I probably don’t have to tell you this, but NASA’s latest probe Curiosity, which is currently trundling around the surface of Mars, is not expected to find any living organisms. Millions of years ago, so the story goes, the Red Planet possessed oceans, a rich atmosphere, and all the elements needed for life to develop. It may indeed have done so at a simple level but, before advanced life got a chance to evolve, the atmosphere was stripped away, the seas evaporated, and Mars became a sterile, dead world.
Pessimists staring into our city’s future might well imagine a time when Liverpool has become similarly barren, a musical and cultural desert with only faint traces of long-dead scenes buried deep in the landscape. If this is the plan, our council is certainly going the right way about achieving it.
In recent years, council policies such as the criminalising of flyposting and unsympathetic attitudes towards small venues had already sent out a message that grassroots music culture is viewed as a problem in the corridors of power. But the recent threat to prosecute any busker who refuses to buy a licence, insurance and ID badge has been widely seen as a kick in the crotch for free expression. How on earth did we get here?
After the nightmarish 1980s, which saw Scousers fleeing their hometown in their thousands amid a shitstorm of unemployment, heroin and council corruption, successive administrations laboured hard to put some pride and optimism back into the city’s veins. And, towards the end of the 1990s, a sense of resurgence was definitely in the air, with the city becoming a much more fun place to live.
A key factor in that resurgence was undeniably the retail sector, which was talked-up as a source of the jobs that our city so badly needed. But that was balanced with a cultural vibrancy across the arts; and, at the top end of town at least, there was a buzzing, independent flavour to the streets.
Since 2005, central Liverpool has come under the aegis of the Business Improvement District (BID), a trade association which represents 650 businesses in the area and which, according to its website, aims “…to create a cleaner, safer, more prosperous and vibrant city centre.” Behind all the PR spiel, the reality is that the BID exercises a powerful influence over council policies within its boundaries, taking a hostile stance towards anything that they perceive as a potential threat to profits, which now apparently includes guitars, fiddles and saxophones.
Of course, the powers that be are only too happy to celebrate music retrospectively. Once a scene has died it can enjoy an infinite afterlife as part of the local authority’s tourism plan. But legendary venues like The Cavern and Eric’s were not dreamed up in a council meeting room: they arose from something far more mysterious – an untameable, organic culture which always has the power to surprise us.
In any city, given the right conditions, and often despite the wishes of the authorities, grassroots culture will flourish in neglected zones where rents are cheap. Mathew Street in the late 50s was a dingy thoroughfare with warehouses on both sides, where nobody outside the mercantile trade would normally go. A disused cellar made the perfect bohemian setting for Alan Sytner’s new venture – The Cavern.
Across the city, quiet backstreets away from prowling beer monsters have proved to be the perfect places for grassroots culture to flourish. In recent years, Parr Street has been a particularly fertile ground for ‘underground’ activities, with music and art venues such as Jump Ship Rat, The Kif and MelloMello all setting up in vacant buildings there.
Lately the popularity of Mello and the Kazimier on Wolstenholme Square has been having a regeneration effect on the surrounding area. With the opening of hip little bars on Slater Street and Duke Street, a new bohemian quarter has come into being, independently of any local authority masterplan, creating jobs and economic activity.
What the council, who favour high-prestige new-build projects, fail to realise is that dereliction is an essential ingredient for this process to happen. The only way for art and music collectives to get a foothold is in buildings that nobody else wants, and all they really need is to be left alone.
And in the long run, this kind of cultural activity does far more for Liverpool’s reputation than another block of unsellable luxury apartments. Liverpool Biennial, a source of prestige for the city and now a major employer, had its first Independents show at the building now known as Wolstenholme Creative Space – an unrenovated former warehouse building.
As a centrally-planned corporate vision of city life rolls out from Liverpool ONE all the way up the hill, with Café Nero and Tesco leading the charge, the creative and imaginative minds of the Parr Street district are providing the only credible challenge to it. And thank god they are, because once again there are big plans afoot for central Liverpool. The £160 million Central Village project will create shops, hotels, and restaurants in a twenty-storey glass and steel fantasia currently rising out of the gap between Bold Street and Renshaw Street. Exciting perhaps, for those whose idea of quality of life is the availability of a particular brand of Italian handbag, but, after this high-profile venture pushes up rents in the area, how many of the vibrant yet vulnerable small shops in the area will survive?
We are now witnessing a fight for the soul of central Liverpool. We are a city with music and culture at its beating heart, but our council is endangering that by creating a sterile corporate landscape where no independent ideas can germinate. And this is what ties the fate of a street penny whistle player to the fate of us all: a city where spontaneous things can happen is a city that is still alive.
Tom George is a musician, writer and cultural activist based in Liverpool. As well as performing countless music and spoken word shows he has been behind projects as diverse as Liverpool Culture Crawl, the fanzine Slacker Sounds and the International Federation of Bagism.