, back in Liverpool, my dad’s wife had lived in a tower block in Everton before they got married and bought an old council house as part of Thatcher’s Right to Buy sell-off programme. But Sheil Road was different. It felt like home.

 

My mum was away a lot, seeing the world with her lorry driver boyfriend she’d met in Blackpool, so I was on my own loads, and the flat was high up enough to be able to see the city in a way I’d never known before. 

 

In the daytime, from the living room window, you could see beyond the big houses opposite and right across Newsham Park. That first winter there, I became transfixed by the dancing lights of the teatime rush hour traffic in motion. I even wrote a poem about it, which ended up being published in a little magazine produced by the people who ran a writers workshop I went to a couple of times in Lark Lane at the bohemian side of town.

 

In the summer, I’d waste days basking in a deck chair on the balcony, eating cheese and tomato sandwiches and sipping chocolate milkshake while listening to NME cassettes and looking out on the centre of town beyond. It all looked a bit like the aerial views of Liverpool that made up the montage for the opening credits of Brookside, the Scouse soap that became one of Channel Four’s flagship shows after the UK’s fleetingly controversial new TV station launched later that year. 

 

If you didn’t blink, you even caught a glimpse in the credits of what I thought looked like the three blocks that made up Sheil Road flats. I was never totally sure I was right, but told people they were, anyway. All high rises looked the same, so it was hard to tell which was which unless you were up close. The lifts in Kenley Close did break occasionally, though rarely both at the same time. Using the stairs up sixteen floors was only scary if it was dark.

 

 

Journey to the Lower World

 

I don’t know what happened after I left, but I presume Sheil Road flats eventually went down hill. Something to do with the hangover of managed decline, probably. Having rehoused me and my mum in Kenley Close all those years before, the council seemed to realised that high rises probably weren’t such a good idea after all, and decided to demolish all three blocks. The last one came down on March 13th2005. There’s a video of it on YouTube that looks like it was filmed from Newsham Park. 

 

Take away the chat of those filming it, and if you saw the footage of Linosa Close crashing to the ground in broad daylight without knowing what was going on, it would be easy to mistake it for some kind of disaster. Maybe it was, anyway.

When Kenley Close and the other two blocks were marked for demolition, they brought artists in to each flat as they emptied. This was part of a residency programme called Further Up in the Air.  I only know this from a book I was given years ago, which is a glossy art book by Marcus Coates called Journey to the Lower World.

 

Journey to the Lower World was published in 2005 as part of the bookscapes series put out by Alec Finlay’s morning star imprint. The book charts Coates’ time as a resident in Sheil Park throughout 2002 and 2003 in words, pictures and a film contained on an accompanying DVD. It focuses on a shamanic performance by Coates based on a traditional Siberian Yakut ritual, which he presented to a group of residents in one of the flats. 

 

The cover of the book shows a picture of Coates wearing a stag’s head and standing in front of Linosa Close. Inside, among the poems and photographs of Coates’ performance in the living room of the flat with the curtains drawn, there is a full transcript of the event, complete with various interjections from those watching. Watching the DVD, these comments are as entertaining as anything Coates was doing, standing there with his stag’s head and his braces, being all shamanic. The expressions on the audience’s faces in the photographs are the best thing of all.

 

It takes me back to Sheil Road, seeing the book. Even though it’s not the block I lived in, I can see the layout of the flat is just the same. There’s a picture at the back of the book as well, of Coates standing with one of the residents at the window. The curtains are open now, and you can see the big houses over the road, and Newsham Park beyond. Funny to think no-one will ever have that same view again.

 

 

Writer in Residence

 

It must have been around the same time that Marcus Coates was in residency in Linosa Close preparing Journey to the Lower World that I got a phone call from my mum. I think it was a Monday night, which was unusual, because, as with many other awkward parental relationships, we only ever called each other for cursory chats on Sunday. It had been Mother’s Day, and at the last minute I’d remembered to send flowers, hoping she’d get them in time. I called to make sure, but she never picked up. 

 

I was in the doghouse for sure. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

My mum thanked me for the flowers, and explained she’d been out when they arrived, but how “that nice Will Self from downstairs” had taken delivery of them and brought them round later.

 

?!?

 

Will Self?The writer, Will Self? What’s Will Self doing living in Sheil Road flats? 

My mum explained how, with the flats being knocked down, as they emptied, artists were moving in and doing all sorts of things she couldn’t quite describe. Will Self, it seems, was in a flat on the 15thfloor, below her.

 

After Will Self had delivered my flowers, it seems he invited my mum round to his place for a cup of tea. The walls had pages and pages of paper pinned on, she said, each one filled with writing. Will Self asked my mum about the flats, and the history of them. He wanted to know all that stuff, it seemed, before they were knocked down.

 

I presume the clearly charming Mr Self was taking part in the same Further Up in the Air residency programme as Marcus Coates, though I was more than a little taken aback by what my mum had just told me about hanging out with Self. It felt bizarre that this sort of thing could be going on in the same block of flats where I used to live with my mum when I was a teenager. It also made me feel weirdly jealous that my mum was there and I wasn’t. 

 

Who were the other artists? What were they doing? And where could I find out what they were up to? Given Will Self’s history with illegal substances at the time, I was also slightly concerned about what he might have put in my mum’s tea. Then again, I figured it might do her good. 

 

 

Read it in Books

 

As far as I know, Will Self never wrote anything about having a cup of tea with my mum in Sheil Road flats that time. Not anything that was published, anyroad. I looked in one of his books once, which had a couple of pages about the project, but he never mentioned my mum. There were probably loads of things he thought of that he never mentioned, and I doubt my mum even remembers it now, but even so. It’s like it never happened. 

 

And now, Sheil Road flats have been demolished, and the view of Newsham Park from the 16thfloor living room window has gone with it. It’s almost like my mum never even lived there all those years. Everything’s gone now, and no-one walking past even knows it was there.

 

 

Coming Down

 

They eventually replaced the high rises with bungalows in a not quite gated community with a fancy new street name and back gardens for everyone. In the little closes that are there now, it all looks a bit Brooksidey if I’m honest. If Mary, Mungo and Midge had been there, they will have moved out to the suburbs where they belong, but my mum’s still there. She’s on her own now. Her lorry driver boyfriend disappeared years ago, so she doesn’t get to see the world much anymore. 

 

From the wall of the close beyond the garden, the big houses beside Newsham Park are just about visible, as are what’s left of the shops and pubs on West Derby Road beyond. My mum moans endlessly about her bungalow in a way she never did about the flat on the 16thfloor of Kenley Close. She says she wants a transfer, but can’t get the points she needs so she can, and probably never will now. 

 

And in her world, my mum remains blissfully unaware of how Sheil Road sometimes pops up on telly these days. Not in the opening credits of Brookside before Channel Four pulled the plug because it too had gone downhill, but in gritty fly on the wall TV documentaries about desperate young women forced to sell themselves on the street for a few quid so they can score a bag of skag while predatory men exploit them. 

 

I’ve no idea if it was like that when what was reckoned to be the best high rises in Liverpool were still standing, or even when I was still living in Kenley Close and too wet behind the ears to notice. Either way, things seem to have got worse, and look like they’ll keep on getting worse until something breaks. No wonder Mary, Mungo and Midge moved out.



Originally published in SPECTACLE, the programme for the Edinburgh leg of ESTATE, Jimmy Cauty's dystopian model village in a shipping container, which toured to the car park beside North Edinburgh Arts, May-June 2021, hosted by TRhe Society of Spectacles in association with L-13 and North Edinburgh Arts.

 

ends

 

 

 

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