Five thoughts inspired by three days in Liverpool

Liverpool from Everton Park. Image: Jonn Elledge.

I’ve just returned from three days in Liverpool. Ostensibly I was there for Labour conference, but, as promised, I spent a fair chunk of my time wandering on both sides of the Mersey, in an attempt to improve my knowledge of a city I’ve not visited in years.

Obviously there’s a limit to what you can learn about a city in three days. A couple of hours in the local history museum – which is fabulous, by the way – will only get you so far. 
So what follows is a collection of half-formed thoughts and first impressions, rather than a detailed academic thesis. You’re welcome to argue with me on Twitter or Facebook. I might even be arguing with myself in a couple of weeks.

(EDIT TO ADD: Someone asked me to point out that some Liverpudlians think that what you're about to read is “a load of shite”. Fair play. Others have been very nice about it, though, so I'm not going to quit my job and do something more useful with my life just yet.)

Nonetheless, before I forget, here are five thoughts.

A city that lost its purpose

I obviously knew that Liverpool was a port city, but I hadn’t fully grasped that this was basically the city’s entire reason for being there. It was little more than a fishing village when, in 1715, the world’s first enclosed commercial dock opened under what is now the Liverpool One shopping centre.

Over the course of the next two centuries, as the importance of transatlantic trade grew, new docks spread north and south along the Mersey shore for more than seven miles. By the mid 19th century, Liverpool was the second port of the British Empire, behind only London. Its position made it the ideal place to import materials and export goods from the industrial north. 


The Port of Liverpool is still busy (though by 2014 it had dropped to sixth in the list of British ports). But, as in port cities all over the world, the docks just don’t generate that many jobs any more. In the mid 20th century, “containerisation” meant that fewer dockers were needed to load and unload ships. (Containers are generally unpacked at their destinations, inland.) Container ships also required new, deeper docks, rendering most of Liverpool’s historic facilities redundant. Oh, and de-industrialisation means there are simply fewer goods coming into and out of the north.

In other words, Liverpool is a city that has, literally, lost its original purpose.

Transport won’t solve everything 

Something people don’t often mention about Liverpool: it has an underground railway. Only a small one, admittedly – four stops, relatively close together in the city centre, served by commuter trains from the suburbs beyond. But it’s been there a while: the oldest section, opened in 1896 to connect the city with Birkenhead, across the Mersey, was the first deep-level tube in the world. 

Once upon a time, in fact, the city had an even better transport network. Most cities had trams, back in the day, but Liverpool also had an elevated railway, the Liverpool Overhead Railway, which ran along the waterfront from Seaforth to Dingle. In its day, the “Dockers’ Umbrella” was as much a symbol of its city as London’s Tube; it closed in 1956, when the company that owned it found it couldn’t afford to replace its crumbling infrastructure.

One of the themes of UK urbanism in recent years – the theory at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse project – has been the assumption that improving transport, connecting people with jobs, will improve our cities. But Liverpool once had great transport. It still declined. Today, there are British cities with worse transport networks. It hasn’t helped it bounce back. 

I don’t want to over-correct on this, and start claiming transport doesn’t matter. I’m just saying, Liverpool has slightly shaken my faith that better transport will fix the north.

Progress sometimes doesn’t always look like much 

One of the areas of Liverpool I was most keen to check out was the Baltic Triangle: a roughly triangular area between the Anglican Cathedral and the Queen’s Dock, named for the historic Baltic Fleet pub. It’s the bit where hipsters and start-ups live: according to the blurb, “once the city’s well-worn workshop, [it’s] now a cutting-edge destination where pioneering creatives work and play”.

It’s a dump.

The Baltic Triangle. Image: Pete Carr.

I was expecting something more like London’s Shoreditch or Manchester’s Northern Quarter – all bars and iMacs and flat whites. But in the Baltic Triangle, the streets are all dusty, half the place is a building site, and warehouses still look like warehouses.

But that, I suspect, is because people are using them to actually make stuff, rather than poncing about in a cafe convincing themselves they’re Elon Musk. In other words, I think the problem here is with me, rather than with the Baltic Triangle. I need to check my prejudices.

A good brand isn’t everything 

I’m sounding like I’m really down on Liverpool: I’m not, I actually sort of love it. Not naming any names, but there are some British cities I’ve been to which I found genuinely – unexpectedly – depressing.

Liverpool isn’t like that, at all. The city centre looks great, the redeveloped docks look fantastic, and the view from the hill in Everton Park (as above) must be one of the most glorious to be found anywhere in any British city. There’s also as much energy and municipal pride in the city as you’ll find anywhere.

And yet, the city is still in decline on the most basic of measures: it’s one of the few large British cities that’s home to fewer people than it was in the early 1980s. And, while anecdote isn’t data, there seemed to be a lot of high quality office space standing empty in the city centre.

Liverpool feels like it should be able to bounce back from de-industrialisation. So far, though, it hasn’t.

But a good brand is something 

Not sure that's a selling point, lads. Image: Getty.

That said, something Liverpool is not short of is tourists. Thanks to the Beatles and football, and perhaps even history, the city attracts visitors in numbers most big English cities would kill for.

That name recognition should hold it in good stead as the new metro mayor – almost certain to be Labour’s Steve Rotheram – tries to sell the region to the world next year. The Liverpool name won’t be enough to attract investment and jobs – but it should at least help kick the door open.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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“The British have no food culture” – but London’s multicultural suburbs do

Bagels, of the sort one might find in Ilford. (These are actually at Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.) Image: Getty.

Last month, Angela Hartnett went on Desert Island Discs and said that the British don’t have a food culture: there are just some people who have money and can afford to pay for good food.

Hartnett is a deity in the culinary pantheon, and is unusual in that she is both a shining star and an eminently sensible person. A woman of such no-nonsense credentials that she laughed in the pock-marked face of Gordon Ramsey, and lived to tell the tale. She takes none of this cheffy, foodie willy-wangling seriously, because it is, after all, “just a plate of carrots”.

So I found her comment fascinating, and shaming. It feels true. I feel it as I walk up Islington’s Chapel Market on a Sunday, from the farmers’ market end to the daily market end. I felt it when I squealed with delight when my partner told me we were getting a Whole Foods at the end of the road, and when I moaned with disappointment when it turned out he was kidding. (We were, in fact, getting a joinery and an HSS Hire.)

I feel it when one of my neighbours at our housing co-op has to sign for my veg box or wine discovery crate, or when the Ocado van pulls up. I feel it when I drop off my food bank donations by the till at Waitrose or, worse, when I get an Uber to take it round in person. In Islington. Islington. Say it twice, for there are indeed two Islingtons.

But it also feels totally untrue. Who is the “we” here? Who are the British of whom we speak? What is this beige buffet of Britishness, class-ist, philistine, pale and bland as white bread?

I find all this talk of class alienating, because I – and I am inherent to any we I can participate in – was raised in a vibrant and class-fluid food culture. I’m sure it combined many diverse aspects of class, wealth and virtue signals, but it did so in such a mishmash that you could not hope to decode it, even with a copy of Debretts and minor public school education. I speak, of course, of the ancestral homeland, the Old Country.

Ilford.

 

Ilford: unexpectedly foodie. Image: Geograph.co.uk.

Ilford is a London suburb on the Essex/East End border, which, like a reverse Mecca or a shit Jerusalem, unites travellers from across the world in the fervent desire to get the hell out, go mad, or kill everyone. And, like Jerusalem, it has its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian quarters, with further fractions etched out by Hindu, Sikh and Chinese diasporas, waves and tides of 20th century immigration ebbing and lapping on the shores of the Cranbrook Road. It became home to the refugees of innumerable wars and disaster areas: Ugandan Indians, Kurds, Rwandans, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. And the economic migrants, Nigerians, Polish, Hungarian. It was an Ithaca: a place you had hoped would be journey’s end, but was in fact a bit of a disappointment. A rest rather than a new beginning. A bad motherland, to which we are all ambivalently attached.


Say what you like about Ilford, but it is a place where you’ve been able to find tahini, turmeric and jackfruit since decimalisation. Most of these items, you could buy at any hour of the day or night, and be served by a tiny child who had been left to mind the shop whilst the adults were at second jobs or night school, at the mosque or synagogue, or in prison. Purchase and consumption of these items signified nothing, except the taste of home.

And it really didn't matter whose home. On festivals we would exchange samosas or jalebi or pierogi or hammantashen or honey cake with our neighbours and drink masala chai three doors down. There is a whole world of dumplings, and a season for each one. We consumed a lot of chicken: fried pieces in boxes, or in a soup lovingly simmered for the precise amount of time to extract the maximum amount of guilt.

On a Sunday mornings you can wander along Barkingside High Street, which is by any normal metric an utter shithole, and join a queue for fresh Sri Lankan curries or Jewish bagels or Italian gelato. There is an egg-free cake shop, British, Halal, Kosher and African butchers and fishmongers. There are four Jewish delis and bakeries, ranging from the glatt to the glitzy. There is no shortage of grilled meat, kebabs, chicken shops, noodle bars. Vast banqueting suites accommodate large celebration meals, and local cooks cater for weddings of some thousand guests, often in marquees in suburban back gardens.

You could accuse us having no culture in Ilford – the cinema long ago became a bingo hall which became a mega-mosque which became flats – but you cannot say we have no food culture.

That said, and without wanting to sound racist against, y’know, white people, I do kind of agree that the British in general have no food culture. I can go to the house of any of my Indian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Israeli, Nigerian, West Indian, or Scandinavian friends, safe in the knowledge and mutual understanding that I am going to be fed. And time and again I have been baffled and outraged by friends (only ever the white, British ones; and the whiter and more British they are the more likely this is to happen) turning up at my house, having already eaten, as if I wasn’t going to feed them like foie gras geese from the moment they arrived to the second they left.

Food is my culture. I feel a twitch on the end of each strand of my DNA, like the taste of madeleines on a thousand foreign tongues. I feel it in my bones and the bones of my ancestors as they dissolve into distant soil: come, sit, eat.

A London curry house in action. Image: Getty.

In Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins boasts that he can pinpoint here a person is from by listening to the way they talk. “I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” I once had a linguistics tutor pull the same trick on me. It was creepy.

But I would defy him to do the same thing now. Talk to a young Londoner. The ubiquity of Multicultural London English is a great leveller. On the top deck of the bus, you can’t tell the schools apart. And whilst there is a huge gulf between rich and poor, and the extremes of both in this capital are truly horrifying, there is a Multicultural London way of speaking.

There is a Multicultural London way of eating, too. In the centre of town, and in the places where being Minority Ethnic is not a minority position, there is a London Multicultural Food Culture which is divorced from class. An immigrant, diasporic, food culture. A sense of the importance and significance of food and meals and flavours. An appreciation of our own and your neighbours’ diverse food heritage. A love of the marketplace and the communal table. An ear for languages where foreign is the same word as guest and friend. The importance, virtue, culture, and significance of hospitality.

Also, to be honest, some asshole’s going to sprinkle sumac and pomegranate seeds on your kebab wherever you are, from Ilford to Islington. What you are prepared to pay for it, in what environs, and with what brand of soap in the bogs, is another story. And this is where the the conversation goes full circle: if you have no food culture, but you do have money, you can afford to buy one in, from the Connaught or Ottolenghi or Whole Foods or Deliveroo or Blue Apron or the DietChef.

Maybe I’m guilty of over-romanticising the immigrant food experience. The food of poverty, the bread of affliction, the cheap cuts of meat, the over-reliance of sweet treats, the economic and social impoverishment of generations of immigrant women slaving over hot stoves to feed the family on a pittance whilst the neighbours turn up their noses. We should talk of the dietary diseases more prevalent amongst People of Colour and second generation immigrants. We should talk of the chicken shops around the school gates. We should talk about the amounts of money spent on marketing crap food at kids and the totally other amounts of money being spent on school meals, home economics lessons, growing spaces, playgrounds. We should talk about those food banks.


My partner is from white, British working class stock. They do things differently there. I now too turn up Having Already Eaten, because I learnt the hard way: line your stomach, or you’ll end up singing/falling over/throwing a chair/throwing up/getting naked by 3pm at a Romford wake because you assumed that lunch would be served. It’s only five miles from Ilford and Romford, but it may as well be 500 or 5000.

I don’t know what they make of me and my food. Foreign muck? Posh nosh? Do I give off wafts of a different culture entirely, like the tell-tale scent of frying onions and or slow-cooked sabbath cholent? Like the banquet of curry smells from next door when all their kids are home from university, the eye-watering wince of vinegar being boiled for pickles, or the uric tang of a hot pho pot bubbling away two doors down or the unseasonal barbecue from the house behind, a familiar-unfamiliar meat, like mutton or goat?

Throw the windows of your semi in Ilford open on a spring morning and you’ll get waves of bacon, chai, cholla bread. And the sounds of TVs in a dozen languages, and music in a dozen different keys, and Sikh builders shouting at Polish builders, and the soft shoe shuffle of the Lubovitchers and the revving engines of the rudeboys before we all go home for Sunday lunch.

Sunday lunch: maybe that’s something we can all agree on. That you should have a Sunday lunch with your mum or your auntie or your nan and whoever else is around. You gather at table, at your folks’ house or the Toby Carvery or your uncle’s restaurant, with a mountain of roast beef or bags full of bagels and plastic containers from the deli or six different curries and chutneys, with the old folks telling the same story for the hundredth time, and the ageless bickering of siblings and the screaming of babies. Maybe we can agree on the Great British Sunday Lunch, whatever the menu, as our shared food culture.

Leave room for pudding.

Sara Doctors writes about food and culture, and tweets as @UnusualSara. A version of his article first appeared on her blog.

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