Local Hero: Rob Bremner is the Scotsman Who Found Home in Crumbling Liverpool
You probably think you know a lot about Scousers, even if you’ve never set foot in Merseyside. That’s because the city’s reputation is built on clichés and riddled with stereotypes. Whether it be through tabloid defamation or TV ridicule (believe it or not, Harry Enfield, not every Liverpudlian says, “Calm down, calm down”), most people’s perceptions of Scousers are usually formed without ever properly meeting one.
Many will never make the excursion up t’north to see for themselves that the people of Liverpool are some of the kindest, most genuine in the country, so it’s down to the city’s photographers to tell their stories. While Martin Parr’s seaside snaps of New Brighton in the Wirral may initially come to mind, or Tom Wood’s trips to the Great Homer Street Market 30 years ago, it’s actually the portraits by a close affiliate of the two that have captured the soul of the city. Portraits that almost never saw the light of day.
Rob Bremner is the Scotsman who spent a large part of the 1980s taking people’s photographs on the streets of Everton and Vauxhall, which were then considered the third most deprived area of Britain. Now 56, the photographer first moved to Merseyside in 1983 to enroll at Wallasey School of Art on the Wirral, which he says was the only art school that would accept him without any O levels. It was here that Bremner first met Wood, the Irish street photographer – and a teacher at the college – who spent 1978 to 2001 photographing people across Liverpool and the Wirral Peninsula. There was also Parr, who Bremner bumped into a few times while taking pictures in New Brighton; Parr was building what is now his famous photo series of the popular holiday destination for working-class families in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
Joanne Davis, Ann Marie Shamrock, Mercy Foster and Lisa Willcox, Vauxhall, 1987.
Bremner was then accepted to study at Newport College of Art, Wales, but admits he was never happy there. Instead, he would find himself regularly crashing at Wood’s place, venturing into Liverpool during the day before returning in the evening to help Wood out in his dark room.
Hailing from Wick, a small fishing town in the north of Scotland, Bremner found that life in Everton couldn’t have been more different. “The council hadn’t invested any money in it in years,” he says, admitting he was instantly drawn to the high-rise flats. “I don’t think I’d been in a lift until I came to Liverpool.”
He had arrived in a city on its knees. After the Toxteth Riots of 1981, Thatcher was being urged by her advisers to let it fall into a state of a decline, with her chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, advising her that investing money into its regrowth would be like “trying to make water flow uphill”. By 1985, unemployment in Liverpool was roughly double the national average, with a surge of heroin use and organised crime happening across the city.
Joey Mallory, Gerry Ormesher and friend, Breck Road, 1987.
“You’d see graffiti and kids constantly burning things,” Bremner says, going on to recall the time a fireman told him the area had the biggest arson rate in Europe. Yet among the derelict houses and crumbling communities, Bremner was able to find a sense of home. “It didn’t feel that alien because I’m from a large working-class family. Y’know, we’re all quite similar. Sometimes you’d go round to people’s houses and it would just be like going round to your auntie’s. We all live in the same country, our parents aren’t very well off, and we all suffer the same problems.”
Discovering instant comfort in Everton, Bremner found it was a nice break from the middle-class parties Wood would take him along to. For him, being in the area was “like going home”. Luckily, a shabby-haired student with a big camera and an accent didn’t stir up too much suspicion among the local community and Bremner could begin photographing its people. Whether it was headscarf-clad grannies with their Kwik Save bags, scruffy-looking schoolboys in their skewwhiff uniforms or teenage girls snarling against the rubble of a knocked-down building, Bremner was able to capture not only the pride of the people, but their warmth and sincerity, too. It’s striking to see how often his subjects look superbly put together against the neglected backdrops of Bremner’s portraits, particularly the lads in their trackies. “All working-class kids were wearing shell suits in the 1980s, it was de rigueur,” he affirms. “They knew so much about sportswear. For me it was always a tatty old pair of jeans that were never designer. I think I bought them for £3.99.”
The Liverpool in these photographs is unrecognisable when compared with the city that stands today. Chosen as the European Capital of Culture in 2008, it is undergoing what is estimated to be a £14 billion regeneration, with it becoming a worthy competitor to Manchester for the status of England’s second-leading city. Bremner’s documentation of such dilapidated infrastructures gives life to the skeletal communities that Thatcher’s government left to rot. “On Instagram, I put up a lot of crap photos of these tenement flats because generations have lived there,” says Bremner. “They were up for 70 years before they were pulled down. It’s nice to give people the house they grew up in, because there’s not much left apart from a photograph.”
Johnny Crummie and Pat Smith, Vauxhall, 1987.
After receiving a grant from the Prince’s Trust, Bremner was able to stay in Merseyside, working as a freelance photographer and documenting the northwest and Wales for publications including The Times and the Guardian, as well as the Liverpool Housing Trust’s supplement. In 2007, after the death of his mother, he returned to Wick to look after his father, who was suffering from dementia. By the time he was able to put him in a care home, his camera equipment was, he says, “dead in the water”, and a move back to Liverpool was not feasible. “Liverpool is my hometown. I know more people there than I do in Scotland. That’s why I want to move back,” he says. “But what I don’t want to do is move down to Liverpool at the age of 56 and live in poverty. Liverpool is becoming more and more expensive. It’s not like when we used to go to exhibition openings and drink free wine, and when you’d sign on, the dole never really asked you if you were looking for a job. You could actually enjoy life in Liverpool and still be poor. That doesn’t exist anymore.”
It’s astonishing to discover that, despite Bremner being in the game for more than three decades, his portraits were virtually undiscovered until 2017. After he put a few pictures from the 1980s up on his personal Facebook page, a Scouser got in touch to see if he would be interested in publishing a selection on the page of a private group that has several thousand members and had been created so people could share old pictures of the city. “My dad had died and nothing much was happening,” remembers Bremner, who ended up adding photographs to a series of similar groups over the Christmas period that year. “I woke up on Christmas morning with about 1,000 people wishing me happy Christmas. I spent all day replying, ‘Thank you very much’, ‘Thank you very much.’ It was the first time I realised that anyone would be that interested in them.”
Soon afterwards, Bremner got himself on Instagram, and at the time of writing, has 32,000 followers – mainly Scousers – enamoured with his portraits of the Liverpool that once was. Hundreds flock to the comments section of each photo to reminisce about the pubs that no longer stand, to remember certain old ladies who would wander the streets of Kirkdale and, for one poster, to proudly boast that the cheeky chap centre left in one of the photos is actually him.
Family, New Brighton, 1987.
Certain stories stand out for the photographer. There’s Joseph, a young lad who got into professional boxing, as well as teenagers Sharon and Claire, who have been in contact to let Bremner know they’re now happy grandmothers. “I went up to this guy once and said, ‘Excuse me, can I take your photograph?’ and he said, ‘No problem, sir.’ Thirty years later I post it and all his family are going berserk because nobody has a photo of him,” says Bremner. “He didn’t like having his photo taken, he wouldn’t even appear in wedding photographs. This was pre-internet age, he was just helping a student. I don’t think he’d ever believe somebody would see this photograph.
“I’d be very happy to never have an exhibition or a book published and just have an Instagram account. Because that’s the way you can show your photographs to the people you’re photographing, rather than some arse in an art gallery who thinks you’re fashionable or not fashionable. I’ve never been fashionable, you can tell by my hair.”
Bremner wants to raise enough money to get back to Liverpool to complete the monumental task of photographing everybody who lives in the city. He reckons it’s doable in six years and is confident he can get an art grant. He has already been flogging T-shirts to fund the move, and he photographed his first fashion editorial back in December, which he’s hoping will lead to more jobs.
Billy Barry, Vauxhall, 1987.
“I see no reason why I can’t do it,” he tells me. “If you say you want to photograph everyone, it doesn’t mean to say you will. But I could ask everyone. I don’t mind people saying no. I used to stand in nightclubs trying to pick up girls – they all said no, but that never stopped me from asking.” And when he gets there – which I’m certain he will – I’ll be joining a queue of hundreds, if not thousands, of Scousers to get my photo taken by a true local hero. A hero who cares for Liverpool’s people like he’s one of our own.
Top image: Colin Dobbie and Lee Crumbs, Vauxhall, 1993. Photography by Rob Bremner. Taken from Issue 66 of 10 Magazine – MY, HAPPY, PLACE – is out NOW. Order your copy here.