Saturday, October 27, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 8: Liverpool, continued

[Originally posted on]

This is not really a good guide to Liverpool for first-time visitors, because we had already seen a lot of what the city has to offer in our previous visit. We didn't really see much of the famous dock system, for instance, and didn't go near Albert Dock.

I will briefly mention that the Liverpool dock system is one of the greatest engineering projects in the history of the world. Beginning with Old Dock in 1715 (the world's first enclosed dock, replacing the silted-up tidal "pool" that gave the city its name), Liverpool lined its entire Mersey waterfront with dozens of these stone, brick and iron behemoths, thousands of acres of them. London has nothing comparable to these miles of artificial basins.

Old Dock and many of the other earlier ones have long since been filled in, and few of the ones that are left serve any useful commercial purpose anymore. The site of Old Dock, like seemingly half the central city, is currently buried underneath the rubble of a massive construction project. The docks belong to an era of goods packed in sacks and crates and barrels, and swung off the small ships of the day with simple cranes, moved by men with barrows or strong backs, and hoisted into the massive warehouses at dockside.

Today, all the action is in containers, which are handled in terrific volume but with vastly reduced manpower at Royal Seaforth Dock, the most recent and most northerly in the system (to avoid the treacherous Mersey). There are also large terminals for oil, timber, and grain.

The greatest of the docks, the ones that express not just commercial intent but the explosive wave of Victorian power, were built in the mid-nineteenth century by Jesse Hartley, who belongs in the front rank of the world's engineering superstars. Albert Dock is his greatest achievement -- not merely the big hole with water in it, but the massive, gorgeous warehouses that ring it, with some of the finest columns erected outside of ancient Greece. It's all museums and hotel now, with much of its power buffed out, glassed in and emasculated, but you can still get a feeling of how booming a port this must have been.

Hartley's other work is nearly as good. From 1830 to 1859, he built Clarence Dock, Brunswick Dock, Waterloo Dock, Victoria Dock, Trafalgar Dock, Albert Dock, Canning Half-Tide Dock, Salisbury Dock, Collingwood Dock, Stanley Dock, Nelson Dock, Bramley Moore Dock, Wellington Dock, Wellington Half-Tide Dock, Sandon Dock, Huskisson Dock, and Canada Dock, as well as numerous dock buildings, mostly warehouses. My favorite parts are the incredible bulging seawall stairs that extend out over the Mersey at the Albert River Wall, visible from the ferry; if you look closely you can see how surprisingly graceful the massive stone blocks are.

If filled-in and glossily restored docks don't do it for you, the moody masterpiece that is Stanley Dock, to the north, which connects the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to the Mersey via Collingwood Dock and Salisbury Dock (with its massive gates), might satisfy. The bulk of the Tobacco Warehouse hangs over it, vast and unrestored. It is the largest brick warehouse in the world. When it was built in 1901, tobacco was shipped and stored in heavy barrels, which could not easily be stacked very high, so the ceilings are only two meters high, which makes renovating into apartments difficult. The luxury apartment hunter's loss is the urban archaeologist's gain, as the building is still redolent of its active past, not its sanitized retro future.

Another thing Liverpool is famous for is its great football teams. I'm a Tottenham fan, not a Reds man, but I can respect Liverpool's trophy case and the atmosphere of Anfield, and the famous Kop. Mrs. Fnarf got to know the place back when the terraces were still standing-only; I only know it from rather terrifying video, watching the mass of people swaying back and forth ten feet or more, all the while singing. She's made of tougher stuff than me, I guess.

The terraces are all seating now, thanks to the horror of Hillsborough, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death against the steel fences in Sheffield Wednesday's stadium of that name on April 15, 1989. Few fans of English football will ever forget the sight of the disaster, whether on live TV reports or pictures afterwards, or the memorials covered with notes and flowers and the scarves of hundreds of other football clubs, hated rivals Everton and Manchester United among them. On that day the whole world were Liverpool fans.

I had to see a match in person. Birmingham City were coming to Anfield during our stay. Tickets to Liverpool matches are hard to come by, even for Birmingham (forget Everton or Man U), thanks both to their scarcity and the impossible-to-comprehend (but classically Liverpudlian)
distribution system, involving randomly-awarded phone calls and dead-end internet lotteries. But there is a way. After dozens of comical spy-vs.spy emails of the "the bishop's scorpion has touched down in the park" variety between the head of the United States Liverpool Supporters Club, myself, and a few shady Irish contacts (Liverpool has a large Irish support contingent), arrangements were made. We met our contact in his hotel, handed over our cash, and bought our tickets, face value.

On match day, we were under the mistaken impression that the bus that goes past the stadium, Arriva Bus 26 (the Shield Road Circular) would be a timely option. We were failing to reckon that this is Liverpool, the city where nothing works. We reached a stop with more than two hours to spare, and then sat and watched as hundreds of other buses passed by. Just as we had given up and decided to grab a taxi, the 26 finally arrived. It was slow going, of course, because of the congestion near the stadium, but we wisely got off as soon as we got near and walked the rest of it.

Every pub was packed, with dozens standing outside each one, and hundreds of cans and glasses on the sidewalks. The streets were packed full. The terraces around the stadium are in appalling condition, many of them boarded up and ready for the wrecking ball. I wouldn't want to be here on a dark night with no game crowd -- it looked much grimmer than Toxteth -- but on a home Saturday it was a carnival. We bought a program and found our gate.

English stadiums are not like American ones: there's no free movement from section to section. At Safeco Field, you can walk entirely around the stadium with an excellent view of the field the whole way. Here, if you go in Gate N you stay in Gate N.

Our tickets were on the Anfield Road end, right behind the goal, but "obstructed view", in the very last row, row 35 under the upper deck, with our backs against the metal wall. With the overhang, and the 34 rows of fans in front of us jumping up every time something happened, it was like watching the match through a letter slot. But I was happy; we could stand without blocking anyone's view.

And another difference between American stadiums and English ones, Anfield at least, is that there is no running track; the seating comes right up nearly to the edge of the pitch; I believe that our 35th row was closer to the action than the very FIRST row at, say, Qwest Field, where the American football Seahawks (and sometimes soccer teams) play. If I had thought of anything witty to accuse the Birmingham keeper of, he would have heard me.

Or he would have, if even my foghorn voice could have penetrated the noise. As we took our seats they were singing "You'll Never Walk Alone", and it actually brought a lump to my throat to hear it booming out at such a volume. Later in the match, which was frankly a rather insipid one, it was quiet enough to hear the same song sung with the intended-to-be-cutting lyrics "You'll Never Work Again; Sign on, Si-ign on" (meaning the dole), which has by now lost most of the power it had back in the fearful unemployment days of the 1980s. But still, the
response of the Kop at the other end, and around me, was as tepid as the match.

(A couple of weeks later, after we were home in Seattle, my boys Tottenham visited this place and sang "Anfield is a library" when they were up 2-1, and it was that quiet. The Spurs singers were of course hushed themselves when the Reds equalized in the "Inevitable Spurs Death Zone", i.e. added time; don't get me started).

This game ended 0-0, both sides having one pulled back for offsides. A disappointing result for most of the people here.

But remember I'm not a Liverpool fan. Honestly, if I had to take sides in Liverpool I think I'd pick Everton, just to be ornery. Having said that, I'm sleeping in the storage shed outside tonight! I'm don't give a damn about Birmingham, but a single point for the home side didn't bother me. I was just happy to see the game. For entertainment value I give it a 10 (if I ever get to White Hart Lane before they knock it down I expect it will go to 11).

On the way home we stupidly got back on the bus and then stood stock still in traffic for two hours. When we finally made it back to the center, we had been beaten there by 20,000 walkers. But I did get to see a fellow, standing outside an Anfield pub, who filled my mod-loving heart with joy: a light-skinned black man, slight of build, in impeccable jeans, outstanding shoes, and a canary-yellow Fred Perry polo shirt, with a beautifully coordinated yellow sweater, and a crisp haircut that looked like he had it touched up every two hours. There wasn't a wrinkle or a pulled thread or sweater pill on him, let alone anything so gauche as a stain; he looked like an absolute god. I know, he was probably some sort of nasty bad criminal drug dealer or something, and I am not a gay man, but I appreciate a nice cut of clothes, and this dude was sharp enough to cut through steel.

On the Monday we attempted to take the circular bus the opposite direction. Stupidly, we thought that because the booklet at the bus information center showed a circular route, that that's what it would do. We should have known not to trust the info center, because info is the one thing that they seemed to be most reluctant to give out.

Route map, showing where all the buses go? Oh, no, they don't have anything like that; you have to ask the man at the window. There's a route map in some of the timetable booklets (but not all of them), but if you don't know which bus you want, you have to ask. And God help you if you don't know the precise name of the street you're trying to get to.

And if you want to know the fare, they can't help you; the bus companies are all private, you see, and there are seemingly dozens of them, and, well, we're just the INFO center. Do they make change on the bus? No idea, sorry. Apparently visitors should just carry several pounds' worth of 10p pieces and hope for the best. Or buy a Saveaway card, which is what we did.

The worrisome thing was, especially in light of the supposed influx of thousands of "City of Culture 2008" visitors coming next year, was the fact that the fellow at the desk was completely flummoxed by these arcane requests -- is there a map of where all the buses go, how much does
it cost -- as if he'd never even thought of it before.

Our trial was only beginning. The route map showed the bus going down Dale Street, so we headed to Dale Street. No bus, no bus sign. There were lots of other buses, and lots of other bus signs, but not for the 27. So we carried on down the route, following all the turns on the map, looking for a 27 sign. This quickly became impossible because of the construction. All of the streets in the center have been rerouted; one ways now go the opposite direction, two-ways are now one way, turns are prohibited, many of the streets are blocked off entirely.

Not only could we not find any 27 signs, we couldn't even follow the supposed route, or find our way back to any part of it.

We had picked up another pamphlet, from the thousands of useless ones on offer, most of which had cute pictures of ducks or glass buildings on them, and some very expensive-looking ad copy about how terrific a place to visit the Museum of Scuff Marks will be when it's finished. This pamphlet, entitled "Bus Service Disruptions", informed us that "whatever bus you intend on taking is going to follow mysterious and ever-changing detour routes instead which we have no intention of revealing to you, and will be picking up passengers solely at unmarked spots in the middle of the block and the middle of road, so it sucks being you, doesn't it?" It didn't mention the 27, but we knew it was meant for us.

After being blocked by the umpteenth closed off street, and by now miles from Dale Street, and finally being passed by a 27 which indeed picked up several wide ladies in raincoats and rain-bonnets with bags of shopping in the middle of the road two blocks away, we ended up all the way down at the magical Paradise Street Bus Interchange, where in the midst of dozens of unopening glass doors unattached to anything we finally found a sign saying "27".

And then miraculously, a bus! Which whizzed past us at speed, roared out of view around a corner, and came to a halt. The driver got out and lit a smoke; end of the line, mate, I'm on break; you should be standing over there. So we stood over there, behind another glass door not attached to anything, and marveled at how a major bus transfer point in a major city with hundreds of buses could be so devoid of people in the middle of the day.

There were people about, but they were all a hundred feet off the ground, in the dozens of steel building frames all around us.

But finally our bus came, and all was well again. You haven't been to Liverpool unless you've spend a certain amount of time walking around in circles wondering what the hell is going on. It's just part of life. If you had any sense you'd be in the pub, drinking Mild.

It's a bit like Mexico; if you get irritated at the way things don't move with the same pace and smoothness they do back home, you'll never be happy; you have to adjust to the pace and resignation of the natives. Once you do, you'll start to enjoy yourself. Don't get me wrong: Liverpool is a wonderful, wonderful city. But it's not exactly clockwork.

Next: Waterloo, Crosby and New Brighton

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