Saturday, 1 August 2009

Huskisson!

Friday the 31st July, and it was the day of Ormskirk station's grand reopening following its refurbishment. Keith Lumley from Network Rail had told me when the ceremony was going to be, so I thought I'd nip over to Liverpool with the Bf in the morning and then slowly make my way there to have a look.

The ceremony wasn't until 12:30 though, which left me with a morning in the city. I wanted to test my endurance levels, really. As I've said, ad nauseum, I've been weakened from the half a dozen antidepressants I've been taking, and so I thought a stride around the city centre would be a perfect test to see if I was getting any better. After a bracing latte in Caffe Nero to give me a valuable caffeine rush, I started my morning's job: Huskisson Hunting.

You may remember William Huskisson from this time last year, when I visited the area around Newton-le-Willows. The former MP for Liverpool went down in history as the first man to get run over by a train, when Stephenson's Rocket drove over his leg on the very first passenger train service. Huskisson was rushed to Eccles, but passed away from his injuries. His last action as he fell under the wheels was to shout his own name, and this is possibly my favourite "last words" ever.

As you can imagine, losing your MP in such a fashion makes an impression on a city, so I thought I'd have a scout around to find some of the signs of his legacy. The centrepiece of this trip would be his mausoleum, in St James's Gardens beside the Cathedral; but my first stop was the top of Duke Street. Well, actually, if I'm honest, my first stop was the seating in Campbell Square, because I was already exhausted after half an hour of walking. The morning was hot and I was dripping with sweat.

Huskisson's widow commissioned a statue to stand in the mausoleum, but it was considered too fine a piece of statuary to stay there. The design of the mausoleum means that it was only visible from one angle, and so it was moved to a more prominent position outside the Custom House. That was bombed to pieces during the war, so the statue was moved again, to a site on Princes Avenue in Toxteth.

Then the Toxteth riots happened. Somehow, word got round that Huskisson had been a slave trader (which he wasn't) and the statue was torn from its plinth. It was rescued from the rubble a second time, and given to the National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside for restoration.

I found the new, resited statue inside a private development of apartments at the top of Duke Street. It's technically not a public space, but the gates were open so I had a wander in and snapped a shot. From war time destruction, through the Toxteth riots, through long and painful restoration, to finally being secured away in a privatised apartment development: it's like the last sixty years of Liverpool within a statue.

There is, incidentally, some debate as to whether it's meant to be Huskisson at all. Some sources say that he has been dressed in the Roman toga as part of the classical trend of the time; others say that the statue is meant to represent a guardian standing over the tomb. Either way, the plaque on the bottom now names him as William Huskisson, and I was impressed by it as a piece of art.

I continued up Duke Street, into Chinatown, and headed towards the Georgian terraces that surround the cathedral. I love Georgian architecture; it's a much cherished dream of mine that I will one day live in a tall Georgian house overlooking a leafy square, with one of those huge staircases running up the centre. There I can sip coffees in the window seat, reading a novel, while a soft breeze drifts into the room. Then Russell Tovey walks in, wearing only a towel, and... sorry. Wrong dream.

The streets around the cathedral were already starting to get touristy, and it was only just gone nine o'clock. A coachload of Americans, three Japanese people, a Spanish couple trying to get a photo through the railings; it was lovely to hear all the different accents and languages. I turned into Hope Street, walking parallel with the cathedral itself, and once again got a stab of envy at the lucky people of Gambier Terrace, who wake up in their 19th century homes to that view.

Huskisson Street, which runs at right angles away from Hope Street, was already under construction when William took his plunge under the train. It's just a coincidence that you can see his mausoleum from the corner. Whitewashed, elegantly proportioned buildings stretch along the length of the street; sadly, almost every single building had a entry buzzer with four or five buttons, showing that it had been subdivided into flats and bedsits. It's a shame there aren't any good, large homes for families in city centres any more, only apartments.

Down onto Upper Parliament Street, and then I was round and plunging into the dark green hole that is St James' Gardens & Cemetery. I had never been here before. Originally a quarry, the site was turned into the city's cemetery in the 19th Century, and then, when it became too full, it was converted into parkland. It's acquired an unfortunate reputation as a place where society's darker elements have congregated. I first heard of it when I was at college, as the place where an acquaintance would go to find prostitutes; it was also known as a hangout for drug dealers and users. In recent years there's been a concerted effort to clean the place up; a Friends society has been established, and the City Council has also put more effort into its maintenance.

The morning of my visit, the only upsetting sight was a man jogging in lycra shorts. Without wanting to sound like a raddled old Goth, I do love old Victorian cemeteries, with their air of quiet respect and awe for the departed. St James had a similar feel, enhanced by the high rocky walls of the old quarry; it was as though I had descended down beneath ground to where the dead lay. The only sound was the grinding of a lawnmower.

Huskisson's mausoleum lies at the centre of the gardens, surrounded by lawn and close to a natural spring found in the 18th century. It's recently been restored and, as temples to the dead go, it's not bad. It suffers, funnily enough, by being empty. I can understand the objections of the citizens back in Victorian times that you could only see his statue from the front. After all, they didn't have Total Wipeout to watch on a Saturday night, so staring at statues would be pretty good entertainment, and no-one likes to queue. Now though, you peer inside and all you see is an empty plinth. Perhaps it's time William was rescued from inside a yuppie development and restored to where he was intended.

By this point I was frankly dripping with perspiration, and feeling quite weak. I needed a sit down and a rest to recover. And where better to seek sanctuary than inside a Cathedral? With tired legs I mounted the steep tunnel in the rock to the entrance, and stepped inside the blessedly cool building. I tried to look as though I was there for some sort of theological reason as I collapsed into a pew.

I needn't have bothered trying to look penitent. I've said before that I'm a Godless soul, but even I can appreciate the beauty and the majesty of religious architecture. The walls soared above me, red sandstone with intricate carvings and lined with holy symbology. I stared up at the cross space above me and felt dizzy.

But it wasn't real. As my shirt dried and my head settled I became aware of other sensations beyond the religious. The signs asking for donations. The clink of coffee cups. The smell of toast from the "Mezzanine Cafe/Bar". My eyes rested on the seat in front, and the tiny plaque: Presented by Miss B Hasford. It may as well have said This seating experience is brought to you by nPower. It was obsolete as a place of God when they finished it in 1978; Britain had pretty much thrown away any pretence of being a Christian nation. So Liverpool Cathedral had to find a new purpose, and here it was: tourist mecca (well, maybe "mecca" is the wrong word). Alton Towers with crucifixes. Come in, look around, buy a souvenir key ring and a brochure and go home. Tick it off your Big I-Spy Book Of Liverpool Sights and head for the Beatles Story. The Cathedral swallows tourists, but still, the glass and steel bar seemed far more popular than the altar, all spending, spending, spending.

I mean, this is nothing new, I know; churches have always passed round the collection plate, held the annual fair, stuck a giant thermometer on the front door for the Roof Appeal. That's always had a sort of promise behind it, a quid pro quo; you give us fifty pee, we'll look into getting you through the Pearly Gates.

Now they've given up on the promise, because they know, and we know, that no-one believes it any more. The signs asking for donations do so "to maintain this wonderful building", not as alms for the poor. If you hand over your money now you won't get a pat on the head from a kindly vicar and a hint that he'll put in a good word upstairs: your gratification is now instant, because for £4.99 you can buy this lovely guide to the cathedral, or a double mocha, or an egg mayonnaise sandwich. The last great building of God built in this country, and even as it rose above the city, its purpose was dwindling. It's had to perform a paradigm shift, and really, they should just give up on all the religious stuff altogether and let the money lenders into the temple (they probably already have done; a poster near the entrance advises that the building is available for corporate events). They can't call it a House of God any longer. It's a net for catching money.

I love the Cathedral as a building and as an architectural masterpiece. I don't know if I love it still pretending to have any kind of authority. From what I could see, rather than turning to the Archbishop for spiritual guidance, we may as well ask Rafa Benitez; his particular house of worship seems to provoke far more reverence, and is better value for money too.

I'd dried off and recovered, so I nipped to the loo (I'd like to say this is the first time I've pissed in a house of worship, but apparently I mistook the font for a urinal at my christening) and then made my exit. It was getting on for 10:30; I needed to make tracks, literally, if I was going to get to Ormskirk by lunchtime.

I headed down Rodney Street towards the city centre, and paused at a traffic lights to wait for the green man. My eye was caught by one of those plaques the city has erected to commemorate its famous sons and daughters. Henry Booth, 1789-1869: Founder & Director, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company, Born Here. I was delighted. After a morning following William Huskisson, I had, entirely coincidentally, ended up outside the home of the man who indirectly caused his death. It was a strange sort of circle I'd walked there. I'd almost say it was divine intervention - but I don't believe in that sort of thing...


2 comments:

Michael Mouse said...

I hope you don't plan on making a regular blog on Liverpool's landmarks and points of interest, lol!

Merseytart said...

Huskisson's railway related, so it's my jurisdiction - you can't have the WHOLE city, squeaker!