It was at a service station somewhere in the North West when I said to Hannah, “Are we going to Liverpool?”
And she said yes, that was the destination of our surprise weekend away. And it made sense, because every once in a while I’d said “Yeah, I went to university there. I really should go back sometime. Did I ever mention that I seriously considered living there permanently?”
It turned out that I had. Many times.
When I’ve thought about the city in the 15 plus years since I was last there, I’ve tended to think of the Suzanne Vega song In Liverpool. With its description of her going to Liverpool, perhaps while on tour, and reminiscing about the Liverpudlian that she used to go out with back in New York, who would be homesick for a stopped clock (presumably in a public place with emotional significance). “When you lie on the ground in somebody’s arms / You’ll probably swallow some of their history.” She’s walking round the town on a Sunday, and it’s quiet and eerie, except for someone in the belfry who is manically ringing the church bells. “He sounds like he’s missing something or someone that he knows he can’t have now. And if he isn’t, I certainly am.”
My memories, on the other hand, are mainly of having being a spectacularly useless boyfriend. But they’re also of the 90s in general, when the cities of the north of England seemed like the place to be – to me at least.
It was the days of Britpop, back when bands were from a place.
Oasis were from Manchester. Pulp were from Sheffield. Cast and Space were from Liverpool. (And yes, Radiohead were from Oxford, but their band name had more than 5 letters so they didn’t qualify as Britpop.) Even Aphex Twin was proclaimed a Cornish musical hero.
And that, I think, was one of the things that made Britain seem like it was buzzing. Because it wasn’t just coming from London. Let’s say you have 3 or 4 globally successful bands coming from Mexico. Or 3 or 4 novelists, or artists, or chefs, or poets, or film directors, or whichever form of culture you choose. If they’re all based in Mexico City then Global Culture tends to think ‘Oo, that’s nice – Mexico seems to be on quite good form at the moment’. But if you have 3 or 4, or 5 or 6 or 10 or 20, that made it big in Mexico City but are proudly rooted in the culture of cities like Ecatepec, Guadalajara, Puebla, Juárez and Tijuana, then the world sits up and takes notice. Suddenly the country is seen as rich, diverse, interesting, complex and possessing its own special kind of glamour. Which I believe is what all countries are actually like if you look close enough.
Anyway, Britpop came and went. And now it feels like we’re back to this idea of the great shining capital, and ‘the provinces’. I’ve always had a soft spot for London, but that might be because I’ve never wanted to live there. Hannah pointed me to this fascinating website that lists soundbites from people who have either just moved away from or moved to London:
Some of the reviews of London are very positive. The majority are negative. But many reflect the attitude that I know so many people have: that London is really the only culturally interesting place in the UK:
#21 – ‘I used to think people who left London were giving up. Now I’m one of them. I just can’t afford to romanticise the incredible exploitation anymore.’
I never felt that. I always felt that that exciting London energy was actually a bit narrow. It was all about success. It wasn’t about ordinary life – the part that John Lennon described as being ‘what happens when you’re busy making other plans’. (I really admire John Lennon, by the way, but he is probably my least favourite Beatle.)
London is a tall, strikingly good-looking upper-middle class twentysomething in good clothes with a clean smile and a strong handshake who is here to persuade you that they can achieve anything, and that’s why you should buy what they’re selling.
Liverpool is a craggy middle-aged person with a past. Liverpool is the fiftysomething woman in enormous heels who hobbled past Hannah and I at speed last night saying “I hate these shoes… I hate these shoes…” Liverpool has charm. Liverpool has faded glamour. Liverpool will smile and engage you with genuinely friendly conversation. Liverpool is not trying to sell you anything. Liverpool doesn’t really give an otter’s rectum what you think. Liverpool can sometimes be in a mood. Liverpool is still, frequently, over the top. Liverpool can sometimes be a fucking cock. But it can acknowledge its murky past in a way that no one else seems to be willing to. And it has seen some seriously hard times, and has picked up a bit of wisdom on the way. And now, I believe, I hope, it’s on the up.
I went to York a few years back and was impressed by its quiet confidence. Liverpool’s confidence is not quite so quiet, but it’s nowhere near as noisy as London’s.
There is some really good, punchy architecture there, that sits well with the grandiose Victorian buildings. (Liverpool’s waterfront looks very similar to its twin city Shanghai, because most of it was built by the same architect – who knew?)
There is one of the best shopping districts I’ve ever been to. I’m not a big shoppaholic, but I like to be seduced. And I even bought a new guitar, to take the pressure of my dear gaffer-taped Admire that has served me so well since… well, pretty much since I left Liverpool.
There is some really good food. Not quite Michelin star yet, I think, but perhaps pretty soon.
On the way back from the restaurant we had had the best cabby in the world. He was a one-man LiverPedia. He pointed out of the window at the museum where the gambler was buried still clutching his winning poker hand. He talked about the local controversy around the building of the Museum of Liverpool. He spoke with pride about the thriving gay scene. He said the only good thing about Derek Hatton was that he supported Everton (and as I had been comatosing thrilling Hannah with a 45 minute rant about Hatton on the drive up it made me feel like I still had the finger on the pulse).
On the recommendation of Hannah’s dad we want to Another Place.
Another Place is an art installation just north of the town by Antony ‘Angel of the North’ Gormley. He has filled 3 x 1 kilometres of sandy beach with 100 life-size cast iron statues, gazing out to sea. In the misty sunny morning, it looked amazing.
It would have got lost in London, in a town full of publicity stunts.
It would have looked like a publicity stunt.
I was never quite able to put my finger on why Liverpool excited me in a way that London never has, and why I was very tempted to become a Liverpudlian but have never been tempted to be a Londoner.
But now that I’m here, in Liverpool, on Sunday, I think it’s this:
If you want a great career, go to London.
Seriously: go now. Go. Put that down, buy a train ticket, find a houseshare, and go. There are so many more job opportunities. SOOOOooooo many more. In whatever field. Yes, the cost of living is astronomical. But if you want to be very rich, or work in the arts, or work in senior management… basically if you want to be a ‘star’, in whichever firmament you aspire to, move to London. It will be a slog, but there’s nowhere else in the UK like it: and with the exception of New York, maybe nowhere else in the world.
But if you have a great idea…
Well then, I don’t think London is the place for you. I think it will get lost. I think it needs to be nourished somewhere else first. And then it might come to London. London is like a big supermarket chain: like Sainsburys or Tescos. I think supermarkets are a wonderful part of modern life, and I love ’em. Increasingly they stock good quality produce that’s quirky and full of character. Great cheeses, great meats, great chocolates… But the supermarkets haven’t nurtured these products – they’ve just bought into them once they became local success stories. If you have a great new food that you produce, it doesn’t make sense to try to sell it to a supermarket. It makes sense to make that food as well as you possibly can, and wait for them to come to you.
It’s not just Liverpool that I still find inspiring. It’s the Satellite towns, and the belief that they are not backwaters. They’re not ‘the Provinces’. They’re where people develop ideas because they’re inspired by them, rather than because they want to get a good write-up in the Guardian.
London is a great platform for developed talent. But I believe that London itself is not that great at developing talent. Particularly now, as it’s becoming unaffordable to all but the wealthiest.
But if you want to go somewhere where you can turn a beach into a work of art…
Liverpool seems to me like a good place to start.