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The long and winding road to the centre of the world

How Liverpool helped start a cultural revolution. John Kelleher digs for its roots

When American pop singer Bruce Chanel performed in Liverpool in 1962, he says he found it "biblically bleak with the waves hitting up against the sea wall. It was a melancholy and lonely place." Yet just five years later another visiting American, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, described it as: "The centre of consciousness of the human universe."

Clearly a lot had changed in the interim and a key to this shift was Chanel's support act, a local band called The Beatles. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr delivered their hometown to the world - and the world has been coming back ever since. The Beatles are written into the legend of the city and the cultural history of the 20th century. The city's airport is named after John Lennon and he is in the national curriculum, their childhood homes are National Trust properties and Paul McCartney is a knight of the realm.

But Liverpool 2004 has a lorra lorra other stuff happening and is very different from the place that nurtured the group. It is profoundly changed from the town described by the earliest English antiquary, John Leland, who toured Britain in the 1530s. He wrote: "Lyrpole or Lyverpoole - a pavid towne." Even in the 19th century it was described as being: "Deficient in essentials to embellish the historic page."

Fast forward to 2004 when it has just been named a World Heritage Site by Unesco and is now a month into its third Biennial arts festival, now the UK's largest event showcasing contemporary visual artists.

In 2007, the city will celebrate the 800th anniversary of its founding charter and, the following year, it will be European City of Culture, likely to create thousands of jobs and draw billions in investment.

And the decision to name Liverpool City of Culture prompted council leader Mike Storey to proclaim: "This is like Liverpool winning the Champions's League, Everton winning the double and The Beatles re-forming all on the same day - and Stephen Spielberg coming to the city to make a Hollywood blockbuster about it."

Such a film would be an epic, and at its heart would be the sea. It would trace Liverpool's modest origins as Hather-polr, a Norse settlement in the 8th century, through the granting of its royal charter by King John in 1207 when he foresaw its potential as a port.

The short sea journey to Ireland made it a staging post for St Patrick and saw hundreds of thousands of Irish settle in the city when they fled famine in the 19th century. Thousands of hopeful emigrants left from there for America. And later it was the conduit that brought American R'n'B records into the country - via the crew of Cunard Line ships - to help fuel the Mersey Sound.

But maritime business also made the city wealthy, most disgracefully through slavery. By 1795 Liverpool controlled more than 80 per cent of Britain's slave trade. It is a dark history now acknowledged in the city's museums and schools, but it also helps ensure Liverpool should never become a mere colourful northern outcrop of theme-park Britain. It's got too many shadows , too much pride and and its traditionally brutal humour.

Liverpool was never a gentle city and Scousers make self-deprecating jokes about its once notorious reputation. "Why does the Mersey run through Liverpool?", goes one. "Because if it walked, it'd get robbed."

However, visitors arriving by train now see a sign proclaiming it the safest city in Britain. So how did it change? The starting point was the 1960s. Liverpool's music put it in the vanguard of a cultural revolution that, over succeeding decades, has widely levelled categories of high and low culture in place of today's pervasive popular culture. It helped challenge the cultural dominance of London with a decentralisation and democratisation of culture that is now global.

The poet Roger McGough said of his hometown then, that it was "like the cowboy frontier", and fellow Mersey poet Adrian Henri added: "The Beatles were the first cultural phenomenon of any kind who made it outside London first."

Other Liverpool creative figures played a key role in this process of cultural change. The city has always bred talent, but perhaps most important after music are its humorists and writers - the Liverpool poets, for instance, who helped empower a whole generation to venture into verse, and dramatists such as Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale. It is no accident that the first and defining British cop series, Z Cars, was set in the mean streets of Merseyside. Alan Bleasdale offered grittiness and wit in dramas such as The Boys from The Blackstuff and GBH, and three of the most successful long-running soaps, Brookside, Hollyoaks and Grange Hill, were created by Phil Redmond's Mersey TV.

All counterpoint Northernness - in all its varieties - as a badge of "authenticity" in contrast to "effete" southern values. This raw working-class past is still refracted through Liverpool's pride and acerbic wit.

But while booming tourism boosts its economy, this revolution has also benefited native Liverpudlians. Their cosmopolitan city offers more to enjoy than almost any other comparable conurbation: Britain's second oldest symphony orchestra, nightclubs, art collections such as the Walker or Tate Liverpool, theatres and a seemingly endless season of festivals. 2004 has events celebrating art, comedy, Arabic culture, the sea and the long-established Beatles Week.

The last word goes to McGough, who recently produced a poem with a litany of definitions of Liverpool: "Lippy, Irreverent, Vibrant, Edgy, Racy, Pacy, Obsessive, Off-the-wall, Legendary."

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