I’ll skip over the fact that I’ve not written anything on here since July last year. That’ll all be covered in a later post. Maybe. Instead I’ll be telling you about my recent visit to Liverpool, because a) that’s more interesting and b) it’s certainly fresher in my mind. Since me and my girlfriend Alison founded Red Army Fiction last May I’ve been meaning to get away somewhere to see if it would help my writing, and it has. I don’t know if it was just being away from London or whether it was something about Liverpool in particular that did it, but over the last few days I’ve not been able to put my pen down.
My first visit to Liverpool wasn’t exactly under ideal circumstances. Alison’s father passed away recently and she had been up there already for the past week seeing to the funeral arrangements. So I decided to get the train up on Saturday to go and give her some support.
It’s a place I would gladly have gone to out of choice, if I’d have gotten around to it. A place I’d always had in the back of my mind that I’d one day visit. When I had the time and the money. And then I met Alison – and it seemed inevitable that I’d be visiting Liverpool at some point. I’d assumed we would have got the train up together – but because of the unfortunate turn of events I rolled into Lime Street alone and was met by Alison at the end of the platform. As dusk swept over Merseyside we made a beeline for the nearest pub.
“At a pub down on Lime street I then went astray
Way – hey, blow the man down…
I drank enough stout for to fill Galway Bay
Give me some time to blow the man down”
That excerpt might sound slightly homoerotic, but I can assure you it’s a very macho song about seamen.
The pub was alright. I think it was called the Crown. A gaggle of Liverpudlian women in skirts way too short for February descended the staircase behind us, and Alison told me that they were ‘typical scouse lasses’. Alison wanted to take me to one of her favourite pubs, so we went back to the hotel and dropped off our (my) luggage, and then we found ourselves in the Swan, just off of Bold Street.
The Swan is a proper pub. Think Liverpool’s answer to the Mucky Pup in that it has a cracking jukebox filled with a who’s who of classic rock and metal tunes. Alison told me it was one of the only proper rock pubs in Liverpool. I liked it instantly, for obvious reasons. But even more so for the price – £6.00 for a large red wine and a pint of cider. Cheap beer + great music + nice, all round atmosphere = Brilliant little boozer.
On Sunday evening I became aware of the fact that I had not eaten for nearly 30 hours. Anybody who knows me will testify that this is very unlike me. So Alison introduced me to the Greenbank Chippy on Smithdown Road, her local fish bar.
This place does the best curry sauce I have ever tasted!!
As well as “fish and chips, burgers, kebabs and Greek meals”, the Greenbank chippy also doubles as a Chinese. This is surprisingly common in Liverpool as there is a sizable Chinese community. As I was on the verge of wasting away I easily polished off a half pounder with cheese and a portion of chips with curry sauce. Proper curry sauce, not the watery brown stuff you get down south.
The next day Alison’s brother Chris took us for a drive and we saw the street where John Lennon was born, as well as Penny Lane where we saw the barber’s shop, and then further on the slightly less famous Aigburth Arms – or at least the pub that used to be the Aigburth Arms. As a Red Dwarf fan I was made up with that, although we didn’t go in so I didn’t get a chance to see if anybody had abandoned a baby under the pool table.
“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies”
All of the buildings in the neighborhood Alison grew up in are red brick houses – proper terraces built of reddish orange bricks which give the whole place a warm, earthy feel. I read once that voodoo practitioners use red brick dust to keep out evil spirits. There are no evil spirits in this part of town. Wavertree is proper Liverpool.
Alison and I decided to go for a walk the next day when the sun just peeked above the clouds. I was glad because it meant that I got to spend some time with her and she got some time away from the stress of sorting the funeral preparations. She wanted to take me to the glass house, a Victorian pavilion in the heart of Sefton Park. She said it was one of her favourite walks.
After we traipsed across a large green on the way up there we realised that the previous night’s rain had turned the green into basically a huge marsh. Unfortunately we made this discovery when it was too late to turn back, and both ended up covered in mud up to the ankles. The pavilion is a marvelous building, but sadly it was closed to the public that day. Instead we went to the cafe a few hundred yards away.
Park cafes in London tend to be overly expensive as part of an effort to keep the working classes away so that posh pricks can enjoy their Earl Grey tea without having to mingle with plebeians. Sefton Park cafe on the other hand, was nothing like that. I was surprised at how busy it was for a weekday in February. And a cold, wet one at that. But the biggest surprise of all was the quality of the food. I’d gone for the Italian Job burger – two hamburgers topped with mozzarella cheese and pepperoni inside what my girlfriend informed me was called a ‘barm cake’. With chips and a pepsi it came to £5.50 which, when I saw the size of it, I had no complaints with. Two HUGE burgers and a mountain of chips… and melting cheese and pepperoni on BOTH burgers, as it should be.
I’ve never seen the combination of hamburger, mozzarella and pepperoni before, and I am amazed that it isn’t more popular. Sefton Park Cafe: I would patent the Italian Job if I were you, because you’re onto something there. I can honestly say that was the best burger I have ever eaten. I couldn’t even finish the chips in the end, nice as they were.
We had a good long walk around Sefton Park (I needed it after that!!) and Alison showed me where the aviary once was, and we walked across the stepping stones she used to go across with her dad, and across the little bridge where she used to play Billy Goats Gruff. Then we head back to Smithdown Road and rounded off our stroll with a visit to…
…Dafna’s Cheesecake Factory. I’ve been wanting to come here ever since Alison first told me about it. A real Liverpool institution, Dafna’s was founded back in 1973 by Anne Lev, who chose the name because she felt that “Dafna’s” had a better ring to it than “Anne’s”. But it is the quality of the products here that sets it apart and has made Dafna’s a household name throughout the whole of the North West.
Since moving from home in 1977 to the current premises on Smithdown Road (pictured above), Anne Lev has become something of a local celebrity. As well as the ten different flavours of cheesecake, there were at least a dozen other cakes on offer, ranging from red velvet cake to Swedish apple and cinnamon and Norwegian almond cake, all sold whole or by the slice. Alison’s favourite is the coffee cake, which she says is ‘to die for’. I went for a slice of sachertorte. Having had the real thing in Vienna many years ago, I can safely say that this was every bit as good. Dafna’s also does a range of homemade jams and chutneys, and I suspect the apricot jam used in the sachertorte was a part of that range. Absolutely delicious. Put simply, Dafna’s alone is worth visiting Liverpool for.
That night we met up with Alison’s childhood friend Jane and her boyfriend Stephen. We went to a tex-mex restaurant called the Tavern, which is right opposite a model railway shop. They even have a model train which circles the bar. I’m 28 years old but watching that train go round and round took me back to my childhood – I was always fascinated by model railways as a kid and I thought it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen! The food was great, me and Alison shared a huge plate of nachos to start and then I had cajun spiced salmon with fries. Really nice. It was great seeing Alison catching up with her friend, even if Stephen and I could hardly get a word in edgeways!
The next day as we walked around the city, I noticed I had gotten into a habit of comparing Liverpool to London. I’d even had a conversation with Alison about the subejct – different aspects of cities and which of the two was better – so far Liverpool was winning. We walked up Bold Street and popped into News From Nowhere – Alison’s favourite bookshop, and across the street I discovered this place:
Every city needs a Matta’s International Foods. The great thing about living in a big city is getting to meet people from all around the world. Just within a mile radius of my house in London there are a handful of Bangladeshi grocers and butchers, three Chinese supermarkets, a Russian supermarket, a Brazilian supermarket, and a Vietnamese supermarket. Stick all of those in a blender and you get Matta’s.
I suppose London and Liverpool aren’t so different in that sense. Both are trade hubs, port cities which over the years have welcomed visitors from probably every country on earth: Irish, West Indian, Chinese, Jewish, Indian and Somalian, to name but a few of the many nationalities that have helped paint Liverpool as the cultural canvas we see today. But many of these people have not just passed through but stayed, and contributed to the city – case point: Chinatown.
London’s Chinatown is in-your-face, on a grand scale, whacked up right to 11, but at times it almost feels like a bit of a novelty. On the other hand, the home of Liverpool’s Chinese community is much more subtle (aside from the huge iconic archway above, of course). But it does actually feel like a community. Liverpool has the oldest Chinatown in Europe, and the Chinese influence spreads throughout the whole city – it’s everywhere in Liverpool if you look hard enough, lurking just beneath the surface. A fascination with the exotic but an understanding that at the same time, there’s no place like home.
We walked from Chinatown to Williamson Square, and then down to the banks of the Mersey. A rain had started to fall but neither of us cared. Alison pointed out that the tide was the highest she’d seen it in a long time. It did look as though it could spill onto the embankment at any moment. As the famous ferry pulled away behind us and headed for the Wirral, we finally took shelter inside the Museum of Liverpool.
Unfortunately the Museum was closing in about half an hour, but we did manage to have a quick look around and saw an exhibit on the former Liverpool Overhead Railway (lovingly nicknamed the Docker’s Umbrella), an exhibit on prehistoric Liverpool and a short film about the identity of scousers. I’d liked to have spent longer here, and maybe taken in the Tate Liverpool as well.
Our next stop was nearby Albert Dock, where I found a souvenir shop that was still open and bought a pack of Liverpool playing cards for my Mum to add to her collection. Next door was a sweetshop – complete with Beatles mural made out of Jelly Belly beans – impressive!!:
We had a quick drink in the Pumphouse, which was obviously at one point a very nice pub, but has since been stripped of its atmosphere and the only thing pumped up is the prices – 9.90 for a glass of red wine and a pint. We then walked back across the city again and ended up in the Philharmonic, which was a bit cheaper and I stared in amazement at the famous ornate toilets (which are Grade 2 listed even though the rest of the building isn’t!)
Going back on the bus to Alison’s mum’s place I felt a little sad that I would have to go back to London the next day. I’d had a great time in Liverpool and I’d learned a lot about what it means to be scouse. Liverpool might be part of the UK on paper, but it’s a totally different country to the rest of England. Liverpool writes it’s own rules – there’s no pretense here, no ego, just a big heart and a lot of pride, and it’s easy to see why. I’d like to add that I didn’t have a bad meal the whole time while I was here, and I’m actually quite surprised that Liverpool is woefully overlooked as a major food destination. But most of all I’d particularly like to say a big thank you to Alison’s family, who despite going through such a hard time, managed to make me feel very welcome.
“It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me
But my darling when I think of thee…”