Liverpool Revisited: September 2016
Those parts of the journey I rarely make but often hear. Announced over the station platform or on the train. The litany of stations. I’d get off the Leeds train at York and miss Darlington, Durham and Newcastle. Or in other times you can add Alnmouth, Dunbar and Edinburgh. Getting off at Exeter St Davids always denied me Dawlish, Teignmouth, Newton Abbott and Plymouth and a whole host of near mythical names in that Cornish country away to the west of the world. The ones I missed the most were Warrington Central, Widnes, Liverpool South Parkway and Liverpool Lime Street. I invariably got off in Manchester and missed out this part of the journey. Widnes was a rugby league team that punched above its weight and the station is supposed to be where Paul Simon was sitting with suitcase and guitar in hand and his ticket for his destination.
It looks grey in late September with a Lancashire drizzle masking the views and what you can see doesn’t look all that appealing.
It’s grey and wet in Liverpool too but it doesn’t matter all that much. I’m staying at the Adelphi. It’s a stride or two away. Not time enough to get even damp in this finest of rains. More a moving mist than drops.Lime Street station is a big glass curve over a dozen stone arches with an old inter-city sign giving the impression that the railways, round here, still belong to the people. Behind the station towers the gothic pile of part of John Moores University and across the road is St Georges Hall. You’re in Liverpool la! These are proper buildings. There isn’t anywhere in England, outside London, with such an array of world class buildings. If you’ve been reading the publicity from the anti-Liverpool brigade (and there is one) you wouldn’t be expecting this, or maybe you’d think it was one glorious square with miles of squalor all around. No this is Liverpool. One of the great cities, not just of Britain, but of the world.It doesn’t feel like Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham. If anywhere, and you ignore the lack of towering skyscrapers, it feels more like New York than another British city. There’s a working class grandeur to the place. This is a city built from the streets upwards. It’s a city of much greatness, many celebrities in the true sense of the word and huge success but the real heroes of Liverpool are the people you pass in the streets. This is a town where to be ordinary is to be extraordinary and often celebrated as such.It has suffered. It has suffered terribly. Every powerhouse town and city that generated the wealth of the nation, put it in a place of greatness on the world map, has been sucked dry and left to fend for itself. If you were looking for a rational explanation for the irrational vote the British people made to leave the European Community, it is one rooted in the dissatisfaction of the working class communities that unloaded the ships, made the steel, dug the coal, wove the cloth and turned the lathes of the factories, mills, mines and docks. One by one their industries were closed down and nothing was put in their place. Nothing of note. A sweatshop distribution warehouse in the heart of a mining community where conditions are comparable (by a House of Commons committee) with a Victorian workhouse, a call centre in the heart of Merseyside where the lack of stimulation in your work is matched by the lack of pound notes in your wage packet. The working people saw London and the South East, and the educated bastards getting richer from Europe but they saw very little of it themselves. The vote may have been a case of ‘if we’re not getting it then neither are you’ spite; but it is understandable under these terms.
Liverpool was simply impoverished and stigmatised by affluent Britain. Once the second city of Empire with docks that stretched for miles and a workforce of many tens of thousands, the docks were simply closed down and the population left without work. The situation was captured with a tragic beauty by Alan Bleasedale in his remarkable series of television plays “Boys From the Blackstuff” and by Willy Russell in Blood Brothers. We see the human side of the removal of hope from a proud people. The pieces, and many other plays, novels and poems, still resonate. But happily the dark days are passed. The Liverpool I step out into has a skip in its step, has rediscovered its mojo, has once again got on the Mersey beat.The Adelphi seems as old and grand as Liverpool. Inside its a Britannia hotel. This means that has seen better days. Britannia seem to be buying large hotels that had once sparkled but have become the end destination of cheap coach holidays. Hotels where the temptation is to stack your plate high at the self-serve buffets before realising that you’ve got to eat it. The chain then does its best to raise the standard while being shackled by its own budget prices. There is a shabby grandeur to the place that I like. I also like the courteous staff who let me drop off my bag, point me towards the spa and gymnasium (spa for me) and generally make my stay as nice as they can.
I’m here for the Labour Party conference but I’m in no rush. In fact I’m of a truant disposition. Alan Bleasedale had talked of the swimming pool beneath the Adelphi when he was on Desert Island Discs and I was keen to try it out. It satisfied two of my criteria for a good swimming pool. It was rectangular and it had very few swimmers in it. My allotted lengths completed I sit it a hot bubbling tub, shower, swim again, sweat out my pores in a steam room while listening to two true scousers bemoan the fact that the current Everton striker closes his eyes to head the ball. “My school master wouldn’t have picked him for the school team if he did that. It’s a bag of wind with some stitches. It ain’t gonna hurt you!” In the changing rooms I hear him using the same lines to make the same point to another football fan.It’s standing room only down at the conference centre as shadow chancellor John McDonnell holds forth on the economy and how he’d borrow to invest in a huge programme of council house building. The press have spent a year rubbishing every aspect of the current Labour leadership but I’ve yet to find anyone who disagrees strongly with any of their policies. There is a huge lack of affordable housing in the country. The rental sector has been hijacked by corporate capital and has become very expensive. House prices are now way out of the range of anybody on a standard income and a previous government sold off the bulk of the council houses at below market rates. The plan to build half a million new houses for long term rent from local authorities smacks of common sense to many but of socialism gone mad to the press. By socialism gone mad they mean it harks back to the policies of the Attlee government from after the second world war. They built hundreds of thousands of council houses and gave millions of people their first decent place to live at a fair rent. Houses with bathrooms and gardens for the families of those who had fought the war. The Attlee government also nationalised the railways and coal mines and gave workers in those industries their first security of employment as well as the people of Britain ownership of these vital national assets. And of course they gave us the National Health Service where every citizen could receive first class medical treatment regardless of their ability to pay. I like John McDonnell. He isn’t the usual professional PR trained politician who sounds good and sways with the wind of public opinion. He has a few principles and he isn’t afraid to show them.He’s received surprisingly well and the journalists outside the hall struggle to pooh pooh what he has said. I wander off through the conference complex until I find the large room where education is on the agenda. My memory of fringe meetings is of smoke (my last time at conference was in the late seventies when everybody smoked) and bustle and voices raised in indignant and righteous grievance. It wasn’t like that here. A union official was chairing a debate on aid to overseas education budget. Guest speakers held forth to a sleepy bunch widely dispersed around the tables of a big room. Among the speakers was Stephen Twigg. I hadn’t seen him since election night in 1997 when, as part of Tony Blair’s landslide victory, he defeated the then loathed Tory heir apparent, Michael Portillo in what became known as the Portillo moment. People asked each other if they stayed up for Portillo, meaning, were they still watching TV as his result was announced at about 2.30 a.m.. This particular poll didn’t only see the end of Portillo’s political career but also announced the end of 18 years of Conservative rule. Twigg had been a fresh faced, smiling victor that night while the seasoned politician behind him looked greasy and woebegone. Time has played them differently. Portillo has re-invented himself as the face of travel programmes on British television, while Twigg looked far older than the 19 years that time had allotted. The fresh faced hopefulness of 1997 had disappeared. His appearance wasn’t a good advert for a career in Westminster and he didn’t have very much to say about overseas education.
I finished my third apple of the day, decided to skip the afternoon events among the party faithful and went off in search of Liverpool.