The Mersey beat goes on
Liverpool is this year’s European Capital of Culture, but the city still rocks to the sounds of the Fab Four, discovers Michael Gebicki
ALTHOUGH it has been many decades since I last saw them, as a seven-year-old emigrant waif about to take ship for Canada, I remember the liver (rhymes with diver) bird statues instantly. They sit on top of the Liver Building in Liverpool and strange beasts they are, all beaky and beady-eyed, full in the chest, wings outstretched like a cormorant’s (which could well be their inspiration). The liver bird doesn’t look like much of a flyer with those stubby wings but it says something for its character that the city of Liverpool has taken its name as well as its civic symbol from this eccentric and wondrous mythic bird.
Before setting forth, a little history is required. Founded in the 13th century as a port from which the English could extend an iron fist into unruly Ireland, Liverpool boomed in the 17th and 18th centuries with the development of British colonies in North America and the West Indies. Sugar, tobacco and cotton came in one door, cloth, rope, iron, pottery and slaves went out the other, and Liverpool grew fat on the proceeds.
Hammers rang from its shipyards, mercantile dynasties flourished, the first commercial railway in the world operated between Liverpool and Manchester, and the city acquired a treasury of noble buildings that spanned the Georgian to the Victorian eras. During the great emigrations of the 19th century it became the last bit of British soil trod by millions en route to new lives in North America or Australia.
Bombed to smithereens during World War II, Liverpool paralleled the postwar decline of British manufacturing and exports. Its famous wet docks silted up, warehouse doors were nailed shut. It was England’s rough diamond, Scouse central, full of sailors on home leave, wisecrack in one corner of the mouth, fag in the other. Liverpool, it seemed, could not take a trick.
In 1965 the city built a 125m sky needle with a revolving restaurant at the top. It flopped. According to my guide, the kitchen was on the ground floor and by the time food reached the dining table it was cold. The sky minaret stayed closed for 20 years before a local radio station took over and it became Radio City Tower.
Come the 80s, Liverpool’s star began to rise once more. The Albert Dock was redeveloped with the familiar urban cocktail of bars, shops and restaurants and a side serve of museums. The docks’ Merseyside Maritime Museum opened in 1980, followed by the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in 1988.
Then, in 2003, Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture for 2008, along with Stavanger in Norway. The nomination is the lazy susan of the European Union. EU member nations take turns to nominate a city and this year happened to be the turn of Britain and Norway. Although to win the title, Liverpool had to duke it out with a pack of contenders, including Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford.
The effect has been to turn the spotlight on Liverpool, galvanising the efforts to rescue the city from the doldrums. The Duke of Westminster, Britain’s richest toff, is investing £1 billion ($2.1 billion) to build Liverpool One, a heritage sensitive, city-centre shopping complex. The gorgeous Bluecoat, a Queen Anne building that was originally a boys charity school, has become an arts centre following a £12.5 million refit.
St Georges Hall, a former concert hall and courthouse and one of the world’s biggest neoclassical buildings, reopened in April 2007 after being closed for years, following a £23 million restoration.
The culinary scene is better than ever, and there’s a Cuban-style bar with feathered carnival dancers and chandeliers crafted from antlers inside the husk of a 300-year-old church. What more could any sophisticate wish for? Londoners are coming here for the weekend, locals will tell you with a look of amazement.
To celebrate its new Culture Capital title, Liverpool has organised a packed calendar for 2008 with more than 350 events. The curtain raiser, People’s Opening, took place on January 11 to a sound and light spectacular centred on St Georges Hall and starring Ringo Starr, whipping his drum kit into a frenzy on the roof of the building. (‘‘I don’t think I was let in here when I lived in Liverpool,’’ he commented.)
Everything from Chinese dub music to children’s theatre festivals, wind and water-powered sculpture to competitions for disabled athletes, Viennese balls to samba school parades is on the agenda this year. Highlights include a comedy festival, a Gustav Klimt exhibition at the Tate Liverpool, a tall ships race starting on July 18 and performances by the Berlin Philharmonic and by Paul McCartney at Anfield Stadium on June 1.
Chances are that the area where most visitors will find reasons to linger is the former dockyards, home to the Three Graces: the Royal Liver Building with its liver birds, the Cunard Building and the former offices of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. This is also the site of the Tate Liverpool and the Merseyside Maritime
From Page 1 Museum, which does a sterling coverage of everyone’s favourite sinking, the Titanic, which was registered in Liverpool. The Maritime Museum also bravely swims where others may fear to paddle. Until June 29, the museum is showing an exhibition titled Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave.
Part of the same complex as the Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum plumbs a chapter of the city’s history that many would prefer to forget, but it makes for compelling viewing. Liverpool was once the European centre of the slave trade.
Between about 1740 and 1807, its ships transported half of the three million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers. Without the slave trade, Liverpool would have been a less lovely city. The handsome Bluecoat charity school was built by Bryan Blundell, who made his fortune from tobacco and slaves, and several Liverpool streets take their names from slave traders, including Penny Lane, named after slave captain James Penny. The museum focuses on the African perspective: where they came from, the economics of the industry and its legacy of racism.
Of course all of this, from the Culture Capital palaver to the dusting down of Victorian dowagers, is only windowdressing. No matter how much I may try to convince you otherwise, if you go to Liverpool it’s just for one reason. You’re here for the music, aren’t you? And music in Liverpool means the Beatles.
Of course, there have been other Liverpudlian musicians. In fact the city was known for it. When they came back from the US, Liverpool’s sailors brought with them the music of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, and the city started rocking. Liverpool’s throats have produced more No. 1 hit records than any other city. And since you are probably wondering, the list begins in 1953 with Lita Roza singing How Much is That Doggie in the Window? But despite Roza, Jerry and the Pacemakers, the Searchers, Billy Fury and Cilla Black, Liverpool belongs to the Beatles. And the city makes the most of the association.
There’s a Magical Mystery Tour of Beatles sites, which is highly recommended, and one of the city’s most visited attractions is the Beatles Story Museum at the Albert Dock, which is just about to double in size. The childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney are National Trust properties and Beatles fans can usually be found at the gravestone of Eleanor Rigby at St Peter’s Parish Church in Woolton, the church where Lennon and McCartney first met.
The pillars that brace the red iron gates of Strawberry Field are scrawled with Beatles graffiti, the city’s airport is named after John Lennon and the latest hotel to open in the city is the Hard Days Night, a genuflection to the moptopped lads. Long ago, the city council stopped replacing the regularly nicked sign on Penny Lane.
Best of all the Beatles experiences that Liverpool has to offer is a night at the Cavern. This wasn’t the first club where Lennon and McCartney played but they performed here regularly with Starr and George Harrison. Between 1961 and 1963, the Beatles played here almost 300 times before the world called them to a much bigger stage.
The Cavern closed in 1973 and didn’t reopen until 1984, and it was not until the ’ 90s that it became a live music venue again, but the present version is a re-creation of the original, faithful in the detail. Cramped is the word that springs to mind when you descend the staircase. It feels more like a stormwater drain than possibly the world’s most famous club. There is a low-ceilinged, barrelvaulted passage about 5m across, tables in the alcoves behind the arches, a bar, room for about 200 sweaty patrons and that’s it.
Tribute band the Mersey Beatles is belting out Can’t Buy Me Love as I go down the stairs. It is all the good stuff: She Loves You , Sgt Pepper’s , Back in theUSSR, IFeelFine . The real surprise is the crowd. There are fewer than 10 who would have been alive when the Beatles released their last music in 1970, yet they know the lyrics as well as I do. The Beatles are cool for a whole new generation. ‘‘ Do you wanna hear Revolution or Twist and Shout ?’’ asks the singer. I scream myself hoarse for Twist and Shout but Revolution wins. The band finishes with AllYouNeedisLove .
As if we are a single organism, our hands rise towards the ceiling and sway in time to the music. Some lock fingers. It is bliss, a beautiful moment. I am back in the ’ 60s. Michael Gebicki was a guest of Visit Britain and Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic flies to London from Sydney via Hong Kong, with connections from other Australian ports. Special economy return deals from $2229, inclusive of taxes and surcharges, from October 4 to November 11, or January 17 to February 24, 2009. Virgin Atlantic also offers a premium-economy class cabin with fares between economy and upper class (business). www.liverpool08.com www.visitbritain.com.au www.virgin-atlantic.com
Industrial evolution: Liverpool’s former dockyards, home to the imposing Three Graces, will be at the heart of events celebrating the city’s status as European Capital of Culture for 2008, main picture; a statue of Beatle John Lennon at the Hard Days Night Hotel, right
Ticket to ride: Hop aboard a Magical Mystery Tour of Beatles sites