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Posts Tagged ‘Liverpool’

We’re in Liverpool again. I blame the artists: in the run-up to Liverpool Biennial, artworks described as ‘crazy’ by one of their curators dot the city and there’s something about them that I can’t resist. So Milo and I have come to Liverpool and stomped all the way up Greenland Street to see a huge new work that’s called Arbores Laetae (or the Joyful Trees).

It’s fabulous: a newly planted park now stands by the side of one of the busiest roads in Liverpool. Trees line the edge and, at the centre, three of them slowly revolve, as if inhabiting tiny planets spinning on their own axis. Or maybe they just sway in a supernatural breeze.

‘What do you think, Milo?’

Milo stomps about all over the verdant grass but is only interested in one thing: the emergency stop button that (presumably) cuts the power supply to the plates beneath the moving trees. He spends a long time exploring the big red stop button, hitting it vainly with his tiny hands in the hope that something, anything, might happen.

‘Look at the trees, Milo, they’re moving all by themselves!’

Milo looks longingly at the red button again and then tilts his head back to look at the leaf-framed sky. He giggles, showing me his teeth, and then gets back to the important business of trying to disconnect the power.

While Milo gets up close and personal with the National Grid, I glance at the traffic thundering by. We’re at the crossroads of Great George Street and Parliament Street; it’s four or more lanes across and what those in the planning department call an arterial route.

‘Hey boy, can I tell you a story?’ I ask Milo as I heft him back into his pushchair.

Luckily for me, Milo has not yet learned the art of rolling his eyes, nor is he bored with all my tall tales.

‘See that pedestrian crossing over there? I was going home on the bus one day when we pulled up at the traffic lights. Sat on the top deck, right at the front, I saw this little dog running down the road, heading right for us.’

Milo and I are heading back into town, past a strange assortment of cute little houses wedged in between an industrial estate.

‘But when the dog got to the pedestrian crossing, he stopped. He looked right, then left and then just waited. The traffic came to a slow stop and, outside, I could hear the beep beep beep of the pedestrian crossing. The dog looked up as if making sure he could see the green man and then trotted safely across the road.’

Milo appears to be nodding off. I lean over the pram.

‘So there you go. A dog that can use a pedestrian crossing; how clever is that?’

Milo’s slumped against the side of his pushchair, his eyes glazed over. I don’t think he believes me but I swear it’s true: when I lived in Liverpool, Scouse dogs knew the Green Cross Code.

Incidentally, the theme of this year’s Biennial is ‘Made Up’.

Ratings: Babychanging facilities: No. Cafe: No. Buggy-friendly? No. Cost: Free Worth it? Yes, of course: Liverpool Biennial artworks are great for kids.

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Milo has not been well. He has spent the past 48 hours clinging, limpet-like, around his mother’s neck. He has slept there (he slept, she got a crick in her neck), eaten there (he ate, she got banana and porridge mashed into her hair) and cried there (he cried and then added snot to the banana-porridge mix).

Although it’s quite nice to have your son cuddle you, Milo’s mother is starting to get a bit tired. Her arms ache from carrying him. Her head pounds from the lack of sleep. Her aforementioned neck is very, very stiff. She’s also, if truth be told, too tired to entertain a cranky baby on her own. So they go to Liverpool where they meet up with a friend.

Milo, despite having a new audience, refuses to smile, though he does grumpily allow said friend to carry him round for a bit. His mother pushes the redundant buggy. After a while, they happen across St. Luke’s Church.

Bombed on May 5, 1941, its insides blackened and burnt to a crisp, only its walls and shattered windows remain. When the people of Liverpool emerged from their shelters the morning after the attack, they looked in horror at the smoking remnants of St. Luke’s. They were five nights into what would become known as Liverpool’s May Blitz. By the end of the seventh and final night, over 1,700 would be dead and much of the city flattened.

So when the people of Liverpool wondered how they could remember their losses, they looked at St. Luke’s, its walls standing proudly even though its insides had crumbled into ash. And then they left the ruined church as it was. It became a memorial. Weeds grew up through the windows. Trees swayed in what was once the nave. Birds sang in what was left of the choir stalls.

Today, St. Luke’s is open. Milo, his mum and her friend can’t ever remember it being open. Curious, they step inside, bumping the buggy up over steps and potholes, and for the first time stand on the other side of the windows. The friend wanders off, camera in hand.

’52 years after it was bombed, I came here,’ whispers Milo’s mum in his ear. ‘I was 18. I sat on that big flight of steps out front and looked down the hill into town.’

Milo leans back and looks up at the gargoyles.

‘It was the last week in September and my first week in Liverpool. The sun was shining and it was one of those beautiful autumn days you get before the storms set in. I had my notebook and I was writing something, probably a letter to someone, telling them about the start of things here.’

‘I wanted to remember that moment forever. You know what I’m like, don’t you, the way I make up stories about my life? Well, I knew that moment was the start of one such story, the story of my new life in Liverpool.’

Milo wriggles. He’s still looking at the sky.

‘I was right. Because as I was looking down Bold Street, looking at the city that was now my home, a bus went past. Some kids on the top deck spotted me, lobbed a couple of eggs out the window and shouted, ”stuuuuudent”. They missed, of course, but it got me up off my arse and sent me scuttling back up to the Student Union. And there I met all the people who would become my best friends.’

‘Look at this!’

A voice interrupts the mother-and-son reverie. Milo and his mum walk to the middle of the church where the friend stands looking down into a pool of dank, greasy water.

‘Would you look at that,’ says the friend. ‘It’s a rubber duck, a bloody rubber duck.’

They all look down. Underneath the water, it’s colour slowly leeching away, is a little yellow duck. It greets them with a stupid smile.

‘How on earth did that get there?’ says the friend, wondering vaguely if it had just dropped out of the sky into the middle of a bombed-out, locked-up church.

‘You can only ever expect the unexpected in Liverpool,’ says Milo’s mother. ‘Eggs, kids and rubber ducks: there’ll always be something to keep you from disappearing too far up your own arse.’

Milo giggles for the first time in two days. The friend looks quizzically at them both, shrugs and then takes a picture of the solitary quacker.

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And so we’re back in Liverpool. The seagulls squawking overhead remind us of our proximity to the Mersey; gaggles of neon-clad kids saunter self-consciously past shop windows, surreptitiously checking their reflections.

‘I used to live here,’ I tell Milo as we watch the parade of Scouse youth.

I can see him processing a street style that is unquestionably and uniquely Liverpudlian: the poker straight, styled-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life hair, the verging on orange skin, the propensity for expensive labels writ large. It is so far removed from Manchester’s studied loucheness that I wonder if Milo can spot the difference. And then I remember that he’s seven months old and can barely tell the difference between me and the childminder, let alone ponder the nuances of urban street fashion.

Milo and I mooch. Earlier, Zoe had shown us round Liverpool One, the all-new retail quarter in the centre and the reason that the city that was once my home has suddenly become a stranger. For the past few years, every time I’ve turned a corner I’ve found roads closed, fences raised, new buildings under construction or just great gaping holes where once there stood the landmarks of my Liverpudlian life.

Liverpool was, for all intents and purposes, closed for improvements. And now it’s open again.

Liverpool One owes much to the Arndale and the Trafford Centre. It’s got great shops lining its nicely-paved boulevards. It’s all polished surfaces and you-can’t-hide-in-here bright uplighters. But the developers seemed to have missed a trick because, despite the similarity between this Scouse shopping centre and its Mancunian cousins, it’s not the same. It’s outside. There’s no need for a Trafford Centre-esque fake sky: here, the little fluffy clouds are the real thing.

And yet nothing living, um, lives here. No trees to break up the concrete, steel and glass. No ivy hugging the sides of the new-builds. Not even a hanging basket swinging in the breeze. Save for the odd mangy-looking pigeon, there’s nothing to indicate that you are, actually, outside. It’s sterile, and it’s about as far removed from the scruffy, cheeky Liverpool of my youth as it’s possible to get.

Maybe they’ve yet to install the planters and tubs. I hope so; because a city as unique and as wonderful as Liverpool deserves a centre that sets it apart from every other regional retail development chucked up in the name of regeneration. A bit of clever planting would not only look good but could give Liverpool the kind of sustainable credentials that meant it could cock a snook at neighbouring Manchester. A sort of, hey la, we’ve got great shops and, while we’re at it, we’re tackling the urban heat island effect.

I begin to tell Milo about all this and then stop. How much can a seven month old really understand? Instead, I confect a tale about a city built on the banks of a great sea river, a place that was once one of the biggest ports in the world. This metropolis, I tell him, was watched over by two enormous birds. One stood looking over the people who lived in the city, while the other looked out to sea, screwing up its eyes as it scanned the horizon for the sons and daughters who had sailed away to America, Australia, India and beyond.

Milo burbles; he really couldn’t care less. Mind you, he thinks as he spots another group of squealing teens, there’s a whole lot of fake tan going on over there…

Ratings. Babychanging facilities: at Liverpool Lime Street Station. Cafes: Lots. Buggy-friendly? Not really – lots of steps. Staff: Friendly. Cost: free. Worth it? To Liverpool, yes, to Liverpool One, not really.

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Back in the early 90s I lived in a knackered old mansion house in Liverpool. It overlooked Sefton Park and had long since been given over by the landlord, Mr Hyland, to the ravages of student life. It had no central heating and was so filthy that my mum refused to sit down when she visited. Mr Hyland did stipulate no pets but enforced the rule so feebly that we didn’t hide the two dogs, two cats and several snakes who happily co-habited alongside the 12 human tenants. Our hippy dippy, techno-loving lifestyle was evident in the pets’ names: my dog was called Gaia, while Claire’s cats were Ozric and Marley.

Gaia was a terror. Rescued from the streets of Liverpool, his first act upon becoming ‘my’ dog was to wee on my leg. Followed swiftly by doing likewise all through the house. He also chewed through anything plastic, once ate a kilo tub of Flora and would regularly go through the bins as he scavenged for food. He was and remained bloody-minded, disobedient and entirely his own canine. I taught him to swim by chucking him in the lake at Sefton Park after he’d rolled in something, um, ‘unpleasant’ for the fifth time in a week. I came home from work once to discover that he’d rolled in the oily remnants of a burnt-out car (as I said, this was Liverpool in the early 90s, and the remains of joyriding were frequently etched into the scorched grass of Sefton Park). Steve had given up trying to wash out the oil and had begun shaving a now quivering and deeply sorry Gaia. He was rescued by a quick call to the vet, who recommended we try scrubbing him head to tail in Swarfega. Luckily for Gaia it worked, though the fur on his back legs never quite recovered.

The first time I took him to the beach – at Formby – he barked at the sea. After ascertaining that the sea wasn’t some giant grey monster, he went for a swim. He barked at some seaweed, before deciding that it, too, posed no threat. He then barked at a smooth grey rock protruding from the sand. He decided that this could well be an evil dog in disguise, so he scuttled off, growling and throwing nervous looks over his shoulder.

Gaia spent the autumn of his life in the People’s Republic of Chorlton. Our back ‘stoop’ was a prime spot for addling himself in the sun; the Mersey was perfect for swimming; he wrapped Simon round each of his four paws; and when I started working from home he had the kind of 24/7 company that every dog dreams of. It was good for me, too: if a client gave me grief, I’d get off the phone and search out G, bury my face in his smelly, silky fur and think, ah, things ain’t so bad.

Last Sunday, Gaia was reunited with his full pack. Mum, dad, me, Simon, Milo and Milly went for a walk around Astley Green, a former colliery and now a place of canals, soggy wetland walks, sticks and mud. The sun shone for the first time in an age. Gaia leapt into the pond after a stick, shook mud all over everyone and trotted contentedly about in a way we hadn’t seen in weeks. It turned out to be his last big hurrah – three days later he died, of cancer.

Gaia saw me through university, my first job, marriage and then a divorce, world travels, three degrees, house buying, starting a new life, a career change, self-employment and a baby. Whatever you think about dogs, this one was as much a part of my life as friends and family. I’m not terribly sentimental. I always thought I’d be entirely pragmatic about his demise: he was only a dog, after all. But here I am, crying my eyes out, missing him terribly.

He was an old sod – belligerent, smelly and naughty to the last. Without him my life will no doubt be easier. My house will be tidier. I won’t have to wipe the mud off the walls, or sweep up the great fur balls that gathered in every corner like canine tumbleweed. We won’t have to walk him twice a day, every day, even when we’re tired or busy or it’s tipping it down with rain. But life without mud and trouble; I don’t know, it just looks a little less like fun.

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It feels like it’s been raining forever. Day after day of me peering hopefully out of the window or packing away the rain cover for the pushchair, only to be disappointed. There have been weeks where I’ve battled through high winds, being battered by great globs of Mancunian rain. And there has been me, propping open my weary eyes, wishing Milo would just, you know, get better at this whole sleeping lark.

And then we went to Liverpool and the rain stopped. The sun came out – it actually shone. And, what’s more, all of a sudden Milo realised that he could put himself to sleep. I doubt whether it’ll last (both sun and sleeping babes), but for now I am the happiest mother in all of Mancunia.

But I digress. We went to Liverpool. Milo, as ever, loved every aspect of our trip, from the people on the train (whom he smiled at) to the ladies queuing for the Ladies (whom he giggled at). He loved the newly scrubbed-up Bluecoat Gallery, particularly one room whose entire back wall was covered in a graphic, black and white painting (Milo didn’t smile at this; instead he gave it a bug-eyed stare and a pursed-lip gurn, which is the face he assumes when concentrating).

We met an old friend for lunch and I marvelled at how lovely the Bluecoat looks. This, the oldest building in the city centre, is a place I once worked, first as a student and then as a marketing bod. It was always a beautiful old pile but it was also crumbling into dust: my office had wires that trailed across the floor ready to trip the unwary, heating that never quite worked and one WC to be shared by around 20 girls and boys. But now, after a lengthy period of rebuilding, a new Bluecoat has emerged and it’s fabulous. Just like the old one, only without the Health & Safety issues. Oh, and a new garden, new restaurant, whole new gallery wing, new café, new shops, new offices, obligatory Yoko Ono artwork…

The only downside to our day was that the batteries I bought from a hole-in-the-wall newsagent off the main drag were duff and I couldn’t take any pictures – so you’ll have to make do with a snap of Milo asleep in front of St. George’s Hall instead. As you can see, he was distinctly unimpressed by all that monumental neo-classical grandeur. You can take a horse to water…

Neo-classicism is such a bore…

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