Returning to a place, a city, after 35 years is bound to be interesting and memory-challenging. Approaching Liverpool I realized I could hardly remember a thing about the two weeks I’d spent there, on some kind of training or work experience, all those years ago. What had I done? Where had I been? There were no recollections of details, which presumably means that nothing interesting or exciting happened. I think it was in the middle of winter. I’ve no idea who I was with or what I did. Blank.
And now? Liverpool 2008 - European City of Culture. Ta - dah! Hundreds of millions of pounds, probably billions, invested in regeneration schemes and rebuilding. The first views of the city as we drove in from the motorway included whole terraces of Victorian houses completely boarded up - with the boards uniformly painted and patterned, presumably by Council artists, as if to say - ‘Look visitors - we’re a city of culture; we even make our clapped-out wrecks and ruins look funky and colourful’.
I’m troubled by the thought that I can’t even remember what Alexei Sayle said about Liverpool in his two-part documentary about the city on BBC last month. Is my memory becoming ever more feeble, or was there so little to be said, even by the wonderful Alexei, that was interesting and memorable? All that come to mind are some positive thoughts on the Liver Building and some negative ones on the Radio City tower.
Thankfully the weather was wonderful. People were strolling about in their summer finest as we walked into the Albert Docks area, looking for some action. First stop the tourist information office, looking for somewhere to stay.
Handy Travel Tip #1. Don’t expect anyone in a big city tourist bureau to have a clue about accommodation. Unlike someone in a place like Totnes or Torquay, for example, where they will gladly phone Mrs so and so a couple of streets away to check that she still has vacancies, city folk know Nothing At All, and will just stand there flicking through the local guide book which is stuffed full of paid adverts for hotels and guest houses, which is something you can perfectly well do for yourself, with a lot more speed and efficiency, as it happens.
Ask them how to book seats on the Magical Mystery Tour or how to get to the Beatles Experience, by all means, but nothing complicated, like where to stay. Which we were only doing because none of the places on the Internet B & B sites give phone numbers any more. It’s so passé , my dear! In cyberspace nobody books by phone any more, only ‘on line’. Nobody hears you scream, or cares about your frustration. And there’s nobody to discuss your needs or deal with your queries. Fit in or fuck off.
Handy Travel Tip #2. Don’t travel with someone you don’t intend to sleep with or don’t expect to share a room with, and make sure you’re feeling wealthy before you try to get a room at a regular hotel, where you will be forced to pay double. Because that’s just the way it is. Fixed price rooms. Buy one (bedspace), get one free. Or buy one, pay for the other one anyway. Fit in or fuck off. Absolute minimum price for a room in a budget hotel in Liverpool? Don’t expect much change from £60. And that’s without breakfast.
Handy Travel Tip #3. Don’t believe a word anyone in a tourist office tells you about distances and the time it takes to get to places. For “10 minutes walk” read “20 minutes forced march, assuming you don’t get lost.”
Handy Travel Tip #4. Use the university. If you’re not visiting during term time then the local Uni should offer you a single room in a hall of residence for £20 if you have your own sleeping bag or bed linen. £25 if you need bedclothes and pillows. This will be of particular interest if you’re young and penniless, old and penniless, or just plain penniless. Also if you resent paying too much money to hotel chains and would rather give it to a university.
Handy Travel Tip #5. If you’re in Liverpool you should try to make time to go a few miles up the coast and visit Crosby, where the Antony Gormley installation is spread out across the vast expanse of the beach. It’s called Another Place, and it’s wonderful. Even better, try to go to the beach at high tide, medium tide and low tide so that you can see it at different stages of the tide coming in and going out.
Another Place has traveled Northern Europe before finding its final and permanent resting place in Crosby. It consists of 100 metal casts of Gormley’s naked body, all spread out across the beach, mainly towards the low tide mark where the sand is covered with silt that looks like mud. The following website gives you a pretty good idea of how the pieces are arranged, but you need to wander around on the beach to really experience it properly.
What’s really interesting is how the more or less identical pieces have become 100 very similar but significantly different pieces, thanks to the effects of time and tide, and also human intervention. Rather like ourselves. Some of them now benefit from wigs made of sand, and some have daubs of paint on them. Depending on where they’re standing they show different degrees of corrosion and encrustation, and they have developed significant variations of colour.
When the beach is busy it can be difficult to spot some of the figures, as they seem to disappear from view when surrounded by real humans. Children happily play and make sandcastles right next to them. Nobody has any issues with their nakedness.
Of course when the tide comes in they remain standing still, staring out to sea, watching the big ferries and container ships entering and leaving Liverpool. The ones nearest the shipping lanes become completely engulfed by the sea with each ebb and flow of the tide. Their heads stay motionless, of course, whilst water and the waves flow and crash over them. How different are we?
As for Liverpool itself, it’s certainly interesting. We had an excellent meal in a place called Bistro Pierre, including good wine, best ever crème caramel and excellent service.
“A super little French Bistro, this ticks all our boxes; fresh food, rustic furniture, exposed brick walls, candle-topped wax covered wine bottles. We enjoyed the cosy ambience here as much as the menu, which changes every month to accommodate fresh seasonal ingredients.”
The restaurant is situated in what’s called the Cavern Quarter. You may want to give Mathew Street itself a miss, especially if you don’t enjoy tourist traps, beggars and loud ‘dance’ music blaring from various bars and clubs. Try the webcam instead:
The Albert Docks regeneration is impressive in its way, but I personally found the area pretty soulless and pretty much cut off from the rest of the city. It suffers from comparison with St Catherine’s Docks, for example, where the nearness of the magnificent Tower Bridge and Tower of London add interest to what are, let’s be honest, some pretty monolithic and not altogether inspiring pieces of commercial architecture.
The new buildings in the vicinity of the docks are desperately dull and horribly clichéd - there are at least 3 large blocks that think they’re being terribly clever and cool and full of contemporary ‘vernacular’ since they’ve been shaped to resemble the bows of large ships. One such block would have been more than enough to signal the fact that this is the docks area of a major port city. Pity the architects and planners couldn’t see the difference between silly clunking cliché and interesting vernacular.
Did local people really want their city to be like this? Would the fabulous Liver Building, the splendid Cunard Building, or the magnificent Port of Liverpool Building be improved by having one end shaped like the prow of a ship? Of course not. They just do it because they can. The fact that the Cunard is 30 feet less in width at one end compared with the other may be a subtle signal that this is a maritime office block, but essentially it’s in the style a Venetian palace, which is what a dignified and timeless maritime building should look like, in my view. What Liverpool has now acquired is cheap, ridiculous tat, which diminishes, not adds to, a city with a proud tradition and a great history. Similar things could, and should, be said about Gloucester, Exeter and other English cities, of course. Don’t even get me started on Liverpool’s main pedestrianised shopping district.