The Incredible New Liverpool Scene
No one responsible for selling these goods is likely to forget for a moment that Allen Ginsberg says Liverpool is “at the present moment the center of consciousness of the human universe.” I have known the place myself without ever quite perceiving this, though the Pier Head was the first bit of England I ever saw, and might well have left me with some such fantasy. Anyway, as the poet remarked, the real is only the base, but it is the base, so it will do no harm to prospective purchasers to know more about the city thus dignified by Ginsberg.
My view, incidentally, is that an ordinary evening in Liverpool is exactly as good a topic for poetry as an ordinary evening in New Haven, but only if you refrain from running wild at the mention of some seductive place name. It is misleading to react to, say, “Penny Lane,” as Richard Poirier recently did in Partisan Review; he was deceived, apparently, by the charm of the Beatles into the belief that this suburb, which is distinguished from thousands of others by nothing but its quaint name, is a sort of provincial cockaigne. It isn’t even a tram terminus any more. In the good old days when the vast doubledecker buses (“green goddesses”) hissed and clanged from the Pier Head out to Old Swan, Knotty Ash, the Dingle, and so on, there would have been some sense in it. Now, when the Liverpool poets under discussion talk about hillbilly songs from Aigburth it is as well to know they are referring to a sedate suburb three miles upriver, glamorous only in its easy access to the castiron shore (“the cazzy”) along the north bank of the Mersey. The Dingle, hard by, is about as rural as West 57th Street, and much less interesting in other ways.
Of the population of about 800,000 most speak English with an accent wholly unlike that of Lancashire proper, an accent variously attributed by amateur philologists to the influence of its powerful Irish, Welsh, or Chinese minorities. The only certainty is that every large city has its own way of defiling the mother tongue. In Liverpool the letter t is sibilant, the word fur is pronounced fair and the word fair is pronounced fur (“the lady in the fair coat hasn’t paid her fur”). There are a great many local slang words, often of facetious origin. These, and the numerous in-jokes, help to account for the fact that a disproportionate number of the best English comics have been and are Liverpudlians (upper-class version, Liverpolitans). Their number includes Tommy Handley, the great wartime comic, Arthur Askey, and the Beatles. Private citizens also like to giggle and make giggle. There is a lot of what is called chaff (short a) in Liverpool.
HOW DOES THE PLACE LOOK? Mostly very bad. Liverpool was a late starter. Bristol, which was important in the middle ages, still, after the raids, preserves many of its medieval buildings in a fine setting; it faded as a port, skipped the Industrial Revolution, then came again with electronics and aircraft. Liverpool got going in the eighteenth century but peaked in the nineteenth; hence some Georgian houses and many vast public monuments. The mansions of the shipowners are now flats and tenements, surviving among dreadful Victorian urban housing and the straggling dreariness of the twentieth-century suburbs. Yet it has “character.”
The commuter from Cheshire arrives by ferry at the very heart of the place, the Pier Head, where the liners tie up and all the bus routes start from under the grandiose buildings. You walk up through commercial canyons, pursued by the keen wind off the river, to a civic center dominated by a colossal smoke-blackened model of the Parthenon and a huge domed library; then, via Lime Street, thought by some to be the center of the world’s wickedness, you can take one route up a hill stinking of decay and olive oil to the Catholic Cathedral, only recently run up, or another to the Anglican, still in incomplete Gothic splendor on its bluff, after fifty years. Round this older cathedral is Liverpool 8 where much of the pop action seems to be, hence the new resonance of its street names: Upper Parliament Street, Huskisson Street, Canning Street. They recall Victorian parliamentary grandeur (Gladstone was a Liverpool man) but have long been in very sleazy shape; I remember years ago, waiting for a bus in Canning Street and hearing a woman’s scream from the door of the house behind; a man rushed out, followed by a full pisspot which exploded at my feet.
Liverpool has miles of docks, and was therefore very badly bombed. Years after the war the rubble lay untouched; it was one of the last places to dust itself off. There wasn’t, in those days, much to do; the pubs tend to be vast, gloomy, sourly attended; and you can’t ride the ferry all the time, or watch the amorous parades in Sefton (“Seffie”) Park. Neither the grand things—the Philharmonic Hall, the beautifully kept houses of Rodney Street—nor the exotic—the ships swinging at their moorings in the yellow river—can seem very relevant to the lives of the young, except as an obbligato to dockside streets, council houses, and rotting tenements. Much more important are the soccer teams, Liverpool and Everton, Protestant and Catholic like the cathedrals.
The Liverpool fans are the trend-setters for the whole of England; the popular side, known for some reason as Spin Kop, invents our football violence and our football chants: You feel that when the swaying crowd breaks fervently into “God save our gracious team” you are really learning something surprising about the loyalties of the English proleteriat; if Liverpool is two goals up against some already dispirited London opponent, fifty thousand voices chant, EASY, EASY, a very alarming demonstration of contempt. Bristol, as befits its bourgeois image, has two inferior football teams; Liverpool has two of the best, and they are the emotional and almost the religious center of the city’s life.
Balanced between extreme good humor and violent hatred, a Liverpool crowd is an impressive experience, with no relation to “Englishness” as Americans understand it. And maybe, if there has been a transformation of the sort necessary to make Ginsberg’s mot seem plausible, its cause should be sought in this proletarian common culture, which uses “A Yellow Submarine” as a football hymn, amuses itself while waiting with local jokes and slang, and lives in dreary districts with pretty names. Its fantasies may be faintly colored by the greatness of Liverpool, vague folklore about slaving, and the first Cunarders, but mostly it lives in the present. And it remains mere English, despite the enormous immigrant population; the race problems which are relatively new to the rest of England are old stuff in Liverpool. All this evidently has the makings of a Scene; all that was needed was a scene chief or two to set it up.
SCENE-CHIEF Edward Lucie-Smith, poet, art critic, entrepreneur, adman, has got up this book, and the record is a companion to it. If you think back to the early Beatles (venerated because they made it from the provinces as well as for other reasons) and those rougher, wilder groups unknown to fame from which the Beatles are supposed to have derived, you have an ambiance which is Liverpudlian in these senses: it is like that of the football crowd, sentimental yet violent; it is like that of the Liverpool comics, exploiting the accent, the quaint place names, the prole gemütlichkeit. But the second is the easier to reproduce. The comic Ken Dodd makes a fortune out of systematic fantasy about Knotty Ash and its inhabitants, the Diddy Men, tiny Liverpudlians who live on jam-butties (sandwiches) like the children of the Liverpool poor. The young began by getting in the violence; but what this book and record show is that they too have begun the easy descent into commercial sentimentality. The result is that this book is hopelessly adulterated Liverpool; in fact, hardly Liverpool at all, only a commercially useful London fantasy about it.
The Liverpool Scene is largely the work of three poets, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, and Brian Patten. In performance, the most pop, and also the most popular of these three, is Patten, who for some reason is left out of the record. Certainly among the photographs, the freewheeling tape extracts, the modish gloss of the book, he will not attract much attention. As to the others, we shall get nowhere by pretending that on or off the page they are not sophisticated poets, presenting their Liverpool primitivisms under the auspices of Mr. Lucie-Smith of London. A few bland instances will give us the tone: McGough imitates the great McGonagle, who was a genuine and appalling provincial poet:
O Liverpool on the Mersey River
Noble City, how I shiver
With pride at the thought of your history
And your great men who are gone
Like Huskisson and Mr. Gladstone.
And here is Henri on Liverpool 8 (note how this poet’s provincial pants keep slipping and revealing the intellectual underneath):
A district of beautiful, fading, decaying Georgian terrace houses… Doric columns supporting peeling entablatures, dirty windows out of Vitruvius concealing families of happy Jamaicans, sullen out-of-work Irishmen, poets, queers, thieves, university students, lovers…peasants merrymaking after the storm in Canning Street…a new cathedral at the end of Hope Street, exgovernment surplus from Cape Kennedy ready to blast off taking a million Catholics to a heaven free of Orangemen… Wind blowing inland from the Pierhead…etc.
Or let us look at the famous Liverpool chicks, or judies, as they used to be called. The Powys brothers in their youth used to travel to Liverpool to pick up waitresses in the Kardomah teashops, thinking them the prettiest girls in the world. Mr. Henri writes:
Albion’s most lovely daughter sat on the banks of the Mersey dangling her landing stage in the water
The daughters of Albion arriving by underground at Central Sta- tion eating hot ecclescakes at the Pierhead writing “Billy Blake is fab” on a wall in Mathew Street taking off their navy- blue schooldrawers and putting on nylon panties ready for the night…
Notice that he has somehow stumbled on Blake, as well as Vitruvius; later he provides a long list of heroes, including Rimbaud and Jarry, Charlie Parker, Gaudi and Munch. It even emerges that he has a university degree. His Liverpool vowels slip, as his verse slips, into educated postures. The more you listen, the less relevant Liverpool becomes except as a gimmick. McGough’s poems often depend on the very ancient trick of the catalogue of impossibilities, sometimes decked out as amorous promises. Both poets have “Everything’s gonna be all right” catalogues, which we will sample:
For you the next Miss Universe
will be christened Hiroshima
For you the next Miss Universe
will have a thalidomide baby…
For you they will discover
that the cure for cancer is
(McGough: the last two couplets have disappeared from the disc.)
They’ll give you contraceptive pills shaped like jellybabies with your milk at playtime
There’ll be involuntary euthanasia for everyone over 30…
“We’ve got no literary or dramatic heritage,” says Mr. McGough, but anyone reading this could correct him. Their technique, their jokes, their intellectual attitudes (hatred of the petty bourgeoisie “dying in their decorated parlours”), their daring about pot, their Batman thing, their use of the city, their scene-chief’s hatred of scenechiefs, are all about as fresh as an adman’s McLuhanism. Occasionally Henri has success with his talking blues, or with some mildly charming figure: “I will hold you gently, like broken fruitcake.” But the record is skimpy, overdressed by its promoters, punctuated by self-congratulatory giggles from the group (which is now, incidentally, making the charts and television). As to the book, it is chiefly entertaining as a performance by its editor.
Mr. Lucie-Smith scented action in remote Liverpool, made the pioneer’s journey, had himself photographed in the Cavern, and wrote a Preface. This has a benign, bewildered metropolitan air of wonder at the “famous sarcasm” of the natives, at their having heard of Père Ubu and experienced a “sudden revelation when they encountered such writers as Baudelaire.” “A man trying to write poetry in Liverpool usually has the attitudes of a frontiersman: life is harder, but in some ways cleaner and better. It is more genuine, closer to essential values.” He sounds like an eighteenth-century bluestocking discussing Stephen Duck, but of course this also is a sophisticated version of pastoral. The Liverpool scene of these poets is a bit over two hours by train to London, and it includes theaters, an orchestra, good schools, galleries, a university. It is about as hick as I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. A poet there is certainly no more culturally deprived than Hart Crane was in Cleveland. The truth is that these people have very little to do with the Liverpool prole culture of which Mr. Lucie-Smith represents them as the fine flower, and his book is interesting only as an example of the degree to which such operations assume the need to handle the commercially useful myth in total disregard of the facts.
Nice Place to Visit August 22, 1968