Friday 23 August 2013

Liverpool - another take

I spent last weekend in Liverpool. The main purpose of my visit was to see the Chagall exhibition at Tate Liverpool and that will be the subject of a separate post. For many people Liverpool is the city of the Beatles and a rather good football team, but it has many other attractions and they will be the focus of this article.

Arriving on the Friday evening, I decided to eat in Liverpool's Chinatown - the oldest in the UK. The city's shipping connections brought many Chinese sailors and workers to Liverpool from the 1850's onwards and over time, some began to settle and establish homes and businesses. There was also a significant degree of inter-marriage between Chinese men and local women which we will pick up again a little later.

Liverpool's Chinatown has the tallest Chinese ceremonial gate in Europe leading to a number of restaurants offering different styles of Chinese cuisine. I ate at the New Capital which was cheap and cheerful with large portions of vegetables, rice and the not very traditional lemon chicken that I embarrassed my dinner partner by ordering. Well, I like it. Liverpool's Chinatown is less bustling than London's and has a much more "local" feel to it, with people popping out for dinner rather than making the effort to travel a long way. 

Walking back to the hotel I got a taste of Liverpool's night life when I heard a woman singing with a loud nasal whine the old Lyn Anderson song (I never promised you a)"Rose Garden" . It was the voice of a public house singer but she was ably accompanied by what sounded like the entire pub who were singing along. I was sorely tempted to go in...but Saturday was going to be a busy day.

Royal Liver Building, Pier Head
I had a full programme for Saturday beginning with the wonderful Chagall exhibition which I followed with a walk around nearby Pier Head which forms part of Liverpool's World Heritage status, listed by UNESCO in 2004 as "The supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain's greatest global influence". The highlight of the docks area, Pier Head boasts three magnificent buildings, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board(NDHB) built from 1903 to 1907, the Royal Liver Building (1908-1911) and the Cunard Building (completed in 1916). All three are a testament to Liverpool's former standing as a port of world importance. My favourite is the Royal Liver Building designed by Walter Aubrey Thomas, a magnificent office block claimed to be the tallest in the world when built. It defies stylistic definition but includes traces of baroque, byzantine (according to Pevsner), references to Hawksmoor's churches and to early Chicago skyscrapers. Far too big for the needs of the Royal Liver Friendly Society for which it was built, the building provided a great deal of lettable space. It displeased the owners of the smaller, older neighbour which had wanted a complementary structure rather than the attention grabber this is.
George's Dock Ventilation and Contro Station
Just behind this architectural ensemble stands another Liverpool landmark - the George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station. Designed by Herbert J. Rowse and built in the 1930's it served the first Mersey road tunnel. Having sustained damage during the Second World War it was rebuilt in 1951.  Its Portland stone face features sculptures by Edmund C. Thompson has figures representing speed, day and night (an allusion to the ever-open tunnel) and four panels illustrating civil-engineering, construction, architecture and decoration. I love its quiet elegance and I especially love that central tower, visible from some distance.

Pier Head has become a popular location for monuments and memorials to various individuals. These include the Memorial to the Heroes of the Marine Engine Room by William Goscombe John, completed in 1916. Paid for by international subscription and originally conceived as a memorial to the engineers on the Titanic who remained on the ship to the end, it is a granite obelisk topped by a gilded flame. It also has figures representing earth, air, fire and water and pairs of engineers on two sides. An early monument to ordinary working people it is a wonderful tribute to unsung heroes. 

Detail, Memorial to the Heroes of the Marine Engine Room, Pier Head
The Museum of Liverpool is just a few steps from Pier Head and it is easy to combine a visit. The   Museum tells the story of the city and its development as a major port, its many communities and the lives of its citizens. I especially enjoyed the top floor which includes the memories and lives of ordinary Liverpudlians. It includes a focus on the struggle for decent housing that has gone on (and continues today) for many years, the city's often difficult political history, its long association with music of many kinds and a number of videos of its citizens talking about their lives. 

The ground floor of the Museum includes a section on the history of Liverpool's Chinese community including the until recently untold story of the round-up and deportation of hundreds of Chinese men at the end of the Second World War, many of whom were tricked into boarding ships thinking they had signed up to work on them. Many of these men were married to local non-Chinese women and had families with them who until very recently did not know what had happened to their husbands, fathers and grandfathers. The testimony of women who spent years searching for their husbands and wondering if they had been deserted is one of the most poignant elements of the Museum and a little known part of history.

On a lighter note, a series of video interviews about Liverpool style and fashion includes an amusing contribution from a local man who refers to some of the many young women in the city with extreme tans or the "orange" look. He says "seeing ten Liverpool girls coming towards you on a night out looks like the terracotta army in stilettos". This sense of humour and tendency to self-deprecation is one of many reasons to love Liverpool. 

No visit to another city is complete for me without searching out examples of art deco architecture. I spent Saturday evening enjoying my best theatrical experience for some time at the final performance in the run of John Godber's"Bouncers" at the Royal Court Theatre. This art deco building dates from 1938 and was designed by James B. Hutchins of Wainwright and Sons. A more subdued style of art deco, it has a red brick facade which makes use of different types of brick to break the solid face as well as numerous art deco motifs and a beautiful curve at one end of the theatre. Originally built to face Queen Square, the square itself has not survived and today the Royal Court faces a row of bus stops and neighbours a very ugly shopping precinct. 

The play was excellent - a look at the lives of ordinary Liverpudlians working in or frequenting a Liverpool nightclub in the 1980's. Filled with local, often dark humour that had me laughing more than I have in a theatre for ages, there were also moments of amazing poignancy as the sad, darker side of the lives of some of the characters and their communities were alluded to. There is a Royal Court Theatre in London too - in Sloane Square, frequented by the bien pensant frightfully PC brigade. Liverpool's Royal Court has a different audience, largely working class  and able to laugh at and with itself at things the Sloane set might struggle with. Give me the Liverpool lot any time. All four actors gave good performances each with three roles - a bouncer, a Liverpool man on the pull and a Liverpool woman similarly engaged. However, the star of the show was former Brookside actor, Michael Starke. His "plain Elaine" was fantastic and he surprised us with his skills as a "mover" too! Nice one.

Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool

The other art deco lovely I found was the former Forum Cinema just opposite Lime Street Station. Dating from 1931 with the exterior designed by E. A. Shennan, the cinema is also a somewhat subdued example of art deco with an almost plain Portland stone facade, interrupted by vertical windows in threes set in panels and by simple motifs. The interior was by W. R. Glen and has a flat auditorium with a central rosette feature. There are also ornamental boxes and a range of other art deco features. The cinema closed in 1998 and was acquired by a brewery. Proposals in 2007 to turn it into a boutique hotel were eventually withdrawn and so, rather shamefully, it stands empty on this very prominent spot - one of the first things visitors see as they leave Lime Street station.
Former Forum CInema, Lime Street/ Elliott Street
On Sunday morning I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Walker Gallery to see the amazing Alive in the face of death exhibition of photographer Rankin and a look at the Gallery's excellent collection of British art from the first half of the twentieth century which includes ceramics and other crafts as well as paintings. Right next door to the Walker Gallery stands the City Library which has recently been partially demolished, rebuilt and the Victorian special collection rooms lovingly restored. It is a spectacular achievement and what a city library should look lie. Heaving with customers at midday on a Sunday - studying, browsing, using the IT, relaxing in the cafe or on the roof viewing platform - it is clearly the heartbeat of the city. Some readers will know I work in this field. I want a building like this!
And I suppose this revitalised library sums up the very best of Liverpool - preserving the history, building a future, and everything based around the people. 

And I didn't mention football or the Beatles once!
Entrance and atrium to the City Library
New developments on the Docks - the white box in the background is the Museum of Liverpool

No comments:

Post a Comment