… And The Coming Back.
A piece written for Liverpool.com magazine, July 2008.
Should I stay or should I go? The question raised by that classic Clash track never entered my mind when I was a teenager in Liverpool. For one thing, the song hadn’t been written yet (this was the 1970s). And for another, I was desperate to get away.
It’s not that I had anything against the place. Liverpool and its suburbs were all I’d ever known. But there is a healthy impulse in most young people to see the wider world. Hadn’t my own father – like generations of Liverpool men – run away to sea? So I took the first opportunity to leave and went to study in London. Lots of people do something similar. Then you begin a career, maybe start a family, put down roots. Piece by piece, you’re assembling the jig-saw of your life – and there are no Liver Birds in the picture. Before you really know what’s happened, it looks impossible to go back. To make matters worse in my case, it was now the 1980s, when prospects of a decent life in Liverpool seemed more remote than ever.
Has all that finally changed? Is 2008 the time for exiles to return? Can the city attract outsiders to live and work here? And is it time for home-grown talent to stay and make its future in Liverpool – instead of London or, God forbid, the emerging media hub of Manchester?
Britain has always had a London problem. We’re economically imbalanced in favour of the capital and that divide is growing. In the old days money was made up North and spent down South. When London was the front parlour of the British Empire, Manchester was its sweat shop and Liverpool the tradesman’s entrance. Nowadays the South-east doesn’t need anyone: it’s a global economy all of its own. Liverpool can never be the Land of Opportunity that London is, but it still has plenty going for it. And as for our North-west neighbour, I see Liverpool as playing San Francisco to Manchester’s Los Angeles – smaller, maybe, but better-looking, with bags more character. Where would you rather be?
Well, we know of course that Ringo Starr was “that” close to moving back, and even Cilla Black has lately been pining for the old place: “I think about moving back,” she told the Daily Post. “My friends say ‘you wouldn’t last two minutes’ but I know I’d love it.” For those of us who are merely mortal, however, there is always a more urgent consideration: Can we make a living here?
London has a near-monopoly on the media as well as being a financial power-house; meanwhile Manchester is better-placed to be a regional centre than Liverpool. But the 21st century will not be like any previous era. I’m a writer and with the internet I can work anywhere. Improved technology – tele-conferencing, and the rest of it – is making that decision easier for all sorts of people. The time of centralisation is passing.
And Liverpool’s attractions are vast: the natural setting and the built environment are fantastic; the cultural amenities are world-class; shopping and dining have come a long way, not forgetting the older allure of pubs and football. And however dubious the city centre’s much-hyped property boom, Merseyside prices are certainly more affordable than most. Above all there are the people, who I claim without sentimentality to be the best in the world. Myself, I can’t escape London completely, and would not want to, but I spend about half my time in Liverpool now and cherish every day.
So I asked various people why they left Liverpool, or stayed, or returned, or came here from somewhere else. You can see from their replies that a curious pattern emerges. What the residents love and the exiles miss is something in the nature of Liverpool itself. You can leave the city but it never leaves you – not even in your dreams. Of course we need the economic regeneration that makes a career possible, but it’s more than that. When I was a student at the London School of Economics, the Liverpool Echo had an office nearby in Fleet Street. Each day in the display window was a copy of last night’s paper. It became my morning fix. I suppose I knew already that I’d come home eventually.
Stay or go? Should we be Steven Gerrards – or Wayne Rooneys? The fact is that Liverpool has always been a town of immigrants and emigrants, a place of exile and a place to feel exiled from. In my day there was only one choice: Liverpool for the people or London for the money. In the 21st century, I hope, we can find all we need right here.
Paul Du Noyer is the author of Liverpool: Wondrous Place (Virgin Books)
Mark Davies Markham, author of Liverpool Nativity and the forthcoming Eric’s The Musical:-
“I have a flat in the city and feel like I’ve never left. I think Scouse is a state of mind, no matter where you are in the world. What stopped me from leaving Liverpool completely was that I love it. Nowhere else feels like Liverpool. It’s that sense of belonging you can never get anywhere else.
“Staying or returning is more about the individual’s mind-set and circumstances than about the city. The types that leave and make a conscious decision to lose their accents and adopt the cultural ways of other parts of the country are never going to return: chances are they never fitted in and left to find a place where they did. No harm in that. I doubt that building more shops or leisure facilities would bring them back. I know one thing for sure… I feel most at home in my home town.”
Gayna, Liverpool-based musician and broadcaster:-
“Returning to Liverpool after living away for some years is like re-entering an alien gene pool you didn’t realise you belonged to until you left.”
Ian Prowse, singer with Liverpool band Amsterdam and city centre resident:-
“Liverpool exerts a pull on you, wherever you are in the world. So in one sense nobody ever really leaves. You bump into Scousers in all four corners of the globe. They gravitate towards each other. Very few sell the city out, so I have no objection at all to ex-pats or those that feel stifled. It is bloody tiny, after all!
“The river is the key, the endless flow of it all. I implore everyone to take the 34-floor trip up to Panoramic Bar in that huge building next to the Echo. When you get up there and see the city in a way you’ve never seen it before, when you view from above the entire mouth of the mighty Mersey and imagine the millions of people arriving at the docks, when you can almost see Ireland – our spiritual home – I challenge you not to be moved to tears.”
Liz Lacey, Liverpool.com’s Theatre editor, returned after 13 years away:-
“Without being sentimental, I missed the people. Not all of them, of course, we have our share of the aggressive, the bigoted and the just plain dull. But we also have a great number of charmers of all ages. Liverpool is a nosey place. London couldn’t give a toss. We think Liverpool has become overpriced and gentrified. But not in comparison, nor is it likely to be. I also think this is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it is just the right size .You can walk in it; it’s full of space and light and water. You appreciate these things more when you’ve lived in, say, Leeds, where I always felt landlocked, or Manchester, where there is always some massive, solid presence keeping the sky out (insert favourite Mick Hucknall joke…).”
Stephen Bayley, London-based design guru and Observer writer, ex-Quarry Bank pupil:-
“What a curious hold Liverpool exerts. I rarely re-visit, but it often revisits me. I was born in Wales, have spent most of my life in London, merely went to school in Liverpool, but still regard it as home. Certainly, memories of Liverpool are disproportionately large in my mental landscape, in my dreams. I have no family there and my friends remain only as ghosts, but I nonetheless often toy with the idea of going back. I left, restless, at 17; it was only later that I realised Liverpool’s vast presence had made me interested in architecture. What a fine thing it would be, I sometimes muse, to live in a leafy villa in Fulwood Park with sunshine and the smell of the river and books and elegant neighbours. That last sentence proves it: for all its faults, Liverpool is one of the most romantic places in the world.”
Debra Geddes, Huyton exile, now at EMI in London:-
“I left to study in London then wanted to work in music so didn’t really have much choice but to stay down there. I would dearly love to come home one day – in my dark moments I get quite teary about it (much to everyone’s amusement). I don’t know now though that I ever will, really – I’ve been corrupted by London so that I love and hate being here. For me to realistically go home I’d need to be able to get a job and they don’t exist up there in any numbers for people like me. And I would NEVER move to Manchester, I couldn’t stand that. With good PR I don’t see why Liverpool can’t rival certainly Manchester as a media base … It needs to think big to make it happen. Sometimes I think it holds itself back.”
Gary Millar, city councillor, co-owner of Parr Street Studios:-
“In my third life as an adopted Scouser (the first was in Scotland for 19 years and the second was in London for almost four years). I have now lived in Liverpool, my home for 25 years and don’t want to live anywhere else. Although I’m from Edinburgh (a place like Manchester but with better football and a nicer accent) this great city instead reminds me of Glasgow for its honesty, humour and down to earth passion. Liverpool is amazing people, stunning architecture and a true home-grown culture. In fact, surely the legacy commenced 800 years ago! The second renaissance has arrived and I’m glad to be living and breathing it.”