This is the script for a talk I gave at Liverpool Maritime Museum on 20 February 2008, as part of the Capital of Culture Year. I was invited to speak about the influence of the Liverpool’s artistic output on the outside world’s impression of the city. Thus we range across the landscape, from The Boys From The Blackstuff to Atomic Kitten, via Scouse comedy and comedy Scousers…
I’ve been asked to share a few thoughts on how the creative work that’s come from this city has shaped the outside world’s idea of what Liverpool is. I’m always interested in this question of people’s view of Liverpool, because I’m a Liverpudlian who spends a lot of his time elsewhere, chiefly in London, so I get to hear people’s opinions of the city quite a lot.
I’ve learned to manipulate the mysteries of Virgin Trains’ website so as to buy first class tickets more cheaply than second class. I can recite the Pendolino All Day Snack menu off by heart, should you wish. I’ve also found that if there’s a Liverpool crew on board that day the service will either be the very best or the very worst — friendly to the point where you ask for a glass of wine and they wink and pass you the whole bottle; or else mysteriously hostile, as if they’re secretly planning a revolution requiring the immediate execution of all First Class Passengers … somehow it’s never in between.
Indeed ‘Never in between’ could almost be the city’s motto. I’ve sometimes wondered how it would sound translated into Latin. [A gentleman from the audience kindly passed me a note at the end: ‘NUMQUAM INTER’. So now I know.] And people’s impressions of Liverpool are very seldom in between as well. I’m interested in outsiders’ take on the city because I feel like an outsider myself for the first day or so after returning from London. There’s always a sort of de-compression period when you view the city through the eyes of a stranger.
For instance I always remember getting back into Lime Street with my wife one evening and going straight to some very crowded pub in town. This fellow walked past us and he accidentally trod on my wife’s foot; he spun around and looked at me and said, ‘Oh, sorry mate!’ My wife and I looked at each other and smiled, as if to say: ‘Ah, we’re not in Knightsbridge any more. Yes, we’re back in Liverpool, where you step on a woman’s foot and apologise to her bloke, just to be on the safe side.’
Anyway, outsiders’ opinions of Liverpool… Most people I talk to are complimentary, especially if they realise it’s my home town and they don’t want to give offence. But as we all know there are some very unflattering things said about Liverpool and Liverpudlians. The significant thing to me is that the people who’ve been here, just to visit or maybe to live here a while as students, nearly always seem to love the place. The ones who don’t love it have usually never been here.
Of course most people in the world have never been to Liverpool. The truly remarkable thing is that so many of them have strong opinions about it. You couldn’t say that about Ipswich, or even Birmingham. So a lot of this opinion forming must be due to media coverage, obviously, but also a lot of it is due to the cultural output, the creative works and artistic ventures that have come from Liverpool and helped to define its image.
Here we think immediately of The Beatles, who are still the ‘brand-name’ so to speak that most people identify with the city, on a par maybe with the football teams. The Beatles were for most people of that time the first introduction they had to the Liverpool accent – it’s always noticeable how many entertainers in the days before The Beatles would drop their local accents, and films made in Liverpool or novels set in Liverpool, were usually unconcerned with reproducing any distinctive Liverpool speech. It was part of The Beatles’ wider social impact on Britain that ‘proper’ spoken English, Received Pronunciation, lost its unchallenged superiority. To listen to the national media nowadays is to hear a multiplicity of regional voices as well as that horrible Estuarial or Mockney voice that many middle class speakers have traded down to, hoping to sound more casual and approachable.
In their early days The Beatles seemed to have a single, collective personality – cheeky, witty, quite lovable. And together with that early 1960s wave of popular entertainers, including Gerry Marsden of the Pacemakers, the young Cilla Black and the young Jimmy Tarbuck – who was considered very cutting-edge to begin with –there came a national impression of Scousers as working class and proud of it, not stuck in the past, a refreshing force for change in a world grown tired of stuffy old traditions.
And TV played a part in those days too. There was Z-Cars: gritty, urban cop drama, a whole generation on from kindly old Dixon Of Dock Green. It’s interesting also how Coronation Street developed a strand of Scouse characters – Len Fairclough, the tough, boozy builder; Jed Stone alias Sunny Jim, the light-fingered wide boy; and Eddie Yeats, the slightly thuggish bin man who turned out to have a heart of gold. In those days a popular TV show, or a hit record, commanded the attention of the whole country and it’s impossible to under-state their influence. It wasn’t like today when we’re saturated by a billion media choices every moment.
They were great days to be from Liverpool, when public schoolboys in the South of England were growing their hair long and trying to speak Scouse. And of course the Kop at Anfield became the most fantastic symbol of Liverpudlian pride and solidarity. It’s still amazing how the rise of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool team coincided so exactly with the Beatle-led emergence of Liverpool from years of provincial obscurity.
If there was any downside to all this it was a widespread linking, in conservative British minds, of Liverpool with trade union militancy, a certain self-defeating bolshiness of attitude. In the late 1960s the big comedy show was Til Death Us Do Part and Alf Garnett’s son-in-law, played of course by Cherie Blair’s father Tony Booth, was the legendary Randy Scouse Git: sharp-witted and left-wing but a bit of a layabout.
If the city was largely out of the limelight during the 1970s it was back in the full glare of national attention during the 1980s and not always in a good way. The Toxteth riots were the first in a succession of bad news stories that would go on to include Heysel and Hillsborough, Militant versus Thatcher, themes of urban decline, unemployment and violence. Music had only a limited part to play in this period: I remember that Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Dead Or Alive surprised my colleagues in London who never associated the butch working class seaport with flamboyant gay men. But eventually I think both bands formed part of Liverpool’s new reputation for fanatical hedonism, wild nights out, sealed by the national success of the Cream club as a magnet for ravers.
The bigger impact in the 1980s, I think, was made by TV and in particular by the two great achievements of Liverpool drama at the time: namely Brookside and Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff. The Blackstuff was obviously about the sheer difficulties of making a living in a city on the brink of economic collapse, whereas Brookside involved itself in all facets of daily life, comical and tragical and everything else. But it says something about human nature that it was the most negative elements that captured the imagination.
In the Blackstuff, for example, Bleasdale created a range of characters who were variously brave, anxious, meek, defiant, patient and so on. But none of that stood a chance next to the most vivid character of them all, namely Yozzer Hughes and his head-butts and ‘Gizza job’ catch-phrase. I think that became the defining image of Liverpool in the 1980s, just as the four lovable mop tops had been twenty years previously, and we’re only just beginning to emerge from Yozzer’s shadow today.
Meanwhile Brookside too depicted a whole host of characters in different situations behaving in a host of different ways, but the most abiding image was of chippy, argumentative men in shell-suits, with curly perms and little moustaches – the immortal creation not actually of Brookside or of Liverpool but of Harry Enfield. Sometimes your story gets taken off you and told by someone else, and there isn’t an awful lot you can do about it.
Again that’s an image which is passing into history, as people look at the new Liverpool that’s being built around us and wonder what sort of city it will become.
In the musical field it’s still respected as a creative force but not considered especially dominant any more. The Coral and The Zutons, Edgar Jones and The Wombats and various others maintain the city’s reputation for music, although they’re often tagged with a Cosmic Scally description, something that goes back to The La’s or even before, to Echo & The Bunnymen in the 70s, or even to the movie version of Yellow Submarine. In the 80s and 90s the Cosmic Scouser meant a reputation for being a bit dreamy and mystical and possibly too stoned to get your career in gear, which the groups from more practical cities seem to manage. Again it’s not a fair description of any of those acts – but images of a city tend to get painted in very broad brush-strokes.
I’d also like to mention Atomic Kitten, who’ve represented to the world that very special category of human kind, the Liverpool Girl, a species immortalised in Ian McNabb’s great song of that title… ‘the Liverpool girl, never wears a coat, the laughter from her golden throat, can be heard from the Irish boat.’
Something I hope this Capital of Culture Year will do is to show people how much the city has produced creatively speaking and how inadequate the popular stereotypes really are. I doubt if many people know that Simon Rattle is from Liverpool, because he doesn’t really fit their preconceptions of what a Scouser is. Something I get back from people who read my book about Liverpool music is that they didn’t know The Real Thing are from Liverpool – though in fact the group made some very specifically Liverpool records; in fact a lot of people didn’t even realise they were British let alone from Liverpool, because they assumed that black R&B so accomplished must have come from America.
Maybe by the end of 2008 a lot more people will know we have a world class Philharmonic Orchestra and a wealth of great museums and galleries and astonishing buildings. In fact I’m tempted to suggest that architecture is part of the city’s cultural output. Given how often they’re photographed now, those buildings work harder on behalf of the city than most human beings. I notice whenever I write about Liverpool for a newspaper or a magazine the designer reaches for pictures of the Three Graces or the Albert Dock or the great neo-Classical buildings of William Brown Street.
I’m trying to avoid my least favourite current cliché ‘iconic building’ but Liverpool really does have some architectural marvels that spell out the city’s name in a dramatic visual shorthand. Let’s hope we get some more of them.
I’ll also mention comedians, who have done a lot, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, to fix an impression of Liverpool in the public mind. This goes back a lot further than the Beatles, to the War Years and earlier, when the country was entertained by Arthur Askey, Rob Wilton, Tommy Hanley and Ted Ray. The comedians of more recent decades are a very mixed bag and difficult to generalise about: cosy like Tom O’Connor or psychotic like Freddy Starr; rather generic like Stan Boardman or totally unclassifiable like Ken Dodd; amiable and ingratiating like Keith Chegwin and Les Dennis, or startling and assertive like Kenny Everett or Lily Savage. The one common trait they bring to the table I suppose is the notion of Scousers as people determined to be humorous, often against the odds.
This links in with a general notion of Liverpudlians being gobby – or eloquent, according to taste. The eloquence factor has been upped somewhat by the prestige of the Liverpool poets, especially Roger McGough, probably the nation’s favourite. Like the late John Peel, who was universally thought of as a Scouser, McGough embodies a gentler, more whimsical way with the English language and one that I cherish.
The strange and great thing about Liverpool’s culture is that this city does Community AND Individualism… It’s a unique combination and it’s at the root of so much great art produced here. Here you can feel there’s something to belong to, in a way that you can’t in other cities, yet there’s also a freedom to make your own bold statement of character, even of eccentricity, and to be applauded for it.
Anyway, as we’re talking about the outside world’s image of Liverpool let me end with a few words from a very distinguished outsider. It’s sometimes easy to forget, amid the negative press, just how many friends this city actually has. A few weeks ago I was interviewing Ray Davies of The Kinks, a true Londoner of course, and one of the greatest English songwriters ever. And he said to me: ‘Liverpool isn’t just a region, it’s another culture. The last time we played there we were looking for the new Radisson hotel and we stopped a cab driver and asked him if he knew the way: He said, Yes, I do. And then he sped off!’ Ray Davies flashed the broadest gap-toothed grin you can imagine. ‘My view of Liverpool? My view of Liverpool is that it’s magical.’
Well, I agree with him, I hope you agree with him, and maybe the day will come when the rest of the world agrees with all of us.
Thank you for listening.