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There’s No Smoke Without Fire

I heard a rumour.

I’m not going to pass it on. At least not until I hear at least another two versions of it. When a rumour concerns someone you know it has more power, I think. If I like the person then I will pass it on especially if I know they’d enjoy it and it is fun. A malicious rumour is another thing entirely.

C1I imagine a gossip, sitting primly, implies the truth in that smug tone by saying ‘there is no smoke without fire’. Then I thought about that saying and decided to find out if you could have smoke without fire. Bingo! You can, apparently, heat any combustible and it will smoke before it reaches the temperature required for combustion. Things like rubbing two sticks together will produce smoke first. No flames – no fire.

While doing the research, I also found several other sayings which are discredited. Did you know that money does grow on trees? Gold particles have been found in eucalyptus leaves. Another one I found that fascinated me is the outcome of ‘women and children first.’ ‘A study of 18 maritime disasters between 1852 and 2000, involving some 15,000 passengers from more than 30 nations, found that the survival rate of women on board these ships was little more than half the rate of men, and children had the lowest survival rate of all’. Check out this website for other gems of information.–unless-you-are-talking-about-a-traditional-saying-8904828.html

I have been the subject of three rumours to my knowledge.

The first one goes back to about 1976. I was a 26 year old married woman working at the Custom House in Liverpool, which was housed in the Cunard Building, the original having been bombed during the war. The Cunard Building is the last of the buildings built that are known as The Three Graces on the magnificent Liverpool UNESCO World Heritage site.

C2lAt that time, importers and exporters, brewers, tobacco manufacturers, bookies and so on, paid their taxes at the Custom House. That building at the time was black and dirty, smog painted the industrial fumes. I sat in a glass security box taking the money. I’d pass the paperwork to the counter between my box and another where it would be stamped and dated: proof of payment. I took breaks and Steve would take over. Steve and I spent time together at work; we chatted and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Another man took me to one side and said there was ‘talk’ about us. Nothing untoward happened. Our time together relieved the pressures of the day but somehow, after that, the chats wound down and stopped.

church 2On my first day of work, age 17, I remember vividly arriving at the Cunard Building. I had travelled through a part of town that I didn’t know, walking from Exchange Station down narrow streets, dark alleyways and down the long steep steps through St Nicholas’s Church. That same Parish Church I later learned where my great grandmother, Roseanna, and my great grandfather, Richard, had married in 1858 after lying about their ages and their religion.

I saw the Cunard Building from across the width of the Strand. It was my first real view of it because I’d had my interview in another building. The Portland stone was nearly black from years of industrial fumes but it was still imposing. I climbed up the magnificent stone steps, through the large revolving doors and stepped into another world.

I had never seen anything like it. It was so beautiful: all gleaming wood and Italian marble, rich gold and sparkling glass. The design was based on the Farnese Palace in Rome but much, much bigger than the homely palace of Pope Paul lll. There was a narrow lift, circa 1930’s, with a black exterior folding iron gate and a black interior folding gate both of which had to be closed before it would move plus plenty of brass on the rails, the calling plate and the single button outside to call the lift. It straddled the central stairway which had stairs going up into luxury and down into squalor.

elevator 3Monsieur Poirot would have found the place both familiar and comfortable. I could imagine he and the other first class passengers being entertained in the building while waiting to board their luxury liners. The lower floors did not have the same ambience or elegance and that’s where the porters, the skivvies the lower class passengers would have been housed. I remember the tide and sewers filling up the basement after a major thunderstorm but I can’t recall what date it happened. I know I slept through it.

Cunard left the building in 1967, the year I joined the Customs. The size of ships grew and several of their big ships couldn’t dock at Liverpool.

1967: the year of a major dock strike when containerisation was cutting jobs (I wrote a poem which I’ve printed below); the Government devalued the pound. Pirate radio stations were outlawed which made them necessary listening on the modern transistor radio and the breathalyser came into effect. Dr Christiaan Bernard performed the world’s first heart transplant and Concorde took to the skies.

I am in awe of the history I’ve lived beside.

In 3The building no longer houses Cunard or Customs but it is a stalwart of the Liverpool skyline. It is now a grade 2 listed building and it marks its 100th anniversary next year, 2016. There is a short video at the end of this article where you see the elegance and splendour of the interior, and learn about the ghost. I am privileged to have worked in such beautiful surroundings.

The second rumour was similar in nature to the first, fifteen years later. At the time, I had separated from my husband and moved to a different office in the department housed in a different area of Liverpool. I was lively and willing; maybe pretending that all was well with me; maybe I was trying too hard to impress, to prove my value to someone. I don’t know. But again there was ‘talk’ of me and my boss, this time. One of my staff wasn’t recommended by me for promotion and I suspect that’s where the rumour started.

Quote 1

The third time I no longer worked for the department. I had left on health grounds seven years earlier after having cancer and subsequent chemotherapy. This time I learned that I had died. Now that was something of a shock. I understand that was a credible rumour given my history but how did it start? Who generated that rumour and why? I don’t know but I hope my ex husband, who still worked at Customs, passed on the good news.

The good news: I am still alive.

Dock Strike

No freighters, no cargo.

River slaps dock walls, not

hulls. Cranes stand silent.


Desks pile dusty forms –

backlogs from cellar archive –

to wipe, staple, file.


Buff envelopes bear

‘On His Majesty’s Service’,

Already decades out of date

they curl in spiders’ webs. Ears

attuned to the whistle of tugs

shudder to hear the one o’clock


gun crack across the Mersey.

That too will stop. Another

victim to progress.

Published inCultural Life

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