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For four years Liverpool Fellows have been getting together to discuss RSA priorities and share ideas. The magic ingredients? Food, says Kevin Donovan FRSA.

Well, we could have organised a series of lectures, or debates, or discussions. We would have still ranged over issues of concern to the RSA and its Liverpool Fellows. Of course, we are very modern Fellows so we could have blogged, tweeted, podcast and video grabbed. Thus our deliberations would still float around in the clouds. We do all of those things. On the other hand is that any fun? We reckoned we could achieve 21st century enlightenment in a different way.

What do we enjoy? Actually, despite an extra loquaciousness gene, Liverpool Fellows are no different to others. Talking? Certainly. Listening, arguing occasionally, persuading, disagreeing and even agreeing once in a while. We are not too obsessed with an outcome; although one is generally achieved (whether this is a resolution, consensus or just going our different ways). Process is as important as product;. in Liverpool we appreciate form as well as function.

Where do we enjoy doing these things? Like the pioneer RSA Fellows of the 18th century, a café or a pub can serve us better than a more formal setting. This is not escapism but it is certainly an antidote to the many working hours spent on committees and in meetings and a world of agendas and minutes; a pattern which retired Fellows find is repeated as they become even more involved in voluntary activities and their local communities.

It is worth remembering that our communities and organisations, like those of most people reading this, represent the real big society and did so long before the capitalised version entered dubious political rhetoric and was rejected locally. Perhaps this is no coincidence as 2011 is being marked to celebrate ‘Liverpool: City of Radicals’ and a century ‘on the edge’. Fellows will have noted that Liverpool was Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2008 but a hundred years ago, in 1911, Liverpool was at the height of its power and influence in very different ways. Three radical events marked that year.

First, the Liverpool Transport Strike so alarmed the government that Churchill sent a warship to the Mersey (and this writer’s grandfather, a carter on the docks, entered the employers’ rogues gallery, never to work again). Second, the Bluecoat (still going strong) held an amazing exhibition of paintings by the European avant-garde, including Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne, alongside works by local artists (also still going strong!). Finally, the Liver Building – the UK’s first major building to use reinforced concrete – was opened; its two crowning liver birds came to symbolise the city and its resilience.

One hundred years of activity, upheaval and innovation contributed to Liverpool’s reputation for radical thought and actions; from the 'Gateway to Empire', through to decades of decline and the city’s reinvention as a cultural capital. As a new book by John Belchem and Bryan Biggs notes, individuals left their mark during the century:  “a propensity for being 'bolshy' has arguably shaped the image of the city as uncontrollable, anarchic, separate and alienated from mainstream England…This has gone hand in hand with creativity – cultural and sporting – which has in the second half of this period reverberated beyond the city, from the Beatles changing the face of popular music, to Liverpool's unrivalled international visual arts offer today.”

And food! Many of my generation will have relished street parties, bonfire nights,  scout camps and school dinners partly because they were opportunities for a rare good scoff at a time of austerity and hardship. My goodness, we even lived through the Berkoff years: the actor has recently directed Oedipus at the Liverpool Playhouse and perhaps enjoyed the city’s wide range of excellent restaurants. He could even have skipped over to Birkenhead to sample Michelin-starred food. Twenty years ago he was lamenting that there was no sushi to be had on a wet Sunday afternoon. We shared his pain but now the world is our oyster bar.

Hence the Liverpool RSA Open Dinners. These events, now in their fourth year, have proved to offer a formula that allows Fellows and guests to talk productively and to eat excellent food and share a bottle of wine in convivial surroundings. We meet every six months and, between courses, a guest speaker introduces a topic associated with RSA priorities followed by questions and discussion. The venue has always been the same: a city-centre restaurant owned and managed by a Fellow and where the chef is a Liverpool institution. The atmosphere is informal and a welcome drink and communal tables allow people to mingle and new attendees to meet and chat with others. There is a loyal core of diners but the constituency may vary with the theme or because, for example, a Fellow wishes to sound out others on ideas for a new project. Every evening has ended with enthusiasm for the next time.

Debate and dining. A perfect combination. Discourse is fine but that course is better.

Kevin Donovan is a retired further education worker. Visit his website and blog.


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