On the top deck of the early morning 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 that urban bucolic English feel that once lept from the 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 doin’ a Beatles tour mate?”
A rolly-polly man with a thick 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, ridiculously, 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, as he packed his confused-looking crowd into the back of his battered saloon car. “Right, next stop, we’re going to see 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…” The South American turned an imploring face to us out the window as the car pulled away. We left quickly and headed to the regenerated Albert Docks.
‘Tasteful regeneration.’ ‘Sympathetic regeneration.’ The holy grail of the previous broken-down parts of Britain. We 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 fronts and metal tables outside, so we end up in the queue for one of the Beatles’ bus tours.
“Where are you from, love?” says the chipper guide. “Greece? And you?” he says to a blonde girl. “Finland? We haven’t had many Fins…Canada? Oh nice…. Manchester? You’ve come down 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 ferried to them all. Two large women from Birmingham in the seat behind us won’t stop crying the whole way. Coincidentally, Paul McCartney had played a concert in Liverpool the very night before, many on the bus had been at the gig. It seems 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 here could care less though. The Birmingham couple behind me continue with shoulder heaving sobs, clutching at noses with their handkerchiefs.
In the afternoon we walk 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 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 we 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 is keen to see the area. 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. “Why? Here?” she asks. 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 akways keep in your mind, but also the importance of not hurrying or ignoring the journey you take to get there. It seems significant 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 marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience
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, but his main preoccupation as we pass seems only to be helping a small old Indian woman getting a 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. And then the tracksuited white kids, hanging around on bikes, smoking skunk from empty cans of pop – children of the skilled white workers left beached here after the work sailed in the 1980s. And now the North Africans, Middle Easterners, Eastern Europeans. But everyone in Toxteth seems bored. There’s a feeling of isolation. And the Greek understands well from her home country this feeling of those on the lower rung 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 we pick up a new rental car from the fresh, gleaming glass Liverpool 1 business and shopping area – crowded with people fixed on getting 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 on Walton Lane, bisecting the red and blue halves of the city, looking for a way 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 wisdoms 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.
“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 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 and 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 there’s a sunless sea and an unsmiling sky… But also a huge roller-coaster running high, close to our right side, trams trundling along 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. Tacky and terrible. 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. I spot the ridiculously sad sight of one lone father and his son in done-up anoraks going round and round on an empty funfair carousel. The carousel playing a thin, weedy tune that only makes the whole thing 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 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 then 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 on every road. The owners – she in large, 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, 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 on the street of our own home, which we’ve lived in for five years now, because she still can’t tell any of the houses apart. And Blackpool seems a real heartland for this British uniformity. Row after row of little semis: houses and b’n’bs with names – christened to help the owner 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, I guess people end up inventing lives for themselves even more. And 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 perhaps there could be three or four respectable middle-aged married ladies upstairs 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 today, ferrying passengers up and down past the Pleasure Beach all summer – but taking a breather now 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 eight in the evening so I guess…”
“Eight in the evening? 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 him and he remains in this muddled state at his door as we leave. 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 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 she asks for it with nearly every dinner we have for the rest of the journey, fish or not.
Later the wind coming straight off the sea vivifies us slightly under the Blackpool Tower, and I watch Giristroula trying to make sense of the huge ‘Comedy Carpet’ laid out here. The catchphrases of hundreds 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 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 can all mean. She doesn’t ask. 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 pub is in what used to be the Woolworth’s 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.