After 20 years as a film and book critic, the Independent journalist Anthony Quinn turns native with a creative debut of his own – an impressive wartime drama that resurrects Liverpool's port-of-empire past from the rubble of the Blitz. It's 1939, and historian Thomas Baines is up against a deadline. Due to deliver a Pevsner-style survey of Liverpool's architectural heritage, he is finally galvanised into action by the realisation that events in Europe will wait for no man.
With the help of an ex-Army officer turned photographer, Richard Tanqueray, and his trouser-wearing wife, Bella, Baines gets to work documenting the city's magnificent Victorian skyline. Over the course of his research, Baines, a bookish fellow, finds himself drawn to the long-forgotten work of visionary architect Peter Eames, a disciple of John Ruskin whose office blocks anticipated the skyscrapers of Chicago by 20 years.
Eames's diaries, which end shortly before his unexplained death at the age of 33, are interpolated with Baines's unfolding story – a convenient, if well-worn, device that enables Quinn to cross-cut between centuries and sensibilities. As the storm clouds gather, the novel, like Baines's life, changes from a rather introspective, academic affair into something altogether more promising. Joining a group of "Heavy Rescue" men, Baines volunteers as part of this close-knit team, tunnelling into buildings now flattened by the Luftwaffe. With the ordinary rules of life suspended, Baines slips out of his civvies into an illicit, and surprisingly saucy liaison, with Bella Tanqueray.
Quinn, like fellow Liverpudlian writers such as Beryl Bainbridge and Linda Grant, is hard-wired to the emotional history of his home town. Indeed, the inclusion of Eames's diaries threaten to over-topple a novel already rich in social and cultural resonance. An author attuned to the patina of past lives, Quinn proves a sure-footed guide around Liverpool's "begrimed" and destroyed cityscape. In one of the most memorable scenes, Baines remembers riding his uncle's horse from the suburbs of Mossley Hill, past the Royal Liver Building and into the "dark canyons" of the business district.
With the visuals firmly in place, the latter part of the novel concentrates on the slow-burning love story, and the consequences of Baines's adulterous affair. The wartime conditions prove "a friend to romantic furtiveness." Under the cover of air raids and alarums, Bella's silk undergarments "pool" and "purl" onto the floor of Baines's poorly heated flat. Drinks at the bar of the Imperial Hotel are interspersed with private views and Terence Davies-style singalongs, while the cuckolded Richard fails to spot any untoward activity on the home front. Tragedy waits in the wings, and Quinn - with an eye to the cinematic denouement - has a breathtaking payback in store for the errant lovers.
Less convincing are the closing chapters to Eames's story, which sees the maverick genius destroyed by financial and marital scandal, and quite literally washed up on the rocks after asuspicious boating accident. When Baines reaches the end of his mentor's unfinished diaries, he is beset by conflicting emotions: "surprise, outrage, disbelief, pity, and then a maddening sense of anticlimax." The reader might feel much the same.
This, however, is a minor quibble in an otherwise evocative and elegiac period piece. Writing with the eye and language of a serious novelist, Quinn has reclaimed an intiriguing chapter of Liverpool's history. Even after the bombers have left, and the city falls prey to post-war economic decline and the enthusiams of a new wave of city planners, Baines stays on - more interested in rescuing bricks and mortar than in saving his own private life. Hidden under bomb damage, waiting to be rediscovered, is is the south-west side of Eames's final unfinished project, a grand public library. As the novel rather wistfully concludes,"Maybe you can't destroy history. You could only add to it."Reuse content