And it was in Liverpool where I saw the Light…

Liverpool is another country, they do things differently there.
Or so it would seem in some people’s eyes.
This may be one 1980s home secretary suggested that Margaret Thatcher leave it alone to fend for itself, like a Ken Loach Passport to Pimlico.
It is one of the most frequently derided areas of the UK.
I think some of that comes from fear.
Liverpool has a personality that can engulf.
It’s political heart remains vast and pounding.
The past rejection and derision it has received from central government strengthens the sense that no hairs or graces will be added to try and make you like them. This is what you get.
Its continuing rejection of, and ongoing battle with, The Sun newspaper says something rather magnificent about it.
Some years ago, I was doing an interview for a digital regional channel, at the end they asked me to say something I liked about Liverpool. So I mentioned some art and the docks and that strange tomb near Hope St where I was told a wealthy gambler was buried seated in a chair with a hand of cards and I probably mentioned Alan Bleasdale’s GBH because it remains one of TV’s greatest masterpieces.
And then the interviewer thanked me with an air of surprise and said rather sadly that people don’t often have something nice to say about Liverpool, which surprised me.
I don’t think it is a city for instantaneous fondness on first sight, you need to wander about and you need to listen, and then you hear the vigour.
As an audience to perform to, it reminds me of Belfast, you crack the nut once you stop patronising them.
Browsing in the wonderful Henry Bohn books, my eyes were half on the books while my ears were lit by energetic conversations about the American election between the owner and two regulars.
(When I went to buy the too many books I’d been attracted to, the owner apologised for the less than scrupulous ordering on the book stacks, but it is just the right level of order for an adventure. It is themed, the art books are in an art section, but after that, you’ll have to be ready for muscular rummaging).

Walking around the Walker Gallery, I overheard many spirited conversations about Walter Sickert, Augustus John, and the John Moore prize.

I don’t usually engage much with the teapot and vase rooms of galleries, so I skip a lot of the V&A, but in this teapot room (I think they call it ceramics), there were two cabinets of broad shouldered taffeta dresses. These are Peter Farrer’s dresses, a retired tax inspector and clergyman’s son who also enjoys dressing in big bright dresses that have a smack of 1940s and 50s Hollywood about them.

Peter is calmly bold in hems. Apparently, this is the first such exhibition and this feels like the right location for this particular taffeta revolution to begin.
The post it notes on the wall say, “so happy to see I’m not the only tranny in the world” and”we need more people like him because there’s not enough fun these days”.

At the top of the stairs, you find yourself being stared at by Margaret Bernadine Hall’s Fantine. An illuminated face that clearly has a story to tell and you know it is not a happy one, it is the story of Les Miserables. Here is a woman who has sold her hair and her front teeth and, without malice, her look contaminates you with guilt.                                          Guilt by association with the world.

In the modern room there is Lucian Freud’s Interior in Paddington, LS Lowry’s Waterloo Dock and some work by Albert Richard’s, a British surrealist and the youngest official war artist of World War 2, killed by a mine while still only in his mid twenties. Inside a drawer, there was also a war painting of Edward Ardizzone. I enjoyed seeing those rarely gallery signs saying “please open” and “please touch”, but do not sit on the William Morris settee.

Further on you’ll find two Waler Sickert’s, Bathers in Dieppe and the Gallery at the Old Bedford.I also realised that I really don’t like animal paintings much (that’s paintings of, not paintings by. I am a big fan of the Chimpanzee paintings of the 1960s encouraged by Desmond Morris). I can scoot past a Stubbs or Dalby horse, though I may stop briefly for a cattle painting.

And it was in the Walker where I had my Turner epiphany.
A Damascene moment, blinded by lack of detail and deluge of light.

I have wandered through the Turner wing of the Tate Britain many times, it is a treat if I have a hectic day which involves a meeting near enough Pimlico to make a hasty diversion.
But it was seeing a lone Turner in Liverpool’s Walker Gallery that managed to startle my senses more than on all the other occasions I’ve seen his work. Despite grasping for words now, this moment was wordless.
Staring.
Then, little bubbles of excited expletives.
Bloody hell Turner, you’ve really done it there.
And then I stared again.
Like looking at a dark winter sky, the longer you look, the more you see.
A magic eye picture of minimalist nature painting.
I saw the light.

Book Shambles is back. Our latest podcast is with Sarah Bakewell, wonderful biographer of existentialists and Montaigne, plus recent interviews with Alan Moore and Noel Fielding. All 34 episodes are HERE

With Johnny Mains, I have edited a new volume of horror stories by comedians, Dead Funny Encore (including Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Alice Lowe, James Acaster, Natalie Haynes, plus special guests story by Alan Moore)

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6 Responses to And it was in Liverpool where I saw the Light…

  1. liliannberg says:

    I feel I comment too often, but I really enjoy revisiting the art through the freshness of your eyes. Only this time some of the image files were too large – at least on my ancient laptop, I could only see bits of the paintings. It doesn’t matter to me as I’m familiar with the work, but others may not be.

  2. ds says:

    I’m from Teesside (Middlesbrough to be precise). It’s not dissimilar in several ways. There’s a mix of Scots, Irish and other nations who came in through the port, or looking for work in the steel industry. The humour and the culture is rough-edged, but has an undertow of the sentimental. Even the accent is flinty and sharp. Like spouse it doesn’t have the warm vowelly roundness of Lancashire, or Geordie. The religion of football is a bond with the town.

    But most of all, they’re both sets of uppity northern provincial gobshites who will not be told to get back in their place, and are inordinately proud of who they are and who they were. That’s why Liverpool’s great for me: they remind me of my home. Liverpool, like Teesside, isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind. 🙂

  3. Melissa says:

    Your museum- and travelogues are so wonderful. A bright spot on my desk in the US, while some of the world around me is looking rather bleak. I made it to the London museums — and to Liverpool for day of wandering about — in my youth, but that was some time ago (have some photos here somewhere of the Liver birds on the Royal Liver Building). I fear it will be a bit more time before I make it back. There is something lovely about having you guide us through what catches your eye. Its intimate in the warmest sense of the word, “Let me tell you a story….” All that’s missing is the pint afterwards. Our daily paper, the Boston Globe has an occasional feature called Frame by Frame and their art reviewer, Sebastian Smee, does something akin to your posts about a single piece from a show or collection. You might recognize the name as he also wrote a book on Lucian Freud, wrote for some London papers, and, oh, picked up a Pulitzer for Criticism. Well.

  4. AJ says:

    I moved to Liverpool for a 5 year academic stint after spending the best part of a decade in Cambridge. Quite some change, and to be honest it was borne out of absolute necessity. The culture shock was severe. But after a year I bloody loved the city, and the people within it. I embraced Liverpool, and it embraced me back.

    After my contract was up, I accepted a position at a US university. I vividly remember my last day in the city, and loading my bags into the taxi that took me to Lime St. The driver listened to my story, and seeing my sorrow gave me a proper hug when I left. This is not something that usually – ever? – happens between two early middle-aged Englishmen, complete strangers to boot, but I’m glad that he did. That’s Liverpool for you.

  5. Lana Hughes says:

    Robin,
    I can’t say I’m surprised that the journalist told you people don’t say nice things about Liverpool, after years of stereo-typing by the media, this is nothing new. The S*n (we don’t like to say the papers name in Liverpool for obvious reasons, the paper is gradually being driven out of the city as more and more places refuse to sell it after their lies), so the response of the Journo is a pre-conceived conception. They judge without any first hand experience, so this type of reaction is something of a media making. The city I think is much more than The Beatles and Football though both power the city immeasurably and I (the city) is grateful to both. I was born in Toxteth and lived through Thatcher, the riots (and much more) but we are magnificent, while I’m not saying it is perfect (every place on earth has it’s minus points), we are stronger than ever and ask any Scouser if they are proud of the people, the place and the answer will be a resounding ‘yes’.
    Liverpool is different due to our diversity and acceptance of everyone. Visitors can find things, places and people that remind them of home even if they are miles away from it, but what makes Liverpool unique is that we are exactly like nowhere else, it is a place to find yourself and it be OK if you don’t conform to what society thinks of as normal. I think my city is built on solid foundations and though we may not always agree with one another, we will always look after each other. Thatcher may have wanted to “Leave them to rot” (what a terrible thing for any Prime Minister to say about part of the country they are responsible for). We have risen like a Phoenix from the ashes and proved Thatcher wrong.
    Look forward to welcoming you and Brian back to my home town in May 2017. Loved the show in Liverpool this week.

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