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.