When I was a kid I would spend all my free time in Liverpool, it was a proper city, not like Chester - which was twee and very middle class, but big - scary - bold and quite ugly. Liverpool in the late 70’s and early 80’s was a very threatening and exciting place. It was dirty, busy, unkept and ridiculously exciting. It was also utterly working class and had a diverse, mixed population of races and colours. It was also hard and cold. The wind over the Mersey Estuary was bitter all year round and the city seemed to have been designed to take a beating from it. The old architecture from the time when Liverpool was the centre of world trade was still florid and bold, but caked in soot. New building was ugly, flat and generally without much real merit - often the wrong kind of showy - topped off with a Cathedral that looked like a spaceship and glowered down at it’s older, more solid but no less revolutionary partner. There was dirt everywhere, and decay - it was a run down city that didn’t seem to know what it was for anymore. The North was dying, the 80’s were very cruel. Despite being offered a place to study at Liverpool School of Art I decided to move down south to London - I wanted a future that didn’t seem to be on offer to me at home. Most of my friends moved to Manchester - a more manageable adventure. They could scuttle back home if the wanted to, or if things go too hard - I was determined to make my move permanent and cut away any safety nets. Liverpool always was an angry, militant place - and that demonstrated itself in so many ways.
Yesterday, I was very sad - but not surprised to learn that Pete Burns had died. He was 57, recently he’d started to look pretty terrible, years of messing with his body and depression seemed to have turned him into a bloated, confused, angry caricature. It was a shame. That’s not how I remembered him. When I was in my early and mid teens he worked in a record shop called Probe, a semi derelict building on a corner that was once (and is now) a very fine example of proud Victorian city architecture (It became a Ted Baker store in the 90’s and is now an expensive restaurant) It was a dump - full of posters, T shirts, racks of records and merchandise. In those days vinyl was a fast moving commodity and the shop was always fully stocked and always busy - you generally had to ask for something by name - the staff would have been the only people who knew where anything was. Burns (and his wife - Lynne - they married at 19) both worked there, she told T Shirts ‘round the side’ and he ‘owned’ the counter. He was taller than me - a big, strapping figure with a taste for ripped clothes, big hair, tribal makeup and huge boots. Often wearing a version of something he’d seen in a magazine, later with dreadlocks made up from fake hair bought rom an African stall in the market (cultural appropriation wasn’t a ‘thing’ then). He was the epitome of ‘larger than life’ in every possible way. He was also hard as nails - bold, angry and upfront. He took no prisoners and was equally rude to everyone - and seemed to do very little actual work.
Lynne and Pete would stomp around Liverpool without any fear - and everyone let them pass, they were just too ‘out there’ to worry - and that was very much what I liked about Liverpool - it still is a culturally rich, diverse city full of personalities that are too big to mess with. Now it’s become a very beautiful city again - much of the finer architecture has been restored and the swathes of new retail are not really that bad - there are countless museums and the river is put to good use. I really do miss living there - I had a second attempt in my 30’s - but in truth - you should never go back. Now that Burns is dead, although Probe is still there (In a different location) - it will never be the same - he might have been just a metaphor - but he was the past, my past - and it’s all gone now. Burns himself left Liverpool in the late 80’s and bought a house in Notting Hill with some of the money he made in Japan - it was a strangely dull, suburban affair - regardless of the way he looked, he was never an ‘interiors’ person - people would remark that it was actually quite nice but a bit disappointing.
If you get the chance to watch the film ‘Letter to Brezenhev’ - it gives you an idea of what Liverpool felt like at the time - it was a very poor, but very proud place. And full of peacocks.