Cunard Yanks

Directed by Mike Morris, Written by Dave Cotterill
Premiered at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (21st June 2007)

Reviewed by Mr Read

Some aspects of working class history are well documented – trade unions, strikes, housing, diet. Liverpool’s Cunard Yanks records something that was ‘hidden from history’. Employed as waiters on the Cunard Line in the 1950s and 1960s they were pioneers, bringing back to Britain a new musical culture.

During that era over 20,000 seamen sailed out of Liverpool. Working either in the merchant navy or the liners was almost a rite of passage for many young people. That industry combined with the docks helped to form the character of the Liverpool working class (an interesting contrast can be made with Manchester where employment tended to be in stable, skilled industries like textiles and engineering). Even up to the 1960s the dock industry was notorious for casualisation, men queuing up every day for work. Seamen would traditionally ‘jump ship’ if they found conditions on board too onerous. The film highlights a group of rebels, chancers and outsiders – the Cunard Yanks.

Fifty years on they haven’t lost their touch or fashion sense (they were working class dandies long before Jonathan Ross tried to purloin the title). John Gilmour talks about the months he spent in prison in Havana, routinely rejecting the food on offer. Their normal port of call was the Market Diner at Pier 92 in Manhattan, New York.

Tips from the wealthy clientele on the liners supplemented their meagre wages, (money was shared around the boat) enabling them to bring records, fashion and consumer goods back to Britain. David Kynaston’s book ‘Austerity Britain’ describes just how grim life was in the 1950s, as wartime rationing continued for years. One of the Cunard Yanks commented, ‘Britain was black and white, New York was Technicolor.”

In America as a musical revolution unfolded, jazz, be-bop, rock and roll, the charts in Britain were still dominated by ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” Music from America had a huge influence in the revolution that transformed British pop culture. One of the Cunard Yanks Ivan Hayward even sold his guitar to George Harrison – he’s still waiting for the last £20!

Unofficial strikes, involving thousands of seafarers, were also a feature of the shipping industry during the 1950s. But they weren’t just fighting the employers they were battling against their own union the notoriously corrupt National Union of Seamen – ballot rigging was rife.

The film describes Liverpool as an ‘Edgy City’, never part of Lancashire, stuck down the end of the M62, a world apart. Like most port cities Liverpool was always ‘different’. A different accent and culture from its hinterland.

How long will that dissonance and rebelliousness last? The docks used to employ 20,000, now, after the defeat of the 1995-6 lockout and with the impact of containerisation, there are a few hundred non-union dockers left. Apart from a few British officers, seafarers come from Third World countries, shipbuilding and ship repair has all but vanished from the Mersey and the insurance industry is closing down and relocating their call centres to Bangalore.

The Cunard Yanks spoke about ‘The Pool’ the shipping employment agency by the Pier Head, “hundreds would congregate every day waiting for ships.” Those who sailed out of Liverpool brought back music, different cultures and an irascible, irreverent spirit of rebellion. On the premiere night at the Philharmonic there was an enthusiastic audience that bathed in nostalgia. It got me thinking will Liverpool remain an ‘Edgy City’?

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Comment left by Kevin Noon on 24th October, 2007 at 14:57
Having seen and enjoyed the unfinished cut ayear or so ago, I'm not really tempted to see the final cut. Having met the authors of Edgy Cities on many occassions now I am led to believe that this film lost its edge at the editing stage and has become a portrait of the few rather than the many. I hope someone can convince me that I'm wrong!

Comment left by john strange on 10th May, 2008 at 6:08
A true reflection of life atthat time. aThere are many like me who would gladly return to those days when times were tough but mates were important. The 'Scousers' were the salt of the earth and still are.

Comment left by Frank Ferri on 22nd June, 2009 at 21:41
Being from Leith, I Never considered myself a cunard yank, PROBABLY BECAUSE i NEVER SAILED WITH CUNARD. but I do remember the eara well. Aged 19, I spent 12 months on the American east cost with New York as my base, yes we did buy all things American and it was good to bring these things back to a post war depressing UK. You'd walk into the local Palaise de Dance which a lot of American servicemen based just outside Edinburgh used and you could compete with their popularity by wearing American gear, smoking American cigarettes which impressed the girls Yea america was a far better place then

Comment left by Derek Clarke on 18th November, 2011 at 9:17
I was told a few days ago about this website, the content is great, I served on cunard in the 50s and agree with the comments of corrupt unions and poor pay bone idle dock workers whose main interest was to scrounge from the ships galley etc, these years were the among the best of my life meeting and making great pals wonderfull times in far away places memories which stay with you every day, my wish now would be turn the clock back and start all over again, thanks for the pleasure of visiting this website.

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