Writing a Life

Given the richness of the interview, and our commitment throughout Whose History? not to alter primary sources, we decided with no hesitation that this film ought to be a verbatim piece based on extracts from our interview with Joe.

The full transcript ran to 16,000 words and editing it to create a script for a short film was not easy. We were reluctant to lose anything, because everything Joe said mattered. But gradually we saw a way to refine the interview into a script which gave us a biographical arc, and a sense of Joe’s life and experience, and which at the same time never moved too far in its preoccupations from Falkner Square Gardens and the memorial. Those preoccupations, in essence, concern history, memory, family, recognition, respect, fairness, creativity, and a readiness to act.

Joe was born in Liverpool and has lived in the city all his life. His maternal grandfather, Ali Hussein Farrag, was a merchant seaman from Egypt. His grandmother, Mary Ellen Kane, was from a Belfast Protestant family in Liverpool, who disowned her after she met and married Ali in the late 1920s. He was staying at the Sailors’ Home on Canning Place, an iconic feature of the docks from 1850 until its demolition in the mid-1970s, and now the site of John Lewis; Mary Ellen was working as a cleaner in a dentist’s. They met and began their life together on Pitt Street in Liverpool 1.

Joe’s father was from Nubia in North Sudan. He had no involvement in Joe’s upbringing, and Joe has no memories of him, but his stepfather, Hans, had a significant influence on Joe during his teenage years. Hans, who was Danish, was a skipper on a small coastal vessel, and took Joe to sea for a year as a deckboy when he was 14. They only went as far as Bilbao, but that year instilled in Joe a sense of the possibilities of travel (he has travelled widely, including to the summit of Kilimanjaro, which he climbed for charity) as well as a deep curiosity about the mass migrations of people from Africa tens of thousands of years ago, and how their journeys shaped the world we know today. When we spoke to Joe, he connected this interest in the origins of humanity to the ways in which people act towards and on behalf of each other now.

There’s another important figure in the background of Hey Joe, and that’s the man we’ve borrowed the title of the film from: Jimi Hendrix. Joe was christened Yusuf. “Only in Liverpool,” he told us, “can you get named Yusuf, christened, christened Yusuf as a Protestant,” and then “put the Orange Lodge”. When he was ten, a rabbi at the synagogue in Hope Place, where Joe used to play football with his friends, told him that ‘Yusuf’ in Hebrew meant Joseph. It was November, and ten-year-old Joe, considering this information, wasn’t keen on being “named after [. . .] Jesus’s dad”. But Jimi Hendrix intervened with the release of ‘Hey Joe’, and his mind was made up: “It's Joe. Jimi Hendrix said I can be Joe.” Hendrix has in turn influenced us: the music which accompanies Hey Joe is a new piece by Liverpool-based jazz fusion band Green Tangerines, inspired by ‘Hey Joe’.

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