Ian James Gavin, a Liverpudlian still pointy-sharp after thirty years in Lecce’s soft weather, would have been forgiven giving the Berkeley Circle a public relations tour of his beloved city, warmed-over chamber of commerce stuff. Instead, he reined in his affection and tread a cautious path among the city’s many bouts of desperation. Assuming we knew about the Beatles’ 1960s renown, he focussed on everyday life of the next two decades, stopping short of—hyperbole is at home in Liverpool—the Renaissance of the Nineties.
There were generalities we had to remember. The city was multicultural and multi all the rest long before the phrase entered the vocabulary of TV newsreaders. Its Black and Chinese communities were the first in Europe and dated from the 1730s. An influx of Irish during the great famine means that 75% of the locals have some Irish blood. The Welsh and Scots also came early to gather the crumbs of industrialisation and the city remains indelibly Keltic, disputatious, wisecracking, and ready with a sneering laugh for the hard knocks it can’t dodge.
An awareness of being different has always been a hallmark of the second city of the British Empire. In good times it has shown as a swagger and in bad as a kind of hangdog pride. One writer, Du Noyer, settled the second city debate by saying Liverpool, dubbed “the pool of life”, was nothing less than the capital of itself. Gavin underlined the ambiguity between the city and establishment power. It was the indispensable port of the Empire, part of the slave trade, Britain’s support of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, and an escape valve to ship out the troublesome as emigrants when the imperial system overheated.
On the underside, however, Liverpool was an untamed island not unlike its neighbour across the Irish Sea and called for periodical doses of discipline from London. Winston Churchill sent battleships to knock it into line in 1911. The Thatcher government in 1981 decided the only way to quell the city’s recalcitrance was to “manage its decline” by cutting off subsidies and starving it out.
It was ironic that perhaps the worst harm came to the city in an attempt to clean it up and straighten it out. A fatal plan of urban renewal decimated the old communities and resettled the inhabitants here and there, often many miles afield, according to the whim of the do-gooder technocrats.
Through this tumultuous civic history, Gavin followed the city's musical creativity. His theme was the connection between the two. Beatle glory had come at a time of prosperity and reached stratospheric heights. In 1965 the American poet Allen Ginsberg sailed into the ether and proclaimed Liverpool “at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe.”
The fall to earth came in the 1970s. The economy foundered. Three-day work weeks began. The port hadn’t adapted to container traffic and faced the wrong way to service Europe. Depopulation, the long-term scourge of the city began. It would halve the population and make Liverpool a city of emigrants. The legendary Cavern Club had shut in 1973 and there was no noteworthy music. Glamour shifted to London.
As the decade unrolled creative music returned with Deaf School and Timepiece, but the economy only worsened. Somebody sang that Liverpudlians had aimed at paradise and ended in the anus mundi. The world recession of 1980 and the Thatcher government brought despondency and, in 1981, the Toxteth riots. Subsequent years seemed to prove that artistic creation of quality didn’t at all depend on a thrusting economy and optimism. 1984 was a great year musically with the appearance of Power of Love, Dead or Alive, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Even the Liverpool-hooligan-inspired tragedy at Heysel Stadium, Belgium, in 1985 with its 39 dead and the Hillsborough disaster, 96 dead, at Sheffield in 1989, also involving the Liverpool football team, could not stop the flow of original music.
Author James Donald wrote, “Our experience of the real--specifically, the real of the city--is always imagined,…poetic". But facts and events also ever weigh heavily on the person experiencing, poet or not. Ian James Gavin managed a delicate balance of emotion and history. He did so in a finely crafted talk full of musical surprises and stunning visuals. It was another addition to the Berkeley library that in grim times gets better and better.