As we all know, there are two sides to every story. You have to consider who’s telling it and whether you should, really, be reading between the lines.
Take Housing Market Renewal. Hardly a recipe for a gripping page-turner. Unless you happen to live in one of the New Heartlands zones – ring fenced regions within Merseyside tackling housing collapse and the general malaise of our long neglected communities.
No easy task. Especially when many of the houses in these regions have remained steely-eyed and shuttered-up for years while New Heartlands – having dispersed communities and transformed solid family houses into silent steel cages – shuffled around waiting for something magical to happen to the market.
SevenStreets lives in one such region. And, while we waited for the main course of new houses, cleaned up streets and re-energized communities, we were served an amuse buche of art – on the banks of the Leeds Liverpool Canal, the disused schools of Bootle and, most recently, the sloping, terrace-lined streets of Tranmere.
Writer Elaine Speight was charged with overseeing Out On A Limb – a project to engage, involve and enlist the support of Tranmere residents.
Out On A Limb was developed as part of Art For Places, a public art programme run by Liverpool Biennial in association with New Heartlands. The same programme has seen honey bee-hives being installed on the towpaths of Bootle – although the hives have long since been vandalised.
Building a bridge between regeneration and the arts. It’s been done inventively and beautifully around the world – as anyone who’s walked along New York’s High Line – pic right – a disused railway, transformed into a glorious, linear green lung, can testify.
Over a four month period, Speight has been working with a group of budding writers from the Wirral: Doreen Etes, Louise Jones, Barbara Lamb, Jensen Wilder, Robbe Law, Keith Szlamp, Margaret Stocker and Dot Phillips to produce a collection of short stories based in the area.
“The work has been developed through a series of workshops,” Speight tells SevenStreets. “Each participant has developed their own blog, which details their progress and frustrations along the way, and hosts their finished story. And visitors can add their own tales.”
As a collection of stories, Out on a Limb can hope to be no more than a preface to this region’s troubled and complex narrative. But, Speight hopes, it will present a voice that’s loud, clear and true.
“I wanted to give people the opportunity to present their neighbourhoods from their own point of view and to provide an alternative to the stereotypical images that exist of places such as Birkenhead or Tranmere, or the ‘official’ narratives that often surround regeneration areas.”
Working with novelist Jenn Ashworth, a well respected Preston-based writer known for setting her tales in the North West’s less celebrated corners, Speight was convinced about one thing: the journey was key.
“Jenn’s a prolific blogger, and I wanted the stories to be developed on blogs so that anyone, anywhere can read about these places and communicate directly with the writers,” Speight says.
As intrigued as SevenStreets is to read the finished product, the question remains: what, if anything, is the lasting legacy of projects like this? Can they offer a value beyond the community centres, the opening nights or the Marketing and PR board rooms?
“The project began with ten strangers, and developed into a really supportive community of writers,” Speight says, adding that their blogs offer an intertwining narrative of collaboration, a shared exploration a place – a songline taking the traveller to the heart of somewhere strange, yet familiar. A story that, maybe, just wouldn’t get the chance to be told without projects such as these.
“I hope that the most visible legacy of the work will be that at least some of the group continue to blog about their lives after the project has finished. I think it’s given the participants new skills and, I hope, confidence about the value of what they have to say – both about the place in which they live and their lives in general,” Speight says.
The project might be a recent one – but as it started in those heady pre-Coalition days, you have to wonder: is this the last hurrah for small-scale, publicly funded art forays?
“If artists are paid properly for their time, these kinds of projects can sometimes seem expensive in relation to the number of people directly involved. And while there were only ten residents involved in Out on a Limb, hopefully the finished project will get a large audience. I really believe small-scale projects like this are every bit as important as the headline-grabbing big-ticket events.”
For Speight, though, the story’s just begun.
“As someone from outside of the area, I’d only ever heard bad things about places such as Birkenhead and Tranmere, mostly regarding crime and dereliction. However, the project has made me see them in a new light. It’s been great finding out about the heritage and hidden assets of these places, the large number of parks and, of course, the Mersey, which flows through most of the stories.”
For a project concerned with mapping the DNA of our hinterlands, Out On A Limb couldn’t have kicked off at at a more delicate moment in Tranmere’s history. In its first week, New Heartlands was accused of cultural vandalism more akin to a Ben Elton eco-shock novel than a nuanced tale of discovery.
A tight, urban network of streets and industrial units, Tranmere has precious few green spaces – and yet New Heartlands oversaw the complete removal of a copse of specimen trees – their leafy outline a familiar, and comforting landmark along Church Road.
“Trees that stood for generations were wiped out in minutes,” Pat Cleary, Green Party Campaign Team member for Birkenhead told SevenStreets. “Local residents were left devastated and, frankly, who can blame them.”
“As well as providing shelter and beauty for local residents, they were also a haven for wildlife in an area all too lacking in greenery. Many residents were very angry and practically in tears,” Cleary said.
“Having been left with a derelict eyesore on their doorstep for years, residents have now lost the one thing worth preserving on the site,” he added.
Art may win the battle of hearts and minds. Only New Heartlands can deliver a happy ending: a place we’re proud to call home.
But that’s another story.
Out On A Limb
Private View – SevenStreets readers welcome
Thursday 29th July
5.30pm – 7.00pm
The Queen’s Hotel, Park Road East,