What do you call a Scouser with a cappuccino?

Livercool. Cliches about 'scallies' are giving way to ones about art and sushi
ONLY THE most defensive Liverpudlian could seriously have taken offence at Jack Straw's remark, last week, that those scoundrel Scousers were "always up to something". As political gaffes go it was one of the least rude in recent times - if anything, a back-handed tribute to the city's reputation for rascally charm.

Liverpool's local papers, the Post and the Echo, were quick to publish rebuttals from councillors, one of whom called Straw "a buffoon".

It is true, however, that Liverpool's image stands in need of refurbishment. This historic city, with the largest Anglican cathedral in the world and a splendid set of neo-classical monuments, remains the butt of pub jokes up and down the country. What do you call a Scouser in a suit? The accused. A Scouser in a white track suit? The bride.

It often seems stranded between England and Ireland, a grimy warren of evacuated wharves haunted by a shameful past as the seafaring capital of the transatlantic slave trade.

In recent times it has been famous mainly for the Beatles, corrupt politics, high unemployment and a vicious crime rate. In the Thatcher era it clung to the sense of itself as a rough but genial, gissa-job-you-gorra-laff kind of place. Today's TV series such as Mersey Blues join the dots of an already well-established caricature. This week it emerged that Liverpool was second only to Birmingham in the national league table of TV licence dodgers.

Stereotypes always take a bit of budging. But there is another story. Jack Straw's Scousers are indeed up to something. Today's visitors sip cappuccino at Lime Street railway station, wander past stately halls on boulevards that slope to the river, pop into the Audi franchise, and then head down to Albert Dock (the largest Grade I listed building in the country) for sushi and a visit to the Tate Gallery.

They can check out the yachts in the marina, gasp at renaissance palaces, or stroll along the lush Georgian terraces of Toxteth, which, give or take a bit of buffing up, are as lavish as anything in Notting Hill or Islington.

This is not the Liverpool that most people dwell on. But there are energetic plans to make us change our minds. This week saw the launch of an ambitious millennium programme of events, the chief of which is a swanky all-night party in a pounds 2m marquee on the pier head, with live video link-ups to Sydney, Cape Town and New York. There will be light shows along (if not 'cross) the Mersey, funfairs, concerts and a "Hogmanay-style" gathering at the Town Hall. Liverpool airport will be taken over by the chic nightclub Cream over the August Bank Holiday; and the city's two cathedrals (one Catholic, one Protestant) will be linked by a string of lights running, aptly enough, along Hope Street.

The man behind these initiatives is Daniel Harris, who has spent the past two years as Clare Short's spin doctor. He heads a well-financed team dedicated to reshaping both the structure of the council and the image of the city. The millennium parties are only the first in a series of schemes designed to make Liverpool Britain's next European City of Culture in 2008.

"We want to do a Dublin or a Glasgow," he said. "We're setting up a news desk to keep the wider world abreast of what's happening here, and publishing an upbeat magazine which will go through every letterbox in the city. The first thing we have to do is get the people here to start beating the drum. We want to sell Liverpool to the rest of Britain, and to the world, but most of all to itself. It's been inward-looking for a long time, which is ironic because historically it's been such an outward-looking place."

The mighty stone buildings above the restored docks certainly testify to that grand maritime past. In a rose garden full of dandelions and daisies stands the Titanic memorial; by the museum is the black propeller of the Lusitania. The monument bearing the names of the seamen who died in the Battle of the Atlantic includes ships with rakish British names (Audacity, Avenger), but many with more exotic titles - Wo Kwang, Siang Wo, Lanka II.

The Camell Laird shipyard across the water at Birkenhead still flickers with welders' torches. But the age of the seadog is over. These days, Liverpool's one boom industry is call centres.

The rambling old wharves make good phone factories, and the Liverpool accent ranks high in the league tables of friendliness. Meanwhile, Harris is busy setting up "gold zones" in which local businesses pay an aesthetic tax for extra street cleaning and hanging baskets, and dreaming up fresh slogans for his modernisation programme.

"It's a question of repeating and repeating the message that Liverpool is changing," he said. "It might sound a bit gimmicky, but one buzzword that's going round is 'From seaport to e-port'." He's right: it sure is gimmicky.

But if a few ugly jingles are what it takes to haul Liverpool back into the mainstream, it is probably a small price to pay. Stand by for the new marketing concept LiverCool.

Liverpool's most celebrated assets are, of course, the Beatles; and the city has not been slow to capitalise. There's a Beatles trail, a Beatles museum, and those familiar tunes twang out of shops all the time. The house where Paul McCartney grew up is a National Trust showpiece, and visitors can troop into the Cavern to reflect on the place where the music began.

But it is possible that the city is too proud, too much in thrall to these old songs. When you wander the old streets and lanes and think of how Liverpool built its prosperity on the human misery of black African slaves you can't help feeling that there's more to the place than Penny Lane.

On the pier there's a children's play area done up like an old galleon, set in a thatched "Caribbean garden". The rigging is made of chains. It must be fun to clamber on.

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