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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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9 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.

  • Nicola Tolentino
    August 15, 2014

    Lewis’s was not John Lewis but, I believe, a branch of the House of Fraser. A Glasgow branch is or was also called Lewis’s. The Liverpool branch of John Lewis was unrelated and at the time was called Bon Marche, something of an oxymoron, as we regarded it as very posh and us working class were afraid to go in there. And Lewis’s wasn’t completely destroyed. The ground floor and basement continued to operate throughout the war. It was rebuilt afterwards by the architect father of Prue Gearey who used to be a producer on the BBC Holiday programme and a huge fuss was caused by his placing above the entrance portico a statue by Epstein of a nude male with a large and dangling penis. I was there, living by the Birkenhead docks, during the 1941 blitz and used to emerge from the shelter each morning to check what was left of the neighbourhood. Not much, I’m afraid, picking my way to school across the rubble.
    I came across this trying to recall what the Florence Hemans prize was worth. The father of a school friend won it, I believe before WWI, and then retired from poetry.

  • Branwell Johnson
    January 15, 2019

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful poem and dedicating it to my mum, David – apologies for not knowing of its existence before!

  • Keith Johnson
    January 26, 2019

    The Luftwaffe bombers regularly disposed of their redundant bombs over Rural Cheshire, and a landmine damaged Bunbury Church and destroyed cottage housing nearby. We had a low pit or depression on our farm at Wettenhall, which was a bomb crater, and the end of the farmhouse had been damaged by the next in the sequence [my family was not living there then]. Hard to accept now that the lessons of WWs 1 and 2 are largely forgotten – so double thanks for your remembrance,

  • Alex Black
    January 27, 2019

    They dropped one between Weaverham and Hefferston Grange in Cheshire very close to the A49. It destroyed a farm. I don’t know about casualties.

  • Steve Crewe
    May 4, 2021

    The age and incidents scarred us, even though for some they pre-dated their birth. And they still hover in the distance, not really gone, just lurking, a distant non-memory that will only be removed by death.

  • Mary Clark
    May 10, 2021

    Amazing and frightening what you went through. I know of sinkholes and other natural phenomenon, but the idea that other humans would bomb farms and department stores in the pursuit of power for a dictator makes me wonder if the flaws in the species are more than cyclical with regenerative phases or are ultimately fatal. Speaking from the perspective of 2021.

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