On Board
Narrowboat "FRILFORD"
(British Waterways No. 500645)

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE– "Liverpool"


Late August 2005

How can one write about Liverpool without evoking the history of the place? The rise of the city as a major port, the cotton trade, the slave trade, Pier Head, the Three Graces, ocean liners, tramp ships, departing emigrants, the blitz, Tommy Handley, “Ferry ‘cross the Mersey”, Merseybeat, the Beatles, the Militant Liverpool City Council, Derek Hatton, Toxteth then and now, Liverpool FC, Anfield, Everton FC, Goodison Park, two fine cathedrals, David Sheppard, Albert Dock, the Walker Gallery, Tate Liverpool, David Henshaw, council government disquiet, urban regeneration, European City of Culture 2008. Liverpool is one of the most eclectic and distinctive cities in the world.

When racing on a yacht round the world in the 1992-93 British Steel Challenge I spend three weeks in Rio de Janeiro, our first port of call. I was asked later what I thought of the place. All I could say was that I reckoned everything, everything, one had ever heard about Rio was true: It is as wonderful, as dangerous, as decrepit, as magnificent and as colourful and enduring as one has heard. I have not spend much time in Liverpool, still less finding out about the place, but as a serious, albeit casual, visitor I can say the same of Liverpool. Everything which makes it such a remarkable place reaches out to the visitor. The people, the culture, the aspect, are not like those of other places. Liverpool is a very special place with an extraordinary history and magnificent future.

People much better than me have described very well the history and standing of this fine city, so I shall write of my impressions of the place and leave the proper narrative to others.

I emerged blinking and cursing into the sunshine of a post-Friday-night-with-the Eldonians feeling like I’d been hit by a warm, generous, slightly-foreign-feeling welcome bomb! Jayne, fresh as paint, set off to explore the city. I took a call from my cousin Christopher.

My father’s best friend at Abingdon School was a chap called Roy Gibaud. He had a sister called Pamela who, one year, made a reluctant partner to Roy at an Old Abingdonians’ Summer Ball. Also in attendance was my father, John Rayson, still a serving RAF Officer and wearing his dress uniform, with his arm in a sling as a consequence of contracting polio in Cairo in 1946 whilst ‘mopping up’ after the Second World War. Mother, as Roy’s sister later became to me, allowed herself to be wooed by the uniform and the injury, and, she later admitted, a little by the chap wearing it!

In the early years we all used to go on holiday together, and spend Christmases together. By the time the adults had finished building their two families there were Roy and Janet Gibaud, with Christopher, Hugh and Alison and, on our side, John and Pamela Rayson with Adrian, me that is, Felicity and William. Christmases were either with them or with us but a prefab cottage in Milford on Sea, farm cottages in Abersoch and Aberdaron on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, Scarborough, and, later, Estartit in Spain are just some of the places to benefit from the Gibaud-Rayson circus arriving in town for a holiday. Once upon a time in Carcassonne in southern France our meeting in the main post office brought all business in the place to a standstill as we bellowed affable greetings to each other. We were thrown out and told not to return. We didn’t! The Gibauds were on a canal boat; we were camping and had arranged to leave messages for each other in the post office at Carcassonne to arrange a time to meet and this was both parties arriving for the first time to leave messages. Redundant messages as it turned out. Blood is thicker than water, it seems….

As is the nature of things families move apart and other than briefly at weddings and funerals, sadly in recent times those of both Roy and then his sister, my mother, Pamela (what is it with these Gibauds? Can’t stand the pace?) Christopher and I had not met for quite a few years.

“I’ll pick you up in the early afternoon and take you to Merseyfest in Croxteth Park. That okay with you?, asked Chris. “Fine,” I said, I met one or two of the Merseyfest lot working alongside the canal yesterday; I’m looking forward to it.” Later he called again to say he’d be along about 3.30 pm. In the event he arrived close to 4.00 o’clock, which was good for Chris, it turns out.

Chris is a dedicated family man and tries to be all things to all people, especially wanting to be available for his family. This makes his concept of time-keeping a little flexible. I have come to be very fond of Christopher once again and, smilingly, have come to realise that, outside of his work, at which he is punctilious, conscientious and timely, when he says ‘I’ll pick you up in the early afternoon’ it means ‘We have established a concept of my picking you up today…’, ‘3.30 pm’ or any definition of a time means that ‘the concept still exists and has been refined’. A call to say ‘I’m just leaving now and I’ll see you in ten minutes’, usually made several minutes after the proposed meeting time, means ‘sometime within the next twenty minutes or so I shall be getting into the car, notwithstanding that I think I’m about to do it now’ and the ‘see you in ten minutes’ bit means’ if there is nothing on the road and Jensen Button happens to be testing his BAR F1 car between my place and where you are and I can get a lift with him, I’ll see you in ten minutes!’

By the time Chris arrived in Eldonian Village I had sloughed off effects of the previous night’s hospitality and was ready to take on whatever Merseyfest turned out to be, for in truth I knew next to nothing. “Ah, Merseyfest, mused Christopher as we drove toward Croxteth Park, “well… I’ve been digging allotments all week. Bloomin’ hard work. Getting back to camp each night, making supper, feeding whoever happened to be around, then attending various gatherings, then having people back to the camp for talk into the small hours, then out again early in the morning for more digging and marshalling of the kids…!”

Essentially, and using their own words, Merseyfest was this: From the 14th - 21st August 2005, thousands of volunteers came to Liverpool for the biggest week of transformation that Merseyside has ever seen!

Initiated by churches across the region, working in close partnership with Merseyside Police, the local borough Councils and numerous other community partners and local businesses, Merseyfest is caught imagination of many.

Merseyfest was about transforming people places and perceptions and bringing together all people of goodwill to work for the shared vision of Merseyside made safer, stronger, cleaner and kinder.

PART 1: COMMUNITY PROJECTS
Throughout the week Merseyfest volunteers went out onto the street of Merseyside to work on a wide range of sustainable projects across the community. This army of volunteers was the largest single volunteer event of 2005 and provided over 100,000 hours of free service to communities across Liverpool, Sefton, the Wirral, Knowsley and St Helen's.

PART 2: THE WEEKEND EVENT
The week of activity ended with a massive free- to-enter arts and music festival at Croxteth Park on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st August. This was a free fun family event and which attracted over 50 thousand people over the two day period. There were Bands, DJs, Live MCs, Breakdancers, Europe’s Biggest Outdoor Skatepark, Bungee Jumping, Urban Arts, a massive Fireworks Display, a Family Interaction Zone with Bouncy Castles, Games, Face Painting, Robotics and lots of fun for all the family.

God was there too. I’m sure of that. This was very much a Christian festival with Christianity in Britain wearing its ‘accessible’ face. Being ‘born again’ is not really my thing, but I get on okay with The Lord and I was very aware of His presence at the Merseyfest Weekend Event, as I am sure it had been at the events all week.

We arrived at Croxteth Park and plunged into all the accoutrements of a Glastonbury-esque festival. There was a large tended village. There were groups sitting around talking and enjoying being together in the sunshine and being together there. Some strummed guitars and there was sporadic singing; perhaps even the odd banjo player. A benign and happy atmosphere pervaded all. Chris had a large trailer tent set up in the middle of all this. Clearly it had been a focal point during the week. His three sons, Jonathan, William and Tobias, were staying in it, and their sister Beatrice used it as her base also. Their mother, Angela, had kept the family home ticking over but was omnipresent also. Apparently it was a welcoming venue and many a young person had sat around in and without it during the hot balmy nights of Merseyfest. Inside the place looked like an explosion at the ‘goods in’ side of a Chinese laundry. Stuff everywhere. A frustrated cry of ‘has anyone seen my other shoe?’ might just as well have been ‘Does God exist?’ for all the likelihood of getting a definitive answer, given the complexity and confusion of the search area. Except that, at Merseyfest in August of 2005, there were many thousands of people more than ready to explain, with joy, why and how God does exist and, indeed, to pitch in, with the same joy, to find the missing shoe. It was a remarkable gathering.

Working with second hand pots, washed to order in cold water in a bowl outside, and using a range of sauces from half-used jars and some meat the origin of which might once have been beef burgers, Chris created a savoury pasta dish. The word went out and within no time at all Gibaud siblings and attendant friends, both old and remarkably new (“I was just walking past and someone asked would I like to join you for food, and since I haven’t actually eaten today I will, if I may…!”) stood around sharing plates and forks in general communion. “Come on,” exhorted Chris, many shared plates later, “there’s still a bit left…” If it can be done with loaves and fishes, it can be done with pasta and burgers, it seems. Just need the occasion.

After washing up (where’d everybody go when washing up was mentioned?!) Chris and I made for the main arena, passing gentle, but highly effective, security on the way in. More Glastonbury – a huge stage, lights, big screens, a sound control unit, concessions selling everything from chips to sushi, and people. Thousands upon thousands of people. And God. Actually it was all set up in the shadow of a classic Anglican Church, the tower of which rose above the trees behind the stage. I was not the only one to spot this. The Bishop of Liverpool, Rt. Rev James Jones, was invited on stage and spoke very well. He, too, mentioned the tower in the trees, thus making the smallest of allusions to the established church standing behind, or at least with, the event.

There were some great bands, Y Friday and 100 Hours being the headliners. Christian evangelical music it might be, but it was also a head-banging great night out. These people, the bands, are very very good. I know. I bought each of their CDs and a copy for Chris too. There was actual evangelising too. Very good evangelising; the sort of evangelising that a socially-disadvantaged person living in reduced circumstances in an environment with little prospects who has grown up far too quickly and is already getting old too soon in a place where the idea of a family unit is but an unrealistic hope - the sort of evangelising that that person can understand, and gain succour from. Andy Hawthorne is a remarkable man. I might be more of a singing-in-the-choir-at-the-cathedral sort of worshipper and, because I’ve done a lot of it, get uplifted by that, but I was moved by what was going on in Croxteth Park that night. Many young people, caught up in the moment or with a vision of what might be, entered the tent, the Response Tent, in which people could talk to them and assist them with their declaring a commitment to God.

“Make that step, Adrian. Make that step…!” Angela, Chris’ wife, is a lively yet enigmatic Irish woman, responsible for bringing Chris to Christ some twenty years ago, who as well as fighting the good fight with all her might, also battles daily with a dibilitating challenge, spotted a certain attentiveness in me. “No,” I replied carefully, not really me.” However I was aware of perhaps being a little outside something of which, actually I was on the brink. Mind you, it is the overtness of the ‘born-agains’ which I find so difficult. Despite my occasional loudness and inappropriate bombast I am not like that about some things. I could not possibly stand on stage and announce to the gathering that I had embraced God and that He was my saviour. Not me at all. Indeed I am sure there is something in the bible about Jesus saying beware of the man who makes a show of his faith on the street corner, or something, but then it also says something to the effect that ‘as soon as two or three are gathered together in My name…’. Except I have a growing concern (concern? Why should it be a concern?) that if I were ready to accept God into my life in the way that those around me, and by that I mean Chris and Angela of whom I was to see more in the next few months that at any stage in the last twenty-five years, would like to see happen, then I am sure I would be ready to evangelise.

Mind you, one has to be a little wary of the zeal, perhaps! Some people to whom Chris introduced me at Merseyfest, he and I met again in a quite different time and place. Then, after morning coffee, Chris asked about the chap’s sheep. He’s not a farmer but keeps some fine sheep in a paddock adjoining his house and we were taken to see them. It was a lovely summer’s morning, the birds were singing (aren’t they always on occasions like this? Certainly they are in the written version) and we were standing in a paddock looking at sheep. Suddenly our light conversation was taken to a different plane as this chap used the sheep allegory to make an evangelical point about Jesus, his flock et al. Came right out of nowhere and had me pinned in the middle of the paddock for several minutes! Also, rather than join in, as I sense I was being encouraged to do, all I could come up with was a very weak “Yes, well, er.. quite…”.

That evening Merseyfest rocked Croxteth Park until about 10.30 pm then everybody retired back to their tented village for post-rock conviviation. Chris ran me back to FRILFORD in Eldonian Village. I was all evangelised out, and the next day, Sunday, it was all to happen again. I was, again, looking forward to it.

After Merseyfest things quietened down a little, but only a little. Jayne went off to London to sort something and left me in charge of her boat. I was able to take stock, somewhat, of where I was actually moored.

Of Eldonian Village I have already written. The other side of the high, intruder-paint covered, fence was the Vauxhall Road. Although now completely redeveloped in that most of the old buildings have been demolished and the road is overlooked by such places as the Eldonian Village, there are echoes of the past in the various pubs which are still to be found along the road. Small, dark often simple one-roomed bar establishments, they are testament to Liverpool’s tough history. One of them, I think the Green Man, was used in the making of Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 TV saga Boys From the Black Stuff, a tale of a gang of tarmac layers on the dole in Liverpool. That show gave people in the south an impression of how desperate life could really be. It was especially poignant as there was huge unemployment in Britain at the time. Yosser Hughes, the most remembered character, was so desperate for work to feed his family that he begged people "Gissa job".

The odd little shop, next to the pubs often, also hark back to hard times. Also small and dark, these were places huddled on the grimy pavement. They had no windows, bricked in years ago, and the doors were heavy steel things with several large padlocks on them. Inside the shops were more like the small places I’ve seen in Nigeria than anything one would expect to find in Britain. Dark and unforgiving, there was very little in them to buy. A few cans of drink standing forlornly on otherwise-bare shelves. A few tired newspapers on the counter, some dusty jars of sweets and some packets of biscuits. In one I bought a paper, the Daily Telegraph (I felt a bit foolish: I was not around Daily Telegraph readers, but they had one in the shop, so I bought it. I think the woman behind the counter was as surprised that I’d bought it as she was that she’d sold it!) and a loaf of bread, which appeared from beneath the counter and was popped quickly into a brown paper bag (contraband bread?). I asked if they’d got any milk. With a look that was not unkind but was rather you’re-certainly-not-from-around-here, the woman disappeared into the back and came back with a pint of milk in a glass bottle. I can’t remember when I last saw one of those. I used to deliver them years ago when I worked as a relief milkman for the Co-op in Oxford, but that was back in 1973. For all I know she’d got it out of her own fridge. I was most grateful. I paid and after a friendly exchange, her side of which I did not understand at all, I left with my simple, but entirely satisfactory, purchases. I tried shopping there again a few days later, but the place was shut, as it was a few days after that. It was not the only such place like it on the Vauxhall Road. I wonder if she’s okay, that woman behind the counter.

Otherwise Liverpool’s charm continued to show itself though the people I came across as I went about the business of having FRILFORD up there. One day I went to the launderette off the Vauxhall Road. It was closed but the woman in the shop next door said it would be open again tomorrow. It was and a charming woman therein took my two full bags of washing and, for a not unreasonable amount of money, turned it all around for me in about three hours. Later I went back and, having some time on my hands, I decided to do my own washing. The place was closed when I got there but the woman in the shop next door was again on hand with local advice. “She said she’d be late this morning, but she’ll be here soon, I’m sure.” She was, although it was not the same ‘she’ as had been there on the previous occasion. I swapped some change for the machine, got it going then sat down on the bench to read my paper. Shortly another woman arrived, laden with bags of washing. Clearly part of the local scene she and the launderette woman chatted amicably as several machines were pressed into service. After a fag break (how are these people going to manage when the smoking ban comes in? This place was only held up by cigarette smoke..) the second woman called to the first “I’m going out the back: you want one.” More of a statement than a question she did not wait for an answer and before long she was back, carrying a tray on which were three mugs of tea. One for first woman, one for her, and one for me! “Here’ya, love. Meant to ask but forgot. You’ll have one though won’t you…?” Hot, sweet tea out of a faded mug. It coursed through my veins like a tonic and, having drunk it, I reckon I could have taken on the world.

First woman was recently back from holiday, apparently, and ready to show off her tan, which was good, from what I could see of it. I got to see more and more of it as various layers of teeshirt came off. “You should see my bikini line” caused me to cough in a rather theatrical manner… Both women turned to me and laughed “You’re alright, love… I’ll see it later!”

I’d like to take washing back there one day.

At the other end of the Vauxhall Road is a discount booze shop. In there I found all the stock, the till and the women behind the counter, caged behind thick steel bars. You have to point at what you want and guide the woman to it – a sort of Golden Shot for the 21st Century. “Right a bit, bit more, now down, right a bit more, no, too much, yes: I’ll have two of those” got me a couple of bottles of red wine, whilst all around youths were buying single cans of lager and half-bottles of vodka. Another time I went in there to find just me one side of the bars and a woman on her own on the other side of the bars. “Do you have a bottle of champagne, please?” I asked, again feeling a bit foolish. They did, and a cold one at that. I explained to the woman that I’d just heard that my cousin’s boy, my cousin who lives in Liverpool, has just got his exam results. He’s done well so we are going to have a drink with him tonight. “Oh, that’s nice,” said the woman, smiling, “I’m made up for ‘im…”

I’d like to play the Golden Shot in there again one day too… A Liverpudlian ex-pat friend of mine said to me on the ‘phone the other day “Adrian, I was twenty years old before I realised that there are actually booze shops that don’t have everything in cages…” I’ve had it so easy, and still do.

Another ex-pat friend, a Singaporean, whom I first me in the early 1980s when I lived in Singapore, sent me a text from Auckland, New Zealand saying she was coming to London to see her sister, on her way to Italy and the San Francisco and where was I and could we meet. Her’s is the most cosmopolitan family I have ever met: Chinese and European parents and siblings married to various nationalities and living in various parts of the world. To a Scandinavian and in New Zealand in her case. Talking to her is like having a World Atlas Gazetteer read out aloud for one’s entertainment!

For one so international a trip to Liverpool on the train was as of nothing so one fine day, together with her young son who was along for the ride and ‘the education’, we set off on a small itinerary based on input from said son. We went first to Anfield, home of Liverpool Football Club. I am not a football fan, as such, but since that visit I have kept a bit of an eye on what LFC is going – and they’ve been doing okay since I’ve started paying them attention! I wanted to get on the Anfield Tour but had already been told the various ones for that day were fully booked. This caused disappointment in young son, which turned to joy later as we were told that a coach party was not going to turn up so there was a Tour Guide and empty tour slot ready to go. We saw it all, went ‘behind the scenes’ heard all about it and sat in The Kop. Our guide has been supporting Liverpool man and boy, as had his father, and was exactly the sort of dedicated fan one hears about but cannot believe really exist. They do, and he was admirable in so many ways.

Getting caught up in these things, as one does, we went into the LFC shop where young son was keen to acquire everything. I bought a coffee mug, which I use most days now, and a lapel pin. One of the shop assistants, a large fellow in full LFC shop regalia, spotted what had caused me a bit of concern earlier – that young son was wearing a Fulham FC teeshirt! With mock severity large fellow bent down to young son and asked “That your teeshirt? There’s a five pound fine for wearing it in here!” Young son went white as a sheet but was quickly restored by a friendly pat on the baseball cap by large fellow and the swift purchase of a boy’s LFC teeshirt.

Mind you, not much of a lesson was learned because, the need for football experiences not sated (mine were; I am now a closet, although it is a deep closet, LFC fan), me, my friend and young son walked off down the road in search of Everton FC and Goodison Park. Another regalia shop but this time more window shopping than anything else. Window shopping done with a Liverpool FC carrier bag much in evidence! I’d been carrying it at one stage but I had engineered to give it to someone else before we got to Goodison Park! They were all friendly in the shop but Everton is Everton and Liverpool is Liverpool. Couldn’t we hide the bag?! Later, after walking up and down in Everton searching for other football regalia (“They only have Liverpool, Everton and England stuff here – I want to buy a Chelsea shirt….!” “I don’t think you’ll do that here…” was all I could contribute to the situation.) we found a cab and drove back to FRILFORD in Eldonian Village.

Young son had a burger en route so back at FRILFORD he was sat down to write an essay about his experiences to date. We had a bit of fun with that. Jacqui, my friend, and I poured drinks and sat in the evening sun talking of old times. Young son, Magnus, struggled with the writing a bit, but with input from Jacqui and me, got down something. Something slightly more surreal than he might have come up with himself, but it’ll make a good reminder of a good day, hopefully.

Next day, bright and early to stick with the schedule, we took a cab to Pier Head. From there we rode the famous Mersey Ferry on the River Mersey and sang along to “Ferry ‘cross the Mersey” which, inevitably and charmingly, gets played every trip, and then, on disembarking, made our way to Albert Dock and The Beatles Experience. I was to meet Christopher who was meeting the Chairman of Merseyfest later. I wanted to shake the Chairman, Phil Pawley, by the hand and congratulate him on what I hoped was a great success. So it was after a relatively quick tour of the shops in Albert Dock and a bite to eat at a waterside café there, Singaporeans love both shopping and food and we were well served by Albert Dock that day, we met Chris. We took Jacqui and Magnus to Liverpool Station for the trip to London and Chris and I went off to find Chairman Phil. It was great to see Jacqui again as it had been probably ten years since I’d last seen her.

First Christopher and then Jacqui – is there something about Liverpool which brings people together? Yes there is. Even people who have no obvious affinity with the place choose to meet there, it seems.

What I planned to do in Liverpool, very much wanted to do in fact and I can’t explain why I didn’t do it, was to go to evensong at the Anglican Cathedral. I had done so on a previous visit to Liverpool, when we had ‘Heath Insured’ the yacht on which I raced around the world, I Albert Dock for some Heath Group corporate flag-waving back in 1994, and was both moved and thrilled by the serenity of the service and the majesty of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s great edifice. I have been back since and had ‘the tour’, although I have get to make evensong; an error on my part. Christopher has dealings with the cathedral at a high level and has wide access. Tobias, his son, was a chorister there for many years and, with my having been a chorister at New College Oxford, I was very aware of the atmosphere of musical study and singing excellence which pervades the intensely private choir rooms behind the high altar, where the subdued hubbub of the cathedral seems so far away. My vertigo was tested as we stood on ‘The Bridge’ and my knees went physically weak as we looked high into the dome above the nave and Christopher explained that at the Millennium Service a soprano had sung a solo from up there. Unbelievable! Or maybe not. Mysterious ways, and all that.

After a couple of weeks in Liverpool it was time to go. I’d not spent time around the fine metropolitan architecture of central Liverpool, the Walker and Tate galleries had not seen me and I’d not been to the theatre. I'd not given Liverpool a chance to be at her best, perhaps, but I'd done enough to know I'd been somewhere special. Indeed I liked what I had done, and I’d had another wonderful Friday night with the Eldonians in the Village Hall, at which Gerry was on fine form and introduced me to some people who also bought whiskies in twos.

Jayne was back from London. She had her mother in tow and had arranged with British Waterways for an escort out to Mughull on 1st September, a day hence. Jonathan, Chris’ eldest son, was to come with me on the trip to Manchester and arrived early in the morning of the 1st covered in intruder-preventing paint. “I couldn’t get in!” he said. After two weeks of fine, warm weather the sun turned to cloud, then to torrential rain and high wind. It was indeed time to go.

Liverpool is clearly a challenging and demanding city. It knows its identity and is happy with it. It, or rather all the people I came across there, made me feel very welcome, albeit more than a little foreign. In 2008 Liverpool is to be the European City of Culture. Part of the development plans for 2008 are to take the Leeds and Liverpool Canal through Eldonian Village Basin, down to Pier Head and into Albert Dock. Since coming away from Liverpool I’ve heard various people say that there’s no way they’d take their boat to Liverpool now, but will do so if they ‘fix the canal’ for 2008.

I am so glad I made the effort to get FRILFORD to Liverpool when I did. I shall take her there again, preferably before 2008 and, hopefully, again in 2008. Then I shall voyage through to Albert Dock, but not before staying a while in Eldonian Village and have a couple of whiskies (you can’t have fewer, it seems!) with Gerry and Tony on a Friday night. I’ll do my washing and have a cup of tea, maybe, in the laundrette, and buy a pint of milk on the Vauxhall Road. I’ll visit the women behind bars in the booze shop and I shall go to evensong at the cathedral.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get to Anfield for a game. After all, Liverpool is my team now.

Take it away, Gerry….

Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way

So ferry 'cross the Mersey
'cause this land's the place I love
and here I'll stay

People they rush everywhere
Each with their own secret care

So ferry 'cross the Mersey
and always take me there
The place I love

People around every corner
They seem to smile and say
We don't care what your name is boy
We'll never turn you away

So I'll continue to say
Here I always will stay

So ferry 'cross the Mersey
'cause this land's the place I love
and here I'll stay
and here I'll stay
Here I'll stay


(Ferry ‘cross the Mersey - Gerry Marsden)