Capital of Complaints

Liverpool's unique cultural signature dwells on a sense of victimhood.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

UK culture secretary Tessa Jowell announced on 4 June that Liverpool had beaten its rivals – Oxford, Bristol, Newcastle-Gateshead, Birmingham and Cardiff – to be the British nomination for European Capital of Culture. The competition is credited with winning billions of pounds to redevelop run-down cities, but it looks a bit like a consolation prize.

European arts minister and former actress Melina Mercouri invented the Capital of Culture prize, and used it to boost her native Athens in 1985. With that positive example the competitors multiplied, and title-holders included Weimar (1999), Dublin (1996), Lisbon (1994), Paris (1989) and Florence (1986).

It was Glasgow’s surprise bid in 1990 that caught the public imagination. Glasgow’s bid was cheeky, because everyone knew that Edinburgh was the city of high culture in Scotland, the ‘Athens of the North’. But playing the underdog, Glasgow could point to the city’s thriving literary and art scene.

On closer inspection, though, that was dour in the extreme: writers like Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, and painters like Ken Currie, were making a requiem for the bygone days of Glasgow’s industrial heritage. The Capital of Culture bid made that heritage into something of a theme park – but few people objected to the regeneration that followed.

‘The City instinctively knew…that the Glasgow experience 10 years earlier was exactly the model for Liverpool’, says the first Scouse bid document. The trouble for today’s contenders is that Glasgow’s underdog strategy was imaginative the first time around, but might be difficult to repeat.

Liverpool’s bid, run by Sir Bob Scott (previously best known for the failed Manchester Olympic bid) did not know whether to argue that Liverpool was truly a great centre of culture, or to plead that the city was most in need of a boost.

Liverpool’s claim to be a centre of culture is dubious. That most talk about the Beatles – a group that disbanded more than 30 years ago – is a sign of the bleakness of the city’s cultural profile. Actually, the Beatles’ iconic status is a curse to the arts in Liverpool, which still languish under the band’s memory.

More prosaically, the bid points to 16,000 Merseyside jobs in the creative industries, 4.7 percent of the total – which sounds good, except that the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) calculates that six percent of all jobs nationwide are creative, and, in any event, the Policy Research Institute puts Merseyside’s total at just 4750.

When the Department of Trade and Industry surveyed business ‘clusters’ in the North West, Liverpool’s computer gaming sector was the only creative industry big enough to show up on the radar (with 700 people working for Psygnosis). It is true that the ‘cultural’ redevelopment of the docks and waterside has improved Liverpool, but on a template that is copied from other major cities.

In fact, the underlying message of Liverpool’s bid, and the reason for the bid’s success, is that the city needs the economic boost: ‘more of a scholarship than a cup’, says the bid document. Liverpool has for decades been complaining about its victimisation at the hands of an uncaring southern establishment. As Britain’s Atlantic trade fell while its European trade expanded, this west-facing port declined, feeling the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s very badly.

Liverpool’s own resources – a patrician elite first made rich on the slave trade, a working class divided along sectarian lines – were not equal to the challenge. Dominated by Tory politicians for decades, the Town Hall was briefly home to the radical left Militant Tendency, who took over a defunct Labour Party in the 1980s. But even that late challenge to ‘Tory Rule’ emphasised all the worst characteristics of Merseyside: special pleading, a parochial regionalism, and a sense of outraged victimisation.

Liverpool’s victim identity was reinforced by the belief that the city was punished for its truculence while nearby rival Manchester was rewarded with new investment. ‘Liverpool has had a difficult recent past’, acknowledges the bid document. And, noting that ‘Objective One’ European funding is coming to an end, suggests ‘Capital of Culture status would be the perfect exit strategy to Objective One’.

Liverpool’s unique cultural signature dwells precisely on that sense of victimhood. Hippy romantics outside of Liverpool, the Beatles’ reflections on their hometown set the melancholic tone for maudlin sentimentality in Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby. TV Playwrights Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell, filmmaker Terence Davies, novelist Linda Grant and the Mersey beat poet Roger McGough all dwell on the down-trodden side of Liverpool, managing quirky humour at best, and feelings of depression (Grant) or suicide (Davies) at worst.

As a counter to the glum, Sir Bob’s bid emphasises the dumb. Nervously it acknowledges that ‘in truth the city cannot emulate, say, Salzburg, the home of Mozart and all that is respectable, perhaps even comfortable, in high culture’ (though note that snide use of ‘comfortable’).

So instead of being stuffy and exclusive, Liverpool’s cultural claims play to the lowest common denominator. One project, ‘2008 bottles’, has school children fill sweet jars with anything that represents culture to them.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

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