The train’s clattering out of the station with a bit of a wheeze. She may run on electricity – but she whines a lot.
I’ve just been told, by a new British citizen, that this is the oldest electric railway in the country. I don’t know if it’s true, but in deference to his newly British status I’ll trust him.
The level crossing gates lift with that, ‘Ohhhh-kaaay, here we go’ noise and, with a handful of other around-at-midday people, I toddle across the tracks.
I feel as if I’m in a painting, brought to life. A scene from the late 1950s or maybe the ‘60s. Surrounded by shoppers out walking, trussed up in winter coats and wearing gloves and hats. There’s even a basket or two.
It’s odd, this harmonious blending of time and place. Is it because I’ve just been to a ceremony in a bit of old – but definitely not twee – England? Is it because for once I’m conscious of my luck, my pleasure, in being here?
There are more glamorous places than Bootle, a community ripped to pieces in World War II, but it has a cracking Town Hall. And that’s the location my in-house American, now also British, has chosen for his ceremony.
Bootle Town Hall was built in the 1860s, when English towns were first allowed to be ‘incorporated,’ to become corporations and raise money by collecting local rates or borrowing. It’s quite a fine building, imposing, solid – sure of itself. The industrial north is studded with such edifices, monuments in stone to their civic pride and industrial prowess.
She shows her age, inside, the old place. Each decade has left its mark, except perhaps the last. But she’s a character. The wrinkles tell of joy and sorrow and pain and pleasure – politics and community. Botox she does not need. She’s a survivor and she shows it.
For Bootle and neighbouring Liverpool their livelihood was the sea, the docks a vital lifeline for the nation. And, therefore, prime German targets when the war came.
But, that the Town Hall survived the bombing of World War II is not just down to luck or character. Its proud, ‘look-at-me’ sandstone walls had to be obscured by painting them with pitch, because German aircraft were using it as a landmark for their bombing raids.
And what raids.
Three-quarters of Bootle’s housing was bombed in one week. The war saw 1886 civilians dead and injured, more deaths, proportionately, than any other township in the UK.
All because Bootle’s docks were critical to winning World War II, in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Worn, tattered flags now hang below the ceiling in the council chamber, presented by ships’ captains docked in Bootle between U-Boat stalking missions.
The most celebrated is the ‘General Chase’, flown for only the third time in British naval history by one Captain ‘Johnny’ Walker, hounding down German subs in the Bay of Biscay. The first occasion was by Nelson in the Battle of the Nile, the second, by Sturdee in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914.
Walker died not long before the war ended. Worn out, according to the friendly, affable Lord Mayor of Sefton, with whom we’re chatting.
A charming man with a trim white beard, the Mayor has already handed over the new Brits’ certificates and gifts – silver-plated picture frames. He’s posed for photos with Chinese, Thai, New Zealand and American folks who made the grade, became British today.
It was moving, you know. Mine weren’t the only eyes that were moist.
They played God Save the Queen and for once, instead of that inner grumble, ‘why do we have such a boring national anthem?’, I felt a surge of pride, in the nation and the people who’ve paid so much in monetary and possibly – who knows? – other terms, to join us. To become British.
The Mayor’s being chivvied to attend to his next engagement, but first he stops to ask us if we recognise the symbol at the centre of his mayoral chain. I don’t. We don’t.
After ten years living in Sefton Council territory, seeing the symbol on letterheads and signs, we’re clueless.
To be fair, Sefton was only created in 1974, hacked out of old Lancashire. So no-one really loves it, is loyal to it. It has little or no real meaning.
But it has a symbol. A design based on a water mill.
And the French for ‘water mill’ is the origin of the local Molyneux family’s name. The Molyneux family that came over with William the Conqueror in 1066.
Now isn’t that an irony?
On the day my husband becomes a proper immigrant, a citizen, along with people of three other nationalities, we learn our local council’s visual identity is based on the name of a foreign invader. An invader who became the power in the land.
It’s a nice reminder, as the next election picks up steam, as our political parties bite the prejudice bullet and talk about immigration. We Brits are a very mongrel lot. But we’re all humans.
Many languages, many religions. Many colours, shapes and sizes.
Just one race, though, not many.
And we all originate from … Africa.
(This account of Walker’s wartime career left me breathless with admiration for his courage, energy and determination. http://www.captainwalker.uk/walker.html )