In this report from Liverpool from 1963, John Morgan found himself bewildered by the city. He found a mixture of poverty, violence, sectarianism and occasionally nihilism that was unlike anywhere else in the country. The new “Mersey sound” seemed an expression of this mindset and in the Cavern Club violence was found “in the stunning volume of sound, in the incoherence of the dance, and in the wilfully created vacuity of facial and verbal expression”. Meanwhile the streets were the place for the real rough stuff, “scenes of rare ferocity or at best, comic criminality”. Nevertheless, change was happening, and for all of the negative aspects that he encountered, Morgan could not help asking: “why should this rough city be the one English town outside London it’s a pleasure to spend time in?”
Although, in the black streets behind Dale, the cobbles tremble beneath your feet as the adolescents scream and shake in cellars to the magnified basses of the new Mersey sound, the old Liverpool sound remains much as ever: a wry, bronchitic laugh at the outmoded deal the city continues to hand its people. Students of Liverpool life, with whom the numerous bars proliferate, read a connection between the two sounds. They see both as a comment on a violence that has elsewhere passed from British life, but may be returning. It seemed to me last weekend at the Cavern Club, which is the dead centre of the new sound, briefly possible that the thesis had substance. Not that there is fighting at the Cavern. Indeed there is less than there used to be in the golden days – as they seem in retrospect – when the best traditional jazz bands in the land played at the club, and when old men of 30 would come and sit and listen to a music that was relatively adult and civilised. What there is now is a kind of hell.
The violence lies in the stunning volume of sound, in the incoherence of the dance, and in the wilfully created vacuity of facial and verbal expression. The darkness is almost total. A faint red light plays over the heads of dancers at one end of the smoky, airless room, but three arches further along it dissipates. So tightly are the boys and girls packed together, 750 of them at 4s. 6d. a ticket, that there is no room to dance anything but the Cavern Shake. Ideally, to judge from the techniques of those girls in leather gear – the height of fab – the neck is held rigid while the head moves quickly and tensely from side to side. The arms jerk, puppet-like. The zombie effect, the acute nervous condition, is enhanced by the look on the face. This is not ecstatic, but empty. Vacuity is more than make-up or a mannerism – it is a philosophy. Sweat pours from walls and faces. To force your way from one end of the narrow cellar to the other, pummelled by elbows, breasts and twitching knees, is one of the more nightmarish of current experiences. I suppose I’ve been going to jazz clubs for 15 years and I’ve seen nothing which compares for noise, discomfort or hysteria. On stage all the while, the young men (I never saw the Mersey Birds) play their electronic machines and shout like mad, some for little money, some for none, praying that they can follow the other Mersey groups, like the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers, into the fortune of the charts. The general sentiments expressed seem to be roughly:
I want it
I can’t get it.
So I scream like a child.
This “sound” owes nothing musically to Liverpool. It echoes American rhythms than songs like “Walking by the Liverpool Strand” or “Nelly Gray”. But that it should have originated on Merseyside and subsequently dominated the interest of young people throughout Britain is – to follow the argument of the bar-room students – of more than tribal interest. The tentative notion is that it could mark a breakthrough; the asphalt jungle has a British drumbeat for the first time. Other features of Liverpool Life, so help us, will thus follow. I don’t think the argument holds – Liverpool seems to me the end rather than the beginning of anything jungle-like – but it may be a fair point at which to begin stalking the life of the most interesting of British cities. At present this seaport, because of the Beatles, Z Cars and Everton, the cunning and belligerent football champions, is the provincial centre. Z Cars is one of the best of television programmes because it is realistic about a Liverpool strand that is both exciting and sinister. Everton create more tension, or temper, on a field than any other side. The culture seems all of a piece.
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Many Liverpool citizens object to this reputation. They resist the idea that their city is more violent than any other. They make efforts to persuade writers to produce plays showing the real Liverpool, a city in which, one presumes, people quietly return to suburbia after work, watch the telly, or soberly take their family pleasures. And; of course, most people in Liverpool, as elsewhere, do live like that. They listen to Musica Viva. They go to the theatre. No one writes about them. No one, either, writes about that other Liverpool which lives across the water in the Wirral, perhaps Britain’s strongest bourgeois fortification. There one sees in Meols Drive, with the greens of the Royal Hoylake lying towards the sea, the air fresh, those merchants’ mansions, those elaborate edifices commemorating the cotton fortunes, and it is all very fascinating and the people are free with their sherry and go in for nautical decoration. An O’Hara could do a lot with the Wirral.
At the same time the fact of the dormitory Wirral and its intense Toryism is part of the explanation of the violence – exaggerated though it may be – of the poorer Liverpool. It encourages the persistence of class conflict; and the class conflict is sharpened by religious differences. The worst slums in England still lie behind the grandeur of the commercial palaces. (No waterfront in England, equally, is more impressive than Liverpool’s, viewed from the Birkenhead Ferry. It has a Manhattan air.) The middle classes work around Dale Street, and then leave for the Wirral. The workers still live around Dale Street in the 80,000 slum houses. But many of the workers are also Tories because they are Protestant, which is why Liverpool did not have a Labour council until 1955. The currents of class and religion flow haphazardly, and because they flow through slums and are impelled by the relative poverty of high unemployment and large, Catholic families, they create a way of life which, however much it may distress many of the town’s leading citizens to hear it, differs from all others in the land.
Its leading citizen, Jack Braddock, who has just written an autobiography with his wife Mrs Bessie Braddock MP and who leads the Labour party in the city, doesn’t deny the city’s toughness. When I last talked to him he told me: “If there’s any trade union activity going on it is always the most fierce in Liverpool. If a wave of strikes broke out, it was always the most fierce in Liverpool. When employment broke out – real mass unemployment – the worst indication of the temper of the masses came from Liverpool. Liverpool a conglomeration of people from every part of the British Isles, and they have all come here because the place from which they came couldn’t provide them with a living; and when they come here they are in fighting mood and they never seem to get out of it. Even the criminals here are tough.
Unfortunately, the autobiography doesn’t reflect that authentic Braddock rhetoric. Too much of it is given up to voicing the family fear that the CP and the Trotskyites are infiltrating all over the place. The book would have been the better for more of the detail of Liverpool political life, in which the Braddocks have been involved for half a century and about which, in private, they are so illuminating. Nevertheless, it offers enough to explain much about modern Liverpool. The bloody battles between the unemployed and the police; the organised hooliganism of protestant v. Catholic; the permanence of one party rule – these have left their mark. Moreover, justice in Liverpool was often not seen to be done. Jack Braddock himself was once sentenced to a prison term on police evidence for inciting a riot when he was far from the scene – even though his bitterest political opponents testified on his behalf. The very structure of political life became, and remains, peculiar. In no other city does the political boss control a party in the fashion in which the Labour and Tory parties have always been run on Merseyside. It is scarcely an Irish influence: the Protestant Tories have always had a boss. The in-fighting makes Westminster seem like the Oxford Union. Thus Mrs Braddock cannot resist, even in her statesmanlike autobiography, striking some sharp blows to the solar plexus in recounting her struggle to keep her seat against Bevanite pressure in 1955. The condition of the people demanded she be a communist in her youth, right-wing in maturity.
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The Braddocks always won. They, and especially Jack, a shrewd, tough, square man with an expressionless face and hooded eyes – he looks every inch a “boss” and wears a suitable large black hat – always out-played their enemies, although in 1954 he only avoided defeat by the Left, as I remember, by six votes. At that time the streets of black, crumbling, once-elegant Georgian terraces off Upper Parliament street (Upper Parly, as they have it) were poisonous with slanders. Boxers, Negro snooker-players, priests, not to mention more orthodox political characters, supplied hair-raising tales about financial and sexual peculation. All that, like the organised hooliganism, seems to have disappeared. Orange and Catholic march unimpeded: indeed the Orange party has almost collapsed.
Yet it seems to be impossible to visit Liverpool without witnessing scenes of rare ferocity or at best, comic criminality. It might be police horses charging thousands furious at being locked out of a Bingo hall. Two Chinese were thrown through a window in the building next to my hotel. Outside the Adelphi one night I was standing at the street-corner when a car turned out of Lime Street. A group of young men blocked its path up the hill, one of them making an obscene gesture playfully at the driver. Inside the car three men restrained the driver from jumping out for a while but he escaped from them. At once he executed a Cossack-like leap at the men blocking his path, his boots high in the air. His friends joined him. Suddenly a brawl broke out. A crowd of hundreds came, it seemed, from the walls. The traffic along Lime Street was blocked. People having nothing to do with the original fight began punching or kicking each other. But most of the crowd just watched. When the police trucks arrived two of the men arrested were spectators who had been standing alongside me. When I protested, a policeman said cheerfully: “Wanting a ride, You know, like?’ No; I said, cravenly and sensibly.
The police, naturally, are accused of excessive roughness. But they have a rough job. They in turn accuse the public of a lack of civic responsibility – a phrase that’s good for laugh over a bevy (Scouse for drink). One sees their point. I once saw two characters fling a brick through a window and strip it while a queue waiting for a bus looked the other way. Citizens offer more rewarding anecdotes. For example, two men drinking in a wine lodge realised that they were sitting on a full barrel. They rolled it through the bar, on to the street, and then through several streets to where their car was parked, and drove it to their tug on the Mersey. Not a soul it seems, witnessed any part of this.
Usually the crimes are unfunny, the brawling savage. It is unfunny, for example, that in 14 months recently Liverpool schools should have suffered 364 acts of vandalism. Theft is a common motive, but often it’s accompanied by brute destructiveness. If this were the consequence of bad housing it would be more easily explicable. But it can happen on the new housing estates where among other anti-social gestures, new trees are frequently destroyed for fun. Where those young men come from who savage Liverpool football excursion trains I don’t know, but they frighten me. I once stood with Everton supporters who were deliberately attempting to stampede the crowd. Before the match the same boys had walked through a small shop snatching what they cared to from the counters.
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It may be that I’ve been unlucky. There exists, no doubt, a great majority which has lived in Liverpool, or visited the city, without witnessing any peculiar events of this kind. I’m prepared to believe it. And to them any thesis suggesting that the new “sound” expresses the violence of the new rootless generation will seem absurd. It would anyway be quite reasonable to argue that such violence as exists is inevitable in a seaport with such a long history of strife and poverty, that it will pass when the level of employment rises and people find new homes. Life will not always be as rough in the docks and one one day, too, all the shabby, dirty buildings near the centre of the city will be knocked down – those opposite Lime Street station will disappear any day now. Liverpool will perhaps cease to look like a city time-locked in the Twenties. They have actually begun to clean St George’s Hall.
But all this, of course, skirts the central question: why should this rough city be the one English town outside London it’s a pleasure to spend time in? It’s no go, I’m afraid, handing out all that stuff about the Mersey and the spectacular waterfront, and the cheap food and the pubs and the dead-eyed men spiking “large whites” in the wine lodges and talking about Valparaiso below a sign reading “Moderation is the Soul of Temperance”, and the absolutely fascinating political history, wack, and did you know, then, that there was still a News Room, as centuries ago, above the Exchange Flags, and do you remember, d’you know like, the iron slave rings in the “Goree Piazzas”? All that’s under the arm (ie no good). The truth is harsher: that the flickering vigour of traditional conflicts imbues the shabby life of the back streets with a seriousness that makes for gaiety along with the shouting. And none us, I take it, wants to see that life preserved.
Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)