Stephen Bayley: Why a visit to Liverpool, city of nostalgia, is like coming home

Something to Declare

Coming home is a part of travel. But coming home can be a lot like going away. This is what I am thinking on the train to Liverpool, the most melancholic city on Earth. And, in its ruined way, one of the most magnificent.

The train enters that sublime Piranesian sandstone canyon on the approach to Lime Street Station, surely the strangest entrance to any great city. And suddenly we are in the station where my grandmother's apocalyptic hissing steam trains used to terrify me as a child.

Carson McCullers said: "I go home often to refresh my sense of outrage." Maybe I don't like Liverpool, but it fascinates, annoys and moves me. Great love affairs are not necessarily affectionate.

My curious relationship with Liverpool reveals something of the city's own perplexing character. In fact, I don't revisit Liverpool often, but it often revisits me. Impressions made on the young child are ineradicable. The heartbreaking beauty of the waterfront, so full of historic promise and tragedy. The spoiled beauty of the perfect Georgian townscape. The epic docks.

Liverpool taught me the psychology of place. The city is, geographically, the end of the road: the only through traffic goes overseas. So, at once, Liverpool has the sense of a quiet backwater incongruously combined with the restless feel and shiftiness of a great port.

Bent on self-invention, I decided to acquire some of Liverpool's strong identity. There is a general rule in the theory of self-invention: the appropriation of a locale as an aid to character, a town or a city as your personal metaphor. Tell me where you come from and I will tell you what you are, or pretend to be.

So, I pretend to be Liverpudlian. It may not be identity theft, but it's certainly an identity loan because I was born somewhere else and am essentially a Londoner. And this breezily negotiated loan says something about the tenacious hold Liverpool has over people who are only, as I am, marginally its own.

Bruce Chatwin was another example. He chose not to invest much effort in identifying with his native Birmingham. Chatwin was not looking for heroic industrial canals, a Brutalist shopping centre, urban expressways, first-class cricket or the Austin A40 production line. Instead, Chatwin plotted his escape from suburbia to invent himself as an exotic travelling aesthete.

I am writing notes now in Alma de Cuba, a restaurant inserted with impressive blasphemy into a fine old Neo-Classical Catholic church. I used to take moody photographs hereabouts when I was a trainee Existentialist teenager in a black roll-neck.

Nostalgia was originally defined as a psychosis. Liverpool seems to inspire it. Paul Simon, in an ecstasy of yearning for America, wrote "Homeward Bound" on Widnes station with the smells of the chemical factories in the air.

Almost the last photograph of John Lennon shows him in New York wearing his old school tie, 23 years after he was expelled and left Liverpool.

In Liverpool I find ambition and despair, style and slovenliness, achievement and disgrace. That's why coming home is always so troubling, a mixture of delight and disappointment.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
tech
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Rock to play DC character in superhero film
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor