Sunday, 11 January 2015

Liverpool by Ken Pye: book review

The full title of this 2014 book, published by   Amberley Books , is Liverpool, the rise, fall and renaissance of a world-class city.  

Author   Ken Pye Ken Pye describes himself as:  

“a born-and-bred Liverpudlian: I am deeply proud of this fact, and of my wonderful home and its very diverse people. I have a very happy home, shared with my family and friends, and life is always full and fun. Professionally too, my life is rewarding and joyful:
This is because Liverpool has an outstanding history, and is a dynamic, creative, world-class City that is currently undergoing a major renaissance. I am fortunate in that I am in a position to continually contribute to this wonderful evolution.”

This positive attitude is the overriding characteristic of his book: there is no doubt that we are reading the work of an absolute fan of the city.

This book is useful on many levels: as a general history of England it traces the foundation of Liverpool in 1207 in King John´s reign and even goes further back to the French, Viking and Roman invaders who all contributed to make the city what it is today. It serves as a reminder of the terrible suffering inflicted on Britain during the second world war: you can see fragments of this episode in British history in the new film The Imitation Game. As a social history of the last quarter of the 20th century it is especially valuable as Mr Pye not only lived in Liverpool but was a social worker directly involved in trying to maintain peace in a society driven apart by political dogma on many sides.

Mr Pye and I were both born in Liverpool: he is just  a few years older than me so many of his memories are also mine. Many of his personal experiences ring true with my own. On the other hand, he stayed in the city whereas I left aged 18 and have returned only sporadically for family visits.

Like Mr Pye, I think of Liverpool people as being hardworking and generous: I remember being told how my great grandmother and her neighbours cleaned not just their own home but also scrubbed the pavement in the street in front of their terraced home: I remember that my grandfather opened his newsagents shop at 5.30 in the morning then went to do a day´s work in a factory in Speke and joined my grandmother to lock up the shop at 8 in the evening.

So, like Mr Pye, I wondered why the perception of the city around Britain was so poisoned. I remember going to a job interview in the south of England in the 80’s where the regional manager of a certain retail company was surprised that I turned up on time and dressed in a suit. He said he thought all Liverpool people were just layabouts and trouble makers and what a nice change it was to see someone like me.  I remember one of the few occasions in my life when I felt in danger of physical attack was in the early 80´s when I was with some friends in the south of England and they were infuriated that the “mad and crooked” leaders of the Liverpool city council were sending redundancy notices to council workers by taxi: as if I was responsible for this evil madness.

Those were very dark days indeed.

Mr Pye describes the dark days and is much better qualified than me to attribute blame and identify those responsible. Read his account and weep.

On a lighter note, I almost laughed aloud when I got to page 86 and the quote that Queen Victoria visited Liverpool in 1851 and declared that she had “never before seen together so large a number of well dressed gentlemen”. I am constantly astonished at how seriously the younger Liverpool people today take their appearance and this quote made me realize it is not a new phenomenon.


Mr Pye lists many innovations which were unique to the city of Liverpool. It is impossible to list them here: you should read the book to make the most of them. I can only mention as  examples the world´s first ever commercial wet dock and the introduction of the steam railway engines, tried out in Liverpool in the great age of inventors and entrepreneurs.

 Mr Pye is quite right to highlight the renaissance of Liverpool in the first decade of this century. He traces this back to the impact of the International Garden Festival in 1984, the nomination of Liverpool as European City of Culture in 2008, and the fact that Liverpool was the only English city to be represented at the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.

In 1984 I was living in south London and I met a retired couple from California who had come to London on their way to Liverpool. Imagine my surprise that anyone would come all the way from the USA to visit Liverpool. Yet it was true: in the end I arranged for them to stay with my parents and they became long lasting friends who went back to California telling everyone what a beautiful city Liverpool was, thanks in large part to the Garden Festival.

In February 2010 I was working in Madrid in Spain and I attended a  conference  on social inclusion in music education. The presentation by Peter Garden, representing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, was outstanding both in the sheer quantity of actions initiated by his team and by the quality of their results. His presentation stood head and shoulders above every other speaker that day and made it clear to all those present that Liverpool was a city to be listened to. One phrase of his that struck a chord was that the RLPO orchestra “played the soundtrack to the 2008 European Cultural Capital”.   

In 2010 I was in China in the summer to speak at an education   conference   in    Beijing   and was able to visit  the World Expo in Shanghai. When I visited the Liverpool pavilion I was overwhelmed by the upbeat, positive image shown in the video and in the photo presentations. The funny thing was that when I talked to the university students who were manning the stand they said that it was only the old Liverpool people like me who were surprised: to everyone else this vibrant, forward-looking image was just what they expected from modern Liverpool.   

So, thank you, Mr Pye, for this really interesting book. If you asked me what could be added I would ask for more about the  Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra , a jewel in the city´s crown.

 Finally,  here is a question: in the story of Liverpool´s renaissance Mr Pye details how the figure of Michael (Lord) Heseltine plays a crucial role. If Liverpool´s story were to be played out in 2015 who would play the role of Minister for Liverpool?  Who among the current cabinet would be interested enough in a failing city in the north-west of England to spend time, energy and political capital on finding a solution? It´s a chilling thought. 


Here is the site for Liverpool tourist information

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