My article No.10 – Liverpool The Pool Of Life – cultural representations of the city and people of Liverpool

Article written in 1998



By the time of the Industrial Revolution was already clearing a sixth of all tonnage leaving English ports, had a population of 60,000, and had become England’s principal slave tade port. (Channon,  1976: 61) In the 1780s “Liverpool was clearing more slaves than Bristol and London combined” and the “most important firms based in slavery traded from Liverpool.” (Cameron and Crooke, 1992: 1)

By the time slavery was outlawed in the British Isles in 1807, Liverpool had become rich on its profits. Not only had the slave merchants become wealthy, but industry in general was flourishing, such as Liverpool’s shipbuilding industry which benefited from the need for slave-ships.

Liverpool was reluctant to lose this source of wealth and jobs. It was only when slavery became less profitable and slave rebellions increased did the slave traders of Liverpool, many of them respectable and notable citizens, begin to accept that slavery was on its way out. Despite fears of financial ruin the merchants of Liverpool’s simply diversified until “Liverpool became the world’s greatest cotton port.” (Hart, 1991: 4) The products of the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire passed through Liverpool’s docks, and this enabled the town to preserve its status as the world’s leading port.

Liverpool in the nineteenth century has the romantic image as having been a cosmopolitan town, a melting pot of different peoples – the blacks, the Welsh, the Scandinavians, the tens of thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the effects of famine and poverty in Ireland. However, as Eric Midwinter explains: “after London, Liverpool was the saddest example of industrialism and urbanisation, … a swirling maelstrom of humanity.” (Midwinter, 1971: 56) Most people in the city spent their lives in a battle against poverty, terrible housing conditions, disease and unemployment.

The influx of immigrants, especially the Irish, created resentment and hostility. The Liverpool Mail in 1841 described the Irish as “the vermin of the human race,” (Hart, 1991: 10) By the 1850s the Irish made up a quarter of the population and were generally blamed for all the city’s ills. Sectarianism amongst the Irish only worsened matters. There were some 160 Orange Lodges in the 1870s, and by the 1890s Liverpool had seventeen branches of the Irish National Party, with 10,000 members.

The city was growing uncontrollably. Health issues were becoming a major problem, and as early as 1844 the city appointed Britain’s first Public Health Officer, Doctor Duncan. However, plagues still swept the city, costing the lives of thousands and it wasn’t until the 1870s, with the introduction of the Public Health Act, that Liverpool began to take serious action such as ensuring that water and sewerage supplies were adequate. (Hart, 1991: 13)

Despite reforms life for most Liverpudlians at the start of the twentieth century was an endless struggle. Many lived in slum dwellings and would do so for decades to come. The period up until the First World War, and beyond, was one of sectarian violence, industrial unrest and social depravation – and the Depression had not yet started.

Depression hit Liverpool hard, increasing poverty and suffering. War may have ended the Depression but much of the city was left in rubble. Post-war development and the reliance on the tower block probably did more to damage the city’s soul than the bombs of the Luftwaffe. High-rise communities only isolated people from genuine communities adding to crime and depravation in the city.

Still suffering from the effects of Depression and war Liverpool entered its glory years of the 1960s which, with hindsight, were no more than a short-term relief from the Depression, the austerity of the War and post-war years, and the industrial decline of the city that was to follow. However, much of what we think of about Liverpool derives from those few years of relative prosperity and fame in the 1960s. When those years are put into context of the history of the last two centuries and the events that were to follow, our ideas about the city should change dramatically.

“Liverpool and its people are often characterised with reference to particular images … from the architectural finesse of the waterfront to the litter-strewn pavements of the city centre; from struggles in the workplace and the community to the clandestine activities of Militant; and from seminal achievements in the arts and sports, to media caricatures of the whinging scouser, the scally.'” (Reconnecting Liverpool, 1998)

This study is concerned with the period from 1960 – from the beginning of the glory years – through the 1970s and 1980s and up to the present day. I will examine events, people and life in Liverpool during this period, discussing how the city and its people are represented from outside, and how they represent themselves. I will be concerned with the image Liverpool has and how this image is borne out in the city’s culture and society.

In Chapter One I will discuss the surge in popular music in the city in the early 1960s, especially the massive success of The Beatles. I will show to what extent the Merseybeat sound was unique to the city. I will discuss some of the theories behind Beatlemania, including negative views of its effects on the youth of the day and the ideas of female sexuality that some sociologists argue lie behind Beatlemania.

In Chapter One I will also talk about two contemporary poets from Liverpool, the performance poets Craig Charles and Levi Tafari. Both reflect the city in their own way, with varying degrees of success. I will discuss whether they have had to compromise or adjust to stereotypes in order to achieve success.

Liverpool as a society is covered in Chapter Two. I will discuss mass unemployment, poverty, and the downturn in manufacturing industry and the effect all these had on Liverpool society. I will discuss the work of sociologist R. Meegan who wrote a study of Liverpool’s outer estates. Images of Liverpool, via the television programmes Boys From The Blackstuff and Bread, will be discussed: are these fair or accurate? I will discuss such images and ask whether they are damaging stereotypes and whether Liverpudlians deserve them or even play up to them.

In Chapter Two I will also examine varying views of Liverpool and its people, including those of writer Howard Channon, actor Steven Berkoff and photographer Peter Marlow. Using their examples I will demostrate that images of Liverpool can be contradictory, often negative and positive at the same time.

Chapter Three will examine aspects of the political life in Liveprool, predominantly during the 1980s when Liverpool politics was a source of great debate – locally and nationally. I will look at how people viewed Liverpool through its politics and politicians. I will examine the crisis that developed around the Council and Militant Tendency in Liverpool, its budget crisis, and its clashes with the Conservative Government and the leadership of the Labour Party. As well as the economic consequences of the budget crisis, I will also look at the ideological conflicts surrounding it.

Also as part of Chapter Three I will discuss two aspects of what could be perceived as outside interference in Liverpool’s local democracy: Michael Heseltine’s Merseyside Task Force and the Merseyside Development Corporation, which became a powerful planning authority in the city.

Since the mid-1980s Liverpool has experienced a series of traumatic events: Heysel, Hillsborough and the murder of James Bulger. In Chapter Four I will discuss the effect of these three examples on the city and will view outside perceptions of how Liverpool deals with grief, such as the notion that Liverpool loves self-pity and is a “city of grief.” (Sweeney, 1989) These events were extraordinary, but I will ask whether their significance was elevated because they occurred in Liverpool.


Why should Liverpool give rise to the sound that defined British music in the early 1960s? Why not Manchester or London? When analysing any cultural phenomenon it is always wise to examine the context. One writer did this by comparing Merseybeat to a recipe:

“First, taken an Atlantic port, add a hundred years of African settlement, mix in liberal amounts of transient émigrés and seamen … Add a large portion of Irish settlers, and top with the biggest US Air Force base in Europe. Simmer for a generation, and, voila … MERSEYBEAT!” (Internet, 1996)

The Daily Worker newspaper was  more succinct. To them, Merseybeat was “the voice of 80,000 crumbling homes and 30,000 people on the dole.” (Braun, 1995: 55)

These observations demonstrate the importance context plays in understanding Merseybeat. The fact that Liverpool was the catalyst for the new sound was not merely a geographical accident. The music scene in Liverpool was deeply influenced by everyday reality, by issues at the heart of working class lives, such as poor housing and unemployment. These influences not only affected the music but also the personalities and characters of those creating it.

Merseybeat musicians were reflecting genuine and relevant emotions in their music. There was nothing false or insincere about their music. It was pure feeling being expressed simply and honestly. What is more, they were influenced by other musicians who performed in the same way. As Braun points out, they were “working class urban lads who listened to and talked about Muddy Waters, Little Richard and Buddy Holly.” (Braun, 1995: 7)

It is significant that this new sound developed out of a young working class population. Their very arrival on the music scene marked the moment when the post-war babyboomers claimed their time. “As [The Beatles] said at the time, ‘Youth is on our side,’ and it’s youth that matters right now.” (Kureishi and Savage, 1995: 177) They looked at life in a fresh way. The events that shaped their parents’ lives – depression, war, austerity – were fast becoming distant memories as this generation became teenagers – a term which itself had to be coined to reflect their uniqueness in relation to previous generations.

John Lennon said “ours is a today image,” perhaps summing up the significance Merseybeat groups had for the youth at the time. (Braun, 1995: 15) Michael Braun, writing about The Beatles at the height of their popularity in 1964, spoke of how they were young, fresh and high-spirited. He believed that this made a refreshing change from what he called the “self-pitying moaners crooning their love-lorn tunes from the tortured shallows of lukewarm hearts.” (Braun, 1995: 12)

Success meant that they not only became “part of the export trade but an electorally valuable property.” (Johnson, 1964: 196) As a result, a previously detached establishment began to take notice. In the case of The Beatles the Conservative Government informed its 1964 General Election candidates to mention them in speeches whenever possible. Prime Minister Sir Alex Douglas Home went as far as to take credit for their success.

This hijacking of The Beatles’ success by the Conservatives outraged the Labour Party and their leader, Harold Wilson. As a Northerner, and a Merseyside MP, Wilson perhaps felt The Beatles were more naturally identifiable with him. After Wilson won the 1964 General Election he promptly built on Home’s example and associated himself with the success of music in Liverpool, and especially with The Beatles.

For Wilson and other politicians the fact that youth of the day were obsessing over the Mersey Sound created a situation where association with those groups reaped huge political capital, at least in their own perception. Youth was becoming a national obsession and the establishment “queued at the altar of these new, north-western gods,” capitalising on the fresh images of youth coming out of Liverpool. (Kureishi and Savage, 1995: 177)

We also began to see previously disinterested intellectuals taking notice of popular music and culture, smearing it “with a respectable veneer of academic scholarship.” (Johnson, 1964: 196) Paul Johnson is scathing about what he calls intellectual treachery and argues that because the youth likes it then somehow “it must be good, and clever men must rationalise this preference in intellectually respectable language.” (Johnson, 1964: 197)

For Johnson, the leaders of the nation – both intellectually and politically – were bewildered by the changing society and were fearful of becoming out of date, and were “increasingly turning to young people as guides … as geiger-counters to guard them against the perils of mental obsolescence.” (Johnson, 1964: 196)

Johnson not only attacks the intellectuals who write about The Beatles and the other groups (whom he refers to as “grotesque idols”) but is equally damning about the youth who followed them. He dismisses them as a generation of fodder “enslaved by a commercial machine.” (Johnson, 1964: 197) He believes that the youth had been brainwashed to accept the exploitation, and partly blames the education system, “which in 10 years of schooling, can scarcely raise them to literacy.” (Johnson, 1964: 198) When describing such youth he speaks of the:

“…bottomless chasm of vacuity they reveal! The huge faces, bloated with cheap confectionary and smeared with chainstore makeup, the open, sagging mouths and glazed eyes, the hands mindlessly drumming in time to the music.” (Johnson, 1964: 197)

Johnson finally dismisses them as insignificant and argues that “the boys and girls who will be the real leaders and creators of society tomorrow – never go near a pop concert.” They are “in the process of inheriting the culture which, despite Beatilism or any other mass-produced mental opiate, will continue to shape our civilisation.” (Johnson, 1964: 197)

Johnson was writing his article at a time when Beatlemania was at its height, when the sight of thousands of screaming girls running after one of their idols must have seemed a very new, even disturbing, phenomenon. The fact that those partaking in this phenomenon were mostly young girls also offers the sociologist the chance to draw some interesting conclusions.

Of Beatlemania it has been said that “to abandon control – to scream, faint, dash about in mobs – was in form if not conscious intent, to protest the sexual representatives, the rigid double standards of teen culture.” (Ehrenreich and Hess and Jacobs, 1992: 523-4) Young girls at the time were expected to be pure and good and to know when to draw the line when it came to sexual issues. It could be argued that Beatlemania was “the first and most dramatic uprising of‘women’s sexual revolution.” (Ehrenreich and Hess and Jacobs, 1992: 524)

The effect of Beatlemania had on these young girls was seen as dangerous by many adults. It was regarded as a disease and those “at risk were all ten- to fourteen-year-old girls.” (Ehrenreich and Hess and Jacobs, 1992: 525) If Beatlemania was a protest against sexual repression it was difficult for most adults, even if they were familiar with Freud’s ideas on childhood sexuality, to believe that their chldren “had any sexual feelings to repress.” (Ehrenreich and Hess and Jacobs, 1992: 527)

So far I have been discussing how people perceive Liverpool and Liverpudlians from outside, detached from the context of everyday reality. In order to gain an alternative perspective, one that comes from within, I will discuss two contemporary members of Liverpool’s black community – performance poet Levi Tafari and poet and actor Craig Charles.

Levi Tafari’s Jamican heritage and Rastafarian faith has given him an altogether different perspective on what it means to hail from Liverpool, especially when considering the historical aspect such as Liverpool’s dominance in the African slave trade. Tafari explains this when he said:

“…here all the slave trading took place. The slavery connection has put a tarnish on Liverpool, and that is what the city is suffering from now.” (Tafari, 1989: 9)

This different view of the city is evidence in much of his poetry and often appears critical:

“Yes living inna Liverpool is living in hell / especially if you are black as well / yuh should hear some a the stories that we can tell / nuh wonder the youths them did have to rebel.”The Liverpool Experience (Tafari, 1989: 73)

Despite the harsh realities of Liverpool’s past and present Levi Tafari is proud of the role of Liverpool’s black community. He tries to portray the community in a positive light, such as in his poem Toxteth Where I Reside:

“So forget the ghetto mentality / because we are not ghettoites / we are a talented people / with a lot to give / the oldest black community in Europe / and we’re positive.” (Tafari, 1993: 11)

Levi uses his poetry to fight against the damaging images Liverpool’s black community so often has in the media and in the public’s eye. It could be said that he has become “an ambassador of the black community.” (Andi, 1993: back cover)

For Levi, like many others, Liverpool can be a contradictory experience, both “adventurous and dangerous” as he says in his poem The Liverpool Experience. In that poem he writes of the poverty which exists in Liverpool:

“Some work from nine to five / to stay alive / and still them find / it hard to survive.” (Tafari, 1989: 72)

Levi is writing of life and events around him and his poetry is shaped by those events. The Toxteth Riots, for example, happened at a time when Tafari was maturing as a poet. He made a heartfelt response to them in the poem Nuh Blame Rasta:

“We did warn them not to arrest our friend / Them never had nuh reason. / Suh we warn them again / But reinforcement what the police them send / And now look how situation end.” (Tafari, 1989: 83)

Tafari’s commercial success has been relatively small in contrast to that of another Liverpool poet and actor – Craig Charles. The star of television’s Red Dwarf has embraced the wider culture of Britain, exploiting more fully the fact that he comes from Liverpool and speaks with an accent exceedingly rare. In Red Dwarf, the use of phrases such as “smeghead” immediately identify his character as being a Scouser. There are repeated jokes which could be seen as living up to the sterotypes for a Liverpudlian with jokes based around poverty, laziness, stupidity, crudeness, and vulgarity. His character’s image, more than any other in the programme, is based on his origin.

Charles is also a poet and his poetry, although perhaps less localised than that of Tafari, plays on the imagery and language of the Scouser – the cheekiness, the humour, the rudeness and the self-denigration. For instance, at a performance I saw in 1996, he performed ten minutes of his show in his underpants with his trousers around his ankles. His humour also encourages interaction with the audience. At that same performance a wag in the audience shouted “you smoothie,” as Charles completed a love poem to a woman in the audience. Charles, always ready with a quip, replied “it gets me laid.” (Charles, 1996)

The main difference between these two men  is largely that Levi Tafari does not live up to the stereotypes and images of Liverpool. Whereas Craig Charles, in his Red Dwarf character in particular, is a personification of the Scouser. As a result, Charles has found wider success: appealing more to the wider community who are not threatened by him. He represents what most people see as the
cheeky Liverpudlian and is therefore readily accepted. Levi, through questioning people’s ideas about Liverpool, is more challenging and less readily accepted into the mainstream.

Both Charles and Tafari through their differences reflect the diversity of culture in Liverpool’s black community and how their “different achievements are an expression of the communinity’s spirit.” (Van Helmond and Palmer, 1992: 24) It is not just the black community in Liverpool who demonstrate such diversity in their culture, but Liverpool as a whole:

“Many of the country’s best comedians are from Liverpool and the arts in all forms flourish in the area. Many groups have emerged locally, from The Beatles to Frankie Goes To Hollywood … [the] film Letter To Brezhnev … had been made on a shoestring by young working-class men from [Kirkby] and went on to receive an award at the Venice Film Festival. Alan Bleasdale’s TV series, Boys From The Blackstuff, which depicted the plight of the unemployed on Merseyside was hailed by the critics. There are also many operatic and drama groups, paintors, sculptors and poets  producing very fine work in Liverpool.” (Heffer, 1986: 81-2)


Liverpool’s fame and relative prosperity in the 1960s was short-lived. Liverpool may have been the centre of international consciousness, to paraphrase the beat-poet Alan Ginsberg, but it was not too long before the generation who were generting the city’s fame were living and operating out of London and other more readily recognisable cultural centres. The Liverpool they left behind, robbed of the shine of temporary fame, was in a depressingly sad state.

By the 1970s Liverpool offered its people little hope for the future. The city was being consumed by a “whirlwind of inflation,” and the city’s unemployment figures were frighteningly high. (Channon, 1976: 219) Mass unemployment and unusually high levels of unskilled workers contributed greatly to increasing poverty in the city. Lack of work led to the inevitable exodus of people from the city, which amounted to two hundred thousand in twenty five years – a rate “faster than any other British city.” (Channon, 1976: 219) What made matters worse was that those leaving the city were predominantly the young, skilled workers, who could generally find work, but increasingly only outside of Merseyside.

Mass unemployment, unskilled labour and casual working practices created a twilight world of people neither in full-time work, or completely dependent on the State. This world was accurately portrayed in Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff and unintentionally personified in the character of Yosser – a angry man fighting for the right to work and support his family.

Bleasdale’s drama “went beyond the clichés and stereotypes almost to surrealistically expose the social and economic hypocrisies and illogicities of the post-industrial urban world.” (Stead, 1991: 214) Watching the series could be hugely entertaining for it was often hilariously funny. Yet it could also be deeply moving and sometimes “profoundly disturbing, and totally anarchic.” (Stead, 1991: 214) This was life in Liverpool, warts and all, but with a refreshing honesty and unsentimentality.

During the 1960s and early 1970s the population of Liverpool was being forced into radical movement. Large numbers of young and working class people moved away from the inner-city out to the fast-developing estates such as Kirkby, Speke and Halewood. These new communities were largely made up of people who “worked in manufacturing companies which were part of UK or foreign-owned multinationals,” which had included “an influx of new companies, including such household names as Birds Eye, Kodak, Ford Motors, Distillers and Kraft.” (Abercrombie and Warde and et. al., 1995: 325)

Unfortunately boom was quickly followed by bust. From the mid-1970s the suburbs of Liverpool began to suffer a spiralling downturn in employment. Company after company either closed their doors altogether or made increasingly high numbers of redundancies. A few of the biggest companies to pull out of Liverpool included Plessey, Massey Ferguson, Hygena and Dunlop. In Kirkby alone “between 1971 and 1984, there was a 57 per cent decline” in manufacturing jobs. (Abercrombie and Warde and et. al., 1995: 325)

The sociologist R. Meegan, in his study of Liverpool’s outer estates, charts the major redundancies that afflicted Liverpool’s outlying districts during the 1970s and 1980s and talks about the affect they had on those communities. (Meegan, 1989) The table at the end of this chapter illustrates the major redundancies in just three of these estates: Speke, Kirkby and Halewood.

The factors behind these losses were multiple, but included:

…lack of investment leading to plants becoming technologically obsolete and therefore uncompetitive;

… multinationals thinking globally to the detriment of local situations, resulting in many companies moving away from Merseyside for more favourable regions and countries;

… actual investment in the region having a negative effect on employment levels as production became more efficient;

… and the inability to attract new industries, both service and manufacturing, to an area perceived as backward and uncooperative. (Meegan, 1989: 325-7)

Whatever the reasons, the efforts have been devastating and have ledt to “social polarisation between those in work and those without jobs; large numbers of long-term unemployed; … huge reductions in household income [and] increasing reliance upon the state.” (Abercrombie and Warde and et. al, 1995: 327)

The development of manufacturing industry in Liverpool had been a relatively new event. Liverpool’s historical over-dependence on the port and the fact that a core of skilled workers never really developed in the city meant that manufacturing industry never took hold in Liverpool. (Parkinson, 1985: 10-11) Government policies in the 1960s had begun to redress that situation and led to the “establishment of a branch of the British car industry on Merseyside, with an investment programme of £65 million pounds which created 25,000 jobs.” (Parkinson, 1985: 11) This flirtation with manufacturing industry offered hope for the future but the rapid decline in the 1970s and 1980s did immense harm to the city.

Meegan, on a positive note, suggests that many of the people in Liverpool affected by these dramatic changes in Liverpool have not resorted to fatalism. He partly ascribes this resilience to “the famous Liverpool humour, which involves a lively scepticism towards authority.” He also notes the confidence shown by many local unemployed in their own abilities to organise a collective response, – the family-based networks of support and the downright refusal of the unemployed to be marginalised. (Meegan, 1989: 327)

This is refreshing to hear when speaking of the unemployed of Liverpool, and it contradicts much of what popular drama, comedy and media has to say. In their case, the unemployed are generally portrayed as skivers, dole-cheats,loafers or lazy people. They are content to scrounge off the Welfare State while abusing the system at the same time – images personified in the Carla Lane situation comedy Bread.

This programme plays on the image of Liverpudlians as dole cheats, using every possible cheat possible to exploit the Welfare State to its limits, particularly in the character of Joey Boswell –  “the scourge of the DHSS.” (Lane and Corlett, 1989: 18) Joey is an expert at fiddling the Welfare, and manages to:

“claim an allowance for Mongy as a guard dog … a hearing aid for Granddad, in case his deafness gets any worse … a laundry allowance for Granddad’s incontinence … [and] all large bills go to the DHSS for their consideration … he parks his Jaguar within walking distance of that office an dis in there on the dot of opening time everyday.” (Lane and Corlett, 1989: 24-25)

Meegan counteracts such images of Liverpool and is showing that a proportion of the population of Liverpool – a proportion large enough to be recognisable – has not sat back and let the State run their lives. They have used inner resources, along with the support of friends, community and, above all, family in an attempt to preserve themselves, their dignity an their loyalty to their declining communities. Of course, the Boswell’s in Bread would argue that this is precisely what its characters are doing.

People often have mixed or contradictory views of Liverpudlians and how they live. Howard Channon says that “there are times when I am exasperated by aspects of the city and by the conduct of Liverpudlians, times when they embarrass me in front of my visiting friends, times, indeed, when I am repelled or alarmed.” Despite all these negative opinions, Channon was still drawn to the city which he compared with other cities, which “by comparison [were] unflavoured, their citizens anonymous beside the salty wacker and his missus.” (Channon, 1976: 15)

This sort of contradictory view is not uncommon, and has been expressed by, amongst others, the actor Steven Berkoff and the photographer Peter Marlow.

Berkoff was a regular performer in Liverpool in the 1960s, such as in the Philarhmonic Hall production in 1968 of The Long, and The Short, and The Tall. Yet he was depressed at the city’s demeanour when he returned in later years: “Here was the spirit of death, the morbid taint of British lifestyle. Non-creative, sterile, lazy, mechanical.” Berkoff’s memories of a vibrant, alive city in the late 1960s were undermined by the realities of developments in the 1970s and 1980s: “…all artefacts of life, the bits and bobs of human endeavour, are chucked out. What remains is anonymity and death. No war did so much fearsome damage.” (Berkoff, 1991)

For Berkoff, Liverpool was a city he could identify with in the 1960s but by the 1990s it had lost its grip on his imagination. The unusualness he found had been lost to mundane banality of modern living. Peter Marlow echoes this when he said that Liverpool is a “city that has known great times, but is now struggling to retain its identity and, in some respects, to justify its existence.” (Marlow, 1993)

Liverpool of the 1980s was for Marlow as captivating as the city was twenty years earlier for Berkoff. At the time Marlow had been working his way around the country on various photographic assignments but Liverpool stopped him in his tracks: “The insularity of the place drew me into to the point where I felt I should stay and try and understand it, feel it, get involved.” (Marlow, 1993)

Marlow focused on society in Liverpool and was drawn to record the people and their lives. He initially came up against suspicion and caution, “but by the end of the month I was accepted to the point where I was actually invited to people’s homes to take pictures.” (Marlow, 1993) The body of work Marlow produced in Liverpool paints “a somewhat bleak portrayal of the city.” (Hope, 1993) Marlow was unapologetic for this:

“…whenever I tried to be more upbeat … the pictures came out looking a little desperate … [it is] not a definitive portrait of Liverpool … and in the end these are my pictures, not the pictures taken to please the Liverpool public.” (Marlow, 1993)

Major redundancies (150+) and plant closures in Kirkby, Speke and Halewood, 1978-1984

Food, drink and tobacco

1978 – Birds Eye, Kirkby – 450

1981 – Cousins Baker, Speke – 260 – Closure

1981 – Kraft, Kirkby – 370

1982 – Kraft, Kirkby – 930

1983 – Seagram, Speke – 220

Chemicals and allied industries

1979 – Evans Medical,  Speke – 230

1980 – AKZO Chemie, Kirkby – 115

1984 – Synthetic Resins, Speke – 125 – Closure

Metal manufacture

1981 – Yorkshire Imperial, Kirkby – 200

1981 – Yorkshire Imperial, Kirkby – 317

Mechanical engineering

1979 – KME, Kirkby – 200 – Closure

1980 – Ward & Gladstone, Kirkby – 160 – Closure

1981 – Otis Elevators, Kirkby – 125

1982-3 – Cross International, Kirkby – 355

Electrical engineering

1978 – Plessey (1), Kirkby – 380 – Closure

1978 – Plessey (2), Speke – 330 – Closure

1979 – BICC Connolly, Kirkby – 500 – Closure


1978 – Triumph, Speke – 4,600 – Closure

1980 – AC Delco, Kirkby – 370

1980 – Ford, Halewood – 400

1980 – Massey Ferguson, Kirkby – 550 – Closure

1980 –  Ford, Halewood – 260

1981 – Pressed Steel Fisher, Speke – 900 – Closure

1983 – Ford, Halewood – 1,300

1983  – Ford, Halewood – 600

Clothing and footwear

1978 – FD Centre, Kirkby – 200 – Closure

1981 – Commonwealth Curtains, Kirkby – 131 – Closure

Other manufacturing

1978 – Hygena, Kirkby – 200

1979 – H Hunt & Co, Speke – 150

1979 – Dunlop (1), Speke – 2,300 –  Closure

1980 – Hygena, Kirkby – 300

1982 – Hygena, Kirkby – 700 – Closure

1980 – Metal Box, Speke – 300

1981 – John Dickinson, Kirkby – 214

1981 – Dunlop (2), Speke – 233 – Closure

1981 – United Reclaim, Speke – 153 – Closure

1983-4 – Metal Box, Speke – 218

Total all manufacturing: 19,846

Source: (Cooke, 1989: 208)


The decline in industry in the 1970s, and the corresponding decline in the Port of Liverpool, left the city economically marooned. It was “in the wrong place, based on the wrong kind of economic activity with an outdated infrastructure and underqualified labour force.” (Parkinson, 1985: 9) Liverpool was losing out to other cities and to other nations. It was being deindustrialised and was becoming peripheral “to the mainstream international capitalist economy.” (Parkinson, 1985: 9) Economic isolation led to tremendous social problems which, according to Michael Parkinson, was “as intense and intractable as any in Western Europe.” (Parkinson, 1985: 9) Parkinson attributes these problems to be the root cause of the 1981 riots in the city, but this was just one outcome of economic and industrial decline. Another was the effect it had on the city’s political landscape.

The 1981 riots were not only damaging to the city’s reputation but they also led to the Conservative Government taking a more direct role in Liverpool political life. As well as the appointment of the Environment Minister Michael Heseltine to the position of Minister for Merseyside, his department set up a branch in Liverpool which became known as the Merseyside Task Force. The function of this office “was to establish priorities for government assistance, to co-ordinate the government response and encourage co-operation and joint working,” but it was seen by many as interference in local democracy. (Couch, 1990: 169)

Also at around this time the Government created the first of the Urban Development Corporations – one in London’s dockland and the second in Liverpool’s derelict dockland. The Merseyside Development Corporation (MDC) was seen by Westminster as a means to “achieving speed and efficiency in decision making” in regard to urban development. It could also be clearly seen as a result of central government’s mistrust of local councils – which were mostly Labour-controlled. (Couch, 1990: 165)

The MDC effectively became a planning authority with substantial powers over development. This power, which needed little or no local input, was the most controversial aspect of the Development Corporations. They were seen to have insufficient local accountability and were regarded as a poor substitute for local democracy. (Couch, 1990: 165)

Despite local reservations the MDC by 1988 had helped to reclaim 97 hectares for residential and commercial development, 48 for recreation and public open space, and had refurbished 135,000 square metres for housing and commercial use – including the historic Albert Dock which has since become one of the nation’s top tourist attractions. The MDC in its first seven years also created over 11,000 jobs. (Department of Environment, 1988: 52-3)

The 1984 International Garden Festival was seen as one of the major achievements of the MDC but also as a symbol of central Government interference in local political life. The Garden Festival, although a success, “went ahead in knowledge that no proper arrangements had been made for the continued funding and operation of the gardens after the end of the festival…” (Couch, 1990: 166-7) The huge expense of staging the Festival was therefore seen as little more than window dressing with no long-term benefits to the people of Liverpool – “in the main a cosmetic exercise which in no way dealt with the real problems.” (Heffer, 1986: 82)

It was this sort of central Government involvement in local politics and planning decisions – along with the Government’s all too obious mistrust of Liverpool City Council and Militant Tendency – combined with the economic situation in the city, which presented the opportunity for Militant and the Council to challenge the authority of the Conservative Government. (Parkinson, 1985: 10)

Labour only took control of Liverpool Council in May 1983. Previous to that the Liberals had been in control. According to Michael Parkinson – who was then Director of the Centre for Urban Studies at Liverpool University – “the record of the Liberal Party in limiting rate rises [in the 1970s] caused enormous, if unintended, financial difficulties for the city in the 1980s.” (Heffer, 1986: 82) The Liberal Party had been guilty of a failure “to respond adequately to the city’s long-term decline” and attempted to hold down “council spending and rate rises in search for popularity and votes.” (Parkinson, 1985: 177)

The financial situation meant that Liverpool Council was faced with making huge cuts in services and jobs, along with large rates rises. Eric Heffer says that the Council “decided to fight the government over its budget. It refused to cut services and jobs and stated its intention of carrying out its declared programme of building new housing” and so on. (Heffer, 1986: 83). It has to be said that the Labour-controlled Council would have found it difficult to reduce jobs anyway. The legacy of the Liberal Party had “alienated the council workforce and their unions, making them extremely defensive in their protection of the remaining council jobs.” (Parkinson, 1985: 177)

These decisions were put before the electorate in the City and in 1984 Labour successfully maintained control of the Council. It won “over 50% of the total vote in certain areas on a very high turnout for local elections.” (Heffer, 1986: 83)

The majority of the electorate of Liverpool understood that the Council had not invented the problems it faced. The electorate were under no illusions as to the difficulties that would follow in trying to solve them. However, the people were encouraged by a Council that promised to try and do something without compromising services and jobs.

Construction programmes followed, creating jobs and houses. In a Liverpool Daily Post article in October 1985 a King’s College housing expert, Alice Coleman, said of the city: “Liverpool is the pioneer … the Labour Council are getting ride of the unsuccessful multi-storey blocks and placing people in houses with gardens.” (Coleman, 1985)

Liverpool was facing a budget crisis. The Council’s tactic was to threaten financial suicide by adopting an illegal budget in the belief that the “Government would not take the political risk of letting the city collapse.” (Parkinson, 1985: 180) The Government, by all indications, could expect trouble in Liverpool. As Michael Parkinson pointed out, large numbers of Labour supporters favoured more extreme measures of resistance: “almost half were in favour of rent and rate strikes, and 55 per cent … would support a general strike.” (Parkinson, 1985: 65)

If the Government was forced to bring in commissioners to run the city, “at best the administation of the city’s services would be problematic. At worst there could be a sustained political confrontation between the commissioners and the public, and the possibility of guerrilla-like violence.” (Parkinson, 1985: 65)

The Government were deeply wary of taking direct control of the city.Initially, the Council’s threats seemed to work with the Government showing signs that they were willing to provide more money, but at the cost of political concessions by Liverpool.

The Council, and Militant spurned the olive branch of compromise and their tactic of “making impossible demands” alienated the Conservative Government and set the national Labour Party against them. The latter became obsessed with purging the Party of its Militant Tendency.

Liverpool was portrayed as being run by Militant, but in reality, argues Eric Heffer, it was “not controlled by Militant. But even if it were, those in office have been elected by Liverpool Party members and by the electorate of Liverpool.” (Heffer, 1986: 84)

Views of the Council were varied, even in Liverpool itself. Conservative voters in the city were on the whole opposed to resistance, especially as it was directed against a Conservative Government. A significant number of Liberal voters would approve certain forms of resistance, such as resistance by council workers made redundant by any Government commissioners. One Liberal voter summed up much of the city’s mood when she said: “I can’t stand the Militant. But at least someone is standing up to the bitch in London.” (quoted in Parkinson, 1985: 67)

A period of phoney war developed after Labour’s apparent success in 1984. By the spring of 1985 “the reality of individual disqualification, surcharge and bankruptcy loomed nearer.” (Parkinson, 1985: 154) Events began to come to a head and the District Auditor’s threats to take legal action if they did not set a legal rate soon became more and more persuasive.

Liverpool’s key leaders “began to examine their options jointly… [and] they knew they had few real political choices.” (Parkinson, 1985: 156) The figures were quite horrendous. The Council’s expenditure plans would require a rates rise of 75%, which was ruled out as political suicide. The leaders tried to produce a figure which would offer both resistance to central Government and give some hope of getting almost through the financial year. The figure was 20%, but “finally a notional single figure of 9% was selected.” (Parkinson, 1985: 156)

This figure created divisions among the Labour Party and the Council but the intervention of the District Auditor set the seal. The Auditor declared that the Council was already committing a crime and that he would take action to recover the losses they had incurred, regardless of any rate they now set. Labour’s budget would inevitably create a shortfall in the money needed for the year, but nevertheless the budget was passed. It was voting in effect for illegality and bankruptcy.

The Council was not just in opposition with central Government but also with the leadership of the Labour Party. As early as 1981 the Party’s National Executive council (NEC) was preparing itself to purge the Party of Militant. Jim Mortimer, the then General Secretary of the Party, warned the Party Conference that “the Militant Tendency is an organised faction [with] its own long-term programme, principles and policy quite distinct from those of the Labour Party.” (Harris, 1984: 185) This statement was part of the process of justification for the purge that was to follow. This was something the Labour Party had in the past been wary of doing.

The Labour MP Peter Shore agreed: “In Liverpool [Militant] not only dominated the Labour Party but the Labour city council as well.” He continued with a scathing attack on Militant’s intentions: “here they were able to use an misuse the full power of the city council to distribute patronage and jobs; … to take head-on the Government itself by refusing to accept limitations upon their activities and financial expenditure.” (Shore, 1993: 161)

Neil Kinnock, Labour Party leader from 1983, described the situation in Liverpool as “grotesque chaos” and accused Derek Hatton and Militant of playing “politics with people’s jobs, with people’s services [and] with their homes.” (Shore, 1993: 161) Kinnock’s speeches and the subsequent NEC inquiry into Liverpool Council and Labour Party started a more determined effort to root out Militant. Shore reflected that “it was a long and difficult task. It was not until the eve of the 1992 General Election that Labour’s two remaining Militant MPs, Terry Field and Dave Nellist, were deselected by the NEC.” (Shore, 1993: 162)

The conflicts between Liverpool Council and the Government and the Labour Party were damaging to the city, its economic and political stability and to its long-term relationship with central Government who, partly because of the actions in the eighties of Liverpool and other local councils, continue to mistrust local councils.


Liverpool Football Club has contributed immensely to maintaining morale in the city. It is all the more tragic, therefore, that the success of Liverpool FC in the 1980s was marred by two appalling disasters of quite different natures but both quite terrible for the people and city of Liverpool.

The Heysel stadium disaster, if disaster is the right word for what the composer Michael Nyman called “a massacre,” happened on the evening of 29 May 1985 during the final of the European Champions Cup between Liverpool and Juventus. (Nyman, 1997: 72) A combination of overcrowding, rowdiness and a degree of violence resulted in Juventus supporters running towards a wall which, under the pressure, collapsed.  Thirty-nine of the Juventis supporters died.

Media attention focused on the violence, largely ignoring the overcrowding of Liverpool fans, the influx of Liverpool supporters without tickets into the stadium, and the inadequate segregation and policing. What the Juventus supporters interpreted as a Liverpool hooligan threat may well have started as an attempt by Liverpool supporters to escape overcrowding.

Whatever the realities the disaster brought shame on the city and people of Liverpool and on English sport in general. It directly led to the banishment of all English clubs from European competitions for five years. Ironically, the country which prided itself with inventing the game, now found itself a sporting pariah. (Walvin, 1994: 189)

English supporters “acquired a reputation as troublemakers” and a mood of punish the transgressors took hold in British political life. (Blain and Boyle and O’Donnell, 1993: 47) Colin Moynihan, then Minister of Sport, emphasised that if football “did not deal with the problem then the Government would have to step in.” (Blain and Boyle and O’Donnell, 1993: 48) This was generally the mood displayed by the media who largely saw incidents of hooliganism as a problem of football and not as a social issue. There was little “attempt to place the problem within a wider social context. All that was heard was the political call for stiffer penalties for those involved.” (Blain and Boyle and O’Donnell, 1993: 47-8)

The reputation of Liverpool supporters was under the spotlight. The journalist Murray Ritchie, writing in The Herald, was vitriolic in his opinion and reflected the media’s reaction to the disaster:

“When Liverpool fans invaded Brussels en route to committing murder and mayhem at the Heysel, they urinated on the chocolate displays and rampaged through the restaurants stealing food and terrifying the customers.” (Ritchie, 1992)

A minority hooligan element was bringing a wider shame onto the people of Liverpool – shame which lasted for many years and for many was only expiated by the grief of the Hillsborough disaster four years later.

Heysel was still a vivid memory when Hillsborough hit with a vengeance. The disaster occurred at the ground of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club on the 15 April 1989 during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Mismanagement by police and officials allowed thousands of Liverpool supporters into already overcrowded pens.  This was a fatal mistake that “directly followed from a (false) interpretation by South Yorkshire Police that they were dealing with a violent crowd pitch invasion, rather than a problem of safety and over-crowding.” (Redhead, 1997: 11-12) As a result the pens became terribly overcrowded with no means of escape due to perimeter fencing set up to prevent pitch invasions. The resulting crush cost the lives of 96 people and resulted in 730 injured.

Due to Heysel and other incidents the issue of “football hooliganism was high on the agenda” and people’s first reaction to Hillsborough was to assume that hooliganism was to blame. (Taylor and Ward and Newburn, 1995: xi) The prime supporters of this claim were the tabloid press who set about attacking Liverpool supporters and denigrating them as hooligans.

The most notorious example came in The Sun newspaper just a few days after the disaster when the people of Merseyside were still in deep shock, anger and mourning. The Sun headlined its front page “THE TRUTH,” and set about putting the record straight over what really happened at Hillsborough. It accused the fans of urinating on dead and injured victims, kicking and physically abusing emergency services and rifling through the pockets of the dead. One furious policeman was quoted as saying:

“[fans] were openly urinating on us and the bodies of the dead, and as policemen on the pitch tried to save the injured they were hampered by other Liverpool fans kicking and punching them.” (Arnold and Askill, 1989: 1-2)

Major British and British-related football disasters this century

Source: (Walvin, 1994: 187-188)

1902 – Ibrox Park – 26 dead, wooden stand collapsed

1946 – Bolton – 33 dead, barriers collapsed

1971 – Glasgow – 66 dead,  stairways crush

1985 – Bradford City – 55 dead,  fire in main stand

1985 – Heysel, Belgium – 39 dead,  wall collapsed

1989 – Hillsborough – 96 dead,  crush on penned terraces

Another high-ranking officer said that “the fans were just acting like animals. My men faced the double hell – the disaster, and the fury of the fans who attacked us.” (Arnold and Askill, 1989: 2)

The reaction of The Sun and other tabloids simply “heaped agony on agony, … the simple narrative of the tragedy was strong enough, … and the daily reality of life in the city the disaster had scythed through.” (Sweeney, 1989)

Despite some elements of the media ignoring the social context, others went in the opposite direction and “instantly made the association between a decaying industrial, maritime city – the flagship of British urban decay – and the alleged violence and indiscipline of their football fans.” Not for the first time football was held to blame for society’s ills. (Walvin, 1994: 188)

The city of Liverpool was stunned by the scale of what had happened. The day after the disaster the first people started to trickle into Anfield – drawn naturally to the home of Liverpool Football Club. There they placed simple floral tributes. Many wept, stood in silence, or disappeared into the stands to sit in silent contemplation. Over the days that followed thousands made the pilgrimage to Anfield and soon half the pitch was covered in flowers and tributes of all shapes, colours and sizes – creating what The Observer‘s John Sweeney called “the cellophane shrine.” (Sweeney, 1989)

John Sweeney wrote his article, City of Grief, a week after Hillsborough. In it he speaks of Liverpool’s response to the disaster. Of the pilgrimage to Anfield, he wrote:

“…Anfield has become the focal point of Liverpool as it comes to terms with the Hillsborough disaster. It is so miserable that you are often caught out wanting to block the whole wretched thing from your mind, but there is no other place in the city where it feels right to be.” (Sweeney, 1989)

Sweeney squirms at some of the messages written to accompany the floral tributes, speaking of “the poverty of expression or the grammatical or spelling howlers getting in the way of grief’s message.” (Sweeney, 1989) But were they getting in the way? Liverpool was expressing its thoughts as best it could, honestly and down-to-earth, and Sweeney himself pointed out that “no doubt there was a lot of banal verse written in the First War, and the Hillsborough disaster may yet produce its own Wilfred Owen – after all, Liverpool is a strangely creative city.” (Sweeney, 1989)

John Sweeney, however, questions whether the Anfield shrine was “just another show of sentimentality in a city too soft on itself for its own good.” (Sweeney, 1989) This was a common view of the city which the Radio One disc jockey and professional Scouser – albeit a self-deprecating one – John Peel wholeheartedly disagrees: “If that’s sentiment, give me more of it. It seems to come from a folk tradition: perhaps it comes from the Irish roots. I find it very affecting.” (Peel, 1989)

It perhaps took the death of Diana, Princess of Wales eight years later before such emotional, sentimental responses became more understandable. What appeared to be very un-English rituals – “the sea of flowers, the trees and lamp-posts ringed with candles, the home-made icons and teddy bears, the outpouring of doggerel verse,” which began to appear as a response to her death, were a reflection of Liverpool’s reaction to the Hillsborough disaster. (Weightman, 1997: 6) Who can forget “the great mass of red scarves, hats, shirts and other momentoes adorning railings and goalposts and filling Anfield stadium.” (Weightman, 1997: 6)

Of this supposed un-English behaviour it was asked: “are we ceasing to be English? … Is this emotional exuberance in keeping with what is best in our characteristics as a race?” (Weightman, 1997: 7) This reflective comment, however, was not made after Hillsborough – or even after the death of the Princess of Wales – but was a response to the nation’s outpouring of emotion after the relief of Mafeking nearly a century ago. It seems that emotional responses are not the preserve of the Latin races in the world, or of Liverpudlians. It can also be a “very British thing to do, now and again.” (Weightman, 1997: 8)

The disasters at Heysel and Hillsborough had, for want of a better word, been accidents, brought on by hooliganism, carelessness, incompetence or stupidity. In contrast, the brutal murder in Liverpool in February 1993 of the toddler James Bulger by two 10-years-old boys was something altogether different. The murder was seemingly cold-blooded and for many the two killers were personifications of evil and everything that was rotten in society.

CBS’s Martha Teichner believed that “what happened to Jamie Bulger could have happened anywhere.” For others, however, the fact that the murder happened in Liverpool has significance. (Teichner, 1993) The press, as they had done after Heysel and Hillsborough, began “wheeling out the well-worn Liverpool underclass mythology.” This observation was made by the Liverpool film director Martin Wallace who was angered by what he saw as unjust bias against the city. He complained that “had the murder taken place in a posher area such reportage would never have been allowed.” (Wallace, 1996)

This notion that Fleet Street has got it in for the city is pervasive in Liverpool. Many Liverpudlians would insist that the national press “will spare no efforts to make them look histrionic” and that Liverpudlians “perform barbarous acts of cruelty on each other and then weep loudly and publicly at the resulting funerals.” (Ellis, 1993a: 34)


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