Culture is a movable feast


Written for the BBC’s Free Thinking Festival in 2008, broadcast on BBC Radio 3

The truth depends on where you’re standing, and when.

Culture changes, from year to year and from place to place. Attitudes in one postcode can be markedly different to those in the next. From SW2 (Brixton) to SW3 (Chelsea); in Liverpool from L8 (Toxteth) to adjoining L17 (Sefton Park).

Twenty years ago, when I announced I was moving to Liverpool, people said: ‘Are you mad?’ Brought up in rural West Sussex, I suppose I was an unlikely convert, especially in 1988 when this was a pariah city, the epitome of political and economic disaster; but I found it charming, and inspiring, hot-headed and warm-hearted. I love it.

In the 1960s, Liverpool was – according to American poet Allen Ginsberg – ‘the centre of human consciousness’. The city was spilling over with young talent – names that were to have far-reaching influence on culture the world over.

Go back to the 1860s, and the culture is based on enterprise. Trade, science, engineering, architecture – Liverpool was one of the world’s most powerful cities. In the 1760s, respected, god-fearing members of society were trading human beings as a commodity.

The unPC cultural Gene meme

The unPC cultural Gene meme

Attitudes change most quickly in popular culture. In the 1970s, punk was regarded as a disgusting manifestation of youth run riot. Now, it’s iconic. In the TV drama Life on Mars, DCI Gene Hunt – the rough tough copper of 1973 Manchester – was written as a dinosaur, but in a backlash against political correctness, he’s become a modern-day hero.

In the last few years there has been much debate in Liverpool about what the city’s culture is. Some media wag said you’d find more culture in a pot of yoghurt. But is a city’s culture about the past or present? Artists, or celebrities? Beatles or Bruckner? Scouse or smoked salmon?

It’s everything that makes a place home and other places foreign. According to TS Eliot, ‘culture is that which makes life worth living.’ But life changes: circumstances, tastes, values. Even minds, if we’re lucky.

Where do you stand?