Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Liverpool’s Cunard Yanks

Some aspects of working class history are well documented – trade unions, strikes, housing, diet. Liverpool’s Cunard Yanks records something that was ‘hidden from history’. Employed as waiters on the Cunard Line in the 1950s and 1960s they were pioneers, bringing back to Britain a new musical culture.

During that era over 20,000 seamen sailed out of Liverpool. Working either in the merchant navy or the liners was almost a rite of passage for many young people. That industry combined with the docks helped to form the character of the Liverpool working class (an interesting contrast can be made with Manchester where employment tended to be in stable, skilled industries like textiles and engineering). Even up to the 1960s the dock industry was notorious for casualisation, men queuing up every day for work. Seamen would traditionally ‘jump ship’ if they found conditions on board too onerous. The film highlights a group of rebels, chancers and outsiders – the Cunard Yanks.

Fifty years on they haven’t lost their touch or fashion sense (they were working class dandies long before Jonathan Ross tried to purloin the title). John Gilmour talks about the months he spent in prison in Havana, routinely rejecting the food on offer. Their normal port of call was the Market Diner at Pier 92 in Manhattan, New York.

Tips from the wealthy clientele on the liners supplemented their meagre wages, (money was shared around the boat) enabling them to bring records, fashion and consumer goods back to Britain. David Kynaston’s book ‘Austerity Britain’ describes just how grim life was in the 1950s, as wartime rationing continued for years. One of the Cunard Yanks commented, ‘Britain was black and white, New York was techicolor.”

In America as a musical revolution unfolded, jazz, be-pop, rock and roll, the charts in Britain were still dominated by ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” Music from America had a huge influence in the revolution that transformed British pop culture. One of the Cunard Yanks Ivan Hayward even sold his guitar to George Harrison – he’s still waiting for the last £20!

Unofficial strikes, involving thousands of seafarers, were also a feature of the shipping industry during the 1950s. But they weren’t just fighting the employers they were battling against their own union the notoriously corrupt National Union of Seamen – ballot rigging was rife.

The film describes Liverpool as an ‘Edgy City’, never part of Lancashire, stuck down the end of the M62, a world apart. Like most port cities Liverpool was always ‘different’. A different accent and culture from its hinterland.

How long will that dissonance and rebelliousness last? The docks used to employ 20,000, now, after the defeat of the 1995-6 lockout and with the impact of containerisation, there are a few hundred non-union dockers left. Apart from a few British officers, seafarers come from Third World countries, shipbuilding and ship repair has all but vanished from the Mersey and the insurance industry is closing down and relocating their call centres to Bangalore.

The Cunard Yanks spoke about ‘The Pool’ the shipping employment agency by the Pier Head, “hundreds would congregate every day waiting for ships.” Those who sailed out of Liverpool brought back music, different cultures and an irascible, irreverent spirit of rebellion. On the premiere night at the Philharmonic there was an enthusiastic audience that bathed in nostalgia. It got me thinking will Liverpool remain an ‘Edgy City’?



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