Liverpool, a port city near the mouth of the river Mersey in northwest England, has had a turbulent history. Granted its charter in 1207, it never amounted to much until around 1715, when it became heavily involved in the slave trade. Between 1830 and 1930, nine million people emigrated through the port, mostly from England, Ireland (especially during the potato famine), Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia. Through this period it was also a major port for international shipping. A number of grand Victorian buildings were erected: the Royal Liver Building (if I tell you it's the Royal Liver Assurance headquarters you'll probably pronounce it correctly), topped by the famous 18-foot-high Liver Birds; the Liverpool and Walker museums; and what I assume is the most impressive building of all, St. George's Hall. I kept reading about this building and wondering why I couldn't find it, even though it was supposed to be across the street from our theatre. Then I realized it was "that building behind all the scaffolding."
The city's decline began as shipping was redistributed around other ports in the country, and it was heavily bombed by the Germans during a week-long blitz in May 1941. The shell of St. Luke's Church, which I passed every day during our stay, is a fittingly poignant reminder of the blitz - only the outer walls remain, enclosing a collection of overgrown weeds and shrubbery. Race- and poverty-related riots in July 1981 caused further damage to parts of the city. The upshot of all this is an ethnically diverse city with appealingly gritty streets and with hardened citizens who have learned to take things as they come, press on, and speak their minds.
We spent almost two weeks there, after a long journey from Los Angeles. The flight to London's Heathrow Airport was ten hours: I dozed off soon after dinner, awoke, and, as one is likely to do, looked nervously at my watch, fearing I hadn't slept away very much of the trip. I was pleased to discover I'd slept seven hours, and the rest of the journey passed quickly.
A 35-minute flight brought us to Manchester, and then we were bussed, by private coach, the 30 miles to the Britannia Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. It's a grand hotel, with opulent public rooms and long hallways, though the lifts were painfully slow (one usually out of service), and several of our cast (and of the football team upstairs) had items stolen from their rooms during show times, when it was known the rooms would be empty. The lavish English buffet breakfast, with sausage, blood pudding, hummus, smoked mackerel, and fried bread topped with fried egg, to name just a few items, was marvelous - so much so that I had to skip it every other day or so as I couldn't resist shoveling in as much as I could.
Subconsciously I must have needed to give myself an errand to run and an excuse to take a train on our first full day in the city, and that's no doubt why I decided to leave a small, but important, bag on the coach that brought us to Liverpool. To recover the bag, I had to take a train 16 minutes to the suburb of Runcorn, and then a cab for two miles to the bus depot. I had about 75 minutes to make the return journey before our afternoon tech rehearsal - plenty of time.
The train to Runcorn was clean and comfortable. A conductor announced, "All tickets, passes, smiles, and excuses" - you can be fined for not having a ticket - and then someone came by selling snacks. I took the rather expensive cab ride to the depot, reclaimed my bag, and realized I had barely enough time to walk back to the train station before the next train left for Liverpool. I had to run the last few minutes, but I arrived just at the scheduled departure time and saw no sign of the train leaving. As I arrived at the station platform I heard the tail end of an announcement, which I assumed concerned the imminent arrival of the train.
It didn't. A few minutes later they repeated the announcement, which was that a rail had broken somewhere down the line and all train service to Liverpool had been suspended. They said we should go into town and take the X5 bus, which left at quarter past and quarter to the hour. This announcement was made at 13:46, so I had just missed the bus - and I missed the next bus, too, due to incorrect directions given to me by the station attendant. I got on the 14:45 (at least I had an opportunity to check out Runcorn's suspicious-smelling produce market) and arrived at rehearsal 90 minutes late. Later I went back to the station to claim a refund for the return part of my train ticket (since it wasn't valid on the bus) - and was told that refunds can be made only by mail in the form of a voucher for future train travel. I'm still having a polite e-mail battle with Central Trains' customer service over this one.
But back to Liverpool. That first day I met my co-keyboard player, Stephen, who conducted the European tour of Fosse
in France and Holland last year. He's got a quick wit, he loves Indian food, he has the latest mobile-phone/PDA/MP3-player combo available in the UK (the Sony Ericsson P800), and - drum roll, please - he was reading a book of Bill Bryson's. Needless to say, we get along great. (Bryson, it turns out, also stayed at the Adelphi, patronized the two pubs I shall mention later, and dined at one of the Greek restaurants that we did.)
Our performances for the first four weeks in England feature Claire Sweeney, who starred on the British soap opera Brookside
. Despite somewhat small audiences - some less than half the Empire Theatre's capacity - the show has been well-received by the public. Our first show was, in everything but name, a preview, and featured the only bit of mischief by the pre-recorded tracks that we've had to deal with in England. The Rich Man's Frug is in three parts, each of which requires a separate starting of the tracks. After part one, Ross pressed the cue button to start part two, but part one played again. It took us in the orchestra a few bars to realize what happened, but gradually we crept in. The cast simply kept going, doing the choreography for parts two and three as we repeated part one. This was OK for a while, since parts one and two are at the same tempo, but part three is supposed to be markedly faster. It also features some "Oh, yeah!" sung vocals, which came in somewhere as we were nearing the end of the repeat of part one. When we finished, the cast just took a stance wherever they were, and we went on with the show.
The reason this happened was that there must be a bit of space at the end of the track for part one, and perhaps Ross pressed the cue button a little earlier than he usually does. If he presses it in the middle of a song, it goes back to the beginning of that song. I'm not sure why we didn't just stop the show, take thirty seconds, and reset with part two - I doubt the audience would have minded. But I do notice that since then, Ross has waited just a little longer before starting part two.
Our second show, the official opening night, however, was excellent, and it was followed by a splendid opening-night party, complete with pianist and with British and Indian snacks.
In fact, Indian food was the best way to go in Liverpool. I dined at several Indian restaurants - Shapla, Passage to India, and the uninspiringly named Master Chef (which was highly recommended by Eric and Casey, and rightly so) - which had varying standards of ambience but always served excellent food. Also good were two Greek restaurants, the low-key Zorba's and the taverna at the Kebab House, where there was live music, though not the plate-smashing rowdiness promised outside - the place was almost deserted, even on a weekend night. I also had fine meals at a Turkish restaurant called Euro Palace - yet another place wanting for a more exciting name. On the other end of the quality scale was Caesar's Palace: I should have known never to enter an establishment where Cajun chicken, chicken enchiladas, curry chicken, and chicken with pasta were all on the same menu.
And then there was Chinatown. Liverpool has Europe's oldest Chinatown and the largest Chinese gate outside China, so the Chinese food should be pretty good, right? Well, there was never any bustle in the area, all the establishments were almost empty, and few of them opened before the evening (except for one decent dim sum place). Most of them stayed open until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning - no doubt, as Erica and I discovered one night, because you have to be pretty drunk or drugged up (and sadly we were neither) to palate what they serve. There were, at least, three Chinese supermarkets, where you could even go into the back warehouse and buy, say, a 100-bottle case of soy sauce - but they were pretty useless as we had no kitchen.
On one occasion I got to try scouse, the local culinary specialty: a thick soup made with meat, carrots, onions, and perhaps whatever other vegetables are available. Liverpudlians are also known as Scousers. Mine was served by a little cafe near the Mersey ferry as a few of us waited for a boat to take use on a little journey down the river and over to the Seacombe Aquarium. The aquarium was quite small, but it did give a good sense of what could be found in the Mersey - sea bass, lobster, cod, prawns, broken glass - though I somehow had the feeling that if I visited one of the Chinese supermarkets I'd find all those things swimming around there too.
While Liverpool's restaurants were hit-and-miss and sparsely populated, the city had a jubilant, vibrant nightlife. On weekend nights the cold British streets teem with drunk teenage guys and with girls in miniskirts on whom it has never dawned to wear a jacket ("sluts gone nuts" is Erica's phrase), so they stand there shivering outside as they queue up to get into the thumping clubs. I preferred a more refined atmosphere, such as two of the more cosy, opulent pubs: the Vines and the scholarship-exuding Philharmonic, both of which have rooms of various sizes and comfortable little nooks.
Liverpool's museums are fantastic, and nearly all are free, which is a good thing because it took me three visits to see the whole of the Merseyside Maritime Museum. It's near the docks and contains captivating exhibits on the slave trade, mass emigration, Alfred Holt's Blue Funnel Line (the primary shipping service between Britain and China between 1866 and the 1970s), ship building, and Liverpool's role in World War II. A temporary exhibition, Spirit of the Blitz, was especially moving. I watched a short film that was shown to residents in the 1940s to explain, for instance, how to erect steel shelters in their back yards in case of an attack. A group of elderly people was watching with me, and one said, "I stayed in a shelter like that."
Especially fascinating was the HM Customs & Excise Museum, on the ground floor of the maritime museum. There was an extensive exhibit on the creative methods used by drug smugglers, such as hiding drugs in a piece of fake fruit amidst a shipment of melons. There was also an explanation of the various things that have been taxed over the years. An excise officer used to have to let a candle maker into his shop each morning, lest he produce candles and not pay tax on their sale. And from 1695 to 1706, unmarried men over 25 were subject to a "bachelor tax"!
The Museum of Liverpool Life provided insight into the working lives of immigrants, life in a court (two parallel tenement buildings surrounding a courtyard through which their sewage ran), and in particular the lives of dockers. Liverpool's docks are pretty well deserted now, as most of the work is done by just a few people and a lot of machines - but imagine what it must have been like when thousands of workers would line up in the predawn hours, hoping to earn a day's pay unloading cargo and mending sails and so forth. How many workers were needed depended on the number of ships in port, so finding work was unreliable.
There's a branch of the Tate Museum, and one of the wonderful things about the Tate is that you never know what you're going to get. Along with a decent collection of 20th-century art were a sampling of drawings over the past 300 years, a creation of modern artist Rebecca Horn's involving eight mirrors, and a room devoted to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Ever heard of him? Neither had I. He died in 1915, at age 23, but he did it all - painting, sculpture - with international influence, such as Tibetan themes. How famous he might have become if he'd lived another 30 or 40 years and been allowed to flourish.
The Liverpool Museum was part natural-history museum, part ancient-civilizations museum, with the customary collection of skeletons, statues, and sarcophagi. It was a good starter museum for kids, and one of the temporary exhibits was perfect for kids - "Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body." Where else will kids really learn why you sneeze, belch, vomit, and "toot"?
There was more propriety two doors down at the Walker Museum, which, among a hefty collection of British paintings, was having a special exhibit on Rossetti. The thing about Rossetti is that while his subjects vary from religious to secular, taking in biblical themes, market scenes, music, and so forth, you sort of have the feeling that you keep looking at the same painting - and that's because he painted nearly all his works using the same two models: his wife and his colleague's wife, both painted with their protruding chins and deep eyes.
Between the Liverpool and Walker museums was the splendid central library. I went in there primarily to find free Internet access, but then I lost myself in the extensive collection of local-interest selections. Where else could I pick up a copy of Documents Connected With the Donation of the Brown Library
? Or how about the page-turner Liverpool Loop Line Proposals for a Railway Path and Cycle Route
While those particular tomes may not have piqued my interest, a couple of items did, and I was able to borrow them by obtaining a temporary library card in exchange for a deposit of £13.50. Richard Whittington-Egan's Liverpool Log Book
was a collection of short stories of local lore, such as the Williamson Square cafe open exclusively to taxi drivers: One driver reportedly was asked by a passenger to take him all the way to Hamburg, Germany. Another story concerned the 25-foot-diameter clock faces - actually larger than Big Ben's - at the top of the Royal Liver Building. The time on the clocks used to be maintained with the utmost accuracy, reset twice daily, and had such a reliable reputation that one man, having missed his bus twice and thinking the clocks were three minutes slow, called in a fury to report the error - and it was discovered that he was reading the time from an improper viewing angle. Sadly, the upkeep of the clocks has faltered a bit - two faces consistently showed times two minutes apart while we were there.
Also captivating was John Cornelius's Liverpool 8
, which refers to the postal code of an area known as Toxteth, just south of the city center. Cornelius is an artist who lived in Toxteth and, for some time in the early 1980s, earned a living drawing portraits of bar patrons at their request. Liverpool 8
contains fascinating accounts of the multicultural neighborhood, its diverse collection of bars and clubs, its seedy characters, and the markets on Lodge Lane and nearby streets. An neighborhood home to Somalis, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Jamaicans, and others, this was the area most heavily hit during the race riots in July 1981.
I decided a morning's walk around Toxteth would be a worthwhile excursion, to see what had become of the area, and whether any of the places mentioned in the book still existed. Well, it ran the whole gamut. Some stores were still in full swing, some buildings still existed but were completely burned out, and some streets described in the book aren't even there anymore. Upper Parliament Street had been home to several of the most colorful-sounding bars, but not one remains - modern, though attractive, housing, has taken their place. There's still the Nigeria Centre, and a Jamaican B&B, and many of the people were speaking African languages, but the street is now pretty sterile. On a parallel street a crumbling wall surrounded a junkyard of trash, tires, and glass, the domain of a vicious-looking black dog. A sign on the wall read "Caribbean Car Parts - Lada Specialists," and another sign said, "For Sale - Good Investment."
And what of Lodge Lane, once bustling with produce shops, and the epicenter of the riots? I'm happy to report that Ali A. Mohammed's general store is still there - in a bout of philanthropism I bought an exorbitant bottle of water from him - as is one other Arab-owned store. North of all the old shops is the carcass of a brick building, blackened with ash, that looks as if it hasn't been touched since the riots. Perhaps the most poignant stretch was at 98-102 Lodge Lane. Cornelius describes (and sketches) the fruit and vegetable market formerly at number 98, which on Saturdays would have long lines out the door as people bought cheap produce (he says the Italian greengrocer a little up the lane had the same items but they were much more expensive). Number 98 has now been firmly boarded up, but it looked like the sketch, with the door on the left and the four squares above the main window. Number 100 had an upside-down, broken sign that said, "Fish Poultr." Number 102 has been renovated and is now run by "African Carribean & Europen Hair Specialists." Above the stores were two floors of flats. Except for the salon, it didn't seem as if anyone still lived or worked there, but as I gazed an elderly man, probably Arab or Pakistani, emerged from the door of number 98 and regarded me suspiciously for a long moment.
I moved on to parallel Granby Street, the heart of the Pakistani neighborhood in Liverpool 8
. A lot of stores seemed to still exist, but only two of about 20 were open on a weekday morning. They included the Pakistan General Store, where I purchased a box of fresh sweets from the friendly proprietor. The store definitely had its loyal customers - the proprietor was on casual terms with them - but there weren't very many of them and the street seemed eerily quiet. It wasn't nearly as dead as perpendicular Ponsonby Street, however, which Cornelius described as a dangerous "no-go area" - here there's now a complete row of 30 or 40 nearly identical attached houses on each side of the street, every one of them boarded up and abandoned.
And then I turned into Sefton Park Road and at once was walking past grand houses with big lawns. I was reminded of Liverpool native Willy Russell's musical Blood Brothers
, in which a mother of newborn twins in the Liverpool slums can't afford to keep both, and gives one of them away. They grow up best friends, unaware that they are brothers. Musical-theatre fans either love the show or hate it (if you're not into musical theatre you've probably never heard of it). I'm in the former camp, touched by the story and most of the songs and able to tolerate the 17 reprises of the opening number - but the point is that the musical is very Liverpudlian, and I think by this point in the trip I'd gained more of an appreciation of the show's nuances.
Sefton Park is an upscale suburb of Liverpool; the park itself is large and contains the Palm House, an indoor botanical garden of some sort - but that's not where I was headed. I made instead for Allerton Road, simply to look for a new restaurant called Crichton's - Mr. Crichton himself had been at our opening-night party and had invited us all to dine at his restaurant, if we could find it. I found it, but I wasn't particularly hungry (this was not one of the days on which I skipped the Adelphi's breakfast buffet) and in any case there were two restaurants nearby, namely Fusion and The Other Place, whose menus looked far more enticing.
Now about five miles from the center of Liverpool, I began a roundabout route back, stopping to visit the Sudley House, formerly the home of wealthy merchant George Holt (from the same family as Alfred Holt of the Blue Funnel Line) and now a museum containing the family's impressive collection of paintings. The house is surrounded by a large lawn and park, which are frequented by people and their dogs. I arrived at the same time as one woman who had come for this very purpose, and when she stopped her car and opened the door three little pooches bounded out. She was about 65, sang with an opera company, and had plenty of tales of Liverpool. "Oh, I could go on and on about Liverpool," she said. "But I'm afraid I'd bore you to death."
"No, no, really, you wouldn't," I said, and I meant it.
But our discussion turned to music and my role on the tour. Another lady arrived with her dog, and the first said to her, "He's from New York. He's performing at the Empire. Couldn't we just wrap him up and take him home for Christmas? We could tell him everything about Liverpool. But I'm afraid we'd bore him to death."
Our crew did not have a great couple of days after our last show in Liverpool. With half the man-power as usual, they spent the whole night loading out, until 7:00 Sunday morning, and after a three-hour drive to Oxford, began loading in almost immediately. They worked until late Sunday night, and then were back in early Monday morning. This regime would continue for the rest of the UK portion of the tour. Erica was exempt from the Sunday-afternoon portion of this madness, but she was still up all Saturday night and had to report at 8:00 Monday morning.
The local wardrobe crew, who help actors with their costume changes, make sure costumes are ready before the show, and then assemble them for laundering afterward, skipped the middle half of a show our last day in Liverpool to go out for a drink, leaving Erica and Randy to handle all the costume changes. The assumption was that our company, like others, wouldn't go to the trouble of filing the paperwork required to dock their pay. This was true - and we can only assume, for our own peace of mind, that they all suffered a mild bout of alcohol poisoning as a result.
Oxford, where we spent a week, was the first city where we were all in housing of our own choosing. Erica and I stayed with a woman named Sarah, who lives a couple of miles south of Oxford in the suburb of Cowley, in a narrow three-story house on Hollow Way (so called because the street, formerly used for transport of quarried building materials, was once much deeper). Judging from the numerous brochures in her house, I think she may have worked for a travel agency - but we didn't get to know her as well as we would have liked, as from Tuesday on she had to be in San Francisco. This meant we had the place to ourselves, and were free to use the kitchen and washing machine and everything else we missed about living in an actual home.
We were surprised at how trusting she was. The fee was £110 for both of us for the week, which she said we could leave on the table when we left the following Sunday. And we could leave the key under the outdoor mat, since she wouldn't be back until Monday. There was a mail slot we could have put it through, but she may have needed that copy as she had just had the locks changed - ironically, because something had recently been stolen from her living room.
Access to Oxford from Cowley was easy. It was a short walk to Oxford Road (the extension of Cowley Road), from where bus number 1 ran frequently to the city center. It also happened to run well after midnight, one of very few to do so. A seven-day bus pass, which we bought from the driver, was £9, and it entitled us to unlimited travel on all Stagecoach buses. The only quirk was that bus number 5 ran along precisely the same route, but as it was run by a different bus company our passes weren't valid. Cowley Road itself, which I walked a couple of times, was full of Indian grocery stores, trendy bars, and a host of different ethnic restaurants - Syrian, Jamaican, Polish, and of course the ubiquitous Indian.
Oxford seemed rather high on itself. It comprises a couple dozen colleges, all ancient, beautiful, and prestigious. Many of them charge from £2 to £4 to let you walk through, which I thought rather added to the pretentiousness. I mean, Harvard would never charge anyone to walk across its campus. Fortunately, a couple of Oxford's campuses were open and free, and I was content to explore these and assume that the others looked pretty much the same.
That said, because it was fall, it was cool but not rainy, and the ground was thick with fallen, multicolored leaves, it was a gorgeous time to be in a college town and simply go on long walks - such as along the Thames one evening, when a crew team was practicing its rowing, and through the muddy, scruffy Lye Valley Local Nature Reserve, off a wonderfully named road called The Slade near Cowley. Another walk, suggested by our trumpet player, Tony (who has a bike on tour and explores vast expanses of terrain daily) took me northeast of the city, into farm land. I passed the Oxford Crematorium and the more inviting Bayswater Mill. It would have been nice to have a look around, except the place was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and had signs denoting it a private estate and warning me that I was on surveillance camera. Pretentious and exclusive, indeed.
My favorite place in Oxford was the covered market, and in particular the David John stall, which sold various cheap meat pies, pasties, and sausages. I ate there four times during that week, sampling, among other things, a cold, jellied venison-pheasant-rabbit meat pie and a Scotch egg (a breaded hard-boiled egg). Erica and I cooked a couple of times, trying David John's innovative vegetarian sausages (carrot-coriander-lentil-orange and sweet-potato-and-chestnut). Near David John was a stall claiming to have the world's oldest ham. It was cured in 1892 and may still be edible - sadly, it wasn't available for tasting.
As for restaurants, well, there were precious few open late, considering it was a college town. There were two Lebanese places, both with excellent food: Al-Salam, with the more varied menu and better decor, and Tarbouche, with high prices considering the small portions and diner-like atmosphere. Then there was Chutney's, a decent Indian restaurant, and the loungy Cafe Baba, on Cowley Road near our digs. All were considerably more expensive than their counterparts in Liverpool.
There were some excellent museums. The Ashmolean, the country's oldest museum, dates from 1683, when someone first had the idea of exhibiting personal collections to the public. It has plenty of the usual sculpture and painting, and the ubiquitous Chinese porcelain. I think I've nearly reached my lifetime limit of Chinese porcelain - it seems to be in every museum in the world, and, as Erica says, it's always at the front, so you have to walk through it to get to what you really came to see. But the Ashmolean shone for its wonderful English-history collection, and for its star attraction, John Tradescant's personal collection, the first private stash to be publicly put on display. There were odds and ends from around the world, including items given by Native Americans to the first European settlers in North America.
Another wonderful museum was the History of Science Museum, the basement of which used to be a working laboratory and still somewhat smells as such. Here was a huge collection of Persian astrolabes dating back to the 13th century - Muslims were the first to seriously develop personal instruments for measuring time and direction, since Islam calls for daily prayers to be held at specific times and facing toward Mecca. There were also a large display of old calculating devices, plenty of microscopes, and numerous items that fell into the "I could figure out what that does and how it works, but it would take me an hour and you'd have to draw me a diagram - no, come to think of it, I give up" category.
And then there was the delightful Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, small but crammed with instruments of all shapes and sizes. I thought I'd seen the gamut of brass instruments in my day, but here were specimens with extra curves, bells, and valves that I never would have dreamed of. There were also some old keyboards, including a harpsichord thought to be Handel's.
There were also the "I'm part of Oxford, so I'm high on myself" museums, such as the huge Bodleian Library, which would have been great to explore. Unfortunately, it's closed to the public except for expensive guided tours, which no doubt would fail to take you into the nooks and crannies that you really want to see. To be allowed to enter as a reader, you have to have some affiliation with Oxford or be introduced with letters of recommendation, you have to complete an application, and you must recite "the long-established Bodleian declaration, available in a wide variety of languages," according to the application form.
The Apollo Theatre, where we performed, was recently renamed the New Theatre, but there wasn't anything new about it. The orchestra pit wasn't big enough to hold all eight of us, so instead we played in what in all but name was a boiler room under the stage. This is the first theatre this season where we've had to play backstage, and it was fairly demoralizing. We could hear the performance in our headsets, but there was no movement, no audience. Somewhere a show was going on, but we were scarcely part of it. The dry, overheated room didn't help. Wooden planks were strewn all over the place, as well as a smattering of "No smoking" signs. In the center of the room was the hydraulic gizmo that once rotated an onstage turntable. Metal pipes, the size of water pipes but not actually connected to anything, hung from the ceiling. One of the pipes fell onto my keyboard and Brian's chair during a performance. Fortunately, it was while we was on stage, playing "Sing Sing Sing." If it had fallen 20 minutes earlier, Brian and I might well be out of a career.
I took the first bus Sunday, the 6:45, up Cowley Road to meet the crew and ride with them three hours to Manchester after their second all-night load-out. It was on a small bus with precious little leg room, too much heat, and virtually no luggage space. When we got to Manchester, the crew had three hours before they - wardrobe excluded - were due back for a ten-hour load-in. Have I pointed out that this is a non-union tour?