George Phillips


George Phillips

Made in Wirral illustration by George Phillips. Collage of a smiling woman in a green top, with a star behid her head which a rainbow is shooting into or out from. Above her head is an orange lightning bolt featuring the word ASDACADABRA

It was over thirty years since Monty had last been to Wirral but when he stepped down from the train onto the platform at Hamilton Square Station in Birkenhead he strangely remembered that the platform was lower than all the other platforms on the Wirral line. He took the lift up to street level and walked into Hamilton Square where he found many of the buildings were unoccupied and lifeless because businesses and wealth had drifted away over time.

As Monty stood in front of the Town Hall, he recalled all the times he had stood there with his Dad at the Cenotaph on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in memory and respect of his Dad’s fallen comrades. Probably, the experiences had given Monty his sense of loyalty and duty to his Country. His Dad had served throughout World War Two and he lost many comrades in France, North Africa and Italy during the campaigns in which he fought.

The Town Hall, being the centrepiece of the old Georgian Square, reminded Monty of his first holiday to the City of Edinburgh. However the Square also brought to mind many of the difficult times in his younger life. It housed the solicitor’s offices where he had dealt with the issues of his Mum and Dad’s deaths, his divorce, unfortunate accidents he had met with and business failures he had experienced.  Although bathed in bright sunlight, Monty felt a cold twinge of sadness as he overlooked the spot where he had seen his very first love, Nicola, for the last time.

The purpose of his visit to the Square on that day had been, as appointed executor, to settle the affairs of his good friend who had recently died in tragic circumstances. Leaving the solicitor’s office after a constructive meeting, the sun was shining so Monty decided to take what he knew of

as a ‘Street Wisdom’ walk into the town and let his subconscious mind mull on the past as toured some old haunts. From the square followed a well-known street down past the site of the old market that he loved going to with his Dad. The market was demolished after being engulfed by fire in the early seventies but Monty recalled how his mum would send him to the butchers in the market to collect her order of cheap off falls (offal) such as heart, liver, tripe and trotters or scrag (scraggy) end of lamb or belly pork. She would always joke, ‘ask the butcher for a sheep’s head and tell him to leave the eyes in to see us through the week.’ He then passed the ancient priory, the oldest standing structure in the region – founded in the 1150’s, where he had learned to appreciate the skill and real art of stone masonry.  The church of St Mary that stood by the priory had been demolished except for the tower and west walls and was surrounded by industrial units and shipyard facilities, the oldest standing building in the region.

Soon he arrived at the Royal Castle pub situated on a traffic island in front of the vast shipyard complex where his Dad had worked in the years before his death. The pub was a favourite hangout of Cammell Laird workers and was where he had learned to play snooker. Unfortunately the pub had become a derelict shell and an eyesore for those entering Birkenhead. The pub looked like a remnant of the Second World War bombings but was probably the handiwork of local youngsters not fortunate enough to have gained respect for themselves or the community. Monty’s Dad worked at the shipyard as a security officer which gave the opportunity for him to take Monty on tours of the vast complex that included four dry docks, a large modular construction hall and extensive covered workshops. He had also taken Monty to attend the launch of the RMS Windsor Castle by the Queen Mother. In the heydays of British ship building Lairds had built hundreds of ships and submarines, bringing wealth to Wirral and surrounding areas. The company still provided good employment opportunities by maintaining Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ships.

Turning back towards the town shopping centre Monty passed the retail park and then turned up towards Central Station, the Central Hotel and St Werburgh’s. He noted that the gas shop, where he had often collected gas fittings, by the station had gone and the Station had become dirty, drab and run down. The station hotel and adjoining buildings were completely ramshackle and dilapidated, a dreadful eyesore and a danger to the community. No doubt the buildings were the target of the same mindless individuals who had wrecked the Royal Castle Hotel. As he walked around the dreadful properties which had become an insult to the people of the town, Monty stopped and spoke to a taxi driver who told him that the premises were owned by someone living in Dubai. Monty had only drunk in the hotel bar a few times but recalled it as being a bright and vibrant place.

Next to the Central Hotel, St Werburgh’s church was exactly as he remembered but sadly the statue of Jesus had lost an arm. Monty had been raised in a very strict Roman Catholic family and went to school, Sunday school and church in the parish of St Werburgh and St Laurence. During Monty’s upbringing, his beliefs and values were heavily influenced by his father’s staunch religious faith but as he got older he began to question the efficacy of all faiths and religions and re-defined himself as an agnostic. As an agnostic Monty believed that ever since humans, as a thinking purpose-driven species, began to inhabit the earth whether by creation or evolution they strove to understand the meaning of life, sickness, ageing and death. When able to communicate by language and storytelling they constructed narratives to explain their place and purpose on Earth. Monty’s credo was that worldwide they had created thousands of Gods and established religions, rituals and practices to bond believers and legitimise their power and prestige. When humans learned the art of writing, all the stories, myths, and theories that supported their beliefs were collected and collated into holy texts that no one could validate or invalidate.

From the church Monty walked along Grange Road and turned right to pass the Garrick Snug, a small public house, where Monty’s Dad had taken him for his first pint of beer. Only then did his Dad, for the first time, talk about his military and war experiences. He had served with the British Army for twenty one years with his first experience of war and killing that began in France with the British Expeditionary Force. After his service in France his Dad was posted to the North African Western desert to fight the Afrika Korps . His Dad told him of the time in the desert when he was going to make a brew for his mates but his best mate said, ‘it’s my turn, I’ll make it.’ When he stood up he was shot in the head and died instantly. Monty’s Dad said his worst experience of war was when advancing along a road in France with bayonet fixed and his boots squelching in the dead bodies of the soldiers fallen in earlier failed advances.

Monty then passed Thompson’s Mission which was still going strong helping those in need of food, clothing and counselling. The mission had been a great influence on Monty’s upbringing as they provided his family with food parcels and even organised holidays him and his brothers and sisters at Dyserth Camp in North Wales.

Next to the mission was Hamilton Boys School which had become offices and the playground a car park. The headmaster had amazed Monty the first time he saw him when he swept into the assembly hall in full academic cap and gown like Batman or someone from the Marvel comics. Hamilton secondary school used draconian discipline to control pupils living in the local run down terraced housing. Each teacher had his own preferred method of inflicting pain and fear to punish and ensure compliance; all punishments were allowed and normal in those days. The English teacher utilised the edge of an eighteen inch ruler across the knuckles of wayward pupils, matching the strokes to the volume of the victim’s yelping screams, singing the refrain, ‘there was a little man who had a little gun and through the fields he used to run.’  The Geography teacher employed a large rubber soled plimsoll as his weapon of choice, while the Music teacher made effective use of a pointed wooden baton to poke or smack anyone out of line. The most pugilistic was the PE teacher who simply used his fists. These punishments and regular floggings in the assembly hall by the headmaster were then not only legal but an extremely common and expected practice.

Walking around the side of the school Monty came to the street where he had lived which was in fact at the backs of both the mission and the school. The house where he lived had been demolished long ago. ‘Our street’, which it was known to all that lived there, had thirty terraced houses with little raised areas in front with stone slabs. These once had iron railing on them which were cut off and sent to be melted down to make weaponry in World War Two. Each house had a hall and landing with two bedrooms and a box room upstairs and a parlour, living room, kitchen and coal-hole downstairs with a back yard and outside toilet at the back. Monty’s house was occupied by nine people including his five siblings, mum and Dad and his uncle who occupied the parlour. Growing up in the poorest family in a street of a deprived area did not give Monty the best start in life.  Growing up in a small-terraced house with no inside toilet and no bathroom, just a tin bath brought into the kitchen when needed, did not imbue self-esteem.

Monty made his way back onto Grange Road, which he remembered as providing bright, colourful window displays from end to end. The window displays were lit up in the evening to enable the town folk to go window shopping. In next to no time he came to the road junction where on one corner Woolworths had stood but had since been replaced by Primark. On the other corner on the same side of Grange Road was ASDA, built on the site of Robb Brothers department store where he remembered being fascinated as a boy by the vast range of Corgi and Dinky toy cars and commercial vehicles. Later, as a teenager, he recalled selecting single vinyl records in the booths in the music department. Opposite ASDA on the other side of Grange Road was Iceland which had replaced Owen Owen’s where he got his first full time job at the age of fifteen. He recalled his mum waiting outside the loading bay every Thursday after Monty had been paid as she needed the money to pay for basics such as food for the family. He recalled that colleagues and management at Owen Owen’s took the young baby faced Monty under their wing and gave him every opportunity to learn and develop.

On that junction of Grange Road, the scene was totally different to what he remembered when he started work in 1962.  Window displays had become a rarity and the unhoused and destitute men and women sat forlorn, with sensible and respectful distances between them, along the road waiting for any loose change someone may give. They were a terrible indictment on modern society which could allow people to fall so far; especially when none of us is immune to misfortune.

Teenage lads dressed all in black and wearing black balaclavas and hoods, as if in fear of the sunlight or being recognised, zig-zagged on their bikes amongst the shoppers without a care for anyone. In the centre of the crossroads were a few Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out copies of the Awake and Watch Tower magazines which offered hope of a better place to passers-by.

When Monty turned around to walk back to the station he had a magical, enchanting vision. Out from the ASDA store appeared Venus in blue jeans wearing a green and yellow fleece ASDA jacket; she was a sudden insight of what could be at the other end of a rainbow. As she approached Nicola gave a pearly white grin and said, “hello stranger.”  The thirty years since he had seen her had treated her very kindly in that she still had the same beautiful looks, hair, skin, poise and style; the laughter lines on her face added to her charm and charisma.  She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. For Monty it was ‘Asdacadabra’ and in a flash of lightning his heart stood still and then the sky over Birkenhead was bluer and the sun became brighter and there was nowhere else on earth he would rather be.

Williamson Art Gallery & Museum