The last time I was in Liverpool must have been soon after the Toxteth riots in 1981. The very name still conjures up the smell of burned-out cars that were still littering the streets. Since then the city has gone from strength to strength and I had difficulty in orientating myself around what were once streets lining the old docks. Instead of a place trying to come to terms with changes brought about by the new container method of moving goods, the waterfront has gone from a no-go slum, to an exciting place to explore and enjoy.
Stevedores no longer queue every morning in the hope of a day’s work, manually unloading the multitude of ships berthed in the docks that can still be reached from the Mersey. All of this activity has moved to modern dock facilities out towards Bootle. In the place of gangs of stevedores slaving deep within the holds of ships arriving from exotic parts of the world, giant cranes each operated by one single driver high above the ground, offload containers, sending them away on the backs of lorries towards their waiting markets.
The old docks and their abandoned warehouses have become tourist venues, or a centre for water sports. What was once foul and almost poisonous water is now safe for swimming competitions, or water skiing using a clever system of fixed drag ropes; we even saw a cormorant which can only mean that the water has fish in it. Backed by a semi-permanent fairground, the Albert Dock in the centre of the restored docks and warehouses, now houses the Tate Liverpool art gallery, Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum.
By publicising its links with slavery, Liverpool has bravely admitted to its part in this cruel system that brought wealth to a few, but bewildering and inhuman treatment of those considered inferior and only fit for use alongside beasts of burden. Not only were slaves uprooted from their African homes, but people from both sides of the Irish Sea travelled through Liverpool on their way to a hopefully, better life far away.
Ships still occasionally berth alongside the modernised waterfront, but these are more than often cruise liners calling on this international city with a rich cultural and maritime past, home of world-class shopping and dining – and all within walking distance of the waterfront. There are smaller ships tying up alongside the liners at Pier Head. These are the famous Mersey Ferries, immortalized by Gerry and the Pacemakers song, ‘Ferry ‘cross the Mersey’. This tune is played over and over again on the way across to Birkenhead and, it must be admitted, to be rather a bore. Each of the ferries is named after a spring flower. Iris and Daffodil are pre-fixed by Royal, an honour bestowed by the late King George V. Two Mersey ferries, the Iris and Daffodil as they were then known, took part in the attack on Zeebrugge harbour in World War 1. In honouring their heroism, the king decreed that both ferries and all those following them with the same name, would be called Royal. There is another, the Snowdrop, but as its forerunner was not involved in the attack, it is simply Snowdrop. However this lack of a royal accolade is made up by its being painted in a psychedelic colour scheme.
The Beatles & The Liver Birds
A slightly larger than life-sized statue of the ‘fab four’, the Beatles, Liverpool’s favourite sons, stands opposite the Liver Building designed for the Royal Liver Assurance Group, by Walter Aubrey Thomas and opened in 1911. The twin clock towers of the Grade 1 listed building are topped by the famous Liver Birds, symbols of Liverpool and surrounded by local mythology. One of the many stories about the birds is that the one facing the river is a female waiting for her lover to return; the other is a male who is looking inland to see if the pubs are open. Local belief also says that if the birds disappeared then Liverpool would cease to exist.
There is a line in the Beatle’s song ‘In my Liverpool home’, that goes ‘If you want a cathedral, we’ve got one to spare’. The two cathedrals, Anglican and Catholic sit at either ends of Hope Street. The two are in complete contrast; the Anglican dedicated to Christ in Liverpool is Gothic and took 74 years to build before it opened in 1978.
Standing at the opposite end of Hope Street, the Catholic Christ the King Cathedral is of more modern design. It was originally proposed to be built in 1853 to a design by Sir Edwyn Lutyens, the architect who created New Delhi. Unfortunately the time span clashed with the rapid growth of Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine in Ireland. As a result, the money was wisely spent on educating immigrant children. Several attempts to start building were made over the intervening years, each to a different design, but it took until 1967 before Sir Frederick Gibbard’s plans created the modernistic ‘Crown of Thorns’ on top of high ground above the city. In typical Liverpudlian humour, the tower has been called ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’, and ‘the Pope’s Launching Pad’.
The senior clerics of both Liverpool cathedrals, Archbishop Derek Warlock and cricketer Bishop David Shephard who was capped for England between 1950 and 1963, worked closely together in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots in 1981 and the tragedies at the Heysel Stadium in 1985 and Hillsborough in 1985. Half way along Hope Street there is a statue to the two honouring their co-operation and friendship. Even here there is an example of Liverpudlian humour – if you look carefully at Bishop David Sheppard’s feet you will see a cricket ball, something the sculptor couldn’t resist adding.
Humour is an everyday part of the Liverpudlian character, just think how many comedians have come from there – from Arthur Askey to Ken Dodd, that son of Knotty Ash (yes it is a real place). We were heading for Lime Street and the St George’s Quarter where the power and prosperity of Victorian Liverpool is openly boasted by the heavy stone line of public buildings containing a busy with visiting groups of individuals and families art gallery, museum and city library. Just then a bicycle came past, nothing odd about that until we saw the large Union Jack amongst other things such as a box fastened behind the rider’s seat. Again nothing odd, but sat in it as large as life was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier wearing sun glasses and a baseball cap. Now Stafford Bull Terriers have something of a bad reputation, but this one was left unfastened with his tongue lolling, still sitting in his box as quiet as can be while his master went to change a library book. I noticed that there was nothing to keep the dog in his place, he just sat there as patient as can be, not bothering when a little girl came to stroke him. It just goes to show that often what are classed as dangerous dogs, are only that way because they are not trained properly; it certainly proved what was on one of the notices pinned to the bike frame, calling for ‘Justice for Staffordshires’.
There is another art gallery and Museum, out along Brownlow Hill behind the Catholic Cathedral. It is on the road out towards Liverpool’s countryside at Croxteth Hall and Country Park, then on to Knowsley Safari Park, all within a few miles of the city centre and the waterfront. Both Everton and Liverpool FC’s grounds are to the north of the inner city, but further out is Aintree Racecourse, home of the Grand National. A huge area of sand at low tide beyond Bootle is the home of Anthony Gormley’s famous ‘Another Place’, cast-iron statues based on Gormley’s own body.
Scouse, or Lob Scouse as it is correctly known’ is still offered on pub menus around and about. It first became popular amongst dockers as a convenient lunchtime meal. The stew is not unlike Irish Stew and it was brought over by Norwegian sailors; the local name is the Anglicised version of the Norwegian Lap Scaus. No one knows when the first Liverpudlian was called Scouse, or Scoucer, but the name seems to have stuck.
And finally a scouse joke:
Why do Liverpudlians talk as though they have a chesty cold?
Answer: Because of the draught blowing out of the Mersey Tunnel!