Northern soul: Liverpool

Scruffy, careless, brazen and kind, Liverpool is a city with soul, argues <em>Paul du Noyer</em>

I am loyal to my native city, but can see why people sneered when Liverpool was declared the European Capital of Culture for 2008. Of course it has some grand old buildings, world-class museums and a fine classical orchestra. But these are not what Liverpool stands for in the national imagination. In the eyes of the outside world it remains a city of slums and car thieves, overrated comedians and tiresome insularity. As the banner says at Anfield, home to one of our brave yet underachieving football teams, "We're Not English, We Are Scouse".

The self-sufficiency of Liverpudlians, whose accent stops abruptly at the city boundaries and who dismiss the citizens of neighbouring counties as "woollybacks", separates them even from the north of England. The average Scouser-in- the-street would not care if - to quote a locally popular stage play - they "bricked up the Mersey Tunnel". In 1963, the Kop's choristers spontaneously adopted an old song newly covered by Gerry and the Pacemakers, "You'll Never Walk Alone", spawning the city's unofficial anthem. Even now it seems to say: "It's our own solidarity that matters. Sod the rest of yers."

In short, Liverpool doesn't seem like the capital of anything, except of itself. Recognising the problem, the civic authorities cooked up an initiative called Cities on the Edge, reaching out to other historically "difficult" seaports around Europe. They sensed that Liverpool's natural allies are Naples and Marseilles, not Newcastle or Manchester. Even the infamous "We're Not English" banner took its inspiration from Basque separatists, encountered at a cup match in Spain. This is really a maritime city-state whose in ternal clock is set by the tides, not by Big Ben. Never mind Militant; Liverpool is so outside the Westminster mainstream that it used to elect Irish nationalist MPs.

Waterfront Liverpool knew about diversity long before bureaucrats ordered us to celebrate it. Thanks to the huge post-famine influx, it became a Celtic enclave in an Anglo-Saxon kingdom: Catholic, chaotic and subversive. A large part of its black population descends from seafarers, and often pre-dates the white inhabitants in Liverpool lineage. The Welsh diaspora sang stoutly forth from Nonconformist chapels. For good measure, we have the oldest Chinatown in Europe. This rich ethnic mix, plus a sailor town's impulse to entertain, and Liverpool's monopoly of US music in a pre-media age - all these bred a city that has punched above its weight in popular culture. And culture thrives in its high and low senses. The Philharmonic Hall and Philharmonic pub, squaring off across Hope Street, are both veritable temples, each in its own way.

If I'm proud of the pioneering Everyman Theatre, I am just as fond of our everyday street theatre: from the voluptuous First Holy Communions to the weeping drunk who sings "The Fields of Athenry" at Birkenhead Central. To spend an evening on a Liverpool bar stool is to behold a Chaucerian pageant. In the past few nights, I've clocked up red-nosed Scouse sages, bright-eyed Scandinavian beauties, achingly hopeful boys, gregarious junkies, sleek clerics, louche developers of property, 12 men who used to be in bands and four IT consultants still tipsy from the Chester Races. Absurdism is a current in the mental tides of Liverpudlians, from George Melly to the bloke at the coach station - the one who greets arrivals with a stiff military salute and a traffic cone over his head. Then there are the purple wheelie bins . . .

It is, admittedly, a tricky place. Not all of its critics are frigid snobs and life-denying drips. (But let me just say this: the city wears its heart on its sleeve. So what? At least it has a heart to wear.) Politically, it is at once too bolshy and vulgar for the right, too wayward and wildcat for the left ("an organiser's graveyard", sighed the Communist Party in 1935). It has been economically pummelled, not so much by Margaret Thatcher, as by containerisation and the migration of trade from British empire to European Union. And the giddy descent from Beatlemania to Boys From the Blackstuff would have given any town vertigo. Yet it preserves a sense of its own identity that no other English city can match.

So here is the point. What sort of place should represent the north? Manchester, Leeds or Shef field would be sensible choices. Their Labourism was rooted in Methodist sobriety and Marxist discipline. Liverpool has no tradition besides stoned anarcho-surrealism. And there still lurks poverty. Yet beyond the dark, cramped hovels there were always the sea and a magnificent sky, and the sense of a wide world to be glimpsed at every street's end.

It is scruffy, careless, brazen and kind. This city has soul. It knows how to throw a party. For all that it's heavy, it is extravagantly welcoming to anyone without airs and graces. After all, it has been entertaining sailors for centuries. If you want a quiet life, then don't choose Liverpool. But if you're on board for the mind-scrambling adventures of an unknowable, violent, tragicomic, globalised 21st-century world, here is a city that knows no other state of being.

Mind yer zeitgeist for yer, mate?

Liverpool or Manchester?

Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records

"I'm very proud of what's been going on in Manchester. As for Liverpool, the Beatles are the most important group in history, but the Liverpool scene lasted for three years, whereas with Manchester, the scene lasted for 20 years, from 1977 to Oasis."

Roger McGough, poet

"I live in London now, but I'm a Scouser at heart. The thing with Liverpool and Manchester is that in Liverpool we always felt like we used to miss out - like when Granada went to Manchester, we missed out on the investment and the money. Liverpool always feels like it's out on a limb, which I guess it is, in a way. But the relationship is often more co-operative."

Jude Kelly, director, Southbank Centre

"When I grew up in Liverpool, it was at a cultural high point - the Beatles had already become world-famous; there was the Playhouse, the Philharmonic, the Mersey Poets; and it was a fantastic scene for all the arts. It took an incredible battering economically, but the wit and ingenuity of Liverpool meant that it came springing back into life.

"I think Liverpool hit a point of no return and decided that it needed to pull together and start really trying to rebuild the community from within. It has become much less isolated - it's looking at international partners and it's thinking of itself as an international city.

"Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds all need to think of themselves as places that generate culture, rather than being on the receiving end of London's creativity."

Candie Payne, singer

"Both cities deserve attention for their creative achievements. It's in a Scouser's blood to love music: it's the Irish and the Italian heritage that makes it an instinctive thing to us. We've got the Zutons, the Coral, the Dead 60s, tonnes of bands - but maybe it's true that it has been difficult to get them out of the Liverpool scene. We do ourselves a disservice, in that we don't push it very much; we're not very concerned with what the rest of the country thinks!"

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?