Time and tide: Liverpool’s influence on the world

 by Arabella McIntyre-Brown


There are times when I grind my teeth in frustration at the ignorance of those who should know better.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, for instance, doesn’t know who invented radio. Mr Marconi, they will tell you, got there first. And there I’ll be, yelling at my wireless set as though the witless presenter on Radio 4 can hear the proper answer. Which is, as all stout Scousers will tell you, Oliver Lodge.

And when Hollywood, that bastion of all-American education, shouts the odds about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as the heroes of the Revolution, there I’ll be, shaking my fist at the screen. For, as all stout Scousers know, they have ignored Robert Morris again.

As for the futures and derivatives markets in the world’s stock exchanges, those brilliant young things juggling pork bellies and Californian oranges give thanks daily to John Rew. Or maybe not.

For all too many Scousers know little of their heritage. In a poll of the Greatest Merseysiders Ever, stout Scousers in 2003 allotted the top spot to comedian Ken Dodd. Now… Doddy is a living legend, a star, a loyal Liverpudlian and an all-round good egg. But the Greatest Merseysider ever?

Perhaps Lodge, Morris or Rew might be in the running.

Oliver Lodge, Liverpool University’s first Professor of Physics, was the first to take out patents for wireless radio and demonstrated his ‘coherer’ a good year before Marconi.

Robert Morris, born here, became America’s leading merchant and financed the American Revolution.

John Rew, a Scouse cotton trader, got fed up losing money because of the long transatlantic journey and invented the financial technique of hedging.

But not one of them made into the Top 100.

Then there are various remarkable Williams: Gladstone, Rathbone, Brown and Roscoe – politician, reformer, banker and polymath, and all of them philanthropists with chunks of the city bearing their names.

Sir Alfred Lewis Jones, shipping magnate and philanthropist, is best known for being the first to introduce bananas to Britain; John Brodie, brilliant city engineer, is best known for inventing football nets; Oliver Lodge again, better known for inventing the spark plug than for radio.

On 8th June 2004, by the way, faces around the world turned to the night sky to witness the transit of Venus across the sun: a rare sight, first predicted and documented by the genius Jeremiah Horrox, born here in Toxteth Park in 1619 and buried there only 23 years later, having shaken up the world’s astronomical community in the meanwhile. Another forgotten part of Liverpool’s world heritage.

Astronomers, railway pioneers, medical pioneers, Nobel Laureate scientists, engineers, manufacturers, toymakers, artists, chemists, explorers, performers, ship owners, athletes, writers, social reformers: born in the city or attracted from the four corners of the earth, Liverpool has probably cultivated more remarkable people, per head of population, than most of the world’s capitals.

Count the cities on your fingers that are recognised around the world without further qualification: and of those, how many are not capitals? New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Shanghai… and Liverpool.

On my travels, if asked where I hail from, I never bother to say ‘England’ or ‘Britain’. Liverpool is enough. And if I ask in return what Liverpool means to them, the answers include football, the Beatles, Red Rum, ships, the war (WW2), or – curiously – suburban streets. This last from a Californian hippy chick; when I asked why, she sang a bit of the Beatles’ song Penny Lane: ‘…beneath the blue suburban skies’. To Susie Blue, Liverpool was a 1960s haven of rain-soaked streets, a bit like Surbiton. When she finally got to Liverpool, in 1992, she was lost for words. And Penny Lane exceeded her expectations.

Talking of image, a City Council press relations director back in the mists of time came up with the most brilliant slogan for this remarkable city. Glasgow, having won plaudits for its “Smiles Better” come-hither line, prompted Liverpool’s PR guru to dream up the immortal: “Liverpool – it’s not Surbiton”. The Leader of Surbiton Borough Council was immediately on the news declaring in return: “Surbiton – it’s not Liverpool!”. Touché.

That little inicident was at the end of what might be thought of as Liverpool’s 30 Years’ War. To anyone born before 1970, Liverpool’s decades of decline and strife probably seem like a life sentence. Taking the longer view of the city’s story, it is a blip on the graph.

Since Liverpool became a port in its own right, the city has seen nearly 400 years of growth and influence, to the point in the mid 1960s when American poet Allen Ginsberg declared: ‘Liverpool is at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe.’

The end of the 20th century was Liverpool’s worst period since the mid 1500s, when the decayed town’s shrinking population (then fewer than 1,000) had to appeal to Queen Elizabeth for help.

In the city centre today there is little reminder of the worst excesses of 1980s Militancy, let alone the grinding poverty of a century earlier, when typhus and cholera wiped out thousands of those in the overcrowded, squalid courts behind the beautiful facades of the main streets.

The courts have gone, but many of the beautiful buildings remain, despite the Blitz and the modernising zeal of city planners; people are coming back to live in the heart of the city.

When in 2003 Liverpool won its bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2008, I was disappointed to see how little attention was paid to Liverpool’s innovative and commercial heritage; the focus was on the arts, architecture and sport. But I would argue that the culture of this city is enterprise; for centuries Liverpool has attracted entrepreneurs in all fields of endeavour, transplanted here to flourish and bloom in the rich silt of opportunity on the banks of the Mersey, gateway to the world.

The city is famous, these days, for pop music and football. Fair enough. The city has been very good at these things in recent decades, but there is more to Liverpool than this.

c0ver 1000yrsResearching into Liverpool and its millennium of recorded history for the book ‘Liverpool: the first 1,000 years’ I uncovered delightfully long lists of extraordinary people, bizarre stories, world class superlatives and stunning objects. The richness of the city and its environs would give me a serious problem: how to fit it all into a single book of 240 pages, some of which would be filled with photographs? I argued with my co-author, photographer Guy Woodland, whose preference was for a book of photos with a few captions. We compromised, and I had 100,000 words to capture this city’s dramatic story. It became an exercise in what to leave out: the two Liverpool favourites – football and The Beatles – had to be restricted to one page each.

Liverpudlians are quite protective of their heritage and don’t like outsiders mucking about with it. When it became known in my local pub, Peter Kavanagh’s, that I was writing a book on Liverpool’s history, I was challenged by a character called Yusuf, a Scouser born and bred. ‘How long have you lived here?’

‘Thirteen years,’ I replied.

‘Thirteen years? Thirteen years??’ he exclaimed. ‘How can you write about Liverpool when you’ve only been here for thirteen years?’

Quite why I feel so strongly about Liverpool and its doings is hard to explain. Born and bred in the green lanes and orchards of West Sussex, I abandoned London after an unhappy decade there, and moved to Liverpool fifteen years ago. When southern friends and family heard of this plan, they’d say ‘Are you mad?’ or ‘Aren’t you brave?’

In 1988 Liverpool was a pariah city, mired in political, economic and social quicksands, where good intentions and good ideas sank without trace unless firmly anchored to a vested interest. At least that was the consensus in all but a few tide pools of optimism.

But I saw little of that. Liverpool seemed like Eden compared to London, which was huge, dirty and alien. Here, I discovered people who were open, warm, friendly, and passionate about their city. On my arrival, a tour with a brilliant Blue Badge guide called Sheila took me past St George’s Hall, into the Catholic Cathedral (on that sunny Spring day I was drenched in the colours of the glass), down Hope Street to the Philharmonic pub and its pink marble urinals, then on to the breathtaking soaring spaces of the Anglican Cathedral. I can’t remember where else we went – that was it. I was sold.

The simple truth is that on the next morning, after 18 hours’ acquaintance with Liverpool, I was walking across Lime Street when I realised that I had decided to move here. Like love at first sight, it happened without any conscious thought.

I went home, sold my flat and moved to Liverpool on 1st December. I blundered about happily discovering the city and its stories, being introduced to astonishing places and stumbling across myths and open secrets. And having discovered them, it seemed bizarre that everyone in the city had not discovered them too. Let alone the world at large.

Liverpool has not, until very recently, enjoyed much positive coverage in the media. The ladies and gentlemen of the press have had it in for the city, albeit more out of laziness and ignorance than malice. When putting together a story on some burning issue of urban decay, they’d think ‘Aha – I’ll ring Liverpool; they’re bound to have lots of this.’ And they’d send a photographer to find, or very often create, a suitably depressing image to go with their damning words. It became self-perpetuating, and getting said paragons of the press out of this infuriating habit has taken years, and millions.

But at last, with the Biennial contemporary art festival in 2002, and the Capital of Culture win, the tide has changed and Liverpool has become Livercool.

So now we can shout about the city’s world heritage: not just the Three Graces, the 27 million bricks of the Albert Dock, and all the marvellous evidence of our built environment, but the 1,000+ year old Allerton Oak tree, the pre-Stonehenge Calder Stones. Shipping legends like Cunard, household names like Tate, engineers like Ferranti and Laird: these were all individuals who began their businesses in Liverpool, and grew to lead the world. The driving force behind the first passenger railway was Henry Booth, a Liverpudlian engineer and entrepreneur who brought in the great George Stephenson to build not only the locomotive Rocket, but the Liverpool to Manchester railway line – which was said to be impossible. Sixty-three bridges, viaducts, cuttings, embankments, tunnel, stations and warehouses, and the line over the treacherous Chat Moss: ‘perfect madness’ as one critic put it. The whole lot was built in four years.

In spite of all that and much more, Liverpool’s world heritage is as much about what the world gave to Liverpool as what Liverpool gave to the world. From the Boat People in 4000 AD, the Phoenicians, the Vikings, and on through the centuries, people of every skin colour have moored in the River Mersey to trade, to settle, to marry, to move on.

While my brothers left England to live in Canada and Thailand, and my sister ventured round the world over both Poles, I took the sensible route and moved to Liverpool, where the world came to me.

Liverpool has no indigenous people – we are all incomers; it is the richness of the mix that has produced innovators, risk takers and venturers.

Today the city is on an exciting upward trend, but if it is to rebuild its reputation for world-class achievement we need brave decisions and wholehearted enthusiasm. Time and tide, and all that.

First published in 2004


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