Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 7: Liverpool

[Originally posted on]

The train to Liverpool from York passes through some of the earliest and most dramatic railway works anywhere: the Edge Hill cutting. The cutting has been widened, so the marks on the high sandstone walls are not for the most part the 1830 originals, and much of the way has been covered over and turned into a tunnel under the city, but it's still a glorious entry into the city.

The original terminus, Crown Street, as well as the fantastic Moorish arches of the original Edge Hill station (not the current one of that name) have both been closed for decades (Crown Street was closed to passenger traffic in 1836), and unfortunately little remains, and even less is accessible to the public. For a fascinating look at the history (and what is left) of the original Edge Hill tunnels, see the Subterranean Britannica site at .

Liverpool Lime Street is one of the great train stations in the world. It's not on the way to anything; Liverpool is a terminus, so it's not as visited as some of the main line stations, but its magnificent iron and glass roof, built in 1867, is still breathtaking.

Outside the station, what's breathtaking is the number of construction cranes and torn-up sites. Liverpool is the European Union's "Capital of Culture 2008", and a couple of months prior someone noticed, "hey, we'd better get started on this, here's a billion pounds".

My interest is of course not in the new towers that are going up but in the old ones that are coming down. Among the unstarted plans is a whole new front for Lime Street Station, demolishing what is admittedly one of the ugliest facades west of Omsk (but including one of the few remaining charming old bookshops in Britain, which has been asked to vamoose). Next to it is Concourse Tower, one of the iconic "bad sixties buildings", so hated by the experts today, so badly missed by the experts of twenty years from now. Or so I believe; I love these buildings, with their concrete, their aluminum windows, their colored panels. It's as good as Manchester House in Manchester, just not as well kept up. Not kept up at all, actually; it looks like it's going to fall down at any minute.

As connoisseurs of gridlike sixties buildings, we have chosen to stay in the Holiday Inn, right across the street from the station, in the much-reviled St. Johns Shopping Centre. There's talk of tearing it down, but we wanted to see it. This is Liverpool, so there were the usual problems -- this supposedly fancy hotel had a bathroom door that didn't come close to fitting in its frame, a toilet seat the wrong size and shape for the bowl, and a broken toilet paper roll. Instead of one of those big padded vinyl books detailing all the wonderful services the hotel offers, like you get in most places, they have an impossible-to-navigate menu system from 1981 on the TV.

But you know, I don't care. The room is clean, the hotel is central, the view over the roof of the car park is great, and the view from the bar across Liverpool's great Victorian sweep of monumental buildings is even better. And one of the advantages of a city where nothing works as it should is the occasional double Scotch that never makes it onto the final bill. The free wireless in the bar was nice, too -- shame they don't tell you about it! We had to ask, after seeing another computer user.

This report, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, is not like most. I'm not like most travelers. Those monumental buildings I mentioned are nice, but I really don't care; and those things that don't fit or don't work, well, I don't care about them either. The people in the Holiday Inn were great, and actually seemed to carry over a little of the famous Liverpool joie de vivre into their work life, which in this city is unheard of. We enjoyed it very much.

We've also been here before -- Mrs. Fnarf went to university here in the mid-eighties, and we have the best of local guides: John, who knows everything there is to know about Liverpool's most important institutions, her pubs.

Liverpool has the greatest pubs in the world. I haven't been everywhere, but I can't imagine that this statement is untrue. Possibly the single best pub in the world isn't here, but half of the top 100 are. Nowhere in Britain has the density of educated drinkers as this city. And some of the pubs are magnificent works of art.

The beer's pretty good too.

My personal favorite British ale is Cain's Mild. Mild is a style of beer with more malt and less bitter hop flavor, and lower alcohol content. It's similar to porter or stout, but not as dense; many mild drinkers will drink Guinness if no mild is available. You won't find mild in London or the south, or even in most places outside of Lancashire. Its closest cousin elsewhere is Newcastle Brown Ale (newkie broon), but nothing beats the real stuff from a cask right in the brewery. And the Brewery Tap, in the red-brick castle of the Cain's Brewery, is only the fifteenth-best pub in the center city!

Liverpool is an Irish city, and their Guinness is the best outside of Ireland. We had a fantastic pint in Ma Boyle's Oyster Bar in Tower Gardens by the Pier Head, and another in the Lion Tavern in Moorfields. Thomas Rigby's on Dale Street has great beer and surprisingly excellent food (especially after Blackpool). Even southern beer tastes better in the north; a pint of Shepherds Neame Spitfire, from Kent, is a wonderful thing. So is Old Speckled Hen, from Morland Brewery in Suffolk. Brains in Wales makes a lovely thing called Bread of Heaven. But really, I think the center of the ale universe is Yorkshire; in addition to John Smiths and Samuel Smiths, already mentioned, the Black Sheep bitter is a wonderful drink.

Also on Dale Street is the Ship and Mitre, which though less than charming in decor is possibly the country's top real ale Mecca. The Roscoe Head. The White Star. The Poste House. The adorable Hole in ye Wall. The Grapes, in Mathews Street. The Globe in Cases Street, with its famous sloping floor. Ye Cracke off of Hope Street. The Baltic Fleet, down by the docks. The list goes on and on.

Most famous are the Vines and the Philharmonic, pinnacles of the Victorian beer-palace achievement. Unfortunately the beer doesn't quite live up to the insanely ornate interior, which can only be topped by the Philharmonic, where even the gent's toilets are spectacular. These are probably the two loveliest pub interiors in Britain, and should not be missed. Shame about the piped-in music, and the beer, though.

I could go on at length about these wonderful pubs -- oh wait, I already have. Well, there will be more later.

You will no doubt have noticed that I have not even mentioned Liverpool's most famous product. One thing that my native country doesn't understand anymore is pop music; we've made a lot of it, that's pretty good, but we don't respect it; we think it's shabby and shallow and made for teenage girls. But one of the things I've learned since I was a teenage boy is that the teenage girls were RIGHT. And they were listening to great pop music while I and my fellow hopeless males were rotting our brains with horrible prog nonsense, noodley guitar solos and so on. And one thing Liverpool has always gotten right is pop music. I don't know what it is; most people say it's the Irish influence. But Liverpool has always known how to sing. And of course, the greatest pop music phenomenon of all came from here.

I am referring, of course, to Ian Broudie.

Oh, you thought I was going to say "Rory Storm and the Hurricanes", didn't you! Sadly, most people don't know who Ian Broudie is, but he was great stuff back in the eighties. He produced all kinds of records, including Echo and the Bunnymen and the Icicle Works, and his own band, The Lightning Seeds, had some sweet synthy hits late in that decade. Seriously, check out Cloudcuckooland, it's brilliant. And completely Liverpool, in that it's tough and hard but sounds almost impossibly sweet and lovely, with gorgeous melodies. Remember "There She Goes", by the La's? They were from Liverpool too.

Apparently there were some big groups from Liverpool back in the sixties. The biggest of them all was The Rutles. Gerry and the Pacemakers were pretty big for a while, too, and you can still hear their big hit "Ferry, Cross the Mersey" playing through the loudspeakers on the ferry across the Mersey, which must drive the commuters bonkers. Gerry and the lads also did a stirring version of "You'll Never Walk Alone", about which more later. The best book about Merseyside music, beyond the obvious, is Paul du Noyer's Liverpool, Wondrous Place: Music From Cavern to Cream.

The Cavern is of course a reference to the famous underground (literally) venue in Mathew Street where Brian Epstein first saw the Beatles play. We didn't spend much time following the Beatles' trail this time, but if you go, you really should visit the National Trust tour of Paul's and John's childhood homes. They are incredibly evocative for anyone who grew up to the sound of the songs written in these rooms. Paul's house, while filled with unoriginal furniture and fittings, is of interest even to people who couldn't care less about the Beatles; it's the best example of a 1950s council house in existence.

We did walk down through Toxteth to see Ringo's birthplace, in Madryn Street. The "Welsh streets" are slated for demolition, and Ringo's house -- he was born here, the only Beatle not born in a hospital -- at number 9 is one of only two occupied houses in the entire street. The rest are boarded up, or rather metalled up, with vandal-proof grating and a myriad of warning notices. It's rather sad. Across the street, in Admiral Grove where Ringo grew up, is the Empress, the pub featured on the cover of Ringo's great first solo album, Sentimental Journey, which is all popular songs of the 1940s recorded for his mum. Rather more enjoyable than John and Yoko's Two Virgins, or George's dire Electronic Sound albums of the same time period! Ringo was the coolest Beatle, you know. I will brook no argument on that one.

Toxteth is impoverished and half-demolished, and probably not the safest neighborhood in the world. They famously rioted in 1981. But I enjoyed seeing the long rows of very plain terraces. Toxteth has a rich history and a great texture of life; if you want to see more, visit, an exhaustive street-by-street look at then and now, with many beautiful photographs.

For the benefit of more conventional travelers, who wouldn't dream of setting foot in a slum like Toxteth, I'll mention Liverpool's Victorian centerpiece. In the middle is St. George's Hall, next to the train station, which most Liverpudlians seem to erroneously "Great George's Hall" (there is a Great George Street, but not close to here). This is an immense neoclassical pile built in 1854. It was so huge, so grand, so magnificent, that it set off a round of town-hall building across England in all the jealous other cities (Liverpool's own Town Hall is a much earlier, and lovelier, building in Castle Street). St. George's Hall has a spectacular central hall, with an amazing tile floor (unfortunately kept covered while we were there). My wife saw Echo and the Bunnymen play there in 1984, which must have been something. It's one of the greatest buildings in Britain; not to my taste, but even I can recognize that it's something special.

Surrounding St. George's Hall is a curving row of cultural buildings on William Brown Street: the William Brown Museum and Library, the Picton Reading Room, the Walker Art Museum, and the County Sessions House. Together this is the finest row of Victorian institutions in the country; not even London has a grouping to compare. The Walker is probably the best traditional art museum outside London, with old masters and many, many British paintings up to the modern period, including an outstanding collection of the pre-Raphaelites. I'm very partial to modern (not contemporary) British painting, and they have many fine examples, including masterworks by LS Lowry, Lucian Freud, Henry Moore, and David Hockney. To be honest, we were in here just to get out of a diluvian downpour, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Next: Liverpool, Part Deux

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