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Experiencing European Culture in Liverpool

Albert Dock

Photo: Lisa Linder

Around the corner from where I’m standing is the marketing office for the Paradise Project, poised to pump $2 billion into urban renewal that will transform Liverpool’s center in the coming months. But for now, a busker with a guitar huddles against the chill of a bleak November afternoon in an alley off Williamson Street. He works his way through the dustier corners of the Beatles canon, doing a passable Paul on “Things We Said Today,” an uncanny John on “You Can’t Do That.” Pedestrians hurry by without a glance.

They’ll never dress up Liverpool, I can’t help thinking. They’ve named it a European Capital of Culture for 2008, invested billions in construction, built a fancy terminal for cruise ships on the river Mersey, but it still won’t be fashionable. Always off to the side, out of the mainstream, a gussied-up sailors’ town disdained by London (and all but abandoned for years by the British government), it’s quirky and strong-flavored: England’s Baltimore, but with far worse weather.

And that, I suspect, is why I keep coming back. In an increasingly homogenized world, Liverpool remains like nowhere else. People talk singularly, almost incomprehensibly, favoring guttural “oo’s” and other lower-register grunts. “You all right?” they greet each other, as if fearing the worst. Their stubborn pride in all things local is coupled with a lack of interest in outside opinions, an almost preternatural insularity that’s especially unusual in a port. The journalist Paul du Noyer describes Liverpool as “not a provincial city but the capital of itself,” and its hegemony, though limited in scope, is firm. If you’re from here, you typically remain. If you aren’t, you’re unlikely to even visit. Of my half-dozen London friends, none have ever seen it.

Like a handful of the world’s great cities—Venice, Moscow, San Francisco—Liverpool looks better in the rain, which is fortunate given the annual precipitation rate. Its architectural bravado, manifested over hundreds of years in soaring cathedrals, Victorian mansions, and ambitious skyscrapers, shows best against a dun-colored backdrop. When I think of Liverpool, I tend to see the sculpted cormorants atop the magnificent Liver Building, backed by a leaden sky. Or the stands of Anfield, where the famous Liverpool Football Club plays, backed by a leaden sky. Or the spires and smokestacks of the Wirral, across the Mersey, backed by… You get the idea.

Yet Scousers, which is what people from the area call themselves (after scouse, a ubiquitous meat-and-potato stew), are as sunny as their weather is grim. Warm and amiable, they’re eager for a laugh. “The world’s worst disaster will happen, and the Scousers will make the first jokes about it,” says Paul Askew, one of Liverpool’s top chefs. The grayness lends a reassuring sense of solidity, a fortification against the cruel vicissitudes of fashion. Suffice it to say that there won’t be a Nobu Liverpool anytime soon, or the Liverpool X Games. Liverpool is where trends go to die.

It isn’t surprising to learn that Paul Simon wrote “Homeward Bound,” his wistful ode to getting the heck out of town, at Liverpool’s Runcorn station. That sentiment tends to be the reaction of short-termers, first-timers, and anyone in search of the smooth, the comfortable, or the pretty. Liverpool mistrusts the contrived and self-invented, or anything overly glossy or blatantly marketed. “If Liverpool was a person, I wouldn’t sleep with it,” Courtney Love once remarked. I like to believe that Liverpool would return the sentiment.

But spend time here and you might come to love it. If you do, it’s yours forever. Liverpool is nothing if not steadfast. Once every generation or so, it offers up a renowned band or a fine soccer team or a distinguished piece of design, yet when the klieg lights have dimmed it shows itself to be just the same as before. Liverpool digests change like the snake digests the mouse, showing it to grotesque effect at first, but ultimately not at all.

A city less sure-footed might have Disneyfied the Beatles, transforming itself into a sort of Fab Four theme park. Not Liverpool. What remains of Strawberry Field is a graffiti-covered sign on a gate; Penny Lane is a dingy row of terraced houses. Instead, the city still has the same raffish, slightly seedy feel—“a certain black style of its own, a private strength and humour and awareness,” as the author Nik Cohn put it—that was evident in the first two-tone photos of the lads, leather-jacketed, their collars upturned against the wind. And those collars were no affectation. There’s wind, all right.

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