The few weeks as 2007 ended and became 2008 saw much festive activity in Liverpool. Here, the set for the BBC’s special production of the ‘Liverpool Nativity’ was surrounded by excited onlookers well before the performance started, but alongside all the high technology Saint George’s Hall stood serene, just as it has for the past 150 years.
Liverpool is excitedly preparing for its big years in 2007 (the city’s 800th anniversary) and 2008 (the European Capital of Culture year). With such a long and dramatic history of diaspora, who knows what the city will be like by the end of the celebrations? The scope for enterprise – both in Liverpool and by other cities and regions – to build relationships across Europe and beyond is enormous.
BBC Radio 3 hosted a fascinating Free Thinking event in Liverpool’s FACT building last weekend, with presentations, discussions and performances by an impressively eclectic array of debaters and artists. And, perhaps appositely, the very next day the City launched its initial plans for the 2008 European Capital of Culture year.
One of the sessions at the BBC event focussed on the question, ‘Is Liverpool an English city?’. ‘Everyone in the country knows Liverpool is special – and unique,’ says the blurb, ‘but do they secretly mean it’s “unenglish”?’
Sadly, I couldn’t be at the debate, but it’s an interesting question – and one that, although I’ve lived in Liverpool for over three decades, I’d find difficult to answer. All of us have only one shot at life, so comparisons are difficult, but is it usual for people who have been resident in a place for over a third of a century still to be asked where they ‘come from’?
Ports are meeting places for the world
Working up the hill, away from the ports in the education and cultural sectors, it actually took me a while to realise that for some of my fellow citizens, Liverpool’s maritime history is the city’s autograph feature. Indeed, until the Heseltine interventions in the 1980s it was not even possible really to see much of that history. At least the reclamation of the southern docks for retail and leisure use (the Tate Gallery and Maritime Museum are situated there) helped us to see what an important port Liverpool was – and in fact still is, for freight rather than passengers.
So Liverpool is cosmopolitan in a particular way. In the mid-eighteenth century that one port was involved with 40% of the world’s trade. Liverpool is therefore home to many whose predecessors reached the city by sea, or who in some cases had intended to travel onwards, but halted when they got this far.
We have communities of several generations from the Caribbean and parts of Africa, from China (Liverpool’s China town is a large and important feature of the city) and the Indian sub-continent, who travelled from the West; and, from Eastern and Central Europe, reached us from the East. With these historic influxes has come of plethora of religious and cultural understandings – Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Orthodox and many others.
Ireland and Continental Western Europe
What is less evident in our overt cultural mix is the direct influence of Southern Europe – though it is certainly there, especially in the sometimes overarching ethos of Roman Catholicism and Southern Ireland (Eire). And then there is the strongly Protestant Orange Order influence of Northern Ireland (Ulster), whose descendants in Liverpool, like their southern counterparts, have traditionally lived siloed in tight-knit communities with little knowledge or tolerance of other ways of seeing the world.
As is well known, the clash of Southern and Northern Irish influences (Catholics ‘versus’ Protestants) was only be resolved when, in the 1980s and ‘90s, the leaders of Liverpool’s two great cathedrals (Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Worlock) by their personal example called time on this damaging friction.
Liverpool 2007 – 800 years and proud of it
Given the particular diasporas from which Liverpool has benefited historically, it will be fascinating to see what the city can make of its opportunity to shine on the world and European stage in 2007 and 2008. There are a number of factors here, even apart from the celebrations as such, which should enhance the opportunities for Liverpool at this time – amongst them, the massive privately funded Grosvenor ‘Liverpool 1’ commercial development (at £950 million reputedly the largest project of this kind in Europe) which is currently taking root in the heart of the city centre.
The 2007 event will celebrate Liverpool’s 800th Anniversary. (The city’s charter was signed in 1207.) This surely is the opportunity of a lifetime to acknowledge and embrace the rich and diverse cultures and traditions of the city, to look back at our past but also forward – not only to what follows in 2008, but also much further into the future.
This is in a very real sense ‘Liverpool’s year’, a ‘birthday’ (as the locals insist on calling it) worthy of pulling out the stops. 800 years as a city, even if others can also claim it (Leeds’ charter is also dated 1207), is an important milestone.
The birthday party will be for the people of Liverpool. Others will be very welcome to join us – what’s a party without honoured guests? – but the style, the scene itself, needs to be determined by those, the citizens of Liverpool, whose ‘birthday’ it is.
Liverpool 2008 – European Capital of Culture
But what does Liverpool’s history mean for its year as European Capital of Culture? It has consistently been said that it was ‘the people’, Liverpudlians themselves, who won this award. Is there a danger that 2008 could be ‘more of the same’, an extension of the scenario for 2007?
If we return to our first question, is Liverpool “unenglish”?, we need to note that, so it is said, some 60% of Liverpudlians have never even been to London (and I’d guess that maybe 90% of people living in England outside the North West have as yet never been to Liverpool).
Given this situation, we must ask how many of the citizens of Liverpool so far have a real knowledge of Europe outside the influences we have already noted? How many are fluent in other European languages? How many have business or other formal connections across Europe? The answer is surely that here is a city at the start in every way of its journey into the twenty-first century.
Liverpool 2007 / 8 offers a unique opportunity to establish two-way connections with the city. The very next day after the BBC debate on Liverpool’s ‘englishness’ or otherwise, the city launched its initial programme for the 2008 year with a grand civic event in St. George’s Hall, and another one in London for the wider world. 2007 is for Liverpool; 2008 is intended for the world,
2008 offers business and cultural entrepreneurs from around Europe and beyond a real chance to establish themselves in the city, whilst Liverpool’s eyes are firmly fixed on the global stage – and, we hope, theirs on us.
The full extent of the outward-facing Liverpool ‘offer’ for 2007 and especially 2008 remains to be seen – there is increasing confidence that something interesting and worthwhile will be made of these unique opportunities.
The scope for inward investment, connection and synergy with elsewhere is however already established as truly enormous.
Here is a city ripe for growth of every kind, and increasingly ready to jump at the chance. This is a virtuous circle for anyone enterprising enough to recognise it.
Whether Liverpool is “unenglish” we must leave the BBC debaters to determine. Whether that same city is now positioned once again to take its place as a major player at the European and global levels we can answer for ourselves.
The answer is Yes.
And, in contrast to the last time Liverpool was a great trading city, when the odds were stacked against ‘outsiders’, this time Liverpool will be trading on an even playing field with its external partners.
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This article is also published (as Liverpool: Ripe For Growth in 2007 And 2008) on the European Renaissance website.
For three years Professor John Belchem and his University of Liverpool colleagues worked on a scholarly publication to record Liverpool’s eight hundred years as a city (1207 – 2007). Academically impressive, the book offers vibrant testimony to the human actions and achievements behind the dry facts – just as those attending made the official launch of this publication, in the setting of Liverpool’s splendid Town Hall, such a warm and memorable occasion.
Liverpool Town Hall is always a spectacular venue in which to celebrate a special occasion. It reminds us vividly of what the City of Liverpool must have been like in its prime, and what indeed it could still be again.
Nowhere, then, could have been more appropriate as a location for the formal launch on 18th October 2006 of Liverpool 800: Culture, Character & History, the University of Liverpool Press book edited by Professor John Belchem about the first eight hundred years of this sometimes infuriating and always fascinating city. Liverpool is on the verge of another momentous era in its long history, as 2007 and 2008 approach. (You can see just some of the many special aspects of Liverpool life and legacy in the books listed immediately below this article.)
Liverpool 800 is an impressive publication which charts as honestly and openly as it can the ways in which Liverpool has progressed over the past eight centuries, from its ‘small beginnings’ in 1207. As the book’s back cover reminds us, Liverpool rose, not always by admirable means, to become one of the world’s greatest seaports, so that by 1907 it was the second city of the empire. But what happened thereafter resulted in a vastly different prospect for this enigmatic city. John Belchem’s book, in charting the rise, fall and we trust rise again of Liverpool, will I know be a big hit; and I hope it will also offer a focus for just how we can now move forward to a second period of success and (this time, benign) global influence.
New friends and old
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Not withstanding the importance of the occasion, one of the nicest things about the Liverpool 800 launch was much simpler than all this. It was, as on other similar occasions, an excellent opportunity to catch up with friends old and new.
In the course of the evening I chatted with many people, including the Lord Mayor, Councillor Joan Lang, with whom years ago I sat on the City Arts Festival Committee, as well as those stalwarts of Liverpool’s civic history, such as John Vaughan, a local historian, now retired from the University of Liverpool Libraries, Christina Clarke JP, a ceaseless advocate for the preservation of our built heritage, Dr Peter Brown, chairman of the Merseyside Civic Society, and Andrew Pearce, at one time an MEP for Merseyside and now chairman of the Liverpool Heritage Forum. Others with an impressive knowledge of our civic heritage whom I know from the Liverpool Echo Stop the Rot campaign were there too.
In the same room, also chatting happily with everyone assembled, were people such as Rodney Holmes of Grosvenor,
who is in charge of our huge new Paradise Project ‘Liverpool One’ commercial development, and others from the University of Liverpool, the Liverpool Culture Company and the City Council, all in their day jobs busily engaged in promoting our future prospects as a city.
And then there were folk ‘from the community’ such as Tom Calderbank and his wife, who have worked so hard to raise the profile of places like Toxteth Town Hall and The Belvedere.
In all, a richly diverse assembly of people, with their varied focuses on the past and the future, to celebrate the richly diverse history of our city.
A history which brings us together
I could go on, but lists are never complete and after a while inadvertent omissions start to become obvious. However one looks at it, this book launch was an event which brought together people from many parts of Liverpool.
But of course the main person on this occasion was the man who with his co-authors has seen it through from beginning to end, linking all these varied threads into one cohesive whole. John Belchem spoke to us about his book without notes and with much passion. It was good to see him so delighted with the interest in, and support for, his finally completed project.
A welcome message
John’s theme when he addressed us was one to which we can all subscribe: History tells us, he said, that Liverpool has always thrived on celebration. The city’s fortunes prosper when, whatever the reason, there are parties and festivities to be had! The launch of Liverpool 800: Culture, Character & History, in our fabulous Town Hall, was an excellent practice run for what we all hope will also be an outstandingly excellent couple of years for Liverpool, in 2007 and 2008.