Seaside Special - Riotous journeys: Merseyside

I know Liverpool as well as any other British city. Probably better. From 6th Form trips  to check out the universities, momentous days at Aintree racecourse and right through to a sneaky post-lockdown outing in 2021, I’ve been a regular visitor. 

Those early expeditions were liberating and a little wild. I knew mates who came to study here and I made plenty of journeys north-west from Stoke-On-Trent where I was attending the Poly. The vibe was addictive. Probably only on a par with Newcastle of the cities I knew. Scousers and Geordies have more in common than divides them. Certainly there was more happening than in the sleepy Potteries. Great gigs attended, top pubs and clubs crawled and new mates made. Liverpool was the first city where I discovered a bona-fide heavy metal pub. Wilsons on Wood Street was a sweaty, strip-lighted, sticky-floored, real-ale venue, with a powerhouse jukebox playing AC/DC and Led Zep classics; and walls plastered with UFO and Black Sabbath posters. Bands played there as well. I’d never seen anything like it. Sadly, Wilsons no longer rattles and shakes on a Friday night, having pulled down the shutters for the last time in 1995.

The Grafton, where The Beatles used to play (there must be a million venues claiming this within a 5-mile radius of the city centre) was a regular haunt, followed by the best chips and gravy I’d had anywhere, from the corner. Real vegetables and everything. I also remember sneaking my friend Liz into the men’s urinals downstairs in The Philharmonic Dining Rooms. They are legendary installations with stalls and hand basins chiselled from spectacular orange marble, cisterns featuring ornate ironwork and walls packed with decorative mosaics and tiles. In 2017, the loos were given Grade 1 listed status by English Heritage.  

Credit: Nicholson's Inns

I had a work trip to Liverpool in 2012 that was very far removed from those early social and sports outings to the City. We need a bit of preamble for this. Back to the previous year. Summer of 2011 saw the eruption of riots across our cities. It was the worst civil unrest in a generation. Although 11 years have now passed, the memories of violence and looting that filled our telly screens in those days still feels chillingly fresh. The riots were an explosive fusing of pressure cooker tension and poor police relations mixed with opportunist criminals and thug tourism. 

What started as a stand-off between local police and the community in Tottenham after the shooting of Mark Duggan then saw trouble spreading faster than a bushfire in the outback. Rioting escalated across London and then to many big cities. 

By a twist of tales too convoluted even for these pages, a year later I found myself on the team that was charged with researching the causes and the actions within the riots. The Reading The Riots team was a good one. With financial backing from the eminent social and political think tank The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (amongst others), we bristled with academic and journalistic muscle from the London School of Economics and The Guardian newspaper who initiated and drove an ambitious undertaking. I was part of the pavement-pounding, rail-riding, stairwell-dwelling, prison-visiting, café-loitering research cadre who sought to capture the diverse stories of those involved.

The project was one of the most challenging I’ve ever worked on. So when the findings were published in a week-long Guardian serial I’ll admit to a sense of satisfaction that the study was recognised as a valid and authoritative insight into what happened on those incendiary nights the previous August. Pithy public policy lessons abounded. The report received some criticism too, inevitably: accusations that it was an apology for violence and looting. That is not what the work was about at all. Not in the slightest. It identified a wide range of complex causal factors with implications for policing, politics and social policy. The critics seemed to be saying that even by asking questions about the riots there was some tacit condoning of the violence. I don’t think so. This was about piecing together explanations. Not justifications.

At a personal level, the work shone a light into dark, secretive corners to illuminate some disturbing causes and motivations. A big chunk of the evidence base came from hearing the stories of those who rioted and those who policed it. That’s what I was doing. Tracking down rioters from our contacts and taking testimony. And then talking to the coppers on the front line.  

This is how I found myself in Liverpool one chilly week in April 2012. Berthed in a hotel close to the Mersey, we were interviewing police officers in the Merseyside Police HQ which was then at Canning Place. That series of interviews stand as some of the most moving I undertook in the whole project. The out-of-control situations that confronted officers provoked genuine fear and desperation. This often came out in the testimony. For example I was capturing the story of an officer who was hit on the head close to Liverpool city centre. He went down under boots and fists. He looked across at me with red-rimmed eyes and said at that moment he thought he was going to die. He was visibly shaken. 

Talking about their experiences brought about a cathartic release. These men and women were reliving terrifying moments in discussions that provided some kind of ad hoc therapy. Where many outbreaks had been all about looting and thievery, such as central Manchester, others were more malevolent. The riots here in Liverpool and also in Salford carried an altogether more extreme intent that aimed at settling scores with the police as directly as possible. 

Interviewing the tactical support officers was a different story. These were the guys with advanced riot and crowd control training. They absolutely got off on the adrenaline surge of violent confrontation. “It’s what we are trained for. It’s what we do”, said one of the unit commanders with a glint in his eye. 

To interview those who had participated in the Liverpool riots – and who had already been sentenced – I travelled out to Lancaster Farms youth offender prison. A new complex outside the town that housed a good proportion of all the young offenders in the north. Does Lancaster count as coastal? Well, you could see Morecambe Bay from the complex. 

There I interviewed people who had rioted in Manchester and Salford as well as Liverpool. The cell blocks were built on diagonal lines inside and out to improve observation. The design was open plan (as far as it's possible in a jail!) and the oppressive battery-hen atmosphere of Feltham (where I’d also carried out some interviews) was absent. The blocks were placed at the four corners of a grassy quadrangle. I was walking across this area, admiring the views to the Lake District hills and said to my accompanying prison education officer that the environment must support rehabilitation. 

"It does", she said. "Though this square is where the trouble happens. If there's a grudge, it will kick off here when they move between activities". 

"Is that often?" I asked. Rarely I guessed. 

"About twice a week..." 

My stride visibly quickened.  

She also said that the best chance of rehabilitating young offenders was before they hit the mainstream adult prison provision. At that point, re-offending became a much greater risk. 

It seemed though that many were already on that path. I spoke to 18 and 19 year olds, dressed in olive green sweats - the house style - who had been arrested 15-20 times. If they hadn't been inside for rioting, it would have been something else. On the other hand the rioters were absolutely at the centre of a politically-inspired sentencing crackdown. One young man with a string of convictions said that he was charged for his involvement in the riots during an interview with police for a separate assault on his brother with an axe. He got a longer sentence for the rioting than for cleaving his brother's head open.

Emotionally charged interviews one upon another left their mark on us. It was important to get some head space at the end of the working day. Luckily, Liverpool is not short of entertainment options, as we have established. I insisted our riot team researchers visit The Philly on Hope Street, though none of my female colleagues felt sufficiently moved to steal a quick gander at those exquisite loos. Even less enthusiasm to track down some heavy metal pubs. Surely researchers should pursue their innate sense of curiosity?

Talking of Hope Street, I grabbed the chance to revisit the cathedrals at either end of the road’s fizzing cultural, art and food establishments. The Anglican Cathedral is massive. I have no other words. The largest in the UK, I gather. It dominates the skyline rising from a small ridge and looks rather menacing in its dark, weathered sandstone. I’m not sure the Mordor-factor was quite the intention at the design stage. At the other end of Hope Street, the modernist Metropolitan cathedral, known with over-celebrated Scouse wit as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ is counter-intuitively older than it’s traditionally-designed Anglican neighbour. 

Albert Dock, close to our Travelodge was formerly the engine-room of Liverpool’s trading wealth. Its regeneration was completed in the late 80’s but the handsome Victorian warehouses and surrounding structures only really began their second life in the 1990’s, playing host to smart eating, drinking and shopping ‘experiences’. (Note my easy adoption of blatant marketing terms).  

Ambling around the perimeter and admiring the assorted boats in the dock, I found myself outside the former White Star Line head office close to the riverfront. The city had just marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The second floor balcony was where the Chairman of the White Star Line announced news of the tragedy to a large crowd that had assembled below. The building in two-tone brick with turrets and wrought-iron balconies looked a bit shabby now. A large yellow ‘offices for rent’ sign hung on the ground floor doing nothing for the image or the history lesson. 

Summer 2021 and I was returning to Liverpool for the first time since the Reading the Riots interviews. As chance would have it, I arrived on the tenth anniversary of the riots spreading beyond London. 

I’d already had a slight skirmish of sorts at Stockport station. As I was purposefully crossing the platform to catch the Liverpool train, I was surprised to see an attractive young woman grinning at me. This doesn’t happen often. Slight in appearance, lush dark hair and about half my age. Christ, what had I done? Flies down? Ketchup on chin? 

No. We were both wearing Rush t-shirts! She sported a classic black number with the Starman logo, circa ‘2112’. Me, the retro orange swirly-writing logo circa ‘Caress of Steel’. How we laughed. 

“Great band”, I blurted. “What a coincidence - I only wear this shirt about once a year!” 

“Same!” she giggled. “You hardly ever see these in public”. 

We remarked that you don’t wear a Rush t-shirt because it’s a fashion statement. But we left it there. Although I was dying to know how she knew the band, and what her favourite tracks were, and if she’d seen them live, and just how good she thought Neil Peart’s drum solo was, and…I realised this risked becoming what my daughters describe as ‘awks’. They would already be horrified at this little scene. We grinned a bit more and then continued our traverse in opposite directions along the platform.

I felt different about Liverpool on this visit. Maybe it was the road works everywhere that meant significant detours for pedestrians simply to get to the waterfront. Maybe it was the tired looking Albert Dock, or the weed-strewn, fenced-off and uncared-for vintage ships in dry dock by the Museum of Liverpool. As much as anything, it was looking at the city's grand public buildings through BLM-eyes and recognizing how much of this proclamation of wealth was built on the slave trade. This was how I felt on a recent trip to Bristol and here it was again. The city was recognizing uncomfortable truths around white privilege and a whitewashed history, and the new International Museum of Slavery represents something of a benchmark.  

Not just that lot either. The Beatles too. Everywhere in the city, there were billboards, street names, branding, gift shops, pubs, themed restaurants… constant belligerent marketing. Liverpool had really stepped up the cultural bombardment since my last visits. Sure, I get the significance of the band. Of course. But, as I munched through a meat and potato pie by the Fab4 Store, I mused that the Cavern Quarter was all a bit much for me.

And another thing. I couldn't understand why there were so many kids everywhere. Then I realised. It was GCSE results day. That’s OK then. Wind your neck in, Mr Grumpy-Pants…

Clearly I was not in the mood for the big city experience after too many months of lockdown and social restrictions. I headed up to Crosby, for some fresh Irish Sea air and a rendezvous with Antony Gormley's Another Place. This is art on a grand scale. There are usually 100 life-size sculptures over a two-mile stretch on the beach and in the surf, all made from casts of the artist’s own body. Which I found a bit unnerving if I'm honest. They've been here since 1997 (I was surprised how long ago) and dependent upon their placement, are in various states of wear and tear. Those furthest out to sea take the biggest battering, but even those buried in sand close to the dunes have corrosive facial lesions, striations and dents. I say ‘usually’ 100 casts because I noted that work was in progress to clean-up and restore the statues and that some of them might be missing. I didn’t count up. 

I loved the way beach visitors were interacting with the art. Some arranged family pics with the statue in the middle; some draped arms around the cast-iron necks; others had left behind bands and bracelets attached to wrists. I’ve mentioned elsewhere how I love public, accessible art brought out from stuffy galleries and away from clutching elitism. The way that everyone, anyone can come to accept and even own the works is part of the attraction. 

In 1998, not long after Gormley’s bold - and at the time opinion-dividing - Angel of the North opened, the landmark was subversively dressed in a 30ft Alan Shearer replica Newcastle United shirt. Magpie fan Kevin Waugh and nine of his pals pulled the stunt using a combination of fishing line, rubber balls and catapults to hoist the shirt on to the statue. The inspired prank became a piece of Geordie folklore and a sign not only of acceptance, but of pride as well. 

Crosby is in Merseyside about seven miles out of the city centre. The train followed the Mersey estuary past heavy industry and docks that have moved downstream from the old port. I wandered through Crosby Coastal Park, packed with kids screaming on dodgers above pumping, bass-heavy vibes, whilst wasp-attracting fast food stalls sat in the in the shadow of Bootle’s container cranes and dock gantries. 

Ten minutes beyond the park, the beach was reassuringly busy with families doing exactly what they should in a staycation summer. I liked Crosby.

At the northern end of the beach begins the Golf Coast, where a series of high profile links courses swallow up the dunes and shoreline like a vivid green duvet. The crown-jewel is The Open-hosting Royal Birkdale. I caught the train that ran alongside the patchwork greens and inviting fairways, but chose to stay on board until Southport. This was my first visit to outer limits of Merseyside. 

Southport was not as expected. I had developed the idea that the town was an exclusive, upmarket north-western gem. Posh even, and full of both old world charm and statement buildings. A grander version of Southwold. 

A few streets might just about match that description, but on the whole it’s not quite like that. I didn’t particularly dislike the place, more a sweeping sense of the underwhelming. I’m not sure who I’d talked to that had but the place up in my mind, but they were almost certainly Liverpool FC fans impressed that Alan Hansen and Kenny Daglish lived there. The most pleasant parts were in the old town, on the landward side of the man-made Marine Lake. Lord Street was a wide tree-lined boulevard and boasted attractive colonnaded shops, hotels and tea rooms. 

Marine Lake divided the town from the coast. I didn’t like this. The lake had a promenade and was lined with guest houses as if it was the real seafront. The lake and surrounding gardens had to be crossed on a footbridge to get to the coast. Or get up on to pier which started at the lake next to a sprawling pub with an oudoor family entertainment area. Here, a bloke in a too-tight fitting Beatles Rubber Soul t-shirt was belting out Elvis cover versions alongside two yellow shirted sidekicks shuffling vaguely in time and waving red collecting buckets. I thought we were a cashless society now?

Between the lake and the seafront, the esplanade had suffered a lot of disappointing development: a leisure centre, ten-pin Bowling hall, giant KFC, cavernous Pizza Hut. I carried on to the end of the pier where it was possible to make out Blackpool in the distance. The tide went out miles. Far beyond the pier. Apart from Blackpool all I could see was a low-lying, shimmering sandbed with shallow pools of seawater whipped up by the stiff breeze. And a few people who had decided to walk out and meet the sea. They had set up a base camp and organised regular food drops. 

Much more rewarding was the walk back southwards from the pier along the beach towards the grass-covered dunes of Birkdale sands and the golf courses. Red Rum, the only horse to have won three Grand Nationals just down the road at Aintree was a local legend. He used to be trained on these expansive sands in preparation for his runs by the unique, former used-car salesman, Ginger McCain. Never mind uninspiring Southport or irritation in the city centre, Red Rum was a lovely thought to take away with me for the return home. 

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Next episode - Blackpool Birthday Party


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