19 January, 2006

Here today

I've lived in Liverpool continuously, give or take a few months, since September 1994. This has happened by accident rather than design. I think I first wanted to leave the city in October 1994, having spent a dire few weeks in a hall of residence desperately missing home and friends and family, and finding no solace both in the faces and landscapes around me. But for good or ill I remained a resident of the city and have fallen in and out of love with the place more times than I can remember.

I'm not sure at what precise point my affection for what I perceived to be a kind of romantic gloom that suffused the city transformed into disenchantment with what I felt to simply be gloom. Certainly the further I moved away from the centre of the place - by choice - the less I was inclined to venture into its heart, hence whenever I did have to make the journey the more I found the centre a disruptive, cold and unwelcoming crucible of noise and clatter.

But I've also witnessed a huge explosion in the student population, and a frightening one at that. I'm guessing the number of students living in Liverpool in 1994 was roughly the same number that had been in the place for the previous few decades or so. But from the mid-90s onwards, as higher education increasingly became accepted as the pre-requisite for a decent career, and as new laws relaxed the number of institutions that could call themselves universities, the student population must have doubled at the very least.

It's the preserve of all ex-students to look down their noses at their younger equivalents, but for me this expansion in university culture, in turn fuelling a similar increase in the number of pubs, clubs, restaurants, shops and most pertinently halls of residence, caught me off guard. If it had happened more gradually, more incrementally, perhaps it would've been different. As it was I stopped going to places I used to go either because they no longer existed or they'd become too crowded.

I also found it uneasy walking through places where lots of students were present for fear of being mistaken as one of them, rather than a proper resident. It's laughable, I know, because they were perfectly entitled to consider themselves proper residents, as indeed I did when I was at university. Yet their faces, their attitudes, the way they carried themselves - it all seemed different.

The first ever house I lived in as a student had no central heating. Now the city was filled with billboards proclaiming the arrival of the latest student accommodation replete with broadband connections in every bedroom, en suite gyms and swimming pools, even a mini-Tesco store built into the ground floor.

This was change, real change, profound social and economic change, unfolding before my eyes in a way I'd never seen before. And I wanted to hide from it, to pretend it wasn't happening, to remove myself from ever having to think about it. I traipsed through a series of jobs that kept me tied to the city, ending up in a flat that started out looking and feeling quite nice and desirable but by 2002, after I'd been in it five years, was a shithole inhabited by, at one point, a bunch of drug dealers and a "care in the community" patient who came back late one night, smashed the front door in, barricaded himself in his flat and shouted at the dealers to "come and fucking have some".

Thankfully by then I'd finally got myself into a position where I could afford to find somewhere much better (and safer), and have subsequently spent the last three years in the nicest place I've ever lived outside of my family home: quiet, secluded, and shamelessly suburban. The most un-Liverpool like environment imaginable, basically.

Yet I still carry with me fond, golden memories of fond, golden times and places which made me think Liverpool was the greatest city I could ever see: of a café behind Bold Street that used to serve the largest teapots filled with the nicest tea I'd ever tasted; a bakery by Liverpool Central station that, if you were lucky, would have the most gorgeous slices of caramel flapjack for 49p; a second hand bookshop on Lark Lane where I once found a heap of rare ITV and BBC handbooks hailing from the 1970s and 80s in pristine condition; and the wonderful 051 Cinema which had the nicest seats in the whole world but where, if you went on the wrong night (Fridays or Saturdays), your enjoyment of the film could be somewhat tempered by the thumping breakbeats emanating from the nightclub downstairs.

All these locations disappeared many years ago. And given the current student demographic most of the current population of Liverpool will never have heard of them, or have reason to. But once I've left this city for good, such is the way of things I shall probably miss being reminded of how these places have vanished from Liverpool more than I shall miss Liverpool itself.


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