SPEAKERS CORNER : The misery of Mersey

A `plastic scouser' wants no part of a sad city
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The Independent Culture
A few nights ago, in a pub in Liverpool, I was called a plastic scouser. It's a pejorative term Liverpudlians have for people from the Wirral which implies we all have aspirations to be known as scousers. Our accent is similar to the Liverpudlian, so most people can't tell us apart - they have more glottal stops in their speech than we do, and the nasal intonation sounds like their cold is a really bad one, while ours is a slight sniffle.

It's probably the case that some people from the Wirral like to masquerade as `scousers'; perhaps they prefer it because not many people know where the Wirral is, and hardly anyone really famous comes from here.

A friend of mine worked on a building site in London. Everyone there called him Scouse John, although he lived in the cutest little village in the Wirral and his accent was a lot less guttural than the one he affected on the site. But it suited him to be known as a scouser, so he never corrected them. Now John could be described as a plastic scouser, because he was pretending to be one. But I object when the same label is stuck on me. For a start, it implies I want to be like them - and if I point out I'm not from Liverpool, "real" scousers accuse me of snobbery. It's just that being associated with Liverpool is the last thing I would want.

Thirty years ago it might have been different, when everyone wanted to be like the lovable Fab Four, when Mersey beat ruled the world and kids talked through their noses to sound like John Lennon, when Liverpool FC won every week and nobody had heard of Heysel, and people used words like "fab" and "gear", and everything Brian Epstein touched turned to gold. Then, it would have meant something to call yourself a scouser, even if you were an ersatz version. It was hip. It was groovy. It was a long time ago.

Who in their right mind today would pretend they came from this sad, broken city that proclaims its European "Objective One" status as something to be proud of? The place and its people live on dreams, like a microcosm of the British disease of yearning for yesterday. A recent argument about replacing the city's corporate slogan "Liverpool - the Maritime City" with "Liverpool - the Beatles City" says it all.

Despite this, the much parodied shell-suited, trainer-shod denizens bristle with anger if anyone suggests all is not well. A few years ago a Merseyside radio DJ once wanted the heads of the Bangles delivered on a silver salver when they sang "I'm going down to Liverpool to do nothing." A meaningless lyric in a pop song was seen as another attack on their beloved city by the famously well-balanced scousers - well-balanced in that they have chips on both shoulders.

The tediously documented "marvellous sense of humour" doesn't stretch that far, it seems. But, almost perversely, they applaud the likes of Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Phil Redmond, a triumvirate who have done more to propagate every myth and reinforce every stereotype about Liverpool than any other writers.

But the real plastic scousers are the professional Liverpudlians, with accents unlike any you will hear on the city's streets. These are the ones who go dewy-eyed at the mention of the name of their home town, yet as soon as they made enough money they were out of there, vanishing southwards, their accents more pronounced by the minute.

Meanwhile the people left behind indulge in sentimentality and self- congratulation with variations on: "There's nobody like scousers anywhere on earth. We have to keep laughing - otherwise, we'd cry." Well, all that laughing's done them no good, unless your name is Tarbuck or Dodd. Or Freddie Starr. But Freddie doesn't count - he's a plastic scouser from Birkenhead.

The people should cry for this city. Its docks employed thousands and it was once the main port for the New World. Cunard and White Star had offices on its waterfront because Liverpool was a place that counted.

Now it has Tourist Attractions and Luxury Riverside Accommodation with price tags that mock the unemployed and pitifully low-paid workers. Michael Heseltine was known briefly as the Minister for Merseyside, a portfolio that must have made the Northern Ireland brief seem like a bagatelle.

This was Margaret Thatcher's Pavlovian response to the riots that swept the country in the summer of 1981, when the Specials had Ghost Town in the charts and the debate was "is life mimetic of art or what?"

What did Heseltine do for the city? What brilliant plan did he set in motion to restore the shattered infrastructure of Toxteth? He proposed a Garden Festival. A handful of jobs paying £1.75 an hour, a load of expensive franchises which benefited only outsiders, a quick visit from the Queen and that was it. It's a housing estate now.

Liverpool used to be famous for John, Paul, George and Ringo, Bill Shankly and football, its maritime history, and the grit and humour of its people. The humour is tired, the grit has worn smooth.

But the people still believe the myth they have created about themselves so much that they cannot see the reality, that Liverpool today is best known for Brookside and child murder. And people wonder why I get annoyed when they accuse me of being a plastic scouser, of wanting to be like they are, of wanting to be one of them.

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