You can take the man out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the man.
I left Liverpool to go to university in 1976 and never really went back to live there. My parents and younger brother still live there, my elder son and his wife live there and my younger son is at university there. I go back whenever I can, but that is not often these days.
When I do go back I am amazed at the transformation of the place in the last three decades – especially the almost tangible confidence about the city now. But, as I drive through to the centre from my parents’ home in Childwall I still remember the dereliction of the 1970s. There were still bomb sites that hadn’t been cleared since the end of the second world war. There was a sense of victimhood as any economic boom by-passed a city riven by mad politics which put winning cheap dogmatic ideological battles ahead of any sense of public good. (I have written about this in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life.)
One of the defining images of those years was Alan Bleasdale‘s epic BBC series, Boys from the Blackstuff. I think this was developed from a one-off TV play simply called The Blackstuff – but I might be making that up. Bleasdale created one of the most powerful screams against the realities of what became Thatcherite Britain as experienced in a northern city – as opposed, of course, to the ‘glorious’ experiences of the City (of London). This series portrayed characters that any Scouser would recognise and showed the human cost of policies that ruined the lives of a generation or more. Unemployment, lack of resources for ordinary living and the terrible compulsion (of Yosser particularly) to retain some human dignity (and hope) were the realities for many, many people. Community cohesion was more of a reality then – until dissolved in the acid of the selfish individualism that ultimately led to the hubristic and greed-based financial fiasco we have seen played out in the last year or so.
First, the arts convey human realities and portray the real effects of ‘dogmas’ on ordinary people far better than abstract arguments ever could. If you really want to persuade people of the power of your argument, put it into a story and give it flesh. Which brings me to …
Second, Yosser and co incarnate the experiences of a city and its people during dark days. I use the word ‘incarnate’ deliberately. If we want to know about the effects of a political or economic policy, put it into flesh and blood and let’s see what it looks, sounds and feels like. That is why this series was so powerful in the ‘depression-scarred 1980s’.
This has a theological edge to it, too. If we were to ask ourselves how we should best understand God, – and who and how he is – what would we need? Rather than simply offering us three-line definitions of the Kingdom of God (and somewhere to sign up to it so that others would know if we were ‘in’ or ‘out’), God comes among us as one of us – in Jesus of Nazareth. Hence the simple (simplistic?) formula I have stated elsewhere for handling the Bible whose fundamental question is ‘What is God like?’:
If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like, read the Gospels … and then look at us (the Christian Church).
That is scary.