Photographer Rob Bremner immersed himself among the struggling community that faced rising unemployment, drug abuse, and couldn’t imagine a future
Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.
Liverpool in the 1980s was a city terrorized by recession and the brutality of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. By 1985, unemployment was double the national average and opportunity scarce in the proud port city with a rich cultural history.
After the Toxteth riots in 1981, Thatcher was secretly advised to let the city rot, and lead Liverpool into “managed decline”. Factories were closing, heroin usage was on the rise, and buildings along the dock road were becoming giant, monolithic carcasses, a reminder of what once was, and is no more.
There are many cliches rattled out about Liverpool and its people. Some are negative, perpetuated in part by the evil of a certain tabloid newspaper, preconceptions that still linger to this day. Some are positive, perpetuated in part by Liverpudlians themselves, although the proud assertion that people from Liverpool are the friendliest, funniest people on the planet can often ring true. There is a beauty and warmth to the city, a place that has suffered and survived, a place that’s defined by its people.
55-year-old Rob Bremner was born in Wick, a small working-class town in the North of Scotland, and enrolled at Wallasey School of Art in 1983 to study photography. He lived in New Brighton, a seaside town on the Wirral from where you you can look over the River Mersey at Liverpool, a town photographed extensively by Martin Parr, who Bremner would occasionally shadow, as well as studying with Tom Wood.
But it was Liverpool where Bremner would really develop his documentarian style, particularly on the streets of Everton during the 1980s. His photos capture the crumbling infrastructure of a city, juxtaposed with the pride of its people – there is joy in these images, there is beauty. For young men in Liverpool, the decade was hard. No longer were there easy routes into lifetime factory jobs, and the established social construct of “breadwinning” was harder for men to act out.
We speak to Bremner about what life was like in Liverpool for him and those young men, who were wrestling with the difficulties of the present and struggling to imagine the future.
What do you remember about the young men of Everton in the late 80s?
Rob Bremner: Most of the kids seemed similar to the people that I grew up with, once you get to know them. If anything they were a lot nicer! I think it’s because I was an outsider so I wasn’t really much of a threat or anything. They were much the same as any working class kids, really. I couldn’t really see much difference between them and my own background – I was quite disappointed by that in fact.
Do you feel that young people from Liverpool have a special type of character?
Rob Bremner: Yes – they’re a lot funnier, they’re always trying to look for jokes. Quite a few people in Scotland can be dour, to say the least. There was a lot of unemployment around the time so you would get people just hanging around on street corners because there wasn’t a lot for them to do, because of the sugar factories and loads of things closing down. It was 1987 – a lot of the things have already closed down, the people aren’t taking on (new staff) and it took a long time to recover.
“Liverpool was politicised and everybody knew who Margaret Thatcher was, and she was a bitch, but what they were doing was making the best of what they had” – Rob Bremner
With Thatcher in power at the time, did you see a politicised youth?
Rob Bremner: I’m not sure. I think that they may not have been that political, but I think quite a few of them were lost. Their dads would have gone down the docks and got a job or gone to the sugar factory and all of these things – that wasn’t there for them. The most they could hope for was YTS. Their parents hadn’t been too bothered about schooling because they thought well, you’ll get a job anyway without any problem.
Was there a beauty to the way these young men were with each other?
Rob Bremner: They were always quite close. It’s like most working class communities – your parents don’t really protect you, you know if you’re in fights and stuff like that. There were very close friendships among them. I kept in touch with a lot of people I photographed, quite a few of them are dead now. There has been a longtime cost to these names that were left unemployed, from 16 to 20 year olds, because normally you would leave school and be used to getting up in the morning to go to school, then you were signing on. Liverpool was politicised and everybody knew who Margaret Thatcher was, and she was a bitch, but what they were doing was making the best of what they had.
What sums up Liverpool for you?
Rob Bremner: Just the pure friendliness of the people. I was never really short of anything in Liverpool because even when I myself was unemployed, I would just knock on the neighbours’ doors – I knew everybody in town. Because everybody had been broke, they knew the feeling of being broke, and they were incredibly generous. Sometimes in poverty, there’s something that’s shared about it. If you have a hard time, then you’ve got to rely on people – you go out for a night, spend too much money, you just go around and borrow it off people, until you get paid a week down the line. I actually really enjoyed that and I felt part of living in Liverpool.
What do you remember about the fashion of Liverpool lads back then?
Rob Bremner: Liverpool people have always cared about how they look. Saturday night, there’s 250,000 people on a Friday and Saturday night – there’s about a million people in Liverpool getting pissed and they’re all wonderfully dressed, and they always make me feel like a scruffbag. Shell suits seemed to be mandatory for any teenage weren’t they? It got a bit embarrassing though because a lot of fully middle-aged men would wear them, and you would just think ‘oh no!’. You know these were guys that had never exercised once in their life, stomachs out too, you know the last time they saw their willies was 20 years ago! And they’re all dressed up in sports gear… you just go ‘why?!’. But you know, that’s fallen out of fashion now. The kids really cared about fashion, you can tell just by looking at these photographs.
Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.