Malcolm Lowry was a wanderer. An urgent need to move pervades his writing, giving rise to the feeling that he was trying to escape something within, the likely culprit being alcohol. Though writing across a number of forms, in particular poetry, Lowry is still most famous for his novel Under the Volcano, published originally by Reynal & Hitchcock in 1957. It’s a dizzying, heady piece of work, soaked in sweat and cheap spirits. But, almost three quarters of a century on, one aspect sticks out: its brief but regular glimpses into Lowry’s childhood on the peninsula of The Wirral, England.
As with most artists, filmmakers and writers of all sorts, Lowry’s heritage for a long while was falsely attributed as Liverpool, the city overlooking the river Mersey. It has a far stronger cultural pull than the peninsula on the other side. The son of a broker at the Liverpool Cotton Exchange, the urge to journey was embedded from an early age. The irony is that his wandering was deeply driven by his original locality and its role as a port. As Bryan Biggs and Helen Tookey footnote in their introduction to the volume Malcolm Lowry: from the Mersey to the World (2009), “To be strictly accurate, Lowry sailed from the Birkenhead docks. It is Liverpool, however, that stands in his writing as the symbolic ‘point of departure’ and archetypical port.”
Under the Volcano follows a Day of the Dead unfolding in the Mexican town of Cuernavaca, and consul for the government Geoffrey Firmin as he drinks and reminisces his way through it. He’s an alcoholic drifting further and further into a stewed malaise as the hours drift by. His ex-wife Yvonne visits in the naïve hope of rekindling their love. This is, however, not the point of Lowry’s work, and what unfolds over twelve chapters is a kaleidoscope of memories, places, politics, people and booze.
Reading Under the Volcano for the first time, and unaware of the writer’s shared heritage with my own, seeing recognizable places pop up in between the descriptions of Mexican landscapes and other globe-trotting destinations was a shock to the system. I had never seen the place of my own youth put on the page, never mind in a book that was, by the lovely gray spine’s admission, a Penguin Modern Classic.
The Wirral itself is not without its own potted literary history either. Alongside Lowry, it produced the noted philosophical science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, one of Stephen King’s favorite horror writers Ramsey Campbell, and the popular Pelican edition historian Roger Lancellyn Green, among others. Lowry, however, dominates in that his ascendance into the canonical feels undisputed, and distinctly at odds with a place that is so regularly forgotten, even when drawing maps of Britain.
The shadowy ghost of Welsh mountains haunting the horizon is embedded into many a Wirral childhood.
In spite of his wanderlust (or perhaps that should be fernweh), as Biggs and Tookey suggest, Lowry carried The Wirral’s geography within, even when far from its moody shores. “Yet at the same time he retained always in his mind,” they write, “the psychogeography of his early years by the Mersey: the topography both accurately real and thoroughly symbolic, of his Wirral ‘Eden’ and its dark twin, Liverpool, ‘that terrible city whose main street is the ocean.’”
Having moved from The Wirral a few years ago, I was looking for an excuse to revisit and re-explore; masking my mixed longing for it behind an excuse of work. Lowry’s symbolic heritage seemed a fitting cartography to remap. And so I traveled back to the peninsula with a Polaroid camera, determined to find some of the old ghosts that haunted Lowry in his drunken nostalgia.
Lowry lived in several different locations on The Wirral. He was born on the 28th of July 1909 at 13 North Drive in New Brighton. Aside from several early biographies suggesting that Lowry was born in Liverpool, even when finally found to have been from the other side of the river, there was still uncertainty as to where it was and if the original house had even survived the intervening years (due to the intensive bombing of World War Two).
As proved by writer and photographer Colin Dilnot, the original Lowry family home did indeed withstand the Luftwaffe’s bombing. Dilnot notes in his essay Lowry’s Wirral that “Although considerable research has been undertaken on Lowry’s early life, there still exists inaccuracies in published biographical accounts.” In other words, like many figures of note from The Wirral, they (at the least) get rounded up to being from Liverpool, if not lost in the ever-shifting denominations of boundaries between the peninsula’s various townships; in Lowry’s case between the changing demarcation lines of Birkenhead, Wallasey and New Brighton.
Contrary to the lavish images portrayed throughout his work, the house on North Drive is a modest one, and it was only on revisiting that it brought back memories of a messy 18th birthday party held at a house on the other side of the road. The strangeness of the historical and personal clashing will never cease to provoke unusual feelings on visits. Either way, I took my Polaroid, the house teeming with skeletal scaffolding, and seeing again my teenage self stumbling past Lowry’s birthplace; unaware, happy and aptly intoxicated.
New Brighton feels at odds with The Wirral that Lowry portrayed. Culturally at least, its image has an unusual and varying history. It played host to a very young James Fox up to mischief on the beach in the old Ealing film The Magnet (1950) by Charles Frend; its handful of surviving art deco street furniture make an appearance in the beautifully shot music video for Wonderful Life by Black; and most (in)famously, its decaying seaside in the 1980s was the subject of Martin Parr’s celebrated photographic series, The Last Resort (1986). The latter work is certainly closer to my own experience growing up there.
Lowry’s more famous property is distinctly closer in character to his portrayed childhood in the novel. Only a few years later, his family moved to the mock-Tudor mansion Inglewood, much further into the affluent part of the peninsula in Caldy. The landscapes around the area are also more in keeping with those that arise in the consul’s memory. For example, “On the shore were the remains of an antediluvian forest with ugly black stumps showing, and further up an old sturdy deserted lighthouse… There was a feeling of space and emptiness.” This emptiness is far from the character of New Brighton, closer to the coastal erosion of Caldy Beach or nearby Thurstaton.
Inglewood today is as lavish as it always was; a large gated property that suggests the luxury often falsely attributed to the whole of the peninsula. Speculation abounds as to this property being of influence on the role of The Taskersons’ house in Under the Volcano—it certainly has a similar air of elegance and looks easily doused in comforting childhood nostalgia—but, like most interesting writers of place, Lowry was conducting a typically subtle sleight of hand. Not only did he suggest the house in the novel to be in the differing area of Leasowe (a far cry in every way from Caldy), but even this itself was a subterfuge.
Though marked by the heady, strychnine-soaked vistas of Mexico, combined with a general globetrotting through the psyche, it’s The Wirral landscape that stands out throughout Lowry’s dense prose. It has the feel of a cut gem gleaming among masses of hot jagged rock, even if the peninsula’s array of places only bob up from the depths for a brief time.
As the main character is ostensibly from the peninsula, it’s unsurprising to find a certain yearning attached to his recollections; undoubtedly mined from Lowry’s own experience growing up there. Early on in Under the Volcano, the voice drifts back to youthful adventures on the peninsula:
“It was a kind of grown-up, civilized version of Courseulles on the English northwest coast. The Taskersons lived in a comfortable house whose back garden abutted on a beautiful, undulating golf course bounded on the far side by the sea. It looked like the sea; actually it was the estuary, seven miles wide, of a river: white horses westward marked where the real sea began. The Welsh mountains, gaunt and black and cloudy, with occasionally a snow peak to remind Geoff of India, lay across the river.”
For a long while, Lowry had several memorials, though surprisingly none were situated in Merseyside.
Comparing The Wirral to Courseulles-sur-Mer feels a sort of tongue-in-cheek dig at the Normandy coast more than praise for Merseyside. But Lowry sketches its geography beautifully, clearly drawing on experience of the area’s keynotes. The shadowy ghost of Welsh mountains haunting the horizon is embedded into many a Wirral childhood. Yet, as some scholars and writers have pointed out, not all is as it seems.
Throughout the segment, Lowry discusses the location as being a small place called Leasowe. Having grown up around there, seeing it named was like a stone dropping; conjuring images of stories of my father who regularly had to fend off fights from gangs from Leasowe Estate in his youth. It was also the last place that noted social realist director Alan Clarke lived before he, like Lowry, moved to Canada to embark on his career of decidedly tough films about violent masculinity such as Scum (1977), The Firm (1989) and Elephant (1989). Lowry’s description is almost gentle yet the area receded into notoriety in the post-war years, only recently coming out the other side back into suburbia.
It’s fitting then that scholars have actually found the real location to be further into the coast rather than Leasowe itself, near the more affluent Hoylake and deeper into the peninsula’s more decidedly middle-class south side. As Dilnot has pointed out, the reality is that the description from this segment of Under the Volcano is really referring to the Royal Liverpool golf course, which also shifts the location of The Taskersons’ house (he traces the actual house that inspired the location to Meols). In other words, Lowry was cutting up the location for his own purposes.
Lowry goes on to discuss the golf course in detail with its apparent “Hell Bunker,” a place of illicit night-time liaisons:
“He had happened with his girl, who bored him, to be crossing the eighth fairway towards Leasowe Drive when both were startled by voices coming from the bunker. Then the moonlight disclosed the bizarre scene from which neither he nor the girl could turn their eyes.”
While Leasowe does indeed have its own golf course and lighthouse—two landmarks Lowry name checks—the fact he placed it much closer to the industrial aspect of the Mersey makes sense considering the variety of other descriptions in relation to its geography and industry. Hoylake is far from industrial.
Still, I decided to photograph the fairway at Leasowe rather than Hoylake in the end. Something didn’t seem quite right in breaking the spell of the book by digging behind its illusions. The strange mesh fence and long gritty dune road is just as Lowry describes, even if ironically using the frame of somewhere else. I’ll leave others to excavate the reality behind Lowry’s inversions of place.
I recall other birthday parties held in the nearby Leasowe Castle, a vaguely Gothic venue that sits next to Leasowe golf course, and how people would end up drunk on the fairway indulging in clumsy adolescent moments of passion. I recall one boy who got lost on the fairway at night after a party and, like Lowry’s character, was seemingly so perturbed by what he found there that he refused to speak about it again. Perhaps he found his own Hell Bunker.
I stared out over the river, but no boats were passing; just scratchy grains of invisible sand on the breeze.
Whether the geography was a collage or not, Lowry certainly evoked an atmosphere, a spirit even of the place that still holds an unusual continuity today; especially obvious if you have ever lived on the strange Viking peninsula.
For a long while, Lowry had several memorials, though surprisingly none were situated in Merseyside. His first blue plaque was adorned to the final property where he lived and died, in Ripe, East Sussex. A walk dedicated to the man, along with a more detailed plaque and even a replica of a similar writing shack to his (created by Ken Lum, albeit as sculpture rather than building) are to be found in North Vancouver where the writer found himself washed up on the shore of a beach near Maplewood.
Mark Goodall writes in his essay Lowrytrek: Towards a Psychogeography of Malcolm Lowry’s Wirral that “The Wirral can be a place as weird and disturbing as any textual fantasy.” This obvious connection with his work makes the fact that his blue plaque on The Wirral came so late all the stranger, albeit welcome. It sits on the distinctive concrete sea wall of New Brighton, not far from the house where he was born; unveiled in 2019 on what would have been the writer’s 110th birthday.
I took my Polaroid after wandering down the steep hill from North Drive. The plaque sits next to a car park and a multiplex of supermarkets and restaurants. Biggs and Tookey conclude that Lowry “brilliantly transmutes the geography of Liverpool/Wirral into a symbolic structure that recurs throughout his writing.” I wonder if such a symbolic structure would yield the same results had Lowry drifted through the resort today. I stared out over the river, but no boats were passing; just scratchy grains of invisible sand on the breeze.
The plaque rightly quotes Under the Volcano and its beautiful line “The smoke of freighters outward bound from Liverpool hung low on the horizon.” It’s a fitting tribute, not only because it ties Lowry to the place that seemed to haunt him all the way to the bottom of the bottle, but also because the truly important place, the one so often forgotten, was unmistakably there, even if unnamed.