Inspiration and Recommendations

Here, we map some of the sources which inspired our research and work on the Whose History? films, and provide some recommendations for you to pursue and explore.


Just as we were guided by the work of the historian Greg Quiery on the Liverpool Irish, we were also guided by his poetry. His poem ‘Vanished‘ from his collection A Stray Dog, Following (Stairwell Books, 2020) concentrates on Silvester Street in Liverpool, where a small children’s playground can be found on the site of what was once a graveyard in which many Famine migrants were buried in the 1840s. The speaker of the poem addresses the people remembered – “you hold on our behalf the burdens of the past” – and evokes, very movingly, the sense of past and present, and memory and loss, which resonated very strongly with our meditations on the plaque on Mulberry Street. So the poem describes “the rhythm of the lorries’ rumble” in the modern city, but it also gives us a sense of the city as being, in a way, only part of a much larger natural, elemental place – it thinks of the soil underneath the tarmac playground, which “once gave birth to daffodils and snowdrops”, it keeps reminding us of the sea the migrants had to cross, and looks to the sky which becomes the “vaulted canopy” for those buried without “the grandeur of the church”. You can purchase Greg’s book, and read more of his brilliant poetry, from Stairwell Books.

Rowan Gillespie’s Famine (1997), a memorial to the Irish Famine, on Custom House Quay, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons).

Staying with poetry, the late Eavan Boland was a voice of unique authority and sympathy in Irish writing. In our essay on ‘2600’ we mention the documentary The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine, which was screened on Irish television while we were developing the film. That documentary was based on the extraordinary Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, an indispensable reference point for researchers and for anyone with an interest in this seismic event in Irish history. The Atlas opens with one of Boland’s great poems of reflection on the Famine, which lead her to consider the stories which history tells about the past. ‘The the Science of Cartography is Limited‘ is the first poem in Boland’s sequence ‘Writing in a Time of Violence’, published in her 1994 collection In a Time of Violence. She is thinking about what is left out when official records of human experience come to be made – the famine roads in the West of Ireland, for example, which do not appear on maps of the country. Elsewhere in her poetry, Boland made space for forgotten people and their private experiences. In her celebrated poem of love and desolation during the Famine, ‘Quarantine‘, from Code (2001), she is strict about the duty, and the inadequacy, of poetry in representing human experience at its most extreme and concentrated. Her artistic responsibility and compassion, here as elsewhere, are deeply instructive. You can watch Eavan Boland reading ‘Quarantine’ here.

Let Her Witness It

We were inspired by the process of imagining and then dramatising the works of Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the voice and the contexts of the version of Mary E. Webb we offer in ‘Let Her Witness It’. As we explore in the essay which accompanies the film, the idea of performance in this piece is layered. The fact that Mary E. Webb wore a Native American headdress while she performed extracts from Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha raised particularly important questions, which resonate strongly today. As we considered how to approach this in performance, the research of Margaret Bruchac was invaluable. An Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-ordinator of Native & Indigenous Studies there, Professor Bruchac’s work has been consistently enlightening: particularly on the stories held, silently, by Native American objects and the ethical questions involved as we consider their journeys from the hands of the people who made, used, valued and understood them into the hands of scholars and curators; and on the diminution and neglect of women’s vital contributions to influential anthropological representations of Native American experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You can read more about her work, and Native American and Indigenous Studies at Penn, here.

An extract from the score of Charles Lucien Lambert’s ‘Bresiliana’. Tom Kimmance’s excellent performance of this piece accompanies ‘Let Her Witness It’.

With the brilliant guidance of Dr Helen Thomas of the University of Liverpool, who worked with us to select music for each of the films in Whose History?, we discussed the work of two composers to accompany ‘Let Her Witness It’: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Charles Lucien Lambert. In the film, it is Lambert’s ‘Bresiliana’ that we hear, but our process of researching these important and often neglected composers is a vital part of our background work on ‘Let Her Witness It’.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875; his mother was English, and his father, whom he never knew, was from Sierra Leone. Named after the Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge-Taylor showed prodigious talent in music from childhood, and went on to excel at the Royal College of Music. At the age of 20 he achieved his first success in composition, his Clarinet Quintet in F Sharp (Op. 10). Three years later, in 1898, he wrote one of his most celebrated pieces, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, inspired by his veneration of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, followed in 1899 by the sequel The Death of Minnehaha, and in 1900 by Hiawatha’s Departure. Coleridge-Taylor’s stellar career was cut short by his early death at the age of 37. You can read more about his work, and explore some of the important portraits made of him during his life, in this excellent essay by Andrew Shore at Art UK. We’d also strongly recommend the work of his biographer, Jeffrey Green, which you can begin to explore online here.

eJoy of Cooking

You don’t have to go far in Liverpool to see tributes to the worlds opened up in the songs of the city’s most famous sons. Anyone arriving in the city at Liverpool John Lennon Airport meets the Yellow Submarine, designed by Graham Burgess and built by apprentices at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead for International Garden Festival in 1984. And after we conducted our interviews with the students for ‘eJoy of Cooking’, it was George Dunning’s 1968 Beatles film Yellow Submarine which came to mind and set us on the path towards animation. As we explain in the essay which accompanies the film, our character Sherry talks of the opportunity “to see the different world” through travel, and animation opens imaginative doors in ways live action cannot. Doors that might lead, for example, to places where strawberry spaghetti is on the table . . .

Graham Burgess’s Yellow Submarine, originally made for the Beatles Maze at the International Garden Festival, 1984, seen here in its current home at Liverpool John Lennon Airport (Wikimedia Commons).

We might add, though, that strawberry spaghetti is a popular dish and the culinary internet offers many variations of it – with strawberries paired with tomatoes, cream, or with tagliatelle in this dessert.

Hey Joe

While we were preparing this piece, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission published a report in which it admitted that at least 116,000, and potentially as many as 350,000, Black and Asian soldiers who fought and died in the service of the British Empire during the First World War were not accorded the same formal, military honours as their white counterparts. We can picture the serried headstones of military cemeteries which have been meticulously tended for over one hundred years. These Black and Asian soldiers were not commemorated with a gravestone or even by name on a memorial – a basic entitlement of all fallen military personnel. In Tanzania, where a cemetery for African troops was established, the graves had been abandoned by the Commission, despite the fact that it continued to maintain the burial sites of European troops. Worse still, the Commission had known about this for a decade: they had the vital research carried out in the Commission’s own archives by Professor Michèle Barrett of Queen Mary University in London. It was only in response to the screening of the documentary The Unremembered, made by the historian David Olusoga and presented by the MP David Lammy, and to tireless campaigning by Lammy and Professor Barrett, that the Commission began its own investigation.

In May 2021, Dan Hancox’s investigative work on the enforced deportations of Chinese merchant seamen after World War Two was published in the Guardian. It is thought that some 2,000 Chinese men, living in Liverpool – many of whom had settled and started families in the city – were forcibly repatriated in a secret programme of deportations engineered by the British Home Office. Hancox profiled the extraordinary research and tireless determination of the children of these men to find the truth about their fathers’ fates, and the extent of what the Liverpool Labour MP Kim Johnson has called “one of the most nakedly racist incidents ever undertaken by the British government”. This campaign, and the families’ experiences, is highlighted in a very moving display in the Museum of Liverpool’s Global City gallery. Just outside the Museum, on the Pier Head, you can find a memorial to those men who were forcibly repatriated, and to their families, which was organised by Yvonne Foley and unveiled in 2006. Yvonne’s father was forcibly repatriated in 1946, a month before she was born, and she has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of families like hers.

The memorial to Chinese seafarers and their families on the Pier Head, Liverpool. The text in English reads: “To the Chinese merchant seamen who served this country well during both World Wars. For those who gave their lives for this country – thank you. To the many Chinese merchant seamen who after both World Wars were required to leave. For their wives and partners who were left in ignorance of what had happened to their men. For the children who never knew their fathers. This is a small reminder of what took place. We hope nothing like it will ever happen again. For your memory.”

While Joe’s story began in Liverpool 1, it belongs to Liverpool 8. We’ve been inspired by other views and memories of this part of the city – from Tricia Porter’s memorable ‘Then and Now’ photographs, which capture L8 in the 1970s and the 2010, to Writing on the Wall’s brilliant What’s Your Granby Story?, a collection of monologues, poems and stories by local writers published in 2015. And Joe himself features in the fascinating and important new film Don McCullin: Almost Liverpool 8, which premiered at the Sheffield DocFest in June 2021. Directed by Daniel Draper and Allan Melia, the film focuses on an image of the area taken by the celebrated photojournalist Don McCullin in the early 1970s, and then proceeds to explore Liverpool 8 as it is today.

As Hey Joe is a film about protest and justice, we couldn’t close this section on our inspirations without recommending another of Joe’s. He told us that his experience visiting the Greenham Common Peace Camp in the early 1980s had a real impact on him: the women of Greenham, he said, are icons. Here, courtesy of the Guardian, you can explore the Greenham Common Songbook.