Whose were the days?

My stories may not focus on the kind of life in Liverpool that many people expect to hear about. But if that statement sounds hard done by, or pre-judgmental, or somehow aggrieved, then I know for sure where my roots were nourished; such indignant emotions are supposedly as inherently 'Scouse' as football, track suits and a penchant for crime.

Supposedly... Being from Liverpool, I'm used to being an object of fascination, derision or downright rude, misinformed reactions. Scousers are generally perceived to be a loud, opinionated, over-emotional, often threatening breed from a city that's both glorious and inglorious in equal measure - and generally (although we might complain about such a perception), we do little to discredit this massively distorted caricature of any individual who, by accident of birth, happened to be born within a certain demographic boundary. But I'm not content to use my accent alone as a CV that tells anybody I meet all they need to know about me, because what they think they know will always, always be wrong.

I've often been derided by other Scousers for being 'not Scouse enough' even though I was born in Toxteth (ah yes, Toxteth: it is here that the typecasting so often begins). My earliest memories of Liverpool include watching the Anglican Cathedral move towards its almost-completion (and I'm aware that few people today are fortunate enough to say that they ever saw a cathedral being built). So was my dad a tough-but-honest stonemason who epitomised original community values of self sufficiency and stoic resilience, enduring decades of on-off employment and earning only enough money to feed his family bread and dripping while he got the Nave Bridge completed? Did my mother work in a Dingle pub, serving pints to punters who returned, downtrodden and crushed, from the Employment Agency at 10am every morning, having queued for four hours for the prospect of a job on the docks? I know they're the stories everybody expects to hear from a woman of my background, but as it was, my parents were, at the time, busy establishing the original incarnation of the Everyman Bistro. My father was also an artist of sorts; my mother dabbled in designing children's clothes and writing children's stories, and practised yoga.

My family was part of what might be called by the cliche-churners a community of bohemians who, amongst other activities, went 'backstage' into the kitchens of the then-exotic Chinatown restaurants holding bowls to be filled with chow mein, and shopped in the multi-cultural, vibrant hubbub that was Granby Street before the riots. Ah, the Toxteth riots. By 1981 I was 17 years old, and living in a top floor flat in Percy Street; I remember a cab driver whisking me past the bonfires that were engulfing the Racquet Club and the Rialto Ballroom on the corner of Upper Parliament Street. The Specials' 'Ghost Town' was topping the charts at the time, a soundtrack that perfectly suited the feeling that, around me, the cornerstones of the world I grew up in were being razed to the ground. I have so many stories to share about living in Percy Street in the 1980s. But before all that... I remember Otterspool Promenade when it was still part municipal tip, part semi-manicured lawns. As a child, I rode a bicycle on OP's dusty red concrete slopes; as a young adult, I learnt what heartbreak feels like in a car park overlooking a view of Birkenhead town Hall. I remember Kirklands on Hardman Street (now, I think, The Fly in the Loaf?) when it was a huge, clattering bakery, and I remember it again later on when it was a Wine Bar, popular with my parents and later, my sister. I remember another bakery: Joe Silver's near, I think, Allerton Road: trays of proper strudel and loaves of Challah bread, fresh from the oven, being shovelled into waxed white paper bags. I remember Bold Street when it was home to Cooper's, where shoppers were greeted by a uniformed doorman who wore white gloves and ushered us into the 1960s Liverpool equivalent of London's Fortnam and Mason food hall.

Further down Bold Street there was Reece's Cafe, where I ate Arctic Roll with my grandma. Next stop, the Kardomah Cafe, where a waitress introduced me to the habit of sprinkling salt on hot buttered toast to lift the experience to a whole new level. A trip to Henderson's Cafe was an annual treat courtesy of my grandfather who, every year, took my sister and I there for Christmas lunch followed by knickerbocker glory and a gift from under the tree. My sister and I once wore matching red velvet dresses, and I didn't like saying the word 'knickerbocker' because it sounded a bit rude, but it was worth sacrificing a moment's embarrassment in exchange for the joy of that sweet, sticky ice cream medley served in a properly heavy sundae glass. Such experiences were, perhaps, my equivalent of an education of sorts; today, I'm a food critic (amongst other things) who fondly remembers running around the Everyman Bistro as a four year old and discovering, for the first time in my life, syrup on white bread, 'pepperpot beef pancakes' and spinach mornay. But we didn't have white bread or creamy sauces at home, and even meat was strictly off the menu - I was a child of the original wholefood generation. So were my parents posh, monied, upper-crust southerners? Far from it; both were local people who saw a life beyond the restrictions of class, inherited hardship and dull food.

The Everyman Bistro was a meeting point for the various artists, poets, writers and musicians who congregated in and around Liverpool at the time. I met the Beatles there; my dad says that Paul McCartney still owes him a tenner (a lot of money, in 1968) for an impromptu party bar bill, but I wish I'd have kept the two old pennies that John Lennon gave me in exchange for a crayon sketch of a princess in a tower (along with, perhaps, an autograph? Such memorabilia would see my dad's outstanding tenner and raise him quite a few extra bob....). "Remember this moment" someone said to me, at the time; "The Beatles are a very famous pop group".

I remember the moment, but only because of the profit I made; the bistro soundtrack (and indeed, the soundtrack at home, too) was more 'Walk on By', 'Lay Lady Lay' and 'Suzanne Takes Me Down' than 'Love Me Do' and 'A Hard Day's Night'. Gosh, I have so many memories to share: regular visits to the cafe and viewing platform at the top of what's now the Radio City tower; how I was drawn to the 'life beyond' that Jayne Casey's 'Blood and Lipstick' cafe (where I worked for a while, as a naive 14 year old), Probe Records and, of course, Eric's represented; the time when the first Tall Ships race sailed into town in 1984, bringing with it small armies of exotically-uniformed sailors (Oh, those Columbians! One of them was responsible for my resignation from Rooneys, formerly Pizza, Pizza Pizza, on Hardman Street...); minesweeping at the State Ballroom; tripping on acid in Sefton Park; attending the Everyman Youth Theatre; a wedding in St Philip Neri on Catherine Street; a christening (and later, a funeral) in St Brides just around the corner; walking my dog in the Anglican Cathedral gardens as a 22 year old and discovering my great, great grandmother's grave (Emily Kearney, RIP)... ...I lived my formative years in an amazing city; it saddens me that, now I live elsewhere, many people I meet think they know all about that city, when in fact, they know nothing at all.

Regionalist attitudes exist across the UK and beyond and, to an extent, being defined by the city you're born in has both positive and negative aspects. But as someone who was brought up by hippyish parents who sent me to 'good' schools before pulling me out of 'the system' altogether and never, to my knowledge, watched a football match in their lives, I sometimes feel a sense of 'otherness' when it comes to describing the city where I was born and grew up. People who aren't from Liverpool expect to hear that my roots were watered by poverty and oppression, while fellow Scousers sometimes express an attitude that often translates as 'leave this city, and you betray it forever' sentimentality. I understand that life during Liverpool's 'good old days', for many, wasn't always that good. But I also understand that life is what you make it - and Liverpool continues to make a lot of mine.



By Melissa Blease Melissa Blease

This story was added on 27th September 2010

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