Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Old Stage

The White Star liner  SS Baltic, on which my father sailed to New York, 1929
She was the world's longest pontoon structure, half a mile of Trans-Atlantic dream and Titanic trauma. In the heyday of the liner, three Lusitania sized liners could tie-up stem-to-stern along her timbered gunwales. All of that, I should add, was long before my time. But back in the mid-sixties, I can well recall the old Ark Royal paying us a visit. The Beatles couldn't have drawn a bigger crowd than the thousands who turned out to gaze at the towering aircraft carrier. We waved and cheered as tug boats slowly nudged her sideways towards the great line of old tractor tyres that buffered the edge of the stage. Sailors in round hats and blue flared keks stood to attention along her decks, their white collars flapping in the sea breeze. The Royal Navy were the superstars on shore leave in Liverpool that night! I don't recall any shouts of Ban the Bomb! Though the British Empire had become just an embarrassing memory by then, in my ten-year-old comic book narrative the Navy were still the unsullied heroes who had hunted the dreaded U-boats and sunk the Bismark.

A decade later, I myself was to play a very small part in the history of the Landing Stage. It was 1975, I was eighteen and stage-struck in a different way. My pop didn't like to see me kicking my heels, waiting to get into a drama school; so meantime he got me a job over the water at Woodside ferry, which had its own stage. The construction of the Birkenhead version was much the same as her gigantic Liverpool cousin: steel pontoons held by huge hinged spars, pitch-pine decking, green and cream wooden buildings and covered footbridges. The scale of Woodside was still big enough for two ferry boats, a row of tugs moored side-by-side and the Pilot cutter. The footbridge down to the stage was tunnel-like. It ran from the quayside turnstiles to the floating deck, and had adverts beautifully painted on its overhead bulwarks. I remember Johnny Walker in red frock-coat and riding boots, tipping his top hat to the whisky tipplers. There were huge tins of Brasso and Cherry Blossom, and those posh Five Boys eating their Fry's Chocolate. Of a low tide, the angle of the bridge was so steep you'd be pushed to ride a bicycle up from the stage; whereas on high water, you'd be standing side-peddle, free-wheeling it down towards the turnstiles. Tides rule life on the Mersey, which you have to understand is over a kilometre wide at that point (its narrowest!) yet still almost six kilometres from the open sea

Over at Liverpool, the old stage was being scrapped bit by bit and only a sad-looking final section was still in use. A smaller, newfangled stage, its pontoons made of cement, was being fitted up that summer. It looked rather toy-like and flimsy. One night a spring tide coincided with a great gale, causing freak conditions and threatening all the moveables on the river. At Woodside, the poor Deputy Manager had been left in charge. I'll call this man Ern, because he reminds me of the straight-man in Morecambe & Wise. Yes, Ern was a bit of a smoothie, immaculate in his black uniform and patent leather shoes; but that night he nearly lost his lounge-coat cool. He took me out to see how close we were to disaster. The arms which held the stage to the quayside were enormous steel jibs. Their weight rested on iron slabs that were greased so that they could move to and fro with the heaving of the floating stage. Movement on a tidal river, of course, turns tail four times a day; and the average tide in Liverpool is around nine metres. On an exceptional spring tide, like that night, the difference between the high and low water marks rises to thirteen metres. But with the gale blowing upstream, the current funnelled into the narrowest point of the river, not to mention the lashing of the rain, you could add on two metres more! The jibs had only a few inches of greasy slab to go before they would slide off. The stage could have broken free, with only chains to stop her. I asked Ern if they would hold. He said they hadn't been tested for over a hundred years – before the stage was even built. They'd been wrought in 1857 for the launch of Brunel's ill-fated Great Eastern and afterwards bought up by the ferry company as a job lot. Quite an omen of doom! In my innocence, I felt a crazy glee,
Shouldn't we call the boss?

Ern was pale,
He's been up the pub since seven. Anyroad, he's off-duty.
The manager, who could wolf down a sausage sarnie in five seconds flat, was Ern's old partner. "Wolfie" had been a bus driver and Ernie his conductor. They were Birkenhead's real life “On the Buses” crew and had wreaked havoc on every route from the wild woods of Eastham to the mean streets of Wallasey Village. After many incidents, usually involving alcohol, the amalgamated Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive had 'retired' them to the ferry service. This was a tribute to the power of the T&G Union: in Ern's proud boast, they had been sacked many times, but never successfully. In fact, being posted to Woodside represented promotion, as all the MPTE employees there were technically ticket inspectors. Yes, even I was an “inspector”! For my nineteenth birthday, I was presented with a cap emblazoned with the magic word. This earned me the moniker “Blakey” because of my resemblance - in uniform - to the inspector from the “On the Buses” TV sitcom. I was a tall, gaunt Thespian and enough of a masochist to revel in the part. In reality, though, I was just a little nobody amongst men two or three times my age. They could drink three times as much as me. The kerfuffle over the tidal surge while Wolfie was getting k-lined had Ern in half a mind to join his old mate,
I think I'll slope off to the pub meself!

Wisely, he didn't leave me in charge; and thankfully, the Woodside landing stage got through the storm unscathed. Not so the new structure over at Liverpool. Later that night, Ern gave me permission to catch the last boat home. This was always quite a favour to me as I was supposed to be on duty until midnight, when I'd have to take a taxi through the Mersey tunnel. He let me go and I boarded the Mountwood or Overchurch - I forget which - for the fast, seven-minute crossing. The river was still heaving and slanting rain made visibility horrendous, so it wasn't until we were out in the middle of the river that I noticed something was different at the Pier Head. Where was the new stage? Had she slipped from the jibs and broken her chains? Was she bobbing upstream on the incoming tide, a menace to all the vessels from the South Docks to Garston? It being hard to see through the steamed-up windows of the forward Saloon, I staggered aft and out onto the through-deck for a better view. There I had to brace myself against a bulkhead, fearful of being blown overboard by the wind. Peering through eyes now bleary with driven rain and spray, I saw the brand new stage hadn't broken free after all - she had simply sunk at her moorings! As we drew level with the last bit of the good old landing stage, I was glad to see she at least was still holding firm, as she had for the previous eight decades. Though she was riding unnaturally high on the swell and getting drenched by the waves, the deckhands and stage crew soon had the ferry boat tied up and the gangplank safely lowered.

I came off the river that night with a phantom sea rolling under my legs, and the power of nature was still surging through my veins an hour after setting foot on terra firma. When the news came out next morning, it seemed fitters working on the new stage had left the covers off the pontoons. The jibs had actually held the stage down as the rising water sloshed over the deck and drained in. Fortunately for the MPTE contractors, she was unmanned and was re-floated a few weeks later. Incidentally, in a reverse of the above conditions, she went down again in 2006. On an exceptionally low tide, her cement pontoons came to rest on the river bed where she was cracked and holed beyond repair. She wasn't half as good at riding the river as our dear old stage.
I don't wish to be panned for coining clich├ęs, but to say that reality is stranger than fiction is actually the story of my life. That sinking of the new stage should have been an omen to me, only I have never been overtly superstitious – touch wood. By 1975, the theatre stage had already sunk, its era long since passed; yet there I was acting my heart out in youth theatres and putting on plays of my own to a mostly indifferent public. Perhaps if I had set my sights on film or television – written a Mersey Ferries version of “On The Buses” for instance - I might have had a better go at it. In one way, I was too much of a snob - a literary snob, that is - to see the value of drama outside the theatre. The drama of real life is of a different order, though less frequently interrupted by news bulletins and words from sponsors. Real life is far more sonorous than any an epic, and it swings on tides that pull fact beyond the reach of fiction. Fiction, when all is told, is just for kicks.

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