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SIX DEGREES: THE MAY BLITZ, LIVERPOOL 1941

For Lesley Johnson

 

Obviously they were after the docklands –

Liverpool, Wallasey, Birkenhead –

with a week long of raids but many bombs,

as usual, missed their targets entirely,

shrapnelling then burning streets – commercial

and residential – either side of the river,

upstream and down. The photos of acres

of devastation in Liverpool’s

downtown city centre prefigured Dresden.

 

There is a watercolour in the Walker

by Peter Shepheard – ‘Liverpool from Oxton,

4 a.m., 4th May 1941’ –

which depicts, from the leafy Victorian

suburb across the river, the worst raid

of the week. You focus instantly on

six clouds of smoke, billowing in a strong

south easterly, lit lobster pink by the miles

of fires below and silhouetting

a dozen barrage balloons. The glare

shines on the slate roofs of Birkenhead.

Also, in silhouette, are the ‘Three Graces’,

untouched, across the river at the Pier Head,

buildings that were the city’s symbols of wealth,

power – Port of Liverpool, Cunard, Liver.

Dawn is beginning to lighten the sky

to the east, which is free of smoke and flames.

 

We receive a postcard of the picture

from a friend. She tells us she is fully

recovered from her operation

and is ready for lunch – and reminds us that,

when she was two in Shorefields, New Ferry

(a small town on the southern Mersey shore),

that night hot shrapnel pierced the roof of her home,

landing on her pillow, setting it alight.

Her father saved her. And I suddenly

remember, like an epiphany,

that that weekend, my father, en route

to Nigeria, was in Liverpool

staying at The Adelphi and joined the line

of buckets to try to douse the fire

at Lewis’s department store opposite.

They failed, of course. All that remained were

the walls. The rooftop menagerie,

of songbirds, small monkeys and the odd lizard,

had fallen, with the broken, blackened glass,

in amongst the rubble.

 

 

 

© Copyright David Selzer
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3 Responses
  • Ian Craine
    May 25, 2014

    Here I am at home on the laptop on a lazy Bank Holiday Sunday and your poems hit my Inbox, David. As usual the telling detail attracts me – the smoke turned lobster pink by the fires below, the shrapnel on the girl’s pillow. And John Lewis’s menagerie! Did they re-stock it after the War? I don’t remember that at all. Fascinating.

  • David Selzer
    May 25, 2014

    I’m fairly certain they didn’t re-create the menagerie. My mother’s family were Liverpudlians exiled in Chester and we made frequent trips to the city – to visit relatives, ride on the Overhead Railway and shop in Lewis’s.

  • John Huddart
    June 21, 2014

    When I arrived in Liverpool, in 1969, with my UCCA place and suitcase, it felt still like a city to be evacuated from. And yet it held so many wartime secrets – just like this.

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