Whatever happened to Britain’s ports and rivers? Time was, they formed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of men. They were gateways to Empire. Around them – in Glasgow, Southampton, Cardiff – sprung up mixed-race communities, often reviled by commentators and local dignitaries, where the white working classes lived cheek by jowl with lascars, Malayans and African stowaways.
Deindustrialisation has put a wrecking ball through many of these neighbourhoods. The function of water in most cities nowadays is as an add-on. Rivers and canals are places to site design museums and bijou restaurants. Property tycoons scramble to acquire old warehouses for their real estate portfolios, converting them into luxury apartments. Waterfronts have become purely decorative non-spaces, dolled-up and privatised playgrounds for a barely-resident global financier class, exorcised of their maritime ghosts.
All the more reason then to welcome Cunard Yanks, a new documentary by film-makers Mike Morris and Dave Cotterill. It tells the hidden history of the seamen – waiters, stewards and porters – who sailed on the Cunard between Liverpool and New York from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. Able to supplement their modest wages with generous tips (by 1953 they made more money than Liverpool footballers), they wandered around Manhattan, like Kelly and Astaire in On The Town, soaking up the nightlife and revelling in new sights and sounds.
In the 1850s, black slaves often fled across the Atlantic to Liverpool. In his memoirs, William Brown claimed that the city was “to the hunted Negro the Plymouth Rock of Old England.” A century later that passage was reversed. The Cunard Yanks saw themselves as fugitives from bombed-out austerity Britain. America represented liberation. Even the cloth on the suits they bought was lighter than the heavy, sagging fabric they were used to back home. They were entranced by black music – doo-wop, soul, r ’n’ b – and hung out at jazz clubs where they heard Count Basie, Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie.
New York made them into peacocks and dandies. Masculinity was reconfigured. In the film we see them looking very dashing, though they’re well into their sixties. Their free and easy attitude created resentment, and often got them into fights. Local girls, however, were dazzled by their white slacks and slip-on shoes; tanned skin; aftershave-daubed cheeks; Tony Curtis-style curly hair, the muscle that months of steak consumption had added to their formerly puny bones. They liked the ear-rings and plastic handbags and nice dresses the sailors were bringing back too.
The Cunard Yanks might be seen as embodying a kind of vernacular cosmopolitanism. They imported then sowed the seeds of subculture. According to the film’s narrator, they played a unique role by “using the sea to irrigate the desert of British popular culture.” Chafing against what they saw as Reithian paternalism, but also rejecting the home-grown folk music beloved by large swathes of the trade union Left (the UK Musician’s Union at this time banned black musicians), they anticipated the popularity in later decades of Northern Soul, ska, reggae, hip hop and house music. They transformed the sea, says the narrator, into a “lifeline that fed Liverpool and New York in a cross-Atlantic exchange of cultural, political and social ideas.”
It’s no surprise that this story has rarely been told before. British TV execs regard white working-class history as a barren no-go zone. They deem Americans who live in project housing or in trailer parks to be far more audience-friendly. Only feral behaviour, attacks on asylum seekers or moody reveries about the death of the proletariat ever get any airtime.
According to Mike Morris, the Cunard Yanks’ love of style and travel challenges certain clichés about the true meaning of labour. “They were different from ‘horny-handed sons of the earth’. They loved music and fashion. They didn’t just consume it; they went out and actively pursued it. They were throwing away the post-war drabness, railing against that, and using everything in their means to find something else.
“They were pretty underground really. You might see them as offering a splash of colour in the black-and-white photo of the 1950s that most of us have. Crowds would come to meet them as they came off deck. Ritchie Barton, one of the men in the film, used to change his suit three times a day. These men came back from New York with a strut. They went out together as a gang too. Partly because there was a lot of jealousy. People would have a go at them: they thought they were gay.”
The Cunard Yanks were a stray bunch. Even that label for them was coined as a pejorative term. Their mobility means they cannot be assimilated into community-based models of working-class historiography. Their love of consumption and showing out, together with their belief that most of the maritime unions who claimed to speak on their behalf were corrupt, also alienate many radical historians.
They supplemented their wages by buying and selling, with backhanders and a bit of dodgy import/export. While in the States, they stocked up on technological goods such as washing machines, reel-to-reel tape recorders, Polaroid cameras, movie cameras. The film features colour footage from 1957 of one of the Yanks getting married in fancy clobber; the local photographer who showed up to shoot it only had a black-and-white camera, and had to be given a colour one by the groom. Another Yank brought back a jukebox for his local pub, the play list of which (soul 45s) introduced many customers to black music for the first time. Upon retiring from the sea, all the waiters started up their own businesses.
Perhaps it’s their ambivalent social status that resonates so strongly with the film-makers. Both researcher Steve Higginson and director Mike Morris have a background in Militant politics, the former moving away because of what he describes as their emphasis on “recruiting numbers rather than engaging intellectually or culturally with people.”
For Morris, the turning point was the Liverpool Dockers Strike of 1995: “500 men were sacked, but the campaigns that were organised were huge, international even. Robbie Fowler revealed a pro-docker shirt at a European game that got him into trouble. We’d set up a class at this time. Jimmy McGovern and Irvine Welsh came along, and helped write Dockers. We made a documentary called Righting The Wrongs, about the making of Dockers which Channel 4 broadcast at the same time in 1999. It got over 1.6 million viewers. It made us think there was another way of doing politics.
“We like the idea of using the medium of film to promote and explore the role of the working class in events. We like to compare it to Upstairs, Downstairs. There was a rich, elite group on these liners, but it was the guys who were serving them who were actually carrying out the most significant acts.” In the film, the Cunard Yanks are described as “dapper, diligent and dissenters.” And it’s dissent, albeit couched in a manner that is alien to the Leftist tradition from which they have emerged, that the directors are interested in.
Morris says that he was inspired by The Many-Headed Hydra, by radical American historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, that explored the political alliances forged between international sailors aboard pirate ships between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. “They were into spontaneity, festival, carnival. Their rebellion was a moveable feast but it was also organised. It’s a bit like Bakhtin, whose notion of dialogue and way of looking into cultural issues was also really important to me.”
Cunard Yanks is as poignant as it is revelatory and intellectually stimulating. The young men in it are young and raring. Fit for adventures. But we watch them knowing that their jobs are about to vanish: 1957 was the first year in which more people travelled by passenger jet than by ship. Now, though, there are plans to build a huge pier and to bring back the Cunard liners. “Liverpool is booming,” says Morris, “We think it’s brilliant.”