Archive for February, 2008

new brighton

This was the most sociable part of the journey so far. Professor Rhiannon Evans accompanied me on the long trek around the Wirral coast, and we met up with Jennie at the end. A great day of walking, through some once-thriving resorts. Occasional steel frames sketching out the spaces of new buildings – I can never take buildings seriously these days, knowing that they’re just cladding on a metal skeleton – they just seem like provisional spaces, needing strong brands and service-level pacts to hold them in place.

New Brighton may not strike fear into the hearts of the Brighton, Sussex tourism industry, but it has a charm of its own and I envied the cooked breakfasts in the cafe where we had frothy coffee. We skirted round miles of coast; promenades, country parks, golf courses. Watched a fox cross a railway track; saw a bandstand with composers’ names around its rim: ‘Wagner | Sullivan’ made a nice juxtaposition. Our eventual destination, Parkgate, was (according to Rhiannon) a significant port and a bathing resort frequented by Lady Hamilton and Handel, amongst others – silt put an end to that, though there is a surreal appeal to seeing a grass-filled harbour, like the aftermath of a quiet apocalypse.

On the way, I added another souvenir to my small collection (alongside a piece of melted wheelie bin): a playing card that was lying somewhere on the miles of promenade: a Three of Hearts. Translated into the archetypal mnemonics of the Tarot this would be the Three of Cups – according to the Golden Dawn (the Ordnance Survey of the occult world) this signifies ‘Correct judgement; full measure of all good things upon proper understanding of the situation at hand; a verdict of law that offers benefit, pleasure and prosperity; the understanding of death gives one access to the pleasures of life.’ I expect the Council leave them lying around to convey this message.

Finished in the Red Lion, had a pint of Brains, perhaps the most suitable beverage to drink with Welsh hills in sight as the sun went down over the saltmarsh.

Driving back, past refineries and warehousing, noticed that the Seacombe ferry terminal is signed as a spaceport – maybe next time the itinerary will include a side-trip to Andromeda…


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Itinerant puppeteer and social commentator Walter Wilkinson visited Liverpool in the mid-Thirties. In the brief account of the visit (in Puppets through Lancashire, 1936) he and his partner Winifred remark on the Merseyside penchant for building on a massive scale: “The Mersey Tunnel is the largest sub-aqueous work of its kind in the world. The Landing Stage is the largest floating structure in the world. The spot cotton market, whatever that is, the largest in the world. The great arch of the cathedral is the amongst the largest Gothic arches ever constructed. St. Georges Hall is one of the greatest edifices in the world, and the clock on the Royal Liver Friendly Society’s building is the largest in England.” Were they to return (contributing a welcome vegetarian Socialist Punch and Judy element to the year of culture) they would find the tradition continuing: Liverpool One, for instance, will be “the biggest and most imaginative retail and leisure development in Europe.”


Travelling towards the ferry on a cold, clear February morning, I too was struck by the bigness. Once commodities like tobacco and tea, and abstractions like finance and religion were housed in buildings of scale and decorative splendour to rival the world’s Hermitages, Red Forts, Alhambras; these now now mirrored in newer stupendous structures; the glass towers of retail, leisure, and ‘urban living’. I walked through nearly-deserted, first-reel-of-last-person-alive-movie streets where traffic lights signalled to no traffic. Above me on the stone buildings, mythical creatures, heraldic beasts, infinite Celtic knotwork. At eye level, newer symbols: internet access, disabled access, CCTV, smiley customer care emoticons. And here and there, randomly altered signs like fragments of a concrete sermon: COVE_T GARDENS, _OWNING, a row of giant &&&

I was early and I wanted coffee. There was a place open, run by a London expat, who wished me well on my Wirral walk. This was nice, but his coffee was two thirds foam (that’s London for you, all promise…), so I headed to Starbucks to consolidate my caffeine. Their current slogan: GEOGRAPHY IS A FLAVOUR. This struck me as a rather stark bit of corporate/consumer honesty, a bit like saying FOREIGN PLACES TASTE NICE, or LET’S HAVE A GIGANTIC APPARATUS OF INTERNATIONAL TRADE OPERATING TO DELIVER A MILD FRISSON OF PLEASURE TO ONE OF OUR SENSES. (The sort of thing a modern Marquis De Sade with ADHD might demand.) Still, say what you like about global megacorps, their portion control is excellent, so I had a brimming beaker of spicy caffeine milk to eke out the remaining minutes until the ferry departure.

The ticket office had people in it, but oddly they couldn’t open their own doors, so I was waved towards the boat. No-one asked for tickets or money, so even though I won’t have walked every step of the way at least I won’t have paid fares.


Finally I was leaving Liverpool. Seeing it framed and diminishing I made a last attempt to form some thoughts about it. It’s hard not to write some kind of ‘city of contrasts’ cliche. Perhaps the title of Samuel Delany’s unfinished novel,
The splendour and misery of bodies, of cities, will serve for now. Like any city, lots of stuff happens there; it’s a place for great cascades of stuff to happen. Surprising, warm friendly encounters like the ferryman talking about how great walking the Wirral would be; pointless actions like the comedy approximation of a flying scissor kick aimed to just miss the face of a man outside the comic shop; giant clock faces and an empty file blowing past.



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I meant to stroll, drift and dream the city around me. In fact I rushed, like a droplet in a torrent, following any green man crossing chance, snatching blurry pictures in the evening light.


Liverpool’s outdoor spaces didn’t feel like places to linger, more like places to move. I first came here nearly 20 years ago, for the opening of the Tate. I was in a rush then, but not so much that I didn’t get an impression – of a city on a large scale, a European city. I’ve been rushing through it ever since, always finding myself outside some giant ‘Building’ …


I did stand still long enough to grab a picture of St Georges Hall. Back in 1885, a meeting of philanthropists founded Edge Hill Training College, the precursor of the institution where I now work. (Earlier that day I took a picture of the newest part of the Campus, so in a way I’d staked out the two extremes of Edge Hill history.) The original college, aiming to educate ‘a better class of schoolmistress’, is now a university, expanding and evolving, traceable to that moment in 1885, now with eight years of my own history bound into it. The campus buildings, described by Toby Litt as having a little bit of the atmosphere of J. G. Ballard, coexist with grounds that were landscaped as a horticultural experiment in the 1930s. Steel and glass curves and grids overlook rock gardens, old roses and played-out orchards; the trees show the height reached by each species in a three-score-and-ten span. The destruction wrought by the creation of the new buildings opens up fresh vistas on long-neglected spaces; different eras mingle and cross-fertilise – as long as people walk around, look and breathe – the kind of thing I was trying to do in Liverpool.


I suppose one drive to keep moving whilst walking through cities such as Liverpool is an urge not to get embroiled in conversation with strangers – people on slower time, wanting things. On this trip I could have spoken to a Gouranga person, a shabbily-dressed man approaching me with a question, a Big Issue salesman. I did speak to a guy in a wheelchair, wanting to swap a stack of two-pences for silver to use in a phone box (to report a broken collarbone), and a kid in a hoody wanting directions – so I’m not completely misanthropic. However I doubt this journey will be full of encounters with amusing tramps, interviews with village elders or discussions with local historians. (I wrote the ‘Why?‘ page today, coming to the conclusion that this is an exercise in self-portraiture.)

The practical details of the walk: I ran an errand to News from Nowhere bookshop (delivering a poster for a series of public lectures on the ethics of torture, which was received with unfeasible delight); bought a Wonder Woman comic in Forbidden Planet; looked at Lent books in the window of the Pauline bookshop (a much loved place with customer-care empowered nuns); cut through an alley to Renshaw Street (where schoolgirls were pouring drink into an innocent-looking container); skirted St Geoges Hall; had a beer in Doctor Duncans…


…zig-zagged though Tithebarn and Water Streets, had another beer in the Lion (a pint of Banks’s, from Wolverhampton, a future destination: earlier that day they finished a barrel of ‘Sussex Gold’ from Arundel; had I arrived earlier, I could have sketched out the whole journey in beer form); peered up at Exchange Station/Mercury Court (huge and white, like a cliff); reached the docks and located the ferry office for future reference.

The plan to spot Liver Birds was totally abandoned, but the most famous ones were hard to miss (on the Royal Liver Building.) Again the sense of everything gigantic. Like Edge Hill, older and newer coexist and are interwoven. Buildings witness to times dominated by trade (then), leisure and lifestyle (now); they stand there, just sort of existing, massively, with the Mersey flowing past.

So that was it – Liverpool passed through, a logical start for another wander established.

I finished up near Central Station in the Globe. The last time I was in here was also a Thursday, when it was so empty that I sat in the corner texting (desperate for human company after all it seems.) This time it was a riot, a kaleidoscope of people, drinking, singing – even dancing. The barmaid was serving drinks like a stoker fueling a desperately speeding engine. Once again, ‘I Walk the Line’ came on the pub tannoy at the end of the walk – Johnny Cash becoming the journey’s patron saint.

I’ll hold back on the urban paramythology. Except to say: there could be the starting point for a new Tarot deck in the places I went: Mercury, the Doctor, the Exchange, Nowhere, Forbidden, the Globe, Lion, Ferry, Station – accompanied with minor suits of Beer Glasses, Regeneration Builders’ Hoardings, Two-pence Pieces and Purple Bins Behind Restaurants.

All pictures from this leg

Distance travelled: about a mile

February 7th 2008

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Paul Morley describes Liverpool as ‘…An island set in a sea of dreams and nightmares that’s forever taking shape in the imagination, more a mysterious place jutting out into time between the practical, stabilising pull of history and the sweeping, shuffling force of myth’ (in Living, Mersey Minis Volume Two). My journey needs to include a mile or so between Central Station and the Pier Head, so that I’m ready to make an early start for the Wirral on some future Saturday. Perhaps this will be a chance to know the ‘mysterious place’ a little better. It’s hard to plan a way through the streets that might do justice to the multiple-world metropolis alluded to by writers like Morley and Russell, dreamed by Jung as ‘the Pool of Life’. I feel as if soaring through the streets on Pegasus, or spending a faerie-time century following tunnels and culverts beneath the streets to read the secret inscriptions of the City’s builders, would still be a somewhat superficial approach.

So I turn to maps – and find them both essential and inadequate. I have plenty – A-Z maps, Ordnance Survey maps, an 1841 map (reminding me that the view from my rear window is of a hill called ‘Devil’s Wall’), tourist maps, University maps, maps enumerating special items of interest such as pubs with nice beer, ghosts and stories. I could take a rucksack filled with maps if I wished, and no doubt buy several more on the way. However ‘The Map is Not the Territory’, as Count Alfred Korzybski pointed out – even the experiment in cartographic exactitude recounted by Borges was only a partial success:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

(I cannot resist pointing out that the laminated versions available today are great at resisting ‘the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters’.) Linear and sensible as they are, I doubt that maps, or for that matter histories or guidebooks, will ever serve me up Liverpool as a rational package. In some ways, it might be best just to walk and trust, crafting my own fugitive map as I go (and probably arriving back home having missed the Docks altogether.)

Having said that, I’m tempted to use David Cottrell’s ‘The Little Book of Liver Birds‘ as an aide to some provisional routeplanning, and a necessary prompt to do something other than hike from A to B; a prompt to look up and pay attention. The book comprises photographs and descriptions of 100 Liver Birds, which exist in many forms spread across the city, ‘a gazetteer of secret sentinels’. Maybe invoking the ‘authentic Liverpudlian chimera, a Scouse griffin borne from unbridled imagination …a creature of protean forms and composite pieces’ as my guide will enable me to find some kind of meaningful way through this ‘Pool of life’. Worth taking, not a rucksack filled with complete maps, but one partial one, as much mythography as geography.

After all, as poet Jean Sprackland indicates (in a poem titled after Korzybski’s phrase, in her great collection Tilt), maps are precious as well as unreliable:

The pirates would swarm aboard
slashing throats and seizing the maps.
Without maps, all the black pepper, all the slaves,
might as well be thrown into the sea.

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