A Sefton Saga

Let’s play a game.

Look at the picture above. Whereabouts are they? Whenabouts are they? Who or what is in the picture? What has happened before, what is happening now and what will happen next?

If you are playing the game properly then you should be building up a story for the picture. Your story is based on facts (the sky in the picture is blue) and assumptions (that bird isn’t very happy). These you have teased out by considering the picture as being more than a piece of art.

What if I were show you one of the following photographs and asked you to play the same game.

The man in the pictures is Jack Johnson, “The Hermit of the Sandhills” who lived an extraordinary life in Crosby, on the coast just north of Liverpool, during the Victorian era.  In my opinion its much easier to play our game with the art piece because there are more clues as to a possible narrative. What the photographs show is an old man holding a bucket, sitting with a lady and riding a horse and cart.  What you don’t see is that Jack Johnson was a soldier and lost part of his ear in the Crimean War.  That he was once shipwrecked whilst travelling from Louisiana to Liverpool and that his work as a Gamekeeper meant that he built a shack amongst the sand dunes and lived in it for fifty years. The photographs show a series of moments in time over a century ago which offer more mysteries than answers.

Jack Johnson’s life is now central to an exciting writing project called The Sefton Saga.  Each month during Sefton’s year as Merseyside’s Borough of Culture the community will be invited to build a story, with contributor’s taking the previous instalment as their starting point. This week The Sefton Saga was launched at Crosby Library and I was invited to contribute the first section of the story.   Whilst this was a tremendous honour it was also a fairly daunting task; to write a story that would inspire a community to write.

So how did I approach this?  Well playing the game I asked you to play a few moments ago I began to consider what intrigued me the most about Jack Johnson and these pictures. Here are the questions that would become the basis of my story.

  • Who took the photographs and what was their relationship with Jack Johnson?
  • Whilst Jack Johnson is known to have been respected by the older community how would a child feel if they met someone who lived like this for the first time?

In answering these questions and using the information I’d been provided and a little imagination I created the opening of the saga.

Simon Cushing wanted to go fishing.  So it was he and his little brother Pete set out for the beach one morning carrying a broom handle with some old string tied to one end.

“Where are you two troublemakers off to?” asked their neighbour, Mrs Donnelly.

“We’re going fishing.  We’re going to catch a whale!” chimed Pete, his grin as wide as the Mersey.

“Are you indeed?” laughed Mrs Donnelly, “I didn’t know there were whales in Crosby.  Are you going to bash it with that saucepan?”

The boys had borrowed Mrs Cushing’s best copper saucepan for collecting worms to use as fishing bait.  As they reached the first of the huge rolling sand dunes, Simon began digging energetically, using the saucepan as a makeshift spade.

“This is no good, the sand’s too soft.  We’ll not find any worms here.  We need to go further out”.

Between them the boys lifted the saucepan and the sea filled their noses as they dragged it closer to the water.

“Oi! What do you think you’re doing?  Get away from there!”

Looking up from their digging the boys saw old Jack the Gamekeeper.  Simon froze.  Every school boy in Crosby knew about Old Jack, the hermit of Sandhills, the old soldier who lived alone in a shack on the beach, how he was missing part of his ear and how he kept children in a cage to feed to his dog.

“You shouldn’t be out here!”

As the wind swirled around them to their horror the boys realised their feet were getting wet.  The tide had turned and they were in danger of being cut off completely from the beach.  Pete began to cry.

“What are we going to do?  I can’t swim.”

Old Jack waded into the sea and fished the stranded Cushing children over each of his broad shoulders then, splashed by the waves and sea salt tears, he made his way home as steadily as a great ship sails through a storm.  As Simon was carried towards Old Jack’s hut, he couldn’t help wondering if the stories he’d heard about his rescuer were true.  To his relief inside, instead of a cage he saw a rocking chair set beside a small stove and next to the bed were photographs of a woman holding a child.  As the gamekeeper put his catch down in the chair an excitable young Labrador bounded over and began licking the boy’s hands and faces.  At the sight of it the gruff old man’s face, weathered to the colour of roast beef and with as many lines as some ancient map of the dunes, creased into a friendly, toothless smile.

“Good boy” he chuckled “good boy!”

The drama of the beach was soon forgotten as the boys spent the rest of the afternoon under a thick blanket in front of a crackling fire, eagerly listening as old Jack sat puffing on his clay pipe telling extraordinary tales from his life.

As I say, it was a thrill to be asked to write the first section of such an ambitious project and I will be fascinated to see the direction taken in subsequent contributions.  In making Jack a storyteller reflecting on his own life I hope I have left enough space for the tale to go in just about any direction, factual or fantastical.  Meanwhile the same device could serve as a fixed point which might be revisited and ultimately perhaps the final author will finish the story of the Cushing boys fishing trip.

Whilst I may not know how the story will end I do know that I will be back in Sefton later in the year to celebrate what will hopefully be an incredible year of story writing.  If you would like to contribute to the saga you can visit Sefton Council’s website for more details about the project.  Good luck!

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.