Some images can intoxicate with their ability to transcend time and place.
A few weeks ago I went with a friend to see the Antony Gormley Another Place installations on Crosby Beach, Liverpool. We managed to time it for low tide and were able to wander the mud flats and visit most of the 100+ figures. It is a magnificent creation, well worth experiencing before the figures furthest from the shore become totally encrusted with algae and barnacles.
We then idled on further up the road to Southport, home to the Atkinson Gallery, worth the trip in its own right.
Towns and cities become more ‘samey’ year on year. Much of what is distinctive about a place is quickly eroded via reconstruction projects, road extensions, shopping malls and office blocks. A town’s churchyards and art galleries are sometimes the only refuges for unique works of nature and of humanity.
As well as hugging gorgeously baroque yew trees in churchyards, I like to pick up locally produced cards in galleries.
I came across the above image in the Atkinson Gallery shop.
It sits on a bookcase just to the left of my laptop and I am drawn to look at it every day. Sometimes I find it hard to disengage from. It makes me happy, it troubles me, it intrigues me, and it transports me.
It is a black-and-white photograph (most truly hypnotic photographs are b/w) dated some time around the year 1880. It was taken in a tiny community called Little Ireland that once existed on the bleak northerly outskirts of Southport. Little Ireland first appeared around 1847 when Irish families, desperate refugees from the Great Famine, crossed the sea to England. In the case of Southport, the Irish refugees were not welcomed and were forced into a tiny enclave of 47 hovels. An enclave at the end of, I kid you not, Cockle Dick’s Lane.
There was no sanitation and the children were not allowed to go to the local schools. It took 40 years for permission to be granted for a small church to be built. Even then the project had to be guarded by police from Liverpool as local men regularly sabotaged the building work.
In 1904 the burghers of Southport decided that Little Ireland would be the perfect place to put a new golf course. The whole community was burned to the ground, with every family evicted. No records were kept of what happened to the people. It is assumed that most went to Liverpool to become absorbed into the Irish community there.
So many stories must be embedded within that passage of time.
And here are seven young wonders of childhood, gazing boldly at us across a gap of 135 years.
The wind-ravaged brambly hawthorn in the background is almost an 8th character in the frame.
I don’t know how long these children will have had to pose for a typical tripod camera in those days, but it would have been a trial for those lively minds and limbs. Were they bribed with some cheap treats, or were they clamouring round the stranger with a camera, eager for this unfamiliar diversion?
Whatever the genesis of the photograph, these girls are alive and fizzing right now.
There’s the tallest, and probably oldest, one on the left: a grown-up face, curious, alert, already strong in spirit…likely the one with most domestic responsibilities before her time.
Next to her is a young girl with a remarkably modern look, a sense of challenge and assertiveness about her. With a deft movement of her right arm she makes sure that her mop-haired wee sister (surely they are sisters) is eyeballing the camera too.
In the centre of the image is a girl with something akin to a tense smile. Her eyes are fiercely watchful…her gaze is powerful, piercing.
Fifth from the left is the only girl without a battered hat or bonnet. Her cropped hair (nits must have been rife) makes her look curiously modern. Again her eyes engage full-on with our gaze.
The girl on the right seems to be the slightest in build, but what we can see of her face betrays the prophecy of a much older woman’s features. She looks away from the camera towards some unknowable distraction.
And in front of her, as if all this was not enough for the imagination to dwell on, stands the only male in the picture, a small space creature of a boy with an uneven, puckish face. He almost looks as if he has been pasted onto the scene…or as if he is a spirit image that has been mysteriously picked up by the lens. An unearthly sprite.
There are so many stories embedded within this image.
What was daily life like for these vibrant, filth-smeared children? What did they do the moment the exposure was completed? What happened to them in later childhood and then adulthood?
I wondered what to write in the title box of this blog post. In the end “Girl Power” felt right.
These are not human beings with power. They are female in Victorian Britain. They are children who live in deepest poverty. Their tiny community exists on the very margins of society. On any measure you care to name they are at rock bottom. And the golf course that ‘cleansed’ these girls from the landscape is still there.
But one of the most arresting things about the image is the sense of eternal female comradeship. Their arms are around each other in an easy, natural way. The wee urchin boy is slightly detached, but the six girls are in warm, supportive body contact.
They exude a life-force that suggests an emotional intelligence that has sustained them through bad stuff already, and will sustain them through even worse stuff to come. They have immense character, both as individuals and as a feisty, resilient little group.
They have a power inaccessible to most people who wield Power.
We cannot protect them or nurture them, but we can celebrate them.
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