Made a pilgrimage to Liverpool on New Year's eve, the day before the town took the title of European City of Culture. It deserves the honour because it is a mighty place of culture, even now, with the port long in decline and the docks and Beatles long given over to theme parks. At the Museum at the (regenerated) Albert Dock, I was moved to tears by some of the memories people had posted up in the window: ' the salty tang at the Pier Head, the mud flats...' 'Sailing out into Liverpool Bay to all the distant corners of the Empire....' The sculptor, Antony Gormley, had written of 'the absolute, brutal honesty of the people and the magnificent buildings.'
It is a stupendous waterfront, not just because of the iconic architecture, but because of what it symbolises in terms of coming and going. It has an almost tangible spiritual reach across the ocean to other ports like New York and Boston - and Dublin, of course. In fact, Dublin and Boston (Mass) reminded me so much of Liverpool, I could almost smell it. But Liverpool is unique, both within the UK and outside it. Someone termed it 'the capital of itself.' Yes, it can be irritatingly self-regarding and sentimental (can't we all - and look at London and New York for that. Look at Paris!); but its honesty and rawness override that mawkishness. Going to school there in the 1970s, when it was in near terminal decline, I thought the place and the people unspeakably romantic, and I too remember sailing out of the port on The Uganda (later requisitioned as a troop ship in the Falklands War). We didn't have streamers or a band playing then on the quay, but it was still a sight for sore eyes.
Years later, I had a romantic experience in Liverpool, kissed by a TV cameraman at the top of Bold Street after we had spent some of our per diem expenses at a Chinese restaurant before returning to the Adelphi. We kissed all the way back to the hotel, cheered by locals telling him to,' go at it, big man.' Then we stopped. It was just the spur of the moment. One of those things. We were making a film about the regeneration of the city post the anti-Thatcher riots of the 1980s, when the old Rialto cinema was burnt to the ground near Upper Parliament Street and Liverpool almost became a socialist republic. At least it stood up for itself. At least it shouted. Those few days I spent there filming showed me how far I had really travelled away from it ('which part of America are you from then?' asked a man I interviewed on the ferry), and how absolutely removed it was from London.
I could just about see the fireworks from my mother's hilltop window in Cheshire, but I wish I had been in the thick of the celebrations in Liverpool itself, fifteen miles away, along the Mersey. I thought it wasn't my party any more, but in a way, I suppose it was because Liverpool formed me more than any other city I have lived in (and I have lived in some great ones - London, Paris, Alexandria). It taught me to stick my head above the parapet, reach out to other worlds. And sail away.