Ode to Liverpool Part Two: The Smithdown Road

After an eventful holiday in Canada in the summer of ’88, I packed up all my stuff again, loaded it into Dad’s VW van and we set off on the long drive north. This year I was sharing a flat in Langdale Road with two friends, Luke and Sara. We were living off the Smithdown Road where most students were to be found. It was a typical inner city area; once full of middle class families, by the 80s many of the houses were run down bedsits and all of the local residents, be they white, black or Asian, were poor. Burglary and petty crime was rife as a result. There were streets and streets of red brick terraced houses with small back yards and on the main road shops of every description, cafes, bookies, pubs and an endless stream of buses and black cabs.

Smithdown Road bustled with life at all hours of the day and night. I fell asleep to the chatter of people talking in the street, the laughter of friends leaving the pub, the squeal of the buses braking once they reached the bus stop, police sirens, dogs barking, arguments and the occasional fist fight. It was not uncommon to see people stoned on drugs, insensible from too much alcohol or women touting for business in the evenings, especially at the top end of Smithdown Road near the university. A far cry from the sheltered life I’d come from but one which I took in my stride; never once did I feel unsafe but then I didn’t take silly risks as some other students did. I also enjoyed talking to the people who lived and worked on the Smithdown Road because on the whole they were always cheerful and friendly. Despite the fact that for many of them life was a daily struggle they didn’t complain but just got on with it, helped by large doses of Liverpool’s uniquely black humour.

I lived in a large double-fronted Victorian terrace which had been split into two flats and we had the top one. Looking back, the rooms today would seem rather spartan but as a student in the 80s it was what you got. Mine was a large, high ceilinged room, with cheap wallpaper and a worn brown carpet, whose only source of heating was a gas fire (hey central heating was a luxury for students in those days). A bed, a desk, a chair, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe completed the furnishings. In one corner I placed my grandmother’s trunk, put a pretty scarf over it and used it to house my portable tape player, tapes and make up. On the walls Suzanne Vega and Peter Gabriel competed with more arty posters and a large university calendar; photos of friends and I partying and gig tickets were also stuck up, making the room uniquely mine. And let’s not forget my ancient bike, with its shopping basket propped up in one corner.

Downstairs lived a group of friends who were studying at the local college. Clare, a drama student who was always the life and soul of the party, dark haired, lusty Fernando from Spain and his girlfriend Liz, who were very much “in luurve”. They were fun and easy going and we quickly got to know one another. Remember Sinead O’ Connor’s smash hit “Nothing Compares 2 U”? One of my strongest memories of Clare was her impromptu performance of this in her room. We were both mesmerized but doubled over with laughter at the same time. I hope she’s still out there acting /singing somewhere, she certainly had the talent for it. She also came with us to one of the university balls that year and had far too much to drink. Sara and I got her home in a taxi, took off her beautiful red dress and put her into bed, careful to lie her on her side in case she was sick (which she was). She was really grateful in the morning that we’d taken care of her. Now, that’s what I call friends!

Living independently meant managing my money, paying my share of the bills, food shopping, cooking and going to the launderette. Luckily for me, budgeting was something that I found easy. I was always careful with my pocket money when I lived at home and it’s a habit that has stayed with me; if I can’t afford it, I won’t buy it. As 80s students I think our whole attitude towards money was different to today’s young people. The point was to live off your grant / parental supplement and make it last. I can remember friends towards the end of term budgeting down to the last penny so that they had enough for the train fare home and many of them had part time jobs to boost their income. Getting into debt was the last thing that most of us were prepared to do and if a grant payment was late it would cause a major headache. Now the only way most students can go to university is to have a student loan and I feel sorry for them being saddled with so much debt so young; it just doesn’t seem right. We also spent less money because we weren’t so materialistic back then; there was far less stuff that we just had to have. Owning a Walkman was the height of sophistication and if you needed to make a phone call you either used the phone box or the landline in the house. Nobody had a mobile phone and all these other electronic gadgets that our kids are desperate to have didn’t exist then. Come to think of it, I didn’t have a TV for the first two years at University and didn’t miss it; that would be unthinkable these days!

Despite growing up with a father who is an excellent cook, I only knew the basics by the time I left home and my repertoire was small. I learnt more from other people; by watching my flatmates, I quickly learnt how to make a variety of stir fries and pasta dishes, staples of the student diet, unless we couldn’t be bothered, in which case beans on toast would do! Going to the launderette was also a weekly chore. I don’t remember any of my friends having a washing machine in their digs; like central heating, it was a luxury we did without.  I would sit there with a book or a magazine while my clothes went round and round and often munch a bar of chocolate too. True to stereotype, far more girls went to the launderette than the boys. Many of them would recycle their dirty clothes until the end of term and then take the whole lot home for their mothers to wash. If they did venture into the launderette they would try and ram about a month’s worth of dirty washing into the machine at once, never had the correct coins to operate the machine or know what cycle to put the machine on. I hope my boys are more self sufficient by the time they leave home!

Apart from learning to live independently, student life was on the whole very much like the previous year. Getting the bus into University in the morning, lectures, lunch, more lectures, home again, cook some dinner, studying and lots of going out, either to the pub, a nightclub or a party at someone’s house. Before writing this post, I got out my photo albums of University and laughed out loud at the pictures of the seemingly endless parties that I went too; lots of fancy dress ones, including the Rocky Horror show, University balls, Christmas parties and house parties. During that year, we were dancing to Milli Vanilli (yes, I know, they turned out to be fakes), Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul and the Fine Young Cannibals. Lets not forget Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and “The Living Years” by Mike and Mechanics either; two of my favourites at the time and now I’m reliving them with my choir, Rock Chorus, all this time later. Life was lived for the moment, with very little thought given to how much studying we should really be doing and what we were going to do after University.

So what happened that year apart from the partying? Lunching with an old university friend a couple of weeks ago, we both agreed that our time in Liverpool was so long ago, that it appeared to us as a series of Kodak moments, snapshots in time, whose order we struggled to remember. One event that I will never ever forget was when we heard on the radio about the disaster unfolding at Hillsborough. It being the weekend, most of us were in the house, when one of the girls in the downstairs flat called up to say had we heard the news about people being hurt at a football match. Her voice was choked with tears as one of her friends was there; we comforted her inadequately, the harsh reality of life interrupting our cosy student existence. Later we learnt that 96 people had died, 40% of them a similar age to us. What a pointless waste of life and a tragedy for all those families affected. It is those left behind who have the harder deal, trying to carry on with a life forever diminished by what happened.

There are still people in Liverpool who won’t buy The Sun and I can’t say I blame them after their denigration of the Liverpool supporters as drunk and out of control. A made up story that had little basis in reality. What we have learnt recently about the policing failures and the lack of co-ordination with the emergency services and then the massive cover up saddens me and I think there is still a great deal we don’t know about what happened that day and I wonder if we ever will.

What also marks that year out is that both of my flatmates lost their mothers. First of all Luke’s mum died of cancer. Returning after the Christmas break Sara and I saw Luke coming up the stairs to his room, his eyes red from crying. When we asked him what was wrong, he dissolved into tears and told us his mum had died. We were shocked as we didn’t know she’d been ill but also uncomfortable as we didn’t know what to say. Now, experience has taught me that there is nothing you can say to someone who is bereaved that will really help, you can only offer sympathy.

Then a few months later, Sara’s mum died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain tumor, not even knowing she was ill. Again, I remember struggling to say or do the right thing and feeling upset; another tragedy had intruded into my carefree existence.  At 19 you think your parents will live forever, they aren’t supposed to die at a time when you need them the most, and when they have only lived half their lives.

Six months before I started University in 1987 my grandmother died. By 1989 the estate had been settled and I got an unexpected phone call from my parents in the spring. They had decided to invest some of the inheritance in property and I was instructed to go out and find a house for them to buy that I could then live in and rent out the rest of the rooms. I felt very hesitant. Be a landlady to my friends? Own a house and be responsible for finding tenants? Make sure the bills were paid? It all seemed far too grown up and responsible. Being the dutiful, elder daughter that I am though, I let myself be persuaded and soon found myself tramping round the streets off Smithdown Road looking at houses the estate agent had suggested. By the end of my second year, I found myself the part owner of a large terraced house in Borrowdale Road, life was to change yet again and set me along an altogether more grown up path.