Qantas magazine, November 2016
Back in the early 1980s, the playwright Alan Bleasdale was looking for an image to convey the utter misery of unemployment-blighted Liverpool for his seminal drama series, Boys from the Blackstuff. He settled on the city’s abandoned and derelict Albert Dock. In the final episode, a wheelchair-bound character, George, surveys the silt-clogged dock and the smashed windows of its abandoned warehouses and, after thinking of his and his city’s finer past, dies there. It just might be the most miserable scene in British TV history.
Well, you should see that place now. Today, the Albert Dock represents the revival from the most blighted of European cities to a thriving, buzzing tourist hub where Beatles pilgrims rub shoulders with football fans, students and cruise liner passengers.
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This is my home town, so let me show you what I can see from here, facing towards the city with my back to the River Mersey. Over to the left, there’s enough proud history and art to make a scholar blush: the Merseyside Maritime Museum (one of the world’s best), the Liverpool Tate Gallery, the new Museum of Liverpool. Just beyond them are the beautiful Three Graces buildings at the Pier Head, topped by the Liver Birds that have been the city’s icons for more than a century; in front of them, the Ferry Cross the Mersey – with that infernal Gerry Marsden song playing relentlessly – is docking from Birkenhead.
Over to the right, bars and restaurants abound – my band had a residency in one of them for two years back in the 90s, though we changed our name so often I doubt anyone would remember us – and behind them a 200-foot ferris wheel. What you can’t see, because it’s buried underground in a suitably Cavern-esque swarthiness, is the Beatles museum, cramped and heaving but evoking the earthiness of the band’s early days in Liverpool and Hamburg.
And in front the city unfolds up the hill, the skyline dominated by the bewilderingly different cathedrals (being a city with a vast Irish population, it has always need two, one protestant and one Catholic). You can’t see them from here, but if there was a match on you’d likely be able to hear the noise from the football grounds at Anfield (Liverpool) and Goodison Park (Everton), though they are several miles away. The docks, the cathedrals, the old warehouses; none of these are new, and were all here when I was a kid. But it’s what’s been done with them. Somehow, the life’s been put back in to Liverpool.
In order to tell you about my home town, let’s take a walk with my dad. At 70, he’s seen it all: a child in the postwar era when bomb-ravaged Liverpool was put back together, a teen in the city’s cultural heyday in the 1960s when the Beatles ruled the world (that’s when my mum arrived, along with thousands of other young people who were magnetised to the place), a young adult in the 1970s when Liverpool Football Club made the city world-famous, and a working man in the city’s schools when the docks shut down and the city all but died in the 1980s. Seeing it rebound again is a source of delight and pride to him.
From the docks, we head up the hill, through the shopping districts and past the World Museum and the Walker Art Gallery in the old Georgian buildings near Lime Street station – where many visitors will arrive – and head for the cathedrals.
Why there? Partly because they’re great buildings and partly because they demonstrate some of the unique oddity of Liverpool. One, the Catholic one (Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, to give it its formal name, or Paddy’s Wigwam, to give it the informal one adopted by the Irish community), is a soaring concrete and glass teepee, jagged and unlikely and to many eyes hideous on the outside, but filled with radiant light streaming in blues and reds through the stained glass windows within. The other, the stocky, broad-shouldered sandstone might of the Anglican cathedral, is in the classic style and recalls Notre Dame, with its vast interiors and high-buttressed ceilings . (In fact, it’s considerably bigger: guides will tell you with some pride that Nelson’s Colum, in overblown bombastic London way down south, would fit comfortably inside the cathedral). Remarkably, the classical Anglican one is the newer of the two. From its towers, one has great views over the city and the river, where the transformation is in evidence again. Cruise liners come here now: Cunard brought all three of its flagship liners here to commemorate its 175th anniversary in May.
Another reason for popping in to the two cathedrals is that they are at other ends of the same road and there are a few fantastic diversions in the couple of hundred metres in between. First is the newly spruced-up Everyman theatre, one of many in the city, representing a cultured town that hums with theatre, live music both modern and orchestral, and art. It has a great café too. A little further up, it would be obscene to pass by the Philharmonic pub (The Phil, to one and all). It is an incredible series of ornately decorated rooms, all brass relief walls and classical cherubs in the ceiling and dipping chandeliers. It also has the only gents’ toilets so resplendent that they hold World Heritage Status. Bar staff are used to requests from women to see them too, and will oblige in quiet times by checking the coast is clear.
The other good thing about going around with dad is that after a lifetime here he knows the places that don’t make the guidebooks, so after walking downhill past one of the world’s oldest and most entrenched Chinatowns – ports are always a melting pot – we head to the extraordinary Mersey Tunnel tour that starts in the George’s Dock building at the Pier Head. The Queensway tunnel (the oldest of two) was the world’s longest when it opened under the river in 1934, and to stand beneath the ancient ventilation stations with their vast, angry fans is an experience both impressive and frankly frightening.
Dad knows, too, that to see a city properly you have to get out of the centre, and so we grab the kids and head north towards Crosby Beach. Getting there is a reminder that not all is perfect in Liverpool: the city’s population has shrunk dramatically since its 1930s heyday and much of the city remains either depressed or even abandoned, not yet touched by gentrification. The area around the football grounds – which are cathedrals in their own right, and have museums chronicling the hopes and dreams they have lifted and dashed over the years – are particularly underprivileged.
Leaving the city centre we arrive at Crosby Beach. As a piece of sand it’s not going to feature in the dreams of many Australians, but it has a curious fame now as the home of Another Place, a series of 100 cast-iron life-size human figures spread out along the foreshore and half a mile out to sea. The sculptures have, inevitably, been adorned with hats and scarves and other paraphernalia over the years; the kids adore them. It’s a good city for kids in general: the dock areas abound in hands-on attractions, but for the rainy days (and oh my, are there some rainy days in Liverpool, with that wind blowing off the Irish Sea) the best option is brilliant Underwater Street at the Pier Head, a fun play centre that is, well, under Water Street.
Time to turn to Liverpool’s nightlife, for which I have recruited my old school friend Neil, who these days is a policeman rather than the scourge of them. We begin our evening in Alma de Cuba, perhaps the most atmospheric restaurant in the north of England, housed within a former church in dim light and long shadows. After that – well, after the Phil (again), Thomas Rigby’s, the Lady of Mann, the Grapes, the Beehive, the Hanover, Flannagan’s and O’Neill’s, I fear my notes become a little scattered under Neil’s expert direction, but we’ve put the world to rights.
In the next day’s haze, some conclusions are clear. Liverpool wears its Beatles heritage on its sleeve in a way that is sometimes cloying (Liverpool John Lennon Airport: Above Us Only Sky), sometimes amusing (Ringo Spa: manicure and pedicure), and you can still go to the Cavern Club on Mathew Street, though it’s not quite the same place as the original. But live music here is more than a series of tribute bands: it is everywhere and in every form, with the Irish particularly well represented. Secondly, Liverpool has a lot to thank its ever-expanding student population for. They are legion, they are lively and they are interesting. Thirdly, one could spend a lifetime here and not see every pub, bar and nightclub, from the LGBT places around Stanley Street to lively Concert Square, from rejuvenating Baltic Triangle to crazily diverse Seel Street.
Outsiders will tell you Liverpool is mawkish, sentimental and self-pitying, and you know what? It probably is. But in a streamlined and homogenising world, at least it has character and identity. Like so many who left it in the jobless years, it is quite something to come back and see it so transformed.