My Adventures in Liverpool

I was in Liverpool on Wednesday 13 November 2013, to debate the green-belt as part of the University's 'policy provocations' series (see here).

The event was tied to the launch of the Heseltine Institute, the latest incarnation of Liverpool's city promotion policy, which I have brushed against a few times.

It is not the first time I have been in Liverpool, taking part in a debate over the City's bid to be 'Capital of Culture' under the European Union scheme in 2002. Then, the Liverpool Daily Post reported that 'a leading economist has warned that winning European Capital of Culture would not solve Liverpool's economic problems.' Journalist Laura Davis (talking up my credentials to make her story) quoted me arguing against the bid leader, Sir Bob Scott: "If you are saying creative industries will turn the Merseyside economy around I do not believe it is the case," adding "No scheme works twice." (In fact I went further, saying that City of Culture status would become a burden on Liverpool's recovery.)

To add insult to injury

Mr Heartfield also criticised Sir Bob's idea to create a Beatles museum as a key part of the city's plans for 2008. Looking to Liverpool's past is hindering the artists of the future, he said. "The Beatles were maudlin sentimentalists of a type Liverpool could do without. It is sad and adolescent," he added. Liverpool Daily Post

One of the ideas Sir Bob Scott floated was a counter to 'high art', '2008 bottles', has school children fill sweet jars with anything that represents culture to them, which I said was a dumbed-down idea of culture. It was never followed through, though there was a collective tapestry which is displayed in St George's Hall

In my book Let's Build! I wrote about the weakness of the City of Culture

Just as it dumbs-down the culture, the Liverpool bid retreats from the regeneration. Too much of Liverpool's plans depend on re-fitting old buildings. Pointedly, even the showpiece new architecture, like Will Alsop's ten storey "cloud", a curvilinear "diamond fist" known as the "fourth grace", was dropped…after the bid had been won. The proposed £65m new Museum of Liverpool was refused a grant by the lottery fund, and will not now be open for 2008.655 The proposed £170m new tram system has not been built. New building takes a second place to refurbishment - an unfortunate lesson from Liverpool's status as Capital of Culture

I also wrote an article 'Liverpool, Capital of Complaints' arguing that the city had internalised the defeats of the 1980s to create an identity of suffering. You can see how Liverpool honours its strong labour history in this display at the Heritage Centre at St George's Hall

But nowadays there is not much evidence of the City that Dared to Fight - below is the derelict trade union resource centre

My article was not read by many, but at the offices of the Spectator Simon Heffer and editor Boris Johnson liked it enough to rip it off for an editorial on 16 October 2004, accusing the Liverpudlians of 'mawkish sentimentality'. There was an outcry, and Johnson, then trying to be taken more seriously as a politician, was sent by then party leader Michael Howard to apologise to the scousers.

Of course, it is true that Liverpool is a city with a strong cultural heritage. At Lime Street a sculpture imagines a chance meeting of comedian Ken Dodd and Labour MP Bessie Braddock

Ken Dodd once answered the question that has perplexed students of culture for so long:

'Why don't people in London laugh at the jokes that the people in Liverpool do? Because they can't hear them!'

In the Walker Art Gallery they have some works you know and some Victorian Schlock

There is also a collection of modern works that were winners of a Walker Prize, from the 1960s on, including Patrick Hughes' Wheeled Ball from 1967.

It was Hughes told me the story of another Liverpool award he and Roger Hilton got fifty years ago in 1963, which I retold in Let's Build!

In 1963, at a civic reception of some 300 people at the City Art Gallery at John Moores University, a drunken Roger Hilton badgered the portly council leader John Braddock incessantly to know when he would get paid for the new painting being honoured. Dinner, and Hilton, took their toll on City Boss Braddock, who collapsed with heart failure, having to be dragged out of the hall on the back heels of his tall chair by porters. The festivities, though, were not interrupted by the civic leader's death.

When I told this story to Eve Kay, she told me another about the day thirty years ago when she and her twin, Pandora, when students at the Liverpool University, took part in a student occupation, and barracked the Vice Chancellor. He listened politely to their demands, but feelings were high all the same. Then he began to look pale, and slumped, his head eventually resting in Eve's lap. An ambulance was called, and for a moment, the students debated whether to fight on, before deciding against. The Vice Chancellor died that night. The man's wife insisted that the students weren't to blame. The following year, though, a satirical sketch called 'Eve and Pandora killed the Vice Chancellor' was ordered removed from a drama society revue.

For years John and Bessie Braddock had the Liverpool Labour Party sewn up as a City machine, telling the many younger socialists who wanted to join that the party was 'full'. Bessie, who became an MP once reprimanded Winston Churchill that he was drunk. Ungenerously Churchill replied 'and you are ugly - but in the morning, I will be sober!'