Book review: Jam Butties and a Pan of Scouse by Maggie Clarke and Cathryn Kemp

Jam Butties and a Pan of Scouse by Maggie Clarke and Cathryn Kemp
Jam Butties and a Pan of Scouse by Maggie Clarke and Cathryn Kemp

Born during the hardest of times and in one of the poorest areas of Liverpool, Maggie Clarke’s life was never destined to be a bed of roses…

But the resilient little girl who spent her childhood in a disease-ridden slum tenement within earshot of the rumbling railways, busy canal routes and clanking dockyards was a true survivor and the story of her rollercoaster life proves as heartwarming as the meaty scouse stew that became her favourite dish.

Still sprightly at the grand age of 96 and always ready with her Scouse humour, Maggie is keen to keep the memories of Liverpool alive through her storytelling and aims to both inform and educate today’s younger generations.

And this gritty memoir, co-authored by award-winning journalist Cathryn Kemp and set against the backdrop of Liverpool’s docklands community – an area notorious for having the worst slums in Britain and yet the closest community spirit – is both an inspiration and an eye-opener.

In 1931 and at the age of just 11, Maggie found herself the matriarch of the family when her Irish mother walked out on her ‘da’ and ran off with another man. Maggie, who lived in an overcrowded tenement block where vermin outnumbered the residents, was left to care for her eight-year-old brother Tommy and three-year-old sister Nellie.

Leaving school at 14 to work at Pendleton’s Ices, a local factory putting sticks into lollies, Maggie knew she was still needed at her home in Athol Street near the city’s teeming docks and was determined to make a better life for herself and her family.

But before long, she was starting her own family with her childhood sweetheart Thomas who she married at 19 after ‘falling in the family way.’

As the dark days of the Second World War descended, Maggie had just one night of married life with her husband before he was sent to India with the Navy. What was even more devastating was that Maggie, now the mother of little Rita, never heard from Thomas again and presumed that he was a casualty of the war that was now raging both at home and abroad.

And tragedy struck again when Maggie’s brother Tommy was also claimed by the war, leaving her father inconsolable, but for Maggie life went on and she fell in love with Joseph, an Irish settler with whom she had eight children.

But her happiness was short-lived as her first husband Thomas appeared out of the blue demanding a divorce, and her new husband Joseph was drinking away what little money they had, returning in fits of rage that left Maggie and her children hungry and afraid.

Money was tight and on many occasions she was only able to feed her brood by the kindness of neighbours like Cissie in the wash house and Mrs Jones across the corridor who put a ‘pan of scouse’ on the range for her, or fed her kids jam butties to help out.

And it was the support of these fellow Scousers, who constantly came to her aid and raised her spirits when the going was tough, that gave Maggie the strength to survive against the odds…

Maggie’s nostalgic memoir sweeps across the changing face of Liverpool, from its squalid dock streets, tenement blocks and cobbled roads to the decline of the docklands, new council housing and the rise of the Mersey beat and the Beatles.

But it is the energy and passion of the city’s poorest people, and their resilience to withstand the heartbreak and hardships, that take centre stage in this moving account of 20th century life.

Maggie moved to London in 1981 to live near her daughter Eileen but it took her a long time to settle and many times she made herself a jam butty ‘just for the memory of them’ and if she was feeling really homesick for Liverpool, she would ‘get a pan of scouse on the cooker.’

(Trapeze, paperback, £6.99)