Jonathan Greenbank’s ‘Collection of Things’ for the Wondrous Place mail art project (top). This card was sent from Liverpool to Degna Stone in Newcastle, and she created ‘You Can’t Post Yourself Home’ (below), written in response to Jonathan’s art.
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Jonathan Greenbank’s collection of things for the Wondrous Place mail art project. This card was sent from Liverpool to Degna Stone in Newcastle.
There is a larger version of the image here
When you truly, truly love a book – when you’ve read it cover to cover and back again, and until the spine is starting to split – you begin to see the entire world through that narrative. You start to recognise crucial locations of that story in your own city.
I realised that The Lisbon Sisters from The Virgin Suicides are very much real in this city, and that people are still not taking their concerns or their troubles all that seriously, and that Russian classic Anna Karenina becomes a satire on W.A.G and tabloid culture when you relocate it to the haunts of the Scousewives.
Words and Drawings by Amy Roberts (with thanks to my girl Laura Outterside for being my books & booze buddy x)
Characters: The Lisbon Sisters
Book: The Virgin Suicides
Author: Jeffery Eugenides
Original setting: Grosse Point, Michigan
“Everyone dated the demise of our neighbourhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls…”
Cecilia was the first to go. At 13, she first attempted death with razors across the wrists. But, unsuccessful, she later jumped from the top window of the family house where she successfully and fatally impaled herself on the front fence (exhibit #2: fence piece).
Following the suicide of their youngest sister, the remaining four sisters – who were fourteen (Lux), fifteen (Bonnie), sixteen (Mary) and seventeen (Therese) – became disconnected from their peers and their schooling, whilst their home life became a staple of consistent local gossip in the area where they were to live out their short lives (Calderstones Road, and onwards to Allerton, Toxteth and Aigburth).
The four girls began wearing a uniform of black and started hanging out outside of The Law Courts and on Chevasse Park where they swigged the vodka and cheap wine that Therese bought for all of them from the offy. Mary once dyed her hair green in the toilets of Grand Central.
They spent as many nights as possible in the notorious city centre ‘alternative’ nightclub The Krazy House where a slew of teenage boys and men old enough to know better pursued and worshiped the sisters. There are love notes from this period (exhibit #4) in which men have written their numbers on the back of Smirnoff Ice bottle labels followed by meet up points and times (exhibit #4.6: “The Swan, tomorrow, 7:30. I’ll be sat in the corner listening to Sabbath”).
This was an activity that was reciprocated and encouraged whole heartedly by Lux, who at one point didn’t return home for an entire weekend but was eventually driven back by police who found her passed out and deeply inebriated in a stair well of a nightclub on Duke Street. Rumour has it that a drag queen called Lola who used to work the door at Society found her there and had called an ambulance because she ‘thought she was dead’ (exhibit #9).
Mr and Mrs Lisbon became increasingly reclusive following this event, and in an attempt to protect their remaining daughters from the rest of the World locked the house (and the internet connection) down into maximum security isolation and pulled the girls from school.
And then it didn’t take long for it to happen. Pills. Noose. Carbon monoxide. Oven. From four they had become zero – the living to the dead.
After the free reign of the suicides, Mr and Mrs Lisbon gave away everything they owned and sold the house to a young couple from Kensington. Allegedly they moved into an undisclosed location on the Wirral where they could ‘be alone, for all time’. The school across the road from the old Lisbon home put in a memorial flower bed (exhibit #12: photograph) in respect to the tragedy. There’s a rumour going round that teenagers have started having unprotected sex on the memorial piece because ‘there’s no way of knocking a bird up there since nothing survives on Lisbon land’.
Character: Anna Karenina
Book: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Original setting: Moscow / St Petersberg
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content”.
Anna became the center of national and local scandal after leaving her husband – a well known and respected politician – for an equally wealthy, but notoriously skirt chasing younger model in the shape of (likely premiership footballer) Vronksy. She immediately moved to Liverpool to be with him, and was overheard in hair salon Herberts harping on with grandiose statements about love filling her soul and the sacrifices for happiness. Keen to cash in on what seemed to be a predictable set up for derision, the rabid tabloids pounced on Anna as the new scurrilous It Girl du jour – eager to document and also instigate her messy demise.
Despite having it all – a massive house in Woolton, a never ending disposable income, free unlimited supplies of botox and a possible new reality TV show in the works – Anna still desperately missed the stability and social contacts of her old life. Sure, she had love but what of its reality? Despite her social position, and despite her money, the world still looked on her as being trash, and of ill, despicable and questionable morals. Proper women shouldn’t act in such a way, said Daily Mail and Express editorials for many months to come.
As a result of such pressures and public ruination, her partying spiraled out of control and further isolated her from the life she once knew and the life she craved to sustain with Vronsky. She lived it up with cocktails at Mosquito, champagne by the bucket in Circo, and a private booth in the Newz Bar. She attended Ladies Day at Chester races – spending the morning prior enjoying a champagne breakfast at the London Carriage Works with women of similarly wealthy but ill repute – before watching her partner’s horse fall at the first hurdle and eventually get put down.
Anna was caught between light and shade – a position where she could have everything, but also nothing. Her ex husband played his position – and that of Anna - up in the tabloids. She can always come back he kept saying but only if she stops the lies and deceit. Anything is better than lies and deceit! These were posted amongst shots of Anna – wild eyed and alone, platform heels in hand – wandering listlessly along the docks.
She even appeared as herself in several episodes of the soap Hollyoaks, leaving with the immortal line – once famously uttered by her once husband - Love those who hate you. She was not critically celebrated for her performance.
And then rumours began to circulate of Vronsky’s various infidelities. He was hardly ever home, and Anna began suspecting him of failing in love or lust with every younger version of herself that she came across. I feel a fool – as though I’ve given up everything for nothing! she glumly told her brother between mouthfuls of Key Lime Pie and a Cafe Cubano in Alma De Cuba one wretched lunchtime.
It was during this time that she began having recurring dreams about falling beneath the wheels of a locomotive. She would throw herself down onto the tracks into crimson and darkness. In her bag she always kept a small stash of cocaine neatly wrapped up inside a small vintage tobacco tin with a steam train on the lid and when she held the tin up to her ear like a shell she could hear the steam rising from the engine.
Much in the same way that there’s die hard Christian believers who take a moment in everyday life to think ‘What would Jesus do?’ (WWJD), I in turn occasionally find myself wandering around Liverpool thinking to myself ‘What the hell would Holden Caulfield make of all this?’, because I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in J D Salinger.
When you truly, truly love a book – when you’ve read it cover to cover and back again, and until the spine is starting to split – you begin to see the entire world through that narrative. You start to recognise crucial locations of that story in your own city. A dive bar in New York is suddenly right there on the corner of Duke Street, or you suddenly drive down a bland and orderly suburban street in Allerton where you decide that the ghost of a 13 year old girl in a wedding dress surely roams.
I began to think about this more and more and before long Liverpool was beset with tragedies, rebellions, murder and glamour. It became a stage, as well as an audience – stories and characters that I’ve loved for years were suddenly right there in front of me, off the page and onto the streets. Today I relocate Holden Caulfield to Liverpool to imagine the city through his eyes. Tomorrow I relocate the Lisbon Sisters from ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and Anna Karenina to Liverpool.
I discovered that barely anything changes for Holden Caulfield – he is ever present in many pubs and bars every day of the week muttering ‘phonies’ under his breath at hipsters and show offs.
Words and Drawings by Amy Roberts (with thanks to my girl Laura Outterside for being my books & booze buddy x)
Character: Holden Caulfield
Book: The Catcher In The Rye
Author: J D Salinger
Original Setting: New York City
The truth was that everywhere I went in this goddamn city, I could see those same escort agency posters dotted about the place. They were everywhere. Some woman in a Santa hat and little else holding a gift between her open legs. I felt like a fool. And then I felt real sleazy. And then I just felt depressed. But at least I didn’t actually do anything with the girl and you know, I don’t have a black eye or anything today, so that’s something.
Anyway, I headed to this greasy spoon called Kimos for a late breakfast. It’s a good place to go for when you just want to be alone. I swear, I could pour a bowl of beans over myself in this place and nobody would bat a goddamn eyelid. In fact they’d probably bring me a new plate of beans and a towel to clean myself up with. I ordered the Foule Mudammas – because I was thinking myself a little more cultured and exciting than I actually am – but when it turned up I probably only ate a fifth of the thing. If you really wanna know I spent the whole time watching a guy opposite me eat a full English. I regretted that all day.
I tried phoning Sally again, but I guess she’s busy or just doesn’t feel like talking. Technology really gives me the blues. It doesn’t connect anyone with anybody. It just makes me feel more alone than if I didn’t have it, truth be known. I was at a loss as to what to do with myself then. I was kinda planning on taking Sally out for a meal in Leaf or to catch a film in FACT or something, but I ended up going the Pilgrim and drinking a few double rum and cokes on my own in one of those booths they have in there.
I sat picking the mosaics off the table top (the one I was at spelled out the name LIPA) whilst a group of student types in rugby shirts talked about girls they’d screwed recently. I swear, I recognised half the girls they were talking about and know for a fact they wouldn’t be caught dead taking their knickers off to a bunch of bozos like that.
I was kinda drunk by that point and making a sorta scene, I guess – the way people do when they drink on their own. It just makes everyone uncomfortable. The barmaid started ID’ing me which I took as my cue to leave. I wandered just round the corner into a club called Bumper and they didn’t give me no grief about getting in or anything, which I took to meaning that they aren’t too picky about the sort of cliental they let in.
My god, you should have seen the mess everyone was in. I got myself a drink which cost me about three times the price of the ones in The Pilgrim and made me feel only about half as good, and went and stood downstairs away from the humping dancers on the dance floor. There was a girl crying in the corner. She had some vomit on the front of her dress and I felt real bad for her. A boy who looked younger than I did and was wearing some kind of an 80’s shell suit jacket with a t-shirt that had the logo of some obscure metal band on it or something went over to her and tried his luck. Man, I can’t stand phonies like that.
I started talking to my brother Allie whilst I was stood there. The music got louder, so loud that I could feel the bass in my stomach, and I started worrying about whether the ducks in the local park by mine were alright. I finished my drink and decided to head back to Crosby to check. Hang out with my sister, Phoebe. Maybe everything would be fine.
Tomorrow: The Lisbon Sisters from ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and Anna Karenina relocated to Liverpool.
His mind felt like it was cracking open, his eyes were puffy and red, and his skin itchy and sticky. He lay cocooned in his cheap, battered leather jacket and a t-shirt stuck to him by three days worth of sweat.
He held his head in his hands, keeping his burning, swollen eyes closed for as long as possible, only looking up occasionally to see the couple of Arab ladies opposite chatting through all his suffering.
The sound of the many washing machines turning was reassuring, though barely enough to drown out the brooding thoughts that threatened to career into his mind.
The laundrette had a stifling atmosphere. Strip lights on even in the day, walls plastered with brightly-coloured flyers advertising long past events and every surface covered with a thin, sickly-static residue of detergent.
He felt like he was breathing it in, the powder going deep, searing away at his already cigarette-abused lungs, slowly suffocating him as he sat beneath the grim yellow fluorescence. He put his head back in his hands again for a long time. Squeezing his eyes hard to try and take control of the throbbing, trying to take control of the feeling in his body.
When he looked up again the two ladies had gone and he found himself looking straight out through the large front window of the shop that looked across the junction of Upper Parliament Street, Catharine Street and Princes Avenue.
Cars, vans, buses, bikes and people all moved rapidly in all directions through the crossroads, all speeding along their own paths through the city. He felt a little better now, and continued to stare out at the never-ending flow through the window that was scarred around the edges with the dust and grease of a million washes.
He stared unblinking until his eyes started to stream and the Escorts and Polos and Hyundais and Transits began to blur. Blue and chrome became brown and plastic; the back of one car began to connect with the front of another.
As he watched, the pedestrians began to walk slower, their every action becoming long and fluid. Every single movement of every body could be seen in minute detail, dragged out and fractured. Eventually, their whole forms began to fragment and disintegrate.
The cars became viscous, their components stretching and flexing before losing their forms and turning into fluid shapes. These too began to flux and bend, breaking into pieces and floating off in many directions.
He saw a bird rise out of the now cracking tarmac on Princes Avenue, a Phoenix that struggled hard to free itself from the fragmenting road surface, eventually, violently, pushing its body outwards and turning the remaining tarmac to dust. It stretched out its brilliant red and gold wings as it rose away.
As he looked back to the road, he saw it had turned into a foaming torrent of a river, roaring forwards without pause down where the avenue had been. In it floated the last few forms of vehicles that quickly sank.
The Georgian terraces that lined the road began to crumble, their facades falling in on themselves to reveal thick jungle, soaring golden temples and, in the distance, jagged, snow-tipped mountain ranges.
The remaining people on the streets turned there, in the bright sunshine, into lions and stags and dragons and mermaids.
And, as the last vestiges of Liverpool 8 erupted, he saw the drive-in NatWest consumed by a waterfall and, far across the plains, the Renshaws factory was shunted aside by an emerging volcano.
Here were a million colours and forms rising before his eyes. Animals grazed on the rich plains and leaped through the surging waters now deep blue, then viscous green, now crystal clear.
It all became too much and, his eyes aflame, he closed them, squeezing them tighter than ever, but still he saw the colours on the inside of his closed lids, burning into his mind.
He concentrated all of his thoughts, all of his energy, on containing what he had seen: the sounds of the volcano; the continually rumbling drums from far away; the vivid, liquid brown of the stag’s eye; the flock of small, bright birds emerging from the dense, damp undergrowth.
All surged inside his head for what seemed like an age. When he eventually peeled open his dry, sticky eyelids again, he was confronted with only the dirty window of the launderette and a shrunken old woman gently snoring on the bench opposite.
Through the window, a Hackney Carriage honked and careered down Princes Road; but behind it, in the corner of his vision, he could see a Phoenix still rising.
Daybreak on Anarchy Row
brings out the best
grand and shit
by thousands of bombs
by people who
they had the answer
form into groups
in bus stops
burning through the day
smiling with power
Kings of their own world
to come into yours
Say those with powerful places
to place words
Wringing their hands
over lost communities
they never knew
have better things to do
than read them
Beats blare out
from bohemian neighbours
who keep doors locked
from the ones
Short on innocence
Down the road, the economy grows
Shiny flats and restaurants boom
Clean, honest, our bright future
Expensive lattes and
A world away
Coming for you
try to intervene
just carries on
however much they try
will not conform
is not required
Supplying as it does
All the needs
of those respectable folks
with respectable jobs
All of it
If you have mean eyes
You can earn big money
If you do as you’re told
A tinted BMW
and a skinny blonde
If you do as you’re told
absorb the lies
You can’t shift cocaine from
by being a fool
As the light dims on Anarchy Row
people hit their stride
Taking the profits
Glass and steel bars
is all that matters
two bottles of Crystal
Not long before
Back on the darkening roads
from the times of
marches and strikes
few pubs left
But no one is listening
from a different world
while the kids
‘Watch lad, we’ve got guns round here’
but they also have bullshit
To justify the attacks on
those not locally born
shitting on their own
if they fail to conform
Fear is not permitted
Failing to question
until it’s too late
Blood on hands
A fate sealed
Just another bad example
that no one takes heed
Back out soon
moves up the food chain
till someone bigger
has their next meal
This is the law
that’s governed people
since the start
I’m the fucking hardest
so I’m in charge
The rest of you come and try
As a system
it’s not pretty
but it works
falls into line
Every second building
a community centre
of some kind
Both sometimes winning
But for every one
who gets out
This is Anarchy Row
than you can possibly imagine
The room was long and high, but dark and thick with silence. A lack of sound so heavy as to stupefy anyone caught inside it.
She lived at the top of the house, the bit where the mid-sized Victorian mansion spiralled off into intricacies of points and towers and chimneys.
Flats since the 1960s, these attic rooms had once housed the servants. Country boys and country girls packed off to attend the merchants of the city. Now it was home to just her, alone.
On the windowledge, a once bright flower, now a mass of fraying brown matter, slowly decayed in a thick, glazed pot that retained a brightness even through its dust coating. Behind it, she sat at her desk staring out of the long sash window that let through the filtered cold light of the day.
She had held her pen poised over the pad for so long that her hand ached. As she struggled to write down her story once more, it all seemed gone, lost in the depths of her memory.
Her spirit, though bright, had not escaped the passage of time, her body even more so. She had lived a high life of intense emotions, passions, dreams and excitement. In her time, she had seen and done all; partied for days, travelled far and alone, attended protests, attacked the system. She had been there at the beginning of things, seen great arts at their inception and history in the making.
In the end though, it was all too much. New young idealists began to fill the space. Idealists as yet unlined by the stress of it all, as yet un-jaded by the pain caused by all of these beautiful people. She chose to pull away from all the excitement. Retreat. Retreat.
Decadence burns you up faster, till there seems to be nothing left but a longing for peace. Now that she had peace though, she lived in replays of past glories: sights, faces, feelings, places.
Since then, she had tried many times to recapture her experiences, but there was no way of recording it all. Too much had occurred. To be there was to be there and not to have been there meant that it didn’t matter. For the joy was all in the moment itself, now long past.
Some of the best times though, still remained in her head. Small spots of brightness that cut through the thick fug of greyness and confusion that now filled so much of her mind. Things that had once seared through her were now just a vague tingle, a snatch of a memory drying her throat and dilating her pupils a little on recollection.
Yet, even though so much was gone, she felt some satisfaction that this state had been brought upon her by seeing, doing too much. Even if it was all lost, there was still the contentment of that, a cooling sensation in her body that collapsed the tension and gave her comfort.
She remained poised, fading into those dreams, her desire to recapture them for others, fading also, always flawed because they would never see through her eyes. All that mattered now was the memory and that was all that remained as the trinkets and the people and the places faded away, such as beautiful things always do.
As she retreated further, she lowered the pen slowly down onto the desk and carried on looking out of the dusty sash window, long after the view had turned to absolute black.
Blood flowed freely from both his nose and mouth. He was forced to sniff and swallow constantly to keep it from streaming down his face. The wet metal taste sickened him and he felt pain deep in his limbs with every movement.
He forced a cough when the blood in his mouth started to drip down his throat, a cough that scattered a field of red specs across the pavement. He accepted that this was just what happened, and tonight he had been unlucky, but a raw anger still seared through his stomach, his throat, his eyes. A pure anger the likes of which he’d never felt before. He coughed another mouthful on the pavement.
The rage he felt wasn’t so much for his attackers. No, rather his employers who had demanded once more that he stay behind to help them catch up with work that hadn’t been done. So he had ended up going home in the dark, and they had ended up getting him. And he wondered again if there was any point in trying.
As muscles and bones across his body complained, he gritted his teeth hard and felt enamel jarring on enamel. He would be dammed if he was going to let them get inside his head. They could beat him up, but he would come back stronger, as always.
The four of them had gripped him down by the Baltic Fleet as he walked home from the function in the arena the agency had sent him down to steward. He had stayed behind reluctantly, knowing that if he’d argued, he would have been blacklisted by the agency again. Now though, he knew however late he had worked today, if he turned in tomorrow, black eye and all, they’d accuse him of having been fighting and send him home, “Can’t have your sort upsetting the guests now can we?”
They’d been waiting down a side road off Jamaica Street that he’d had the misfortune to take a shortcut down. There were four of them in big Honda. It was past eight o’clock, but it wasn’t even that dark. He’d seen them eyeing him up as he walked past. Lips pursed, watching everything and giving nothing away.
He’d picked up the pace right away, hoping they had bigger fish to fry. But they decided he was something for them to do while they waited for whatever business that had brought them to that part of town to materialise.
His mistake was to put up a fight. They probably would’ve just taken his money and left if he’d stayed down. But he wasn’t going to go down without a having a go at least. Never. Even though he knew it was stupid, he had always stood up to what he saw as badness even after being knocked down so many times. So he took the beating, lay for a while to recover and consider his situation, and then moved on as best he could. Like he always did
He pushed on up past Cains and the new arts centre where he’d been working on a function the other day, passed the wrecked looking maisonettes that still contained a few families and the big, faded posters proclaiming brand new developments. “What a mad fucking world,” he said aloud through the blood and bile that filled his throat.
His faith in the rightness of things that had once been so strong was now decaying, but with every blow his faith in himself grew stronger. And he knew that it was only by being stronger and fighting harder that he would be able to push past all that had been loaded upon him. His only fear was that this desire to escape would corrupt him, but he took solace in all those others who had made it.
He pulled at his uniform; a nylon polo top now speckled with sweat and blood, and coughed another mouthful onto the pavement. A passer-by glanced briefly at his shambling but determined figure, before quickly averting their eyes and crossing the street.
Sucking the blood back into his nose once more, he hammered intently down the long expanse of Upper Parliament Street. Cars streamed past him, but as this point he had neither care nor thought to if they saw his split lip, swollen eye, bloodied top, and he raised his head and walked faster.
As he readied himself to cross over towards his street, he noticed something odd in the corner of his eye. Something incongruous had appeared in the familiar landscape of his regular walk home. He slowed his steps and the stopped to examine the new addition. All pain was forgotten briefly as he stood and stared at the object.
It stood on a battered and pock-marked field of grass where rows of terraces had once stood. It was a collection of white, flat metal strips. The strips weaved in and out of each other to form a slightly flattened square with criss-crosses at all angles. All-together, it resembled a kids’ climbing frame that had been assembled incorrectly.
He stood stock-still, save for blinking, and carried on staring intensely at the object. Behind him, cars still continued to scream past towards the Women’s’ Hospital and Renshaws.
As he stood, he raised his hand again to wipe more of the blood from his nose and to check on its congealing process. He looked absent-mindedly at the long, black and red smear on his hand and felt again the pain in his kicked shoulder as he lowered his arm.
He stepped over the small ledge of rubble that divided the field from the pavement, the only remaining marker from the houses that had once lined the street, and, with a confident stride and a slight limp, he headed across the grass towards the object.
He walked right up to the frame and lent in close, staring hard at its poles. He moved to one side, then another. Ran his hand along the smooth, coated-steel surface and look at the ridged bits on the edge where it had been folded by machine. He squatted down, lent on the frame and felt its coldness next to his cheek, then stood up again quickly, the blood rushing to his head giving him a touch of dizziness and clear white spots in front of his eyes.
As he regained full balance he looked at the object again. It still revealed nothing of its purpose, why it was here and what it was meant to be. What it had to do with anything in fact. This item, object, thing had arrived suddenly, without consent, and had been planted without asking. Not grown, bled, eeked out, but dropped from on high.
At the other end of the object he spotted a small, tilted plaque on a pole in the ground. He went over and read it: “Playground in a New Media Universe. Coated steel structure, 2008. Otto Lucas b. New York 1974. Commissioned for Liverpool’s Community Culture Programme.”
He read it again, then looked at the object, then read it again, then looked at the object. As he went to read the panel again, a drop of blood landed on it; a bright, bright red spot that expanded outwards a dozen tiny lines.
This made him smile, and he sucked the blood back up through his nostril once more, turned away and walked off purposefully towards a dead tree at the edge of the field.
Beneath it was a pile of rubbish left from the demolition of the terraces; broken brick, crisp wrappers and other assorted crap. A stubby, grey steel scaffolding pole that was amongst the detritus caught his eye. He lent forward slowly and gripped it with intent. The crusting stalagmites of blood in his nose heated and his heart pounded harder with every footstep as he headed back towards the object.
Once he reached the object again, he stopped and looked hard at it once more, willing it to reveal something, to give it a chance to redeem itself.
As he heard the cars streaming past behind him once again on Upper Parly, he smiled wide and manically, raised the scaffolding pole high above his head and brought it crashing down on ‘Playground in a New Media Universe’.
Liverpool is a city of extremes and contrasts. One of these is the division that runs through the city from North to South. It may be often overplayed or misunderstood, but nevertheless, it exists in the consciousness of the city.
The traditional view goes that North Liverpool is the authentic ‘Scouse’ part of the city. Based on the area that fans out from the (in)famous Scotland Road and a population descended in the main from Irish immigrants, it is known as a place of docks, pubs, ‘angels with dirty faces’ children, and all those other pre-war clichés that form part of the identity of the city.
South Liverpool meanwhile is known for generally being the more ethnically diverse party of the city, especially Toxteth and wider ‘Liverpool 8’. It is also known as the place of students. Liverpool University has had halls in the area since the 1930s while Liverpool Hope University, once a teacher training college, and the original Liverpool School of Art on Hope Street, now the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, are all in the vicinity. The South End’s relative proximity to the Everyman and Unity Theatres and Philharmonic Orchestra Hall also contributes to it being seen as the land of the ‘arty types’.
However, as with anything the reality is much broader. The southern part of the city stretches from the suburbs of Allerton, the river views of Cressington, the village atmosphere of Woolton and the docklands of Dingle and Garston to the housing estates of Halewood and Speke and their nearby modern industry, including car factories, pharmaceutical plants and the city’s airport, to the ‘Boho’ strip of Lark Lane and Toxteth, most notorious for its 1981 riot, but an area with a much longer and richer history. Toxteth was for hundreds of years a Royal hunting park, and its large amount of green space still attests to this. When the area was developed it became home to the city’s ‘Merchant Princes’, resident in its many grand Georgian and Victorian houses, and later became arguably one of the first multi-cultural areas of the UK due to the city’s sea connections, long before the mass immigration in Post War Britain.
For my week of curating ‘A Wondrous Place’, I’ve chosen take South Liverpool as my focus. I’ve lived in the South Central area for several years now in a few different places and hope the following posts will cast a little look at the vicinity. Its locations, contrasts and contradictions have inspired a fair bit of my writing over the years, both fiction and journalism. The following posts will all be fiction and just an attempt to capture something of the reality of the area, but something of its unreality as well. They are of course just a few perspectives inspired from a few years of walking around these areas, there are many more besides.
Having planned to do a fiction-led week of curation it was pleasing serendipity that last week’s curator, Sarah-Clare Conlon, asked me:
“Which Liverpool literary figure and library would you point us towards?”
Which also fits in very nicely with my plans to look at the South End.
The library I will point you towards is Toxteth Library, my local branch. A fine building, it sits just beneath the looming sandstone bulk of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, the largest cathedral in the UK and 6th largest in the world. The Cathedral is absolutely huge and well worth the few pounds it costs to go up in the lift and see the view from the tower. The library is also just up the hill from another local landmark, the Cains Brewery. One of the few Victorian breweries still in operation in the UK, its steam often gives a romantic hue to Liverpool’s rich Irish Sea skies and periodically makes the whole area smell of Weetabix.
The library itself was recently refurbished after a National Lottery grant. The Grade II listed building originally opened in 1902. It was a Carnegie library, one of several in Liverpool and hundreds around the world. These were paid for by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish American steel magnate who also paid for New York’s Carnegie Hall. He funded libraries all over the UK on the proviso that local authorities would run them. He must be turning in his grave with the recent cutbacks.
A mural hidden from view for more than 50 years was revealed during the refurbishment. The artwork, known as the Lunette, a neo-classical depiction of knowledge being handed down by the Gods of Culture, had darkened with age and become obscured. The 28ft long, 8ft high mural by W Alison Martin and Clinton Balmer was originally unveiled in 1903 after being exhibited in the city’s Walker Art Gallery.
During the restoration, other features of the library such as the original sash windows and radiators were revamped. New study areas, meeting rooms, a refreshment area and a new basement space for community activities and performances were also opened along with Wi-Fi Internet access being provided throughout.
Toxteth Library also features one of the largest collections of Chinese literature in the city, reflecting the library’s close proximity to Liverpool’s Chinatown, which is Europe’s oldest. The library is worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity and, with a thousand people using it every week, represents how local libraries can still be relevant to local communities even in a multimedia age.
Sadly, Liverpool 8’s other library, Edge Hill Library on Lodge Lane at the other end of Upper Parliament Street, was closed last year as part of UK government cuts. It was the last segment of a complex that once also included a swimming pool and a public ‘wash house’ that represented the best of civic facilities that was once provided for communities across the UK. Hopefully it will find a new community use and there are tentative plans for the Liverpool Carnival Company to take over the building.
This brings me to the local author I will write about. Liverpool in literary terms is perhaps best known for its playwrights and screenwriters (Bleasdale, Russell, McGovern, Cottrell-Boyce) and poets (McGough, Henri, Patten). However it also has a rich vein of novelists, ranging from horror masters such as Clive Barker and Ramsay Campbell to children’s author Bryan Jacques and Booker-prize nominee Beryl Bainbridge.
Another contemporary addition, Niall Griffiths, was born in 1966 on Wendell Street, a stones throw from Lodge Lane, Liverpool 8. Griffiths was born to a family part of Liverpool’s historic Welsh community. Later they moved to the Netherley Estate further out of the city before emigrating to Australia.
They returned after a few years to live in nearby Wirral. Griffiths then spent many years moving between Liverpool and Aberystwyth in Wales, between periods of study, work and partying at the height of rave culture. After abandoning his MA at Aberystwyth University, he wrote his first novel, Grits, which looked the lives of a group of young people in the Welsh town. Subsequently he wrote several more critically acclaimed and award-winning novels set in either Liverpool or Wales and often journeying between both. Intense, dark, unflinching and often at the same time funny, his books look at people on the margins of contemporary society whilst also going deeper to question often the very nature of existence.
Not to end on a sour note, given yesterday’s anti-establishment conclusion, I wanted to briefly mention in my conclusion a whole host of places I have missed out this week. Music was my first real love in Liverpool, it is how I have met all my friends, how I got into the art world and how I have found most of the places I have visited here. So I thought I should mention the tremendous number of gig venues in Liverpool, and more specifically the amazing ones. Top of the list, unsurprisingly to anyone who goes to gigs in Liverpool, is The Kazimier on Wolstenholme Square.The Kazimier came back full force a few years back, reinvigorated by a group of performers, producers, musicians and artists. The club nights and gigs put on here are all-encompassing, and range from Masked Balls, Black-tie NYE parties, and themed covers nights to Battles, Hot Snakes, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan’s solo-projects. I have had some of the best nights out in Liverpool here, dancing and singing even when the band has stopped, until we are politely asked to stop making everyone sing Gangsta’s Paradise acapella. The Kaz are neighbours to the previously mentioned WCS, which lies across the square and hosts some intimate, raucous music events. The exhibition and live music programmes have blended recently with a sound installation created and played live by locals Sun Drums, which has now been integrated into the Biennial exhibition. A little off the square, lies MelloMello, another example of the art/music crossover, this narrow, wood-floored space acts as a small gig venue for jazz nights througout the week and varied, externally-promoted, nights at least once a week: expect anything from female barbershop to hardcore noise and thrash. Mello has recently spruced itself up a bit, fitted a kitchen and a proper bar and now does some seriously good food.
Up Slater Street and past Dumbells gallery, you will eventually find yourself on Bold Street, long considered the bohemian and alternative street in Liverpool. This may not strictly be the case these days, but the further up you go, the more interesting things get. Forget Starbucks, Nero and Costa which fight amongst themselves outside Waterstones, walk towards the Bombed-Out Church on Berry Street and you will find somewhere a bit cheaper, a lot more interesting, and you might even get some life drawing, or live music with your Latte. Leaf Tea Shop does food throughout the day and into the evening, when the music begins. The gigs here are organised by some of the city’s big-hitting promoters, such as Harvest Sun and Evol, so expect names like Nat Baldwin, Two Gallants and Francois & the Atlas Mountains upstairs, and a free-to-attend open mic night happening once a week downstairs. Leaf’s neighbour, Bold Street Coffee sells and makes award-winning coffee, have ever-changing exhibitions from local producers (which have included screen-printed gig posters, to limited edition prints available to purchase) and host some of the best small gigs in the city, a recent one worth mentioning being the packed out visit from Americans Pine Hill Haints.
These are the places where I spend my time, in which I meet friends, colleagues and go to before, after, or to see gigs. These spaces, business and ventures are constantly changing, growing and trying their hand at everything. And that is because they are run by some of the most committed and inventive people I have ever met, even in this city. They are always packed with friendly faces, whether or not you know any of the clientele (which you probably will if you’ve been in Liverpool more than a month…) and always have something interesting happening.
And that little bit of Tourist Information pretty much wraps my week up. Other than to wax lyrical a bit about the spirit of my city, not necessarily culture-bound, and how Liverpool has affected me. Last week’s curator Michael Duckett, asked me: “How has your hometown affected how you see the world? What part of yourself can you put down to the influence of that place?” Well, I think that one of the important things about Liverpool is its size, because it is tiny. TINY. Everyone knows everybody else and you can’t move without seeing someone you recognise. Many see this as restrictive and would rather escape in the (relative) sprawl of Manchester or disappear completely into London, but I have only ever seen this as a good thing. Artists, writers, musicians and performers all know one another and this makes for some very interesting and unlikely collaborations, it also makes for a very supportive and nurturing environment in which to produce whatever it is you want to create. It is an incredibly friendly city because of this, and because of the natural Scouse demeanour, which is basically: Talk to Everyone. You stand still anywhere in Liverpool for long enough, someone will start talking to you, headphones withstanding. Visitors often find this odd and intimidating, thinking they’re about to be mugged, but you soon get used to it and realise it is just an anachronistic politeness and display of general concern for humanity which sadly seems to be maligned and marginalised more and more in modernity. So, if I could pick one brief answer to each question from Michael, I would say that Liverpool has made me see the world as a place which can be negotiated with care and pleasantness rather than stony-faced stoicism. And secondly, I put my sense of humour, and concern for others down to this place, and more specifically, down to my very Scouse family and friends. They are the most helpful, caring, and generous people who exist and there is a small part of me which truly believes they wouldn’t quite be the way they are if they hadn’t been dragged up with the River Mersey at their backs…
Continuing this regional interrogation, my question for Missy Tassles from Sheffield who is returning to the space next week, is this: Which bit of Sheffield could you not be without? Be it a place, a happening, or a particular area?
Many thanks to Chris Meads for asking me to participate in this project, to Michael for his question and to Missy in advance for her answer to mine. Also thanks to my bro4lyf, the terrifyingly prolific Sean Wars for letting me nick his gig posters and illustrations: he has been making noise both nightmarish and joyous, and drawing for years and only ever gets better. Go see, and buy(!), loads of stuff at his website! And lastly, the biggest thanks to everyone I have discussed in these pieces, either directly or implicitly. You will all know who you are, organisations or individuals, and I just wanted to say ‘Thanks’ because my city wouldn’t be the same without you, and if you weren’t here to make it what it is, then, well, I’d probably have to move to Canada….
Primary Image: Gig Poster by Sean Wars for Silent Front at MelloMello
Drop the Dumbells (Dumbells Gallery), Slater Street, L1
Wolstenholme Creative Space, Wolstenholme Square, L1
I’m not going to make anything up for this one, or write it in a narrative sort of way. Because I really don’t have to. The following gallery spaces, venues and studios hold enough real creative force and self-initiated power. So, I will simply tell you a little bit about three of the places I have seen build themselves up from nothing, or very little, to what I feel is what makes Liverpool special. Not to go all American after school special, but the people who are behind the creation and perpetuation of these spaces are hard-working to well over the point of obsession and are committed to making it work, even in the worst economic climate. In fact, because of that. All of the directors, artists, curators, installers, technicians, volunteers and mates with a brush/projector/PA who constantly pitch in to make these places work mean they are the most dynamic, inspirational and representative of the cultural heart of Liverpool.
The Royal Standard is an artist-led studio space and gallery a little bit out of the city centre. Home to various internationally-exhibiting, well-regarded and well-loved artists, this space is the example of how to do DIY. The exhibitions events that Royal Standard host and hold across the city are renowned for their creativity, community, and their interesting choice of booze (and receptacles). The Drawing Paper is produced from these studios (where both of the Liverpool Art Prize nominated creators Jon Barraclough and Mike Carney, are based) and next week the second Drawing Session will be held in the studios. These sessions see studio-holders, artists from across Liverpool, musicians and people just interested in what’s going on, walking around the space watching people create art all over the walls, the floor, the doors: anywhere they can rest a piece of paper or card. Meanwhile, local musicians and DJs soundtrack the day’s activities. In next week’s session, the two will combine through creative technologies so that the drawing can be soundtracked by drawing itself. For me, the Drawing Paper (now on its 6th issue) and the accompanying events illustrate (pun fully intended) the commitment of TRS to community, artist-led exhibitions and anybody artistically-minded getting involved in everything.
Drop the Dumbells started as a gig venue in an abandoned basement gym on the grounds of the old Flying Picket on Hardman Street, when it was called Don’t Drop the Dumbells (named for a sign mounted on the wall in the gym). These two small, damp rooms played host to some of the best local gigs I have ever been to, and saw the first show by promoters Behind the Wall of Sleep, a show which brought ATP favourite Alexander Tucker, the mighty Carlton Melton (USA) and local psych-heroes Mugstar together for an incredible, packed-out, projection filled show. During the year this space was controlled by local musicians, promoters and artists, we had lock-ins, art on the walls and ceiling, gigs starting at midnight and going on until people started to fall asleep on the beat up couch, birthday parties where everyone not too drunk to do so had a turn of DJ-ing, a fancy dress Halloween extravaganza, and basically an amazing time. So we were sad to see it go when the license went up. But now, for the time being, Dumbells has returned, in a slightly more sophisticated guise (i.e. there’s a door, a sign, and some paint on the walls) showing monthly solo exhibitions by local artists alongside one-off gigs and music-based events taking place in the exhibition itself.
Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) is probably my favourite space in Liverpool. I used to only come here for gigs or to meet friends painting or screen-printing upstairs on self-built beds in small studios. They were some of the most intimate, surprising and varying gigs I have ever been to, but that’s not the reason I am in love with WCS. It is for the gallery space, and for the amazing programme which is a result of the incredibly hard-working, keen-eyed Priya Shama, who runs the space and runs herself into the ground doing so. Priya along with a group of mates, artists and gallery technicians from across the city pull together each show to make the next one better than the last. They are an inspiration to anyone starting out as a practitioner, curator or creator, or anyone in the arts who can’t find a job. They couldn’t find the jobs they wanted, so they committed to Wolsty whilst doing the jobs they could get, if they could, and now they occasionally get paid enough to pay rent, and asked to exhibit in other galleries, such as with the ACE supported show Spectrum which ran this summer.
As a caveat, during the course of this project, and as recently as last week, the City Council have basically tried to oust two of the best self-initiated, artist led communities in Liverpool. One being the not-for-profit bar MelloMello on Slater Street, which plays host to gigs, exhibitions, parties, DJ nights and some incredible veggie & vegan food, the other being the artist-led studio space and gallery The Royal Standard, whose directors are dedicated volunteers and houses some of Liverpool’s best, most prolific and encouraging, internationally-exhibited artists such as Emily Speed, Kevin Hunt and Jon Barraclough. This sort of careless, unfounded bureaucratic behaviour may destroy the very places which were organically formed and have thrived as a result of, and in spite of, massive government cuts in funding to the arts, and the lack of paid opportunities available to artists, curators, and creators. Liverpool’s creative community have filled the gap which was left after 2008, when large, performative displays and grand exhibitions drew the tourists, but invested nothing real and tangible into the future of the city’s cultural landscape. Places like MelloMello and The Royal Standard have brought themselves up from nothing, found their own funding, found their own willing and loyal volunteers and made something out of nothing. Now they are going to be penalised for making it work. I have ultimate faith that both organisations will fight, adapt and come back even stronger given the tremendous support shown by the Liverpool people. But I just wish it didn’t have to be a constant, unending battle.
Primary image: Royal Standard based artists Mike Carney & Jon Barraclough: Drawing Paper creators.
FACT (Foundation of Art & Creative Technology), 88 Wood Street, L1 4DQ
FACT will be ten years old next year, and for those ten years it has been a hub for Liverpool’s creatives, film-lovers, techies and artists. Housing three businesses, this building is a cinema, cafe and art gallery: the latter of which occasionally overlooked by some Scousers who are blinded by the comfortable seating and the fact you can take a beer into the cinema screens. Totally unique in its offer and approach to the arts, FACT fills a gap in the city which no other organization touches on. Offering workshops, displays and training in creative technologies and some of the most innovative and cutting-edge, technically advanced exhibitions, FACT is a building, organization and community, which the city would be a much less interesting place without. Immersion and inclusivity seem to be FACT’s main objectives in selecting the artists they choose to work with, and this is why I have labeled this entry as ‘The Audience’. From impressively long-standing community collaborations to exhibition pieces which look to engage visitors in a physical and imaginative relocation within the gallery space, FACT constantly pushes the artistic fascination in, and of, audience engagement. The pieces I am writing about here are Pipilotti Rist’s solo show in 2008, and Kurt Hentschlager’s ‘Zee’ which was part of the AND festival in 2011. Rist’s piece was nationally popular in its playful exploration of the embodiment of art and what it means to be female and a creator. ‘Zee’ captivated FACT’s visitors in a way I had never before experienced in my time as a gallery invigilator. Both pieces, although existing in different spaces in FACT’s timeline, had a profound effect on everyone who visited, and everyone who worked on them; day in, day out.
Walking from Lime Street station after a journey I never wish to relive (on an impossibly cold, overly-lit train which stopped everywhere) I decide to get a coffee so make my way to Bold Street.
Stood outside, gripping the brown cardboard cup and leaning away from the wind, I light a pocket-squashed roll-up and look around me. Suddenly, across the square, the ten-foot tall, painfully contorted face of a woman who is made-up with cosmetics apparently created by Crayola is staring at me through her one visible eye. Her surreal visage is pressed onto the outside world like a child’s face up against a window; it has been dragged along, distorted, and warped. I walk over, looking up as I finish my cigarette and extinguish it in the muddy remnants in my cup.
I wander into the foyer of FACT, trying to recall the last time I came in and find myself staring into a darkened room with projections playing on the ceiling. I step inside and notice the islands of carpet which seem to have erupted from the floor, on which several people are lying, staring straight up. They are apparently consumed and lulled by the highly vivid, saturated film of a girl and her brother languishing in nature, playing in water. The invigilator walks over to me and talks to me about this aquatic, Freudian Eden; tells me about the artist and encourages me to lie down. I waver on the edges, not wanting to intrude upon the experience of those already in position. But I vow to come back when I have the wherewithal to lie still and be absorbed into this psychedelic outpouring. She directs me to the next room, suggesting I might enjoy a very different sort of immersive experience.
I enter the next gallery space, where a group of people has converged. After some basic information and signing of forms, we are briefed by an excitable guide – maybe a bit older than me with a cheeky grin and ridiculous hair – who instructs us to breathe slowly, and to hold onto a guide rope so we don’t fall. This is not what I expected, walking into a gallery. There is a smell. Smoke? I can taste the thin mist rather than smell it, can feel it reaching down into my lungs and stinging my throat. We stand facing a white door and our guide smiles as he pulls it open, encouraging us to step into the space, into the billowing clouds of fog which begin to unfurl from the, now unguarded, portal. My hand immediately clutches the rope and I can’t help but wish I had not wandered in alone. I begin to think about the circumstances that found me by myself, wandering around the icy streets of this city. Seeing the lights of this building and the excited group in the foyer and taking a look. And suddenly I become immediately and simultaneously aware of my surroundings and overwhelmed with what is happening: I freeze.
The other 8 or so people who entered the room alongside me have completely vanished, absorbed into the acerbic fog which, in turns, embraces and suffocates me. And then my eyes… The light has shifted. Everything has turned and my retinas are subjected to continually changing, moving, kaleidoscopic lights, which continue to dance across the inside of my eyelids when I shut my eyes against the burning smoke. I am so dizzy and disorientated that I am sure I am going to have to run out, or sit down, but then begin to panic about how exactly to do that. In my confusion, I have let go of the rope and have no idea where in the room I am, or what to do. I begin to panic. What if I collapse? Fall over? Am left in here? And then, suddenly, everything falls away.
I haven’t passed out. I am still standing. But the panic, the wave of nausea has completely ceased to grip me. Everything has changed from nightmare to an incredible, ecstatic delusion. Bernini pops into my head, the Pieta, countless club nights: dancing, covered in sweat in a plume of smoke, surrounded by flashing lights. I am overwhelmed by joy and think I can feel my synapses firing, my blood flowing and my spirit soaring. And then, it stops. I make my way round the room to the door and enter into a passageway, and stand completely dazed, trying to prepare myself for the outside world. When I do eventually step out, everything is saturated, bright, and loud and I am overawed. I walk out of FACT past the mesmerized, prone forms in the foyer who are completely enraptured by Rist’s flashing face and make my way down the side of the building. I notice the fog spilling out of a vent, into the cold air, where it hangs, suspended in the chill. As I pass through it, my own breath mixes with the fabricated fog and for a second I am engulfed in a varying mist. I pause, catch my breath and smile. Moving on, pulling my scarf over my face and pushing my hands into my pockets I watch people hurry up and down Bold Street and begin to make my way home, again, up the hill. After so much time away.
The Bluecoat, School Lane, L1 3BX
Completed in 1717, The Bluecoat was originally a charity school. Since then, the school outgrew the building and has moved to a more suburban location in Allerton and the building left behind has been a great many things, including (on more than one occasion) nearly destroyed. The building was totally renovated and reopened in 2008, Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year, which saw the city’s creative output booming on an international scale. The Bluecoat has always been associated with performance, the artistic and the avant-garde: from performative installations by Captain Beefheart and Yoko Ono to literature festivals and some of the bravest and varied exhibitions I have ever come across. I worked here for over two years, and very recently said goodbye to move home to FACT, which I’ll look at tomorrow. I will miss the Bluecoat deeply: the vibrancy, the constant changes and excitement. The amazing Queen Anne architecture and the fact that this is the oldest building in Liverpool is not what is staggering about this structure. It is the community which inhabits it and holds it close, who hold it as an emblem of Liverpool’s long-standing artistic heart. This building is very much of the people, it feels like a place where activism, dissonance and artistic democracy is truly possibly and this feeds into the exhibitions, the outreach programme and the truly amazing people who visit, work and create in this beautiful building.
The building as a body. This old, once crumbling, body. Filled with sensual experiences, history, memory and, in the basement, the faint smell of damp. People rushing in and around, filling, emptying: feeling. Bodies are essentially about feeling. About touch, smell, sight, sound; and the emotions that accompany each intertwining sensation. About the way an entity reacts and interacts with the external world, and the ways in which that exchange builds foundations of opinion, thought and action. This building is a body whose senses are constantly reeling, and who opens up these sensory experiences to all of those who step inside.
The Bluecoat, which is a maze of studios and spaces filled with the history of so much, contains many rooms which I love. But there is one which I have loved more than any other. More than the Printing Studios, which are vibrant, vital and ran by one of the most exceptionally talented people I have ever met. If you asked anyone, they would probably say that was my favourite space: where art is made and groups of people come together to create. But it isn’t. There is a small space, at the top of a tall flight of concrete stairs which sits, perched in the apex of the building, and this is the room which has been a constant joy to me. Gallery 4, for me, has had some of the best pieces of work ever exhibited at the Bluecoat. This may seem odd, as it is a bit out of the way, and it has to be said some people go to exhibitions at the Bluecoat and probably never go up into this space, but casting my mind back, there seems to be something about this room and pieces which illuminate the senses and allow visitors to directly engage with the work, and in doing so, the building itself.
It becomes a sort of Alice In Wonderland space, where anything is possible and you never know what you might find. From wooden structures which you lie upon to feel the vibrations of swimming hammerhead sharks, sonically portrayed, to mazes of ribbon filled with fetishistic, erotically menacing figures. I have often thought it is either a very clever move by the curators to place such pieces up here, or in fact the artists who create that sort of work know when they’re onto a good thing and clamour for the space other people would disregard.
Walking through Nicholas Hlobo’s ribbon room in the 2010 Biennial, in the pitch black, the day after an opening I had missed, searching for the switch to ignite the spotlights, is one of my lasting impressions of working as a Gallery Assistant in the Bluecoat. Silken tendrils rustling around me as I moved from one side of the rainbow-filled room to the other, flowing over my skin and entangling me until I sensed a clearing ahead of me. And the noise I emitted when I was confronted with a leather-clad, hand sewn figure clutching a smaller version of itself looming in the darkness. After the initial shock, and when I had the lights on, I wandered around the (still very dark) forest of haberdashery. Without ducking or attempting to move around the ribbons hanging from the ceiling to the floor, I walked across the room again, ribbon falling across my face, and distinctly recall the feeling of childlike, nostalgic, sensory glee which coursed through my body forcing me to break into a massive grin. And every time I encountered a visitor in this room during its’ three-month stay, I saw the exact same elation and was immediately asked to tell them about the work, and the artist. They wanted to know everything about the man who had created this silent, poignant explosion of colour and sensation. Again and again, I talked about Hlobo and his political motivations, his background in South Africa, his sexuality and the work he does to access the complex emotions and primitive forces of being human. And again and again, I realised how vital work like this is: work which directly engages with the visitor’s senses, in doing so, accessing memory or promoting fascination and allowing them the space to wonder and investigate. This engagement and space is essential to people walking into an art gallery and coming out wanting to find out everything possible about the creators, and how it is possible they have been so affected.
The Bluecoat is built on engagement, on community and Gallery 4 – for me – encompasses what I see as being so special about the building. It is a space in which people can completely lose themselves in the work, and spend as much time as they like doing so. The pieces most memorable for me in this space are those which have had political and academic resonance, which have been delivered through a direct appeal to visitors’ sensory experience and allowed them to have an experience: be it contemplative, soothing, nostalgic, or challenging. This space is a distilled version of the building itself: a space which is made for visitors. This may seem a redundant thing to say of a public arts building, but I feel that the Bluecoat really is for, and of, the people. Liverpool is filled with these sorts of spaces, and more than anywhere else I have visited, lived or stayed in the UK, I feel the democratisation of art and cultural experience is incredibly strong here. FACT and the Bluecoat are two of the larger organisations which encompass this ethos, and at the end of the week I will talk about out some of the smaller, more DIY and artist-led spaces which take this ethos to a whole new level.
I was born in Liverpool and, apart from about a year, have lived here ever since; be it in the centre of town or on the outskirts. I have studied and worked in the city centre for the past five years, mainly between two large arts organisations, and have recently found myself writing for various Liverpool-based cultural websites and zines. I am a proper Scouser (although with a very weak accent, unless I’m drunk) and, like all proper Scousers, I am obsessed with Liverpool and see it as one of the most unique places in the country. This individuality colours not only the art which is produced and shown here, but also the venues, events and gallery spaces which continually pop up across the city and into our lives.
What will follow may not be completely factual, nor will it be fiction, by any means. It is a mixture of the two, existing in the fantastical, contradictory landscape of my memory (and exhumed with the heavy hand of artistic license). Hopefully these half-truths and real experiences clouded in fiction and narrative will begin to illustrate the way I feel about the city I have grown up in, and which I have only-comparatively-recently begun to see, feel and form responses to, properly. Liverpool is a place which I love, hate, in which I am scared, elated, comfortable and filled with doubt. It is a city that engages with its populous in a manner which is constantly at odds with itself, which promotes juxtaposition and the paradoxical, but which never leaves them indifferent, uncaring or apathetic. I think this is why I am wont to switch from factual journalism to fiction at the drop of a hat. It’s the scouser in me: the tall-tale teller, the pub philosopher. Anyone who has ever been to The Roscoe Head or Peter Kavanagh’s knows what I mean.
The way I have attempted to negotiate my city for this project is by narratively revisiting those places which I feel closest to, those cultural hubs and holes in which I spend not only my working days, but also all of my free time. These are the places, the exhibitions, the events and most importantly, the people, which have left impressions in my memory, my writing and, as sentimental and schmaltzy as it my sound, ultimately my heart. I will either begin or end each day’s entry with a brief, very real, introduction to the place which that day is dedicated to, and in doing so, try and explain why I feel that the things I will write into each space reflect the true heart of not only that organization, or venue, but also the cultural landscape of Liverpool as I see it.
I am perpetually interested in the various forms of embodiment, and as such, my writing is continually aimed at pulling you into a room, a place, a moment; and explaining a non-verbal emotion, reaction or instinct as thoroughly as possible using the invariably constrictive medium of language. Most of what I write will be real, but I deal, as always, in the construction of a feeling and that’s what is most important to me during this week: to try and make you see, and experience, these aspects of Liverpool as I do. So whether that is best done by just telling you about them, or by telling tales remains to be seen…
Image: Copywright Sean Wars for TVS Magazine
The day came to an end. I’m a little disappointed that my tale didn’t end in the birds screaming to life, like those creatures in ‘Ghostbusters’, and wreaking havoc on the city below.
Or rather, quite relieved.
It was fun, and it made me re-evaluate one part of the city I now call home.
It certainly underlined the wonder of the birds and the city, due to the couples who live here and meet and hopefully fall in love, and I genuinely believe the intrinsic romance within essentially a perilous situation, should the birds ever be awakened, is part of what makes not just Liverpool but the north of England such a special place, due to the architecture, the folk tales that surround it, and most of all, the people.
Thanks Chris and everyone involved in this project, and to the internet, for introducing him to my streams of consciousness.
Thanks to all the other artists and writers who have made this such a success so far, may they continue to do so.
Last week’s excellent contributor Hayley Flynn, asked me:
Liverpool is a city born of the success of its port. What does the water mean to you?
Jung once described Liverpool as ‘the pool of life’ whilst George Harrison in 1980 apparently said, “Good place to wash your hair, Liverpool. Nice soft water.”
After nearly drowning in a lake aged three after a spaniel pushed me in, I never really liked water. However, Liverpool’s history as a port is indeed important and fascinating, and its legacy is felt not just in the buildings, statues and street names of the city centre but the towns and villages all the way up the coast and across the water.
It’s a strange feeling that has resonated with me in my other favourite places of the world, there are huge similarities with Naples, Barcelona and New York that must have something to do with the port’s goings on and the transience of the water coming and going. Even Lancaster, where I grew up, is on a river and has a maritime museum.
Through my story, I have touched on how the water is important to at least one of the Liver birds. The Mersey must have a certain quality, to have brought with it the special qualities the city and its people now share. Their talents, their spirit, their sense of humour – their romances.
To be described as the pool of life, water is clearly important to the city. Its importance to me and this project comes mainly from the wonderful view you get of the waterfront from across the Mersey, a trip I would encourage anyone visiting here to take, ferry or otherwise, but also my new home, and the statues of a naked artist seemingly about to drown himself that accompany it.
Meanwhile, like the river we move on, and my question for next week’s guest curator Pete Collins is:
Using the other cities’ Liver Buildings, Coles Corner and the Tyne Bridge as reference points, where are the most romantic places in Manchester?
And, talking of romance, thanks again at this point to my wonderful wife for her inspiration, support and understanding.
Thanks too to The Beatles and Billy Fury for providing the soundtrack to my late nights writing up this submission, and their help with the chapter titles. And, to the plethora of influences I mentioned in my introduction: Morrissey, Shelagh Delaney, Stu Sutcliffe, Kes, Newcastle Brown Ale, rundown seaside towns, Willy Russell, local foods, Wallace & Gromit, questionable comedians, David Hockney, as well as others I couldn’t fit in but who are just as important: Richard Hawley, mercy, the Midland Hotel, my Uncle John, the Pendle Witches, Ian Curtis, Morecambe Bay Shrimps, Badly Drawn Boy, Everton Football Club, cotton mills, Lancashire Tea, Rufford Old Hall, Whitby Fish, Tom Finney, Eddie Stobart trucks, strange accents, Elbow, George Formby, birds of prey, The Courteeners, Mark & Lard, Kendal Mint Cake… the list goes on.
Basically, that’s an appreciation of the whole of the north of England, especially those people and places that mean something to me and my past and my family. Thanks to my family then, and my ancestors, for those all important roots and the basis of my appreciation.
Plus, of course, thanks to the buildings, landscape, museums, myths, and people of Liverpool, my adopted home, every last one of you, whose uniqueness continues to evoke awe and wonder… especially all those encountered or referenced in this tale.
Where was I?
The Billy Fury fans were walking towards the Liver Buildings, yes. Talking of which, do you remember I also told you that the other (male) statue was looking over the city, watching on the women – the ‘other’ liver ‘birds’.
Many people will have already associated this whole week’s focus with a Carla Lane comedy series about a seemingly ever-changing couple of female housemates that was popular in the 60s and 70s and made a sort of comeback in the 90s. The only ones I know were the one who went on to be T-Bag, and then Nerys Hughes, the younger version of whom I had a minor crush on a few years ago, therefore I was thrilled when she sent me a message for my week on ‘A Wondrous Place’ (see above).
Few will know, however, of the all-girl band The Liverbirds, who hailed from the city and were unusually rock’n’roll and most popular in Germany in the mid Sixties. Their ‘best of’ album released a couple of years ago is a good alternative snapshot of the music of the time, well worth a listen.
Many people, though, will mostly have an idea of Liverpool girls in general, the clichéd, peculiar fashions and the care that some take in their appearance.
“I AM A LIVER BIRD!” once exclaimed Kim Cattrall, and famous other examples we see in the media don’t always cover themselves in glory, but there is a uniqueness that is maybe down to something in the water or the dominant male watching over them from above. Other films and TV programmes down the years have undoubtedly challenged or cemented people’s perceptions of Liverpool women. It was thirty years ago last week that ‘Boys From the Blackstuff’ was launched, and I would argue it celebrated its long-suffering women, instead questioning the role of the men of the city. Meanwhile, others such as ‘Bread’ (with matriarchal Ma Boswell) and movies ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ and ‘Shirley Valentine’, even ‘Blind Date’ and ‘Desperate Scousewives’ championed or even lampooned the role of the Liver ‘birds’ more recently.
However, perhaps the most famous ‘other’ bird is this statue by Tommy Steele of ‘Little White Bull’ fame (yes, really), old Eleanor Rigby:
Either way, whatever your view, on a personal level, a real life Liver bird enchanted me a few years ago, and this year we got married.
Lisa accompanied me on the visit to the town that I am documenting, and continues to support me through many a project, thankfully. At our wedding, our first dance was to Richard Hawley’s ‘Coles Corner’. The link with all of this is that said corner is apparently Sheffield’s meeting place for old and new lovers, and all of these thoughts I was having about the Liver buildings and its surroundings were suggesting to me that without ever realising it, I might just have unearthed the most romantic spot in our city.
I return to the notion that the birds are not allowed to look at each other – what a romantic idea, the two star-crossed lovers that couldn’t be together (‘Brief Encounter’, anyone?) in the grand tradition of film and literature – and how frustrating it must be for the birds, up there in the air, amidst such intimacy, knowing that each other is there but also resigning themselves to the fact that they know they can not be together.
I was thinking about the birds being the new romantic symbols of the city as we neared the buildings.
Before arriving, we popped in to the recently opened Museum of Liverpool, and immediately recognised the link with the romanticised versions of the past that lie within it. More than once described as a self-pity city, ravaged by the war and various negative events since, Liverpool and the birds have seen a lot, and their presence is there throughout the history of the city in this collection – indeed, there are several versions of them inside too, carvings, sculptures and statues, and a life size two dimensional cast. Standing next to it, in view of the real things, made them feel more real than ever.
It was time to cross Mann Island and get in their shadow.
Here was the time for their wings to flap, or more catastrophically, for them to fly away, should an honest man and virtuous woman pass by.
First, two teenage couples walked by, arm in arm.
I looked up.
An older couple passed by, and took photos.
A family crossed the road, and dropped something.
I was dejected.
We had a drink in the quietly tucked away Oyster Bar. In there, a drunken girl prodded uninterested men telling them she was single and looking for action, a leery middle aged oddball named Trevor licked his lips. Perhaps there was an air of romance around here, after all?
We escaped. Couples in the early stages of their love affairs picnicked in the gardens of St. Nicholas’s church, burial place of many a sailor. I was feeling more optimistic. Then, by the building where eyes get lasered, I found a family photo, strangely discarded:
…and a post-it note, asking simply:
Keeping hold of the moment, I immediately thought of two more of my favourite films, vignette-filled love letters to the cities of ‘Paris (Je t’aime)’ and ‘New York (… I Love You)’ and imagined all these intertwined narratives playing out around the buildings and the birds.
Stories that are played out every weekend, to the sounds of Billy and the Liverbirds and the Mersey, that will never be retold but might just be played out in the memory of the birds for the rest of time, whilst they themselves live in hope that they too might one day come to life and experience true love with each other.
Some people would probably be aghast at my description of Liverpool as an epicentre of romance: Courtney Love, for example, who said of the city in 1982 that ‘if it was a person I wouldn’t sleep with it’ and ok, so my experiment failed, and the liver birds didn’t respond to what passed by below them, and the city still exists.
There wasn’t so much of a shiver, let alone a flapping of those vast copper wings, on that day at least.
Who is to say though, that it didn’t happen when I’d gone? Or that it doesn’t happen every day, just when none of us are looking?
It is, after all, such a wondrous place.
So, I first did some reading around the birds and discovered some interesting facts about them.
I asked around some colleagues and family members about them first, to gauge what they knew, or had grown up believing, naively imagining that some Liverpudlian youngsters ‘believe’ in the liver birds just as others will in Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny.
It turns out that not many did. Some hadn’t even heard the story!
To widen the net even further, I e-mailed the local paper, the Liverpool ECHO (whose logo is a liver bird with a rolled-up paper in its mouth) to ask if any of the readers of their ‘Flashback’ nostalgia section every Saturday knew anything about this myth and where it came from.
You see, I have always been fascinated by the process of lonely hearts, or more specifically, those ‘once seen’ or ‘rush hour crush’ messages that people host in the hope of finding that person their path once or often crossed with, just in case it was meant to be. I really like how the Echo offers a lo-fi Friends & Families Reunited service too, called ‘Old Pals’, and thought this might help me trace someone who could shed more light on the story I was following.
Part of my message stated:
“…I really enjoy the ‘Flashback’ feature every week, particularly the ‘Old Pals’ section, and wondered if you had ever done a feature on this topic or wanted to? Or, at the very least, could I through the newspaper attempt to trace any couples who might have fallen in love by the Liver Building or the other two birds in the city, and discover their stories? Thanks so much for reading my e-mail and in advance of your reply. Look forward to hearing from you.”
I didn’t hear from her.
I then put the feelers out via social networking sites too, as everybody does whenever they need / want anything nowadays, also, to no avail.
There was nothing I could do except go back and visit myself.
It’s a strange thing when you live in a city like this and get used to what are essentially world famous buildings (still a UNESCO heritage site, regardless of recent and potential architectural erections nearby), almost taking it for granted. I am sure that many of the people who work nearby, and pass the birds every day, or even in the Liver building itself, have grown oblivious to their charms and mystique too.
However it was quite exciting embarking on a trip to just observe them and the people that passed by one Saturday afternoon in September.
Remember how I told you that the female bird was looking out to sea, keeping an eye on the men?
Those men include a statue of Billy Fury.
For those uninitiated amongst you, Billy (real name Ronald Wycherley) was a huge star in the late 50’s, a sort of Scouse Elvis, for whom The Beetles (later to be renamed) once unsuccessfully auditioned as a backing band.
Mine and Billy’s paths had crossed a few years back, when I embarked upon a series of covert trips to fortune tellers in Blackpool to record their messages and track what then happened to me. My research taught me that Billy apparently regularly visited a relative of one of ‘my’ psychics who told him he would die aged 42, which he did.
He was also a keen birdwatcher, and featured on the cover of the last single released by The Smiths.
Arguably Billy’s most famous song ‘Halfway to Paradise’ (he did of course also sing ‘Wondrous Place’…) became the theme of my MA show, and to this day, it remains my song of choice when we frequent a karaoke bar. It’s funny to see the older generation’s response to my poor attempts at replicating his fantastic voice and performances: generally it goes down well, and they share their stories about him.
Anyway there is a bronze statue there, overlooked by the female bird, of Billy in his famous stance. He is pointing back at her.
The day we visited the statue, someone who loved him had placed a peony in his hand and a bouquet at his feet (see image above), featuring a simple message:
FORGET HIM NEVER
My marveling at this sight was interrupted by a couple, still very much in love, of whom the wife was wearing a handmade t-shirt which simply said ‘BILLY FURY: A THOUSAND STARS’.
We got talking about ‘beautiful Bill’ – this could well have been the mysterious Shirl, or the peony donor, but I was too intrigued to ask.
As they left, she wanted her photo taken with ‘him’ before they wandered off towards the Liver buildings, hand in hand…
The liver birds are five and a half metres (eighteen feet) tall.
They are over a hundred years old.
They are made of copper and they were designed by Carl Bernard Bartels.
This much we know – however, we aren’t quite sure what they actually are.
The birds are either a cormorant, an eagle, or something else – a dove or a spoonbill perhaps, for the twitchers amongst us – maybe even a phoenix.
‘We have something no zoo has ever seen, no museums have ever secured, nor the world’s wealth can buy – the Liver Bird’ (Eric Hardy, 1934).
We can be sure that they have a sprig of broom in their mouths, or maybe it is laver (seaweed) and although no formal names have been suggested, they are unofficially called ‘our people’ and ‘our prosperity’ because ‘the liver is a mythical bird that once haunted the shoreline. The female is looking out to sea watching for seamen, while the male is making sure the women are behaving themselves and pubs are open…’
These myths, the wonder surrounding them, is what I wanted to focus on.
Despite their omnipresence and status across the city, the liver birds are not just the sole property of a certain football club. Indeed, they featured on medals and souvenirs produced by the city’s first team from 1878, also universities and the council.
Many I have spoke to have questioned their very nature and importance by seemingly not knowing their history, nor the tales that have been built up around them over the past century or so.
Peter Sissons once described them as ‘the most distinctive and recognisable civil emblems in the UK’ and Don McLean apparently said that ‘… those two Liver birds can sing, we just can’t hear them… but they are singing!’
However, the story that got me, the one which intrigued me the most, is the one that involves the remote possibility that they might fly away should they see each other / mate / fall in love. I had never heard this before, but it goes some way to explain why they are facing away from each other.
I’ll be writing about this romantic notion later in the week.
Another, more sinister suggestion, is that they are like protective parents (‘they will be there, no matter what is happening’) and if they should ever fly away, the city would fall in to the sea.
Perhaps this inspired ex FA chief Brian Barwick to decide that ‘Liverpool without the Liver birds is unthinkable, unimaginable…’ That is to say that, should they fly away, or if an honest man and a virgin woman pass / fall in love (delete where appropriate) before the two birds, then the city would cease to exist i.e. fall to the ground.
Just think about that for a second.
A whole city, rich in heritage and character and fully functioning, to be wiped out in an instant, think of Pompeii, of Hiroshima, of those desolate, post-apocalyptic cities we marvel at in disaster or zombie movies.
Think of Planet of the Apes, and the buried statue of liberty.
Now, replace it with the two empty domes that the birds currently perch on.
It will never happen, of course… The disconcertingly vague versions of the rumour here is probably part of the reason why nobody believes it, and the fact that nothing yet has suggested this be the case.
However, a watered down version of this tale is just that if either the man or woman mentioned walks by the Liver birds, they flap their wings, I am not sure why, presumably in excitement.
But some people do believe, they talk about it at least, especially those who sing a little known chorus from an extended version of a famous local anthem – ‘In my Liverpool Home’ – in local hostelries:
Our Liverpool ladies will hug and kiss men
But a virtuous lady you’ll find now and then
Our eighteen foot lyver birds perched up on high
They flap their great wings every time she goes by
In my Liverpool home…
Now, I am pretty honest.
Also, I have walked down the Strand quite a few times.
However, I don’t believe I have ever witnessed a flapping of wings up to now.
A huge part of me still wants to believe the story though, because it does create a sense of mystery, of wonder, about the place.
Therefore, I decided to investigate further whether or not any of this could be proved, and if there was evidence of the birds having magic and potentially disastrous powers…
I’m only a paper boy from the North West
But I can scrub up well in my Sunday best.
How could I ever do for you?
Because I’m true and I’m real, and this is how I feel…
It might seem strange to introduce my first post from Liverpool with a verse from a song by a band from Manchester (The Courteeners, if you didn’t know) however I think it sums me up nicely.
And not just because I was once a paper boy.
My work, and in particular my writing, has often been described as ‘confessional’, so this week I will try to tell you how I feel about a certain aspect of my adopted city.
The short version of my biog that I initially submitted for this space was ‘… an avid collector of stories, objects & ideas, I am fascinated by those secret narratives unwinding within our cities, noticed only by those involved and observant onlookers. Working across a variety of media, from pencil drawings to scrapbooks, film & installation, even lasering my eyes to become a superhero for my MA. All this can be found on my blog www.jonathangreenbank.com’ but in hindsight, I probably need to do myself more justice so here is a more elaborate version of a bit of my life story.
I grew up in Lancaster, most famous recently for the unfortunate girl with the stomach problems after drinking liquid nitrogen. Thankfully that never happened to me there. I spent a year in Blackpool doing an art foundation course, before coming to uni in Liverpool, mainly due to my love of one of its football teams.
And I have never left.
After uni I was declined by the Royal College and St. Martin’s, wrongly believing it was because of where I was from. You see, being northern has sometimes formed a chip on the shoulder, and at other times made me feel like a chip in the sugar. Whilst being proud of my roots, it also served as a barrier, especially in the creative circles I have occasionally frequented.
Over the years though, that has changed somewhat. Indeed, as I have become more aware of reasons to be cheerful about being from the north, and exposed to some classic cultural references through music, literature, art and the like: Morrissey, Shelagh Delaney, Stu Sutcliffe, Kes, Newcastle Brown Ale, rundown seaside towns, Willy Russell, local foods, Wallace & Gromit, questionable comedians, Billy Fury, David Hockney… all of these and others have directly or discreetly inspired and influenced not just my work but the way I live my life, as well as presumably many others.
Meanwhile, over this time there has felt a national warming towards ‘us’. Specific events, buildings, festivals, museums, songs, people, restaurants, media organisations, have all helped shift focus, and change attitudes, allowing us to celebrate not just the north / south divide but also exactly that which makes us unique.
Part of that was Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture, which was announced around the time my mates and I started our own less good version of Shoreditch T**t, which gained recognition from Antony Wilson (RIP) amongst others, and developed into a successful design agency that recently celebrated its tenth birthday.
I, on the other hand, went in a different direction and became a teacher.
Still making art work on the side for a famous band as well as the odd exhibition when I have had the time, I eventually made it on to a MA course, which resulted in a variety of projects involving fortune tellers, found passport photographs, and laser eye surgery, all of which was documented on my blog, which in turn led to a couple of other websites and writing projects. Recently I sent fake love letters to a stranger in Australia, painted a set of unfortunate animals for an alternative Noah’s Ark, and drew all 500 pages of ‘The Art Book’. ‘The Art Book’ was an exhibition at The Rag Factory in London in summer 2012. The image at the top of this post is taken from it and you can find out much more about it here.
The eye surgery was the scariest thing I had ever done (probably since overtaken by getting married, more of which later in the week) and I am still paying it off but also it was one of the best. It has helped me see things more clearly, especially as in the past couple of years I have moved out of the city centre where I had been ever since my arrival, twenty minutes up the coast by a lovely beach and a much more relaxed way of life.
The company that did my eyes are based in town, and the first thing I saw after leaving my initial check-up (when I could actually see, a few hours later the procedure) was the Liver Buildings.
It’s an image that will stay with me forever…
When Chris got in touch about my blog and invited me to take part in this exciting project, I immediately decided that my focus would be on that building, and specifically its topping: the emblem of our city, the Liver Birds.
“Time is the longest distance between two places” Tennessee Williams.
Separated by miles and a timescale that rendered them each a stranger to the other, they had responded aggressively and as though connected by an unseen force, in a manner that sought to lose time altogether.
Marina, waking up Thursday morning to the realisation that she may never rid her life and her home of the man she had wasted so many years trying to love, had escaped to a lost weekend of booze and forgetfulness – something she never did. Kenny, merely drifting through the monotony of the job he’d held for twenty odd years, had also decided from Thursday morning to escape into a shifting new reality. One that was drunk and continually absent from memory.
In this manner their lives were dreamlike and questionable, they barely existed, conversations and scenarios remembered doubtfully as though they may have been sleeping the whole time. And when they did sleep, it was only to awake once more and to continue merging the territory of sleep into their waking lives.
On Saturday at 2:45 pm, both Kenny and Marina found themselves stood across the bar from each other in Coopers, a pub that neither had ever visited, but upon hearing a majestically addled rendition of ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’ coming out the place, both were reminded of their youth and of a love that had escaped them, and were immediately drawn in.
At once, they were frozen – their eyes locked as though the retinas were waltzing with those of the person before them. For an instant Kenny actually believed that time had stopped, and grabbing the barmaid by the arm (who may or may not have been totally frozen), uttered, nervously, Mate, that woman there – she was my sweetheart when I was a lad. Look at her! Look at her face. Marina.
The barmaid wriggled her arm free from Kenny’s grasp and looked down the bar at Marina, who was squinting in their direction, and, smiling, whispered Why don’t you go talk to her then? ‘Stead of chatting on to me about her, like.
Narr, I can’t – I mean, it’s been years. What if it’s not her? Maybe she’s changed? Married? I can’t – look at the state of me, love. I’ve been on it since Thursday. Even me socks probably hum of ale…
The barmaid took another look at Marina, and sensing that she would also not approach Kenny, suggested Listen, did you two have a song when you were courtin’? Something you’d always listen to together?
Aye. We had a few, like.
Well, get up and sing it to her. Nothing good ever came out of just staring at someone from across a bar. Imagine what kind of a film ‘Casablanca’ would have been if Bogart and Bergman spent the whole time just bloody gawping at each other.
Alright, Kenny replied, adjusting his pants and brushing his t-shirt down, I’ll do it.
He walked up to the front of the room and put in his song request – David Bowie’s rendition of ‘Wild Is The Wind’, a song that Marina used to love, and that he tolerated for her sake. Personally, he always thought that Bowie was a bit too weird for his tastes. The things you do for love, he thought nervously, and downed his drink.
The song began and he mumbled his way through the first verse, but upon noticing Marina’s face light up, he picked up courage and started belting it out, Like the leaf clings to the tree, oh my darling cling to me! For we’re like creatures of the wind, and wild is the wind…wild is the wind. The rest of the drinkers in the pub became animated at his conviction, and began cheering him on – through his voice breaking at the high notes and through his inability to time the line where the music drops out and leaves the vocals open and vulnerable.
Marina approached the front of the pub before Kenny had even finished the song, and flipping through the songbook found her choice, and put in her request. She wasn’t ready to speak to him, yet. There was too much to say. There was nowhere to start.
Without even looking at him, she took the mic, and waited for the song to begin. Kenny went back to the bar and ordered another glass of Aussie White, perplexed as to the situation he found himself in.
The song started, piano dancing down into Marina’s vocal entry Nobody does it better, makes me feel sad for the rest, nobody does it half as good as you! Baby you’re the best… She felt embarrassed at the song choice. It was too earnest, too open, the lyrics took on new meaning appropriated to the way her life was right now and she felt as though everyone in the place could see straight into her like an x-ray. This was never a good song, she thought to herself, damningly. Sentimental crap, probably scared the poor bastard off for life now.
But it didn’t. They continued in this way, back and forth, communicating only through song. When Kenny sang ‘Yesterday’ to her, she sang ‘Jolene’ to him, when he responded with ‘If You Leave Me Now’ by Chicago (the crowd howling encouragingly as he proudly failed every high note he attempted), she replied with ‘Rhiannon’ by Fleetwood Mac, looking lost as to how they could continue from here as the song faded out into silence.
A thunderstorm had erupted outside, somewhere around the time that Marina was pleading I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man in the midst of ‘Jolene’. She stood now at the bar cradling her drink. Kenny – in complete silence – came up beside her, and took hold of her hand. They looked at the novelty clock in front of them, with the numbers printed in reverse and Marina prayed that something would change. That she could start over. Kenny tightened his grip around her hand and gestured his head towards the door.
They walked through the pub together, Kenny noticing once more that it was as though time had actually paused again, as though somebody was holding open an unseen curtain for them with which they could leave the stage totally unseen.
They came out into the street, noticing the rain and the dark clouds still spilling out across the city, but that the buildings were different. They had reformed into the Liverpool of the 70’s – of the old haunts and the old skyline. Kenny and Marina didn’t dare to question any of it. Of the rewinding and the erasure and of the lost weekend losing them both now, to each other.
Photography by Pete McConnell.
Well, folks, it’s been swell, but this is the end of my week here. To wrap things up, last week’s guest curator (the amazing Missy Tassles – seriously go check out her week in the archives, and have a look at her website too. It’s all kinds of wonderful!) asked me:
Where’s the best place in Liverpool to mooch about for secondhand and vintage tat with friends then and get a great big (veggie) fry up breakfast and mug of tea?
If you’re around Liverpool city center then I’d seriously recommend Curious Orange in Grand Central on Renshaw Street. It’s a fabulous and eclectic little store that sells a terrific mix of affordable second hand gear, amazing costume wear, and beautiful vintage pieces – it also always has some great music in there to try clothes on / get silly to. Following this I’d recommend going to Mello Mello on Slater Street – they do the best veggie and vegan food in the city (and a helluva fry up), as well as a fine selection of teas (and real strong coffee)!
Outside of the city center I’m a massive fan of Aigburth Road charity stores – in particular the Animal Rescue store, which is always ace for a good mooch and full of hidden treasures and absolute bargains, followed by a nice veggie fry up just down the road at the Green Days Cafe on Lark Lane.
Next week’s guest curator is Natalie Bradbury from Manchester, creator of the brilliant blog and fanzine The Shrieking Violet.
My question for Natalie is:
As an absolute book and zine nerd, I was wondering if you had any cool recommendations of zine / book stores in Manchester, and also which local zines I should be keeping my eyes peeled for?
Cheers in advance, Natalie!
I’d like to thank all the staff and customers of Coopers Townhouse – particularly to it’s owner, Maria – for being so welcoming, helpful and warm. As well as to Pete McConnell who joined me on several trips to the pub (and bought me one or two pints – thanks pal!) and was a total superstar photographer. I couldn’t have done this project without any of them. Also a big thanks to Chris Meads for inviting me to get involved in the first place and being super lovely, and also to Matt for being a total cheerleader / buying me sweets/ being generally boss. A final massive thank you goes out to everyone who’s been reading this weeks content – it’s a pleasure to have an audience, and much appreciated.
To be perfectly honest, I was a little scared of coming in here the first time, I ashamedly tell John, – a seasoned regular of Coopers, who casually sauntered his way over to our table for a bit of a brief, curious chat.
He scrunches his face up in disbelief and shakes his head at the idea, before taking a sip of his pint and exclaiming, proudly, Nah, it’s not like that here. Anyone’s welcome – you can come in and there’s no judgement. No-one cares how you’re dressed, or anythin’ like that.
There’s a brief quizzical look in his eyes as he stares at me following this statement that seems to quietly suggest that he’s assessing my appearance – the all black ensemble, the threadbare oversized band t-shirt, the tattoos, the bandana – with pride at the truth of his own words. That, no – I mightn’t look like the stereotypical punter for this kind of place, but little does it matter, girl. You’re welcome, whenever.
Which is lovely, considering that I once got laughed out of the toilets of a bar on Lark Lane for not wearing a frock, high heels and more layers of make up than Liz Taylor had husbands.
He continues, You know, like, you got all those trendy bars in this city don’t yer? And you walk in an’people look you up and down and make a judgement on yer. You always get those women – I like to say about them that if they were a cake they’d eat themselves, which is true, innit – those women who’ve spent most their wages on a dress and have spent an entire day getting ready, and they expect everyone else to live up to their standards. They look down their noses at yer. I hate that. There’s no need. See, like, the women in ‘ere? Dead easy to talk to. Proper sound.
As he says this, the owner of the pub Maria, cranes her head out from behind the bar and yells, Eh you! I’ve told you before, you’re bloody barred! at John, who remains calm as if he’s heard it all before, and gives her a polite gesture to piss off.
I mean it! She continues, completely deadpan so I start to sweat a little, Get out!
She retains a straight face for a while before completely crumbling into a cacophony of giggles, and disappearing back behind the bar.
See what I mean, girl? John grins, taking another swig of his drink before we start talking about the city centre and it’s surrounding areas – of the gentrification that has been going on for a while, and the impact this has had on small businesses, and the character of Liverpool as a whole.
That’s the problem now, he sighs, Places popping up that aren’t authentic. Those trendy bars, like – there’s nothing to them. No atmosphere, no character. But people don’t care about places like that the way that people do with places like this – everyone looks after everyone else in here. It’s a proper family, like.
He sighs, sadly, and finishes his drink before stating These sorts of pubs are dying, love, and it’s a real shame cos you won’t find many places like this in the city centre.
He has a quick stretch before standing up, Well, that’s me done for me now, love. Pleasure talking to yer! Might see yer around.
And off he pops. As he’s leaving a man has taken over singing duties at the front of the pub, and is finishing the first verse of the Irish singalong favourite ‘The Wild Rover’ whilst a small attentive and gleeful crowd cheers him on – not a judgement in sight.
…and I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer, and now I’m returning with gold in great store…
Photography by Pete McConnell.
The whole place stopped for a moment when she walked in, which is strange for this place – usually nobody takes too much notice or gives much of a damn of how anyone looks or anything like that.
We were sat opposite the bar, and I swear Jerry nearly dropped his drink – we were practically scooping his jaw off the floor the entire time.
She was this immense, statuesque, never-ending woman with legs that looked the same height as most people. Just skin and bone, she was wearing some kind of a vintage prom dress that hung off her frame, practically baring her tiny breasts. Her head, I should add, was completely bald. That’s what threw most people – you don’t often see that on a woman, like. Her skin was as pale and white as a seashell, so that it was practically translucent.
She stayed by the door for a while with this fussy but vacant expression, like a computer with a glitch, her bare legs locked into a pair of complex, strappy heels that resembled little black straight jackets for her feet.
No-one spoke. A man walked out of the toilet and re-entered the room, pausing with mild panic as to the whys of the atmosphere, yelling, What the flamin’ hell’s up with everybody? before getting shushed by Auld Roger in the corner who pointed him towards the woman at the door. He uttered in a small voice, Oh, right, before sitting back down.
The room began to come alive again as she started to move – an action that looked like somebody walking an animal that was far larger than they were, as though her limbs were totally separate from her body and they were taking her out for a walk. She took stumbling, shaky strides looking for all the world as though she’d just woken up in this body and this outfit, and had how no idea how it worked yet. Like she’d just popped into a body shop and said I’ll try that one please! and was now taking it out for a test drive.
She walked past everyone and the bar as if upon a wet catwalk, dragging herself along completely oblivious to us all gawping at her, but at the same time examining us in some way that couldn’t exactly be read by her expression.
She stopped when she reached the end of the room and turned back around, swinging her leg out like Basil Fawlty insulting Ze Germans, and walked back the way she came.
The barmaid, a little sick of the spectacle and suspicious as hell, called out You having a drink, love? to which the woman stopped at the bar and nodded, pulling a handful of change out of an unseen pocket (I still dread to think where she was stashing that) and getting a pint.
And then – swear to God – she picked up that pint, and in one quick gulp downed the entire thing, wiped her mouth and then started dragging herself back out of the pub again. The door banged behind her and we saw her enormous silhouette slope past the window outside.
The barmaid stared into the empty pint glass, and looked around at us all. Jerry shrugged his shoulders at her and got up to go the toilet.
Everyone got on with their conversations and as the music resumed you could hear people speculating about the woman. A lot of She looks like she’s been on it since last night, probably not even been home yet! and God love her, that girl looked like she needed a pan of scouse down her.
When Jerry got back he offered his own opinion of the situation – An alien, he told us with absolute certainty, before taking a swig of his pint and rolling himself a ciggie.
Seriously, he continued, I’ve done a lot of reading on this and seen a lot of documentaries and shows about it as well and that woman most definitely was an alien. Did you ever watch that Battlestar Gallactica? Wouldn’t surprise me if space aliens were making themselves look like humans now – you know, to infiltrate us.
The barmaid, overhearing the conversation, offered this pearl of wisdom which only seemed to encourage Jerry even more, You know what, love, it could have well been an alien, but she could have also just been rotten drunk. The fact that it’s hard to tell speaks volumes, doesn’t it?
I was sat there again today with Jerry. He was wearing an ‘I Want To Believe’ t-shirt which probably fit him fine back in the ‘90s but was looking a little tight on him now, and he had with him a small video camera with which he hoped to ‘Procure substaintial evidence as to the existence of extra terrestrial life’.
The barmaid told him that he’d stand a better chance of capturing that round Concert Square, before pouring us another round.
Photography by Pete McConnell
She shaved it all off, Baz – every single strand of hair.
Adam pulled his baseball cap up off his head and angled his scalp at Barry, who was nursing a pint and straining to keep a smirk off his face.
Ah, lad. That’s a shame, that. Real shame. How did she manage to get the whole head?
Dropped a sleeping pill in me drink, didn’t she? Crafty sod. Just woke up this mornin’ and -
Adam paused and quickly wiped what felt like a sudden rush of tears from out of the corner of his eyes, and in a flimsy voice, that broke at key emotional words, continued,
– Sorry, lad – allergies– and yeah, just woke up and there was her lady bic razors next to me face, and shaving foam everywhere, and me hair Barry, lad! Just everywhere under me head – she’d taken me quiff and pinned it up on the wall like a bloody trophy!
Ah, flippin’ell, eh? Don’t you hate it when that happens?
It’s not funny, Barry. You need to take me seriously on this – this is me livelihood we’re talking about here.
I know, Adam, lad. It’s alright. I’m here listening to yer, aren’t I? Just reckon you’re more upset about losing your hair than you are about losing your wife, like, s’all.
Realising that he was right, Adam took a large swig of his drink and replied Nah, like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m gutted about me hair an’that, but I’m devastated about our Lisa. Proper messed everything up, haven’t I? I can’t lose her, Barry. I can’t—
Barry nodded, he checked the time on his phone – it was 11.45 in the morning, everyone else was due in anytime soon. He looked up at the sign that read ‘Scouse Elvis – Wednesday lunchtimes’ with sneaky glee. Today was Wednesday.
You should just consider yourself lucky that it was only your hair that she lopped off, that’s all I’m saying, Barry continued, sniggering, I mean, she’s put up with a lot off you hasn’t she? I mean, first off you’re hardly rakin’ it in as an Elvis impersonator are yer? And then there’s all that stuff with that woman you were seen with after that show – -
Nothing happened, though, I swear! She was just a fan, like.
- -Ha! A fan!? Barry lad, you’re an impersonator, not the man himself, so stop pissing around, eh? And then you spend a massive chunk of your savings – which, let’s face it, Lisa earned didn’t she? She’s the one with three bloody jobs trying to make ends meet – and you’re wasting it on a bloody shiny jumpsuit? Who are yer? Elton bloody John?
That was an investment! Come on, don’t be tight Baz – I’m a professional! I was building up a strong fan base – regular paying clients. This is me dream we’re talking about! I was going somewhere!
Adam took his hat off again, and forlornly stroked his unadorned head. He looked up from his pint, just as four more of his mates burst into the pub unannounced.
There he is! The bloody King hast’fallen from his throne, fellas! Heheh – how’s yer scalp feelin’, mate? Chirped Danny, making a pint action with his hand at Tony ahead of him, who nodded and headed straight to the bar to get a round in.
Alright, Danny. What’re yis’all doin’ here? Adam asked, startled. He stared at Barry who was grinning knowingly from behind his near empty pint.
We’ve got a confession to make, lad, Barry chuckled, wiping tears away from his eyes, as though his laughs had built up to such an extent that they were now escaping through his eye sockets.
Yeah, sorry Adam, lad – you left us with no choice! Laughed Chris, who had just sat down next to him, and was giving his baldhead a friendly pat.
What?! What is it? Don’t tell me- -you wouldn’t! Adam stared in horror at his mates who were all vibrant with a collective humour.
We would! Danny continued, absolutely howling, We would and we bloody did! Consider this an intervention – Lisa got rid of your hair, and we’re doing the rest.
Yeah, you were turning into a right nobhead. We had to do something! Chris smirked.
We’ve got you a job, lad. Full time with Tony there, at the bar, just helping out on the site. You start on Monday, but today we drink and – -
At that moment Scouse Elvis entered from the back of the room, dressed in a navy fringed jumpsuit and winking as he went.
- -Ah, right on cue! What timing! See, this is how you do it, Adam, lad. Scouse Elvis. Watch and learn.
Tony returned with a tray full of pints and took a seat.
You can’t do this! You can’t just tell me what I can and can’t do! You rotten sods, you’ll ruin everyth- -
Eh! Listen – you’ve got two kids at home and a very, very patient but pissed off wife. It’s time to change, lad. So shut up, and drink your drink. This is happening – end of!
And at that, Barry turned himself away from the table and to face Scouse Elvis who had just fired up the song and grabbed the mic.
This one goes out to our mate Adam in the corner over there, cheer up lad! Could be worse!
Well, since my baybeeee left me! I found a new place to dwell! It’s down at the end of a lah-onely street called heart-break ho-tel…uh-huh…yerrr make me so lonely, baybeeee…
A couple of his mates had thrown their arms around Adam and were swaying away to the music, singing loudly along with the song, whilst he grimaced despairingly and thought to himself about Elvis. Nobody ever dared to intervene against that crazy bastard. Not one person. He looked around at his mates, he touched the lack of hair on his head, he watched Scouse Elvis pulling down his jumpsuit to expose a nipple, and he realised I am not The King. The King is dead.
Photography by Pete McConnell.
Everyone in Liverpool knows of Coopers Townhouse. Situated just outside of one of the main doorways next to Clayton Square, and opposite the entrance to Central Station, few could miss it. By all accounts it presents itself as an all day party – a pub that apparently doesn’t do downtime, or even quiet chats – Coopers is an original Liverpool character, one that is characterised most readily by it’s perpetual homemade soundtrack of loud, uproarious karaoke.
In my mind, the place is representative of so many wonderful idiosyncrasies that are so precise to the city and in my opinion, worth celebrating.
Becoming almost regularly mythologised amongst people who in all likelihood have never been in it, I was left with an abundance of curiosity about the pub that has resulted in this project. For the rest of the week I’ll be posting short stories inspired by Coopers and interviews with staff and punters alike.
All photography for this week’s project was done by the supremely talented Pete McConnell.
Hope you enjoy it,
“You lookin’ for me, love?” asks Maria Hodges – the owner of Coopers Townhouse – with a massive smile on her face.
I nod and introduce myself and tell her about the project I’m working on, and for some reason I’m full on expecting a response somewhere along the lines of ‘You want to write? About this place? About us?! GET OUTTAAA MAH PUBBB,’ which is most definitely the result of growing up watching too many soaps, and being regularly scared out of my own living room by the mere onscreen presence of Peggy Mitchell.
Thankfully Maria isn’t of the Peggy Mitchell ilk, and is more than happy to oblige myself and Pete (armed and ready with his camera) with having a good old snoop around the place, getting to know some of the regulars and grabbing a quick interview.
She speaks in a singsong Scouse accent that regularly devolves into the kind of infectious dirty cackle that would likely make a sailor blush.
“I think the thing is with this place is that it’s not plastic, you know? It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an alehouse, like”, Maria starts in explaining the mass appeal of the place, “I mean it’s a family run business – and we’ve had it for 23 years now – so we’ve got a lot of regulars. Everyone’s part of the family, like. We even put food on for the customers – no charge. We just all look out for each other”.
The place definitely has the feel of being sat in someone’s living room at a family party. There’s a great easy going, good time vibe to the place and you get the idea that nobody could ever be lonely in it.
I think back to some of the family parties I went to as a kid, and how at a particular time in the night (right around my bedtime) the booze would be flowing and everyone would be up singing. It’s a tradition that’s died out a little, or at the very least changed – becoming less of a communal everyone in the area is invited to just a select group of mates causing havoc in someone’s flat, and singing Destiny’s Child tunes at 4 in the morning until someone passes out or the police come knocking.
Coopers is very much of the old school, all inclusive singalong. If nothing else it’s probably most renowned by local shoppers for having karaoke blasting out at all hours of the day. I ask Maria about the karaoke and she replies,
“See, it’s actually not meant to be just karaoke,” she corrects me, laughing, “We have a bunch of really great singers who come in and perform for the audience, ‘cos we love to have live music on. But we also invite people up to sing, and if people do want to get up and do a song then we’re not going to stop them. That’s just the way it is. Obviously we get some awful singers, but that’s just part of the charm.”
As she says this someone starts singing ‘Dock Of The Bay’ at the front of the pub –
“See! That’s my daughter singing now! Hasn’t she got a helluva voice?”
And she does – an amazing voice, in fact – soft and evocative, she has the whole pub captivated. The crowd gets louder and more vibrant as the songs go on, cheering and clapping along to the music, totally at home.
Before I let her get back to the bar, Maria finishes by saying, simply, “Fact is, your life could be falling apart and you can come in here and you’re sure to find something that’ll make you smile.”
Which you get the feeing is no exaggeration, and a sentiment that Peggy Mitchell could’ve learnt from.