It was an instinctive reaction to a post on Twitter. A photograph of somewhere else that made me think about Liverpool.
A sequence of posts in Italian had finally arrived in Liverpool translated as:
“Naples is magical – a capital city without a country.”
“I know how that feels’ was my immediate and instinctive response. ‘I like England and Britain’ I went on to explain. ‘But I am from and of Liverpool.”
Waking up early this morning still thinking of what I might be on about I remembered something I’d written a few weeks ago in my final post in the ‘Year to live’ sequence:
“Years ago I would say that if you cut me open it would say ‘Liverpool’ in my bones. Now there’s no need to cut me open, any reasonable geologist could identify me as Liverpool on sight.”
Finally returning me to the central question of these last twenty and more years of my life. A sense of place, what’s that all about? With my partner Sarah I have set up and run a business with that title and then I’ve subsequently written several hundred blog posts under that same title. So the phrase clearly matters to me and intrigues me.
It also worries me a bit. Because sometimes people who identify strongly with a place, who say they are both from and of it, can begin identifying other people as very definitely not from and not of it. And down that road lurks more evil than I want to write about here.
So let me be clear, in the first place to myself while I think this through. What I’ve always meant by the phrase ‘a sense of place’ as I’ve answered to it and operated under it for all these years has been these two things:
- It’s about being fully conscious in all of your senses about who you are and where you are right now;
- And therefore being able to think straight, about your own life and the place where you are and the people who are there with you, so you can all together make the best of wherever it is for now and for what you can all imagine of the future.
Then over the years when we’d turn up in a new place that thought we might be able to help with its thinking about its future my first questions would always be:
- Who loves this place?
- And can you show us around so we can start to get a sense of your place too?
So we have gone around acquiring a sense of twenty years of places now. Places we are not from, places where we first arrived as visitors.
In this way therefore, when I say that I am from and of Liverpool, the place I love more than anywhere else, I am not limiting or excluding anyone. At some point in our genealogy we are all new arrivals in the place we eventually come to love. So I share my love of this place with everyone else who loves it, wherever they have come from. It is the here and now that matters and what we all want to do about it.
Which is categorically different from small-minded, possibly racist xenophobia. And certainly no near neighbour of nationalism.
Which got me thinking about the country. In my instinctive Twitter response I only claimed to ‘like’ England and Britain. Whereas I clearly love Liverpool. Betraying my feeling that a country, the idea of a country, is something much more abstract that a village or a town or a city. These are real places where people really live. Countries are either agreements or impositions where collections of places are grouped together for their own, or some people’s, mutual benefit.
So back in time, for example, one of a number of warring chieftains would emerge from years of fighting and decide to call the place they’d taken control of ‘England’. Later on a mixture of deals and conquerings with nearby peoples would result in a possibly temporary agreement called ‘Britain’. Or Russia, Italy, Germany or wherever you are.
Then over even more time these temporary agreements would accrete and develop traditions. Laws and habits which would help to stabilise them and make them appear to be timeless and natural places themselves. So that many of the people who lived there would be happy and proud to say things like ‘I’m Russian’ or ‘I’m English’.
I’ve never quite felt this. Because I am principally from and of Liverpool. And while I’m not fool enough to think that we could unilaterally declare our independence from England or from Britain any time soon, I do think that our continuing membership of these collective groupings needs to be constantly debated and justified.
And at the moment places like Liverpool and the other northern cities, together with the whole of Northern and Western Britain, are simply not getting a good enough deal out of our membership of this country. Far too many of our people are hungry and homeless and underpaid and exploited. And far too much of the fabric of our places feels worn down or as if it is being stolen from under us.
Therefore, as we enter the once in every five years period where the peoples and places that make up this country debate and elect and decide how it is to be run, I will be listening in and looking out for my place. For a fairer deal, a more reasonable exchange, a better set of reasons to continue to be a member of England and of Britain. I will not be distracted by racist and xenophobic blustering about immigration and about European membership. My love and my scepticism lie much closer to home.
I am from and of Liverpool. And I stand with all of the peoples from all over the world who have arrived here and who love here. We are Liverpool.
All of that then, in a round about sort of way, is what I think my instinctive reaction to the photograph of Napoli was about! I may well say more, but that’s enough for now.