|This appeared in the New Statesman on 25 June 2007. They asked me to argue the case for Liverpool as a cultural centre of the North
I am loyal to my native city but can see why people sneered when Liverpool was declared the European Capital of Culture for 2008. Of course it has some grand old buildings, world-class museums, a fine classical orchestra, and so on. But these are not what Liverpool stands for in the national imagination. In the eyes of the outside world it remains a city of slums and car-thieves, over-rated comedians and a tiresome insularity. As the banner says at Anfield, home to one of our brave yet under-achieving football teams, “We’re not English, We Are Scouse”.
The self-sufficiency of Liverpudlians, whose accent stops abruptly at the city boundaries, who dismiss the citizens of neighbouring counties as “woollybacks”, separates them even from the North of England. The average Scouser-in-the-street would not care if – to quote a locally popular stage play – they “bricked up the Mersey Tunnel”. In 1963 the Kop’s choristers spontaneously adopted an old song newly covered by Gerry & The Pacemakers, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, spawning the city’s unofficial anthem. Even now it seems to say: “It’s our own solidarity that matters. Sod the rest of yer’s.”
In short, Liverpool doesn’t seem like the Capital of anything, except of itself. Recognising the problem, the civic authorities cooked up a new initiative called Cities On The Edge, reaching out to other traditionally “difficult” seaports around Europe. They sensed that Liverpool’s natural allies are Naples and Marseille, not Newcastle or Manchester. Even the infamous “We’re not English” banner took its inspiration from Basque separatists, encountered at a cup match in Spain. This is really a maritime city-state, whose internal clock is set by the tides, not by Big Ben. Never mind Militant, Liverpool is so outside the Westminster mainstream that it used to elect Irish Nationalist MPs.
Waterfront Liverpool knew about diversity long before bureaucrats ordered us to celebrate it. Thanks to that massive post-Famine influx, it became a Celtic enclave in an Anglo-Saxon kingdom: Catholic, chaotic and subversive. A lot of its black population descend from seafarers, and often pre-date the whites in Liverpool lineage. The Welsh diaspora sang stoutly forth from Nonconformist chapels. For good measure, we have the oldest Chinatown in Europe. This rich ethnic mix, plus a Sailortown’s impulse to entertain, and Liverpool’s monopoly of US music in a pre-media age – all these bred a city that has punched above its weight in popular culture. And culture thrives in both its high and low senses. The Philharmonic Hall and Philharmonic pub, squaring off across Hope Street, are each veritable temples in their own way.
If I’m proud of the pioneering Everyman Theatre, I’m just as fond of our everyday street theatre: from the voluptuous First Holy Communions to the weeping drunk who sings “The Fields Of Athenry” at Birkenhead Central. To spend an evening on a Liverpool barstool is to behold a Chaucerian pageant. In the past few nights I’ve clocked up red-nosed Scouse sages, bright-eyed Scandinavian beauties, achingly hopeful boys, gregarious junkies, sleek clerics, louche developers of property, 12 men who used to be in bands and four IT consultants still tipsy from the Chester Races. Absurdism is a current in the mental tides of Liverpudlians, from George Melly to the bloke at the coach station – the one who greets arrivals with a stiff military salute and a traffic cone over his head. Then there are the purple wheelie bins…
It is admittedly a tricky place. Not all of its critics are frigid snobs and life-denying drips. (But let me just say this: The city wears its heart on it sleeve. So what? At least it has a heart to wear.) Politically, it is at once too bolshy and vulgar for the Right, too wayward and wildcat for the Left (“an organiser’s graveyard,” sighed the Communist Party in 1935). It has been economically pummelled, not only by Mrs Thatcher, but also by containerisation and the migration of trade from British Empire to European Union. And the giddy descent from Beatlemania to Boys From The Blackstuff would have given any town vertigo. Yet it preserves a sense of its own identity that no other English city can match.
So here is the point. What sort of place should represent the North? Manchester, Leeds or Sheffield would be sensible choices. Their Labourism was rooted in Methodist sobriety and Marxist discipline. Liverpool has no tradition besides stoned anarcho-surrealism. And there still lurks poverty. But beyond the dark, cramped hovels there were always the sea and a magnificent sky, and the sense of a wide world to be glimpsed at every street’s end. It is scruffy, careless, brazen and kind. This city has soul. It knows how to throw a party. For all that it’s heavy, it’s extravagantly welcoming to anyone without airs and graces. After all, it’s been entertaining sailors for centuries. If you want a quiet life then don’t choose Liverpool. But if you’re on board for the mind-scrambling adventures of an unknowable, violent, tragicomic, globalised 21st century world, here is a city that knows no other state of being.
Mind yer Zeitgeist for yer, mate?