Category Archives: Liverpool

Arts cuts, communities and more cuts.

In these dismal times, where cuts are everywhere, we are in serious danger of losing a lot of our access to independent and public arts and culture. In Sheffield, with £50 million in cuts announced yesterday, (on top of £140m over the last 2 years), galleries, award-winning theatres and libraries are all to have their funding cut alongside children’s services, services for vulnerable adults and 600 jobs. Independent organisations, like S1 Artspace, are already seriously under threat due to national arts funding cuts.

For individuals involved, this can be devastating: careers stopped short and ideas wasted, people who want to learn and be inspired given no chance. It also makes it harder for us (all of us) to share a rich, interesting, thoughtful society and culture. We are offered commercialisation and safe choices instead of experimenting and challenging – except for perhaps a narrowing elite, just talking to themselves.

Perhaps it’s hard to care about gallery closures when people are being sacked, made homeless, starved, care provision withdrawn, the NHS sold off? Things that make life bearable are recast as wasteful indulgences. Libraries for luvvies. But this is clearly just another opportunity for them to play divide and rule. Because it’s not about a choice between cutting disabled people’s benefits until they commit suicide or making culture the preserve of a privileged few. This government wants BOTH.

In this climate, how can arts organisations make arguments for their survival? I really care about the arts. They help me to think, reflect, learn provide spaces for making connections with people, things I think are important. But I know they are pretty, well, bourgeois. But…maybe they shouldn’t be. Not exclusively. Like so many things, instead of fighting to protect a status quo, there are opportunities here to think about what we want to fight for. They can also be a source of joy, something else that’s important. And it’d probably worth noting that visitor numbers to museums and galleries is at an all-time high. They should be reclaimed. Working class people want, deserve, and, I think, need bread and roses.

There are some really great ‘community arts’ projects, who produce some really good and interesting work (oh, if we could get away from using community as a euphemism for minorities and actually talk about people coming together, genuine collaboration and collectivity). People who are doing innovative things with technology and digital, who have learned through a culture of openness. But it’s always a separate category, something that’s over there. Like ‘women’s issues’ or ‘African American literature’. Why isn’t ‘community art’ just…’Art’? And why is some of the best art in Sheffield the uncommissioned, unofficial stuff of urban artists like Kid AcnePhlegm and loads of others that reclaims the derelict spaces of the city?

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“The arts need to be more political”, I recently heard a prominent member of Liverpool’s arts establishment hold forth, over a pint, (before proceeding to slag off everyone he knew in the arts who was actually doing something political). “There need to be more people like me in the arts”. The outrageous narcissism aside, I couldn’t help thinking: aren’t you in a position to do something about that? But that’s not how bosses work. Workers in the arts are in very precarious positions, and that means being exploited. (I’ve written before about the arts and working for free).

I fear that most responses to threats in the arts mean playing the game more than ever – trying to be commercial, relying on sponsorship, philanthropy, and, of course, unpaid labour. My uneasiness about this is mostly about the individualistic nature of this approach. In a way, it’s playing into their hands. Crowdfunding and strongly worded letters to The Guardian are all very well, but what about a more radical response? What about working collectively? If you’re being moved out because you can’t afford the space, what about refusing to go? Occupations. Mass events. Alliances. This has happened in schools, universities, even adventure playgrounds. In response to nursery cuts in Sheffield, workers and parents are campaigning in a really inspiring way – staffing a daily stall outside the Town Hall, planning marches and rallies, spreading the word. Now these do provide vital services. There’s a lot of momentum behind some library campaigns too, like in Newcastle. Can this happen everywhere? Can the arts convince people they do too? Can they harness their creativity and energy to make themselves heard?

So, I had these questions in the back of my mind. And then I went to Germany.

I stayed in Hamburg with friends who live in Hafenstrasse, a large housing association and community. And from there I visited the Gangeviertel, another housing association developed from a squatting community who reclaimed unused property to create affordable spaces to live and work and make art. Here were open, communal spaces – exciting places to be in, even on a quiet winter day. They hold events and fiestas to bring people in; provide spaces for alternative conversations and ideas; participate in broader political movements (eg eyecatching interventions in public marches).

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This is within the context of a movement for ‘the right to the city’, focused on affordable living space, committed to diverse, mixed communities. They are explicitly anti-gentrification, opposed to the soulless waves of corporate development that overtake inner-city residences (whereas in Britain the presence of artists in an area is often a step towards gentrification – the moving in of hipsters, ultimately to polarised, gated cities). Appropriating the tactics of high-earning tax dodgers, the artists of Gangeviertel threatened to leave the city if their homes and studios were sold off. Because people like coming to visit or live in cities with a thriving cultural scene, this is a threat with impact. These Hamburg artists work with working class communities; they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. By working collectivity, they are able to harness – and demonstrate – their value to the city.

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And this helped me understand some of my unease. A single-issue campaign against arts and culture cuts is, in the current climate, a bit tasteless. So, broaden it out. In the exciting days of the 2010 student movements, arts against cuts did some good stuff and got some attention. In Liverpool, I saw there were some people who situated cultural institutions within a broader context and were willing to start off conversations, at least. They were willing to take collective action on specific issues that would affect them (eg campaigning successfully against licencing for buskers).  There are lots of arguments made for free, accessible culture and education. There are movements against cuts, and for housing. We even have housing projects that promote a social mix. This government’s cuts are a concerted ideological attack, and the more we connect our struggles, the more likely we will be to succeed.

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PS. All this said, please donate to S1’s crowdfunding campaign if you can. But please also sign the children’s services petition and come on the march. And be prepared for more to come.

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The Leaving of Liverpool

As I left the house for the final time, the cheeky, inquisitive little boy next door watched me. ‘Are you sure you want to leave?’ he asked, and I tried not to let it get to me because I was – I am –sure it’s the right thing to do.

I do feel a sadness, though, as I have loved living in Liverpool and I know I’ve got a great deal from it, and moving there was only ever going to be temporary.  I haven’t regretted it, ever. So here’s my post to Liverpool, a self-indulgent goodbye and thank you letter that tries to share how I, as an outsider, experienced the city and why I think if you haven’t been, you should go there.

In Liverpool I learned a lot. Liverpool gave me a new perspective on poverty, inequality and what it means to be in recession. And although everyone hates Tories, their policies touch close and their rhetoric still divides. Liverpool’s not a socialist utopia, most especially there’s a nasty minority of the racist far-right, channelling their (unsurprising) anger into hate. There’s also a pretty vocal active left, but not one I managed to find a political home with during my time there. Liverpool allowed me to write – to put pen to paper and not be ashamed. To stop waiting for permission to “be creative”. I learned that I could teach myself to do things. I learned that I could go to things on my own and, if I wanted to, find people to talk to who had interesting things to say and would even be interested in what I had to say. Liverpool felt like community, the degrees of separation few. I could probably go on forever, so I’ve limited myself to a Liverpool top 10.

10 things that make Liverpool for me:

  1. The water

 Liverpool is, of course, framed – and made – by the water. From the glorious broad sweep of the inland Mersey as the train crosses Runcorn, through the industrial grandeur of the docks, to the beach escapes over the water or to the North of the city. The water that falls from the sky every single day. A broad expanse that makes the Thames seem scrawny. An enormous public art piece, hundreds of Gormley’s iron men dotted along the coast, looking out to the world this sea was so powerfully connected to. The Ferry.

  1. The space

In London, I felt a horrible claustrophobia most of the time. In Liverpool, I felt freed from this. I don’t mean to sound distasteful, but I could live in a house where I had space to move, for about half the rent I’d been paying before. This cheapness, and even more so the rows of boarded up houses – or empty spaces where houses were demolished, only for redevelopment plans to falter – testifies the city’s poverty. I didn’t get to know the city well enough to know if it has much of a squat scene but it felt like it should. For someone used to space being a precious commodity, those empty houses, and the security effort that goes into keeping them empty, feel very sad.

 On the other hand, there is beauty even in that sadness; the dereliction that accompanies ‘managed decline’ means space to breathe, to grow. New things can spring up – and I think what’s happening in the Baltic triangle area, and some of the ‘pop-ups’ are good examples of this. So are the weeds and wild flowers that the fences can’t keep out.

  1. Threshold Festival

It seems that in Liverpool there is always some party, festival or event going on, from the major events like the Biennial (it’s now!), Sound City and the wonderful Giant Spectacular to the more niche or small scale – a market, a fair, a stage with some bands. Many are free, or at least low cost. When I first visited it on the occasional weekend, I would stumble upon them accidentally – huge samba parades and the world’s largest pirate muster springing up bringing a sense of magic and surprise. Once there, I tried to keep track of what was happening when, and to get myself involved, mainly as a volunteer. I was pleased to be involved in DaDaFest, which showcased some excellent and very diverse work by disabled and D/deaf artists and saw the ‘arts establishment’ and ‘community arts’ find a rare meeting ground. However, Threshold Festival probably best sums up for me Liverpool’s DIY attitude (and ability to put on a boss party), as a grassroots festival making the best use of charm, connections, and scarce resources. They offer a little bit of something for everyone, a series of events throughout the year leading up to the festival itself: put 8-10thMarch in your diary.

  1. Bold Street

Running from the edge of the shopping centre of town to the bombed out church (St. Luke’s), and the ‘daytime’ end of the ‘Ropewalks’ area, this street is full of gems and has an unmistakeable character – and, of course, a festival – of its own. So it starts off more bargain chain stores than anything else, but by the time you’re halfway up there are some of Liverpool centre’s best charity shops, Matta’s small but superb ‘ethnic’ grocers and Leaf, chilled out tea shop by day, trendy venue at night. By the top, you’ll have passed vintage, design, independent shops selling art supplies (Rennies) or music (The Music Consortium), radical bookshop News from Nowhere and its adjoining community centre, Ropewalks square opening onto FACT and the mighty Bold Street Coffee.

  1. Camp & Furnace

Camp and Furnace is many things. It’s a sort of game of how much boss stuff can we fit into one enormous ex-warehouse. Lots, it turns out, and Ian Richards seems to have a clear vision for ‘a new kind of venue’. This country badly needs indoor ‘outdoor’ spaces and this one’s perfect, with trees, wood fires and quirky vintage caravans. It hosts all sorts of events: bands, art fairs and er, Scandi-themed hot tub parties, serves an excellent range of drinks (including their own specially-brewed beer) and bloody good food (and an exciting and varied specials board). Ok, so the word ‘eatery’ grates and the lack of classic starter/main divides can confuse, but ‘Food & Beverage Director’ Ste Burgess knows his shit and the detail, flavours, sourcing and presentation are absolutely spot on.

  1. Green Cauldron Coffee

A controversial choice, in a city where great coffee has its unchallenged leader. I’m not saying Bold Street and sister establishment Duke Street aren’t brilliant places that sell delicious coffee. I’m saying that there’s another brilliant place that sells delicious coffee (and food) that’s not so high profile but is well worth a visit, especially if you’re up that end of town. Bang on coffee trend, Green Cauldron is Australian, with their own coffee plantation so they really know – and care – about their beans. They also do hearty sandwiches in Turkish flatbreads and proper cakes, made by someone’s mum, and are unfailingly lovely.

  1. The Kazimier

The Kazimier is a venue/nightclub unlike any other I’ve ever experienced. It’s party as art, a spectacle, even a culture in itself. The décor echoes art deco cabaret meets music hall, but invaded by rockstars. Now it even has a garden. One of my first Liverpool experiences was a Kazimier one – Atalonia – a retro-futuristic journey starting in a disused warehouse but ending up in a magical underground alternative world. One of my last was the FestEvol gardens, a mini-festival featuring so many bands and DJs it was hard to know where to look. Whatever it’s doing, the Kazimier is cool as fuck, but never forgets to be fun.

  1. The Bluecoat

Calling itself a ‘creative hub’, The Bluecoat‘s diverse approach to arts and creativity is typical, really. Exhibition space (showing some quite challenging contemporary art), performance space, activities, fairs, independent crafts, studios, discussions…well, look at the programme to see just how much stuff they do.

The Bluecoat believes everyone can craft and be creative and it is our aim to provide a space where creativity can flourish and be shared.

This is a lovely ethos and you can probably see why it appeals to me, and I did a brilliant dot-art evening course in various crafts here (although for affordability and camaraderie, my leisure learning heart lies up the road at Blackburne House with the ROOD Vintage girls). It also, like so much in the arts, relies on volunteer labour and though passing a half-day in the gallery with a book is a pretty pleasant way to spend one’s free time… well, you know. A great starting point to get away from the more obvious at the Tate, the Walker and the Playhouse (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but why limit yourself?). Then go to the smaller, independent and artist-led spaces, (personal fave) Wolstenholme Creative Space, Static, The Royal Standard, Metal and, no doubt, many others I don’t even know about. And then tell me about them.

  1. The Double Negative

As a newcomer to Liverpool, not knowing many people, I was totally dependent on the internet to make connections and find my way around. There are loads of great Liverpool tweeters and, I feel a sense of community there, even with people I haven’t met IRL. Through Twitter I became aware of events, opportunities, offers, new openings. Most of the things I’ve mentioned in this list I either first became aware of, or kept up to date with, through Twitter. Even before I moved to Liverpool I was reading some of its blogs, most notably Seven Streets, Open Culture and Food Fascination, a varied, knowledgeable food blog. Shortly after I did, a new culture site launched: The Double Negative. Writing reflectively, often intelligently and critically about the city’s (and beyond) ‘culture scene’, The Double Negative features local artists’ work, interviews, a film podcast (in which I’ve appeared!), a weekly thematic playlist and, for me best of all, Culture Diary. Let these guys plan your week. Seriously.

10. The people

You didn’t think I was going to forget you, did I? Bolshy, “aggressively friendly”, curious, hilarious, unapologetic, inimitable – I don’t want to replicate stereotypes but I don’t think there’s any question of a distinct ‘Liverpool culture’. There’s the scousers themselves, and so many who’ve drifted there, many settling accidentally whilst just passing through. People with lots of creative energy; it’s telling that there’s hardly any comedy nights but every bar has an open mic night. A people with the gift of the gab and plenty of opinions, in a city with a lively spirit of public debate. A city where femininity is consciously and quite marvellously performed, an aesthetic with no pretence of ‘natural’ but that allows for being ‘off-duty’ too, out in the streets in PJ and rollers. And, over the past few weeks, you’ve shown the incredible ability of a community to pull together to share grief and to fight for justice. I’ll miss you.

On working for free. My experiences and some thoughts.

Work. We associate it with receiving wages. Of course, nothing’s that simple (never has been), and it’s all becoming unstuck. Now unemployed, I’ve become a sort of ‘reluctant volunteer’ (even now, looking for new projects to get involved with). My experiences, the recent furore around workfare, and conversations about arts funding raise lots and lots of questions for me. I am interested in what they say about the meaning of work and reward. There are two different but entangled strands – working for free as a ‘route’ to something, and working for the love of it as reward in itself.

I’ve been happy volunteering at arts and music festivals – one-off occurrences that create temporary communities rather than endemic systems of unpaid labour. As a volunteer usher at unity theatre, I exchange my time to see plays. I have learned a lot, met good people and had some good times. Yes, I’m concerned about being complicit with ‘the big society’, but working unpaid can also offer opportunities to ‘resist’. (Most activism, is work, but unpaid.) I’ve spent some time at a centre for asylum seekers and refugees, probably through a (selfish) desire to atone for/work against the system I was part of for so long. It didn’t really work out for me and I feel guilty about dropping out. This destructive emotion plays too big a role in society; I know from friends working in public service, higher education but most especially charities that guilt’s overused as a tool for disciplining and getting more out of workers. Volunteering means a lack of clarity around hours, conditions etc, not having the contract or union support(!) of ‘proper’ paid work, and for a cause you want to succeed. As an experience, volunteering varies massively – Threshold was particularly enjoyable for me because of an inclusive relationship (knowing noone was really making any money protected me from feeling exploited). Being unpaid often puts strain on the enthusiasm though, as was made very clear by one of the bands performing. As The Double Negative put it:

 Relying on lashings of goodwill and in-kind support from industry professionals, those in the know will tell you to develop thicker skin. Said goodwill only goes so far, and there inevitably comes a time when people quite rightly want to get paid for their time and expertise. But what is the tipping point for this?

The changed employment terrain has had massive implications for ‘volunteering’ as a route into work. When I was a student, a minority of people did this kind of stuff for their careers. I think I know one person who did an ‘internship’. People who did CV-boosting activities (joining pretend job societies instead of learning interesting things, having fun, or campaigning for a better world) generally seemed to be wankers. For most it was enough just to get by. Students now – I’m astonished by them. They work at their degrees, still do paid jobs and mess around and that, but also volunteer and do all sorts to ‘boost their employability’. For example, a woman I met volunteering at AND not only blogs in several forums, but has set up an online magazine to showcase extra-curricular talents of fellow-students – and they have so many! They’re partly driven by fear, no doubt, as the chances of getting a job are much lower than when I graduated in the heady boom of 2004. A lot of them have anxiety problems; I’m not surprised.

I always said I wouldn’t do internships, unpaid work – these are exploitative, unethical practices, used to maintain and increase privilege. Even if I could afford to, I didn’t want to play along. Childish ideas about ‘desirable’ work went out the window in my teens – written off as ‘too competitive’, thanks to unpaid work experience (as well as low confidence). It became apparent, living in London, with friends on the edges of these professions – that there’s an army of young (often privately educated and wealthy) who want certain jobs and so will do them for no or low pay. Oversupply means if you don’t do free/cheap work in precarious, exploitative conditions, someone else will. I’ve even been turned down for unpaid work (a good candidate but there were just too many volunteers)! Lots has been written about these practices in the arts, charities, media, fashion… With the ‘Big Society’, this government wants to extend this much further. But professionalism means salaries. They also mean working class, non independently wealthy people can participate. A good historical example is the MP salary – integral to c19th radical democratic campaigns. Politics had been just another amateur diversion for the landed gentry (like other unwaged pursuits – philanthropy, art, and so on. Sound familiar?).  This one, funnily enough, probably won’t be rolled back – although if it takes public school, Oxbridge PPE and internships in party HQ or think tanks to get there, that £67k salary doesn’t look so open to all. Also, if pay isn’t your motivation, what is? (vital services carried out by charities, such as adoptions, sex & relationship education – surely no agendas to push there?)

Why pay professionals when you can use ‘the Big Society’?

The past few weeks, we’ve seen big noise about workfare. The government attack critics as ‘snobs’ and/or ‘the hard-left’ (in some hilarious pieces). Aside from the ridiculousness of those people deploying the word ‘snobs’ (see Suzanne Moore’s blistering piece), focussing on this small example risks decontextualising broader arguments. It’s just a tiny part of the picture of exploitation (as argued brilliantly here) and most people criticising this scheme are just as critical of other forms of exploitation. Where people are willing to do some types of work for free (museum) and not others (Poundland), I think there is some element of snobbishness (I include myself, by the way). But there is something alarming about shifting from ‘working for free to rise above one’s peers’ (elitist but sort of optional) to ‘needing to work for free to stay alive’. Politicians talk about making work more attractive than benefits by cutting benefits. They rarely consider the flipside: making work less unattractive. People have multiple needs and motivations for doing things. Most jobs don’t allow people to think, to exercise creative energies, and take up too much time to allow space to do that outside of work. Most jobs, especially in the South, barely (or don’t) cover living/rent costs. The way we demand human people ‘do service’ is often humiliating, made worse by this government’s dehumanising rhetoric. Employers often tread a balance between keeping a workforce just desperate enough to keep trying harder, and offering a few morale-boosting scraps to prevent mutiny. With rising unemployment, these conditions are no longer an inevitability. If, in “the current climate”, we’re all starving, we may as well be starving artists.

What does this do for quality and equality?

There’s a long-running tension between the romanticism of the starving artist vs the ‘freedom’ that money (and a room of one’s own) brings. I don’t think anyone could express that better than Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain:

Cosmo: Talking pictures, that means I’m out of a job. At last I can start suffering and write that symphony.

Simpson: You’re not out of a job, we’re putting you in as head of the new music department.

Cosmo: Well, thanks, R.F.! At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony.

In the face of funding cuts, ‘the arts’ face questions around work, reward and funding, whether the allocation of public money via bureaucratic, (and diminishing) routes, corporate sponsorship and the associated relations of power and complicity (with companies like BP!) or the commercialisation and privatisation of culture: intellectual property rights and the ethics of charging for (or pirating) a ‘cultural product’. Reliance on the state for funding comes with constraints (e.g. politically), but can relying on broader audience appeal discourage experimenting and challenging work too? (There’s a reason they call it ‘selling out’.) Plus, we want free content, and there are so many people competing who will supply it. It doesn’t guarantee quality, but actually some really good things are achieved that way. Liverpool is strikingly full of people just getting on and doing things they are interested in, without making much money from it (who likely wouldn’t be making money anyway). Perhaps they can be made commercially viable. Perhaps new models will emerge from these disparate practices (crowd-funding, for example). We’ll see.

All this free work, whether enthusiastic cultural production, well-meaning charity work, subsidised labour for big companies, or social reproduction, shows the cracks in the logic of the supposed free market. Ultimately, it takes a staggering unlogic to argue that making people work without pay will somehow change the fact that there are not enough jobs.

Some newish (and new to me) things

It’s taken me a while to write this, but I have been making some new inroads. For me, February began with Scoustroclub, the long-awaited dining club for getting this city’s emergent ‘foodie’ scene together over some good food. Others have blogged the event, here and here, so I’m just going to add my voice to theirs to say it was a great event, and Lunya fantastic hosts. They put together a thoughtful and interesting menu – terrific ingredients put together cleverly – made even better by an excellent set of wine pairings (although I suffered for it). I think it’s worth commenting that the meat and fish dishes were considerably more impressive and better thought through than the veggie ones, although I am very grateful to Peter for being considerate of this pesky pescetarian – I forget that these dietary peculiarities are less common up here, and was a bit shamed to be the only one in the room – particularly for bringing me delicious, juicy, lime-marinated crispy fried cod with pisto, in place of the Presa Iberica. The smoked anchovies were another highlight. I’m going to have to go to their deli. Soon.

I also enjoyed meeting some Twitter food types a bit more properly, and had loads of fun with (among others) @misscay, @rhub_custard, and @laurasbakery

Speaking of whom, another recent arrival in the city centre is Laura’s cafe in the home quarter. Tucked in a corner behind ludicrously expensive sofas, there is a counter piled with absurdly pretty creations with a creative, and constantly changing, selection of designs and flavours. And because she really values her customers, she makes sure we get good coffee as well as good cake, supplied by bold st coffee (who also trained up her staff). This is not to be underestimated.

Since then, I’ve been all swept up with Threshold Festival. Not strictly new, but in its second year, and with a feel of optimism and hope that’s all the more impressive given the venue closures, including that of its own, last year. But by some miracle of force and good will and determination, it went ahead, scrabbling its way into a handful of other venues and filling in the logistical holes left by CUC’s closure as best possible. It felt huge, ambitious and diverse. Maybe it was too ambitious. I can’t review the festival, as I was working as a volunteer throughout, providing info, answering questions, and selling some merchandise, to festival guests. Others have, though, here and here and here (and, doubtless, elsewhere). I did have an amazing experience, though, met loads of interesting and lovely people and learned a lot, and saw some great performers, artworks and spaces.

I loved helping to install Robyn Woolston’s ‘Smart Price’ piece, yarnbombing the area with @kazzer865 , and also have a list of bands to check out and look into. Camp and Furnace was the main venue, and though rather chilly, it’s a great space and has loads of potential. I hope all those positives outweigh the hitches, and this is something that comes back and keeps working.

Lastly, I’ve written all this on my return from the reboot of Liverpool’s Social Media Café. Again it’s a rerun rather than a strict new beginning, but it seems apt to include it here. Newness and the future are all the rage here, particularly in Adrian McEwan’s launch of his project It’s Liverpool 2020, which is an attempt at a grassroots vision of change. Democratising technology is pretty much what he is already actively trying to achieve through DoES Liverpool, but by inviting participants to articulate their visions, it creates a space for interesting ideas to emerge. I feel like I’m still learning Liverpool as it is now too much to start planning its future, but am interested to see what emerges.

On a more practical level, open street map is a project to create just that – a free, quality, open, editable (therefore hopefully always up to date) map of, well, everywhere, through GPS tracking, image tracing and such. And, more theoretically, Francis Irving talked about some of the ways of creating and using online communities as ‘nests’, and the challenges of making these popular, sustainable, and even profitable. This, and the ideas of Excapite he was drawing upon, spoke to my interest in online identities and inclusivity/exclusivity. It also ties into questions raised earlier this week at Threshold Festival’s industry discussion panels and at the State of the Arts conference in Manchester about creativitity and the commercial, which feel especially pressing at the moment…

Coffee – a double post

After my last self-pitying post, I decided to try and drag myself back into action, beginning with baking (of course). I turned to Dr E for inspiration (as ever) and her request for ‘coffee cake, with icing’ came back pretty quickly. I’ve never really made a coffee cake I’ve been very happy with, so I knew this meant trying a new recipe. A quick scour brought me to the Hummingbird Cake Days book – a leaving present from my last job, and one that has only had a few outings so far.  At first, I was torn. Expresso Cupcake, or Mocha Cupcake? The addition of chocolate is usually only a good thing, but I wasn’t sure it was coffee-ey enough, so I improvised, with what I will now call my Cappuccino cupcake. I used the full coffee cake batter with a coffee and chocolate frosting. I’ve heard some criticisms of the Hummingbird recipes, and they are definitely more of the wet , milk-based type than the sponges I’m used to. (I’m sure they wouldn’t thank me for posting recipes though.) But actually this recipe worked fine with soya and heating the milk first and dissolving instant coffee granules (the recipe called for instant expresso powder but where do I find that on a Sunday night?) into it was an excellent way of thoroughly combining a lot of coffee flavour without any curdling or splitting. The results were light fluffy cupcakes, perhaps a bit unevenly risen – did I overmix? Use too much baking powder? Was the oven a bit too hot? Or was it just the wetness of the mix? Nevertheless, the flavour was great, and Dr E proclaimed them ‘the coffeeeyist cake I have ever had’. They lasted pretty well too, better than a sponge-type cupcake.

 

 

 

The frosting also used a lot of milk, with coffee melted in, rather than the straightforward buttercream, and I added a couple of dessertspoons of hot chocolate powder along with the icing sugar. At first, I thought it was a bit of a failure – dairy free frostings are hard to get right and this seemed to have split/curdled slightly, but I found it set perfectly overnight, helped by its disguise of dark chocolate shavings.

 

 

 

In other coffee news, I finally managed to pay a trip to 27 Duke Street, Bold St Coffee’s December pop-up coffee shop and a pretty serious coffee-drinking enterprise. It was quiet, making it ideal for sitting down with a delicious cup and the paper. It feels old-fashioned in slightly shabby cool way, dominated by the bar in the middle of the store and complete with chalk boards rammed with info about the beans, sacking-lined walls and polystyrene cup fairy lights. The coffee purism can be intimidating, but it’s worth it. As a black-no-sugar coffee drinker, I couldn’t help smiling at the ‘no sugar’ rule. Last week’s coffee was from El Salvador and was absolutely packed with big, fruity and, to my mind, caraway flavour. I also had a totally delicious goats cheese and tomato sandwich on focaccia.

 

 

 

 

 

It was a perfect spot for sheltering from the rain after visiting Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction, the Ceri Hand Gallery’s exhibition at CUC. These are two Liverpool cultural institutions soon to be departing and I hadn’t visited either yet (I’m not suggesting a causal link, mind) and thought I really should. CUC is housed in an enormous converted warehouse and a totally beautiful space – I really hope it manages to find a new life after January. The exhibition was in the Attic Gallery, a vast, atmospheric space with great views out to the city. Ceri Hand have managed to bring together lots of nice pieces from loads of massive name artists, and it’s nice to see some smaller, less well known pieces, and lots of etchings, drawings and prints. I particularly enjoyed the Hockneys, as they seemed to reflect on the process of making art as well as the end product, and had never heard of Paula Rego before but the two pieces there by her were stunning and I will definitely look her out more. I can’t afford to buy any of it, of course, but if you do have a spare few grand and want to own some art, it’s definitely worth a visit  (closes tomorrow!)…

Two weeks of exploring in Liverpool

I’ve taken a bit of time over the last couple of weeks to do a bit of exploring – tourism, even – as half term means some visitors from down south, and this
has helped me to feel a refreshed sense of Liverpool. I’ve taken some bracing walks around the docks, and F and I even went on the big wheel (the Liverpool Eye?), which has armed me with some hyperbolic facts about the city.

Some other things I’ve done:

Looked in awe around the Anglican cathedral, and walked round its peaceful gardens.  Taken in some sculpture at the Tate’s excellent exhibition, which sets
familiar and more unusual pieces together in a way that really made me think about the artistic languages that have formed the work, which are often a bit baffling seen alone, the Mike Figgis films of other viewers’ responses creating a sense of conversation. Listened to jazz at Mello Mello –  a brilliant fun night watching some people who clearly love music just getting stuck in. Visited the gents in the Philharmonic (come on, you have to once…) And, bravely, visited
the World Museum during half term. Human-centric as I am, I was only really interested in the cultures exhibits on the 3rdfloor – costumes, gold-weights, and a genuine interrogation of where they come from and why. I’m not really allowed to go shopping at the moment but I did help M find a hat for Halloween and in return, he introduced me to the marvels that are St. John’s market and Grand Central. I bloody love markets, high and low end, and it excites me to know where to go to buy cheap haberdashery supplies, loose fruit and nuts by weight, broken biscuits, as well as dressing-up box vintage (ok, I cracked and bought a dress. But it was only £1). In contrast, F and I cooed over posh foods in the Harvey Nicks store and contemporary crafts – both the skill and the creative imaginations behind it – at the Bluecoat Display Centre and the little craft shops (esp Landbaby) in its courtyard.

           

Dr E and I went to the Wirral (West Kirby) for a walk on the beach, to blow away some cobwebs and appreciate being so near such natural beauty.

I’ve even been to Manchester to watch a MaD theatre company production, a devised piece about youth theatre groups and fame, called ‘The Demise and Rise of Bunny Lamar’ and got involved in promoting Romeo Echo Delta, a
sound art project, part of the AND Festival, which hijacked the airwaves of BBC Merseyside to imagine how an alien invasion of Liverpool would sound through today’s fast-moving media. An interesting idea and well-executed dramatic piece, I couldn’t help feeling it was a little bit too…knowing. I suppose you can’t really build up a genuine popular buzz in such a short time. The MaD production, on the other hand, may not have been high art, but was an exuberant, uplifting night out.

And have I eaten while I’ve been exploring? I’ve wolfed down the Shipping Forecast’s very good hippy burger; slurped up Udon noodles in Tokyou, a bowl of cheap, simple goodness, and at Host, where there was more depth of flavour, silkier noodles and better vegetables; gloried in the Salt House Tapas lunch menu (oh, that bread); and eaten decent, tasty Chinese at Yuet Ben. (I know it’s pretty a basic food porn essential but I’m still too embarrassed to take photos in restaurants most of the time). I’ve also sampled some good and interesting beers – all part of the learning process.

The Liverpool Supper Club

Having spent a lot of my  time in London reading food blogs, I’m very familiar with the concept of the supper club – in which someone hosts a meal in their own home (or another informal venue) for a small-ish group of guests, in
exchange for a suggested donation. Appealing as this idea is, it often seems to come with a bit of intimidating foodie-ishness and requiring superhuman organisational skills to book places for one on a suitable date. So while I may have had not one but two dreams about going to the legendary MsMarmitelover’s now (srsly), I never actually got around to going to one in waking life. Before I moved to Liverpool I became aware (via Twitter) that a group of friends (Tom, Jo and Lucy) had decided to organise one here, so it was high on my to do list, especially when I saw the very stylish menu (designed by Jo, also an illustrator) for their second outing, with appealing Greek-themed dishes.

So on a wet and windy Thursday evening last week, I arrived on my own and a little nervous and  windswept, but within minutes I was brought into the very cool apartment where Tom and Jo live, handed a glass of prosecco with Morello cherries and introduced to some interesting people – my shyness didn’t last
long. Once seated at an attractive, cheery table, we were brought ‘Pikilia’ sharing platters, an impressive range of mezze-style dishes showcasing lots of flavours, textures and skill. The fritters were perfectly fried, the butternut and tahini dip a combination I hadn’t thought of but was creamy and comforting, with plenty of  sesame depth, and the olives were amazing. The mains of lamb (or for me,
vegetable and haloumi) kebabs had been cooked over a wood-fire and the split-pea puree and orzo pasta were good accompaniments. I think the star of the show though was the poached pears with rose & honey, served with filo, pistachio praline and home made ice-cream. It exemplified perfectly the thoughtful, balanced approach to each course – there was lots going on, but never over the top. I heard lots of happy sighs around the table!

All this was finished off with coffee and home made petit fours – mini chocolate brownies (one of the best I’ve tasted) and crumbly, lemony amaretti.

Guests brought their own wines but there was a friendly sharing vibe, particularly as Jon from Scatchards wine had made some suggested pairings and this was a great way of tasting some new and things for a wine ignoramus like me, especially a dry, almost savory sherry – Lustau Manzanilla Amontillada and a the lovely floral  Moscat d’Asti with dessert. Special points to Liverpool Supper Club for being very vegetarian-friendly, as well as lovely friendly people. I could see they were accommodating about allergies too, which gives me hopes for bringing Dr E along to one of their dinners in future. I was enjoying my food too much to remember to take pictures until dessert, but there are some here and another good write-up on Sid’s restaurant blog here. Hope the next one comes round soon!