Caroline Blackwood: “Liverpool: Notes from Underground”
An English gravediggers’ strike is no longer a possibility. It is a fact. In Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and numerous northern provincial towns no one was buried in the public cemeteries for nearly three weeks. The gravediggers went on strike for higher pay against the elected “council” that runs each of these towns. Liverpool was “most gravely affected,” the BBC news reporter said—an unintended pun. When I left Liverpool in early March the city had hundreds of bodies decomposing. The mortuaries, the hospitals, the funeral homes, or “Chapels of Rest,” were full to overflowing. There were pickets at the gates of the cemeteries, more pickets at the gates of the crematoriums. The overflow of corpses was being put in storage in unrefrigerated, disused warehouses. The city had run out of embalming oils and it was apparently impossible for it to obtain any more. No one explained to me why. Doubtless because of some other British strike.
Spokesmen for the Liverpool council and the local Health Authority were reluctant to reveal how many bodies had accumulated since the strike began. They gave out varying figures, two hundred, three hundred and fifty. Liverpool’s chief undertaker told me that they were deliberately underplaying the real numbers because they felt that the public, if they knew the truth, might start to panic. This strike stirred up particularly unpleasant historical memories—cholera in Liverpool, the great pits, the mass graves into which the victims of the Great Plague of London were thrown. The council kept denying there was any health hazard, fearing for the safety of the pickets at the gates of the cemeteries. Under pressure from the national press the Liverpool Health Authority eventually admitted they had sixty “critical coffins.” These apparently contained the bodies of Liverpool ladies who had lived decrepitly in solitude and whose deaths had not been discovered for several days, by which time their embalmment became an impossibility.
To a nation that has become accustomed to being crippled by a succession of disastrous major strikes, the grave-diggers’ strike was traumatic in its melancholy symbolism. It seemed the inevitable outcome of the way the country has been going. It was generally seen as some horrific last straw.
“England has now become a country where it is no longer possible even to get buried!” When Mrs. Thatcher made her shrill complaint in February, her accusation was not entirely rhetorical. This strike has had a different impact from all the recent and current English strikes, the trains, the truck drivers, the ambulance men, the garbage collectors, the buses, the subway, the milk, the bread, the gas, the diesel oil, the school canteen staff, the teachers, and the printers…. The current hospital and blood donors’ strikes though potentially much more serious still did not have such a demoralizing effect as the strike of the gravediggers. This eerie and unexpected strike aroused feelings of outrage, a sense of violation. There is a general feeling that if one’s society owes one nothing else at least it owes one the right to be decently buried. In a pub I heard a woman saying, “The bereaved can’t bear the idea that the people that they’ve just lost are floating around rotting in warehouses.”
In the eighteenth century Liverpool was an important seaport, international, glamorous, and gay. It thrived on the slave trade. Now it is intensely depressing, provincial, and poor. Only a few Georgian terraces remain as a reminder of the city’s vanished beauty. Most of its eighteenth-century buildings have been razed and replaced by tower blocks and unsightly concrete high-rises. Architecturally it is a mess. The center of Liverpool was bombed by the Germans and gutted in the war and now at its very heart all that has been reconstructed is an ill-planned and tawdry shopping complex. The whole city gives one the feeling that it died long ago and no one chose to bury it. It is therefore ironic that of all English towns it should have been the most seriously affected by the gravediggers’ strike.
We drove out of the center of Liverpool into a terrible suburb called Speke. A sprawling industrial complex, it covers a vast area. We kept driving and driving through a hellish landscape where cheap prefabricated factories lie so close together they roll on like fields. Barbed-wire fences provide the only hedges, and the menacing silhouettes of pylons are the nearest things to trees. Driving through this fearful industrialized wasteland the taxi seemed like a tumbrel and the factory with the unburied buried dead about as appealing as the guillotine. We turned off the highway into a hinterland of factories separated by ribbon lanes of concrete. We stopped outside a huge, modern, vomit-colored building, beside which there was an ambulance and a policeman.
“That’s where they’ve put the bodies,” the driver said. “Can you wait?” I asked him nervously. “I really don’t want to stay here very long.” “Sorry, I have to go to the airport,” he said. “Don’t look so frightened, luv…. The bodies aren’t going to eat you.”
I got out and the taxi drove off. I went up to the policeman and explained I was writing about the strike. I asked him if this was the factory where they were storing the bodies. “Oh, we have hundreds of bodies in here.” His tone was jovial and complacent. “What do you want to know about them?”
“Exactly how many hundreds of bodies are being stored here?” I asked him. He looked at me with suspicion. His voice became gruff and accusatory. “Why do you care how many bodies we’ve got in this factory? What makes you so very interested?” “Well….” I couldn’t understand why he didn’t see that the precise numbers had a certain interest.
“Are they in coffins?” I asked. I had heard unpleasant rumors that they were being stored in plastic bags. “Coffins?”
He looked astounded. I then saw that the taxi driver had dropped me off at the wrong place. I was at a Leyland factory, one of Britain’s largest car manufacturers. When the policeman had spoken of having hundreds of bodies he had been speaking all the time of car bodies. Since Leyland workers were planning a major strike the following day this coincidence had added to our misunderstanding.
“You want the place where they’ve put the deceased,” the policeman said.
Apparently they were just down the road in a disused electronics factory. I wondered if it had closed down as a result of some other strike. As I walked down the road I noticed the most vile and overpowering smell. I tried to pretend it was the stench of industrial waste. But I knew quite well I was getting very near to the deceased.
The factory that held them was a pretentious red brick building with a neo-Georgian façade. It looked as if it had been built around 1930. It had a white flagpole on its roof, but no flag. The pole looked too upright, jaunty and festive.
Perhaps it was respect for the unburied that had prompted the council to choose this untypical warehouse with its imposing neoclassical design, this terrible mockery of a stately home. The stateliness of its façade was fatally marred by the fact that where there should have been ivy or Virginia creeper there was an impenetrable entanglement of barbed wire, put there to ward off possible looters.
There was no one on the premises. The bodies had been locked up—sealed off with barbed wire and totally deserted.
Who could be expected to sit day and night in this lonely neo-Georgian factory with the dead? Yet I felt the unburied should have been given the symbolic honor of at least being guarded by a policeman. It seemed disturbing that the cars in the Leyland factory were being given preferential treatment. But then what exactly would a policeman guard the dead from? The possibility of looters was minimal. Time was the enemy of these unlucky corpses, not marauders. …
Excerpted from The New York Review Abroad by Edited by Robert B. Silvers. Copyright © 2013 by Edited by Robert B. Silvers. Excerpted by permission of New York Review Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.