One jag, two cities – a tale of public value



I’m sitting on a train travelling up north to Liverpool – my home town. I have a meeting with a senior politician. My brother and I have been working on an economic analysis that shows there is no economic crisis in the UK – it has caught the attention of our Labour Party. Big day for us. Access.

I’ve travelled this railway line many times over the years and it holds many memories for me. Student. Researcher, Brother/son. I’ve swept past these trees in many dialects, watched these purposeful travellers through different eyes. South to north. Change of texture, change of humour and hope. We’ll talk to our politician about the politics of value – public value. She represents a constituency near Liverpool in the north and migrates south to the Westminster Parliament. I wonder whether she, too, has noticed that ‘the public’ is valued more highly in the north than in the south. Will she respond to us as a northerner or as a southerner? Which side does the political risk lie?

In 2007 I returned with my family from living overseas – flew into Liverpool to see my sibling family. I called ahead and had a car ready to buy – a family car – Renault. I went to pick it up – an hour later came out of the garage with a Jaguar – the car as beautiful as the best of the animal species, a triumph of design and comfort – a pretty car. I was in technological amour. ‘But the petrol consumption?’ I asked. He replied, ‘just cruise – low mileage – I sell dozens of these.’ Left Liverpool to take up home again in Bristol. After three months I returned to Liverpool to exchange the Jag for a family car.

The slave trade started in Bristol – Bristol the apex of the triangle. Slaves from W. Africa to Caribbean; tropical goods from there to Bristol; empty boats back to Africa. The merchants made millions (12 million slaves were culled). Large private houses in the wealthy hills overlooking Bristol are witness to this. Bristol the city still has medieval roots – narrow streets, village-like, big houses for the rich, small for the poor at the bottom of the hill. The new middle class lives half-way up the hill – that’s where we live. Values are private – property-focused. This is a pot-bellied, complacent city of property ghettos and narrow streets.

There are no cities in southern Britain apart from London – just puffed up towns. Cities have hefty histories of exertion and resistance, stolid pavements and engineering bricks. Cities are for Birmingham and up – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle.

The slave merchants of Bristol were too busy accumulating private wealth to think of clearing the silted-up river that only allowed boats of small draught to pass. As the trade exploded with plantation-demand it moved to Liverpool which lies on a large estuary and takes large boats. Much more wealth was generated there. But Liverpool – gritty, industrial, city of sea-farers – has always had a vision of empire because so many of its citizens went there as sailors. It also has strong municipal values. So the slave merchants built big houses, imperial structures and infrastructures. It’s the grandest city outside London – colonnades, avenues, parks, grand designs. Avenues – striating the city. The merchant understood that there was personal wealth in the public. Public value was a boast. Liverpool is a boastful city with its domineering, strutting waterfront of colossal graces. Here, the working class walk with a straight back.

So you can own a Jaguar in Liverpool. Cruise down the slave-merchant admired, proud avenues and boulevards and keep your petrol consumption within reason. Sit back and float on the urban legacy of past municipal grandeur (now deflated by Southern capitalist retribution). But in Bristol – city of private spirit, silent private ambition, resentful of the municipal – you are forever reversing to make room, threading carefully through gaps and alleys, calculating widths and journeys, courtseying to the oncoming – petrol consumption is like a hungry teenager or a laboratory rabbit – it will gobble whatever you give it. We just could not afford the Jag.

We live in our cars and our histories. My design fetish dissolves with the journey south. Travelling north returns me to humanity and public value. We have arrived. I’m ready for the politician. I’ll tell her about slaves and Jags and boulevards and the greed of narrow streets. Politicians should stand up for public value.

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