A city acts up: Fate always picks on Liverpool. It's as if they expect it there now, mugged by one disaster after another until a peculiar kind of martyrdom has become part of the municipal character

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The Independent Culture
TRINIDAD is a long way from Liverpool but let's begin there. The two places are after all connected in history by sugar, slaves and ships. More specifically, let's begin with Mr Biswas, the sad but plucky hero of V S Naipaul's greatest novel, A House for Mr Biswas. Mr Biswas, it may be remembered, escapes the grip of his suffocating Indian family in rural Trinidad to emerge as a reporter on a small newspaper in the colonial capital. There he struggles to find the best way to begin a story, and eventually hits on a solution which serves him well, in nearly every circumstance. 'Amazing scenes were witnessed when . . .' Mr Biswas taps on his typewriter. Liners dock, cars crash, squabbles break out in the back streets of Port of Spain, and Mr Biswas returns to the office, inserts a sheet of paper into his machine, and taps again. Amazing scenes were witnessed when . . .

Amazing scenes were witnessed in Liverpool last week when the two 10-year-old boys accused of the abduction and murder of James Bulger, aged two, left South Sefton magistrates' court. Many reporters and camera crews were there to witness them. As we have come to expect over the past decade, it is a city of amazing scenes. One might say, if one were harsh, that Liverpool's last function in British life is to supply them; that Liverpudlians know this; and that they are anxious to live up to expectations as dramatists and actors - the scene in the truest theatrical sense.

'String the bastards up,' came the shout from the crowd as the two 10-year-old accused were driven from the court on Monday. 'Kill them.' The crowd numbered 300, some not much older than the accused, and 50 police held them back from the vans containing the boys. A few bricks and an egg were thrown. Seven people were arrested. 'There's too much do-gooding around here,' a woman told a reporter from Today. 'It ought to be an eye for an eye.' The local Labour MP, George Howarth, said later: 'What happened does not help the cause of Merseyside, the family of James Bulger or anyone else.'

And certainly it was shaming. To summarise the terrible facts of the past two weeks: a two-year-old boy is led away from his mother who is shopping in the New Strand shopping centre, Bootle; his body, horribly injured, is found two days later beside a railway line; the police, noisily, dramatically and in force, arrest three boys wrongly suspected of the crime; angry crowds gather in the street outside one of their homes and the family is forced to move elsewhere even though their son is innocent; then the two 10-year-olds are arrested and charged, and crowds, re-targeting their anger, want to kill them. Perhaps in the current temper of Britain it could happen anywhere. People are angry, confused, uncertain. Defenceless children are no more likely to be murdered on Merseyside than in any other part of Britain. But only Liverpool, it seems, has the capacity to turn a deep but very particular and personal tragedy into a communal wake. At Liverpool football club the crowd and the players observed a minute's silence last Saturday. At the New Strand shopping centre the banks of flowers grew daily. And everywhere people talked of the offence and the shame to their city, their community. See Mr Howarth's remark: 'What happened does not help the cause of Merseyside.' Fate had unfairly picked on them once again.

Amazing scenes on Merseyside were the reason I first met Peter Marlow, the photographer whose new book provides the pictures on these pages. Marlow had photographed a vast municipal rubbish dump at Bidston Moss, near Birkenhead, where unemployed men and youths were making a living by sifting through smelling heaps of domestic refuse for anything that could be used or sold. With Marlow as my guide, I went there as a reporter and tried to describe it as best I could. On the day I was there, I wrote, 'about 50 men were picking their way over the tip, searching for anything sellable, repairable, wearable or even eatable, provided it was safely sealed inside a tin'. It was hard, filthy and dangerous work - sliding over slopes of plastic bags and empty cat-food tins, avoiding the rubbish that came raining down from lorries - but the men were sanguine, even cheery about it; perhaps genuinely, perhaps acting the part that Merseyside requires of them. 'I'm proud to work here,' said one man. 'I mean we're giving work to scrapyards and putting antiques back into the system, aren't we?' Another said it was better than 'mugging old ladies in Wallasey'.

That was in the spring of 1985, before Heysel. Liverpool, which in Britain has always been a singular city - splendid waterfront architecture that seems to belong across the Atlantic, an accent that stops short at the city boundary - seemed isolated and introverted. It had by then grown its own brand of politics, fiercely socialist by its own lights, occasionally corrupt, always secretive and self-serving, and (above all) fiercely Liverpudlian. You could meet people on the street who pointed to Mrs Thatcher and said: 'We gorra stand up to the bitch', as though the rest of England had fallen down on the job. The city fed off grievance, and there was plenty to grieve about. The economy had collapsed with the docks and imperial trade; replacement industries were closing or cutting back; the Beatles had long since moved away and broken up. Football remained to give the city its chief identity and only cause of celebration. But then the football began to go wrong.

In the summer of 1985, supporters of Liverpool FC crashed through the barriers at the Heysel stadium in Brussels and 39 people, most of them from Turin, the other side in that year's European Cup Final, were crushed to death. Four years later, at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, 95 Liverpool supporters died in another crush before the start of an FA Cup semi-final. The first incident produced collective guilt, the second, for which Liverpool people were not to blame, collective anger and self-pity. The victims were said to have 'died for football' or at least 'not died in vain.' Wreaths covered the Liverpool ground. Some footballers doubted they would ever play again, but did.

Thus Liverpool learned to dramatise itself, to show its stigmata. Not all of Liverpool, of course. Most people there are spectators like the rest of us: shopping, watching afternoon television, working (some, still) in the docks and the offices, queueing for the dole, going to plays and listening to symphony orchestras, feeling the breeze on the Mersey ferry. Over the past 10 years Marlow has photograped them - scenes of a kinder and often quieter humanity which, given their background of decay and decline, are, in their different way, amazing.

'Liverpool: Looking Out To Sea' by Peter Marlow is published by Jonathan Cape on 18 March. An exhibition of the photographs is at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool from 28 March and the Photographers' Gallery, London, from 8 April.

(Photographs omitted)

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