The spirit of Liverpool’s stories
Liverpool’s at ease with itself, the south should be too
Sometimes I amuse myself and try to imagine the process by which the four sculptors in a far-off corner of China – more used, I gather, to mass producing the sort of statuettes that plague the cul-de-sacs of Middle England – decided what it was a Liver Bird might look like.
As a cultural reference point, it is not the most immediately accessible. I would not have blamed those sculptors if they had momentarily questioned why it was that they were required to hew a fictional fowl grasping some muddied weed in its mouth from a slab of marble. The answer was that the “Spirit of Liverpool” statue needed replacing.
Liverpool is a city of many stories, constantly reshaped and delivered in tones of lilting chatter
Since the city’s great bustling mid-Victorian heyday, when she was unveiled by Lord Derby, the Spirit – a stately woman with a no-nonsense face, a castle as a hat, a trident, a bale of cotton and a pet Liver bird – had perched atop the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool’s treasure trove of paintings, many of which make you tut at yourself and say “so this is where that is!”) keeping a serene watch over the city below. By the mid-1990s, however, she had suffered from pollution and wind and age and was not only minus various limbs but was also threatening to topple over, like a drunk on Matthew Street, and smash through the glass dome beneath her.
As the long 1980s began to creep to an end on Merseyside, and the city of Liverpool began to look to the twenty-first century with hungrier and happier eyes than she had had for some years, it was decided to refit the statue. The original spirit was moved to a museum and a replacement ordered from China, the new workshop of the world.
However, it was that those ambitious Chinese sculptors rendered the Liver bird, it was decided that a new, metal copy made in Liverpool would replace their efforts. After all, it was not something the city could afford to get wrong: thanks in no part to its presence on the crest of a certain football club (although Evertonians will be quick to tell you that they, in fact, used it first) the Liver Bird is one of the most recognised symbols of this astonishing story and its spirit.
I write this on my final night of living in Liverpool and can see from my flat, lit up in pale blue (maybe the Evertonians are right), the two most famous examples on the Liver Building itself. One faces the city and the other the river. Liverpool legend states that if ever they were to lock eyes, they would fall in love instantly, and fly away together to a new nest, bringing about the destruction of the city at the hands of the Mersey’s grey swirls.
Liverpool attracts a strength of feeling among its citizens quite unlike any other place in Britain
All good compendiums of story have a prophecy of ending, a Götterdämmerung. That Liverpool’s involves the city’s destruction bought about in a schmalzy love tale between two chunks of copper is perfect; a tall tale with a lot of heart that gently pokes fun at the form and content of other more august civic myths is the perfect imagined end for any anthology of stories about the great mistress of the Mersey. And what else is Liverpool itself other than a great collection of myth and tale written in brick and laughter and stone?
Southerners – and I confess, reader, that I am, or was¸ one – often foolishly focus on one vision of Liverpool. She is a story of football or faith or pity or pluck. She’s the Beatles’ White Album or the slave trade or the ‘89 Cup Final or the Militant tendency. She’s the Kop or the Albert Dock or Penny Lane or Toxteth. She’s the “second city of Empire”, she’s “Scouse not English”, she’s the “Pool of Life”.
What this pallet of potential identities surely shows is that she is, in fact, like so many port cities, not a city of one narrative, but of many stories, constantly reshaped and delivered in tones of lilting chatter. Indeed, what I have learned from my time living here is that there are as many Liverpools as there are tales told about her.
What can be said is that she is not shy of telling those stories, and it is that, I think, that elicits fear from haughty London, or envy from workmanlike Birmingham, or contempt from brooding Manchester. Liverpool attracts a strength of feeling among its citizens and its, often distant, detractors quite unlike any other place in Britain.
Put another way, Liverpool is a place where stories still matter. In a world where an identity crafted for you in LA can be sold to you in London via your phone put together in Dhaka, to be so proud, so clear, so confident in stories that are so explicitly local is to necessarily stand out from the crowd. The sight of the Liver Bird, and the soul and story it evokes, can be as confusing to the London ironiser as to the sculptor in Shanghai.
It is easy, I suppose, to see why Liverpool is so often misunderstood
This is all the more true because of the nature of those stories. For, despite its appearances as part of a generic, misunderstood “North” during reports on the TV news, Liverpool is no backwater. She has no need to lionise the pedestrian in order to craft myth out of the all too ordinary, for she has long been city of import, a great global player, and an exporter of stories whose significance flies over the heads of all too many in the south.
Round the baroque dome of the town hall echoes the tale of the last action of the American Civil War, when the stars and bars of the CSS Shenandoah was folded up for the last time. Birds now hop and chirrup over Crown Street Park, where the world’s first passenger railway once terminated.
Music, it need hardly be said, soaks the city; from Liszt and Elgar to John and Paul, tunes first played on the Mersey’s banks now are whistled the world over. The definitive crease of the net at Goodison or Anfield elicits a sound that reverberates from Auckland to the Arctic.
It is easy, I suppose, to see why Liverpool is so often misunderstood. She is at once our most local and our most international major city, once our richest, now parts of her indisputably our most poor, she is a place, quite truly, unlike anywhere else, and that, in this age of uniformity, is something in and of itself.
I haven’t had space to give air to anywhere near all her stories – the tale of her foundation (which leads her, in true contrarian style, to be the only part of England to honour “Good” King John), or the polite whispered gossip in the great mansions in Cressington and Woolton, or the time I had to bless a betting app in a pub in Everton, or how Queen Victoria came to be standing at a urinal – those must wait for another time, when they can be enjoyed fully. For, as Liverpool’s greatest gems – its people – know, the greatest joy in Liverpool’s stories is garnered from the telling.
I leave her with a heavy heart, but pleased and proud to have turned many the sceptical stare of a southerner into a wide grin as Liverpool has told them her stories. And until the Liver Birds finally fly away and she is swept into the grey currents of the Mersey, I shall cherish her and the stories she has permitted me to play a walk on part in. I commend her spirit to you, for the story that ebbs and flows on the Mersey’s tides is quite unlike any other.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe