Two things frequently make me think about Liverpool and its cultural place within the country. The first is seeing several women walking their kids to school, or off down to the shops, wearing their pyjamas or with their rollers in.
The second is the voluptuous giving of names to youngsters across the fair city (the best story on which is my girlfriend hearing a young Liverpool mum screaming at her kid to get on a bus: “Tranquility, get ‘ere yer little shit!”).
It always reminds me of a long-running puzzle I’ve had over Liverpool and its unique style and attitude. Defining this peculiar style, this parochial je ne sais qois, has long eluded strangers to the city like me.
Despite coming from Hartlepool which, to my mind, is quite a lot like Liverpool in a lot of ways, I had never seen anyone wearing their pyjamas outside of their house before coming to the city.
Nor have I seen fake tans as widespread or as bold as those in Liverpool, or such imaginitive outfits, which tend to leave little to one’s own imagination. Only at lunchtime did I see a girl wearing a pair of semi-transparent leggings and no knickers – an outfit that shows, presumably deliberately, the exact shape of a girl’s ass.
When I interviewed Moby some years ago he voiced his total disbelief at the costumery of young Liverpool ladies. This a man who has probably slept with groupies in every major city of the world.
Trackies tucked into socks don’t seem quite as popular as they used to be, but I’ve never seen them anywhere else. We need scarcely mention the ‘taches. And Ugg boots?
Paul du Noyer, in his book Wondrous Place, invokes Liverpool’s historic role as a jumping-off point for immigrants from all over the world, along with their own cultures, music and accents – as well as being a port-of-call for bored sailors determined to have a good time.
Perhaps this is behind the city’s determination to look and behave differently to the rest of the country, not in terms of ghettoisation but a definite desire to do things a little more differently, a little more flamboyantly.
It’s tough not to come to the conclusion that city’s role as a whipping boy for various governments and stand-up comedians over the years has led to a kind of insularity. A version of the everyone-hates-us-we-don’t-care attitude that sustained Wimbledon FC, and is Ryanair’s modus operandi.
Liverpool’s a city of contrasts and contradictions. Living here it’s easy to discern a vaguely puritanical Catholic, working-class and socialist vibe, especially in certain pockets around the north end.
But in the more cosmopolitan south it’s a real culture clash. There’s still aspects of the immigrant West Indian community, but there’s a much more ‘bling’ urban culture in south Liverpool that’s different in itself.
Pockets of students and bohemians dotted around the city add to melting-pot feel, something that has been pushed out of the homogenised city centre a little, to my mind.
I lived in the Dingle for a year and during some of that time I signed on, also in the Dingle. I don’t think you’ve ever really experienced what it is to live in Liverpool until you’ve spent a lot of time in one of Liverpool’s inner-city boroughs – its shops, pubs and dole offices. It was pretty rough, but apart from the lack of amenities I loved it.
Toxteth is at the centre of this whole phenomenon in Liverpool, bordering several very different areas in the city with their own communities and feel. And it’s in Toxteth that the most famous representations of ‘scouseness’ can be found.
Over the years I’ve asked at least three different people to write articles on this matter, and I don’t feel we ever got any closer to pinning down what is so different about Liverpool.
In his rumination on ‘Livercool’ and writing in Black+White Magazine (a culture and listings mag I edited in Liverpool a decade or so ago), Damo Jones pondered the duality between Liverpool as a cultural port, winning national praise from Isabella Blow for its grooviness, and its working-class roots and less salubrious side:
“Would she have been swept away by the movers and shakers clad in shiny shoes and neatly-pressed shirts pole-axing each other on Slater Street over an orange woman on an energetic Friday night? Would she have been bowled over by the architectural delights of Granby and Toxteth? Would she have been woman enough to tackle shopping in the city centre on a Saturday – wearing that hat?
Liverpool has lived long with a certain Scouse stigma; that is, if wasn’t tied down someone would nick it. An endemic caricature embodied by the likes of Harry Enfield and turned in a pseudo-Greek tragedy with elements of Ealing farce by everyone at Brookside.”
Matthew Whitfield – also writing in Black+White – went further, alluding to Liverpool’s heritage, politics and racial mix.
For the article we pondered commissioning someone to draw the Lacoste crocodile crawling out of the Mersey, the Three Graces – Liverpool’s celebration and reminder of its glorious, and inglorious past, as a huge shipping port – in the background:
“The city has its critics but has always possessed an amazing ability, inherent in its people and its sense of place, to defy them all with sheer creativity and a not-inconsiderable degree of bloody mindedness.
This is still a city of immigration, with both asylum seekers and students bringing new influences, cultures and ideas to bear on a city that is more than used to welcoming strangers.This is a place with a heart and soul of its own – when it comes to style, Liverpool can’t be fooled and knows exactly what it wants.”
So, are we any closer to an understanding of the city? Nope – I can rationalise it, but I don’t ‘get’ it. It’s something that has always eluded me and got me into trouble on occasion.
But while I can’t explain it, I don’t feel excluded by it. The city and its people do have their own ways but, as du Noyer notes, it’s a city used to welcoming people of all creeds and classes. I wouldn’t have stuck around if I didn’t like it.
I’ll probably raise children in this city, it’s not a prospect that concerns me (though I’ll do my best to ensure a North-Eastern accent). I’ll long defend Liverpool against shit jokes and sneering criticism. In most important respects this is my home now. But no child of mine will ever go down the offie in their pyjamas.
Image by welovepandas, Flickr