Manhattan on Mersey
So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool
Nicholas Murray Liverp
Liverpool is one of the most romantic places in the world. Nowhere with such an epic history of tumult could fail to be. Its waterfront, from the days of the Middle Passage of the wretched slaves, has ever been the setting for wrenching departures. Even as it is rooted in its own proud culture, there is something feckless about the place. This is perhaps because Liverpool looks out over the sluggish, grey, flat Mersey to distant Ireland and America, not to nearby Europe.
And architecturally, Liverpool rises to the scale of its human dramas. That same waterfront is easily a match for Manhattan, or, if you ask me, even Venice. Growing up in Liverpool taught me about architecture, about the way buildings can create moods and expectations, both high and low. The city as a whole? Magnificent, ruined, dangerous, melancholy, haunting . . . and nowadays also quite sexy.
Hardly surprising, then, that Liverpool has produced disproportionate numbers of creative types in the arts, sciences, sports and business. They are a notoriously sentimental bunch, their emotional attachment to the city growing in direct proportion to the distance they have fled from it. Who does not blub when he hears the brooding regret of "In My Life", whose lyrics describe the people and things of a lost childhood? It's a song John Lennon wrote in London. But while its native talent couldn't wait to get away, Liverpool has attracted an astonishing roster of alien talent, the subject of this new book.
Daniel Defoe in his 1721 Tour described pre-industrial Liverpool as one of the wonders of Britain. The slave trade, sugar, steam, soap, ships and beer changed its mood. In his posthumously published Autobiography, Carl Jung recounted a significant dream about Liverpool that he described as "extremely unpleasant, black and opaque". Indeed, by the Sixties (Jung died in 1961), Defoe's wonder of Britain had become an eponym for urban misery.
But there were other significant travellers. In 1801 Thomas De Quincey stayed in Everton. The American trade brought Herman Melville to Merseyside: his 1849 novel Redburn is set in Liverpool. In 1853 Melville became US consul. Undiplomatically, he described the local population as "vermin", although this negativity may be attributed to a sense of alienation inspired by the surroundings: visiting the Wirral made him suicidal. Alexis de Tocqueville was a little more positive and correctly predicted that Liverpool would become the centre of British commerce.
The first half of the 20th century brought more eclectic and exotic visitors. Virginia Woolf was one, the Alexandrian-Greek poet Constantine Cavafy was another (his father ran a business here). Orwell found the misery that he so energetically sought. The author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis, visited Liverpool in 1939 and declared it "hideous", even more so than Birmingham. He found the people dull, but the local deadpan humour does not cross languages well.
Nicholas Murray, a Liverpool poet, novelist and literary biographer, provides an account of this grand parade as breezy as a ferry ride to New Brighton and as chatty as an Aigburth tart. The latter being affectionate demotic for "girl", not a sexual slur, although in Liverpool you can never be too sure where you stand in these matters. Although published by Liverpool University Press, the book has no index. And although Murray has written a life of that great prose stylist Bruce Chatwin, his own writing is not far above Upper Tabloid: the expression "chalk and cheese" actually appears on page 112. Yet it is not quite racy enough to be compulsive, while lacking the scholarly depth and apparatus to make it useful as reference. I don't mean to "come the hard", as they say locally, because So Spirited a Town is a collection of fascinating material not readily available elsewhere, but I think my latent disappointment is based on a reason outside Murray's declared scope. Namely, any literary account of Liverpool that does not give full and appropriate status to its local talent seems weirdly skewed.
There have been other books about Liverpool. Sean Hignett's novel A Picture to Hang on the Wall (1966) is a roman à clef full of still recognisable characters. John Willett's Art in a City (1967) is a sympathetic account of Liverpool's unique culture. Recently, Paul du Noyer's Liverpool: Wondrous Place (revised edition: 2007) brilliantly describes the city's trademark vernacular surrealism. But no book on Liverpool, perhaps no book on any city, will ever better Quentin Hughes's Seaport (1964). This is an architectural, not a literary, monograph, but a beautifully conceived urban biography by one of Liverpool's favourite sons.
Hughes was a Liverpool original: a debonair soldier, scholar, teacher, architect and conservationist, as much at home in a pub as an archive. He was persuasively enchanted by the romance of Liverpool. And his book was a publishing masterpiece that became a book design classic. That cannot be said of So Spirited a Town: if Murray had been John, Paul, George, Ringo and Simon Rattle, the disgracefully ugly and inept cover art would have let him down. Alas, City of Culture euphoria has not infected Liverpool University Press.
Stephen Bayley's "Work: the Building of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link" will be published in May by Merrell