Written for The Flâneur website in November 2007, this piece adapts and expands a passage in my book, “Liverpool: Wondrous Place“. Its theme is a true hero of the city’s cultural history, William Roscoe: poet, businessman, MP and (ultimately) successful campaigner against the slave trade.
From the dreamy-sounding Mount Pleasant (where John Lennon was married) came one of Liverpool’s greatest sons, William Roscoe, an MP, poet and successful campaigner against slavery. At the present time, when we mark the 200th anniversary of slavery’s abolition in the British Empire, the public stage is populated by strutting worthies, many indulging in a spot of recreational guilt and looking to score cheap prestige. It’s rather more edifying to study the life of Roscoe, who lambasted the slave trade when such opinions were actually controversial and genuinely risky. Especially in Liverpool.
Born in 1753 and dying in 1831, Roscoe lived in a revolutionary age. He was a man of libertarian instincts, nobility of heart and a gift for poetic strangeness. In each of those respects he remains an emblem of all that is best in Liverpool. His name survives in a handful of streets and at least one excellent pub (The Roscoe Head); his final resting place, in the old burial ground at Roscoe Gardens on Mount Pleasant, is a tranquil spot to pause and raise your metaphorical hat. The last time I passed, drug-dealers were negotiating in the shadows of the hideous multi-storey car-park opposite. But that’s all right: the Liverpool of Roscoe’s time was equally a city of elegance and degradation, of aspiration and squalor.
Away from the civic arena he lived a rich life of the mind; he wrote, when bankruptcy robbed him of his beloved library, the heart-rending Sonnet On Parting With His Books. ‘As one who destined from his friends to part,’ it begins, ‘Regrets his loss, but hopes again erewhile / To share their converse…’ He dreams of an afterlife at one with the dead poets and sages who made his earthly existence bearable. In that blissful time to come, ‘Mind shall with mind direct communion hold / And kindred spirits meet – to part no more.’
Does modern Liverpool realise what a man of genius this was? I hope so.
Roscoe was a gifted writer of fantasia, as well. His 1808 poem The Butterfly’s Ball And The Grasshopper’s Feastbecame a nursery classic and is a worthy precursor to Lewis Carroll and John Lennon. In his enchanting piece The Dingle(1790), he paints a mytho-magical picture of Ringo’s neighbourhood in balmier times, before the age of Men, when ‘Lordly Mersey loved the maid’, the Naiad who poured from her urn the Dingle stream. Well, there are Liverpudlians who see that Naiad still. After a few hours in the bar of the Baltic Fleet you may see her too. The sober, industrious William Roscoe saw nymphs and sea-Gods by the power of his own, classically-informed imagination. But he shared that romantic Scouse taste for the strange, which later generations called surreal or psychedelic.
Whether it be for his moral bravery or his quixotic brilliance, Roscoe is surely a presiding spirit over our Capital of Counter Culture – the latter a phrase coined by that redoubtable Scouse Flâneuse, Liz Lacey. ‘The city is a loon magnet of planetary proportions,’ she writes. ‘People from all over the world and from the staider sections of the UK have found themselves going to Liverpool intending to do something perfectly sensible, perhaps attending a university, or taking up a job in a shipping company. Next thing they know they have built a folly, founded an art movement, become a freelance musical nuisance, or devoted their lives to producing vast and impenetrable allegorical paintings.’
Quite correct. As a child I was perplexed by Liverpool’s topographical oddity – from almost anywhere in town, to reach the waterfront you actually have to walk uphill. (It’s to do with the Pool, another of Lordly Mersey’s lost tributaries, where Paradise Street and Whitechapel now curve.) It seems only right for a Capital of Counter Culture. Those eccentric hills were the first view Roscoe ever knew. And in Liverpool’s Flâneurs, whom I had the honour of meeting last year, I see a small but precious element of his city’s personality – or at least the better angels of its nature.