The River Mersey draws a physical and psychological line between Liverpool and Wirral, allowing opposing narratives and identities to take hold. With a publicly accessible bridge over the river’s shortest crossing a near engineering impossibility, cultural regeneration may just be the road to shortening the divide. Enter, Future Yard.
Birkenhead, where the dominant waves of Liverpool broke and rolled back, carries an echo of historical stasis rather than any discernible glimpse of the future. On the dockside, ships remain still in a stripped back Cammell Laird. The town hall and Hamilton Square remain grand, but even this Grade I listed cluster is presented as a historical artefact of more favourable times. Towards the town centre, a frayed array of once optimistic post-war modernism haunts the contemporary commercial district. It’s an area that’s neither coming nor going. So, why look for a creative future in its apathetic resilience? A harsh question, but perhaps overdue.
Culturally, Birkenhead sits in something of a no-man’s land, claimed by nobody as their own. Much of the rest of Wirral doesn’t seem to want it. From New Brighton, Liverpool is literally more visible. Towns on the western coast such as West Kirby have their own sense of identity, partly informed by the ‘Leisure Peninsula’ image that doesn’t suit the industrial streets of Birkenhead. Even Oxton – which is definitely Birkenhead, geographically – prefers to define itself as a village apart.
And then there’s the river. There’s just about a mile between the two sides, but the psychological distance it creates is much, much wider. It’s believed that the Mersey was a historical border between two ancient kingdoms; on the East bank lay Northumbria, while the Wirral peninsula lay in Mercian territory. Maybe it’s the echoes of this historical divide which still pervade along its shores. Different councils, ‘wools’ and ‘Scousers’, the river is still seen as a demarcation of difference. Never mind that the two sides are extremely well connected, with it taking just three minutes to reach the centre of Birkenhead from Liverpool, convincing people to make that trip is easier said than done. Because right now, why should they? A long period of industrial and commercial decline has left Birkenhead lacking not just destinations, but a sense of identity or purpose. Right now, and so close, Liverpool just has more: more venues, more artists, more willing audiences. More to shout about.
But there are those who see the separation set by the river and current aimlessness of Birkenhead as opportunities, not obstacles. After all, this is a town which has always traditionally been a commercial and community epicentre in its own right – the town hall and Hamilton Square proudly remind you of this. Rather than tagging onto the coattails of “over the water”, the potential exists for Birkenhead to find, or create, its own purpose.
FUTURE YARD began 2020 with the intention of working towards this purpose. Having tested the waters of what was possible with 2019’s two-day music festival over some of Birkenhead’s main landmarks, a series of gigs in a pop-up venue on Argyle Street was announced. Featuring artists including Evian Christ, Self Esteem, She Drew The Gun and a special, two-man performance by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, the venue was to be a great statement of a vision for Birkenhead that cut through the prevalent negative stereotypes of the town. Decorated with enormous pink letters which read “THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD”, Future Yard declared its ambitions even before it opened, when the very structure of the venue was still a work in progress.
With the spread of Covid-19 putting the brakes on these plans, some major rethinking has had to take place for the venue and CIC. The fact that the music programme hadn’t started has in some ways left Future Yard in a better position than some venues. The postponement of their pop-up summer schedule has only hastened their long-term ambition of becoming established as a permanent space for Birkenhead. And while the “Near Future” shows originally scheduled for this summer have mostly been moved to 2021 in one form or other, the team behind the venue have also been able to schedule new events for “Near Normal”, a series of socially-distanced in-person events in their venue on Argyle Street, which will also be live streamed beyond the 60 people allowed inside. The first limited capacity event is with She Drew The Gun on 19th September – a date which feels tantalisingly close after so many months of empty schedules. More socially-distanced shows are still to be announced, coming in clusters of three in September, October and November, appetite-whetters before normal service can be resumed next year.
It’s a much-needed positive story from the cultural sector, which has so prominently and heavily struggled under the lockdown restrictions of Covid-19. Amidst numerous stories of music venues, theatres and arts organisations being forced to close – Liverpool already losing integral spaces such as Sound, Studio 2 and now The Zanzibar – we’re being forced to consider the reality of what a world without easily accessible live culture looks like. And for many of us its absence has been keenly felt; holes left in plans for weeks and months ahead. The recommencement of live music, in whatever capacity, is cause for celebration in this climate. But Future Yard co-founder Craig Pennington’s vision for the venue goes beyond it being, as he puts it, “a space that opens to the public at half 7 and closes at 1am”. It’s not just the events that are being missed, but the culture around them. The opportunities not only for social interaction, but for artistic growth. Future Yard is about more than just putting on shows. It’s about building, sustaining and supporting cultural shifts of the kind that feel more needed now than ever.
Choosing to open a venue in Birkenhead might be regarded by some as an unusual choice at the best of times. This is perhaps best exemplified by the reaction on social media to their “THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD” mural being unveiled back in March. For every supportive comment there were three snide voices: “If Birkenhead’s the future, God help us” and the like. This reaction actually delighted Pennington, who had “hoped there would be as much piss-taking and negative reaction as positive”, adding, “That’s the point!”. The mural is now gone, replaced by a new design more suitable for the venue’s now-permanent status as it works towards being the UK’s first carbon neutral grassroots venue. But the objective of being a starting place for changing the perceptions of an entire region has been achieved. “It’s like setting off a flare,” Pennington illustrates. “The response to that is the conversation.”
There’s a growing recognition that Birkenhead has been culturally under-served and seeking to correct this imbalance. There’s a real potential for Birkenhead to be a cultural hub of its own, to be proudly claimed by Wirral, and Liverpool, as their own and a model of optimism for others. To have a relationship with Liverpool that’s not just in its shadow, but to be a centre for new, self-sustaining, ambitious activity. The audience certainly exists; Future Yard found that the majority of last August’s festivalgoers were from the peninsula. And no words are minced when Pennington calls it “a tragedy… that there’s not a venue dedicated to supporting new music on the Wirral” – an astounding fact when you consider the bands which have emerged from this part of the world.
For culture-led regeneration to begin laying foundations, a quality music venue is as good a place to start – a stark contrast with the gentrification that has swept through many areas, such as the Baltic, laying claim to its few, integral music venues. It may sound idealistic to say ‘music can change the world’, but the Future Yard team not only believe this, they have a clear and practical plan about how to make this apparent in Birkenhead. That fact about having no new music venues in Wirral matters, because opportunities which aren’t visible can’t be understood as real possibilities. How will the next generation access careers such as sound engineer or promoter unless they have access to a space where these roles are modelled? Again, there’s a danger that we can take Liverpool for granted when it’s actually local involvement which matters most. “When you’re at a stage at your life like mid-teens, you’re not spending all your time in Liverpool,” Pennington reminds. “Working within the live music industry – if there’s not a venue in the town, that story is not even presented to young people as something they can do with their lives.”
Right now, when the majority of the news seems weighted towards the gloom of closures and losses, Future Yard is determined to set an example of how venues can actively support the artists they exist for. “We know what we can’t do, but we also know what we need to be able to do,” says Pennington. “We’ve got to find ways of artists navigating this new reality. Both in terms of building their way back into playing live shows, but also thinking about how we support artists to be the best versions of themselves.”
As a start, from August, they’ll be running Direct Input, a programme of webinars with established industry figures exploring the stories behind their careers. With live gigs set to restart in September they’ll also be running Sound Check, a training programme for young wannabe sound and lighting engineers. “We’ve got a fully structured programme… you come and shadow on all the shows, and by the end you’ll be able to proficiently mix a live band.” An exciting and meaningful entry point into a career which, though central to live music’s success, is often hidden from the spotlight.
The ’new normal’ has also meant the introduction of other new ways of working, particularly with the increased importance of online events. Though they’ll never be a replacement for the full experience of attending live music events, interest in streamed performances has undeniably grown amongst audiences since March. They have been crucial in maintaining interactions between artist and audience, as well as vital opportunities to recoup some income. Pennington and his Future Yard partner Christopher Torpey recognise the potential here for artists to build audiences by creating an experience which is deliberately different to the live show – not a pale substitute, but a product of its own. “If you can make it work in a format which is considered for the way people are engaging with it,” believes Pennington, “you can create some element of a cinematic experience.” “You’ve got to approach it differently,” agrees Torpey. “I think there’s space for streams, ongoing. It’s never going replace live music, but it’s going to be an additional tool. But it might not necessarily stay along the lines of traditional live performance.”. With Autumn’s preliminary Near Normal shows operating at low capacity, and some people understandably reluctant to return to enclosed venue spaces, the option of a digital ticket to stream the gigs is also available. She Drew The Gun’s show on 19th September will be filmed and mixed live, relayed to punters at home as a high-quality live broadcast in a step on from the now tired bedroom gig live stream.
Even if the digital experience still dominates for some time, the ultimate aim remains to get audiences to connect with this venue in the heart of Birkenhead. Digital may even offer greater opportunity, the chance to pique the interest of audiences who wouldn’t ordinarily think of making the three-minute journey under the Mersey. “We can build the situation where people are going to a venue, rather than going to see a particular artist,” says Pennington. With exciting programmes of gigs, artists and events to get involved in, we can all add our voices to the emerging conversation.
“It’s just about storytelling. It’s about putting on great shows and events, and changing the story of a place.” That idea of the world-changing power of music can be more than a dream; Pennington points out at how it was music venue The Picket and arts group A Foundation who first saw the potential of the Baltic Triangle. How it was the incubation of culture which began the process of revival that’s led to it now being one of the most popular districts of Liverpool. Similar shades of change can be observed by the community power that’s literally reclaiming the former Smithdown Road Conservative Club, now the Smithdown Social. Co-operatively run, the venue is a hub of socially conscious club events with external promoters Wavertree Worldwide leading their own culture-centred regeneration in South Liverpool.
Lockdown may have curtailed Future Yard’s plans this summer, but it’s also made the existing excitement about the opening of a new venue feel like a beacon of hope. Future Yard has always been about the long-haul process of major change. Pennington’s estimation prior to lockdown was that it would take 10 years and continuous innovation to change popular attitudes about Birkenhead. But with its programme of quality events to attend and participate in, and offer of access to training in the skills which can make a scene sustainable, Future Yard feels like the right place at the right time. Its opening is a welcome piece of optimism for both Birkenhead and its cultural scene, brightening otherwise gloomy conversations around the outlook for both a long-undervalued town, and a sector which has value to so many beyond the stark financial calculations holding its fate in the balance. The need to come together and help music thrive is more urgent now than it has been for a long while. While the river may still divide many aspects of Merseyside identity, there’s no reason why it should also be the boundary of cultural opportunity.
Full listings for Future Yard’s 2021 live programme, and further limited-capacity Near Normal shows for the Autumn, can be found at futureyard.org. Artist-focused Direct Input live webinars take place fortnightly, with conversations with Katie Harkin (31st August) and Rebecca Lucy Taylor (14th September) free to attend.