A seven-foot bronze statue of the late Beatle John Lennon greets travelers at the international airport in Liverpool that bears his name. It’s fitting that Lennon’s impish image—hands inserted in pants pockets—is displayed at the airport adjacent to the Mersey River. Lennon emigrated from blue-collar Liverpool, a one-time symbol of Great Britain’s manufacturing strength, to New York’s posh Central Park West. His visage has a wry grin, but it is we who are laughing at ourselves when a porter explains how to put our left-handed stick in reverse—a maneuver, thankfully, we were not forced to execute on the 340-kilometer jaunt up various motorways (40, 6, 62) to Merseyside. Before finding his faith, Thomas, the main character in Antonioni’s mod classic Blow Up (1967), drove a British-built Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud assembled in nearby Crewe. Our rental is French.
Liverpool is not a Strawberry Field or Magical Mystery Tour. There are pagans on Beatles pilgrimages and Hindus taking root in her postindustrial landscape. The one eternal is the Mersey, rising from the Rivers Goyt and Tame near Manchester and flowing into Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea. British manufacturing and empire were ascendant in the 19th century, when cotton imported from the American South via Liverpool was a raw material for Manchester’s textile mills. But the decline of manufacturing and empire meant, by the mid-20th century, that rockabilly and blues replaced a physical product as the economic trade nexus. These imports influenced the Beatles and British Invasion bands like the Searchers, which adopted its name from the 1956 John Ford classic. The Mersey, for many Americans, remains associated with the 1964 hit “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Gerry Marsden, unlike Lennon, remained in Liverpool, and his recording “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is the local football club’s anthem.
The Mersey is marked by its ebb and flow—both the water within it and the humanity around it. A century ago, British economic power and culture reigned. Today, the Far East plays a leading role. Motor vehicles would not be assembled in Liverpool without the British government and Indian entrepreneurs. Mumbai-based Tata Motors Ltd. acquired Jaguar from Ford in 2008, and the Land Rover is built at the Merseyside assembly plant in suburban Halewood. British-government loan guarantees to Jaguar and its suppliers, coupled with a one-year pay freeze and a four-day work week, helped Jaguar survive the 2007-09 credit crisis, and Tata announced its first quarterly profit in early 2010. As Mr. C. Ramakrishnan, Tata Motors’ CFO, explained to the Liverpool Echo earlier this year, “The Chinese market is a very good market for Jaguar volumes. We have benefited from globalization of the market.” British motor-vehicle manufacturing thus has a new modus operandi: production driven by government intervention and capital investment from a former colony with a high savings rate.
British manufacturing’s decline under successive Labour and Conservative governments cannot be saved by a tourist economy built on American baby-boomer nostalgia for the pop music of their youth. John, Paul, George, and Ringo are no match for offshoring. Detroit can match Motown to the Beatles, but what does that matter when economic policies result in fewer jobs and smaller paychecks? More than one in three British manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the mid-1990’s under the economists’ “New Economy” regime. Manufacturing’s share of GDP has declined, and Britain, once the world’s largest manufacturing economy, now ranks behind the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and the Russian Federation. The streets around the Cavern Club, the old Liverpool Beatles haunt, are near deserted, save for an aging group of Californians, and we decline an offer to stand on the spot where the quartet once stood.
The Mersey has not escaped the cultural impact. British Hindus consider it sacred, “the River Ganges of the north of England.” The Liverpool Echo reported that “so many people turned up” at the 2007 “Ceremony of Immersion performed on an idol of the Elephant God, Lord Ganesh” that the rite had to be performed twice, with the Mersey ferry “crowded with Hindu celebrants.” The ceremony included Hindus throwing replica cobras and other items into the river. Attendees included the Anglican bishop of Liverpool.
I imagine John Lennon would have found this state of affairs acceptable. Introduced to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967, Lennon traveled to India for “spiritual guidance.” Anglican officials, coming full circle, allowed bell ringers to perform Lennon’s “Imagine” at Liverpool’s cathedral last year. “As a cathedral we do not shrink from debate,” a church spokesman told the BBC. “We recognize the existence of other world views.” The song includes the line, “Imagine there’s no heaven. / It’s easy if you try.” Indeed.
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