The web-magazine Liverpool Confidential asked me what I thought the outside world was thinking of Liverpool, as its European Capital of Culture Year got under way. My report appeared on 19 February 2008.
You know the old song about ‘our Liverpool home’? We’ve got the ‘accent exceedingly rare’, the cathedral to spare, and all of that stuff? Well, we’ve now got something else to add. We’ve got ‘reputational issues’. Who says? The Financial Times says.
I love these new phrases. ‘Reputational issues’ sounds almost prestigious. Does Norwich have them? Apart from a little light mockery by Alan Partridge, it does not. London? Manchester? No. Not really. You’d have to look a long way before you found a city with reputational issues like Liverpool’s reputational issues. Twenty years ago you might have said that Belfast, or possibly Glasgow, had their own share of notoriety. But they’ve both come a long way since then. In the eyes of the outside world, the Financial Times says, Liverpool is struggling.
Of course we all hope our Year of Culture will transform Liverpool’s reputation. But the first few weeks of 2008 were not encouraging. Bloomberg News, the globally syndicated agency, began their report on the Capital of Culture’s opening ceremony with a mention of the night’s shootings in Croxteth. Listing the city’s cultural attractions, they ended with this immortal pay-off: ‘Just remember to bring your bullet-proof leg protectors.’
To be fair, Bloomberg’s report was not completely damning. They were baffled by Liverpool’s last two years of political in-fighting, and equally baffled by Ringo’s new single. (And who could blame them on either score?) But their essential angle was echoed across the media: ‘Liverpool year of culture gets off to a violent start,’ ran the headline in the Independent on Sunday. That’s human nature. Bad news jolts the brain in ways that good news doesn’t. Shock is greater than awe. And every newspaper understands this.
This city carries bitter memories of media mistreatment, most infamously from The Sun. But it’s hard to move on, isn’t it, when you hear allegations of a TV crew trying to goad some scallies to provide juicy ASBO action on camera. And it’s not only the media who take a perverse glee in negative spin. It was depressing enough to read about the burglaries from footballers’ homes during away games; it was even worse to see those stories top the ‘Most e-mailed’ chart on the BBC News website.
We all know this problem exists. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I call it a sort of displaced racism. In firms across the country there’s a habit of sending ‘Scouse joke’ e-mails around. My wife, who is Irish-born and Liverpool-bred, finally snapped one day and posted her own response: ‘Oh, I get it. You’re not allowed to call me a thick Paddy any more, so now I’m a thieving Scouser instead.’ I’m glad to say that a few of her London colleagues had the decency to be embarrassed.
Still, Liverpool has survived tougher challenges than this. It irritates me, because I know how cheap the taunts are. But I also know that it’s not important and that the city will see off its detractors. We should also realise how many real friends we have across the world. (I’ve never met a musician, for example, who didn’t speak highly of the Liverpool audience.) The fact is that few cities arouse any opinions, good or bad. And that’s because few cities have any innate personality to speak of. People do respond to the idea of Liverpool; they sense it has a personality. And by and large they like it.
This city is different to other cities, in good ways and bad, and difference will always polarise opinions. Deep down, I think, Liverpudlians enjoy their city’s ‘exceptionalism’. We don’t want to be just like Norwich. But standing out gets you noticed, and to be noticed is to risk attack. If that’s the price of our city’s individuality, I’d say it’s worth paying. We should refute the lies that are told, but do it calmly and with confidence. Let us not seem shrill, defensive or thin-skinned.
Yes, it’s a perplexing city. If you’re not perplexed by Liverpool then you’re probably not paying attention. It’s full of life and life is messy. It continues to beguile and infuriate me. Throw your worst abuse at Liverpool and a part of me will acknowledge what you say. Nearly all the criticisms have a grain of truth. Yet no defence is too passionate. Even the most loyal of Scousers see the downside of the city and most of us, I’m sure, occasionally feel despair. I know I do. But life goes on and some things do get fixed. It’s our responsibility to fix them, and our obligation to the generations after us. Because, in the end, the city out-lives us all.