The City that refused to die

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 20.10.01Last week I went to the Liverpool X conference here in, well, Liverpool. And enjoyed myself. As I would, taking the luxury of a day to think and talk about Liverpool and its possible futures. Other than a few Tweets I didn’t write about it though, as I had nothing in particular to say. But I do now.

And that’s because yesterday The Double Negative published their review of Liverpool X, written by fellow attendee Jon Davies, and which I largely agreed with. The day was interesting though not very representative and it was hard to see where the ideas people were having were going to go. Nevertheless, a good thing on the whole and something to build on.

My problem was with the sub-editing of the review, the first of 3 bold headlines within the review being this:

“Architect Stephen Bayley claimed that Liverpool was the first city in the UK to have died.

S BayleyOne of the highlights of the day was author and architect Stephen Bayley, who claimed that Liverpool was the first city in the UK to have died, and it was up to the citizens of Liverpool to redevelop its own attitude, since its death cultivated a level of introspection that became a mental block for applying itself in a practical way.”

I’d heard Stephen Bayley say this, but carried on listening, reckoning he was being provocative and dramatic because that’s his way. He’s obviously a contrarian and I enjoyed his performance. Crumpling up each page of his talk when he’d delivered it and throwing them round the stage. A performance.

And one that didn’t stay with me for long, until The Double Negative’s tweet of their review reminded me of his provocative statement. ‘No one agreed with him though’ I tweeted straight back, ridiculously. Not knowing even now what most people thought either way.

I disagree with him myself though, and don’t want The Double Negative’s Headline to enter digital heaven – or wherever old blog posts go – as the last word on the subject. So here goes.

1970s Liverpool, by Graham Lee.

1970s Liverpool, by Graham Lee.

I first picked up rumours of Liverpool’s impending demise in the early 1970s. I’d recently started working in housing and a much older head than me there explained the concept of ‘planned decline’ that he said was being thought of by some in the City Council for Liverpool’s future. A smaller, less of a city sort of future because we were losing our dock trade and therefore much of our reason to exist.

I was having none of this. Young, starting out in life and bursting with hormones I was convinced there was enough energy in the city to become whatever we wanted. I got myself a job with what was then the most radical housing organisation in the city, Liverpool Housing Trust, and put my all into helping to create our future.

Still the doubting voices continued. Notably from one of my own friends. Paul Du Noyer (also on at Liverpool X) had got a job writing for the NME, and did a cover piece requesting ‘Will the last person to leave Liverpool please turn the lights out?’

Well we didn’t. We stayed, we worked hard, some even had to riot in 1981 to make the place fairer and better. And it didn’t die.

Some people wanted to kill it though. We now know from papers released under the 30 year rule that the Conservative government of the early 1980s talked seriously of ‘evacuating’ Liverpool, ‘abandoning’ it. Adopting a policy of ‘managed decline.’

They didn’t though. And one of them, Michael Heseltine, came up here, did some good work and ended up being reasonably well thought of. For a Tory.

And slowly, slowly, slowly we, the people of Liverpool, began to turn the place around.

Not everyone stayed. I have friends who tired of the struggle, our undeniable tendency to be negative and cynical, the glorying at times of being the ‘poorest’ this and the ‘least healthy’ that. They left and haven’t returned, much like Stephen Bayley (who was a Quarry Bank boy, back at the dawn of this time). The 1980s and 1990s were a long and complex time.

But I remember the key change. And it was like a key change in music. The sound of the city changed to notes of optimism. Not on a single day I could put my finger on, but gradually in the late 1990s there seemed to be a collective decision amongst the lot of us to have a future. The mood of the whole city lifted and even the judges for the European Capital of Culture picked up on it.

This was helped of course by the Labour landslide. Though typically we chose that precise moment to elect a Liberal led Council. And it was not particularly hindered by the gradual death of ‘New’ Labour in the first decade of the new century (At which point, of course, we duly elected a Labour led Council).

And our future is still arriving. It’s not perfect, it never will be, it takes constant creativity and constant debate. Which was a good thing about Liverpool X.

But Liverpool did not die and I won’t have it said that it did. I was here at the time and I would have noticed. There was spark, anger, energy and a million and a half of us in the greater Liverpool living our lives, growing our children and caring for our home.

There. That’s what I would have said to Stephen Bayley at Liverpool X if I’d thought on fast enough.

4 thoughts on “The City that refused to die

  1. Jeff

    Good retort! I heard a talk by Wayne Hemingway at the Tate a few years back, slating the then-new Liverpool One. He had some valid points and opinions, but it was very much ‘’ve done this ALL WRONG, Liverpool..’, and ever-so-slightly irritating.

    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      It’s a tricky job for these ‘rent an opinion’ traders, on the one hand. On the other, they can have a tendency to wade in like none of us here were thinking about things.

  2. Alan Creevy

    In a way it’s a shame we weren’t discussing these things with such candor 20 years ago, but perhaps there were more pressing priorities then and it’s only now the city is on a bit of a firmer footing that we can drill down a bit more to the core?

  3. Ronnie Hughes Post author

    You could well be right Alan. We also didn’t have the quality of gathering places, both real and virtual, that encourage and facilitate these discussions now. Plus my observation that our collective attitude seemed to change late in the 90s to a more optimistic view of our possible futures.


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