I remember my first visit to Liverpool some years ago. It was for an open day at the university, where I'd applied to study politics. I probably shouldn't have gone, as I was feeling pretty ill with flu. I had to get up very early to get the train up from Folkestone in order to be there on time.
When I arrived in Liverpool, I wasn't greatly impressed. Lime Street isn't the most welcoming of stations in the world. I then walked up towards the university, using a route which I was later told by a friend of mine was possibly the worst one I could have taken. It was a wet day, which didn't help. When I arrived at the university, I couldn't find where the hell I was meant to be so, by that stage feeling thoroughly miserable, I headed back to the station and went home.
That was in the late 1980s. If you'd told me then that one day Liverpool would not only be the European Capital of Culture, but would thoroughly deserve to be, I'd have been phoning the men in white coats to come and take you away.
I was back in the city a few years ago for a conference, when it had already been announced that Liverpool would be the Capital of Culture this year. Maybe it was that I was able to appreciate it better, or maybe the city decided to show me a brighter face, but I was rather more impressed than on my first visit. I didn't have an awful lot of time for sightseeing, but I enjoyed the things I was able to see. It left me with a desire to return, which certainly wasn't the case after my first visit. Even then, it was clear that Liverpool was beginning to get a buzz about it again as the preparations for this year's cultural extravaganza were beginning to get under way.
Looking at the news bulletins today (well, yesterday now) about the start of the Capital of Culture programme, it's clear that Liverpool has undergone a real renaissance. Even the leader of the Labour group on Liverpool City Council, when taking part in a discussion on Newsnight, admitted that the city had undergone a dramatic transformation in the last few years. I would suggest that one reason for that is that his party is no longer in power in the city. The Lib Dems have run Liverpool since 1998 and I think deserve a large share of the credit for turning the city around. Unlike in the 1980s, when between them Margaret Thatcher and Derek Hatton ravaged the city and its reputation, the Liverpool I see today is a more confident place with far more going on.
Yes, the city still has its share of problems, and yes, not everybody has yet benefitted from its transformation. There are also complaints that the Capital of Culture has bypassed some areas, although looking at the pretty extensive programme throughout the year, I doubt there'll be too many people who can't find something in it they'll enjoy.
I'll be going to another conference in Liverpool in March (the Lib Dems are holding their spring conference there in the city's newly-built conference centre). I've arranged to go down a day early so I can do a bit more sightseeing and take in some of the cultural events. And I'll probably try and spend another few days down there later in the year. Liverpool is definitely a city which is going places.
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