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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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

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