Sunday 6 September 2009

Liverpool: love it or hate it

This is my first life in a northern city entry and it is Liverpool. Over the years I’ve visited Liverpool – first times were to take the ferry to Dublin, so all I recollect really is the M62 and the trip to the docks, usually at night too so not much to remember. The next visits I made were for visits to friends, gigs, shopping and the art galleries for my OU course. I have mixed feelings about the place really, part fantastic and part really irritating.

Where do I start? Well the reason why I’m writing this is because I went to Liverpool last bank holiday with my other half. Whilst we were there we stumbled upon the Mathew Street Music Festival and managed to catch China Crisis do a short set. Believe me that was the highlight of what we saw and China Crisis were a little embarrassing to say the least. Most of the festival was just a collection of bad covers bands on stages across the city. The city streets were closed to traffic and were full of thousands of scousers drinking – it was all a little intense. What got me was that the council had organised this debacle. This was such a low rent festival any self-respecting council would have been so embarrassed to put this on. This would never happen in Manchester. There was a fringe festival attached to this festival and although we never saw any of it, I can imagine it was 100% better than what we witnessed. We went down Mathew Street itself and it really is a sad street with lots of 90s retro and Beatles bars, with the obligatory bouncers prowling the doors. All the joy and innocence that it must have been like in the 1960s has deserted the street and is replaced by cynicism and exploitation.

What I really noticed about Liverpool through this festival is how men and women in Liverpool dress. It’s such a working class town and it is old fashioned in the sense that when the working classes go into the city they put on their best. Women without fail had full make up on. Fake tan was the norm. They were all coordinated – nothing had been thrown on, their outfits were thought out, ironed and matching. A colleague had told me that Liverpool women swear by ‘The Look’ (said in a scouse accent). If you didn’t have ‘The Look’ you were nobody. This season’s fashion allegedly included the maxi dress. In Manchester I had never seen anyone sporting the look, however in Liverpool, low and behold the maxi dress was a look being worn. Young girls were dolled up to the nines - big Amy Winehouse hair, clubbing gear on in broad daylight and skirts like pelmets. Older women - full make up, manicured and highly colourful outfits. I tend to go for darker colours, but Liverpool women love their colour. I now understand the likes of Colleen Rooney and all those scouse WAGS, they are coming from a visual culture of the working classes, where it is important to look your best, despite of your circumstances. They have the money and they see it as their duty to look good. In Liverpool it’s an aspiration to have ‘The Look’ and they spend good money to achieve it from those on benefits to the multi millionaires. Me, well I don’t have ‘The Look’. I don’t wear make up, unless it is for a night out. I dress very neutral, often in block colours and to the silhouette. This is quite alien to the Liverpool Lady. The men as well have ‘The Look’ - pressed shirts, designer names and fully co-ordinated. I swear some men, who were clearly not gay, were sporting fake tans.

The natives of Liverpool can be a sentimental bunch. It is an immigrant town, with a weird singsong Irish / Welsh hybrid accent. The Irish influence is evident in its working classes, its music, its storytelling oral culture and propensity to drink and have a good time. Ireland has a weird schizophrenic attitude of catholic morality and living in the moment – often at odds with each other and I think this is reflected in Liverpool too. In many respects I think Liverpool and Dublin is one city split by the choppy Irish Sea.

I mentioned the storytelling tradition before and I remember I was made to do a turn at a scouse friend’s party in front of her friends and parents. It reminded me of Ireland where great storytellers were always welcomed and my family had its fair share of them. I always like having a good anecdote to hand for the benefit of friends and family. I always wondered where my love for writing came from and it’s from the Irish oral tradition I was brought up in. Liverpool has its fair share of writers including Willy Russell (Blood Brothers – my favourite musical), Alan Bleasdale (Boys from the Blackstuff / G.B.H. - legendary stuff), Jimmy McGovern (Cracker and my first introduction to the joy that is Christopher Eccleston) and Carla Lane (actually I don’t like her stuff – Butterflies, Bread and Liver Birds – I really can’t be doing with her winy writer's voice).

Liverpool is a loyal city too and the boycott of The Sun after Hillsborough a case in point. Although I think Liverpool can cut off its nose to spite its face and this can be seen in the messy political history of the city circa 1980s.

One thing I recommend any visitor to Liverpool is to look up. Bizarre I know, but look up at the buildings. Look above the street front facades and look at the architectural heritage that Liverpool has in abundance. The city is full of lush 19th century architecture. Obviously there must have been competition in the 19th century with all the great and the good of the Liverpool business community, who had made their fortunes through the blood, sweat and tears of the slaves and the working classes. Fantastic buildings like the Liver Buildings, St Georges Hall and the Walker Art Gallery are testament to those 19th century egos. In recent years there has been regeneration within the heart of the city, however it’s that featureless and functional glass, steel and concrete that dominates the architecture of now, for example Liverpool One shopping area (why is John Lewis always situated in these featureless developments?). It does not quite capture the imagination of the grand buildings. The old Town Hall had a balcony with people enjoying a drink upon it and through the window you could see the most fantastic chandelier. If I had the time I would love to explore these buildings and capture the beauty of these buildings for prosperity.

With all places I go I always check out the charity shops. I’ve been to Liverpool over the years and I have to say the charity shops are crap. Don’t bother. Scousers know the value of things. If it has a value, they flog it. Only the real crap goes to the charity shops in Liverpool. I do imagine the charity shops in the more affluent areas of Liverpool are most likely rich pickings. In the city centre however, I would not waste my time.

My reason for finding Liverpool fantastic is its art galleries. The Tate Liverpool is fantastic. I just love it - lots of gorgeous modern art to take the piss out of and admire in equal measures. There is always an exhibition I can drag my other half around as it has music connections – psychedelic exhibition a few years ago and this time the disco sculpture exhibit. My favourite modern art gallery is obviously the Tate Liverpool’s big sister the Tate Modern, but Tate Liverpool is always a pleasure and you don’t need hiking boots to get round.

I managed to get to the Walker Art Gallery for the first time this bank holiday and I was impressed. I’ve been to Manchester Art Gallery countless times, but the Walker Art Gallery was really impressive. It had the usual collection of Pre-Raphaelites, portraits of the great and the good and there was a Turner painting, which is a must for all northern art galleries (Turner is my favourite painter). There was a modern art section too with the John Moores prize winning paintings, which was a joy. There was a temporary exhibition of Cecil Beaton photography. I love photography and it is not often wall space is given to this type of exhibition in galleries like this.

I guess I should mention music really. The Beatles – well they are truly exploited in Liverpool and are a money-making machine. In my opinion their music is fine, but there is plenty of other musical geniuses out there from scouse land. For me music and Liverpool are Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, The Lightning Seeds (Pure is one of my favourite songs), Clinic and most recently Shack have become my scouse band of choice.

For me Liverpool is a city that still trades on past glories – the 19th Century trading past and the 1960s Beatles phenomena. It’s a city that thought it could do no wrong and did not have to tow the line in Britain’s political life. However that stubborn streak has gotten it into trouble especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Seneca wrote about a dog that was tied to a cart. The dog had to follow the cart otherwise it would be strangled. If it followed the cart it could have some control of what happened to it, if it didn’t the cart moved on and strangled the dog. Liverpool during the 1970s and 1980s was the dog that would not follow the cart and was strangled in the process. Derek Hatton destroyed Liverpool and only now, 20 years on, is it now in recovery – the docks, Liverpool One, the 2008 City of Culture and the Echo arena all symbols of this recovery. Liverpool however is not really playing the political game - it's the worst performing council in 2008 and tops the indices of deprivation. Liverpool is a city that is poor, deprived and bears the scars with its depopulation and inner city deprivation in the likes of Kensington.