Liverpool: Capital of Culture

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Liverpool: Capital of Culture


Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review


IT came to many people as a very great surprise, not only that Liverpool could be considered as a serious contender for the title of 'European Capital of Culture 2008', but that the city that straddles the Mersey should actually have won it. To me, as a Liverpudlian born and bred, it came as a matter of pride, but no great shock, for I have always been aware of the fact that Liverpool, city of change and challenge, has been a culturally pioneering place. Possibly because of its essentially immigrant origin, it has always displayed an exceptionally strong willingness to experiment. Side by side with the ruthless slavers and hard-headed and flint-hearted merchants, there march through the pages of Liverpool's history powerful men with noble souls and tender social consciences, whose achievements in the field of culture and caring for the welfare of society were legion.

As far back as 1971, Liverpool founded the world's first school for the blind. In 1842, it installed the country's first public baths and wash-houses. In 1847, Liverpool's Dr. William Henry Duncan became Britain's first Medical Officer of Health. And District Nursing, the N.S.P.C.C., and the R.S.P.C.A. all originated in 'the grimy city on the Mersey'.

It is only to be expected that so enlightened a community would give due weight to education: Liverpool's School of Civic Design was the first in the world, and its School of Tropical Medicine was the first in the country. Its Architectural School has long held the reputation of being one of the foremost in Britain, its Medical Faculty is held in universally high esteem, and the University Physics Department made vital contributions in the years of the rising science of the atom.

This progressive attitude has been well maintained in the sphere of commerce. It was here, in Church Street, that the American 'Nothing over Sixpence' store opened its first British branch, and in Ranelagh Street, in 1856, David Lewis created the first people's department store of its kind in the country. It was Liverpool that, in 1715, dug one of the first commercial wet docks in the world; in 1830, established the world's first passenger railway; in 1893, opened the world's first electric overhead railway, soon christened 'the dockers' umbrella'--the demolition of which, back in 1957, was referred to as 'a piece of civic vivisection'.

And that is another thing for which Liverpool is distinguished. Oddly enough, a city that has always been almost fanatically interested in its own history, it has continually contrived to find reasons for tearing down anything that threatens to become a historic monument. That is why you will search Liverpool in vain for any building older than the Church of Our Lady and St. Nicholas, known as the Mariners' Church, the Town Hall, or the Bluecoat Chambers, and none of these is much more than a couple of hundred years old. It follows that the prevailing architectural style of the city is Victorian, with the occasional relief of some clean-lined fragment of the Georgian.

The civic buildings are functional in an uninspired way. The 'temples of commerce' in the downtown business quarter are, with a few noteworthy exceptions and modernistic additions, unrelievedly gloomy examples of a building tradition which tended to confuse the fussily ornate with the decorative, and, intending to impress, succeeded only in oppressing. The main shopping thoroughfares of Lord, Church, and Bold Streets, achieve, in spite of a dearth of any really good buildings, and a hotchpotch of eccentric styles, quite a pleasing effect.

Not that Liverpool is without its architectural splendours. Rodney Street--the street of doctors--though nineteenth century in origin, breathes all the grace and charm of the eighteenth. Gladstone was born at No. 62. There are, too, scattered about, secluded squares and dignified streets of fine old houses; but the paint flakes, the plaster drops, and neglect tenants too many of them. …

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