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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, December 24, 2008
    Rumours of ANGELS and psychotic optimism
    Honoured to be mentioned in Robert's Christmas letter (his annual communiqués being paragons of the form, an inspiration to me). He quoted my BBC R4 Sunday - Bill Drummond section, besides descriptions of other defenders of culture such as Candy Smith, 'the only one left in her Victorian Terrace, [who] rounded on the Leader of Council doing fire-duty on the vacated properties, and rounded on Prince Charles in Toxteth Town Hall', and Ken Drysdale, whose Granby Street Barber Shop is 'a force for good – I have my hair cut there regularly, and no where else, and pick up my ‘sermons’,' writes Robert. 'Through no fault of his own, and no lack of integrity on his part, but through the deceit or the ignorance of the owners of the building, Ken finds himself and his Capital Investment, caught between the Banks the Law and ‘the Recession’.'

    In trying to tease out the significance and worth of the Capital of Culture in all its complexity Robert quotes at length a rare truthful and sympathetic view from the south: Christopher Hart's Sunday Times piece on June 8 What does Liverpool 2008 mean for the city? This is Robert's edit:
    Rumours of ANGELS and capitals of culture..

    “Now, [Liverpool’s] culture seems to be about shopping. The new, £75m Metquarter mall, with its Armani and Hugo Boss and Café Rouge, is spoken of with the same civic pride as the Tate. The Albert Dock is all about heritage, recreation and culture: the oxymoronic “leisure industry”..

    “The Capital of Culture is also a culture of capital. There is a lot of money talk around. This year is forecast by optimists to bring in £2 billion of investment and 14,000 jobs. A dissenting voice is that of Professor David Robertson, of John Moores University, who points out that £7-£12 billion worth of central government and European funding is due to come to an end soon, and the city’s use of that windfall has been ‘very frothy, focusing on tourism, and shopping’. Meanwhile, two care homes are due for closure and the council promises ‘service reviews’.

    “The McCartney concert at Anfield was a long way from the manicured and bogus New Liverpool. Hugely good-tempered and atrociously organised, it made you think, Liverpool: the Naples of the North. The air was thick with smells of cigarette smoke, chips and rain; and, at the food stand, you could get chicken balti pie and a mug of Bovril. You’re wary of becoming the kind of tourist who doesn’t want his Liverpool smart and prosperous, preferring it deprived and shabby and picturesque. It’s just that this felt alive, where the New Liverpool feels dead.

    “McCartney was superb. He fumbled the opening to Penny Lane, apologised, started again. He played Something on a ukulele given him by George Harrison, showed us a bit of Bach they used to play on their guitars to show off, and how he stole it for the opening of Blackbird, and you realised that this really was living history in front of you. By the time he got to Hey Jude, and Yesterday and Let It Be, and Anfield filled with the sound of 35,000 voices singing along in perfect harmony, dull would you be of soul not to feel moved. All that sentimental guff about Liverpool being somehow “special”, and having “a great heart” and “the people” – my God, I was beginning to think – it’s all true.

    “The next morning, I went to Toxteth: pubs vandalised, half burnt-out and boarded up; street after street seemingly deserted, the occasional newsagent with the cashier huddled in a booth of thick security glass; scraps of municipal land, neglected. “This is only a mile from the bars and boutiques of Albert Dock – but then Tower Hamlets is only a mile from the City of London. Either way, it’s a long mile. I found a pub still open. Was a year of culture going to help Toxteth? ‘Oh, yeah,’ said the barman with confidence. ‘Just as soon as Ian Paisley becomes Pope.’

    “Nearby was a once proud Grade II-listed building in the last stages of decay: the Florence Institute for Boys, known affectionately to the locals as “the Florrie”. It had a library and a gymnasium, and organised regular trips to the Lake District. Now it’s no more than a roofless, burnt-out pigeon roost. If there is a sadder symbol of Liverpool’s decline, I didn’t find it.

    “Liverpool today is a Potemkin village. And for all the froth and gush about creativity and culture, investment isn’t getting to where it hurts. Alexei Sayle, in his excellent television series, says that it exhibits optimism, sure, but “the psychotic optimism of man with broken leg who insists he can run the marathon”. It’s a battered and bleeding heavyweight of a city. But it has an astonishing charisma - and I can still hear the sound of 35,000 voices ringing in my ears, singing ‘take a sad song and make it better’.”