You didn’t become a Liverpudlian simply by living there. You could be from the city, but not of it; call it home, but never really belong. Other cities chewed you up then spat you out, but Liverpool was different: it would turn up its nose and shrug you off with an ambivalence so damning that made it feel as though you had never even fallen under its contemptuous glare. Everybody spoke of the sense of community, but once away from the vicinity of family, friends and neighbours, and out into the wider city, you were nobody. Because of the intra-city apartheid that seemed to rear its head in every loose encounter – the whole I’m more local than you swagger – everybody was, in their way, an outsider.
These things kept coming back to Paul as he made the journey from the suburban outlands and into the heart of the city where he was meeting his friends for a night out. In a vapid summer, the chance to see Echo and the Bunnymen at the university was one of the few fixtures in Paul’s calendar.
It was early evening and men in suits were disembarking from the Southport train to go home to their wives and children, their squares of garden and the last of the day’s sun. Liverpool had broiled again under clear skies and a high sun. Beyond the city the expanse of the Irish sea lay flat, brown and benevolent, the coastal breeze which usually cooled it on such days conspicuous by its very absence. The air was still and dense.
Liverpool also sweated under the gaze of a hundred television cameras as a media frenzy descended upon the city. Liverpool 8, the inner-city district that incorporated Toxteth, had exploded into violence after local residents took an aggressive stand against police brutality. Overnight it became a latter-day Saigon as journalists filled its streets and ran with the rioters . Buildings burned, vehicles were overturned and set alight, while youths hacked away at the wreckage, creating a makeshift arsenal of bricks and masonry. Social commentators lined up to condemn the moral degradation that bred the violence, while police deflected accusations of brutality by inviting camera crews into local hospitals, where entire wards were handed over to bruised bobbies. One man was dead, hundreds of others injured. Bishops appealed for calm; community leaders claimed the battles were over.
For the rest of the city, however, life carried on as normal. People went to work, women shopped, and children played. Concerned relatives telephoned from afar to check up on family, but in a city of suburbs for most people Toxteth’s riots were a TV phenomenon: remote, somewhere else.
With his parents, Paul watched the previous evening’s nine o’clock news with a rising sense of bewilderment as the sombre voice of Richard Whitman spoke over footage of burning buildings: ‘Liverpool burns as its inner cities rampage.’ As the picture cut to a line of policemen forming across the top of a Victorian street, Paul’s father leant over and turned up the volume. The police held plastic riot shields in one hand, while in the other metal batons glistened menacingly. ‘150 injured as police battle rioters,’ said Whitmore and the picture cut to Margaret Thatcher climbing from a ministerial Jaguar and up the steps of 10 Downing Street. ‘The Prime Minister convenes an emergency meeting of the cabinet as tensions rise and police anticipate more trouble this evening.’
‘It’s the darkies,’ Paul’s father pronounced. ‘On the rampage because one of their lot got pulled over by the police.’
Paul winced at his father’s easy distillation of the report. His mother walked urgently towards the netted curtains and looked out anxiously onto their darkened cul-de-sac. There was a sudden nervousness about her, as if a mob might also come rampaging down their little street several miles away.
But the riots, although just eight miles away, may as well have existed on another planet.