Story of the week: cultural renaissance in Liverpool

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* I’ve been exploring the Unesco-listed Liverpool waterfront this week and will be back on Friday for the Giant’s Spectacular, a performance by a theatre group using giant marionettes. This had me thinking about a previous commission in Liverpool – read on below.

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It felt like New Year’s Eve all over again.

The frisson of excitement in the icy air, the all-together-now countdown and the fireworks to a soundtrack of electric guitars and industrial percussion.

Not even returning prodigal Ringo Starr, plodding through his lackluster latest single, could dampen the ardour of the 30,000-strong crowd. They had gathered outside the neo-classical St Georges’s Hall on a chilly January night to celebrate Liverpool’s inauguration as the European Capital of Culture.

Across the road in a Lime Street pub over plates of scouse, a local stew, and pints of ale by the Cains the local brewery, I find Matthew Murphy, songwriter and guitarist with up-and-coming Liverpool band The Wombats, preparing to take the stage as part of an opening ceremony.

“I hope this year will see Liverpool recognised as a hub for creative arts on a European level,” he says.

“Liverpool always had a bad press but now is the time to explode some myths.”

He grins, downing his beer: “There’s still a lot of segregation in the city, so it’s a chance to get involved and build a new sense of community.”

Cultural capital

Liverpool has undergone something of a transformation since winning the UK nomination for Capital of Culture in 2003 – some £4.5bn has subsequently been pumped into the city’s infrastructure.

My base for exploring the new-look Liverpool was the Malmaison hotel, one of a slew of smart hotels and chi-chi eateries to open across the city in the build up to the Capital of Culture launch.

The waterside property, in sight of the Unesco-listed Three Graces triumvirate of historic buildings [pictured above], takes the Malmaison’s trademark boudoir-chic motif and blends it with nods to local popular culture.

There’s even a suite named The Kop for fans of Liverpool Football Club and old vinyl Beatles albums adorning the walls.

That night, as the crowds disperse following the opening ceremony, we join well-dressed diners and champagne-sipping local dignitaries at the London Carriage Works, the city’s flagship stylish eatery, to toast the event with medium-rare steaks and new-world Shiraz.

The restaurant is symbolic of the new Liverpool, that is understated, with discrete service and excellent food. Ringo may be munching his organic pasta in a glass booth but there isn’t a single perma-tanned WAG in sight.

The next morning the city is basking in the glory of its newly acknowledged status as a cultural powerhouse.

The construction cranes still dominate the cityscape with projects such as the Liverpool One retail complex, and the redevelopment of train hub Lime Street station, still not due to be completed until mid 2008.

But as shoppers flock to Church Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, and the coffee shops of Mount Pleasant hum with discussions of the previous night’s performance, the mood has never been so upbeat since a certain Fab Four first put the city on the map over 40 years previously.

Landmark projects

I head for an exclusive preview of the Bluecoat, one of the city’s landmark redevelopments.

The oldest building in Liverpool, dating from 1717, the Bluecoat has been closed for three years as part of a £12.5m transformation to build a new contemporary wing onto the existing structure.

The building has a long history as Liverpool’s leading art space having hosted early exhibitions by Cezanne and Picasso and staged Yoko Ono’s first performance piece in 1968.

“It’s a place where avant-garde art will be made and consumed,” says Chief Executive Alistair Upton.

“We find the artists who, ten years later, will go on to exhibit at the Tate, plus new composers, designers, writers and craftspeople.”

With 350 formal events, 70 per cent of which are free, the Capital of Culture programme of events draws not only on art but theatre, music, community projects and outdoor, family-friendly happenings.

As well as cultural events, the region will play host to several major events, such as Open Golf Championships in July, the RIBA Stirling Prize awards in October and the MTV Europe Music Awards as part of Liverpool Music Week in November.

Cultural renaissance 

The sense of coming of age as a city is reflected everywhere across Liverpool.

From the regulars supping ale at the Art-Nouveau Philharmonic pub to the city’s new glitterati, twirling cocktail umbrellas in the stylish residents’ bar of the Hope Street Hotel, Liverpool is keen to put dark days of negative stereotypes behind it.

It seems to be learning from its arch-rival Manchester, reborn in the wake of the 2002Commonwealth Games, that a city’s renaissance is driven not just by regeneration itself, but also by the resolve of the local people to make it happen.

* This story was first published in the Daily Express in 2008. Liked this? Try Vintage cruise posters at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

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