Cultural Outing to Liverpool
We’re ’Oop North’ for an all too brief visit. Recent heart related nonsense involving various invasive hospital procedures have necessitated numerous trips to my GP to try and make sense of the frequently contradictory conclusions being drawn by a plethora of hospital Consultants.
The GP I usually try to see is not the best advert for health. He’s a big chap, weighs about half as much again as me and after getting up to insert fresh paper into the printer on the other side of his desk was quite out of breath. This apparent disregard for his own well being may be one of the reasons I like him.
The main reason though is his bleak sense of humour. I told him I was hoping to drive 350 miles or so tomorrow and did he feel it was ‘safe’ to go. He indicated the numerous letters concerning recent tests of my heart function on the computer screen and said, ‘well, as the great minds of the medical profession appear convinced you could go any time I can’t see the relatively trivial matter of a trip to the north of England being a problem.’
That’s what I want from a doctor: a bit of light relief in the midst of recent stress.
We are staying on The Wirral, where we lived for many years, and it’s a real joy to be back where complete strangers chat away and find humour at every turn. We were in a supermarket, Morrison’s if you’re sufficiently anally retentive as to require absolute disclosure, where an elderly granny was supervising three young children.
‘Sit on that bench until I get back with the shopping and don’t move a muscle or I’ll batter you’ she ordered.
They all giggled but were still there twenty minutes later, not having ‘moved a muscle’ when we left the store. Nowt wrong with a bit of traditional discipline!
The next day we were all set for an expedition. The Albert Dock is home to the largest group of Grade I listed buildings in the country. It had fallen into dereliction before it was rescued in the 1980s and transformed into very smart and desirable waterfront apartments and numerous shops and restaurants.
We’ve visited many times over the years, but today’s visit was all about culture. We drove through the Mersey Tunnel from the Wirral and I remembered, just in time, to take the Docks exit.
The sun was shining and the Liver Birds looked as magnificent as ever perched atop the clock towers of the Royal Liver Building. These world famous copper-green symbols of the city each weigh around four tonnes and were designed to watch over the city of Liverpool, one guarding the population, the other the source of city’s ‘prosperity,’ the sea.
My Grandma, a ferociously fierce if tiny woman and as ‘Scouse’ as anyone I ever met once told me the ‘female’ bird looks out to sea, awaiting the safe return of the sailors, while the male bird faced inland waiting for the pubs to open!
So, there you have it, the real story behind the Liver Birds.
If my grandma had threatened to batter me, a battering would inevitably follow. I would never dare argue with my grandma – she once threatened to put my head through the mangle for talking during The Archers, the only threat that wasn’t carried out.
‘Put your hand on that door,’ she once told my four year old self, pointing at the metal door to the kitchen range. I did as I was told and received a burnt hand as a result, the coal fired kitchen range being alight at the time.
‘That’ll teach you,’ she said, ‘oven doors are hot when there’s a fire in the grate.’
I’m sure she meant well but that was just one of many painful lessons I learnt in that little house in Liverpool. Being instructed to place your fingers under a rocking chair when someone’s sitting in it, yes it’s not an act ever likely to be repeated.
Tough love my mum said. She was scared of the old lady too.
We were bound for The Tate. There are four Tate galleries in the UK. There are two in London: Tate Britain and the new Tate Modern; one in Liverpool; and one in St Ives, Cornwall.
We recently visited The Tate Gallery in St Ives, have been to both London galleries several times, but today is the turn of Liverpool, my particular favourite.
In the 1980s Alan Bowness, then director of Tate, decided to create a ‘Tate of the North’, as the project became known. This would be a gallery with a distinct identity, dedicated to showing modern art and encouraging a new, younger audience through an active education programme. A warehouse at the disused Albert Dock in Liverpool was chosen as the site for the new gallery.
The dock, once the hub of unloading cargos from Asia, mainly tea, silk, tobacco and spirits, was derelict. In 1981 the dockyard underwent a massive rejuvenation and as ‘locals’ at that time we followed the development with interest.
In 1985, James Stirling was commissioned to design the new Tate Gallery at Liverpool. His designs left the exterior of the brick and stone building built over a colonnade of sturdy Doric columns almost untouched, but transformed the interior into an arrangement of simple, elegant galleries suitable for the display of modern art. It opened to the public in May 1988.
2008 marked the year Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture. To celebrate this in 2007 the gallery hosted the Turner Prize, the first time the competition was held outside London. More than 600,000 visitors a year visit Tate Liverpool and today we were there to swell the numbers even more.
We were there for the first major exhibition in the UK of American artist Keith Haring. Haring came to prominence in 1980s New York with his immediately recognisable style, somewhat childlike in form but politically charged and motivated by a number of ‘causes.’. As an openly gay man, Haring’s work as an AIDS activist remains his most essential legacy but he also made significant contributions to nuclear disarmament campaigns.
Keith Haring’s career was brief, and on 16 February 1990 he died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 31. He frequently collaborated with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat but it was through his street art that I first became a fan.
Haring’s chalk drawings on the New York subway and his collaborations with the likes of Madonna, Grace Jones, Vivienne Westwood, and Malcolm McLaren, making sets and designs for videos and performances were early influences and this current exhibition didn’t disappoint.
We started, as we invariably do, on the 4th floor and worked our way down. By its very nature art appreciation is subjective and we found ‘pieces’ we would happily take home with us juxtaposed with objects or images we happily rushed past. My low point was an exhibit set against a backdrop of flashing fluorescent lights and a thumping hip hop sound track.
A couple we chatted to one floor down said that piece had been their favourite. Subjective appreciation or were they operating on a higher cultural level?
Surely not the latter.
Does art appreciation become ossified in the same manner as our musical taste remains ever so slightly rooted in the past? Asking for a friend…
On one of the lower floors Marigold was admiring a picture – Orthodox Boys by Bernard Pellin- and said to the man standing nearby, assuming it was me, ‘I really like this.’
Art galleries. Always a risky setting to engage a total stranger in what they perceive to be a conversation and this was no exception.
I kept my distance as Marigold’s new acquaintance unleashed a passionate dithyramb on the merits of Orthodox Boys. Art and wine appreciation are surely the ultimate refuge of those sententious and pompous individuals who crave a captive audience in order to propound their perceived wisdom.
Marigold is afflicted with the double whammy of a butterfly mind, unable to concentrate on any subject for any length of time and chronic politeness. I watched her eyes glaze over even as her nodding head and adopted expression of rapt attention assured her ‘instructor’ of her total engagement.
I am not unkind. I interceded on Marigold‘s behalf after not much more than ten minutes!
‘Sorry to interrupt, but you really must come and see Venus of the Rags’ I said, taking Marigold by the arm and steering her to safety.
‘Ah, a fine example of arte povera,’ Liverpool’s resident art bore shouted after us. ‘Yes,’ I called back, ‘so typical of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work.’
I’d only just read the information card alongside Venus of the Rags; naturally this made me an expert on the subject. Obviously so as we were allowed to depart without further delay.
The Gallery is housed in a former warehouse and I had noticed the grimy nature of the windows as we walked around. Finding a reliable window cleaner is tricky these days. I took a couple of photographs of the distant Liver Buildings and a passing ferry crossing the Mersey and, given the surroundings, decided only an arty farty black and white photo would be appropriate.
A vast expanse of floor space is devoted to Jim Lambie’s Zobop 1999, a psychedelic melange of brightly coloured stripes producing weird images that change with ever step. Marigold refused to even look at it, never mind actually set foot on it.
The power of art to repel is obviously as well founded as its capacity to attract attention.
Liverpool, according to the museum curator, a lovely man we spoke to at some length in the Tate Café, has more public sculptures than any other UK location, outside of Westminster.
Thus reminded we diverted to find a few of our favourites, The Beatles at the Pier Head, Billy Fury just up the road and Eleanor Rigby in Stanley Street.
Billy Fury, back when he was plain old Ronald Wycherley, worked as a docker alongside one of my uncles and I met ‘Ron’ several times. When he was ‘discovered’ and a new stage name chosen I saw him live on a couple of occasions and was very impressed with his singing and his brilliant backing group, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames especially Georgie Fame who was a fabulous pianist.
What did I know? Poor talented Georgie got the boot but turned out to be reasonably successful, especially after teaming up with a former member of The Animals, Alan Price.
I was lucky enough to watch an audition by my favourite local band, known back in their early days as The Silver Beetles (note the different spelling of beetles, the more familiar ‘Beatles’ came along later). They were offered the job of backing group to Billy Fury, a major star by then, for £20 a week on condition that they sacked their bassist Stuart Sutcliffe.
John Lennon refused and the decision was taken to see if they could make a go of it as a stand alone group. A pretty sound decision as it turned out.
There’s a statue consisting of brightly coloured cubes perched one atop another outside. I forget the artist’s name but we saw the original version of this exhibit, many similar stacks of coloured ‘blocks’ in the Nevada Desert outside Las Vegas.
If you read our blog posts relating to that US Road Trip you may recall our vehemently expressed dislike of Las Vegas, but without doubt the piles of coloured blocks in the desert were vastly more interesting than that tawdry city of a million broken dreams.
The statue of Eleanor Rigby, the subject of the Beatles song, was designed and commissioned by an entertainer from a previous generation, Tommy Steele, as an act of homage to the Beatles and the city of Liverpool.
Pretty impressive generosity for a boy from Bermondsey.
Not long after the statue was installed I used to collect Marigold from her place of work, a barristers’ Chambers in Stanley Street and invariably sat on the bench next to ‘Eleanor’ while I waited. No chance of perching there today as the queue of tourists waiting their turn on the bench was daunting.
More culture tomorrow if the weather stays fine. The Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight is on our list and another trip out to see Anthony Gormley’s magnificent Another Place collection of Iron Men.