Following the release of his latest book, There She Goes – Liverpool, A City On Its Own: The Long Decade: 1979-1993, social history writer and football journalist Simon Hughes looks back at Liverpool’s progression through the last 10 years, and the challenges still to come in the decade before us.
Three years out of 50. It’s a small figure, and one I can’t stop thinking about, especially when it’s essentially just one year – when you really think about it.
In 1970, back when Liverpool was still a Conservative city, its political interests aligned with the rest of the country until 1972 – when Edward Heath reigned as Prime Minister, a role he would lose in 1974.
Since then, there has been just one short period when Liverpool has not been a place in opposition. That was under Frank Prendergast from 1997 until 1998 when the city rejected New Labour and stood with the Liberal Democrats for the next 12 years.
It is said repeatedly now that Liverpool is an undisputed Labour stronghold, but that wasn’t the case until 2010. It feels like much has changed since the start of the decade, though – not least in terms of feeling among the younger generation of Liverpudlians who seem more socially aware than ever and certainly more politically conscious than they were before.
There are reasons for this change, starting with the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster in 2009 when those too young to remember or even understand what happened 20 years earlier started to ask questions after Andy Burnham’s public vow to help seek justice in front of a packed Anfield.
There was a shift that day, a generation who had grown up with the consequences of the 1980s finally emboldened. In 2011, there was the lifting of the 30-year rule on government papers and what many had suspected for decades was as good as being confirmed as true – that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1981 had at least discussed the possibility of allowing Liverpool to slide. Considering what happened to the city throughout the rest of the decade, you can only assume Geoffrey Howe’s memo about “managed decline” was put into practice.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings came next, this amid the austerity of the latest Tory government. It has surprised many who were growing up in the 1980s the way the “Scouse not English” mantra of this era has accelerated, because the sentiment didn’t exist with the same appetite when things were even worse than they are now. But are they better? Are they just as bad but in a different way?Liverpool is a more cosmopolitan city than ever. Its economy has boomed through tourism, which, whether we like it or not, serves to benefit the drugs barons whose finances are washed through the hotels and restaurants that so many visitors like to sleep and eat in. Liverpool looks smarter and, unlike other Northern cities, it is not made of glass. It feels like it is built to last. The development of the Baltic Triangle has been spectacular and I hope that extends into other parts of the city that require investment at its southern end, albeit without it endangering the identities of the communities that live there.
Stray outside the centre, indeed, and the struggle is arguably greater than it has ever been in the boroughs that have long struggled anyway. Homelessness was not the scourge of the 1980s like it is now. It may be a national issue, but the figures prove it is worse in the cities where the government has no council control. Foodbank collections in Liverpool are a reflection of the spectacular generosity that exists here, but it is also a reflection of how genuinely desperate so many people have become.
Perhaps change will come. The Brexit vote in Liverpool was closer than many people in Liverpool expected. Yet it is worth remembering that, while Liverpool suffered because of the increase in trade with the European Economic Community in place of the British Empire, when Liverpool was at its lowest in 1993, the European Union dedicated more money than any British government in history to help start some form of recovery. A fortnight after the murder of James Bulger – just at the point where it felt like Liverpool couldn’t slump any further – funding was allocated to Merseyside, along with parts of the old East Germany and the poorest regions of Southern Italy. If parts of Liverpool feel left behind, it is mainly because of the lack of care from successive governments which have run along too similar lines rather than necessarily the EU. In writing There She Goes, I was told coldly by Professor Patrick Minford, whose economic policies defined Thatcherism and impacted so gravely on Liverpool, despite the fact he worked in the city, that the EU repulsed him because it was “a socialist machine” in so many different ways.
I wonder where Liverpool will be 10 years from now. It is a city which will always be in the news because of its association with music and the council will have to challenge the interests of property developers to ensure classic venues remain open even if the land they stand on is potentially profitable. It is a city which will always be in the news because of its association with crime, and the threat of gangsterism largely goes unreported even though there is a cocaine epidemic which goes a long way towards explaining knife crime. It is also a city which will always be in the news because of its football, and changes are necessary if the grassroots game is to survive.
Supporters of Liverpool FC should be proud of the way they mobilised themselves and pushed out greedy owners at the start of this decade, as well as the way they challenge the New England venture capitalists who are currently in charge. If Liverpool manage to win the league for the first time in 30 years, maybe the greatest challenge for fan culture will arrive. What tricks will Fenway Sports Group try then?
The ecosystem at Anfield is a fragile one, but when it feels like everyone is pulling in the same direction, the club can seem like it is unstoppable both on and off the pitch. So long as no decisions are made that jeopardise the interests of local supporters, then Liverpool have a better chance. Other than winning football matches, the club’s priority should be to find a way to get more young Liverpudlians inside the ground.
An even more significant period feels like it is ahead for Everton, whose move to Bramley-Moore Dock will potentially make Liverpool’s waterfront more stunning than it is. In theory, it will re-energise a part of north Liverpool which has never really recovered from the period which sets the scene for There She Goes in the years before 1979. Ultimately, I hope the book makes younger readers particularly understand better where the city has been and where it is now coming from.
There She Goes – Liverpool, A City On Its Own: The Long Decade: 1979-1993 is out now, published by deCoubertin Books.
This extract, taken from There She Goes, looks at how the owner of one of Liverpool’s most recognisable shops was forged by the city’s 1980s heroin epidemic.
When a Pakistani ship carrying heroin with a street value of £1million was seized in Ellesmere Port, customs officers admitted to reporters they were losing control. It was April 1983, roughly around the time Brendan Wyatt went back to a Birkenhead flat following a night out in Liverpool. He was accompanied by a friend and two girls. What happened next surprised him. One of the girls reached into her purse and brought out some foil. “Then the smack… it was dead casual, as if they were just smoking a spliff,” he remembered, through the fug. “Don’t worry, it’s just smack – you don’t get addicted to it…”
Wyatt returned to his side of the Mersey without having tried ‘this new drug’ but within a few years, it had taken him – just as it had already gripped Birkenhead by that point, where nine per cent of 16- to 24 year-olds were users. Research in the 1980s found that if you lived on the Wirral estates, particularly in the Noctorum area – which, like those in Liverpool, were hastily built in the post-war years – you were 16 times more likely than the average person to die.
There was one theory that smack penetrated Birkenhead’s estates just before Liverpool’s, because Liverpool’s gangsters wanted to use it as a testing ground as nobody was quite sure of heroin’s capabilities. It had been around London’s bohemian community in Soho for almost a century, but researchers believed its availability only began to spread after 1979 when revolution in Iran led to a refugee crisis across Europe. In Liverpool, smugglers marketed it as a non-addictive, smokable high; but, uncut and 90 per cent pure, it would leave users like Brendan Wyatt “off your head for hours – rather than withdrawing quickly”. It would feed off boredom, alienation and desperation.
Howard Parker, whose 1985 book, Living With Heroin, dealt with case studies from the Ford Estate, believed that what happened in Liverpool and Birkenhead was a part of a cycle that began in the US in the 1960s, explaining that epidemics like these have lifespans of 10 to 15 years before the demand retreats because the next generation “won’t go near it – they’ve seen the impact”. Smack, therefore, only became ‘dirty’ and the drug of ‘losers’ when the lower orders in big numbers were hooked.
Wyatt was one of them. He had grown up amongst the terraced streets of Kirkdale, a fiercely strong-willed district and working class to its core. He had a vivid memory of his childhood and could envisage being in a classroom in 1979. “Thatcher was elected in May 1979 and I remember the morning after clearly: a 12-year-old devastated by politics – can you imagine?” He had learned about the realities of life early, after his mother died when he was just four. By the time Thatcher got in, his father had already been made redundant from his job on the docks because of containerisation. “You’re suddenly finding yourself on free school dinners, which was a label to carry. I’d rather not eat than have the stigma.”
He left school in 1982 and went straight into one of the dreaded Youth Training Schemes, promoted by the Tories – earning just £23.50 a week as a painter and a plumber. There had been just 11 apprenticeships and more than 3,000 applicants. “We were bread to be thrown on the scrap heap,” he believed. “I went to a secondary modern school and there was never any discussion whatsoever about university options. I thought university was what you saw on University Challenge. The expectation for decades before was you’d follow your dad into the docks, but when that came to a stop, there was nothing else.”
Wyatt’s father died in 1984 and it turned his life upside down. He started taking heroin because of the dulling effect of the hit and his naivety to the consequences. “There were no skeletons walking around or people sleeping in doorways because the long-term impact wasn’t visible. It was still early days with heroin. You’d see big, strong, well-dressed lads in pub corners smoking it. It’s hard to explain how it makes you feel. It’s not a high like charlie, it sends you the other way quickly. It separates you from the world’s problems and your own problems; it numbs any pain. Then comes the rebound where you feel worse than you did before you took it.”
Wyatt did not really stand a chance. No mother, no father, entering adulthood living in a city overwhelmed by unemployment and a drug epidemic. He was exactly the wrong age at exactly the wrong time – or the right time if you were a drug dealer. He was not the only target in this market. He and an entire generation would grow up with an ingrained drug culture – a black economy that sustained the city more than any government initiative.
“For a while, the routine is great: you’re chasing the dragon and riding a wave. You’ve got all the jewellery, you’ve got a car and a lovely looking girlfriend. Anyone looking at me would have thought I was smashing it. It takes eight or nine months for it to unravel. You wake up one day and you’re skint. You think you’ve got the flu and you haven’t. You need gear to make yourself feel normal. The jewellery starts getting pawned, the car goes – you can’t afford the MOT. The girlfriend goes and then your friends go. I lost all of my friends. Not because of anything I did, but because you alienate yourself. You become very selfish and all you’re interested in is that next fix. There are weddings, christenings – there’s funerals to go to. You stop going. You pull away from society. It gets around then that you’re on the gear. I’d get people coming up to me saying how disgusted they were because before, I’d been a good lad. By 1988, it was really noticeable. People started swerving me completely and rightly so. I’m a mad Liverpool fan and I’ve been to 35 countries to watch them. But I can’t remember Liverpool winning the league in 1990. I didn’t give a fuck about anything else by then. That’s how much it depletes your interest in anything. The FA Cup final after Hillsborough was my last game until 1996.”
Wyatt returned from Sheffield after the Hillsborough disaster and headed to the State nightclub to try and find out information about what had happened.
“Everyone was crying and hugging but I didn’t cry for three weeks,” he admitted. “The only solution for me was to self-medicate. I went right on the roller coaster. All sorts of drugs came into play. My only memories from the early 1990s was the Sunday mornings because it was harder to get gear then. The drug dealers had their day off – just like the dockers used to on a Sunday. I was out at nine o’clock trying to score with the street dealers. I’d look at fellas walking their dogs and I’d think, ‘What I’d do just to be like him.’’’
“Morality flies out of the window – when you’re hooked, you get whatever you can to feed the addiction,” admitted Wyatt, who served three prison sentences in foreign countries, two in Germany, another in Switzerland – each time for shoplifting, “to feed what I needed”, which also led to him getting nicked in Liverpool several times. On one occasion, he was eligible for bail but only if he paid a long-standing £18 parking fine. “When I told the copper I was skint, he said, ‘You must have someone who can pay it…’ But I didn’t have a person in the world who could pay that fine. So, I had to do two days in Walton. The copper was saying, ‘I’d pay it myself, but I can’t’. That’s how isolated I’d made myself. I’d outrun all of my favours.”
Wyatt suffered a heart attack and needed chemotherapy to treat liver damage related to his addiction. 25 years clean, he told me his story quietly in the back of the shop he now owns in Liverpool’s city centre where he sells deadstock Adidas training shoes. The name, Transalpino, refers to the sleeper he took across France, Switzerland and Italy to the 1984 European Cup final in Rome, just before heroin really came into his life. He took ‘absolute’ responsibility for all of his actions as a drug user but wondered whether it would have been different for him had conditions in Liverpool been better. Wyatt, known more commonly as ‘Jockey’, estimated that more than 100 friends had died because of smack – “if you became an adult in the 1980s and you were from working-class Liverpool, I’d imagine you have at least one family member who is still addicted, in treatment or in recovery”.
“I’m one of Maggie’s children,” he concluded. “Smack made a lot of fellas my age desensitised and it has impacted the generations after us. Kids were brought up in crack dens and, because of that, there’s a lot of sociopaths knocking about today. Nobody has shown them any respect so why should they show respect back?”