On the top deck of the early morning bus into town from Liverpool’s leafily pleasant southern suburbs, between Woolton and Allerton where Lennon and McCartney grew up respectively, where we found a room for the night, and where it’s not so hard to imagine their early lives, so relatively unchanged the area feels. We are heading to the Albert Docks to take a trip on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, which can be read about here.
In the afternoon we walk around the city. Passepartout comments on how, like a torn poster on a wall for a once great show, you can understand how impressive Liverpool was. Still today it can shine through brightly at times. We stroll between the two Cathedrals, the Anglican one at one end of Hope Street and the Catholic ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ one at the other. We then walk into Toxteth and I tell Passepartout, sketchily, of the riots here in 1981 and, as an enthusiastic – but vagariously ineffectual – participant in the Greek riots of 2008, she is keen to see the area.
To begin with Princess Road leading out of the centre seems green and leafy with plum coloured, well-kept, tall Victorian houses. She seems almost disappointed. And then bewildered as we pass the eye-catching domes of the Greek Orhtodox church (“Why? Here?”). As we continue, though, the houses get smaller, terrace-ier, and 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 feels unsettling, like some terrible 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 any memory of family life have been, sort of, excorcised here: the Christmases, the packing for holidays, rows, laughter, people falling in love, people falling down stairs that must have happened in all these houses as they happen everywhere, 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 as we walked through. Race relations may still be difficult and certainly more confusing in Liverpool than in Greece (with black third generation Liverpudlians living in the city with names like Riley or Evans: mixed race kids with Irish and Welsh heritage) but the Greek understands from home the feeling of people at the bottom being ignored by those in charge – a lack of work and little to elevate them in their surroundings. A feeling of people being pushed to the side of their own lives.
We head back into the centre and a Liverpool with a different story to tell, picking up the rental car from the new dynamic Liverpool 1 business and shopping area. As we head out of Merseyside the Greek tells me, oblivious to the usual cliché, that she 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 wisdoms of the place: the sentimentality, the selfdramatising, but stop myself. As we head north on Walton Lane, bisecting the red and blue halves of the city, looking for a way onto the M6, I think why should I? I liked the people I met and the feel in this unique-aura city too. I’m sorry to be leaving.
“You’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 Passepartout slumped like a reluctant child dragged on a rainy caravan holiday, eyeing me doubtfully from the driver’s seat. I’m finding it pretty hard to even convince myself that we’re doing the right thing though, to tell the truth. However once we turn off Squires Gate and onto the Promenade it’s there, a sight to strike at your senses.
We are still quite early in the season and the weather has turned squally and the un-illuminated illuminations are swaying sadly in the wind above us. There’s a sunless sea and an unsmiling sky. But also a huge roller-coaster running high, close to our right side, trams running low on our left, and miles and miles of gaudy bright entertainments running ahead – dilating our pupils like a thick gloopy sugary drink reaching the brain: this is a mad vision of Britain. The archetypal British holiday resort but more, too much more. Tacky and terrible. I love it.
There is a lot of explaining to be done in this town though.
The Greek thought Blackpool rock – quite surreally – was going to be a souvenir of a stone on a stick. So I buy her a stick of the real Blackpool rock and she has a few nibbles. From her face, I think she would have preferred the stone.
She has heard of “kiss me quick” but thought it was a 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 featuring big bottomed women in tight bathing dresses and hen-pecked husbands.
We test the 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’n’bs in every road. The owners – she in her comic hedgehog slippers, him in his 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!”) 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 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 accoutrements are happily in place though. The teasmade is there, the orange-y thin carpet has a pattern so motley you lose your balance just trying to walk on it, the curtains fall to within 5 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 grids of streets, with houses all looking very much the same. Passepartout tells me that she loves the look of the typical British house. “Greece has so many.. just..blocks”, but she still has to always look for the number on the street of our own home because she still can’t tell any of the houses apart. And Blackpool seems a heartland for this British uniformity . Row after row of semis. B’n’bs and houses with names – christened to help differentiate, but where even the same names keep cropping up.
But if you live here, of course, then there are a lot of differences. The streets might look the same but a million weird things can be going on behind those doors. If the town is a bit of an uninspiring place to live, people must invent lives for themselves even more. And so Passepartout and I walk on, in that perfect time for snooping, between lights going on and curtains being drawn, and look in every living room to see if we can spot the eccentric suburbanites sitting in their window with a German helmet on, playing their accordion or something.
We pass Rigby Road depot for Blackpool’s trams and see a great gathering of old 1920s tramcars – still in use today, ferrying passengers up and down past the Pleasure Beach all summer – but 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 tells me, a toothless thick Lancastrian voice. He 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 8 in the evening so I guess…”
“8 in the evening? When did that happen?” He looks around him, up at the sky. He looks frightened.
But we can’t help and he remains in this muddled state at his door as we leave and Passepartout keeps turning back, seeming at a genuine loss to understand. The old 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 we’ve passed through 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 in a tatty old backstreet fish and chip shop and have an obligatory Blackpool fish supper (I introduce Passepartout to tartare sauce and she’s so taken with this heavenly amrita she asks for it with nearly every dinner we have for the rest of the journey, fish or not).
Later the wind straight off the sea vivifies us under the Blackpool Tower and I watch Passepartout trying to make sense of the huge ‘Comedy Carpet’ laid out there. The catch phrases of hundreds of Britain’s comedians embedded into the Golden Mile, as they’re embedded into the British psyche. It’s a very good piece and I watch her take pictures of huge lettered “Titter Ye Not” and “Don’t Mention The War” and “Ooh Betty!” and wonder just what she thinks it all means.
Then we test the other Blackpool postcard image of the drunken, red-nosed husbands rolling home to meet the linen-night gowned wives waiting for them behind the front door, poker in hand as we set up store in the Albert and Lion pub right underneath the Tower. The pub is in what used to be the Woolworth’s where Albert bought his ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle in the story… And much more explaining is needed to be done on this long Blackpool night.