‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ an inquisitive adult asked during the break for tea at a tennis party given by my parents in the Vale of Clwyd, North Wales, c.1948. ‘A cotton broker,’ I replied, wishing to follow in the ancestral footsteps. Then my father’s head shook from side to side, slowly, silently and solemnly at the head of the table.
And so it came to pass that I joined the postwar Liverpool diaspora — to London, in my case — while remaining proud that both my father and grandfather had been presidents of the Liverpool Cotton Association, the latter about 100 years ago when more cotton came to Liverpool than to any port on earth. Before the era of containerisation, in the days when docks were docks and the river Mersey boasted ten miles of them, Liverpool definitely merited its ‘Second City of Empire’ status and title — despite Glasgow’s rival claims. And now at last — admittedly 18 years after Glasgow was European City of Culture — Liverpool is European Capital of Culture 2008. (Same thing, actually — they just improved the title.)
My generation is more than content that the era of empire is over. The part the city played in the slave trade and its abolition is well documented in a Liverpool museum. If only the town in which my great-grandfather lived and worked as a doctor and surgeon could be great again — in a 21st-century way, of course. Could the arts be a significant part of the way forward? Or is dishing out these Capital of Culture awards by the EU merely an expression of hope — rather like giving Yasser Arafat a third of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 in order to encourage him to be more peaceful than he once was?
One answer is that the arts in general have already been part of the revival of recent years. Everyone knows about the Beatles. Tate Liverpool, for example, is a gallery that has proved a success in its own right and has helped to revive the docklands. Furthermore, Liverpool does have an esoteric history of culture upon which to build. Admittedly, that history does not stretch back much beyond the 18th century, for the sad but simple reason that medieval buildings were buried by boom-town commercialism.
Commerce, industry and the arts can combine, however, and between 1756 and 1800 there were at least eight separate exporting Liverpool porcelain factories, including Richard Chaffers, Samuel Gilbody and the Pennington family. In the field of opera, the fact that Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool was premièred in Naples in 1824 must surely say something culturally significant even if only that it wasn’t called Emilia di Glasgow. Emilia di Liverpool was performed in January this year in Liverpool’s magnificently restored St George’s Hall. The fact that ‘The Phil’ — the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra — originated in 1840 makes it one of the oldest concert-giving organisations in the world. Vasily Petrenko, the acclaimed current principal conductor, stands in the shoes of great predecessors. Furthermore, Liverpool-born Sir Simon Rattle is bringing the Berlin Philharmonic to the city this year.
In the field of architecture, Rodney Street, named after the famous admiral, was laid out by William Roscoe in 1783. Many Rodney Street houses are listed buildings now. It was the birthplace of William Gladstone and Nicholas Montsarrat. As far as 19th-century buildings are concerned, one only has to consult Sharples’s Pevsner guide of 2004 to understand John Betjeman’s enthusiasm for Liverpool. The book’s jacket highlights the Walker Art Gallery seen through the colonnade of the mighty St George’s Hall. ‘Liverpool has the most splendid setting of any English city,’ the guide begins. From the docks you can look up and register the outlines of two major 20th-century cathedrals, ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ by Gibberd and, to the right, the vast Anglican Gothic Revival one by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.
In Liverpool visitors can now enjoy Art in the Age of Steam at the Walker Art Gallery. No historical stone has remained unturned to make this a thorough and scholarly survey. Augustus Egg mingles with Manet. Paul Delvaux surprises surrealistically with large nude ladies reclining in railway stations. At Tate Liverpool there is a superb small exhibition of large Stanley Spencers. Upstairs is a well organised Nikki de Saint Phalle retrospective. This troubled artist evidently enjoyed shooting at her own paintings with a gun during the Sixties, while wearing a special white suit, in order to produce a trickle-down effect from concealed bags of pigment. The later work is happier, less gimmicky and more satisfying visually. At the end of this month we have a major Klimt show to look forward to.
The Bluecoat Art Centre, Britain’s oldest, so they say, reopened in March after a major multimillion-pound refit. It is a charming, large, long-popular early-18th-century building in the heart of Liverpool and essential to visit even if Yoko Ono’s current video of a fly tickling a woman’s nipple is not to everyone’s taste. An easy walk from the Bluecoat is FACT, an imaginative modern building which specialises in film and video. I wish such a place existed in London.
Add to the above-mentioned institutions, the international Liverpool Biennial, directed by Lewis Biggs, the John Moores contemporary painting prize and the nearby Lady Lever Art Gallery, for example, and Liverpool swims into focus as England’s Second City of the Visual Arts. Such status is an appropriate successor, perhaps, to Second City of Empire.
There’s no space here to do justice to theatre, literature, public sculpture, conservation, the art of football or the massive building projects in Liverpool — some of them running late. Suffice it to say that the European Capital of Culture programme is mind-bogglingly full of enterprising, carefully conceived events.
It has to be admitted that Liverpool has long scored low in surveys of good local governance. On the other hand, the atmosphere on the street is delightfully stimulating, especially in the area between the Bluecoat and FACT. I’ve learnt that the Liverpudlian accent has been described as a mixture of Welsh, Irish and catarrh — but I definitely detect some Lancashire and Cheshire in there, too. Incidentally, the words ‘Yasser Arafat’ (previously mentioned and no offence meant) are good to practise the Liverpudlian dialect on, especially the catarrh bit. I’ve also learnt that the genteel word for Liverpudlian is Liverpolitan. Not in the Shorter OED, it’s used by Alderman Braddock in the preface to a history of the city. The alderman was married to the pulchritudinally challenged Bessie Braddock MP, who famously accused Winston Churchill of being drunk and got the reply she deserved. Poor Alderman Braddock! When Roger Hilton was behaving wildly and making rather a drunken noise in accepting his John Moores Painting Prize in the Sixties, Braddock keeled over with a stroke or a heart attack — and never recovered. The event sounds symbolic of the possible relationship between the arts and the corporation in those days. If so, things are almost certainly looking up now.