Ideas Lab, Open Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool. December 14, 2016, 4-7pm.

Read the poem “Combing” here.

A quick note to say that I’m going to be talking about my Jupiter Project collaboration with poet Rebecca Goss at an Ideas Lab at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool on Wednesday 14 December 4pm – 7pm. It’s a free event, but booking is required (see below).

I will introduce The Jupiter Project and discuss the process of collaboration—what works for us and what doesn’t—and how it has changed the way I think about photography and writing; how they complement each other, but also their separate limitations and strengths. I’m going to be joined by Robert Sheppard, Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University, who will speak about the possibilities and potential of collaboration between photography and poetry.

To reserve your free place at Open Eye Gallery, call +44 (0)151 236 6768 or email

Slave Trading in Liverpool as Late as 1825?

In the eighteenth century, Liverpool was a key port in the “triangular trade” in which ships sailed from Britain to West Africa, collected a cargo of living humans, then crossed the Atlantic to the Americas to sell them on. Many of Liverpool’s wealthiest families were involved in slave trading, or profited from slavery, including several who lived in Abercromby Square, now part of the University of Liverpool. The trade was made illegal in 1807, though of course slavery in the United States and the Caribbean continued for years afterwards.

But what the law says should happen, and what actually happens, are sometimes quite different. Back in 2014, while I was researching a short piece on Henry Howard Brownell, the American Civil War poet and abolitionist, I came across an interesting letter (reproduced below) that is suggestive, to me at least, of slave trading going on in Liverpool as late as 1825. It’s far from definitive–there is no actual mention of slaves, for obvious reasons–but it’s intriguing.

As an abolitionist, Brownell had an interesting background. His mother came from the DeWolf family of Rhode Island so he was a close relative of James DeWolf (sometimes written D’Wolf), a major ship owner, slave trader and privateer. Although based in the North East, the DeWolfs were slave owners in Cuba and the southern US states, and are known to have continued to transport and trade in slaves well into the nineteenth century, and to have used their influence to evade the law. They were immensely rich and often packed the courts with family members, and controlled the excise in Bristol, RI.

The letter itself is from a man called Martin (?) Bennett to John DeWolf (James’s brother I think), dated April 16 (?), 1825, and was written when the ship (owned by DeWolf) arrived in Liverpool with cotton from New Orleans. Apart from revealing the massive profit on cotton, it ends with the following:

I purchased the goods according to your memorandums at this port and at the lowest rate payable. I shall take particular care of the goods and keep them onboard the vessel until I return.

There is no certainty in this of course, but word “them” and the bit about keeping them on the vessel under “particular care,” suggests something alive, which I doubt was sheep.

I’d be interested to know what others think. Hat tip to the Rhode Island Historical Society, which is where this came from.


Melville in Liverpool on BBC Radio 4

On Monday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Four for a programme by poet Paul Farley on Herman Melville and his relationship with England and with Liverpool in particular. Melville came to England three times: as a cabin boy in 1839, as an established, and quite famous writer in 1849, and as a writer facing “annihilation” in 1856. We talked by the side of a breezy, chilly Albert Dock. I’ve done several radio and TV interviews over the years and even though we cowered in an alcove by the entrance to the public toilets, this was, from my point of view at least, the most enjoyable and relaxed. The programme, Herman Melville’s Sea Change, is very atmospheric and thought-provoking. If you are in the UK can be heard at this link until early March.


William Scoresby Jr. in Liverpool

Greenland Street Sign

I’ve been working for a while now on a book about William Scoresby Jr. and his 1822 voyage to Greenland, though with other work to do, progress has been slow.

By 1820, Arctic whaling was in decline in Liverpool, and it stopped altogether after the 1823 season, but in the late eighteenth century it was big business.  Evidence of its significance exists even today in the street name “Greenland Street”, which runs perpendicular to the Mersey, and parallel with Parliament Street. It is divided now by modern development, but it used to connect up with what was then the southern end of the Queen’s Dock. Greenland Street is now home to Camp and Furnace and an ice-cream van depot, among other things. It seems likely, given the name of the street, that the oil works that stood by the Queen’s Dock in the late eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth, serviced a mixed industrial area of bone cutters, stay makers and warehousing, centred there. In the 1780s, when Liverpool whaling was at its peak, Greenland Street would have been on the edge of town. I suspect it was a good thing that it would also have been downwind of the city most of the time.

Church of St. James

The area around Greenland Street must have been an unpleasant place to live, but quite a few whaleship captains did just that. Between about 1818 and 1825, Scoresby himself lived a quarter of a mile up the hill, on the then relatively new development of Upper Stanhope Street. Very few of the buildings that Scoresby would have known now exist, apart from the church of St. James (above) and possibly the once rather grand, but now sorry-looking house below. Gore’s Directory suggests he lived at number seven, so not very far from this derelict remnant. On foot, he could have been at the Queen’s Dock in ten minutes.

Upper Stanhope Street

Continuing Education Courses 2014-2015

Continuing Education 6

The new academic year is beginning, and that means a new set of Continuing Education courses is beginning at the University of Liverpool. Quite a few courses are brought together under “themes” this year. We’ve linked up with the Liverpool Gothic Festival to offer a series of courses called Other Worlds: Gothic and the Supernatural, there’s a series on The Grand Tour (I’m giving a talk on Arthur Conan Doyle’s journey to the Arctic on November 13th) and on Liverpool: Ideas and Culture.

Registration has already opened, but I wanted to highlight a few of the literature courses coming up soon. From October 1st Dr. Katharine Easterby is running a 10 week course on Burning Books and Dr. Diana Powell has one on Jail Birds, covering prisoners in literature in the early nineteenth century. From October 2nd there is a course on Reading Kate Atkinson, with Dr. Shirley Jones, and Read the Shortlist, covering the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist, with Dr. Hana Leaper. Booking information is here.

New this year to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 14th at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, is a collaboration between History and English. This includes lectures on women in science by Dr. Claire Jones and on Lovelace’s father, the poet Lord Byron, by Dr. James Bainbridge, as well as lunch, and a visit to the special exhibition The World in a Particle. To book a place on Ada Lovelace Day, go here.

Full details of these and many more courses and events can be found on the University of Liverpool Continuing Education website.

The Last Drop (Again): Cain’s Closes

Label from a special beer brewed by Higson's when it closed down the Cain's brewery in 1990.
Label from a special beer brewed by Higson’s when it closed down the Cain’s brewery in 1990.

As seemed likely in May, the Liverpool brewer Cain’s has been wound up. It was forced into liquidation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, owing around £5 million in unpaid taxes and, according to the BBC a further £3 million to 44 other creditors, some of which are likely to be small suppliers. All the brewery staff were laid off a month ago, and because the RC Brewery company was insolvent they were referred to the Redundancy Payment Service, leaving British taxpayers to pay their statutory redundancy compensation.

By my reckoning, since 1980 Robert Cain’s Mersey Brewery has been operated by five separate owners: Higson’s, Boddington’s, GB Breweries, Danish Brewery Group, and the Dusanj’s. In fact the Dusanj brothers have run it as a brewery for longer than anyone apart from Higson’s (1923-1985) and Robert Cain himself (1858-1907).

When they regained control of the brewing business in 2008 creditors were left high and dry, but despite the sour taste it left, the revival of the company was seen by many at the time as a ray of hope for Liverpool during the financial crisis. Now they are doing the same thing a second time and it’s starting to look like a business model. Although the brewing business has gone bust, the Dusanj family business which owns the brewery and the assets, but is liable for none of the debts, plans to create a ‘brewery village’ with apartments, shops, bars and restaurants. The plans were already well under way even as HMRC was taking the brewing company, RC Brewery, to the High Court for its winding up order. This kind of cynical behaviour embodies all that is rotten in British corporate culture: making a fortune for themselves but allowing the state to carry the risk. That £5 million in unpaid taxes, by the way, adds up to around nine NHS intensive care beds for a whole year at 2010 prices.

When the brewing of Higson’s ales moved from Liverpool to Sheffield in 1990 they bottled a final beer at the Mersey Brewery and called it “The Last Drop” to commemorate the occasion. This time there is apparently £100,000-worth of unfinished ale left rotting in the brewery. If you could psychoanalyse a company, what would that tell you?

Cain’s: the final chapter?

Back in December 2007 I submitted the manuscript of my book Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint, to my publisher, Liverpool University Press. The book is a history of Robert Cain and his brewery going back to the eighteenth century, and the plan was to publish it in the autumn of 2008, as Liverpool basked in the warm glow left over from its Capital of Culture summer. It would hit the bookshop shelves just as the Christmas market began to gather momentum.

Of course it didn’t work out that way. On August 7, 2008, after several months of speculation, administrators were called in to manage the Cain’s brewing company, which had collapsed under the weight of its debts and unpaid taxes. Taking over the loss-making Honeycombe Leisure pub chain a year earlier was a near-fatal mistake for the brewery, but it also meant I had to rewrite the final chapter of my book. And I had to do so in September and October of 2008, which was when the book should have been published. You can read my revised final chapter here in its unedited form.

Looking at it now, the takeover of Honeycombe was reckless and foolish, but it is easy to forget the difference in economic climate between 2007 and 2008. Here is the statement made by Bank of Scotland in May 2007, after the deal was struck to take over Honeycombe, when the bank had agreed to lend Cain’s £40 million to support the business:

“Bank of Scotland is delighted to be supporting a highly reputable and well-known local business with national ambitions to make its mark with the UK brewery sector.

Throughout the course of our discussions with Cains, we’ve been consistently impressed by the strong management demonstrated by the Dusanj brothers. Their entrepreneurial aspirations for the business closely reflect Bank of Scotland’s own commitment to funding ambitious and fast-growing companies throughout the UK.”

Of course Bank of Scotland itself had to be rescued and was taken over by Lloyds, so its pronouncements on good business should not be taken too seriously, but this statement gives a flavour of the gung-ho economic climate of the time. Some businesses got away with it; others didn’t.

In the month or so following the company going into administration there was talk of a takeover from another brewer, Marston’s being the favourite, and of the possibility of total collapse. In the end the Dusanj brothers managed to extricate themselves and the brewery from the mess by a combination of weapons-grade forward planning (the brewery turned out not to have been owned by the collapsed company but by a Dusanj family trust) and pre-pack administration rules, leaving creditors with nothing.

A new company was formed to take over where the previous one left off, but this time, rather than focus on a large pub estate, the company supported itself with a push into supplying supermarkets, and an ambitious move into exports which saw Cain’s beers on sale in the United States, and more recently Asia. The quality of the beer at home in Liverpool, most pundits agree, took a dive.

Unfortunately, neither of those outlets seems to have been enough. The squeeze on consumer incomes, high commodity prices, and a depressed economy made already tight margins on supermarket beer unsustainable. As we discovered this week, with production at the brewery stopped, Cain’s was not competitive as a budget brewer. Nor was it producing beer to high enough quality, or of sufficient interest, for the booming ‘craft’ market. The consequence of such failure, of course, is a human one, counted in the misery of unemployment in a city with few enough jobs as it is.

Yet despite all the mis-steps, misinformation and marketing flim-flam, despite the effect all this had on my own livelihood, I still have some sympathy for the Dusanjs. Over the past half century many brewers and managers have tried to make Robert Cain’s brewery profitable, with varying degrees of success. The fact that it was in production until only a week or so ago is a testament to the effort put in against the odds by the current owners. Looking back over the many articles about Cains over the past decade one thing becomes clear: the Dusanj brothers wanted to build a regional brewery to compete with the likes of Thwaites, J.W Lees, and Moorhouses. That they have failed in the worst economic conditions for 100 years should not be held against them. I will no doubt take some flak for that view, but there it is. Of course what most object to, myself included, is the ruthless and seemingly unprincipled manner in which they have been seen to do business, particularly in 2008. Few people other than Lord Young openly admire callousness in business, but as the example of Brewdog shows, they don’t mind so much when it comes wrapped in a squirrel and giggling into its overpriced pint. Perhaps the Dusanj brothers’ mistake is not that they have hidden their private ambitions, but that their motives have been all too much in evidence. For example, until 2011 the Independent Family Brewers of Britain, at least, thought they were just not the right sort.

The story of the historic brewery takes up most of my book, but is naturally overshadowed by the drama of the Dusanj-era final chapter. I have no intention of returning to the subject in print–the Robert Cain period is far more interesting to me–but the new plan for the site is to make a market-style ‘brewery village’, a retail and residential complex which also includes a small-scale ‘craft’ brewery. Whether the Dusanj brothers will be able to raise the £50 million required to do this is debatable. I still think there is a role here for a bigger brewer, either as owner of the Cain’s brand, or perhaps even taking over the brewery itself. What seems more likely is that property speculators will move in and, after more than 200 years, brewing on the site will cease for good. After speaking with the Dusanj brothers during the crisis of 2008 I got the feeling they would have sold up and left then if they could. I think that time could well be soon.

Update, May 16, 2013: The Liverpool Daily Post is reporting that brewing has been declared ‘not viable or sustainable’ at Cain’s by the board. The workers are being treated very badly too. According to the article Sudarghara Dusanj has refused to pay redundancy compensation or back pay, instead referring now former employees to the Redundancy Payment Service. That is usually what happens when a company is insolvent. If that isn’t the case, or there is another Dusanj company waiting to step in, then it is a cynical move to  sidestep responsibilities and pass them on to the taxpayer.

Here’s the final chapter of my book again.

Please note. Back in 2008 quite a few comments about the Dusanj brothers on this blog had to be edited or deleted because they were libellous. If you want to comment be nice and be careful.

Petition to Save the Futurist


The Futurist Cinema has featured here before. The old cinema on Lime Street was the first purpose-built cinema in Liverpool, and operated from 1912 until 1982. Since then it has been left to rot. Lesley Mulally is leading a campaign to save at least the facade of the building (the interior is probably beyond saving), and has a petition to sign to present to Liverpool City Council. Please sign it to save this important building.

Moby Dick on the Mersey: Maritime Lectures

The lecture programme for the Moby Dick on the Mersey project is taking shape. This is still in draft, but it will be updated as speakers confirm. Here’s the list: Maritime Lectures.