Magazine article The Spectator

The Liverpool That I Loved Has Gone for Ever

Magazine article The Spectator

The Liverpool That I Loved Has Gone for Ever

Article excerpt

In June of 2003 Tessa Jowell, the then culture secretary, announced that in 2008 Liverpool would become the European Capital of Culture.

The city beat five other hopefuls -- Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Newcastle and Oxford.

In welcoming the result, the head of the judges, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, declared that it was Liverpool's stunning dockside development, its city centre and 'strong visual arts' that had boosted its chances. Council chief executive David Henshaw described the win as staggering, although not surprising, as the whole city had been behind the bid. Liverpool, he said, is growing up. We've got history and we should be proud of our history, but in the past we've been prisoners of our history. He was, of course, referring to the slave trade. Mark Story, leader of Liverpool City Council, remarked that the result was like winning the Champions League, Everton winning the double, and the Beatles regrouping all on the same day -- that and Steven Spielberg coming to the city to make a Hollywood blockbuster about it.

In the autumn of 1933, J.B. Priestley travelled across England, from Southampton to the Black Country, from Tyne and Tees to the flat stretches of East Anglia, and wrote a rambling but truthful account of what one man saw, heard, thought and felt during his journey. Fifty years later I took part in a documentary series following in his footsteps, during which I returned to Liverpool, city of my birth and home in my youthful years.

I wasn't and never will be an objective traveller. There are people who live in the present and those who live for the future. There are others who live in the past. It would seem we have little choice; early on, life dictates our preferences.

All my parents' bright days had ended before I was born. They faced backward. In doing so they created within me so strong a nostalgia for time gone that I have never been able to appreciate the present or look to the future.

The very things that Mr Priestley deplored, and which in part have been swept away, are the things I lament, particularly in regard to Liverpool -- the narrow streets, the old-fashioned houses, the flower ladies in Williamson Square, the overhead railway that ran from Dingle to Gladstone dock, the illuminated hoardings above the picture palaces in Lime Street, the majestic funnel boomings on the Dock road heralding the arrival and departure of ships. I lived in Huskisson Street in an area now known as Toxteth, next door to an albino lady from Scotland who was married to a Portuguese West African. They had 19 children. In winter they smashed up the furniture to burn on the fire. Once I saw the eldest boy chase his father round the backyard with an axe. In conversation he referred to his father, fondly, as 'that coloured bastard, me Dad'. Long ago, surgeons lived in Toxteth, gentlemen of independent means, military tailors, harbour masters, even Alois Hitler, half-brother to Adolf. When they died and the city grew shabbier their inheritors left for Cheshire, Southport and the Wirral. The little shops were taken over by the Chinese, the houses by the actors from the Royal Court, Playhouse and Empire theatres, the musicians from the Philharmonic Hall and the students at the university.

In 2008 Liverpool will be engaged in a long festival featuring architecture, ballet, comedy, literature, music, opera, cinema, science and theatre. I've left out food and fashion, which are listed, because I don't feel they come under the heading of culture, though one fears these two omissions may prove the most popular. …

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