Can you define Scouse? You can certainly define a great writer and ex-Times football editor Tony Evans is one of those. He’s also one of the most vital voices Liverpool has ever produced and his clear, concise and canny prose helps us see the city through three of the prisms the auld place is always revealed in: football, politics and music. He’s got a book out that reads like perpetual motion, too. Perfect, then, for the latest #LiverpoolLessOrdinary. By Alan O’Hare.
The work of renowned Liverpool journalist Tony Evans isn’t just about football, it’s much more serious than that.
The former football editor for The Times, now an author and pundit, is as sharp as a tack and his writing retains all the incision of a Jan Molby through-ball. “It’s strange, but from the time I was about eleven, I had a feeling that I’d be a writer,” he reveals. “There was no reason for that. My dad and uncles were doormen… having said that, though, loads of people ’round ours were doing creative stuff and my first memories were of a world The Beatles were dominating.” There he goes again: pulling the truth from the memories. If great art holds a mirror up to society, then great writing should put the past in a glass cage and stamp it with the truth.
Of course, you need to be a primary source to ensure that, and in the case of Evans’ new book ‘Two Tribes’ – which focuses on 1985/86 football season – the author was very much there. “Heysel was a horrible low point which cannot be erased, but the city – and Evertonians deserve most of the credit – showed honour and sportsmanship just a year later. I was twenty three/twenty four then, playing in a band and embracing life.”
‘Two Tribes’ is the best book I’ve read about football since Gary Imlach’s ‘My Father And Other Working Class Footballing Heroes’… but it’s not really about football. It’s also the best book I’ve read about politics and Liverpool since Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn’s ‘A City That Dared To Fight’… but it’s not really… you get the picture. The former musician (Evans was in The Farm’s horn section back in the day) has handed in a work of brutal beauty to Penguin’s Bantam Press and plaudits should follow.
But, first, it’s time to place him under the #LiverpoolLessOrdinary spotlight and get the truth about the things that fuel the cutting critical candour his very best work shines with…
When did you first start noticing good writing around you?
In my first memories, people are playing instruments, writing songs and generally trying to break out of the life that seemed to pen us in with poverty. I’m lucky that I come from a creative city and culture. I’ve always been a big reader and in the first week of sixth form, we read some short extracts blind. The entire class hated one piece… but I liked it. The teacher didn’t say anything, but at the end of the lesson he called me outside, took me to the office and reappeared with ‘The Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man’…
Go on, I’ll bite, what happened next?
He told me to read it in a week and write an essay on it. Jeez, was I pissed off. Everyone in the class was laughing at me… but I’ve so much to thank Mr McInerney for. He died a couple of years ago. I saw a tweet from his nephew and was able to let his family know how much he’d done for me by that simple act. Still, I’m nowhere near the highest achieving old boy from Cardinal Godfrey – Tommy Smith scored the decisive goal in a European Cup Final, after all. Doubt he read James Joyce, though.
Who else helped to open up your mind in those formative years?
Evelyn Waugh is the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century. He’s at the opposite end of the social and political scale, but great writing transcends class. The ‘Sword Of Honour’ trilogy, moving from high farce to tragedy, is magnificent.
Keep ’em coming…
I love Anthony Burgess (the Manc’ get) and I read ‘Earthly Powers’ at least once a year – it’s like literary comfort food for me. ‘Any Old Iron’, too.
Tell me about the Liverpool that shaped you…
I was sixteen in 1977… what a time to be young! Punk, football, cheap beer… Tate & Lyle was still open and we didn’t feel poor, well, at least as a selfish teenager, I didn’t. The fashions were changing every week, I was a member of Eric’s and it was an exciting, vital time. The walls were closing in on the city and we didn’t know it. Tate’s shut the year I went to university and that was when I realised that I was poor. I hadn’t any real experience with different classes until then.
I got thrown out, of course, and retreated into my own culture. Despite the lack of cash and the way the city was perceived, Liverpool was bouncing. There was a manic energy there – football, music, the arts and politics. People were having a great time and the creativity was amazing. We weren’t feeling sorry for ourselves. We wanted to fight the world! Metaphorically, of course.
Where does that Scouse gestalt come from?
Oh man… it changes. It’s barely a century old and it developed, morphed, in my lifetime. For me, if you don’t understand that the critical essence is Irishness, then you don’t get it. Brian Sewell, the great art critic, said it best: “Scousers would like to be cut loose from England and towed into the Irish Sea… just not too close to Ireland.” He understood. Johnny Speight understood, too: “Traitorous Scouse git… ” – if you think you’re English, and not a traitor, you’re not Scouse.
What about where you come from, Tony?
I was born in 92a Burlington Street and lived there – with spells at college and in California – until I was nearly thirty. It is between Scotland and Vauxhall Roads. My identity was shaped in the community there. It was tight-knit and a brilliant place to grow up. There were bomb sites all over and they were our adventure playgrounds. It was very Catholic – the Irish influences were strong – and there were lots of seamen and dockers around. My dad was from Gerard Gardens and worked in the clubs. He’d take me with him on quiet nights in the school holidays and I’d hang around with the DJ at the ‘Hotsy Totsy’ on North Street. Never wanted to follow the family business and be a bouncer, though…
You’re a red. Can you remember that first trip to Anfield?
No. My dad died in 1975 and by the time I wanted to know the inconsiderate git wasn’t around to ask. I quite like not knowing. If you know, you’re an entryist!
I love that…
… in all seriousness, I remember 1969/70 in a vague way. Before that, nothing.
Why has the 1985/86 season always stayed with you?
It contained the city’s zenith and nadir. Not just in football. We’d never had, and never will again, the two best clubs in Europe. Never has the city been more derided, but I’m still proud of the way we fought back against Thatcherism.
I’ve always felt that connection, but you’re the first to draw that straight line…
Politics was/is such a part of life and it colours everything. When I was young, people told me I’d move to the right when I got older and become more conservative… bollocks! I’m angrier and more radical than I’ve ever been. Football, then and now, pulsates with politics. Especially in this city.
Football, then and now: what’s changed?
The link between community and the club. Teams were flag-bearers for the city, now they’re global entities. Or want to be. It was the biggest expression of working class culture. It’s not now.
Why do you say “Evertonians deserve most of the credit” for restoring honour to the city in 1985/86?
They understood, despite their disappointment, that a show of unity at Wembley in May 1986 was more important than winning. It is one of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t have restored faith after Heysel… it took our family, friends and neighbours to do it at a time when they could not have felt any worse. That’s why I’m so sad about the increasingly poisonous relationship between the two sets of fans.
It’s not an opinion a majority will share…
… people often say to me that I think differently to them, but I’m not sure I’m different. I reckon I think in a very Scouse way and I try to be as honest as I can. I came to journalism/writing very late, after Hillsborough. I was twenty nine years old and I made a decision that if I was going to write, I’d have to tell the truth, as I see it, whether people liked it or not. I don’t care if people like me. I’m way past that.
All the best writers are. What would the next chapter of ‘Two Tribes’ have been about as 1987 arrived?
Everton bounce back, but there are people better qualified to write it.
And the politics?
People like me left The Labour Party and never returned after the council were disbarred. The death of politics in the city would be the sadder story.
Let’s end on a high (and the ale): top three boozers in Liverpool…
The Mitre (sod off with The Ship). One of first places I drank in. Full of Gerard and Fontenoy Gardens characters… and only a ten minute wobble back up Vauxhall Road. The Fly In The Loaf, though it will always be Kirklands to me. I can see myself in there in 1976 wearing blue Kickers. Got good ale in there now… and The Philharmonic feels like a pub should feel. Bit predictable, I know, but these places are like an old pair of jeans to me: comfortable and a good fit. I am open to new adventures, though, so if anyone reading this wants to take me to a brilliant alehouse I don’t know, give me a shout. I’m in.
‘Two Tribes’, by Tony Evans, is out now
Pic courtesy Bantam Press