Only in Liverpool: The extrovert and quirky Liverpudlian spirit

The scenes of jubilation that greeted the arrival of a 50ft spider in the Capital of Culture perfectly illustrate the city's quirky spirit, argues Paul Vallely
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The Independent Culture

There is a paradox at the heart of the Liverpudlian character. It explains why Scousers are both flamboyantly extrovert and stubbornly rigid. It is why the city's response to the 50ft spider in its midst last weekend said as much about the people of this European Capital of Culture as it did about the performance artists who staged this huge, £1.8m street-theatre extravaganza.

The great arachnid, which weighed 37 tonnes, arrived in pieces from France where it had been manufactured by the mechanist François Delarozière and his company of artist technicians, who call themselves La Machine. It was assembled secretly in the derelict shipyards of Cammell Laird in Birkenhead, then transported at dead of night through the tunnel under the Mersey.

A handful of night-shift workers saw its massive bulk being hauled painfully up an office block awaiting demolition, at the side of Lime Street Station, at 2am on Wednesday. A few of them texted their mates. The rumour-mill began turning.

There are two key influences on the Liverpudlian character. The first is that the city was, for hundreds of years, one of Europe's great ports. Its citizens didn't manufacture anything, as their cousins in Manchester, or the Lancashire milltowns to the north, did. Rather, they watched the wealth of the world pass across their quaysides and took a cut as it went by. Theirs was an entrepreneurial trading mindset; they were dealers, charmers and scallies.

But with the docks came unionisation and the politics of class war. Alongside the chancer mentality developed an us-and-them legalism, and an obstinate sense of entitlement that seemed only to become more fixed as the dock economy collapsed and the city went into decline. It hardened into the cliché that Scousers are hard done by, and that the world is set against their city.

The Capital of Culture year celebrates all that. Here is Liverpool's chance to create something extravagant and self-justifying. It has an impressive catalogue of more than 300 events, including a John Tavener premiere, Pete Postlethwaite in King Lear, an extraordinary new painting of the city by Ben Johnson, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, and a Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool that has already broken all records. But it also needed what one pundit called "the blimey factor", to wow the collective consciousness of those citizens who might never make it between the portals of an official event.

That meant something that was free, something that would bring citizens together. Something – to leave behind the old stereotypes – that wasn't about football or The Beatles. And something that was powerful on a scale that nobody could imagine. The giant spider, in the largest piece of street theatre ever staged in the UK, was supposed to provide that.

In that, the Liverpool spider, which Delarozière christened La Princesse, was an unqualified success. The crowds began to form on Thursday morning to gawp at the massive insect dangling from Concourse House. It hung there, a ball of chrome hydraulic levers and cables, its steely legs folded into its chest. A story had been planted in the crowd about a subterranean monster brought to the surface after being disturbed by excavations nearby.

The city's curiosity grew. As the crowds came and went, they exchanged talk about the French scientists that were due to arrive to begin tests on the creature to see if it might be woken from its hibernation. The following day, the "scientists" lowered the great beast to the ground, loaded it on to a massive trailer, and took it down to Albert Docks to see whether a combination of music, movement and lights might cause the spider to stir.

The day after that, musicians high on mobile cranes around the dock began to sound a repetitive ambient music. Sheets of flame burst around the beast and at last the spider started to twitch and slowly stretch out its great legs. Some in the crowd began to scream. The cameras of thousands of spectators flashed. Slowly, the 50ft-high spider, its 12 operators sitting within it, visible but somehow unseen, started walking down the road, waving its great legs over the heads of the crowd.

And so a weekend of artistic alchemy began to unfold. The city reacted with its customary ambiguity. The legalists moaned. The TaxPayers' Alliance complained that it was all "an outrageous waste of money". The grousers fulminated – despite the fact that the spider got media coverage from Canada to China – that it was being ignored by the metropolitan myopia of the BBC. Even spider fans grumbled at the fact that the laissez-faire French operators did not stick to the timetable they'd published.

But Liverpool's free spirit overwhelmed all that. The streets of the city centre were choked with people, some 200,000 on the final day alone. The mood was one of fiesta as people clambered up walls and street furniture to get a better view, waiting with amazing good humour, some for as long as six hours, to catch a glimpse of the great beast.

In each place there was a great collective gasp as the spider came into view. The machine's 50 hand-worked hydraulic axes of movement produced a subtlety of movement that – despite the 16 cranes, eight cherrypickers, six forklifts, 250 crew and 26 musicians around her – convinced the onlookers that this was a living creature. The movement was a show in itself, as the spider reached down with extraordinary delicacy to touch the hands of children in the crowd with great plated feet some 2ft in diameter. The kids screeched and the crowd roared with a bacchanalian delight as they were soaked with jets of water sprayed from the spider's back.

It ended on Sunday night in a carnival of fireworks, fountains and flame as the eerily illuminated monster, like some classic misunderstood King Kong of the spider world, tried desperately to make its escape down the tunnel whence she came. Suddenly, she sent up a dense cloud of smoke. When it had cleared she had vanished.

"Don't forget you'll need £1.40 for the toll!" a Scouse wag shouted. The crowd laughed but it didn't disperse the web of strange magic the spider had left behind. Everyone present knew they had been part of something special, and in a special city.