Experiencing European Culture in Liverpool
Published: April 2009
By Bruce Schoenfeld
Why has this once dreary waterfront city been dubbed a European culture capital?<em>Bruce Schoenfeld</em> finds more than just memorabilia in the Beatles’ hometown.
Around the corner from where I’m standing is the marketing office for the Paradise Project, poised to pump $2 billion into urban renewal that will transform Liverpool’s center in the coming months. But for now, a busker with a guitar huddles against the chill of a bleak November afternoon in an alley off Williamson Street. He works his way through the dustier corners of the Beatles canon, doing a passable Paul on “Things We Said Today,” an uncanny John on “You Can’t Do That.” Pedestrians hurry by without a glance.
They’ll never dress up Liverpool, I can’t help thinking. They’ve named it a European Capital of Culture for 2008, invested billions in construction, built a fancy terminal for cruise ships on the river Mersey, but it still won’t be fashionable. Always off to the side, out of the mainstream, a gussied-up sailors’ town disdained by London (and all but abandoned for years by the British government), it’s quirky and strong-flavored: England’s Baltimore, but with far worse weather.
And that, I suspect, is why I keep coming back. In an increasingly homogenized world, Liverpool remains like nowhere else. People talk singularly, almost incomprehensibly, favoring guttural “oo’s” and other lower-register grunts. “You all right?” they greet each other, as if fearing the worst. Their stubborn pride in all things local is coupled with a lack of interest in outside opinions, an almost preternatural insularity that’s especially unusual in a port. The journalist Paul du Noyer describes Liverpool as “not a provincial city but the capital of itself,” and its hegemony, though limited in scope, is firm. If you’re from here, you typically remain. If you aren’t, you’re unlikely to even visit. Of my half-dozen London friends, none have ever seen it.
Like a handful of the world’s great cities—Venice, Moscow, San Francisco—Liverpool looks better in the rain, which is fortunate given the annual precipitation rate. Its architectural bravado, manifested over hundreds of years in soaring cathedrals, Victorian mansions, and ambitious skyscrapers, shows best against a dun-colored backdrop. When I think of Liverpool, I tend to see the sculpted cormorants atop the magnificent Liver Building, backed by a leaden sky. Or the stands of Anfield, where the famous Liverpool Football Club plays, backed by a leaden sky. Or the spires and smokestacks of the Wirral, across the Mersey, backed by… You get the idea.
Yet Scousers, which is what people from the area call themselves (after scouse, a ubiquitous meat-and-potato stew), are as sunny as their weather is grim. Warm and amiable, they’re eager for a laugh. “The world’s worst disaster will happen, and the Scousers will make the first jokes about it,” says Paul Askew, one of Liverpool’s top chefs. The grayness lends a reassuring sense of solidity, a fortification against the cruel vicissitudes of fashion. Suffice it to say that there won’t be a Nobu Liverpool anytime soon, or the Liverpool X Games. Liverpool is where trends go to die.
It isn’t surprising to learn that Paul Simon wrote “Homeward Bound,” his wistful ode to getting the heck out of town, at Liverpool’s Runcorn station. That sentiment tends to be the reaction of short-termers, first-timers, and anyone in search of the smooth, the comfortable, or the pretty. Liverpool mistrusts the contrived and self-invented, or anything overly glossy or blatantly marketed. “If Liverpool was a person, I wouldn’t sleep with it,” Courtney Love once remarked. I like to believe that Liverpool would return the sentiment.
But spend time here and you might come to love it. If you do, it’s yours forever. Liverpool is nothing if not steadfast. Once every generation or so, it offers up a renowned band or a fine soccer team or a distinguished piece of design, yet when the klieg lights have dimmed it shows itself to be just the same as before. Liverpool digests change like the snake digests the mouse, showing it to grotesque effect at first, but ultimately not at all.
A city less sure-footed might have Disneyfied the Beatles, transforming itself into a sort of Fab Four theme park. Not Liverpool. What remains of Strawberry Field is a graffiti-covered sign on a gate; Penny Lane is a dingy row of terraced houses. Instead, the city still has the same raffish, slightly seedy feel—“a certain black style of its own, a private strength and humour and awareness,” as the author Nik Cohn put it—that was evident in the first two-tone photos of the lads, leather-jacketed, their collars upturned against the wind. And those collars were no affectation. There’s wind, all right.
I’ve been eating well in Liverpool, including a dense but delicious pork sampler at Spire Restaurant, just off Penny Lane, and a particularly fine piece of calf’s liver at the unassuming Side Door. But my most compelling find is Paul Askew’s London Carriage Works. Askew lived here for much of his childhood, then followed his seafaring father to Asia. Now he’s determined to earn Liverpool’s first Michelin star, even if that means creating a more sophisticated dining experience than many customers desire. Some arrive at his handsome restaurant of two-colored brick, step past a striking glass sculpture, and have the temerity to ask for scouse, the local staple.
Askew’s cooking is country French layered atop traditional English. I ate a rabbit terrine larded with foie gras, then an exquisite slab of rare venison with braised root vegetables. It seemed Michelin-worthy to me. But the wine list was full of bottles that didn’t exist—not there, anyway—and service was timid and distracted. When I told Askew, he nodded sadly, well aware of the pitfalls of almost singlehandedly attempting to lift a city’s cuisine. “It’s the old Field of Dreams, isn’t it?” he said. “Build it and they will come. Or maybe not. But if you don’t build it, they’ll never come.”
The chef proposes to show me a traditional Liverpool lunch, done up right. Askew arrives with his seven-year-old, Harry, and a long face. He’d wanted me to see an oyster house he’d known in his youth, a long-forgotten landmark, but it turns out to have been sold and rebranded. Instead, we head to a pub said to make regional dishes with flair, only to find it hawking Mexican barbecue. Yet another has become part of a brewery-owned chain.
It’s three o’clock by now and I’m due at a soccer match, so we route the taxi to Anfield, where the streets are overrun with fans. We end up at a crowded pie shop eating, of all things, scouse, which—in this version, at least—tastes almost exactly like a can of Dinty Moore. “I guess it was fate that I confront my nemesis,” Askew says, spooning up the gelatinous mass with a determined face while Harry looks on in horror. “It’s the local culture, right there in a bowl.”
Somewhere high on the very short list of objects and entities even more beloved by Scousers than scouse is the Liverpool Football Club. From 1975 to 1984, Liverpool topped England’s Football Association seven times, and captured the European Championship—contested annually by the Continent’s best clubs—four times. These days, the Reds don’t have the resources of the London and Manchester behemoths, yet they nevertheless made a stunning run to the top of Europe in 2005, and another to the European Cup final match in 2007.
Anfield has been called soccer’s Fenway Park, though from the outside it seems a particularly unlovely factory. The field is an otherworldly green, all that moisture put to good effect. The scale is intimate, and everyone in the tightly packed stands wears red. Before each match, they rise in unison and sing the Rodgers & Hammerstein standard “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” once recorded by Liverpool’s Gerry and the Pacemakers. The song is syrupy, but as rendered by 40,000 true believers it sounds poignantly heartfelt. Even rival fans have been known to cry.
Last year, two American businessmen bought the Liverpool team. They’ve received permission from the city council to construct a $600 million stadium full of luxury boxes and other baldly capitalist amenities. I assumed Liverpool fans would be alarmed, bordering on rebellious, but the prevailing emotion seems to be a fatalistic kind of optimism. “It has to be done,” explains John Aldridge, 49, who grew up shouting for the team from the stands, then played for it, and now serves as a broadcaster. “It will be a sad day, but you have to be thick-skinned. A club has to vie on the money side today or it can’t compete.”
Aldridge and I see Liverpool win an impressive match against Fulham. Then he takes me for a drive. We head past Dingle, the squalid South Liverpool neighborhood where Ringo Starr grew up, to Garston, where Aldridge spent his childhood in even less desirable circumstances. He lived beside a tannery, the smell of which, he says, was almost unbearable. “And I didn’t have an indoor toilet until I was 21,” he says. “That was 1979. Not so long ago.” We pass the famously rough Mariners Pub—known for the one-liner: “I went to a fight at the Mariners and a pub broke out”—and Cast Iron Shore, the muddy riverbank where Aldridge and fellow urchins picked through the remains of beached ships. It all looks burned-out, hollow, depopulated. We can’t visit his home, or even his street, because the neighborhood has been razed. “European Union,” he says. “They gave us money to knock down the whole place and start over.”
But soon the urban landscape begins to change, and the effect of recent investment begins to show. A decommissioned airport terminal is now a swank Marriott. A former match factory has become prime office space. I begin to understand why Aldridge and others like him, the true Scousers who came from next to nothing, are sanguine about their prospects. “You have to move forward,” he says. “It won’t change Liverpool. It’ll bring opportunity.”
I already feel the difference. The old Moat House hotel, now demolished, used to cater to a mature demographic; it felt like a VFW convention had gathered at the bar. Instead I find Print hotel, a members-only club with a clientele two generations younger. It has music pulsing, no reception area, and six spacious, starkly designed guest rooms. It couldn’t be better situated, straddling the main shopping area and the Cavern Quarter of bars and clubs. Even more comfortable is the Malmaison, part of a small chain that specializes in retrofitting historic buildings. This one is newly built and has a Vegas feel. Rooms are dark, with black leather and wood. Shampoo and conditioner come in eight-ounce tubes and are meant to be taken home. A sleek lamp is turned on by tapping its base.
Best of all is the Hope Street Hotel, a converted furniture store in the Georgian Quarter, near several repertory theaters, the Liverpool Philharmonic, and the best restaurants. My room has two walls of exposed brick that are more than a century old. The floors and furniture are polished wood, the bathroom sink resembles an oversize salad bowl. The window faces the vast Liverpool Cathedral, a red sandstone masterpiece constructed over much of the 20th century that is the fifth-largest church in the world.
But up next, a few doors down Mathew Street from where the Beatles played the Cavern, is the Hard Days Night Hotel. With Beatles-themed rooms and other nostalgic kitschiness, it’s just the kind of blatant attempt at commercialization that seems bound to fail here. At the reconstructed Cavern, and at other nearby bars, the music scene is still thriving—as it has since the Merseybeat years, through Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Walking past this neighborhood at night, I’m aware of an excitement, even a frisson of danger. I can envision the middle-class suburban teenagers Lennon and McCartney arriving in the heart of this unpolished city, tramping cautiously down Mathew Street with their battered guitars: a sharply rendered image that connects me to the Beatles’ Liverpool years far better than some hotel room decorated for a song they wrote ever could.
That evening i visit the Tate Liverpool, in the converted warehouses of the Albert dock development, to view the installations nominated for the Turner Prize. Then I settle in on a bench behind the museum, overlooking the river. The sun has set, and the lights on the far bank glow yellow in the dusk. I spot a packet ferry leaving the Wirral, then track it as it crosses.
Not surprisingly, I can’t get the old Gerry and the Pacemakers’ song “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey” out of my head. I hear Gerry Marsden singing “This land’s the place I love/And here I’ll stay,” words that have enticed me since I first encountered them, not long after the song’s 1964 release. It occurs to me that I fell for Liverpool then, decades before I ever saw it.
I see the boat glide to the dock beneath the Liver Building, and the passengers stride off the gangway with an eager step. I look up and notice that it has just started to rain.
Bruce Schoenfeld is Travel + Leisure’s wine and spirits editor.
When To Go
As one of 2008’s European Capitals of Culture, the city will be playing host to a full schedule of musical, theatrical, and fine-arts events throughout the year. Go to Liverpool08.com for information. The weather much of the year tends toward the damp and overcast, but you’re not coming here for sunshine.
Several U.S. airlines fly to Manchester, which is about an hour’s drive to the east. One popular option is to fly to Dublin on Aer Lingus, and on to Liverpool John Lennon Airport from there.
Where to Stay
40 Hope St.; 44-151/709-3000; hopestreethotel.co.uk; doubles from $280.
7 William Jessop Way, Princes Dock; 44-151/229-5000; malmaison.com; doubles from $330.
56–58 Stanley St.; 44-870/033-4450; theprinthotel.co.uk; doubles from $300.
Rooms are bright, and the bar is exceptionally comfortable. The concierge staff is the city’s best. 107 Old Hall St.; 888/201-1718 or 44-151/966-1500; radisson.com; doubles from $310.
Where to Eat
Hope Street Hotel, 40 Hope St.; 44-151/705-2222; tlcw.co.uk; dinner for two $160.
29A Hope St.; 44-151/707- 7888; thesidedoor.co.uk; dinner for two $98.
1 Church Rd.; 44-151/734-5040; spirerestaurant.co.uk; dinner for two $110.
A Live’smart card, valid for three consecutive days, costs $40 and provides free admission to most of the city’s attractions, as well as rides on the Mersey Ferry and city buses.