City 24: Liverpool


I am not looking forward to this. Every time I’ve had dealings with scousers I’ve been ripped off and left swinging. There have been exceptions but they only prove the rule. I imagine a city shrouded in mist, with narrow streets haunted by scally urchins looking for people to bludgeon to death for ready money. To Kaz, it’s a city of art and culture. To me a city of thieves and liars.

After an early morning delay at Lichfield Station following a cancellation, Kaz arrives already on the train. I leap on and off we go. After a chat I snooze and then we change at Stafford. Thundering over Runcorn Bridge we’re treated to our first view of the Mersey. It wows. Mind-blowingly epic. We pull into Lime Street Station and after a quick photo-op with a statue of Ken Dodd (Tax Evader and Comic Institution) we begin our odyssey.

Kaz, ever the planner has maps and a route.

Beatlemania in Scouseland

We roll out of the station fully expecting to be robbed at knife point but for some unknown reason we are not. Kaz, having planned our day, is on a mission so we barrell onto Parker Street and then down Church Street. My first impressions are unfavourable.  The place feels lacking in atmosphere and the drizzle and gloom make it feel soulless, dead and miserable. I pull a face and find myself yearning for the sanctuary of an empty Church or Greasy Caff where coffee and cakes are to be had for ready money. No such luck. Marks and Sparks looms than dissolves into the gloom and then we pass a gaggle of scallies selling chocolates and Liverpool scarves in da street, hustling for change. That's more like it. The city I imagined. Ma is smirking too. The streets are wider than I imagined too, probably to get the tanks down.

Zig zagging down side streets we pass a bust of Carl Jung and before I can strop a razor we're there, having arrived at our first location. It doesn't sound that appealing upon first being announced. A spit and sawdust joint. An underground cellar. A shrine to Rock n Roll but I have to swallow my cynicism. The place is both alive and kicking. That place being the Cavern! 

The venue itself is accessed via a long staircase which doubles back on itself, over and over. You’re descending into the bowls of the earth, and are going down much further than you’d imagine. This place is not just a subterranean boozer, it’s where the Beatles played 292 times. It must be true cus its written on a chalkboard. This is the very heart of Scouseland. It's atmospheric and creepy; you can still feel the crackle of electricty that first filled that 60's air. There are glass cases filled with mannequins and guitars and gold discs nailed to the wall. Bouncers watch your every move and each minute of the day is filled by Cover Acts, of varyign quality, banging out Beatles covers. Despite the obvious smaltz factor I find myself loving it. 

"Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust," Joe Strummer sang on London Calling, that Classic Clash Tune from 1979. 40 years on he couldn't have been more wrong.

Of Space Ships and Sharks

Emerging blinking into the sunlight, we feel like the first astronauts on the moon. From the Cavern we head south and then west down onto St Jame's Street. All around us the modern city emerges from behind a mist of cliches and it is quite a shock. I remember being here in 2007 on a college trip to a Modern Media Centre at a time when the first podcasts were beginning to carve their way through the ether. Then the city skyline was filled with cranes in preperation for Liverpool's designation as the 2008 City of Culture. That project is now complete and the fruits of those labours are all around us. It's hard to select a single location or monument to represent this point of realisation on our journey as we are surrounded by glass temples dedicated to Modernism. The Brasco Lounge looms large, a modern noshery where prosecco and brushetta make absolute sense. A majestic shark springs forth and then the looming prow of a ship. Through gaps in the buildings we glimpse the Waterfront with its redbrick warehouses now gentrified and turned into trendy pubs and restaurants. The whole place looks like an open air museum. 

Horseman, Clocktower and Red Bus. What could be more British?

Horseman, Clocktower and Red Bus. What could be more British?

The Liver Birds

Up the Strand and onto Water Street, northwards. Tilting my head back I look up at the iconic clock tower of Location 3, The Liver Building. Opened in 1911 at the Pier Head it is one of the cities Three Graces. Closer inspection of the two towers that crown this architectural confection reveals the Liver Birds that give the city it's name. The mythical birds, designed by Carl Bernard Bartel, named Bella and Bertie are supposed to offer the city protection on the one hand and keep a weather eye open for returning sailors on the other. To my eyes they are a weird cross between dodos and flamingos.

The building opened by Lord Sheffield is one of the first to make extensive use of reinforced concrete.Its original purpose was informational, appropriate for an age dedicated to the twin gods of Information and Technology. Built for the Liver Assurance Group the job of its 6000 employees was to provide advise and guidance for any locals who had lost a wage-earning relative. A glance inside reveals opulent marble floors, walls and pillars. In 2016 it changed hands for about £40, 000,000. Bought by Corestate Capital and Everton shareholder Farhad Moshiri it remains a seat of wealth and power. From his eerie Mr Moshiri can keep an eye on his new stadium at Stanley Moore Dock.

Ferry Cross the Mersey

Down Water Street, past the Beatles Monument and onto the Waterfront proper we head to Location 4. It can only be the River Mersey. The name means border river in Olde Englishe, as the Mersey was the dividing line between the ancient Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbia and latterly the counties of Cheshire and Lancashire. The waterfront is beautifully paved and maintained, lined with restored Victorian warehouses and pumphouses. It's not crumbling and derelict like much of Stoke and Sheffield but restored to its former glory. Across the Mersey, to the West, Birkenhead looms. Travel south and you reach Ellesmere port. Gazing northwards and seawards you get a sense of the scale of Liverpool and its importance, like Bristol to the trade of British Empire and the time when Britannia, not Uncle Sam, ruled the waves.  It had links to China, links to the Americas, links to india. It traded in tea (Hurray) but it also traded in slaves (Boo!) It came of age in the age of empire but did not fade as Empire did. Liverpool has a swagger and soul, colour and joy. Its songs are cheeky ballads of lust and melancholy.

Observe the Mersey for any length of time and you connect with the spirit of this great city. The fog, the tolling bell of the ferry, the sound of rain on glass, waves lapping the shore. Gerry or Holly crooning that great song, bringing it all back home.

Those crafty Krauts sunk the Lusitania on May 7 1915. Or did they?

Those crafty Krauts sunk the Lusitania on May 7 1915. Or did they?

Having a Maritime

A hop, skip and a jump brings us to Location 5 the Maritime Museum. Glory be, it's free!! and chock full of pleasures and sunken treasures, beautifully displayed and ably narrated by pre-recorded voices. I too am a museum exhibit, playing Johnson in the Birthplace back in Merry old Lichfield. A city isn't just its builidngs, its the sum of its stories, those anecdotes and accounts that get passed by word of mouth down the ages. Here the prime narrative relates to the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 by those sneaky krauts. The recorded accounts both chill and amuse bringing the past to life. The dead live; their recorded voices are alive and they tell a story. The Modern age, aided and abetted by Hi Tech developments helps us to tell better, more interactive stories. Great use of is made of the space, made available for people who want to hear the cities stories, the good and the bad. Liverpool owns its slave-owning past with the third floor of the exhibition given over to an exploration of slavery the world over. The most chilling exhibit is that of a KKK clan member's hooded robe which provokes an instantaneous sense of rage at what was done for both the Empire and Profit. England's Shame writ large. 

Red Bricks, Mullioned windows and the whiff of fish and chips.

Red Bricks, Mullioned windows and the whiff of fish and chips.

The Katherine Tate

A brisk walk around the Albert Dock brings us to Location 6, The Tate Liverpool. I've been looking forward to this as a travelling Matisse exhibition has come to town. Back in the late eighties Matisse and Picasso constituted the bookends of my pictorial consciousness; Picasso providing the horror, Matisse the fleshy consolations and that fauvist palette of vibrant, life giving colour. Sitting down to draw those boys still guide my strokes and I zig zag between them, the twin pillars of my inner temple.

So what I am presented with at the Tate Liverpool is something of a disappointment. Not Matisse's best work. Doodles and foot notes for the most part. I wander off looking for other diversions.  Most floors are free but nothing on the walls draws my gaze. No rather, it is the living art, the human traffic that brings the exhibition to life. After the human cheeses blur and fade we head back out onto the Albert Docks again to review what we have already seen from a different vantage point. There are greats views of the Brasco and the Three Graces but I am still a little overwelmed by the slavery exhibition. Perhaps I've seen too much art in quick succession. Best to walk and chill. So I do.

In time, inner equilbrium returns. I like this space, the Albert Dock with its Salmon-pink pillars, its, wharves and warehouses. The tall ships moored in still water. Such a nice series of spaces, shame about the exhibition at the Tate. I prefer Katherine Tate. Her gran is legend.

Mixed skies above the docks and the ever Turning Wheel of Fortune.

Mixed skies above the docks and the ever Turning Wheel of Fortune.

Hope and the Anchor

There' so much more to see but we've run out of time and energy. The secret to doing cities is not to do too much. There's so much more to see. Anfield, The Beatles Story, the Wheel, the exhibition centre, the Mersey and Birkenhead tunnels, the casinos, Primani, Prince's Park and the Toxteth Cemetery but they can wait till next time. Location 7 is not a signature building, a museum or a statue; no, it's a big hunk of metal. An anchor placed on the dock as a reminder of Liverpool's maritime past and future. It is also a symbol of hope, of finding land after a period lost at sea. Loving the symbolism there, resonating as it does with my own 21st century life. I'm loving all this. Looking around i see evidence of joined up thinking. The town planners, for once, have got it bang on. The car is present but it doesn’t dominate. Everything is in its proper place and proportion. Liverpool is both epic and intimate, with enough cheek and enough charm to get by. The accent grates a little but the humour helps the people get away with it. Other cities have been sliced and diced by its roads and the march of modernity but in LIverpool they got it absolutely right. 

The Ship that Rocked

Heading for the exits we spot Location 8, one of the five ships used by Radio Caroline between 1964 and 1990 to broadcast its pirate tunes. It's a red and white boat, the colours of Liverpool FC, of blood and spirit, music and the ocean and like the anchor of hope it is a great symbol for the city. The legend BAR is imprinted on its side and suggests that life aboard was a drunken riot. Caroline launched the careers of many great DJs, amongst them Tommy Vance, Tony Blackburn, DLT and my personal favourite Spangles Muldoon. The ship and the dissent are iconic, emblems of an age of intelligant and effective protest.The owner of Radio Caroline, Ronan Rahilly was one smart cookie. He couldn’t broadcast on the land so he took his station to sea in a boat that truly rocked. The authorities couldn't touch him and the people rejoiced.

It's hard to appreciate how important Radio Caroline was in an age of Spotify, Facebook and Youtube, the ever morphing face of the New (Media) Establishment. But it was here the revolution began.

Cosmic Signals

Finally on the home straight we search for one last firework to light up our sky and there it is. Location 9 is the Radio City Tower, another dirty needle that spikes the underbelly of the Scouse Sky. It's a symbol of Liverpool, City of the River, of Docklands, of Pirates and Piracy but best of all of Music. That Tower hovers like a spaceship above the city, looking to the skies and the airwaves for liberation from these earthly shackles and chains, broadcasting the sounds that people want to hear. Built in 1969 and opened by the Old Regina herself its had its fair share of detractors but it has endured. Radio, observation tower and restaurant its stands at a whopping 138 metres tall. Perfect for a charity abseil.

Having squared the circle, we head back to Lime Street and a veggie pasty to warm up. We sit on cold, modernist benches and look at a series of iconic photos of rock stars. The guy on the pasty stand has had a quiet day. He’s a genuine Scouser, and I half smile as I listen to the sing-song patter. He could have been an extra on Bread or painted the pitch at Anfield but he's here at the end of the line complaining about how much the city has changed, how its lost its way and is full of foreign students. 

I couldn't disagree more but don't want to spoil a great day by arguing with the boring fart. Liverpool is as Fab as the Four that gave it its new face and its brightest sounds. A Modern Mecca that honours the past, but looks to the future. Like Manchester, Brum and Newcastle it is a space that brings its traditions into the modern age in a stylish and imaginative way.

Despite my earlier misgivings I was wrong. Liverpool is a keeper, a glittering jewel in this Countries Crown and as a consequence, the train ride home is full of happy memories.

Oh and God save British Rail!

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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