Scousers in Literature

Try and think up as many fictional scousers as you can. At first it seems like an easy task but when you really get down to it the challenge can become quite hard. It’s one of the challenges where once you know the answers you kick yourself. I was initially struggling (all I could come up with was Lister from Red Dwarf) and after asking around I got a few more answers that were, in hindsight, seemingly obvious (apart from one which surprised me): Everyone in Brookside, The Boys From the Black Stuff, Harry Enfield’s trio, Lilly Savage and John Constantine (which was the surprising one). I’ve found a few more like Jack Frost from The Invisibles comics, the Blood Brothers, Shirley Valentine, one guy from the Alex Rider series and a few characters from Coronation Street. Now look at what most of those characters have in common. Most of them are from television, a couple from the stage, two are from comic books and only one is literary… So what is going on? Where are all the literary scousers?

GORDON’S ALIVE- But he’s not a fictional scouser. (Photo courtesey of Yahoo News)

This low number is very strange, especially when you consider how culturally important Liverpool is to the UK as a whole. Think of all the music (The Beatles etc) and the art and the architecture and the sport and the heritage. Its football teams are two of the biggest in Europe. Its waterfront is a world heritage site and It was the home of the White Star Line, one of the most famous luxury liner companies of all time. It’s the home city of such famous luminaries as the aforementioned Beatles, Elvis Costello, William Ewart Gladstone, Cilla Black, Paul McGann, Tom Baker (TWO Doctors… What other city can make that claim?) Elizabeth Sladen (another Dr Who alumnus) Edwina Currie (whom the former once vomited over in a school play). Liverpool even gave Brian Blessed his start on television (though not a scouser himself) in Z Cars and where would all be without him to brighten our lives? There are plenty more, hundreds of them,but the thing is that Liverpool is bursting at the seams with real famous people and as I exemplified above it has its fair share of fictional characters as well, just not in literature, it seems.

Now it’s not to say they don’t exist, they do, they’re just very rare. A comprehensive search reveals a few more than John Constantine but they aren’t well known. There are a few Beryl Bainbridge characters (No surprise since she’s a Liverpudlian herself) and there’s another Liverpudlian chap called Paul Berry who’s working on a trilogy of crime novels set in the city (I hadn’t heard of him either untill I looked…) There’s also a kids book called ‘The unforgotten coat’ by Frank Cottrell Boyce (who wrote the opening ceremony for the olympics and is again, a scouser) that is sure to contain scouse characters (although the main characters are Mongolian) and another called ‘The Grave’ by James Heneghan- Although that is only partially set in Liverpool- which may have a scouse main character. And I’m sure if you trawl through the millions of Mills and Boon style romances that exist you might find one or two about a young scouse girl who falls in love with a sailor only her father get’s uppity about it and the sailor has to prove his worth before it all turns out ok in the end (which I’m told is the basic plot of every Mills and Boon style romance ever only with differently named characters.)- There’s a Liverpool lady called Maureen Lee who appears to have written a fair number of those types of book.

And what of books set in Liverpool? Outside of London Liverpool is perhaps the most famous city in the UK (See this survey in which the number of respondents for Liverpool came out a whole 3 percent above its nearest rival, Manchester- And worryingly has Wales in sixth place) so it stands to good reason that there should be a decent number of books (and thereby, by default, characters) set in Liverpool. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be. The aforementioned Beryl Bainbridge has set a fair number of her books there but if anything I would say her work isn’t very well known. The author is more famous than her works, if you get my drift, and if most people were asked to name a Beryl Bainbridge book they’d be stumped. The other books I found set in Liverpool were those I mentioned above but there were also a couple more, Mr American by George Macdonald Fraser and Redburn by Herman Melville both feature Liverpool to some degree but once again the main characters aren’t scousers. There are probably a few more but those are the best and most prominent examples I could find.

So what is it? Why are Liverpool and Liverpudlians so underutilized in fiction? For starters let’s look at everything I’ve pointed out so far- beginning with all the fictional scousers I mentioned in the preview paragraph. Brookside was created by Phil Redmond (A scouser). Lily Savage was the creation of Birkenhead born Paul O’Grady. The Boys from the Blackstuff was by Alan Bleasdale whilst Shirley Valentine and The Blood Brothers came from Will Russel (both scousers.) Meanwhile, Grant and Naylor (creators of Red Dwarf) studied at Liverpool University. The other three (Constantine, Jack Frost and the guy from Alex Rider) were created by authors not from Liverpool.  As for the literary characters and books I’ve mentioned almost all (the exception being Macdonald Fraser and to a lesser extent, Herman Melville) were either born or/and brought up in Liverpool. Now it’s perfectly understandable for that to be the case, writers tend to base their work around the places they know (Yes, I’m guilty of that) but there isn’t a rule that says a writer has to do that so you would perhaps expect more writers from outside to have explored the city in their work. But that isn’t the case, even despite the fact that Liverpool is a strange, fascinating and ultimately brilliant city (As my previous two travelogues have shown.) Where else in the world would you have two drinking establishments with the same name, virtually opposite each other and a statue of Lennon outside the wrong one?

John Lennon's statue- Somewhere near the Cavern Club.

John Lennon’s statue- The one outside the wrong building.

One reason for the lack of literary figures, perhaps, is that Liverpool doesn’t have a very good reputation, largely thanks to the eighties. Back then Liverpool was racked by high unemployment and poor economic conditions- So was the rest of the country to be fair but Liverpool appears to have been hit much harder. In 1981 this resulted in the Toxteth Riots which, it has been said, led to the perception of Liverpool as a horrid and nasty place full of criminals and scum, despite the fact that Liverpool wasn’t the only place to suffer rioting in 1981 (Leeds, Birmingham, Brixton, Sheffield and Coventry also suffered rioting around the same period.) Even today, Liverpool still bears the economic scars. Drive into Liverpool from the east and you will pass hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned, derelict houses- And these are in the areas worst affected by the eighties slump.  A lot of the reasons why those houses lie empty and derelict hark back to the time of those riots and that slump. It doesn’t help either that the major route of entering Liverpool city centre is from the east. This is often some people’s first glimpse of Liverpool and unfortunately it’s our first glimpse of a place that helps inform our perception of it.

Then you have the scouse stereotype that has grown up- The image of the whining, whinging, thieving thug with a high voice and grating accent. Park your car in Liverpool city centre, they say, and you’ll come back to find your tyres have been replaced by bricks. This hasn’t been helped by the likes of Harry Enfield’s comedy scousers- Caricatures if ever there were any, and nor has the less than honourable profile of people like Wayne Rooney (even though there are plenty of other footballers we can take the pee out of- Grandpa Giggs for instance.) The fact that they are a determined people (a certainly admirable quality) has also helped to reinforce the view, in some people’s eyes, of them as whingers who won’t let go of things. Quite often though this determination leads to results and quite often it’s the scousers who’ll be proved right (EG: Hillsborough.). And the stereotypes are often unfounded. Yes, there probably are some whingy, irritating scousers and there are some thieving thugs as there anywhere but the chances are if you were to bump into any random scouser you’ll find them to be a pleasant and genial person. And as for the accent- Well yes, it can be irritating but so can any accent. But look at the likes of John Lennon. Lennon had quite a lovely voice and the scouse accent can add quite a pleasant lilt in a lot of cases.

But that perception of Liverpudlians is still fairly recent and doesn’t explain the lack of literary characters or fiction. But looking further it might not just be a Liverpool problem. Manchester has it much worse. For Manchester I could find almost no books set there. The only two I got were Elidor by Alan Garner and Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Dickens based Coketown (in Hard Times) on Manchester but it wasn’t Manchester. And the number of well known literary characters for Manchester is virtually zero. Then there’s Tyneside- Tyneside has Catherine Cookson (Queen of the Mills and Boon style romance) and The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall but it still has very few literary characters to it’s name. York has a series of Railway mysteries to it’s name but that’s about all. Oxford has Lyra Belaqua and Inspector Morse (A little better) but look at cities like Birmingham, Bristol, Bath, Lancaster, Cardiff… They’re hardly oozing literary characters. (Bristol has Jim Hawkins etc. but I can’t think of any for the others off the top of my head.) And did you know that there are no northerners at Hogwarts (There’s one northerner in the film but it’s not indicated in the book). The trouble is that British characters tend to fall into two categories- They’re either rural (Mr Toad, The Railway Children, Elizabeth Bennett, Mr Darcy, Miss Marple, Father Brown) or they’re from London (Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson, Poirot had a flat in London, The Pevensie Children originally came from London, Dr Jekyll, Mary Poppins, Winston Smith, Bertie Wooster, The Artful Dodger, Fagin, Paddington Bear, The Wombles…) And that’s just a tiny selection who came from the top of my head. The thing is British literature is overwhelmingly London-centric. Usually if a book is is not set in London then nine times out of ten it will most probably be rural (Yorkshire seems to come out on top in the rural stakes and Devon/Cornwall comes a close second). So really Liverpool is not alone in it’s lack of famous literary characters. Overall it probably comes off better than most other cities- though not by much.

And as it turns out, Liverpool does have one very famous literary character, (whose author was not from Liverpool…) The book was set on the wild west yorkshire moors and the character was a small, homeless gypsy boy found on the Liverpool streets- Which is probably enough evidence to call him a scouser- And as I said, the book and the character are very famous- Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. It turns out that Heathcliffe is a scouser and as far as famous fictional characters go I woud say he is probably in the top tier. It’s only one, but he’s a good one (well, not in terms of personality maybe.) Maybe one day, however, Liverpool will get a few more famous literary figures.

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