We sat down with Co-Director of Writing on the Wall Festival Mike Morris, Tony Wailey and Andrew Davies, editors of Ten Years on the Parish to learn more about working-class hero George Garrett ahead of the May Day parade in celebration of his life.
Can you tell us a bit more about George Garrett and give a quick overview of his life?
TW: Essentially, you can divide Garrett’s life into five periods; 1896-1926, 1926-1936, 1936-1946 and 1946-1961, which was when he retired. For the first thirty years he was a seaman and traveller all over the world during the first world war, but mainly in the United States. So that’s where he got his radical ideas. Between 1926-1936 was his most creative literary period, when he was actually writing his short stories and the autobiography. Between 1936-1946 he set up the Unity theatre and was involved in radical dramatisations all across Merseyside and then between 1946-1961 he was periodically writing for the Liverpool Echo but most of his time he was working on a tug on the river Mersey and on Manchester Ship Canal.
What is it about Ten Years on the Parish that makes a valuable contribution to the history of Liverpool?
AD: I guess it’s not just the history but it’s the geography of Garrett for me. He’s really an important figure in bringing together a whole host of different traditions, particularly with regards to his understanding of internationalist perspectives from his travel around the Atlantic. He brings all of that through a very particular lens of understanding what was going on in Liverpool at the time and writing about things he was seeing on a day to day basis. Things like poverty, inequality, injustice, and writing about that from a perspective that was not just about a local idea of what was going on. It was about challenging bigger systems, about the nature of inequality, and the nature of capitalism which he sees as this thing that drives a lot of inequality, and, how that feeds through into wider systemic things which, for me as a geographer and a historian of empire, shows he was drawing out some of those connections about the inequality of imperialism at a time when racial inequality was rife within the city. He brings together a whole host of different theoretical topics in a way that a lot of people at the time weren’t doing, people weren’t thinking across those divides in the way that he was.
Could you tell us about Garrett’s encounter with George Orwell and the influence this had on the work of Orwell?
MM: Well, he was recommended to George Garrett by a friend, who was more part of a literary scene, to show him around Liverpool and show him the conditions and various aspects of Liverpool’s life. He met George Garrett in February 1936 and he takes him down to the docks and he shows him the hiring stands and people queuing and bustling for work and then they stayed up all night talking about literature and radical activities. Then the next day he showed George Orwell around Liverpool’s housing. Council housing was being built in Liverpool at that point, it had a big effect upon Orwell, who wasn’t the Orwell we know now in many senses, he wasn’t the literary giant, it was early days for him. He was seen as a bit of a poverty tourist from the point of view of working class writers who lived what they wrote about. Orwell throughout his life made strenuous efforts to get very close to that, for example in Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road to Wigan Pier. But Garrett’s editor notes how Orwell’s nose almost turned up at the smell, with those encounters of working class life whereas Garrett was part and parcel of the life and understood and experienced it on a daily basis. When Orwell brought out The Road to Wigan Pier which was based upon his encounters with Garrett and many other people throughout the country, Garrett’s response was that it was like one long sneer, particularly the second part, in his opinion. He said he thought he caught some of the conditions well but said that one of his responses to The Road to Wigan Pier was that he wanted to write a book about unemployment that really showed how it was. So, interestingly, there were two sides to the encounter between them. What’s interesting is that Orwell was a very educated man, and Garrett wasn’t phased by him. He was extremely educated in himself and was able to sit up all night and debate literature and radical ideas with him. He was then published alongside Orwell in various magazines of the day.
TW: I think that the most important point there was the very fact that Garrett wanted to write his own version of events and this is what we’ve got before us.
Ahead of the May Day parade, could you tell us the significance of having George Garrett as the figure head? We believe there’s going to be a five metre model.
MM: In 1921 and 1922, Garrett led the unemployed marches around Liverpool which led to reforms in terms of welfare benefits and payments and the benefits system over all. He then led the hunger march from Liverpool to London in 1922 which also forced changes from the point of view of welfare payments and how the unemployed were treated. So, we thought it would be a fitting launch for our festival which is themed ‘Revolution’ and for Garrett’s Ten Years on the Parish to be launched with a May Day parade. We wanted to include George in that and we wanted to recognise George’s varied interest and how he welded together and integrated his radicalism, his writing and drama. On the hunger march to London in 1922, he organised a mock funeral for what was called ‘bully beef’. This was beef fed to soldiers in the trenches at war, which they hated. On the march, they went to Rugby and they were given bully beef so they protested against it, a prop- theatrical protest. They did this funeral march and he made a speech dressed as a priest and they buried the bully beef. So, we decided that we would like to recreate that and have George within the march itself. We commissioned Brian Hanlon, an experienced model maker from Liverpool to build a five-metre-high model of George based upon the hunger march. The suit he’s wearing is pinstriped and the volunteers included in the project have written on those pinstripes texts from Ten Years on the Parish. It’s a very political statement and embodies everything that Garrett’s done for us. It’s grown out from there and captured the imagination of people, we’ve got theatre taking place throughout the march, we’ve got dancers, drummers, LIPA’s cast of Made in Dagenham are performing as well as a young hip-hop artist Blue Saint and his spoken word artist Dorcas Seb. They are creating their own version of two songs that Garrett wrote for the unemployed demonstrations back in 1922.
What we’re doing with the parade is recognising the historical importance of Garrett, and the notion that work and his writing is very contemporary and addresses issues that people are suffering with today such as unemployment, austerity, the way people are being treated in the benefit system. So the whole idea of it is to bring together people from diverse communities in Liverpool, from the trade union movement, cultural organisations, the universities, to both highlight these issues and have a celebration of the life of one of Liverpool’s most significant figures and certainly, as John Lucas the professor at Trent University said, one of the most significant working class writers of his generation.
Writing on the Wall Festival will see the launch of Ten Years on the Parish at the May Day parade – 1st of May, 12:30pm outside Toxteth Library. Follow #WoWFest2017 on twitter to find out more on local events throughout the month of May.
For more information on Ten Years on the Parish please visit our website.