Back to Where It Once Belonged

[Map: Liverpool, England, Great Britain]
Map: Liverpool, England, Great Britain
By Alexandra Topping
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 13, 2008

It was the mid-1980s and I was maybe 5 years old, clinging to my dad's hand after the final whistle of a soccer match on the outskirts of Liverpool. Outside, in the cold, smoky air, a man wearing a heavy black coat stood behind a hand-painted sign reading "Support the Dockers." Men rifled their pockets for change. My father pressed a note into his hand.

The proud city of Liverpool, once a focal point of world trade and a cultural hub that produced the Beatles and the Merseybeat poets, was in turmoil. Its shipping docks were closing, putting thousands out of work. Shops were boarded up; grand Victorian buildings were crumbling.

Now, returning to the city more than 20 years later, I barely recognize the place. Boarded-up boatyards have been replaced by art galleries, bars and cafes, and the skyline is dotted with the cranes of regeneration. And now the city's transformation has been recognized across Europe. Liverpool has been named the continent's official Capital of Culture for 2008, hosting hundreds of events to showcase its cultural life: Viennese balls in the newly restored neoclassic St. George's Hall, a citywide music festival, a rock concert headlined by Sir Paul McCartney. Visitors are expected in droves, and new hotels and shopping districts are being thrown up for the year-long cultural party.

But wandering around the city last month, I realize that something has not changed: the conviction held by almost all Liverpudlians that they have been put on this earth to make other people laugh.

The friendliness of Liverpool residents -- known as Scousers after a traditional stew eaten by sailors -- is legendary. Bump into someone at a bar, and a few minutes later you'll both be setting the world to rights. Look a little lost on a public bus, and within seconds people will give you advice. You might even get a quick rundown of the past 50 years of their family history in the bargain.

"People go on about people from Liverpool being really friendly," says Paul Miller, 50, a security attendant at the city's Merseyside Maritime Museum. "But it's quite normal to us. . . . It just comes naturally."

The Scousers I talk to seem underwhelmed by the city's newest accolade, as if they've finally been given a small trophy for a competition they've been winning for years. "I don't get this whole Capital of Culture thing," says Liverpool resident Jonny Russell, 23, a waiter at Room, one of the city's flashy new restaurants. "We can lay claim to have dominated two main cultural seams -- football and music -- for decades. I don't see why we now have to have a badge saying we're the capital of culture."

"This place is steeped in history," agrees Pat Duvall, 51, from the suburb of Speke, giving me an earful at a bar that night. "There was culture here before the Beatles were ever invented, and long before we got the Capital of Culture." She takes a sip from her beer and adds: "Anyway, it's the people that make Liverpool so special. They are generous and funny. . . . You'll never come across anyone in the world like Scousers. They are just unique."

Blase self-confidence? Arrogance, even? Accuse Liverpudlians of having delusions of grandeur and they'll point out that they have more museums and galleries than any other city in Britain except for London, that their port shaped the British empire and that their music scene produced the greatest band the world has ever known.

To get a sense of the city's none-too-modest history, start at Liverpool's waterfront, named a World Heritage Site in 2004. There, atop the Royal Liver Building, sits one of the most iconic images of the city: a sculpted pair of mythical liver birds, placed there at the structure's completion in 1911. The 18-foot-tall copper birds, one at each end of the building, gaze out in opposite directions. Legend has it that one looks over the city, protecting its people, while the other watches for sailors coming safely back into port. That romantic notion is much derided by locals, who insist that one of the birds is male, waiting for the pubs to open in town, while his female mate is looking for handsome sailors swanning up the river.

There may no longer be sailors, but handsome men (and women) can be found in abundance on the restored Albert Dock, the largest collection of protected buildings in Britain. It now houses some of the city's swankiest shops, bars, museums and hotels, but when you look out at the expanse of angry gray water, it's easy to imagine ships laden with sugar, spices, cotton and, in darker days, thousands of slaves. The Maritime Museum, which explores both Liverpool's glorious merchant past and its association with the slave trade, brings that picture to life. The International Slavery Museum, which opened inside the Maritime Museum last year as part of Liverpool's 800th birthday celebration, charts a time when, in the late 17th century, one in every four ships that left the city was a slave trading vessel.

For a modern take on this city's relationship with the ocean, it's necessary to leave the city. On Crosby Beach, between Liverpool and the seaside town of Southport, stands Antony Gormley's "Another Place," an arresting work of modern art consisting of 100 life-size cast-iron figures spread over two miles. Looking out impassively at the ocean, the "iron men" appear and disappear with the ebb and flow of the tide, imbuing the beach with an eerie sense of transience -- an echo of the thousands of immigrants who arrived at and departed from the nearby port.

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