To Liverpool, a foreign island city-state that somehow got itself attached to mainland England. An ‘island’ because, as with the fauna of Galapagos, it has evolved in isolation into something very strange. Let’s start with the voices. It is widely believed that there is a ‘Scouse accent’. In fact there are at least three quite distinct accents, reflective less of geography than of different aspects of the Liverpudlian psyche.
Stand at the bar in the Philharmonic Dining Rooms on Hope Street and order a pint of lager. As she delivers it the scrape-back blonde barmaid with vicious cheekbones will say “Dair yer gow shwee-tee’ in a sort of panicked sing-song spanning four octaves. This is wholly different from the self-assured Scouse of Ringo or Cilla, whose laconic, monotonic burr, recognisably Lancastrian – “I saw hurrr standing thurrr” (as opposed to the barmaid’s “hair shtanding dair”) – is now rare and will probably vanish with the Beatles generation.
But as you sip your pint in The Phil, it might occur to you that on three sides – Bootle to the north, the Wirral to the south, Huyton to the east – is a Merseyside island whose people may be British but are no more English than those of Belfast or Glasgow. Celts with hard faces scrunched by the cruel Irish wind that blows everyday across the sea, and the modern Scouse voice is formed accordingly. It is an absurdly inefficient Carragher hack whose consonants must be dragged through a thick throat and chewed around in a gooey grimace, while the vowels ululate in an indignant whine. I once heard a Scouser make such a meal of the word “brickwork” – “brricchhhhk-weeeeerrccchhhhhk” that I openly laughed. The inefficiency, the difficulty of this accent is a deliberate barrier, since Scousers are paranoid and protective of their Scouseness, suspicious of non-purebloods (‘Plastic (or ‘Placcy)’ Scousers) and snooty about ‘woolybacks’ (foreigners, e.g. people from Birkenhead or, ancestral seat of Brit (matrilineal line), St Helens).
The Phil, incidentally, is a Victorian gin palace of exquisite beauty, even the toilets are magnificent. Its rooms have a musical theme, called Brahms and Liszt and so on, and when you venture out into the cold Celtic twilight this theme might stay with you. The prospect of east, north and south, teeming with gluey-throated paranoiac ululaters in trackie bottoms and hoodies will chill your blood, so instinctively you will head west, towards the docks. To your left hulks the Anglican Cathedral, a great big dumb 1812 Overture of a building (the largest cathedral in the UK), but you can turn right to amble past the Adelphi Hotel and Lime Street Station, to St George’s Hall and the Walker Art Gallery, and the city becomes a Beethoven Symphony of architecture, down Water Street there are stacks upon stacks of breathtaking structures steadily unfolding to culminate at the Pier Head with the glorious OTT three-note crescendo: the Port of Liverpool Building, the Cunard Building, the Royal Liver Building – bam, baaaam, baaaaaaam!
By coincidence, while driving oop north on the M6 (my least favourite motorway; I don’t count the M25 which is sui generis) I heard on the radio a former Goldman Sachs bod proposing that the north-west could create an economic counter-balance to London by joining Liverpool and Manchester together to form the supercity Manpool. My first thought was: hell of a football team, reminds me of Roy of the Rovers, who used to play against ‘Liverton’ and ‘Everpool’. The first thought of all the Mancunians and Liverpudlians responding on air was to screech blue bloody meerdah. Well of course it was, the north is hilariously parochial. I’ve heard Wiganers talk about ‘that Liverpool’ as if it were not twenty but twenty-thousand miles away (“Ah went there once, went into’t chippeh, asked for a pie… You’ll not guess what he did… he fried the pie! I said, ‘What ya doin’, fra-in ma pie?’ Them Liverpoolers – they frah the pies!”). Terry Christian, representing Manchester on the radio show, did allow that his city had something in common with Liverpool. “We’re both Tory-free zones, and we’re both victims of the metrocentric London media bias,” he whinged, nasally.
And that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the north-west, and explains why it punches below its weight. They decided in the middle of the twentieth century that they were victims of London, and that self-pitying view informs the absolutist blanket of reactionary politics and a contempt for personal ambition (“We hate it when our friends become successful/And if they’re northern that makes it even worse”, sang Morrissey, who does sometimes nail it). The irony is that today’s Scousers live in the UK’s finest monument to Victorian capitalism. Liverpool has over 2,500 listed buildings (including 27 Grade I listed and 85 Grade II* listed), more public sculptures than anywhere in the country except Westminster and more Georgian houses than Bath. These riches have been enjoyed by generations so inferior to the original builders that it puts one in mind of King Louis and his orangutans leaping about the ruins in The Jungle Book, or modern Italians living in Rome. That said, I do love the city even though one usually feels an alien: partly for the architecture; partly for the banal and in my age-group very commonplace reason that I follow the red football team; and partly because there is nothing more entertaining than a pub Scouser in full flow (up until the sentimental victim tap gets turned on, at least).
Talking of Victorian capitalists, on the way home from Birkenhead I popped into Port Sunlight, the lovely/creepy (delete according to taste) lifesize model village built by soap baron William Lever to house his factory workers. I don’t know too much about Lever, but my perception from the bits I have read is that he was one of those infuriating, wonderful, generous, narcissistic, self-help book-writing entrepreneurs who would probably found his own religion given half a chance. That odd mix of believing firmly in the importance of everyone being the Captain of His Own Soul , yet also insisting that he knew best what everyone else needed. Of his ‘profit-sharing’ with his employees he said:
It would not do you much good if you send it down your throats in the form of bottles of whisky, bags of sweets, or fat geese at Christmas. On the other hand, if you leave the money with me, I shall use it to provide for you everything that makes life pleasant – nice houses, comfortable homes, and healthy recreation.
We can certainly thank him for leaving us the Lady Lever Art Gallery, a gem with lots of fine and well-known paintings (the one I’d steal, incidentally, is the riotous Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon by Edward John Gregory. By contrast, the one I’d steal from the Walker Gallery is Vespers by John Singer Sargent – it depicts a slightly Satanic Greek Orthodox priest, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a painting which better captures the peaceful light of dusk).
If I had to have a party piece, which I don’t because people stopped having those sorts of parties a long time ago, then I would probably knock something up involving a tour of Britain by regional accent. Hearing and mimicking quite specific accents seems to come naturally to me (people are often astonished that I can do a New Zealand accent, for example, as opposed to a general Australianish thing which everyone can do; I’m astonished that they’re astonished, but I suppose you either hear these things or you don’t.) Currently I’m interested in the Bolton accent as spoken by Peter Kay’s overgrown cheeky schoolboy sidekick Paddy McGuiness, because it has an amazing approach to the word ‘out’ which seems to incorporate all six vowels (that is, the five usual ones plus ‘y’).
McGuiness presents a groundbreakingly terrible Saturday night ‘dating’ gameshow called Take Me Out – which he pronounces “Tekk MiYeaaiiooouuyt”. The premise is that a stream of single lads must attempt to bag a date with one of thirty lasses, each of whom has a light. As more and more snippets of information about the lad are revealed (his hobbies, domestic habits etc) she can turn off her light if she finds something disagreeable. If there are any lights left on after a few rounds, the lad can take whoever is left on the date. I only mention this end-of-pier twaddle to make an anthropological point: it strikes me that you can reveal pretty much everything you need to know about the difference between male and female attitudes towards sexual relations by considering the impossibility of trying this format with the genders reversed.
Friday night is disco night chez Brit! In I come triumphantly from the week’s work, crack open a cold one, stick on the Brennan and off we go. We’ll generally start off at a furious pace with E’s favourite – Blitzkreig Bop by the Ramones (“Hey, Ho, Let’s GO!”). Then follows a medley of foot-stompin’ AOR classics: Fleetwood Mac’s Second Hand News (the ‘bowm bowm bowm da dowm bowm’ song, you have to skip round in a circle), seguing into Springsteen’s I’m Goin’ Down (here you have to hold C’s hands while she limbos energetically) and then Simon and G’s Cecilia (freestyle interlude). Hotel Yorba by the White Stripes is a sort of up-and-down barn dance, and now we’re into the really good stuff. We’ve got a full family routine worked out for River of Dreams by Billy Joel. Then will come the inevitable demands for ‘Wimba-way’ (aka The Lion Sleeps Tonite by Tight Fit), which is becoming a gruelling chore for Mrs B and I as we have to toss the girls high in the air during the chorus and they’re getting heavy. Thankfully after Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious we get a breather, as the Eurythmics’ There Must Be An Angel (Playing with my Heart) is one for the girls only (they call it The ‘Punzel Song as it sounds like a number in Tangled, and do a princessey dance), before the finale Jigsaw Falling into Place by Radiohead, an obscure choice admittedly but they’ve built up a remarkably complex sequence of moves for it, involving twirling, gurning, running wildly with hands in the air and a final FREEZE FINISH!, and then it’s up the stairs, bath, brush teeth, stories, bed, Oi, I said into bed, you’ve had your fun, yes, into bed, please, now, Now.