This is one of those blog posts starting its life in dead tree format, scribbled into my notebook on the train home from the day trip concerned. It’s dark out the train window as the Pendolino wends through Lancashire on its way home to Weegieville. Unusually for me it’s done with a soundtrack only of train noise and chatter from the smattering of other passengers in the coach since, being an utter choob, I left my tablet in the house this morning (more about that in the post, ‘Another day begins’, which appears tomorrow night).
Liverpool is an easy day trip to put together. It has a fair few cracking museums and usually it’s a case of picking which of them I want to grace with my custom. I don’t tend to plan very much. This time I knew the Walter Art Gallery would be a decent bet since it’s the closest to Lime Street Station but everything else was up for grabs. The Maritime Museum was the only one I couldn’t be bothered with when I did my usual ten minutes’ research since their lead exhibition was about the Titanic. I avoided it when I was in Belfast earlier this year so it was natural to do the same in Liverpool.
To get to Liverpool from Glasgow requires a change of trains in Preston. Invariably breaking up the journey there makes it a fair bit cheaper plus I have to change trains there anyway so win-win. I had about half an hour to kill so made my usual dash out of the station to find an ATM to get English money then went in search of some reading material. I ended up getting a magazine (History Scotland, impressively, this far south of Carter Bar) and a paper. It’s a couple of years since I stopped buying the Guardian every day so I was dumbfounded to discover it’s now £2 a go. On a weekday. When I used to buy it, it was £2 on a Saturday. I know the Guardian is losing money like nobody’s business but £2 is absolutely shocking for a morning paper.
I was last in Liverpool in December last year but as the train drew closer it felt a lot less than that despite having been to a lot of other places in between times. It’s not a journey I know that well but at one point I was sure we passed somewhere called the World of Glass. It’s in St. Helens, which I realised when I saw the glass-fronted station there with the signs to alight here for the North West Transport Museum and the World of Glass.
Lime Street Station isn’t a station I know well either. Any time I’m ever there, I’m usually straight off the train and straight back on it later on. It has a fine glass frontage leading out onto steps with St. George’s Hall across the way plus the whole city centre stretching out before you. It’s also minutes away from Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool Central Library and the World Museum. The only place I know that’s more convenient for the train-travelling culture vulture is Kirkcaldy where the art gallery/museum/library building is mere seconds from the station there. It’s why, however, I tend to go for a walk when I get to Liverpool since I could easily spend the day barely 500 yards from the train station when there’s a whole great city to explore.
At Oxenholme now. Liverpool is one of my favourite cities architecturally. It’s often grand but it fits with its history as one of England’s great ports. The Museum of Liverpool tells its story well and it was probably the best museum visit I’ve had this year, except perhaps the Ulster Museum. It has a diverse range of exhibitions, including on politics, football, music and, appropriately given the Brexit-fuelled xenophobia kicking around this weather, Liverpool’s multicultural present as informed and instigated by its past. What I didn’t know was that many in Liverpool had supported the Confederate forces in the American Civil War due to the cotton trade. There were also probably two of the nicest museum accessibility touches I’ve encountered – a British Sign Language rendering of some of Liverpool’s best-known music hits and an audio description of the cityscape produced by Mencap that managed to be informative and useful for all audiences. Nearby to that was a display about the part Liverpudlians played in the 1916 rising in Ireland, mentioning the part Big Jim Larkin, a trade union leader born in Liverpool, played in the 1913 Lockout. Larkin’s statue adorns O’Connell Street in the heart of Dublin, arms aloft.
Thereafter I took a turn around the Albert Dock before heading back into the city centre. The World Museum was, like the Museum of Liverpool, absolutely hoaching with families due to it being half-term in Englandshire, so it was a bit of a sensory overload with all the noise that brings. I largely managed to dodge it by heading for the World Cultures gallery, which is one is usually one I have to skim through at the end of a long day when I can’t take much more. This time I took my time, working my way through the collections from each continent, as ever paying particular attention to the Buddhist, Mesoamerican, Oceanic and African sections. There was a codex in the Mesoamerican section, a rare one since a lot of them had been destroyed when the Spanish came, and it was beautiful, in essence a graphic novel or flipbook telling a story in pictures. There’s another one in the British Museum but it’s always a tight squeeze to get to see it, unlike the World Museum where they even have a seat right next to it.
After a quick sojourn in the stunning Picton Reading Room at the Central Library, I went the short distance to the Walker Art Gallery. There was a contemporary art installation on the mezzanine level which manifested itself in a huge blown-up version of Felix the Cat. Next to it was the best museum sign I’ve seen in a long while. ‘Visitor Notice’, it began. ‘No feeling the cat’.
The John Moores competition exhibition was all right with only a couple that weren’t abstract. What I like about the Walker is its British Art and French Impressionist collections, the latter featuring a work by Gustave Courbet of ‘Low Tide at Trouville’. On the caption next to it was an excerpt from a letter Courbet wrote home to his parents on the first time he encountered the sea:
‘We have at last seen the horizonless sea; how strange it is for a valley dweller. You feel as if you are carried away; you want to take and see the whole world’.
The British Art room featured two works side-by-side that showed spring but in two wildly different places, Eskbank in Dumfries and Galloway, not so many miles from where I am now on the approach to Carlisle, and St. John’s Wood in London. The landscape of Eskbank, by James McDonald Patrick, was hilly with a farm steading in a low glen while St. John’s Wood, by Dame Laura Knight, was from the perspective of the artist’s studio in a plush London suburb looking over a tennis court to chimneys and the smoke of London in the distance. It was an interesting curatorial decision to display these two together, as mentioned on the Knight painting’s label, but it shows the great diversity of our islands and the different ways the seasons manifest themselves in their different parts.
This leads me, sort of neatly, to a quote I saw in the Museum of Liverpool that tickled me but sums up just the kind of place Liverpool is. It came from Margaret Simey, a politician and community activist, and reads:
‘The magic of Liverpool is that it isn’t England’.
Even more neatly, where I am isn’t England either since the Pendolino has just crossed the border. Liverpool is sometimes referred to as the easternmost city of the United States due to its musical and mercantile past and I would go along with that. It’s like no other English city, except maybe one of the prettier quayside bits near Tower Bridge in London. Having been to both recently, I can say it’s like Belfast and Dublin in a lot of respects – architecturally in both cases, in particular due to the shiny new shopping centres that grace the centre of both Liverpool and Belfast. As an Anglophile myself, I’m only glad Liverpool is geographically if not culturally in England so I can go there occasionally within a few hours. Where it actually is, to be honest, is anyone’s guess.