Monday, 11 July 2016

My first ever trip to Liverpool

I went to Liverpool for the first time ever today. I'm not altogether sure why I've never been before. Well, actually, I have all sorts of theories which are far too complicated to go into, but the fact remains that Liverpool is the last major British city I've never seen, and it's always felt like quite a major omission. That said, I've always felt that Liverpool, unlike pretty much every other British city apart from London and maybe Manchester, seems like a rather self-sufficient place. It has its own arts scene. Liverpudlian kids don't tend to audition for things like NYMT because they have their own highly well-respected youth theatres and drama schools. Whenever I've approached the BBC in Liverpool to try and interest them in a project, I've always ended up feeling like there are a million Scousers they'd rather use! And why not? The Liverpudlians are a proud people.

The day started early. I was going to the city for just an hour-long meeting, but I wanted to be there for as long as possible. I'm writing a show which is set there and I had a list as long as my arm of places I wanted to see.

Euston Station was its usual bleak self, a place which, every time I visit, feels increasingly like the dyspraxic cousin of the Kings-Cross-St-Pancras cool kids. I always amuse myself at Euston by watching the rows and rows of people staring blankly up at the departure screens as though waiting for some kind of Rapture. Sometimes I wonder how those religious cults must feel whilst sitting on a mountain side waiting for the end of the world. Imagine that feeling, in the cold light of day, when you realise the comet hasn't come to collect you and the world hasn't ended as predicted. Do you instantly turn on your leaders and accuse them of lying, or simply assume that you must have got your calculations wrong? Imagine being the sort of person who delights in the notion of the end of the world? That said, the end of the world is fairly easy to imagine at Euston Station: a world which died of boredom.

The journey was smooth and passed without incident. Of course, the further north and west I travelled, the worse the weather got. I'll confess, it hadn't occurred to me that it might rain today, and as I got closer to Liverpool, I started to wish I was coming here for the first time in less inclement weather.

I sat for most of the journey opposite a pair of incredibly hard-faced women who were travelling with a seven-year old girl who had a black eye. I assume it was a grandmother, her daughter and her daughter's daughter. They were incredibly beady. You couldn't look at the grandmother for more than a second without her haggard face catching your eye, as though, at any moment, she were going to erupt into a chippy rant about posh people judging her. Both adults seemed to oscillate dramatically in mood. One moment they were smiling happily, the next they seemed rather angry. One moment they were lovingly handing hand sanitiser to the little girl, the next she was being smacked for not sitting properly. She was actually smacked four times. The final smack came with a warning; "do you want everyone on this train to know what a naughty child you are?" It wasn't a massive smacking, but it was firm, and wholly unnecessary to my eyes. The kid didn't cry or anything, but it was a million miles away from the gentle parenting I've become used to with my friends. Of course, my immediate thought was that the little girl's black eye was the result of an earlier smacking, but this, of course, has to be a million miles from the truth. Or does it?

I'm beginning to realise what a bubble I've spent my life within. There are millions of people across the country who live very different lives to me, behave in very different ways and think very different thoughts.

So, I arrived in Liverpool in a rain storm and took a taxi to my meeting which was up by the Anglican Cathedral. It's graduation season for the students of the city, and the ceremonies all take place there. The streets were closed off, which actually made walking around a great deal more pleasant - despite the rain. The tell tale signs of graduation were everywhere to be seen: One student in an ill-fitting suit flanked by two proud-looking parents.

After my meeting I met up with young Josh who'd come across from Manchester to hang out with me. It was brilliant to see him: largely because I knew I had six hours in the city ahead of me and it's always nice to explore somewhere new with someone of a like mind... And boy did we "do" Liverpool.

Josh had already been on a 3 1/2 hour walking tour of the place, so was able to share little tit-bits with me, but I had a list of quirky places I wanted to visit which I was able to share with him.

We walked the length of Hope Street from the Anglican Cathedral down to Paddy's Wigwam, the extraordinary modernist building which is as much a temple to brutalist architecture as it is a Catholic Cathedral. It is so beautiful inside. So powerful. So peaceful. The stained glass windows are every bit as impactful as those in Coventry Cathedral. The overwhelming colour which hits you as you enter is blue. Deep, lapis lazuli blue. Then you see a shot of deep red. Then you raise your eyeline and see that the atrium roof is a circle of rainbow glass, with every conceivable shade of each colour present. Then your eyes return to the blue again and realise there are flecks of salmon pink within. It is truly one of the great wonders of this country. I was deeply moved by the experience.

Opposite the Cathedral is a student halls of residence which once housed the Oxford Street Maternity hospital where John Lennon was born. It's also where my brother Tim came into the world, so Josh and I headed into the courtyard to have a look around.

Next up was a trip to a charming little book shop called Reid's. A number of scenes in the show I'm writing are set in a second hand bookshop, and I wanted to visit a place which I would be able to imagine when writing those scenes. I went online, searched for "central Liverpool second hand bookshops" and chose the one which looked the most inviting from the photographs. I doubt I could have chosen any better. The owner was so friendly and so knowledgeable. He went out of his way to help every one of his customers without being pushy or patronising. I told him about the project and we had a lovely chat about Liverpool in the 1960s.

From the bookshop, we went back up Hope Street to look at The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, known colloquially as "The Phil." It's opposite the concert hall of the same name. It's quite something inside. I'm wondering if I've ever seen such an opulent pub. It's decked out in the Art Nouveau style with seemingly no stone left unturned in the quest to make every surface, every wall, every ceiling cornice more outrageous and over the top than the one next to it! Even the loos are mosaic'd up the wazoo!

We popped into the concert hall, and looked through one of their brochures, trying to work out which of the performers they have coming up was the best looking. Yes. That's how classy I am when it comes to classical music! Of course all the artists had to be photographed with the instrument they play and there are some instruments which are just never going to look interesting in a photo. Imagine trying to make a clarinet look cool? Or a recorder?

We wandered down Bold Street, which is the funky street in town, and fell in love with another bookshop, where Josh bought a T-shirt daubed with a slogan demonstrating the LGBT community's solidarity with striking miners in the 80's: "Pits perverts! Lesbians and gay men support the miners." In return, scores of miners marched at the front of the 1985 Pride Parade in London, in a profoundly moving display of comradeship which a right-winger would never EVER either comprehend or experience. I bought a CND badge for old time's sake. Josh asked what CND was. I was horrified.

When wanting an epic, bird's-eye view of a city, it's always been my philosophy to head to the top of a multi-storey car park, and we chose a corker right in the middle of town from where we could see for miles - all the way across the Mersey to the mountains of Wales. I thought about Brother Tim and wondered if I could see all the way to Llandudno.

Liverpool has a fairly compact city centre. On a map it looks a little sprawling, but you can cover most of the sights in a single afternoon if you put your mind to it... And don't mind your feet feeling like stumps!

I wanted to visit the iconic department store, Lewis's. It was once a five-floor Liverpudlian institution which epitomised both glamour and the British wartime spirit. The building was badly bombed in the blitz but the part of the building which hadn't been destroyed opened for trading within a day. The building is also known as the home of "Fred", a naked bronze statue of a man mopping his brow on the brow of a ship, which seems to burst out of the wall above the door. Lewis's went into decline in the 70s, and by the 90s, two of the floors had closed down. They weren't replaced with offices. No one wanted the space, so they were simply sealed off with everything which had been inside left to rot. This included a 1960s "state of the art" hair salon.

The entire building has now closed down. A sign on the wall tells us that the place is being redeveloped with a grant from the European Union. We turned a corner and a row of down-trodden shops flanking a rotting and boarded-over Victorian picture house also displayed a sign which suggested the area was being regenerated by a European Union grant. I couldn't decide whether the tears I wanted to cry came from a place of anger or pain. I'm proud to say that the Liverpudlians recognised what Europe has done for them and voted to stay in. Unlike the Welsh. Or the Cornish.

A short walk took us to the Cavern Club. My Mum used to go there at lunch time for soup and a sandwich when she lived in the city. These days it's all a little touristy and lacking in atmosphere but it still feels like an important place.

From the Cavern we went down to the Mersey to see the "Three Graces", a triptych of late-19th Century sandstone buildings on the river front which scream to visitors that they have arrived in a world-class city. My Mum actually worked in the Liver Building, which has to be the most beautiful of the three. Scattered around the Three Graces are three far less attractive modern buildings which, I'm told, came first, second and third in a poll to find the worst examples of architecture in the North West. They're known locally as the "Three Disgraces."

We went to Albert Docks, which, of course, became famous as the location where they filmed This Morning with Richard and Judy and where Paul O'Grady's Lily Savage found her first mainstream audience. There was something rather marvellous about the way that Richard and Judy championed her and made it okay for Middle England to like a drag queen whose previous audiences had been reserved for gay bars. I still remember Judy laughing uncontrollably at his antics. Good old Judie.

I was a little disappointed not to find Fred's giant floating weather map of the U.K. in the dock. I don't know how long it lasted as a landmark after the programme transferred to studios in London and took with it another little piece of regional TV programming with a national reach.

Our day ended with a visit to a Liverpudlian gay bar. How could it not? We went down a dark, gritty, grotty, somewhat filmic alley, and found ourselves standing outside a bar with darkened windows, a red neon sign and a black shuttered door which looked about as inviting as a puddle. It was like stepping back into the 90s and the days when gay bars were all in impenetrable-looking buildings hidden from prying eyes. I think poor Josh, who's used to the open "family friendly" vibe of Manchester's Canal Street was terrified about what we might find inside. As it happened we found exactly what I was expecting to find. It was as though we'd stepped back into the 90s. The place was cavernous. There was a bar man and two customers. The Goombay Dance Band singing Seven Tears was playing on the stereo and 1990s erotic films shot on low-definition video cameras were playing on screens around the place. It was astounding! We sank a couple of glasses of coke and headed like the wind for the train station.

What a splendid day! You know, sometimes, when you're a bit depressed, it's a really good idea to take yourself for a day of exploring with a good friend. I'm going to do this more often. I'm also going to sleep like the dead tonight!

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