Saturday, June 02, 2012

Northern Lights

First impressions can last a lifetime, while beliefs and attitudes change over time. The opinions of others aren’t always based in a recognisable truth, nor do they always correspond to our own. One need only read reviews on a particular artist or work of art, a film, book or even a luxury hotel or new restaurant to see that evaluations differ according to expectation. Personal experience however, brings invaluable knowledge in formulating genuine understanding of the insider perspective. So it is with people we meet, befriend and even dare to love, and places we visit once as a tourist or a child but then return to after awareness of life has taught us about formulating belief based on instant judgments.

Yesterday I watched as the Olympic torch was carried in procession through the streets of that distinguished northern English city, Liverpool.

A token of freedom and power, the torch signifies continuity and the spark of genius that lives on in the soul beyond the reach of the forged glimmer of temporal concerns into the hopes of creative enterprise. At once a false god and a beacon of truth, the torch is recognised by people everywhere as a symbol of liberty and the spirit of the advocate come to bring light to the darkest regions. In the shadows of history Liverpool was indeed a sinister place, garnering riches from evil pursuits and feeding on the poor and frightened while amassing wealth through politically devious means. Time and the long experience of hard living however, can change everything, like love it can eventually break down the most stubborn and hardened hearts.

Liverpool is and has been many things to the world in its long and chequered history. To some it is a magical realm of extreme excess populated by happy-go-lucky shaggy-haired boys living in yellow submarines and blue meanies who have littered the overgrown strawberry fields with decrepit council houses and boarded-up shop fronts. Since its decline as a major hub of the slave trade and world-renowned shipbuilding it has evolved and changed into a centre of creativity and advanced its situation with a focus on tourism.

Along the Mersey riverfront are stunning new art galleries and hotels and striking postmodern architectural blocks that contain sporting arenas and concert halls, and a sense that the purpose and meaning of life that had escaped from this northern town long before the Beatles made their getaway has been renewed with a vigorous attempt at smart style and a desire for tourist dollars.

Among its crumbling façades are fashionably hip nightspots and must-see places of interest; museums to pop stars and maritime navigation, the slave trade and football heroes sit remarkably comfortably alongside chic restaurants and busy market stalls selling all manner of imported foodstuffs, retro-fashion clothing and locally crafted handiwork.

Boutiques and coffee houses now crowd the narrow and confined lanes that weave labyrinthine through the old town to the visually arresting indoor shopping arcades, Liverpool is learning to accentuate the best of what it once took for granted. These winding paths have become vogue and charmingly inoffensive in their glance back at a cumbersome past through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

The stylish and expansive Albert Dock area with its massive Ferris wheel, grand amphitheatre and of course a well-stocked regional Tate gallery, has become a centre for modern culture.

Standing proud in the once dirty and teeming docks are masterpieces of contemporary art and magnificent glass and steel structures resplendent as the morning sun reflects off the river.

In the middle of this oasis of wealth one can feel a touch of higher-class elitist values emanating from this industrial capital of another era.

A visit to the Bluecoat gallery confirms the odd need some artists have to pour their personal anxieties onto the stone floors of history. This space, where Yoko Ono first exhibited in the UK is, like so many modern galleries, a place where boundaries are pushed but few actually succeed in defining style with human warmth. Go along if there is something happening, as the events are often better than the substance of the work.

In the dockside Tate one can be persuaded that contemporary art has depth and feeling to balance the intentional twisting of cultural roots. Paolozzi’s homage to Michaelangelo represents the broken dream of Western idealism while Dali’s surreal lobster phone sits comfortably beside Monet’s tranquil ponds and Warhol’s dancing girls.

Chamberlain’s scrap metal appears admirably intentional across from the manufactured needlessness of Lucas as Hockney and Moore compete side by side to reassemble an age of beauty in simplicity of form.

A special exhibition of writing and free expression was on display for those who wanted to partake; current national poet laureate Carol-Ann Duffy had installed a large whiteboard onto which visitors could randomly assemble prewritten words and phrases to create an immediate and temporary work of collective public poetry.

The two big football clubs that contend for dominance in this small city were playing each other on one of my recent forays into the heart of the metropolis, and challenging chants and friendly banter echoed across the street from the doorways of competing Irish pubs offering sports and fist fights for the hometown fans.

American franchises might attract more generic entertainment for most visitors to this friendly city, though in true northern spirit it’s still entrenched in ancient adversarial rivalries that transcend the understanding of most ordinary day-trippers.

Although springtime was pushing buds and green leaves from withered branches and the sun blessed me with its presence for most of my stay, the evenings chilled with a dash of rain that made ducking for cover in the world famous Cavern Club a sincere pleasure, and though definitely a kitsch attraction for those seeking reminiscence, it was one of the highlights of my visit to the old town.

With memorabilia from various stages of the Beatles’ career, especially the days playing as house band in this recreated underground hotspot with its coarse brick arches, one can easily spend hours and dollars relaxing with local ales to the note-perfect sound of tribute bands and look-alike performers.

The singers and musicians do their best to entertain with songs and witty Lennonesque asides, and we weren’t disappointed as everyone sang along with the classics and danced to the bebop rhythm of the rough and ready early numbers while black and white newsreels and films flickered like peeling paint on the bare stone walls. Continuing the theme, the next day we headed over to the Beatles museum and lost ourselves in the groovy pomp of sixties revivalism.

Educational and amusing the attraction is filled with artefacts from the heady days of self-discovery when people believed a song could change the world. It offers a chance to revisit memories or experience a sense of what it must have been like to chart a course to success only to discover that real accomplishment is but noble survival when proclaiming peace in the midst of those who prefer to forge weapons from ploughs than peace from promises.

During European capital of culture year 2008, I was invited to show some of my work in a fabulous gallery space near the Albert Dock. The presence of so many artists and musicians in the city at that time made me feel as though I too had accomplished something special. I’m looking forward to my return to show in Liverpool again, and perhaps next time I’ll stay for longer. 

My first impressions of Liverpool were favourable and it has continued to grow on me, rather like a friend one sees only occasionally but upon meeting again is comfortably talkative as if picking up the thread of an unfinished story.

I suppose this is partially due to the circumstances of my initial foray into the regentrified docklands area, its up and coming attitude and the sense of history around every corner, and also because Liverpool itself is a hospitable place with so much to do and see.

Some people give a great first impression and we are instantly taken with them, but then they leave us with regrets when we discover they aren’t who we thought or hoped they would be, while others impress us with their integrity and grow into lifelong friends; Liverpool is the friend you want to see again.
Liverpool welcomes the stranger, invites honest appraisal and holds its head up as a city in transition from the gloomy age of reason and the time of industrial invention to the colourful era of creation and personal discovery.

The beacon of light that shines across the Mersey today will delight and inspire all visitors to this at-once grimy and glittering urban centre. A torch has been lit and the spark of the wonder of tomorrow lives in the rejuvenated hearts of those who call Liverpool home.

Although I’m not a local I feel connected to this wonderfully cosmopolitan city through creative association and endeavour, for surely wherever like minds gather to share thoughts and express positive and heartfelt emotions, in places where feelings and opinions are made tangible and the substance of dreams congeals through age and acceptance into an candid exploration of contemporary culture, I will be a welcome guest.

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