Time to Rekindle the Spirit of 03?

There’s a saying in business. Fake it til you make it. Perhaps Liverpool was guilty of that in 2003 when the city and its positive charm won over the judges deciding which city would next be capital of culture but hey, it worked. And guess what, we’ve won everyone over. We shouldn’t stop now.

It is, arguably, the most significant change Liverpool will have to undergo since it ceased to be a maritime powerhouse. We are, whisper it, a bit bloody popular. There are column inches written about how fabulous we are. Even at middle class haven The Archers, the city was bigged up as a must-visit city-break destination. Jim (no, me neither) had bundled a group of the lesser spotted Ambridge residents to take them off to the North West for a flutter on the horses and to visit a few less salubrious locations, one imagines. Well, I suppose if you only have one pub in your village then Hardman Street is going to fair blow you away. After an initial surprise and then concern it became clear that going for a weekend to Liverpool was less an opportunity for mirth in the script and more one’s idea of “a good thing to do”.

Before 2003 we spent so long bemoaning our lot and the fact that the whole world was against us the old joke about building a moat around the city became less a fixture of fun and more a potential regeneration project. Always the punchline, a thorn in the side of the establishment, even our footie teams travelled badly in the 90s. Yet despite the poverty, the car crime, joblessness and those white suits we managed to rise above it and saw the good in ourselves. Mock all you like but it’s the best thing we ever did. No one else was going to believe in us, we thought, so we might as well do it ourselves.

And didn’t we do well? The Impact 08 report says that but the time 2008 finished media reports about the city were less polarised, that from 2005 people’s views of Liverpool started to shift and became more positive. But it was the visit by the judges in 2003 what won it. There was enthusiasm from every man, woman and child on the streets of the city. Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who was head of the delegation that came to the city said the “whole city is involved in the bid and behind the bid”.

Positivity. Enthusiasm. Singing from the same hymn sheet. The mindset of a modern Liverpool, not the one that had gone before. Call it what you will but it also belied another very Scouse sentiment that we’re taught from the cradle. If you have something to moan about do it in your own four walls and don’t air your dirty linen in public. Sure we knew we had problems in 2003 but we wanted people to see the good bits rather than the bad bits.

Maybe we should invoke a bit of that spirit of 2003 today, and try selling ourselves on sheer personality alone and stop focusing on the negative – on the ‘summer of discontent’ rhetoric, and griping about the ‘new’ Mathew Street.

There were no short sighted PR stunts, no offering out of political leaders played out in the nationals (well, if you don’t count Henshaw and Storey, obvs). Perhaps we swept a lot under the carpet. perhaps we were naive but by opening our door wide and encouraging people to see the city for themselves, to not make rash judgements and to look on the bright side rather than the negative we managed to change the opinion of every judge, journalist, artist, editor, musician, daytripper and comedian who’d ever visited the place. Fair, we’re still a nightmare when it comes to hen dos but you can’t have everything.

If we could turn the tide so quickly from 2003 to 2008 imagine what a lot of negative bluster could do to us in five years’ time? If we talk ourselves down, whether for political capital or otherwise, might we encourage people to think they understood us right the first time round?

If, say, we want to make a point and tell people that it’s just as bad as it was in the 80s, or that there is nothing of value in the city anymore, or that we’ll near as dammit have to shut up shop in a couple of years well, will we be surprised when they start believing it?

This could well be what winning actually looks like. Maybe we should get used to it.

  • Tripadvisor

    Good piece Laura. It should be said that a lot of the credit for securing Capital of Culture should actually go to Mike Storey and David Henshaw, despite their subsequent fall out. The truth is it wouldn’t have happened without them. It was Mike who decided the city should apply and he tasked Henshaw with delivering it and they made a shrewd appointment in Bob Scott as Chairman. Together, they made winning the title priority number one for the city and used it to drive through a lot of projects in time for 2008 – Liverpool One, the Arena, Cruise Liner Terminal, etc. OK, some of these projects interpreted culture in its widest possible sense and were ridiculed by the likes of Ian McCullough (who couldn’t see that culture isn’t just music and art), but they did make sure the city had a much more presentable and credible offer to tourists in 2008. In a sense, it gave the city a real deadline. There were mistakes in the vacuum along the way: notably Robyn Archer (Storey reluctantly agreed to appoint her under pressure from Henshaw when he really wanted Jude Kelly), Jason Harborow (a man with more confidence than Bill Gates but less ability than Eddie the Eagle Edwards) and the 4th Grace (a great idea but the wrong location and no credible thought into what it could practically be used for). But, as Laura points out, the year was generally a success and by the end of it Kris Donaldson emerged with a great deal of credit. It even survived the “leadership” (and I use the word loosely) of Bradley the Buffoon – a man with an ego bigger than the mouth of the Mersey and a brain the size of a pea. Overall, it showed that when the city pulls together in one direction, it can put on a great show. Much the same happened with the Little Girl Giant last year, showing the city has learnt lessons. Incidentally, Mike Storey once said the best piece of advice he received was when he visited New York and they said he should just encourage people to talk up the city and that success would flow from it.