Monday, September 29, 2008

Liverpool at Leisure (Continued)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Another glorious day! The Liverpudlians were pleased. They informed us that we had brought the good weather with us.

Breakfast at the Holiday Inn was a Continental affair--Carb Central with Caffeine thrown in for good measure. I had slept like a baby and jumped up on discovering that it was 8 am. I knew that if I snoozed for another ten minute, I'd miss our ferry ride.

An hour later, showered and having repacked, I was at the YHA in Liverpool, stashing my backpack into the bus and walking across the main road towards the ferry dock. We boarded the 11 am ferry across the Mersey that the commentary informed us was "one of the most famous ferry rides in the world". Indeed, there has been a ferry across this river since the 12th century.

From the get go, it is easy to see why this city became the second most prosperous after London, Indeed, there is every sign of commercial activity on its waterfront, culminating in the Three Graces, the name for the trio of buildings that give the city its most recognizable waterscape.
We had heard the story of the famous Liver Birds (I had always wondered where that TV show from the 70s got its name!) atop the Royal Liver (pronounced Lie-ver) Building. They were made by a sculptor who meant to create a pair of eagles since those formed the seal of King John who have the city trading rights. Only he had never seen an eagle himself, so ended up creating a bird he had frequently come upon--a cormorant! The two birds, fixed on top like giant weather wanes (one staring upon the horizon for incoming sailors), the other turned towards the city and representing the sailor's search for the pubs, so the joke goes!) is an instant landmark. Right besides it, is the Cunard Building built in imitation of a Venetian pallazzo and next to it is the domed expanse of the Liverpool Port Headquarters. Just behind it is the red and white striped "streaky bacon" building that houses the offices of the White Star Lines, the ones that managed the Titanic. It was from the balconies overlooking the main street that the announcements about the sinking of the Titanic were made to the hundreds who had congregated below to find out the fate of their loved ones, many of whom had been aboard as part of the ship's crew.

Along the Mersey are the huge warehouses through which the country's merchandise once passed and cargoes from all over the world were unloaded. A running commentary gave us peaks into the history of the Mersey and the role it played in the development of Liverpool. I was able to catch only occasional snatches of this as an unruly group of pensioners who seriously believed they were at their own private party made boisterous jokes and dissolved into loud and annoying laughter at frequent intervals right in front of me. Despite changing my seat and moving closer to the speakers, I only caught an occasional passing gem. As Billy Bryson says in his book Notes from a Small Island, you do have to listen to Gerry and the Pacemakers sing Ferry Cross the Mersey (at least I think that's the name of the song, but it could possibly have another title) as the boat sails along, but I thought it added to the charm rather than proved annoying. I half expected to see Bryson standing somewhere on board and grinning cheerfully at me. The ferry made two stops on the opposite side of the river allowing passengers to disembark to see the historic heritage trail on the other side in Bootle and Birkenhead before it returned us to the Dock in fifty minutes.

With three hours to spare before we boarded the coaches to take us back to London, I rushed off along Victoria Street to the massive Neo-Classical buildings amassed around the Empire Theater. The Beatles Story on Albert Dock was an incessant attraction and I wondered whether or not I should fork out the 12 .50 pounds to see it. Then, I decided to go to the Walker Art Gallery instead where I spent the next hour taking in its small but very significant collection of paintings and sculpture dating from the Medieval period to the present. It certainly does have some arresting work in the form of Reubens, Rembrandt self-portraits and a very interesting clutch of Pre-Raphaelite Paintings including several by Frederick, Lord Leighton. It also carries special exhibitions and while I was there, it featured the prize winners of the John Moores Art Prize, some of which were revolutionary but memorable.

However, to my mind, the highlight of this museum is the City Scapes exhibition by contemporary artist Ben Johnson whose portrayal of Liverpool was quite the most stunning thing I saw on my entire trip. Using a complicated technological process that involved the taking of hundreds of photographs and the creation of countless graphic images, Johnson and a team of artists have re-created Liverpool with its landmark buildings and its singular skyline in the same way that he has done images of Hongkong, Jerusalem and Zurich--all of which were also on display. I truly wish I had more time to linger and understand the process that went into his creation of this wonder, but I needed to see the interior of the George Concert Hall and I also contemplated entering the World Museum to see a special exhibit called The Beat Goes On.

Well, the George Concert Hall, the imposing Neo-Classical building in yellow sandstone with its towering Greek pillars, was closed to the public because a special event on Brides 2008 was on. Well, I am no bride but I was determined to sneak a peak at the floor that is set with Minton tiles and I was going to make that happen no matter what. As it turned out, I found an entrance that was less secure than the rest and in I nipped and what a sight awaited me there! If you think the outside is imposing, try taking in the interior. It was one of the most ornate things I have ever seen with chandeliers, intricate plasterwork, classical Greek paintings, a bunch of sculptural figures, the famous Minton tiled floor and an abundance of other decorative details, too numerous to describe. I also managed to get a few cake samples being distributed by the wedding cake makers who had stalls inside the show case and were eager to distribute them.

My next stop was the World Museum where I headed straight up to the second floor to see the exhibit on the musicians who since the 1950s put Liverpool on the music map. While most of the world is aware that the Beatles were born, first made music and were discovered in Liverpool, few know that Gerry and the Pacemakers and Cilla Black also hailed from Liverpool and contributed to the "Merseybeat" for which the city has been known over the past fifty years. In fact, it was GIs from America arriving in Liverpool during the war who brought rock and roll with them to the city and infused it with the beat to which it kept swinging for the next half century. This was made known to me through all kinds of musical memorabilia from the period and what's more, it was all free. Now I could have seen The Beatles Story and paid good money for it, but instead here I was looking at Beatles memorabilia (the medals worn by the group on the Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Album, the grey suits that manager Brian Epstein had designed for them to give them a wider, more sedate appeal, etc.) and soaking it all in while also looking at dresses worn by Cilla Black and a whole host of other musicians of that era. It was truly wonderful and I loved every minute of it.

Out on the street, I dashed into Subway past busy Queen Street full of Sunday shoppers and their bulging bags to pass by the famous Cavern Club where the Beatles had their start. Though long closed, this is another stop on the Beatles Tour and I was glad I caught a glimpse of it. Then I bought myself a hero to eat in the coach and just managed to make the long walk back to the YHA.

The coach journey back to London was uneventful (I slept through most of it anyway) and gratefully used the facilities at the Warwick motorstop before we arrived in the city about 9 pm.

Liverpool is undergoing the kind of resurgence of which most cities can only dream. My visit to it was fruitful and exciting and left me with the fullest satisfaction of having seen a city through its ups and downs and of having experienced its fluctuating fortunes. I can only hope that the students whom I accompanied on this trip enjoyed it as much as I did.

No comments: