Mersey: The River That Changed the World is the first book to be published that is dedicated to ‘Anthony H Wilson 1950–2007’. His contribution here is his last published work. He’s described on the contributors’ page, in the shortest of shorthand, as ‘broadcast journalist and regeneration consultant’. For most of his mouthy career, on and off screen, in and out of Factory Records, Dry bar and the Hacienda, he didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know, until the last year or two, that he was a regeneration consultant. Actually, Tony Wilson, like the Mersey in flood, was an entire regenerative force of nature. His essay in this portmanteau book is titled ‘Westward Ho’.
He’s described on the contributors’ page, in the shortest of shorthand, as ‘broadcast journalist and regeneration consultant’. For most of his mouthy career, on and off screen, in and out of Factory Records, Dry bar and the Hacienda, he didn’t know what he was doing.
“Why should the Thames have all the glory?” I hear Wilson say. This is a book largely for Mersey fans and North Westerners. Unsurprisingly, like any book about a river – Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory say, or Ganga by photographer Ragubhir Singh – Mersey is really quite moving. Rivers exert a powerful pull on our emotions. Even quite meagre, badly polluted rivers. Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture is the likely stimulus for this book, which is published by Liverpool’s Bluecoat Press with finance from United Utilities and Mersey Basin Campaign. Hence it is quite astonishingly good value at £17.99. Also, it is positively lyrical, if not entirely hagiographic. It doesn’t matter much that the book carries a lot of typos in the rush to publish. With this cover price and at more than 200 pages it’s not surprising either that the quality of reproduction of Colin McPherson’s photographs is perhaps a little flat.
Mersey is not a book about Liverpool. The river comes into being under a road junction beside a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Stockport. Which, for all you pub quizzers, makes Stockport County the nearest football ground to the River Mersey. The river is bipolar, being the confluence of the Tame, which rises in Lancashire, and the Goyt, which for part of its course is the boundary between Derbyshire and Cheshire. The Stockport side of Mersey’s personality is rewarded with some fine images of Stockport Viaduct, western Europe’s biggest brick structure, one of whose 27 arches forms a second roof to a fine pub called the Crown.
The Crown has been photographed nearly as many times as Paul McCartney, is ageing rather better and is handsomely portrayed here. One section of the book is Mersey People. Colin McPherson photographed and Kate Fox interviewed various river folk, including the current landlord of her local pub, Jackson’s Boat, stranded at the end of a lane in Sale, Cheshire. Across a footbridge and a narrow plain of meadow is the Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, boho home to Badly Drawn Boy, nefarious musicians and media types. Not all Mersey is Scouse.
I guide groups of visiting architects around the city, mainly from Scandinavia. Inevitably, they will book their Beatles Tours and lunch at the Cavern, and invariably, they are hugely disappointed. Liverpool and the Beatles is like Sheffield and steel. The city is hobbled by its mono-culture. Liverpool 2008 will put this right. The city is much more than the Beatles. Also, it will handle this important item of its huge cultural heritage with a bit more care and perspective. Hence, and emphatically, Anthony Wilson’s Westward Ho. His essay is a musical memoir that begins in Salford, not far from the Ship Canal, and continues by the river Goyt, in Marple, where he lived from 5 years old. Tony writes a precise biography of the music that took over his life, from West Africa to the southern United States and back, via the great mouth of the river Mersey.
Mersey is not a book about Liverpool. It’s about Warrington and Runcorn, New Brighton and Hoylake. A tiny bit is about Northenden, where I live, five miles from Manchester city centre. Here, on a weir in the Mersey in 1997, at great expense and with remarkable prescience, the Environment Agency constructed an optimistic salmon ladder. It works. God help them, there are salmon in the Goyt these days.
Did the River Mersey change the world? The African – American slave trade did. Globalisation of the cotton industry did. Mass migration did. The Beatles were the biggest single element in a musical revolution that certainly did. Tony Wilson’s last word: ”how strange that my story begins in the hills below the moors, on the banks of the Goyt, with my first taste of an Industrial Revolution, and takes me down stream to the Irish Sea and to the two great progenitors of the Industry of Revolution that has shaped my life and, thank God, continues to do so.” Two great progenitors of the Industry of Revolution. Manchester and Liverpool, never so fittingly nor so lovingly linked. Anthony H Wilson, to his last breath.
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