Here comes the sun

Liverpool, once despised and feared throughout Britain, has been crowned the European Capital of Cul

In his recent book Liverpool: wondrous place - one of the best books ever written about the city - the rock journalist Paul Du Noyer describes the north Liverpool dockland voice of the city as harsher, faster than "a rusty sub-machine gun". This, he says, from the Hamburg Beatles to the Las to the Coral, is the instrument that has "powered rock'n'roll". However, in the same space, Du Noyer astutely points out that the decline of the Liverpool accent - from the "thick and loamy blend of Ireland and Lancashire", which, for example, characterised John Lennon's speaking voice, to "the grating, metallic clang" of the Brookside whine - has mirrored the history of the city. In the 1960s everybody, from Harold Wilson to John Peel, wanted to be associated with Liverpool or, as in the case of the public schoolboy Peel, actually become a "Liverpudlian" - a byword for a classless, surreal and subversive wit.

These days nobody wants to be thought of as a "Scouser", a self-pitying and amoral, underclass thief. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this shift in public perception of the city and its people took place. Certainly by the end of the 1980s the world had seen too much of Liverpool, from the Toxteth riots to Heysel, Hillsborough and Derek Hatton. The Sun had led a vicious campaign against the city, driven by a barely disguised form of music-hall racism ("What do you call a Scouser in a suit?" and so on) which found only slightly milder expression in Harry Enfield's sketches "Scousers", featuring dim-witted and aggressive Scallies.

More stinging still, through the course of the coming decade, was the way in which Ireland, and Liverpool's sister-city Dublin in particular, attracted money and tourists. As anti-Irish racism was swept away in the brave new world of Irish theme pubs, Ballykissangel and the peace process, the people of Liverpool were reinvented as the "new Irish" - thick, violent and deranged; we were the white working class it was OK to hate.

And then there was the Bulger affair. From the classically dysfunctional families of the child-murderers to the hysterical lynch mobs hurling abuse at police vans on prime-time television, this depressing episode confirmed every ugly prejudice against the city and its people. Liverpool, renowned for its comedians and wit, was not even funny any more.

Liverpool has beaten the five other shortlisted British cities - Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle/Gateshead and Oxford - to become the triumphant "European Capital of Culture 2008". So what qualifies this city, despised and feared in its home country, to claim a place among the European elite? And can Liverpool - with its dodgy history and even dodgier present - really ever be transformed into "the Barcelona of the north"?

The city council certainly seems to think so. Under the gormless and possibly meaningless rubric of "Got the get", it is promoting a predictable array of cultural treasures, from the architectural magnificence of the waterfront to Simon Rattle and Atomic Kitten. All of these are splendid in their own way. The Tate at the Albert Dock is also superb, and nobody who has any feeling for cityscapes can fail to be moved by the majestic skyline from the water (which is why the outcome of the competition for the new addition to the waterfront is awaited with such summary expectation). And then there is the football, a passionate love affair with two teams, which has its own complex history.

The Beatles, like Joyce and Dublin, take things to a new level. The streets and parks they sang about are firmly fixed on the global cultural map. To this extent no British provincial city, including the Celtic capitals, has had a bigger impact on world culture than Liverpool. The city council and the present generation of Liverpudlians are right, however, to be uneasy about turning the city into a Beatles theme park. I grew up in south Liverpool, went to school in Penny Lane, played in Strawberry Fields, but it feels distinctly odd and not altogether pleasant to fly in to Liverpool from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and arrive at John Lennon Airport. (Also less than reassuring for the nervous passenger is the airport's slogan, "Above us only sky".)

The city was never just about the Beatles. They were, after all, only products of Liverpool, not its true defining features. I was a teenager in Liverpool during the 1970s and 1980s, in the years following the band's heyday, when Eric's nightclub in Mathew Street, in approximately the same spot as the Cavern, was the subterranean university for a generation of artistic troublemakers. The point about Eric's was that the world came to Liverpool, and not the other way round. In a single week, you could watch the Clash, the Cramps, Joy Division, turn contemporary music upside down. The atmosphere was exciting, often drenched in LSD (then the most unfashionable drug in the UK) but also relentlessly intellectual - you learned about the films of Warhol, books by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the philosophy of Guy Debord (it was at Eric's that I first heard the term "situationist"). Eric's looked to New York for inspiration, not London, but never felt inferior. Most importantly, in style, manners and attitude nothing could be further removed from the grim Scally/Scouser caricature that persists today.

In the meantime, Liverpool has already invented itself as a prime city of European culture without anybody noticing. The renaissance began a few years ago with the nightclub Cream, the spiritual descendant of Eric's (some of the old Eric's regulars are involved in the new set-up), which established itself as a leader at the European level and which attracts up to 50,000 people to its summer events. EasyJet flights from Paris and other European cities are packed with weekending Europeans, over to visit the clubs, buy the latest designer gear, get wrecked in the new bars around Fleet Street, and who do not how to pronounce the word "Scouser", let alone what its cultural stereotype means. I can report that the hippest Parisian DJs speak with awe of Hairy Records in Bold Street, a temple to everything good on vinyl in the past 50 years.

And yes, all of this is low culture, which is precisely what Liverpool has always been good at - at the very highest level. Most importantly, the Liverpudlian spirit has rarely settled for mediocrity: when things are bad they are appalling, and when they are good they can be sublime. This is one reason why Liverpool will never be "the Barcelona of the north" (I myself find Barcelona a stuffy and overrated place). But long live the most bizarre, eccentric and spectacular city in the United Kingdom, if not the world. And if you don't believe me, follow my Parisian mates, and go and take a look.

Andrew Hussey is a Liverpudlian living in Paris. He is writing a book called Paris Underground for Penguin