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Following the release of his novel, The Outsiders, journalist and author James Corbett considers the sense of place among Liverpool’s patchwork social landscape.
When I was writing my novel, The Outsiders, I wanted Liverpool – my home city – to not just form the backdrop to what is ultimately a love story, but to exist as a multi-textured canvas in which I could capture all of the city’s brilliance and contradictions.
Liverpool’s complex modern history – race riots, mass unemployment and poverty, misconceptions bred from tragedies and its 21st century reinvention as a world class destination – forms a significant part of the book. However, an idea that also develops throughout The Outsiders is of Liverpool as a city of villages and tribes.
Growing up in the north of the city in the 1980s and 1990s there was little sense of Liverpool’s diversity and cosmopolitanism. There were two black kids in our comprehensive school of 900 and, although there was no sectarianism, the tiny number of Protestants represented the extent of Crosby’s ‘exoticism’. We were blind to Europe’s oldest Chinese community, or the West African, Caribbean and Jewish communities that add to Liverpool’s patchwork.
I’ll always remember our priest telling a story of how he learned about the Toxteth riots. Returning from a golfing weekend there were a number of concerned messages asking about his wellbeing from parishioners near and far, including a telegram from a missionary in a West African war zone. It was only when he turned on the BBC that he became aware of what had happened; Toxteth to him might have been as remote as Congo or Angola.
This sense that if you live in one part of the city or one community, you may not have much interaction with those from another is a theme that I explored when writing The Outsiders. When the protagonists encounter the Toxteth riots, they do so from the perspectives of slightly wide-eyed teenagers from Grassendale and an unnamed north Liverpool suburb (it’s an amalgam of Crosby, Formby and Hightown) and can’t believe what they’re seeing. This is not so much because of the violence, but their white privilege is coming face to face with a particular kind of black poverty that they didn’t know existed.
I write about the whole notion of intra-city apartheid, where some consider themselves ‘more Scouse’ because of their neighbourhood. It’s something I joke about with friends from different parts of the city even now: one claims you’re not a proper scouser unless you have a purple bin; another, a Bluecoat old boy from the southside, we mercilessly deride as ‘Lord Snooty’; Wirralites are alternately dismissed as ‘Tunnel Rats’, ‘Wools’, or ‘Hyacinths’ (after its most famous daughter, Patricia Routledge – aka Hyacinth Bucket).
I say it’s a joke, but it’s serious too and the novel is full of these interactions, where one person’s notion of what it is to be from Liverpool is constantly challenged. That’s why I called it The Outsiders, because no one is really sure what it is to come from Liverpool and as such they always feel like they’re on the outside.
For those of us who left for London in the 1980s and 1990s, seeking work or education opportunities that the old city could not provide us at that time; there was no Scouse mafia, no hangouts where we could meet with other exiles and mourn the old country; little of the support network other regional or ethnic groups developed. It was the opposite of the Irish expat experience – my wife is from Ireland and I always found it slightly incomprehensible that the first thing an Irish person would do upon landing in a new city, was to find an Irish pub or Irish Centre where they could surround themselves with those that they’d left behind.
By contrast, to catch an expat Scouser unawares in London could be to invite suspicion or at least a certain coolness, particularly when you weren’t bound by a shared footballing affinity. I’m not sure why this was or if it’s still completely true today. For some, I’m sure, there was a certain stigma, a shame that came from leaving certain parts of the inner or outer city that said ‘I escaped, I made good, that’s part of my past, I don’t need you to remind me’. For others, I found, the ones who stake great emphasis on their origins, who play on the unruliness and misconceptions of the city – ‘I’m a bit dangerous, a bit of a lad, a bit of a wag’ – semi-professional Scousers, for want of a better description, they might not want to be found out. If their naive southern audience knew what Mossley Hill or Childwall or Formby was really like the act would have been killed.
And so a guard inevitably went up. You might let on that you’re of the same city, but it would be the bear in the room, something not really up for discussion – at least at first. You didn’t talk about ‘going home’ in the way that Irish people perennially did. In my book, there is a scene where the great Liverpudlian novelist Beryl Bainbridge comes face to face with Paul, the book’s protagonist and a well-known journalist.
“‘I know who you are,’ Bainbridge said to Paul without greeting. ‘You’re like me: you escaped Liverpool.’ Although they spent the next hour in each other’s company, she never alluded to his work or their shared home again.”
This was entirely my experience during 14 years living in the capital, and I think, looking back, it ultimately came down to coming from this city of villages. The Liverpool experience is so unique, so varied, and notions of what it is to be a Liverpudlian so lacking in definition that we put up a shield so as not to have others challenging conceptions of who we were.
I left Liverpool in 1998, but the city has never left me. Until the pandemic I was there all the time, spending hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds every year on Virgin Trains, Ryanair flights and P&O ferries. I maintained my Everton season ticket and even bought one for my son – the sixth generation of my family to hold one – despite living in a different country. I set up a business in the city [deCoubertin Books], at once an act of insanity that for a long time cost me my health and colossal sums of money, but a symbolic gesture too; a show of faith that a creative business could thrive beyond the London bubble. Many of my friends and most of my blood relations live there, and the ones that left have either returned or plan to do so.
And yet I probably never will. There are ultimately professional and family reasons underlying this and I have a nice life away from the city, away from England. But I’m lucky too in the sense that I have enough good reasons to return often and throw myself headlong into the Liverpool experience, drinking and chatting and yarning my way around the city for a few days; a highlights package of all its best bits, before heading off home and quiet. This means I’m largely immune to Liverpool’s less appealing facets – London Road bagheads and quadbike ninjas; Dock Road traffic jams and inner city blight; gobby pensioners and moody waitresses; upwardly mobile gangsters encroaching upon the suburbs and gangs terrorising other parts of the city.
If that’s a sanitised and sentimentalised version of Liverpool, then so be it. But you could live in the city of villages all your life and there’s a chance that you may never really know it at all.
An extract from James Corbett’s debut novel.
You didn’t become a Liverpudlian simply by living there. You could be from the city, but not of it; call it home, but never really belong. Other cities chewed you up then spat you out, but Liverpool was different: it would turn up its nose and shrug you off with an ambivalence so damning that made it feel as though you had never even fallen under its contemptuous glare. Everybody spoke of the sense of community, but once away from the vicinity of family, friends and neighbours, and out into the wider city, you were nobody. Because of the intra-city apartheid that seemed to rear its head in every loose encounter – the whole I’m more local than you swagger – everybody was, in their way, an outsider.
These things kept coming back to Paul as he made the journey from the suburban outlands and into the heart of the city where he was meeting his friends for a night out. In a vapid summer, the chance to see Echo & The Bunnymen at the university was one of the few fixtures in Paul’s calendar.
It was early evening and men in suits were disembarking from the Southport train to go home to their wives and children, their squares of garden and the last of the day’s sun. Liverpool had broiled again under clear skies and a high sun. Beyond the city the expanse of the Irish sea lay flat, brown and benevolent, the coastal breeze which usually cooled it on such days conspicuous by its very absence. The air was still and dense.
Liverpool also sweated under the gaze of a hundred television cameras as a media frenzy descended upon the city. Liverpool 8, the inner-city district that incorporated Toxteth, had exploded into violence after local residents took an aggressive stand against police brutality. Overnight it became a latter-day Saigon as journalists filled its streets and ran with the rioters. Buildings burned, vehicles were overturned and set alight, while youths hacked away at the wreckage, creating a makeshift arsenal of bricks and masonry. Social commentators lined up to condemn the moral degradation that bred the violence, while police deflected accusations of brutality by inviting camera crews into local hospitals, where entire wards were handed over to bruised bobbies. One man was dead, hundreds of others injured. Bishops appealed for calm; community leaders claimed the battles were over.
For the rest of the city, however, life carried on as normal. People went to work, women shopped, and children played. Concerned relatives telephoned from afar to check up on family, but in a city of suburbs for most people Toxteth’s riots were a TV phenomenon: remote, somewhere else.
With his parents, Paul watched the previous evening’s Nine O’Clock News with a rising sense of bewilderment as the sombre voice of Richard Whitmore spoke over footage of burning buildings: ‘Liverpool burns as its inner cities rampage.’ As the picture cut to a line of policemen forming across the top of a Victorian street, Paul’s father leant over and turned up the volume. The police held plastic riot shields in one hand, while in the other metal batons glistened menacingly. ‘150 injured as police battle rioters,’ said Whitmore and the picture cut to Margaret Thatcher climbing from a ministerial Jaguar and up the steps of 10 Downing Street. ‘The Prime Minister convenes an emergency meeting of the cabinet as tensions rise and police anticipate more trouble this evening.’
“On the rampage because one of their lot got pulled over by the police.” Paul’s father pronounced.
Paul winced at his father’s easy distillation of the report. His mother walked urgently towards the netted curtains and looked out anxiously onto their darkened cul-de-sac. There was a sudden nervousness about her, as if a mob might also come rampaging down their little street several miles away.
But the riots, although just eight miles away, may as well have existed on another planet.
The Outsiders is available now via Lightning Books.