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Remembering Blackie (Blackstock Gardens)

The communal energy of Blackstock Gardens was so powerfully palpable there was a sense its series of three linked tenements where all somehow home. No word of a lie and never listen to people rubbishing your experiences, but every door was open, everybody was known and no sooner had you sat down in say the lovely Mrs Drear’s, she’d have a cuppa tea and a piece of toast ready for you in a flash. In fact I’m pretty sure she forever had the kettle on and toast always just forked on her real coal fire. Everybody had a real coal fire back then, it was boss.

We were told we had to leave Blackstock Gardens because it had become something of a slum area, wether that’s true or not I’m not sure. It never ever seemed like one to me, opposite being true. Far as I was concerned I was surrounded by Tolkien like castles towering above and to this imaginative kid that was always adventurous, magical and welcoming. Summer or snow it just looked magnificent, those old tenements and their beautiful chimneys so noble, bold and steadfast. As Vauxhall Road dusks descended behind them, I would with childlike glee admire their silhouettes, so startlingly scarlet, dark, vivid and evocative. I was eight nearly nine when we had to leave Blackstock Gardens and even though we were only moving fifteen minutes down the road to Lapworth Street, to this day it was one of the saddest moments my family and I had to face.
We were the Butlers a well know family in the area and I’m not being big-headed here, because every family was a well know family. The cliche that everybody knew each other’s business was no cliche in Blackie, because they did. The reason they did is everybody readily told each other their business, it’s what bonded successful communities naturally do. Remember those were the days we were completely surrounded by industry and pubs, you could time the day by the amount of shift-workers clocking in/off. So everybody worked and then automatically drank together. Gerry’s and Cons (The Feathers and The Eagle), where full nearly every night and by the weekend, fit to burst. As kids we’d scruffily hang outside those pubs, kicking about, waiting to get money, crisps and bottles of lemo. In many ways Blackstock Gardens was a quaint English village with all the trappings associated, but this quaint English village was a profoundly Scouse working class one, sandwiched between the Dock/Scottie Roads and just a hot spit and thump away from town.

It was a Catholic area and large families big time proliferated, so many kids constantly playing. We used to play a game called Rush, a mutated version of British Bulldog, but I’m pretty sure because of the Irish influence everywhere, the last thing we were going to call it was British Bulldog. No one ever deliberately called it to take place, it just kind of psychically happened. Seriously, what now feels like hundreds of us, without command from anybody, just naturally coming together to take part in this massive runaround… it was brilliant. Always with mother’s, aunties and nans watching from landings above. Because of the square of its design, as a kid you always felt looked over and safe. Sometimes a bit too looked over, it was difficult to get up to any mischief as there was always somebody looking out for you. “I can see yis Gerard ‘n’ John Butler, I’m gonna tell y’ma’s on youse!” But we did.
The fourth floor of those landings ended in a gigantic red-brick arch. My baby-sitters the Kings would sit me down, then tie a big thick rope to something above the gigantic red-brick arch and confidently swing in and out from it. Yeah four floors up (five including the ground), dangerous, but it was just about the most exciting thing I’d ever witnessed. I adored Anne, Bunny and Theresa King, best babysitters any kid could wish for. Clearly remember loving the women of Blackstock Gardens, I instinctively trusted them, they had a lot of power, control those broads, always looking out for and after. They seemed without fear especially when doing their windows, no matter how high and those tenements were tall, they’d hang out by the backs of their knees and with cloth in hand lean outside of their windows and wash them. I’d watch aghast and anxious from our second floor flat, while above me they not only determinedly cleaned but we’re calmly chatting away to one and other. Looking back it certainly wasn’t health and safety conscious, but I’m tellin’ ye, woe-betide anyone with dirty winders!

It was a bit of a rough area, there was always a panda car or two pulled up outside somewhere, certainly outside ours, the Butlers where no angels. Thing is though, for all its rough and readiness, I’d never felt safer anywhere, still don’t, once locked into that community you were known and if known, automatically protected. There’s a natural confidence given when embedded into that kind of same experience tribalism, a profoundly earthy sense of both place and belonging.
I could go on and on about Blackie, but there’s no way I could leave out Bommie Night. All the Squares confidently boast there’s was the best bommie, but everybody knows that particular prize goes to Blackstock Gardens. We’d build it so high, as a kid, to me it looked tall as the tenements. We’d spend weeks collecting bommie wood and robbing other squares bommie wood, whilst always protecting our stash from the enemy. Sometimes there’d be stone throwing fights with dustbin lid shields, just to make sure it was safe. We’d spend whole evenings/weekends door to door knocking and asking for wood, sometimes bringing down wardrobes, bedsteads, three-piece suits, mattresses, radiograms or anything anybody no longer needed. The thrill of the actual bonfire on November the fifth, the whole of our community out and watching. It was truly magnificent. Hell itself had burst from the ground and we were little demons circling/running around our own Dante’s Inferno. Then setting off fireworks we’d bought from The Wizards Den, not just arms-length safely displayed and stood well back from, oh God no, but often thrown at each other. Back in the day dodging rip-raps and bangers was a rights of passage ritual. The heat from the bonfire would be so searing sometimes windows would crack. The corpy light above the square often burnt out and down. None of that seemed to matter though, because we were a community and genuinely all in this together. However this massive incendiary event was formed, it was completely organic, forged from a hand-me-down history of day to day survival and created by us for us. Looking back, there was something about that whole collectively sharing Blackstock Gardens Bommie Night experience, that was all ours.

 

Those tenements are often talked about in fondest nostalgic terms and I think should be. If yours wasn’t a good experience of them then that’s sad, mine was exceptional. Although there was poverty, the amount of factories surrounding meant there was also lots of work, therefore money. One of my fondest memories of Blackie, is my brothers, their wives, mates, girlfriends pouring out of Cons/Gerry’s and moseying the short walk from there into town. They all looked so of the time superb, sharp-suited and beehived, confidently knowing they could socially join in with the city-centre conversation. I remember thinking, when I grow up I want to do exactly that… still am.