Hey Joe

Hey Joe is set in Falkner Square Gardens, and like 2600 it began with a memorial.

This Plaque is Dedicated to

all Black Merchant Seamen who served

during the 1939 – 45 War.

“They held their course”

Respect Due

Unveiled in November 1993, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, it is an essential corrective to traditional or official narratives of remembrance which have consistently failed to acknowledge the contribution of people of colour to Britain in times of conflict. It also stands at the heart of personal and shared histories in Liverpool.

We knew we wanted to develop a film around the memorial, so we began by contacting Joe Farrag, the community activist who campaigned and fundraised for it in the early 1990s. An initial conversation with him in winter 2020 opened up a number of areas for us to research and explore as we prepared the piece. When we interviewed Joe at length later in the spring, we spoke for nearly three hours. He told us about his life, work, and principles, and from his personal stories a brilliantly vivid picture of post-war Liverpool, and specifically post-war Liverpool 8, emerged, which helped us to understand more profoundly the roots of the memorial in Falkner Square Gardens, and its legacies.

‘Hey Joe’

Given the richness of the interview, and our commitment throughout Whose History? not to alter our 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.

Marvin Brown as Joe, filming in Falkner Square Gardens, August 2021. Picture credit: Harriet Bell.

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.

Clockwise from left: Sailors’ Home, Unknown artist, c1851-1860; the original gate marking the site of the Home at what is now Liverpool One; a sign from the Home now on display in the Museum of Liverpool.

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’.

The 1980s

As we were talking to Joe, our conversation often came back to the 1980s, a seismic decade for Britain, for Liverpool, and for Liverpool 8.

Joe described the prejudice and aggressions which were commonplace in the 1970s: from the thinly veiled postcode discrimination by employers who received job applications from people in Liverpool 8, to the unchecked harassment and violence Black people experienced in the city. One incident of this, which Joe recalled for us in interview, is brought to life in a particularly powerful sequence in Hey Joe. As Joe said, “when people say things, it never goes over my head – I’m on about racist things, in terms of, like in football matches – it never went over my head, I just ended up fighting against it.” So, for example, he made a point of testing the system of postcode discrimination in job applications at the time, and as soon as he started to give his grandmother’s address on applications – she lived in Hope Place in Liverpool 1 – he found he was offered job interviews.

When disturbances, which the press were all too ready to label as ‘Toxteth race riots’, began in 1981, Joe was there. He described this for us:

[. . .] it was a natural thing to do. It wasn’t – I don’t know, it was a natural thing to do. It was about, again you think about it later, it was a natural thing to do because what we want to do is to stop the same things that happened to you happen to your children, you know. And my son at that time was five. So, you don’t want the same things to go on. And it’s a natural response. And it happened. And as I say, it was the newspapers who put ‘Riot in Toxteth’, blah blah blah – ‘Race Riot in Toxteth’. Race riot? It was an anti-police thing, you know, it wasn’t between black and white people fighting against each other. Except of course it was, ’cause all the police were white, or most of them.

By the time of the uprising in 1981, Liverpool 8 had been facing neglect and discrimination on a number of fronts. When Joe was growing up in the 1960s, Granby Street and its surrounding areas in Liverpool 8 were thriving. In his copy of Gore’s Directory from 1968, there are 72 shops and businesses listed on Granby Street, which catered not just for the local community, which was one of the most diverse in Britain, but also for the people of many different nationalities working on the ships which stopped in Liverpool, who made what in those days was an easy journey up from the docks to Granby Street. But poorly judged and insensitive redevelopment of the area by the local authority, beginning in the 1970s, gradually cut Granby Street off from the rest of the city. Added to that was a growing tendency to confine Liverpool 8 within a stereotype of urban decline and poverty, which the photographer Tricia Porter has discussed in an essay accompanying her photographs of the area in the early 1970s and the 2010s. Her later photographs capture all the energy and creativity of the community which has resisted and responded to challenges and underinvestment. This includes the work of the architectural collective Assemble, which won the Turner Prize in 2015 for its engagement with the community on the Granby Four Streets project. Joe and his wife Theresa McDermott have been at the heart of all this in many different ways, including their central roles in establishing and running the thriving Granby Street Market.

Joe was also inspired and motivated in his activism by the example of the women of Greenham Common. He visited the peace camp there in the early 1980s with his then wife and his young son, and – with the 30,000 women of Greenham – they joined hands around the perimeter fence of the RAF base. Looking back this year, he said of the Greenham women, “they are icons, because they kicked things off again.”

Joe was busy in Thatcher’s Britain – actively involved in a major publication project with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, for example – and also increasingly involved in the community work and advocacy which was the focus of his career until his retirement in 2020. But he told us that in that work, including with SHAP (the St Helens Accommodation Project), he was never based in Liverpool 8: he was always determined to work on white working-class estates, to engage with those communities as a black person, to meet young white people and their issues, and “help move them on”. “To me, that’s the start of movement, you know,” he told us.

War and Commemoration

Joe has great admiration for the German artist Joseph Beuys and his radical and inclusive approach to art and society, and art in society. Both within and beyond his work Joe has consistently been prompted to make creative interventions in public spaces which open up art, culture, history, and social questions to the people who encounter them. His multi-coloured pigeons in the Granby Four Streets area, inspired by Patrick Murphy’s project Belonging for the Liverpool Biennial in 2012, are just one example of this. His creativity has also defined his projects of commemoration. It was after seeing Joe’s temporary Remembrance Day memorial on Princes Avenue, which he put up in November 2020 when lockdown restrictions meant people couldn’t gather for commemorations, and which honoured especially the contributions of people of colour to the war through images of regiments from all over the world, that we made contact with him.

The Princes Avenue memorial was the latest in a series of unique commemorations he has devised. In 2012, when the centenary of World War One was approaching, Joe put out a call on Facebook for people to send him stones from all over the world. He received sand from the beaches of every island in the Caribbean, stones from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany, and was given some Chinese jade. He took these to the Granby Workshop where they were mixed with local stone, ground down, and then, at Anfield, made into two large pots. He travelled to Mesen in Flanders to donate the pots to the museum there, objects made in Liverpool which embodied diversity in a material sense, created and given in memory of all the teenagers who were killed during World War One.

The importance of the Second World War in his own family’s history brings us back to Falkner Square Gardens. In the early 1990s, Joe was running a gallery on the square. At the events he organised there he hosted an array of brilliant and distinguished guests, including Maya Angelou and June Jordan. Around Christmas 1992 he was reading about the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, and he resolved to establish a memorial in Liverpool, for all the Black merchant seamen who served during World War 2. He contacted the office of Edmund Vestey, who had been appointed as a Queen’s representative on memorials, who endorsed the idea and came to help unveil the memorial in November 1993. And he went down to Canning Place, by the docks, to the site of the Sailors’ Home where his grandfather had stayed. The home itself had been demolished, but the stones from the impressive archway which fronted it were piled up on the site, and Joe selected one of these for the memorial. He thought carefully about the location, but settled on Falkner Square Gardens because it had been home to the consulates of many different countries – including many African countries – so any seamen visiting Liverpool who needed to have any formal contact with their country’s consulate would have come to the square. It was another stop on one of their many long journeys, and a place that offered an official connection with their homes, just as the shops on Granby Street maintained cultural connections, and represented the way in which Liverpool itself became home to people of many different nationalities and ethnicities.

That kind of care, thought, and sensitivity in Joe’s campaigning work struck us again and again as we listened to him. His advocacy is ceaselessly considerate and inclusive. His aim has always been to make and claim space for recognition and remembrance, on behalf of people who have been marginalised or forgotten. He understands this from his own family experience. He and his uncle spent years trying to claim his grandfather Ali’s service records from his time in the Merchant Navy, and the medals he had been awarded for his war service. Their enquiries were repeatedly met with the baffling answer that there was no such person as Ali Hussein Farrag. Eventually, they discovered that in the official record his name had been recorded backwards, so he was listed as Farrag Hussein Ali. This is much more than a clerical error: it is insensitivity which connotes insult, and which amounts to injustice. It denies a family the official recognition of the sacrifice their loved one made, and of the significance of the loss they endured. It is a particular slight given the solemnity with which the world wars and the armed services are remembered in British culture. And we know that the scale of this injustice is vast. We encountered Joe’s family story against the troubling background of revelations about the failure of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to commemorate as many as 350,000 Black and Asian soldiers who fought for the British Empire during World War One, and of the enforced deportation, by the British government, of thousands of Chinese merchant seamen from Liverpool after World War Two. We discuss these essential contexts in more detail in the ‘Inspiration and Recommendations’ section.

At the top of the memorial in Falkner Square Gardens, the silhouette of a ship is shown in relief. That ship is the Fort Concord, the vessel on which Joe’s grandfather Ali went down during the Battle of the Atlantic. It is at once a sign of the personal loss to Joe’s family, and symbolic of the collective act of honour this memorial performs. When we spoke to Joe, he reflected on the fact that many of the merchant seamen who were killed during the war would have stayed – like his grandfather – in the Sailors’ Home. When he chose the stone for the memorial from that demolished building, he was remembering them and, he said,

[. . .] the stone felt real [. . .] it’s almost their, well, it is, it’s their gravestone because if the ship is sunk [. . .] there is no gravestone to go to remember. In the park you’ve got benches, people will sit down, remember their grandfathers or whatever, you know, their father and, and possibly their mother at the same time.

To borrow the words of the memorial: Respect Due.

Videographer Jenny Collins, Assistant Director Seamus Lavan, Marvin Brown as Joe, and Sidelong Glance’s Eleanor Lybeck at the Memorial, August 2021. Picture credit: Harriet Bell.