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.