Scouse, Not English: Resilience and Hope in Liverpool

Scouse, Not English: Resilience and Hope in Liverpool

Liverpool’s restaurants, clubs and cultural venues may have closed their doors during the pandemic, but behind the scenes its tight-knit community of scouse artists, chefs and creatives are busy adapting and, in some cases, thriving.

is Liverpool’s signature, from the guitar strums of The
Beatles to the swooping emotion of a packed football stand. Heels
on cobbles late into the night. The jeers of lads performing
wheelies down the main roads and the quiet clunk of 11am pints
being set down outside Irish pubs by grandads.

I arrived in the city in mid-September,
when the sky above Lime Street station’s glass curve hinted at late
summer but its streets felt subdued. Caught between lockdowns and
the seasonal purgatory, it seemed deflated, even hushed.

This is a city on the edge of the UK
and not just geographically. Politically and socially, Liverpool
leans leftwards of the land it lies within, distinctive in accent
and vocabulary. It sees itself as the outsider of England, kinder
than the whole, bereft of the stiff upper lip.

The quiet reminded me of travel writer Jan Morris’ visit to
Liverpool; writing in 2011, she noted its “battered kind of
dignity”. The city she found was tired, maltreated, worn – but even
then, hospitable. For all its elegant civic architecture and upbeat
character, Liverpool’s history has been one of struggle: a port
built on the dark chaos of the Empire, a 20th century peppered with
deindustrialisation, economic stagnation. “Managed decline”
reverberates through shared memory, a phrase taken from a wounding
memo by a Thatcherite minister.

“Proud” is a word often used to describe its inhabitants, though
I’d argue it’s unfairly mistranslated as arrogance by outsiders. A
better translation would be endurance, constructed from a history
of collective hardship.

In 2008, though, the city rediscovered its beat. Awarded the
status of European Capital of Culture, Liverpool began to roar and
the physical manifestation of its endless hospitability arrived:
hotel openings, restaurants and a shapeshifting, diverse nightlife.
Its historic pull was strengthened by the origami folds of a new
Museum of Liverpool building and the jagged black shards of modern
architecture at Mann Island. Warehouses that once sat empty were
strung with lights, disco balls and sound systems, and dead-end
alleys between buildings were reinvigorated by night-time

Then came the independent restaurants. Maray offering
Middle Eastern-spiced small plates. The now-closed Oktopus with its
combinations of braised butterbeans and gently charred courgette or
its ceviche of blood orange, sea bass and jalapeño. There’s
Pilgrim with a menu inspired by the Camino pilgrimage
routes, and Lu Ban in the edgy Baltic Triangle area, where
xiao-panzi (small plates) are filled with traditional Chinese
cookery. For coffee: Bold
Street Coffee
, 92 Degrees and Mother
. Footie fans score home-baked pies from co-operative
Hospitality sat at the heart of all things remade in the city and
it was home-grown; scousers doing good for scousers. Until the
pandemic arrived.

This winter brought soaring cases and deaths, pushing Liverpool
into unwelcome headlines, mass testing making the six o’clock news.
At the time of writing, the city is again under lockdown, a
situation that’s straining its hospitality industry to the limit
and slowing life in a city of movement. Back in London, I
find myself thinking of the docks I traced in September. What would
happen to all the small restaurants and cafés that gave Liverpool
its fresh identity? How many more blows can a place withstand?

It’s got real support for one another and that comes through from the hard times it’s had. It makes the city.

Ellis Barrie, Chef

“This city has got resilience,” says chef Ellis Barrie when I
call him. Barrie, of Great British Menu fame, grew up on the leafy
southern side of the city and learnt his trade in restaurants
across the centre, before setting up the award-winning The Marram
on Anglesey, North Wales. Last year he returned to
Liverpool to open a second restaurant, Lerpwl, under the
arches of Liverpool’s Albert Dock. “It’s got real support for one
another and that comes through from the hard times it’s had. It
makes the city.”

The restaurants are empty, but Barrie insists most are making
the best of a bad situation. Madre, a taco bar on the Albert Dock,
has parked its van by the waterfront and is sering spiced hot
chocolate and generously stuffed beef brisket tacos to
cold-fingered wanderers. Belzan, an Allerton bistro, is sending out an
at-home menu of soft-braised feather blade and juicy pork chops
doused in a mustard sauce.

Before the pandemic, it was homegrown independent joints which
lit the fire of the hospitality boom. It’s why, in 2013, Independent
was set up. What started as a side-project, with
co-founders David Williams and Oliver Press writing about their
favourite independent businesses in the city, soon found an
audience in scousers keen to support their own. Now, the blog, app
and the accompanying discount card counts 120 local businesses on
its books. Yet it was always more than just a money-making scheme.
Echoing the character of a city that doesn’t think twice about
helping a stranger, the duo made sure to include all independent
businesses in the city, not just the ones able to offer a saving.
“We wanted to talk about everyone,” Williams tells me. “This is a
city associated with community and that’s wholly responsible for
the reason why we are where we are.”

“Independent” has become a byword for a certain kind of business
– sleek, Instagrammable, a place where you feel comfortable
spending your money thanks to a vague sense of sticking it to the
chains. But in Liverpool, it also means “homegrown” and
“hard-grafted”. “When I say independents, I mean I know the guys
who own them, and they know the people who work for them. We all
went to the same schools,” says Barrie. “But look at us now: we’re
all masters of making barista coffee and bespoke food, yet never
did a cookery course once in our school education. For scousers,
the hospitality is just in you.”

We associate 2020 with doom and gloom, but I know a lot of businesses that are doing better than ever and have come out of this with a stronger following.

David Williams, Independent Liverpool

When we talk, he mentions the other restaurants in the city,
singing their praises, referencing Zoom calls and city-wide
meetings, feeling their way forward towards the light, pushing to
try and get the city back on its feet. “Togetherness” is a word
that appears again and again.

“It’s always had that resilience behind it, that grit, that hard
graft, a sense of ‘we’ll do this together’,” Barrie continues. “We
all get involved, we all want to make the city a great place to
come. Speak to any scousers and all you’ll hear is how good
Liverpool is. Scousers have this in the blood.”

I hear the same tune talking to Ioan Roberts, the director of
24 Kitchen Street, a music venue in the Baltic
Triangle area. Squeezed between the dilapidated shells of abandoned
warehouses and – increasingly – monolithic housing developments,
the diminutive club has been at the heart of the city’s alternative
nightlife for nearly a decade, providing a space on its dancefloor
for grime and bass artists, as well as jazz, Afrobeat and
independent performers.

Nationwide, the nightlife industry has suffered far more than
its hospitality counterpart. But despite the obstacles 2020 threw
24 Kitchen Street, Roberts admits that last year went
surprisingly well. He reckons they hosted more music events during
the pandemic than any other venue in the country, welcoming
independent artists for outdoor sets and dinner-and-drinks
performances, enforcing strict social distancing and mask etiquette
inside semi-dilapidated warehouses.

“A lot of our customers are the sort of people who didn’t tuck
their shirts in at school, so asking them to follow the rules was…”
The end of his sentence hangs. In October, the venue was fined for
breaking lockdown rules, but true to form, scousers stepped in.
Local DJs organised a crowdfunder and raised the full fine in just
three hours. Roberts says that they simply asked for 24 Kitchen
Street’s bank account details. “It ended up being a few hundred
quid more than the grand, so we gave the money to a food bank.”

Roberts, like Independent Liverpool’s David Williams, says that
the pandemic has opened a door to creativity: venues have adapted,
restaurants have reshaped – and that’s been possible thanks to
scousers. “The people of Liverpool have acted like a safety net,”
says Williams. “People can be more creative; they can have a bit of
fun with it all. We associate 2020 with doom and gloom, but I know
a lot of businesses that are doing better than ever and have come
out of this with a stronger following.”

Sat in London 350km away but dreaming of the Mersey banks, I
browse the menu of Maray’s at-home meal box, which is now offered
through nationwide delivery. Perhaps I’d been wrong about the hush.
The city noise hadn’t been stifled – it was just on pause, adapting
and creating. As I order a meal
, a remark Barrie had made comes back to me: “The scouse
never leaves ya, does it? You just get drawn back into the

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