Monday, September 29, 2008

Liverpool at Leisure

September 27, 2008
Liverpool, UK

The last time I had been to Liverpool was four years ago to present a paper at a Conference at Liverpool John Moores University. My exploration of the city had been a slapdash affair with the two churches covered--the towering, stupendous Anglican Cathedral that dominates the city's skyline and the Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral, at the other end of the same street (Hope Street).

This time round, I took in the city at leisure and had an opportunity to explore its magnificent buildings, sample its world-class art and delve into its varied history. Of course, I also did the 'touristy' things such as taking the ferry across the Mersey (which never fails to bring to my lips that inane song from Gerry and the Pacemakers) and peaking into the men's loo at the Philharmonic Pub, one of the UK's most opulent and containing the only listed toilets in the entire country.

So, let's start at the very beginning--which as Rogers and Hammerstein remind us in The Sound of Music is "A very good place to start". We boarded our coaches at the NIDO student dorms and were outward bound at the crack of dawn (6. 30 am to be exact). Needless to say, the coach was like a graveyard with every passenger dead asleep as it inched through fog that was truly as thick as pea soup for miles and miles out of London and into the heart of the Midlands. It brought to mind the opening chapters of Dickens' Bleak House and I wondered if all we would see in Liverpool was the Fog! We made a pit stop about three hours later for some welcome hot beverages and breakfast pastries and pressed on again, arriving in Liverpool in record time at about 12 noon. Since we were 'free' until 2 .15 pm when we were required to re-board the coach for our guided City Tour, I raced off to the waterfront at Albert Dock to visit the Merseyside Maritime Museum which Lonely Planet says "should not be missed". (I must add that I spent some of the time in the coach reading up on what to see and do in Liverpool and am I glad I did!)

The day was gorgeous with golden sunshine pouring down upon me--such a relief from the overcast skies and the frequent drizzles we've dealt with for days on end. Walking towards the Museum through the portals of the wonderful Albert Dock with its quadrangular design and its solid rust-colored columns that form alleys now filled with shops and restaurants, I arrived at the Museum where free admission allowed me to spend two amazing hours.

On the third floor was a good deal of "Liverpool Pottery", a collection of Delftware, porcelain and plainer china that passed through the docks in the city's heyday. This took only a few minutes to survey before I descended to the second floor to see the Slavery Museum. This superb exhibit details the enormous role played by Liverpool in the "triangular trade" during the 17th and 18th centuries before England finally abolished the hideous practice. While my knowledge of American History has informed me about slavery in the USA, there was so little I knew about the role played by Great Britain in this regard and I was fully enlightened by the time I left the exhibit. Tracing the earliest origin of Blacks in the UK through the many slaves who were transported across the Atlantic on slaving ships that plied in West Africa and forcibly took the natives captive to the role played by Africans in contemporary life, this exhibit attempts to do two things: tell the horror stories so that history will never forget them and restore to this injured race some of the pride and dignity that has eluded them for centuries. I found it deeply absorbing and thought-provoking.

One floor below was the exhibit on the many famous ships that were made in Liverpool, a famous center for shipbuilding, including the Lusitania and the Titanic. In fact, these exhibits were so stirring that I walked through them in a blur, my tears filled with tears which spilled down several times, much to my embarrassment. I guess the movie Titanic has made so graphic so many of the concepts we only knew in the abstract, about the ship's history, its famous passengers, its lifestyle, etc. Seeing mementos of the ship and its ill-fated voyage, reading the letters of its passengers, seeing pictures of the few survivors, filled me with such a deep sense of sadness that I cannot quite explain my despondency in words. Hearing also the hymn "Abide With Me" which the ship's musicians played until the ship went down (taking every single one of them with it) was just too much for me to bear and I was crying rather copiously by this point.

On my way back, I toured the Piermaster's House, a small two-storey bungalow that has been restored to reflect the interior of the home in the 1930s. Since I always love to poke around homes and since the 1930s are of particular interest to me, I was so glad I nipped in out of curiosity for the space was quite enchanting indeed and transported me back to the life of a man who spent his life clearing ships on their entry and exit from the Liverpool Docks at the time when business was brisk and global commerce was the city's mainstay.

Of course, I could not possibly pass by the Liverpool Tate without taking a quick round of its three floors and browsing through its permanent collection. The Tate Liverpool contains a great deal of interesting works, including several Picassos and a whole room devoted to Andy Warhol especially his varied portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Chairman Mao. Upstairs, there were many significant pieces of sculptures by Giacometti, Henry Moore and Brancussi among others. If you are a fan of Abstract Art, the Liverpool Tate will not disappoint. The galleries were not too packed which allowed the art-lover to truly take in the work in a very unhurried, very relaxed environment.

Then, I was back at Albert Dock, and with Margaret, our superb English Guide in tow, we wound all around the city, taking in the various aspects of it from the astounding grandeur of such buildings as the George Concert Hall and the Central Library to the campus of its famous universities, from the main roads on which are located the well-known churches to the homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Liverpool's most famous sons who grew up on the outskirts in very pretty houses called Mendips and on Forthlin Road (both now owned and managed by the National Trust). There is so much to see in this place and with everything spruced up to support its selection as the Cultural Capital of Europe for the year 2008, every attraction is open to the public for free. What an amazing opportunity to browse into its wealth of cultural attractions!

We got off at Penny Lane to take pictures of the quiet road that The Beatles immortalized in their song. I was amazed at how empty and nondescript it was at the edge of Liverpool University and Sefton Place until Margaret had the coach drive around the junction of Penny Lane with Smithdown Road and explained that the song is all about the shops scattered at the roundabout. It was at this junction that Lennon and McCartney used to meet as kids to catch the bus into town. There are references to the barber at the roundabout who knew the names then displayed pictures of all the clients who passed through his doors (including Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison when they were kids), the circular bus shelter where people took refuge in the rain (this is in rather poor shape today), the bank and the fire station. "There", as the song's lyrics put it " beneath the blue suburban skies", I tried to imagine what it must have been like for these talented youngsters to go about their business little knowing how enormously they would change the world with their homespun lyrics and their childhood memories. Indeed, if you are a Beatles fan as I am or if you grew up to the sound of their lyrics ringing in your ears as I did, you will love Liverpool and will spend a great deal of your time on the tour recreating, if only in your imagination, a world filled with youngsters who swung to the Mersey Beat of the Swinging Sixties.

Then, our coach was taking us towards Crosby Beach where another treat lay in store-a look at the unique life-size sculptures by Antony Gormley, one of the UK's best-known contemporary sculptors and creator of the colossal Angel of the North sculpture that I had seen on the motorway while leaving Newcastle three weeks ago in Llew's company. Gormley's "Another Place" sculptures consist of 150 figures, apparently cast from his own body, staring out at the tide and watching the waves come in. At high tide, the waves swirl all around his toes and as I watched the sun set over the Atlantic, I was so moved by this sight--the sight of so many rusted statues of full-grown men looking across the horizon towards Another Place.

Back at Albert Dock, I had enough time to check into the Holiday Inn Hotel at the waterside and was delighted with the view from my window that overlooked the Dock and the outlines of the city's three most famous buildings about which we would learn the next day on our ferry cruise across the Mersey.

After a quick shower and a much needed stretch on my bed, I was ready to go to dinner at the Youth Hostel where I enjoyed the chicken curry served over couscous and the first decent Chocolate Cake I have eaten in the UK--it was rich and creamy and chocolatey the way Chocolate Cake is meant to be.

While the night was still young, I was determined to return to the Philharmonic Pub, the best-known of Liverpool's many watering-holes, to see the ornate male loos that are filled with dazzling ceramic tile, marble wash basins, stained glass detail on the walls, etc. As it turned out, our attempt to find a table in the "Gentleman's Lounge" was successful and as I sat with James Weygood and David Crout, the administrative staff at NYU, I admired and took many pictures of the bas-relief on the walls, the beaten copperplate engravings, the solid mahogany fireplaces, etc. This elaborate pub stuns at every turn and in its Victoria excess it is certainly worth seeing.

I feel asleep that evening tired and very satisfied with what had been an extraordinary day and I looked forward to awaking on the morrow to another full and enlightening day.

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