The 1980s

As we were talking to Joe, our conversation often came back to the 1980s, a seismic decade for Britain, for Liverpool, and for Liverpool 8.

Joe described the prejudice and aggressions which were commonplace in the 1970s: from the thinly veiled postcode discrimination by employers who received job applications from people in Liverpool 8, to the unchecked harassment and violence Black people experienced in the city. One incident of this, which Joe recalled for us in interview, is brought to life in a particularly powerful sequence in Hey Joe. As Joe said, “when people say things, it never goes over my head – I’m on about racist things, in terms of, like in football matches – it never went over my head, I just ended up fighting against it.” So, for example, he made a point of testing the system of postcode discrimination in job applications at the time, and as soon as he started to give his grandmother’s address on applications – she lived in Hope Place in Liverpool 1 – he found he was offered job interviews.

When disturbances, which the press were all too ready to label as 'Toxteth race riots', began in 1981, Joe was there. He described this for us:

“…it was a natural thing to do. It wasn't – I don’t know, it was a natural thing to do. It was about, again you think about it later, it was a natural thing to do because what we want to do is to stop the same things that happened to you happen to your children, you know. And my son at that time was five. So, you don't want the same things to go on. And it's a natural response. And it happened. And as I say, it was the newspapers who put ‘Riot in Toxteth’, blah blah blah – ‘Race Riot in Toxteth’. Race riot? It was an anti-police thing, you know, it wasn't between black and white people fighting against each other. Except of course it was, 'cause all the police were white, or most of them.”

By the time of the uprising in 1981, Liverpool 8 had been facing neglect and discrimination on a number of fronts. When Joe was growing up in the 1960s, Granby Street and its surrounding areas in Liverpool 8 were thriving. In his copy of Gore’s Directory from 1968, there are 72 shops and businesses listed on Granby Street, which catered not just for the local community, which was one of the most diverse in Britain, but also for the people of many different nationalities working on the ships which stopped in Liverpool, who made what in those days was an easy journey up from the docks to Granby Street. But poorly judged and insensitive redevelopment of the area by the local authority, beginning in the 1970s, gradually cut Granby Street off from the rest of the city. Added to that was a growing tendency to confine Liverpool 8 within a stereotype of urban decline and poverty, which the photographer Tricia Porter has discussed in an essay accompanying her photographs of the area in the early 1970s and the 2010s. Her later photographs capture all the energy and creativity of the community which has resisted and responded to challenges and underinvestment. This includes the work of the architectural collective Assemble, which won the Turner Prize in 2015 for its engagement with the community on the Granby Four Streets project. Joe and his wife Theresa McDermott have been at the heart of all this in many different ways, including their central roles in establishing and running the thriving Granby Street Market.

Joe was also inspired and motivated in his activism by the example of the women of Greenham Common. He visited the peace camp there in the early 1980s with his then wife and his young son, and – with the 30,000 women of Greenham – they joined hands around the perimeter fence of the RAF base. Looking back this year, he said of the Greenham women, “they are icons, because they kicked things off again.” You can read more about Liverpool 8 and Greenham in the 'Inspiration and Recommendations' section.

Joe was busy in Thatcher’s Britain – actively involved in a major publication project with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, for example – and also increasingly involved in the community work and advocacy which was the focus of his career until his retirement in 2020. But he told us that in that work, including with SHAP (the St Helens Accommodation Project), he was never based in Liverpool 8: he was always determined to work on white working-class estates, to engage with those communities as a black person, to meet young white people and their issues, and “help move them on”. “To me, that’s the start of movement, you know,” he told us.

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