Illustration: Chloé Stephenson / @chloartee

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Author Jeff Young explores our city to consider the alternative narratives, hidden tensions and overlooked beauty. Here, he interrogates questions of ownership and the transient liberation afforded by our public spaces.

Down at the docks there are teenage boys jumping into water, disappearing into the black and green abstract, sending white and purple moon jellyfish off across the void. These boys are the dock jumpers, divers into contested space where even water is property. There are signs telling them not to jump into the water, but jump they do and the sound of splash, and shout, and laughter from the boys and watching girls is joyous. You can try and take away their right to jump into water, but you can’t take away the subversive power of joy.

Who owns the city?  This question was the strapline, campaign slogan and cri de coeur of my 2014 play Bright Phoenix, which told the story of a gang of disaffected outsiders who occupy the ruins of the Futurist Cinema and bring it back to life with revolutionary fervour. They re-appropriate the tainted concept of regeneration and set the controls for the heart of the sun in their romantic and visionary dream to make the city new by bringing the old back to life. Up against the forces of control their grand project inevitably fails, but it’s the very naivety and optimism of their provocation that allows them to dream. Their contempt for property developers and the vapid banality of their business-speak underlines their manifesto – the heart and soul of the city belongs to us, to the people and not to the corrupt councillors and corporate investment enterprises that seek to monetise everything in the city, including the water.

More and more in my wanderings around the city, as well as looking at buildings I look at the spaces in between. The city is made from light and shadow as much as it is made from concrete, stone and glass. The city is made from water and sky and weather – the hallucinatory sunsets, the churn and surge of the river and the music of the rain. You might call this the Invisible City, the dark matter other than the material. The city is a radio; it broadcasts its sonic energy to its citizens in the wind off the river and the vibrant voice-music of the crowd (and actual music, too, coming from bars and nightclubs, but only at permissible volume between the hours of then and now). And the city is a cinema, screening its own free show to the people on its streets. The movement of the crowd, the actions of the people on the pavements, the dance and spirit and energy of the walkers, runners, idlers, cyclists, skateboarders and dock divers, the flaneurs gazing up at the glories of our architecture…all of these things are the city. You can’t own them like a property or an object – they are elusive and spontaneous, unpredictable and unquantifiable and that is what makes them beautiful and constantly surprising.

"This is what a public space should be – carnivalesque, complex, spontaneous, improvisatory, unmediated”

In my book, Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadowplay I write about the Pier Head of my childhood: “The Pier Head was the most exotic place in the city and my memories of those visits are almost hallucinatory… Everyone who ever felt like a stray dog came down to the Pier Head on Sundays and the presiding spirit of anarchy in this place was Hughie Smith, Liverpool’s Harry Houdini, a man wrapped in chains and tied in a potato sack, a writhing, struggling genius in a vest. I was in awe of him as he thrashed around on the ground like a sack of cats, eventually emerging from captivity, taking a bow to the crowd as the bottler went around the gathering with a hat, collecting sixpences and threepenny bits. Sometimes he would invite people in the crowd to pick up a sledgehammer and smash a concrete slab resting on his chest. One time I saw him being hanged with a rope noose, then carried to Yates’s Wine Lodge, where he was revived with a glass of Aussie white. He was a one-man carnival, exotic and unsettling… In the mad circus parade of the city…”

This is a probably a romantic, nostalgic memory, but in my vision of the city, this is what a public space should be – carnivalesque, complex, spontaneous, improvisatory, unmediated. Philosophers, comedians, skivers, meditators, dreamers, loners, urchins, fantasists, lost souls, unicyclists, drifters, deadbeats, skateboarders and amateur historians are all part of the carnival. They are the city.

The recent debate about the Pier Head dispersal order highlighted yet another imagination bypass. The waterfront is one of the few genuinely public spaces in the city centre: Williamson Square should be the centre of the city, but the square itself and the desolate streets connecting it to the rest of town are a fiasco. St George’s plateau could become a vibrant space if they ever finish the surrounding roadworks; St John’s Gardens is a beautiful park-space but even that was recently considered to be worth sacrificing for the sake of a zip wire joyride. A public space is supposed to be a free space but not everyone sees it that way. The words ‘nuisance’, ‘anti-social behaviour’ and ‘dangerous’ are powerful soundbites, shouty headlines. Suddenly the public space is dangerous, invaded, and residents are ‘afraid to leave their homes’.

The young are convenient scapegoats. Speaking to the dock jumping lads I know they tell me they have no interest in being a nuisance. They jump because it gives them a sense of freedom and fun, an adrenaline rush. Yes, it might be dangerous, but as one of the boys said when I asked them about dock jumping and the dispersal zone, “Dangerous incidents hardly ever happen and there are dangers in every situation. People my age are being scapegoated even though they’re innocent. It’s only a small minority of people who cause trouble so why should we be persecuted?” If the water is dangerous, do something about it. If the majority of people gathering at the Pier Head are just there to enjoy themselves, what good will dispersal do? It’s not really about that, is it? If you follow the argument of the soundbites and headlines to their logical conclusion then you’ll have to close down Slater Street and Concert Square. Close down the city. Close down the weekend. Sometimes people drown in the sea, so let’s close down the beach…

The surveillance and privatisation of public space leads to the death of the city’s soul. In the PLC version of the city everything is property. The commons – the communal, community spaces – become enclosures, the opposite of public space. You can’t always see the perimeter fence but psychologically, secretly it is there. Who owns the city? They might own the property, but they shouldn’t be allowed to own the spaces in between. Look at that lad on the BMX doing his stunts; that boy on the e-scooter sitting on a chair he’s improvised out of a traffic cone, how wonderful is that! Stop for a moment and watch the kids jumping into those dark dock waters, swimming with the moon jelly fish, laughing with joy. We must not let them take away the joy.

Jeff Young is a Liverpool based writer for theatre, radio, sound art installations and performance. His memoir, Ghost Town, a Liverpool Shadowplay was published in March 2020 by Little Toller.

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