On the top deck of the morning number 86 bus into town from Liverpool’s leafy southern suburbs, between Woolton and Allerton where Lennon and McCartney grew up and where we had found a room for the night. The parks and the avenues and the bandstands round here all giving out that urban bucolic English feeling that seeps through Beatle’s records. Earlier we had stood for a while in the graveyard of St Peter’s, the spot the fateful village fete took place where Lennon’s Quarrymen played their set watched by a 15 year-old McCartney.
“You doing a Beatles tour mate?”
A rolly-polly man with a mop of curls, thick scouse accent, clip-board, cheap suit and a red tie tied ludicrously long, hanging down past his genitals, had called out to us from between the gravestones. One of the old gravestones here, almost unbelievably, for an ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
“Er, we weren’t planning on it…” I said.
“You can come with me when I’ve got rid of these lot,” he nodded at his group of a few unhappy looking Chinese and a South American. “I’ll be back soon,” he called out, waggling the clipboard at us above his head, as he packed his confused-looking crowd into the back of his battered saloon car.
“Right, the next stop is the pub on the front of Ringo’s ‘Sentimental Journey’ album cover,” I heard him say as they drove off. “Seat belts on… Not that one, that one’s bust…”
One of the South Americans turned an imploring face to us out the window as the car pulled away. Giristroula and I left quickly and headed towards the regenerated Albert Docks.
‘Tasteful regeneration.’ ‘Sympathetic regeneration.’ The holy grail of the previous broken-down parts of Britain. The dream that we’re meant to believe every part of the country is holding out for. The two of us can’t think of what to do here though, on these regenerated docks, surrounded by the flats and water walkways and the clean cafes with wide glass frontages and metal tables outside. So we find we’ve ended up in the queue for one of the Beatles’ bus tours.
“Where are you from, love?” says the chipper guide. “Greece? Ooh nice. And you?” he says to a blonde girl. “Finland? We haven’t had many Fins… Canada? Welcome, love… Manchester? Come over here for the culture have you…?” He’s relentless. Cackling away, nudging people, poking them in the ribs.
Finally we set off. First stop: Ringo’s old home.
Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Mendips. We’re ferried in the bright yellow Magical Mystery Tour coach to all of them. Two large women from Birmingham in the seat in front of us won’t stop crying the whole way. McCartney had actually played a concert in the big Liverpool Arena down on the riverside last night. I hadn’t known this, but many on the bus had been at the gig. It seems very strange to me – as we pull up outside the National Trust owned house where McCartney grew up – the distinction lost between the living musician they saw on stage last night and the heritage figure immortalised with a statue in town and whose small childhood home we were now visiting like some medieval ruin or worthy historic chapel knave. No one else seems to care though. The two women in front continue with shoulder heaving sobs, clutching at noses with handkerchiefs.
The Beatles were big in Greece. Obviously. Giristroula’s mother loved them as a girl – she was one of the teen YieYiedes. She told me about dancing round her record player in her Athens bedroom to her 7″ singles. However when the dictatorship took over in Greece in 1967, rock and roll music on the radio was banned. Beatlemania – Mpitlomania – ended for my mother-in-law, never picked up again. When I once showed her a picture of the Beatles in their Pepper-era psychedelic clobber, she looked at it horrified. “Pioi eene aftee kale?” – Who the hell are these?
In the afternoon we walk round the city. Giristroula comments on how, like a torn poster on a wall for some once-great show, you can understand how impressive a city Liverpool must have been. It still shines through strongly at times. It’s there in the neo-classical grand bank buildings, the columns and marble pediment of St George’s Hall.
We stroll along, pin-balling between the two Cathedrals – the Anglican one at one end of Hope Street and the Catholic ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ one at the other, and then decide to take a walk into Toxteth. I tell Giristroula, sketchily, of the riots here in 1981. As an enthusiastic, but vagariously ineffectual, participant in the Greek riots of 2008 herself, she sets off looking round her with a sort of focused purposefulness.
To begin with Princess Road, leading out of the centre, seems tree-lined and leafy with plum-coloured, well-kept, tall Victorian houses. Giristroula seems almost disappointed. And then a little bewildered as we pass the onion domes of a large Greek Orthodox church. “Greeks? Here? Why?” But of course, Liverpool is a city of immigrants, and Greeks are the great itinerants. The master Greek poet C.P Cavafy even lived here as a boy at the end of the last century, amongst the importers and exporters and the seafaring men. I think of Cavafy’s poem ‘Ithaka’ about travelling to a place you always keep in your mind, but also the importance of not hurrying or ignoring the journey you take to get there. It seems appropriate somehow on this slow odyssey towards my new life in Greece.
Hope the journey is a long one.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
As we continue through the Liverpool suburb, it starts to change. The Toxteth houses start to get smaller, terrace-ier. Soon we’re in amongst rows of slowly decaying streets where the small two-up-two-down homes are all boarded up and shuttered down. It all feels a little unsettling, like some virus has hit this part of the city and steel shutters and iron doors are there to contain something pestilential and harmful. It’s sad to think how memories of family life have been almost excorcised here: the Christmases, the packing for holidays, the rows, the laughter, people falling in love, people falling down stairs, all the things that must have happened in all these houses, as they happen everywhere, now all gone. The new-build, regeneration-programme, houses and flats all seem cheap, thin and appalling and ennui rather than anger seems the prevailing mood in Toxteth today as we walk through.
We pass a ‘Bargain Booze’ shop with metal mesh shutters and a security guard in what looks like a stab vest stood on duty – his main preoccupation as we pass today though seems only to be helping a bent, tiny, old Indian lady get a vast bumper pack of toilet rolls down from a high shelf. Race relations may still be difficult in this area – and certainly more confusing in Liverpool than in Greece. Liverpool still sums up well the great mixing bowl of Britain: a port town sitting like a turnstile in the country. Black third generation Liverpudlians living here with names like Riley or Evans, mixed-race kids with Irish and Welsh heritage. Tracksuited white kids, hanging around on bikes, smoking skunk in home-made bongs from empty cans of pop – children of the skilled white workers left beached here after the work sailed off in the 1980s. And now the added North Africans, Middle Eastern, Eastern Europeans. But everyone in Toxteth seems bored. There’s a feeling of isolation. The Greek understands well from her home country this feeling of those on the lower rungs being disregarded, of industries being closed down, whole generations losing out and people shunted to the side of their own lives.
We head back into the centre, where there is a Liverpool with a very different story to tell of itself and pick up a new rental car from the fresh, gleaming glass Liverpool 1 business and shopping area – crowded with people fixed on getting more and more items for the house, wrestling along with great tangles of rectangular shopping bags of cheap tops and designer jeans. We make tracks to head out of Merseyside and head north along Walton Lane, through the red and blue halves of the city, looking for a way to get onto the M6. Giristroula tells me, oblivious to it being the usual cliché, that she liked the city and liked Liverpudlians, found them warm and witty in a way completely different to the rest of the country. I think of mentioning the other received wisdom of the place: the sentimentality and the self-dramatising. But stop myself. Why bother mentioning these dull routine stereotypes? I liked the people and the feeling in this city too. I’m sorry to be leaving.
“We’ve got to see this place… It has to be seen to be believed!”
We’re heading into Blackpool and I’m trying to gee-up a morose-looking Giristroula slumped like a reluctant child dragged on a rainy caravan holiday, eyeing me doubtfully from the driver’s seat. Though, of course, I don’t know what to expect either really. I’m finding it pretty hard to convince myself that we’re doing the right thing, but once we turn off Squires Gate and onto the Promenade, it’s there. A sight that strikes at the senses. We’re still quite early in the season, and the weather has turned squally and the un-illuminated illuminations are swaying a little desolately in the wind above us, and out beyond the promenade there’s a sunless sea and an unsmiling sky. But there is also a huge roller-coaster running high above the road on our right side. Trams trundling along low on our left. Miles and miles of gaudy bright entertainments run ahead – dilating our pupils like a thick gloopy sugary drink reaching the brain. It’s tacky and terrible and I like it straight away.
There are bored-looking donkeys waiting to be ridden on the sand. Women with held-up skirts whinnying as they dip toes into the cold sea. The ridiculously sad sight of a lone father and his son in done-up anoraks going round and round on an empty funfair carousel. The carousel playing a slow thin tinkling tune that makes the whole thing just seem ever more tragic. There is a lot of explaining to be done in this town though. Giristroula thought the Blackpool rock I’d told her about, quite surreally, was going to be a souvenir of a stone on a stick. So we get out of the car and walk around and I buy her a stick of the real Blackpool rock. She has a few nibbles and from her face, I think she would have actually preferred the stone. She has heard of “kiss me quick” but thought it was some romantic term: couples dying for each other, quixotically pining for one final touch of their lover’s lips, rather than the Donald McGill world of saucy postcards of big bottomed women in tight bathing dresses and hen-pecked husbands. We test this Blackpool world of marriage being a dirty joke – newly-weds making fools of themselves on the hideous beds of seaside lodging-houses – by checking in to one of the seemingly thousands of lined-up small B&Bs on every street. The owners – she in large, comic hedgehog slippers, him in a stained Blackpool FC shirt – let us know straightway, very proudly, what a great English breakfast they make – “I’m up at 5am to put the sausages on, me…” – and how they’ve renovated the room.
“Go up and see what we’ve done…” she nudges me, winking, smiling coyly. “Go on…”
It appears they’ve put up a picture of a yellow New York taxi driving down a black and white street on the wall. Which I take down. All the other little British b’n’b accouterments are happily in place though. The teasmade is there; the orange and red thin carpet has a pattern so motley I lose my balance just trying to walk on it; the hideous curtains fall to within a few inches of the sill; the bed is reassuringly lumpy. We head out to see Blackpool before the last of the light goes.
In the close-ribbed grid of streets, the houses all look very much the same. Giristroula tells me that she loves the look of the typical British house – “Greece has so many… just…blocks” – but confesses she still has to always look closely for the number outside of our own home, which she’s lived in for five years now, because she still can’t tell any of the houses apart. Blackpool seems a real heartland for this British uniformity. Row after row of little semis: houses and B&Bs with names – christened to help the owners differentiate – but where even the same names keep cropping up. But if you live here, of course, then there are a million differences. The streets might look the same but many weird things could be going on behind those doors. If the town is a bit of an uninspiring place to live, people must end up inventing lives for themselves even more. So Giristroula and I walk on, in that perfect time for snooping – between lights going on and curtains being drawn – and look into every living room to see if we can spot the eccentric suburbanites indulging in little light cross dressing; or maybe an old man sitting in his window with a German helmet on, playing their accordion; or some respectable middle-aged ladies practicing unspeakable pagan rites dressed in their Sunday coats.
We pass the Rigby Road depot for Blackpool’s trams and see a great gathering of old 1920s tramcars – still in use, ferrying passengers up and down past the Pleasure Beach all summer – taking a breather for the evening. A frail old man comes to his front door and beckons me over.
“Get us a paper, lad” he asks me in a toothless, thick Lancastrian voice and shakily places 20p in my hand. “Blackpool Gazette”
I go down the road to the shop for him but all papers have been sold this late in the day.
“Sorry,” I tell him giving his money back. “All gone.”
“What? What time is it?” he says, looking at the coin and then at me, confused.
“How can they be sold out then? They only just got started!”
“Well it’s eight in the evening so I guess…”
“Eight in the evening?” he says “When did that happen?” He looks around him, up at the sky, not understanding, looking frightened.
We stand and talk to him for a while but we can’t really help and he remains in this muddled state at his door as we have to leave and head down the road. Giristroula keeps turning back as we walk away, seeming at a genuine loss to understand. The old just aren’t left to cope this way in Greece. Even the old people’s homes that we’ve seen studded all over the seaside towns of Britain that we’ve passed through – old women in armchairs staring out of big bay windows at far glimpses of the sea – are very rare in Greece. It’s the family’s job to look after their aged, and everyone does.
I’m unable to shake the melancholy for a long time, as we sit on scuffed formica table tops in a tatty old backstreet fish and chip shop and have an obligatory Blackpool fish supper. I introduce Giristroula to tartare sauce here and she’s so taken with this new heavenly find, unheard of in Greece, she asks for it with nearly every dinner we have for the rest of the journey, fish or not. She’ll never go back to tzatziki now.
Later – the wind coming straight off the Irish Sea vivifying us under the Blackpool Tower – I watch Giristroula trying to make sense of the huge ‘Comedy Carpet’ laid out here. The catchphrases of Britain’s comedians embedded into this work of art on the Golden Mile, just as they’re embedded into the British psyche I guess. It’s a good piece to have here on the knees-up, knickers down, how’s-yer-father Blackpool prom and I watch Giristroula take pictures of the huge lettered “Titter Ye Not” and “Don’t Mention The War” and “Ooh Betty!” I wonder just what she thinks it can all mean. She doesn’t ask. We then we test the other Blackpool postcard image: the drunken, red-nosed husband rolling home to meet the linen night-gowned wife waiting for him behind the front door, poker in hand, as we set up store in the Albert and Lion pub right underneath the Tower. The Wetherspoon’s pub is now in what used to be the Woolworth’s store where Albert bought his ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle in the famous story. And much more explaining is needed to be done on this long Blackpool night.