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Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Cit y of Change and Challenge.

Grasshopper commented on Liverpool's bright and sunny aspect. I replied (Home truths but the comments made by this most astute of observers made me think a little.

There is absolutely no doubt at all that the climate of Liverpool has changed dramatically in the last forty years. My father, an avid gardener, now grows Mediterranean crops at home. He is, for reasons of finance and principle, an organic gardener, so the peaches, coffee, oranges and lemons he has grown over the last ten years are not assisted by being unnatural hybrids, and he grows the plants in the exact same spot that he previously had a cold frame (a small greenhouse used to protect seedlings etc from frost). Dad memorably pruned his roses one recent Christmas. On weather patterns, generally, I was, on my recent visit to Liverpool, viewing some fine black and white childhood photographs, taken between 1962 and about 1975 where we kids built real igloos, from real ice and trudged to school in 2ft of snow. It has not snowed in Liverpool, with any significant accumulation, for at least twenty five years.

The usual arguments apply to how long, deep and significant this climate shift is, but the effects are there, obvious, measurable, recorded. However, a further shift in the local environment is evident, and the roots of this are slightly more surprising. There is nothing that we Scousers enjoy more than bleating about the Thatcher Years, and the devastating effect they had on the city. We even had World Famous Riots (in '81) and maintain the distinction of being the only city in the British mainland to have tanks patrolling the streets(instead of policemen on bicycles as is usual in England). Most of us (Scousers) took Mrs Thatcher's government as an affront, and blame her personally for the evils that affected the city, especially the chronic unemployment, during the 1980's. My mother still refers to Mrs Thatcher as "that woman", unable to speak her name, but if my mother is right, and Mrs Thatcher was responsible for the industrial wastelands that Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle became, then the surprising result is that Mrs Thatcher was among the first elected politicians in the UK to go Green. Why? Because the River Mersey, once the most polluted river in Europe (it was either No 1 or No 2, trading places with the Rhine on an annual basis), has become a Mecca for salmon fishermen. Since industry died along the banks of the Mersey, the river is cleaning itself.

Nan used to take us to Otterspool Prom, a riverside park on the South side of the city, built on a landfill. We would get the number 61 bus, walk about three miles through an area of crumbling Victorian terraces, blissfully unaware that we were strolling through Toxteth (an area of the city claiming another European record as the most 'deprived' inner city) before arriving at the gates of the park. Nan would give us a little shove, telling us to "run you little greyhounds, run" (greyhound racing being one of her many vices), before she retired to a nearby bench from where she could stare rudely at, and criticize vocally, everyone who passed by. We would run, like greyhounds, but sometimes we'd have to do this with our backs to the breeze from the river, because the stench could be overpowering. The local nickname for this area was the Cast Iron Shore, derived from all the junk lying round the sandbanks, and from the shipyards that issued the junk. By 2001, the shipyards were long gone, but from the same playing fields were we'd coughed up industrial strength phlegm, the first rumours of sightings emerged. Seals, sunning themselves on the sandbanks, were seen, and before the end of that year, verifiable photographs made the local papers. There's seabirds returning too, not just the ubiquitous filthy gulls that infest most seaside towns, but real Wildlife; birds that have the words "Yellow" and "Crested" and "Long" in their names, and are scared of humans.

Sadly, Mrs Thatcher cannot even get the credit for this "greening" of Liverpool. To be absolutely fair she was, in fact, most definitely not single-handedly responsible for the end of a mass-employment, factory-based economy in Northern England, and even if she had been, the origins of the dramatic change- cleaner skies in Northern cities - came with the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, Acts which drastically reduced air pollution. European coal burning had blackened our cities, given chimney sweeps lifelong employment and small children asthma, as practically every home was heated by an open coal fire. Even moths were affected. The Peppered Moth exists naturally in two forms - a light coloured version and a darker one. Peppered Moths hang out on trees, and brick walls, anywhere warm really, wings flattened against the surface, deciding which of your tweed suits to eat next. Pre-Industrialization, the dark and light forms were equally distributed. As soot darkened trees, and coated walls, the balance shifted. Dark forms of the coat-eater were better camouflaged against predators and so became the dominant (numerically) form.

As the cities have cleaned up, many have been transformed. The majesty of the Victorian Corn Exchanges, Stock Markets and Court Houses have been restored in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool as the clean air has made it worthwhile to clean up all the old sandstone and granite. And new, high-end, up-market, prestigious, bespoke(aaaghh), gleaming glass and zinc, talking elevator buildings have been added to the mix; either cathedrals of Shopping or Temples of the banking and service industries that now dominate our economies. On the surface, these regenerated city centres are anything but grey, and because air-borne particulate pollution ('not including diesel' tm) at least, has decreased, they'll stay non-grey.

There is, in my mind, no doubt that the slaughtering of British Industry by the people(and although this includes Mrs Thatcher, it was, to be fair, not just her) that own this country helped towards a cleaner(air borne particulates only, 'not including diesel' tm) country. Heavy metals not poured into rivers because steelworks closed down, coal not burned because mining communities were destroyed, oil not spilled because the shipyards were sold, (literally) down the river, all this helped. But, apart from those precious Clean Air Acts, Acts whose results were to directly improve ordinary people's lives, none of the improvements in our environment have been deliberate. They have been side-effects of a system that remained, and remains, fundamentally unchanged.

I think that some of Grasshopper's perception of the North of England is based on the lingering Dickensian image that Britain exudes. Tony Blair tried to change this image of course, by inviting popstars to Downing Street, and trying to fit into the whole "Cool Brittanica" thing. But 2000 years of history, a history and a structure that Dickens managed to reveal, describe and criticize savagely, does not get rewritten just because Ginger Spice grabs the Prime Ministerial bum in a photo shoot. And although those old industrial cities have now been cleaned up, even though the skies are bluer, even though my Dad grows peaches the fact is that nothing has changed. The swans that swim on the now-clean Mersey still belong to the Crown, the pristine downtown cores still belong, in large part, to the Duke of Westminster and other members of the super-rich elite, and our political leaders interfere patronisingly, and paternalistically in every aspect of ordinary people's lives, while being careful to NEVER, EVER, EVER offend, censure, or financially restrict the rapacious top-hatted industrialists that treat British people with contempt.

The view from this particular bridge remains. If it profited "industry" to return to mass pollution, it would. It would have no more hesitation in once again pouring mercury, lead and cadmium into the rivers than it would have relocating to India. The Government would do nothing, stating "economic necessity" - just listen to Blair justifying another expansion at Heathrow, (one of the world's busiest airports), at the expense of the environment and the local people. The perception of English cities, as grey and dreary, particularly Liverpool, is I would say much more than just a vague visual but is a reference to a reality. That reality (by expectation and by Human Right) should have changed by now. But it has not. Change will come to England, eventually, maybe, hopefully, but for now, it is all on the surface.

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