Here’s some imaginary/past travel, since most of us can’t at the moment.
It’s several experiences cobbled together, like liberal Christians claim that the Bible is.
It showed some great shifts in me.
I chose to write Liverpool because of some research on my other blog about policing; but already, I’d begun to see that Liverpool can’t be viewed just architecturally. It’s what those buildings mean; who built them and why, and what was happening in the city at the time…
When I first met the Merseyside Metropolis, I was given an enthusiastic car tour by a local. (I am a sympathetic Wool). “If you like buildings, you’ll love Liverpool,” he told me. I said that I liked cities like York. Even a Scouse had to concede that Liverpool could not compare there.
The old northern capital of York dates from Roman times and is famous for its medieval atmostphere. And Liverpool, although established by royal charter in 1207, was a seven-street hamlet until the late 17th Century. The 24 streets which diarist Celia Fiennes admired were new then, but in typical Liverpool style, its structures and those of the next century, which included several churches and chapels, were torn down for the next set. And so Liverpool is a youthful city: not only did it not attain that status until the late Victorian era, but it wasn’t even a parish until 1699 and its church is a Victorian and postwar hybrid. Its oldest central building is from 1717 and its entire extent, even til the middle of the 19th century, corresponds with today’s visitor maps.
So I guess that I’d unwittingly found a sore point.
Liverpool likes to tell us that it can compare with anywhere. It’s the second most filmed city in Britain, it says. It’s been used for locations of the world, like Moscow. Like Glasgow, it asserts that this is not just a great British city, but a World City. Its predominant style of classical from the imperial age – including its docks – are those of the great urban centres of the globe.
But perhaps that boast can be reversed: the city with Everyman Theatre could be Everycity.
Unlike that other centre of Empire trade to the north, Liverpool has less of its own architectural style. Glasgow has many of the bog standard Greek and a couple of Gothics of the era too; but there is Glasgow Style, its own instantly recognisable Art Deco/Noveau. Liverpool has two architects who could have created this port into an English equivalent. You’ll probably know the work of Walter Aubrey Thomas, who made the most distinct of the Pierhead’s Three Graces, the double headed Liver Building. This early ferro concrete structure – the first if you’re a Scouse, not if you’re a Geordie – has a nod to the Atlantic it faces, and recalls for me the kids’ TV Noah and Nelly on the Skylark, where all the creatures and the ark had matching heads, fore and aft.
[I typed Norah and Nellie – that’s the updated, Sapphic version 😉 ]
Aubrey made another building behind it, on the site of the last of Liverpool’s older merchant houses, called Tower House; his couple of other essays are different and less remarkable.
My favourite Liverpool architect, and one of my favourite anywhere, is less well known. Peter Ellis‘ work was so radical in its day, and still surprising to us now, that he was ridiculed from making further contributions. This is gutting! Happily, we appreciate him now.
17 Cook St
17 Cook St
And note the scale… I’ve started to agree with my Mum’s assessment of our big cities: that it’s all too big and showy. She preferred York-sized, and on the whole, I do too.
I did however become fond of Liverpool, and it was in discovering that it does York-sized (or Bath-sized) that I began to love Liverpool.
Let me tell you of the day that my view turned.
And then, the day that it turned again…
I used to say that Liverpool’s proud, but Manchester’s arrogant. I think that stands; or at least that Liverpool is more of a warm (you’ll let it pass) arrogance than its inland rival.
Liverpool’s actually a smaller city by population than I had assumed. I’ve read that the city itself – not its metropolitan county – is about half a million. That makes it less than Amsterdam, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield and Birmingham, and less than a 10th of London’s size. It makes Liverpool comparable to Bristol, whom it overtook as a port in the 1800s, and Edinburgh.
You may have assumed that Liverpool has far more in common with the former cities than the latter, but all three of the latter have several classical terraces.
Liverpool has something else in common with Edinburgh and York, and it’s a boast I can verify – the most museums in British cities after London. It means that even the pro-York-sized visitor is less intimidated and has reasons to come. It is also a place of music pilgrimage. Thinking about how this has been created is probably another post, but it’s notable, if not a little jarring. Manchester may point out its contribution to the 90s scene of Brit Pop, but Liverpool, with mostly one group, asserts that it is the home of The Pop Band. Bristol too – still a rival in many ways – has a rich recent musical heritage, but it seems it takes a bit of knowledge and discernment to know about its various music makers.
I’ve become very aware of the image and history that Liverpool has crafted of itself. Some other of its boasts backfire. I’ll come to those…you may already guess what it concerns…
I first arrived in Liverpool in a worm hole. This deeply disappointed – I expected the view that I expect you all know, across the Mersey, with those famous buildings all tiered like wares on a stall or people on a group photo, rising from the wide water with those cathedrals on the brow of a hill. I hoped to glimpse Birkenhead’s Hamilton Square on the bank opposite, since I’d be passing a stop of that name. Nope. More worm hole. Wormy wormly under the half mile of river, to then have to climb lots of steps to even see the grand main railway station – Lime Street.
And then, I’d have told you I stepped outside and saw what makes Liverpoo special. Now I want to say the sight encapulates what Liverpool wants to tell you about itself and what it was built on: vast iron train shed, Gothic station hotel; huge Greco-Roman wannabe megalith on a plinth, designed by someone obscenely young (yes I’m jealous) – for culture, and also law. So the music hall above (patriotically and diplomatically called St George) could reverberate over the cells below and the other kind of halls that cast you in them. Over a cobbled square is a tall column (to be like London and also other rival, Newcastle) and another classical group – museum, gallery, and library.
There’s Empire theatre, an Edwardian structure, behind you; and then, in the other direction, the first sight of the pierhead and those docks you probably feel obliged to look at.
There’s also some scruffy bits. When I first came to Liverpool there was a very big bit of scruffy, taking away its only central park to become the unimaginatively named Liverpool One shopping centre. It involved demolishing a much loved alternative shopping venue called Quiggins.
I think that Liverpool was busy looking awful so that it could look good in time for its 2008 European Capital of Culture year. (More money and status and hoop jumping – sigh!). It built new bland arenas on its docks and an awful Fourth (Dis)grace museum.
I went to the waterside. Liverpool was made on the unbridled wealth of its docks, expanded in the mid 180os by Jesse RR Hartley Hare. I said that I’d discuss the building of the docks here and what I thought of what they were for on my Skewed World View blog. The banner photo (by me) of that other blog is of Liverpool.
I’m going to agree with contemporary Picton’s view of the Albert Docks. He thought they were dull looking. (I prefer the Waterloo Grainstore). Without the clocktower, they are too uniform. The inner view resembles a prison. I don’t understand why this set, and not the two identical ones by the same man, were chosen and turned into a visitor feature by a big money spinning quango last century.
I also want to say – some Bristol karma coming up – is that oh so vaunted Hartley’s plans were actually quite short sighted. He rebuilt or altered much of the existing docks which had allowed Liverpool to surpass Britain’s many other ports. When you visit the SS Great Britain in Bristol (its major attraction) they don’t really say that this much-praised new kind of ship ran aground on its maiden voyage because it was too big for the Avon; and although Bristol built, the Great Britain spent most of its career working from the city which overtook it. Liverpool eagerly fills you in on this in its Maritime Museum, housed guess where?
But when Hartley was busy acquiring land and picking over the quality of bricks for his fireproof palaces of dubious commerce, these new huge iron steam and screw propelled ships were being created. Could he not foresee that the wooden sailing boats his docks was made for would be eclipsed in a lifetime? It seems that Albert et al were struggling by the turn of the 20th century, and the expensive cuts and graving docks were now too shallow. They were bombed in the war. So by the time of the 1980s rescue opration, Albert had struggled and limped and sat derelict for decades.
I have to say again that when half a million came to greet Prince Albert to open those docks, that many didn’t have shoes – although of course they weren’t visible, for the Respectable and Rich lined the front of the crowds. The contemporary special magazine (Pictorial Times) reproduced in Ron Jones’ book was a very cloying read – lavish dinner for 1000, whilst many couldn’t eat. Paid for with public money.
I also reiterate that a city today known for its culture was very slow to set up a theatre. Norwich had one in the 1750s, Bristol the 1760s, Newcastle the 1780s. But Liverpool didn’t yet have one in the 1840s. It had docks instead, docks instead of parks, palatial commerical buildings and the palaces of those who traded from them. Other people – like the Irish immigrants and the working classes – were squeezed into tight courtyards and controlled by special constables and patronising dangerous doctors.
I’m forgetting to take you on my day. We’ll call it a weekend…
So you get to docks and you see the Tate gallery, the overpriced and slightly tacky Beatles story, the tiny tourist information centre; the maritime gift shops; and you go to a chain cafe or style bar. You might stay here – there’s two chain hotels in Albert Dock’s pavilions. You see the models (this is a good bit) in the Martime Museum and learn about the famous liners – Lusitania, Mauritania, Titanic – connected with Liverpool. Then you notice that many units in Albert Dock are empty.
You take a Wacker Quacker ride in a Duck – an amphibious war vehicle which slips backward into the water. You do the Ferry ‘cross the Mersey. (My Big Ferry experience from Birkenhead was not good – why did they move the passenger building away from the safe and accessible Liverpool pierhead?) You do the rubbish Beatles extension where you’re squirted and air is puffed up your skirt. And then to the British Music experience in the passenger lounge of the Cunard building – this is a good bit. Electric guitar trying with earphones! Joy.
And you’ve still more galleries and museums… You’ve probably heard of the Walker and the World/City museums. And you probably know about the Slavery Museum – it’s how ports do penance for their involvement in this deplorable trade. Liverpool’s should take up half the city, since it directly and indirectly was built on it and also modern slavery equivalents. The more I understood about where cotton bales came from and that Albert docks was the storehouse of the cruel spoils of Africa (people and elephants), the less I wanted to look at Jesse Hartley’s so-called masterpieces.
So I’m going to take you somewhere else… past the vast Imperial Palaces of the wealthy (old and new) which frankly do not interest me; we’ll skip the skinny streets of the Cavern Quarter since you’ll probably know about those anyway; and I’ll take you to another set of warehouses and skinny streets which I think are less known…
The Rope Walks Area. This is where private merchants warehouses were – those not in the official dock company, who could just ro-ro their wares into Jesse Hartley’s kingdom; these others had to cart their spoils further. It’s potentially atmostpheric, but the warehouses are home to cheesy style bars. Only two things stick out: FACT and Open Eye. Open Eye has taken its photographic joys to a fourth home on the water, in a building which I declare to be as ducky as the Yellow marine vehicle. But I met it here, and it enhanced the artsy area. FACT – foundation for art and creative techology – was another modern media centre, snagged by the Picturehouse cinema chain. It’s not modern enough to interest, and there were several worthy warehouses to have made the home of supposed arthouse film for Merseyside.
The only arts centre housed in a warehouse is a big further south – the CUC. This is how it looked when I first found it: now the Contemporary Urban Centre’s space has been turned into schools, since it was hit by funding cuts. (You can see in on the scruffy picture above).
I had decided on my recce mission that although I was having a nice day out, that Liverpool wasn’t going to be home to me. And then I reached the Hope Quarter.
I’d really experienced 4 seasons in one day – wind, rain, heat… as if Liverpool wanted to showcase itself on that August afternoon, and say: here’s all of me. It had also showed me grand edifices, famous museums, scruffy not yet chic, and waterside.
Then I got to those Georgian terraces, the streets of sett, the two cathedrals. And I looked back down to the river, with the silhouettes of strange shafts on both sides, and I thought, like Hong Kong Fuey: Could be [home].
I found artier cafes at last up here – like the Everyman theatre’s, one of several good interesting arts centres; like Quarter on Faulkner street; like the Pen Factory.
The Anglican cathedral which I’d thought of as Babel Tower huge felt awe inspiring that day. Liverpool is the only English 19th C new city which built cathedrals to go with that status – everyone else just upgraded their parish church. I was impressed that it had – another youngster wenchhman at the helm. Now I’m less sure about show off seats of bishops, and am definitely off the chain that built it. After a bad experience here, I’m put off going in again.
I laughed when I first saw the Catholic cathedral, and likened it to 80s kids’ game, Simon. Did pressing the roof make electronic sounds too? But I’ve come to be fond if it and think it’s one of the best buildings of the era, far more accessible and practical than its neighbour. I enjoyed the unity which replaced their rivalry and the street – aptly called Hope – that joined them.
I’ve also perused beyond the centre – I had a memorable meal with a pro/con chef who (rightly) prounounced Nietzsche ‘a balloon’; I’ve visited a park, some rather over-photographed gates on a certain bus, and driven past the extent of the vast docks. And I’ve been on the Cheshire side.
But I’m not doing a Magical Mystery tour today. I’d leave Beatle adoration or another post, save to say: how can you create the myth of the world’s greatest pop band in the first real decade of that genre?
There’s something about Liverpool which makes me warm to it; I picture it in daylight and sunshine. Perhaps it’s the great expanse of water which gives it a lung lacking in its rivals. The thought of visiting Liverpool puts a smile on my face. I was interested to know about its strong nonconformist history and that it had two octagonal Presbyterian chapels as well as two other dissenters in Gateacre and Toxteth – all claimed by the Unitarians. So as Liverpool got fat on its Empire driven, injustice ridden wealth, was there social conscience, even in the upper classes?
It says something about Liverpool that I’ve this much to say about the centre.
But I am now very aware of the values behind its grandeur and its boasts, and that there are still many faces of Liverpool – some that the tourist board don’t encourage you to see.