It’s strange how some artists become inextricably linked with specific locations while for others, a sense of place is a more nebulous affair. For instance, we’re familiar with Brontë Country, the official designation that helps the weary traveller track down that elusive Heathcliff pencil sharpener they need for their collection. Or Joy Division’s Manchester, where it seems increasingly likely you can buy the merchandising item originally prophesied in song by Half Man Half Biscuit, namely the mythical Joy Division oven glove. And then there’s Lowry’s landscape of course, which everyone knows is in Salford.
Or is it? Perhaps there are other Lowrys and other landscapes deserving of attention too.
It’s now 60 years since the death of the modernist writer, Malcolm Lowry, and 70 years since publication of his most celebrated novel, Under the Volcano (eventually made into a film starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset). He was born in New Brighton on the Liverpool-facing side of the Wirral peninsula, and later moved to Caldy on the other side, looking over the Dee. At the age of 19 he was apparently taken to Liverpool docks in the family limousine so he could set sail and see the world before settling down to university. Those five months at sea on a freighter formed the basis of his first novel, Ultramarine.
If Lowry is connected with anywhere, it’s the steamy, intoxicated fug of Quauhnahuac in Mexico, the setting for Under the Volcano, where an alcoholic British consul lives out his final 24 hours on the Day of the Dead. But for the past few years, the Bluecoat in Liverpool has collaborated with artists and other organisations to help reinstate him as a writer rooted in the region.
In 2009, the Bluecoat’s artistic director, Bryan Biggs, curated an exhibition and festival dedicated to Lowry, and since then, the venue’s annual ‘Lowry Lounge’ has continued to celebrate his work and highlight his relevance to today’s creative generation. This year, events step up a gear in honour of those significant Lowry anniversaries, with a two-day conference at John Moores University and a wider programme of artistic events.
Along with a series of artists’ posters displayed in a Liverpool underground station, and an edition of 25,000 printed artworks distributed with the Wirral Globe newspaper, a key event will be The Lighthouse Invites the Storm at both the Bluecoat and the Mariners’ Park care home in Wallasey. This piece promises live music, film, spoken word and songs, drawing on “the stories of merchant seamen, Lowry’s sea voyages, his journeys through the Liverpool night and the rise and fall of Mersey tides” according to its creators.
The piece is a collaboration between artist Alan Dunn, writer Jeff Young, and the composer and writer Martin Heslop. According to Dunn, the work aims “to reconnect Lowry to his Wirral roots” and “to recognise how Lowry thinks back to his Wirral upbringing through the eyes of a drunken Day of the Dead”.
So what is it about Under the Volcano and Lowry in particular that fires the imagination?
“The novel has a hyper-real quality to it,” says Dunn. “It has incredibly well observed details among a great density of language. It’s quite a challenging read, but through the drunken haze we see glimpses of carnivals, love letters, memory loss and black dogs, an image we picked up on for our posters at Lime Street station.”
Dunn, Young and Heslop have worked together many times before in different combinations, including projects such as Tenantspin with FACT, Bright Phoenix with the Everyman Theatre, and the long-standing Liverpool public art piece, Ray + Julie. For Dunn, “many of our collaborative projects try to give voice to those who don’t have a voice, and Lowry, despite Under the Volcano being listed in The Modern Library’s 100 best novels, remains for many an unheard voice”.
For many people beyond the region, and a significant number in it too, the relationship between Liverpool and the Wirral can be hard to untangle. Administratively they are separate and culturally not quite the same, yet they are inextricably linked, sharing experiences and histories even though their Mersey views are reversed. Get on a bus in Liverpool’s Whitechapel and nine minutes later you can be in Birkenhead. That’s rather quicker than getting a bus to Anfield.
Dunn talks about “trying to understand the ‘mystery’ of the Wirral” and says that as the peninsula has no official arts officer or central cultural programme (unlike Liverpool), it is “ripe for experimentation and inventing mythology”.
He adds: “As part of our research, we spent a lot of time around New Brighton, Fort Perch Rock and the New Palace amusement arcade. The area has an all-year-round colourful carnivalesque feel and aroma.” This effect must have been amplified in Lowry’s time when it was still thriving as a seaside resort, once boasting a tower taller than Blackpool’s.
As Dunn says of the resort’s atmosphere, “It is Martin Parr [whose photo series The Last Resort captured startling images of the area in the 1980s], The Magnet, Lowry, rock, arcade games, fish and chips, and faded black and white images of Merseysiders holidaying under New Brighton tower.”
A powerful blend then, a potent combination in the hands of artists like these. However, in a nod to Lowry’s own embarkation from the Mersey shore, the participants have also drawn on the experiences of former merchant seamen at Mariners’ Park, a retirement home for those who have served at least 20 years at sea.
“We wanted to understand what it was like to leave Liverpool by sea at a young age,” says Dunn. “We met men who had set sail at the age of 14 or 15 and made their own leaps into the void. We were interested in how their memories were also hyper-real, with very specific details of particular bars or ports, and of how everyday life passed them by. They were at sea when man landed on the moon or cultural revolutions occurred, and they relied on each port or the BBC World Service to catch up with land-based life.”
Although The Lighthouse Invites the Storm premieres at the Bluecoat on July 28, an acoustic version will be performed the following night at Mariners’ Park, “a completely new venue for such activity,” says Dunn. “We will be interpreting and returning some of these tales back to whence they came, with the river as a backdrop.”
Asked about his aspirations for the performance, conference and other events, Dunn points out that when the well-rehearsed roll-call of the area’s significant cultural figures is repeated, there is usually someone missing.
“Neither the ‘List of people from Merseyside’ or ‘List of people from the Wirral’ on Wikipedia include Lowry, so perhaps we might change that. We are creating a pick ‘n’ mix menu of events, downloads, happenings and printed matter. We’ll have a ten-poster artwork at the escalator down to the Wirral line at Lime Street station, 25,000 artworks given away with the free Wirral Globe newspaper, two live events in Liverpool and New Brighton featuring Mersey Wylie, Vidar Norheim and Jack Roberts working with us, an exclusive download featuring some Day of the Dead recordings by Mexican sound artist Balam Ronan remixed by Phil Legard, the conference at John Moores University and Bluecoat, a Lowry tour with historian Colin Dilnot, and open afternoons at Mariners’ Park.”
By which point, if anyone mentions matchstick cats and dogs to Dunn, Young or Heslop, their own private Day of the Dead might just inch that little bit closer.
The Malcolm Lowry events take place across various venues between July 17-30, 2017. Find more information about The Lighthouse Invites the Storm and associated events at www.thelighthouseinvitesthestorm.com. For information about Under the Volcano: 70 Years On at John Moores University, visit www.ljmu.ac.uk/conferences/malcolm-lowry-conference.