Last weekend saw a series of discussions & debates in Liverpool. The "Free Thinking" series, billed as "A Festival of Ideas for the Future" took place mainly at the Fact cinema, gallery & all round cultural hub in the city centre (www.fact.co.uk ).
The weekend was organised by BBC Radio 3 (www.bbc.co.uk/radio3 ) & the local station, BBC Radio Merseyside (www.bbc.co.uk/liverpool ).
The one session I managed to attend could have been an exercise in navel gazing. Thankfully, it wasn't. Chaired by Roger Phillips from Radio Merseyside, it tackled the question, "Is Liverpool An English City?"
As those dreaded exam papers say, "Discuss".
Joining him on stage at the Fact centre were journalist & novelist, Linda Grant, local cultural luminary & one-time doyenne of the city's music scene, Jayne Casey, local historian, John Belchem, & local entrepreneur & property developer, Lawrence Rothko.
Proceedings got off to a welcome start when the audience in this half full venue were asked to call out words which summed up the city. None of the old, tiresome & cliched words surfaced. Instead, the wide range of suggestions reflected not just the wit & humour of the place, but also those aspects which tend to be overlooked as the Beatle/football nexus takes centre stage in everyday conversation.
Linda Grant came up with a suggestion picked up from local lawyer (& self-styled local Renaissance Man, Rex Makin), "narky". Fair enough, I thought. She also alluded to the city's historical role as point of arrival/departure for millions when she felt a dual identity, Liverpudlan & Jewish. Grant made a valid point when she observed that the city's "individuality" has led to the culture of victimhood over the last three decades.
Choosing the word, "chaos", Jayne Casey picked up on the wider perception of the city; successive governments in Westminster had viwed the place as a "troublesome outpost", & that the city had been pretty much left to its own devices as long ago as the end of the slave trade, 200 years' back. That was a new one on me. Whilst the port made some people very rich during the era of slavery, I would have thought that the city still had commercial potential & rewards for capitalism up to the early 1900s.
Lawrence Rothko had his own words, "radical & articulate". Stressing the port's role in the arrival of migrants, he referred to my own tradition & background, Liverpool Irish, & the city's involvement in Irish history. Legendary socialist & trades union leader James Larkin actually grew up in Toxteth prior to his activism with Dublin dock workers. Rothko drew attention to a little known fact, the setting up of the NSPCC in Liverpool.
John Belchem outlined the port's role in migration patterns; it was "our Ellis Island", something that should be commemorated by the city, just as New York marks its own.Yes, Belchem noted, Liverpool's cosmopolitanism was a positive thing. However, it also had a negative side; most migrants didn't arrive here by choice.
Casey observed that "Liverpool was the birthplace of capitalism", & that the port created the wealth for the industrialised age, a comment which, I felt, appeared to contradict her previous assertion that the city was left on its own after the end of slavery.
Grant chipped in with an anecdote which had a resonance for most Scousers in the audience. She said that her grandfather arrived in the port in 1904, convinced that he had arrived in New York, his intended destination. Many Irish emigrants (my ancestors included), who weren't even familiar with Dublin, let alone Liverpool, were shown the Liverpool skyline by unscrupulous & mercenary boat skippers as they arrived in the Mersey & told that they had arrived in The Big Apple. Generations of Liverpudlians had stood at the Pier Head, Grant mused, feeling a strong sense of "possibility", of being just one step away from venturing into the wider world. Perhaps this city's innate sense of rebellion stemmed from this, she ventured. Perhaps, I thought, although this was veering uncomfortably close to the cliche-laden depiction of Scousers. Local folklore has it that the teenage John Lennon stood with Paul McCartney at the waterfront & made such an observation as they waited for the merchant seamen to jump off the boats with the early rock 'n' roll records from the U.S.
The city's image in recent years was put under the microscope when Grant maintained that the depiction of Liverpool had been "vicious & racist", referring to the comment by Jack Straw a few years' ago that Liverpool people were "always up to something". [I well remember that remark. The context of it was that Straw, then Home Secretary was to meet a delegation from the Hillsborough Family Support Group at his Whitehall department. The delegation was delayed by the London traffic & cited it as the reason for their lateness when they met Straw, who said in response that he wondered what had happened, given that Liverpudlians were "always up to something". Straw saw it as a witticism, designed to break the ice, as it were. However, local opinion saw the comment as being every bit as offensive as the infamous headline in The Sun a few days after the disaster, "The Truth!"]
Rothko drew murmurs of agreement from the audience when he noted that Scousers can be their own worst enemies; the city's image had been "hijacked", he said, by those who wanted to impose a one dimensional view of the city. We all knew who he was referring to: the Professional Scousers, the local "comedians", Boardman & Tarbuck, Cilla Black, et al. Those, in short, who hitched a ride on the city's 60s bandwagon which accompanied the rise of the Beatles.
Grant spoke about the Militant era, claiming that Hatton & Co. tried to define the city's image as a purely industrial one, ruling out all other aspects of the city. Warming to her theme, she said that the 80s were the starting point for the "racist" coverage of Liverpool. On the first part of this point, I felt that it completely overlooked the reasons (or "objective conditions" as we used to say) for Militant's rise. The second part of the statement had some validity.
Belchem observed, "We're in the industrial North, but not of the industrial North." The city's separate status from the rest of the north of England has been counter-productive as the port declines; the city has "no allies" in this context.
Casey summed up what for me is the schizophrenic nature of the city & its people by saying, "We lack confidence in ourselves." 2008 can help the city face up to its social problems, she continued, a remark which had me raising both eyebrows as far as they would go.
The hitherto overlooked issue of the city's social problems was picked up by Belchem, who declared that 2008 needed to be followed by major investment in the city in order to tackle social issues. This struck me as being particularly asinine. The "Big Dig" in the city centre continues apace, yet too many areas outside the city centre remain untouched by similar projects & investment. For the people in these areas, 2008 is, at best, an irrelevant sideshow.
Casey provided an anecdote which roused my ire. She said that she had been made to feel uncomfortable at a London dinner party some years' ago because of the mocking comments about her Liverpool accent. My reaction would have been to turn the tables on the tormentors with Lennon-like Scouse sarcasm, coupled with high celebral "bon mots".
Rothko made a good point when he asked, "How many Scousers will get the jobs" in the city's reconstruction? He worried that the city's working-class population, who've had to endure nearly four decades of civic & economic decline, won't benefit from 2008.
In response, Casey noted that there is still a lot of confusion over what 2008 is supposed to be about. Sceptical observers, myself included, joke about 2008 being the Culture of Capital festival.
Grant revealed that the reaction from much of the London-based media had been one of mirth when Liverpool was chosen as the European Capital of Culture. Perceptions were starting to change, she said, yet Liverpool's status for 2008 is still largely unknown in the south of England, a situation she ascribed to the negligible coverage of the city by the national media.
Interjections from the audience were mainly considered & cliche-free; no-one harped on about an anti-Liverpool conspiracy in the rest of the country. Self-pity, one of the charges made against this city, was notable for its absence.
As the hour long discussion drew to a close, Phillips, whose chairing of the proceedings had been BBC impartiality personified, asked the audience for one word answers which would, perhaps, sum up Liverpool in five years' time. The replies were mainly aspirational, relating to civic pride & a forward-thinking mentality. Grant chipped in with one of her own, one which drew applause, "envied". Rothko was stumped momentarily before falling back on the official slogan for 2008, "The World In One City".