We begin with a thought: The train station around the corner… Is it as abandoned as I think it is or do trains still stop there every once in a while? I’ve never considered it before now as I thought that trains never stopped there but it turns out that once an hour you can get a direct train into Liverpool and the returns aren’t too infrequent either. Now I think to myself that this is very interesting. This station is within walking distance so catching the train from here means no expensive bus ticket on top of the train ticket. I can also get into the city up to half an hour quicker than before. This opens up a whole raft of new possibilities. If this train station proves its worth then it will open up a whole raft of new adventures. Without having to wait for busses I’ll be able to get to a whole load of new places in a reasonable time and it will be no more expensive than any of my previous short trips. I’ll also be in reach of a convenient cinema for the first time in my life, EVER! But we’ll have to see about those adventures and cinema trips some other time as first I’m going to get all cultural!
I’m going into Liverpool to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap so I have just the opportunity to check out the station. It is Saturday morning, decent looking weather but still a bit chilly. The forecast is predicting snow for this weekend… It’s actually April, the middle of spring, but the way things are going with the weather this year I wouldn’t be surprised if it did somehow manage to snow. And I don’t have my usual kit with me either- No camera, no reading material, no bag of any kind. Not even spare socks or a spare jumper in case of accidents or if I end up stranded somewhere. All I have is what will fit in my pockets, most prominently my phone and my iPod. I’ve done this for a reason. I don’t want to be lugging any big heavy bag into the theatre with me as it won’t really look right, won’t look proper. It would make me look like a bit of a slob. The bad news? I’ve been filming what my typical week looks like and without a camera I can’t film any of the day. It seems a shame not to get any shots of Liverpool whilst I’m here so I decide that I’ll use my phone instead of the camera, thinking it won’t look too bad. Unfortunately, as I shall discover later on, the video camera on the phone is in sepia mode and I can’t work out how to change it back to normal. The footage I end up with looks like it’s from the early 1900s. It’s a small price to pay for not wanting to look a bit slobby in the theatre but with some honky tonk music over the top it looks alright in the end.
That, however, is in the future. I have to get to Liverpool first before I can do any of that. This station is well hidden, down a back alley between a funeral parlour and a barbers shop. It’s not a big building either, built either in the late Victorian or Edwardian era. Most of the windows are shuttered up and barred and there’s an air of abandonment about it. I proceed with caution and push the knackered old door open into the bare waiting room. It hasn’t been decorated for nearly thirty years by the looks of it but the ticket counter is manned by a bored and bald man. Handing me my ticket he points to a door on the other side of the waiting room.
‘Platform 1… Just through that door.’ Great. Right. Thanks… This door is locked! I try it again but it’s definitely locked. I think I saw a gate out to the platform outside so I go back through the front door to find out. It’s there.
The platform has all the feel of an old fashioned, rural station. It could be a setting for something like The Railway Children. At the far end the road is carried over the line by a humped bridge and the trees blocking out the surrounding houses and the lack of people make it a lonely, isolated place. All it needs an old, hardworking porter with a droopy moustache dispensing words of wisdom, a smoke belching steam train and Jenny Agutter running along the platform shouting ‘DADDY, MY DADDY!’ at everyone who gets off a train. The only other sign of life though is a white pigeon which keeps fluttering up to the roof and then back down again. There’s no benches, nowhere to sit. The other one has those but forget it on the one you’re on. I lean against a pillar instead, music in my ears. Unlike the bigger stations I don’t have to strain to hear it and I can turn the volume down for a while. I stare about the empty platform, noticing the missing slates from the roof of a shelter on the opposite platform and some missing from the roof above me. This is nice… I start to feel like I should be chewing on a toothpick and with my stetson atop my head, maybe strumming a guitar and singing country folk songs in a Dylanesque fashion. The Trains We Are A Changin’ perhaps. Or maybe Like A Rollin’ Stock! The loneliness is perfect for my imagination… Screw the fact that I can’t actually play the guitar as well.
It can’t last. But this station is so small, so much almost abandoned, that I begin to expect it to last. Then comes the rattle on that locked door into the station building. It stops, rattles again and again. Then there is silence and the clicking of a lock as the bored bald man comes to open it. The retired couple who come through are only the first. They’re followed by a mother and her two teenage children and a man who insists on vaping at the edge of the platform right in front of me, despite there being miles of space. They all stand about awkwardly, nowhere to sit, intruding into my fantasies. All these people look too modern. If they’re going to stand there they could put on some Edwardian get up or at the very least dress like they’re hanging out in the American mid west.
The next intruder is not a steam train as it really ought to be. It’s a diesel pacer with a lack of smoke and glamour. However, it’s comfortable and not so noisy that I can’t hear my music. It stops at every station on the way into Liverpool but it doesn’t take too long overall. The overall slowness means that I find myself drifting off in my window seat from time to time. This is a perfect train ride and as we cut through the outer suburbs of Liverpool everything is bright and cheerful. The future is unknown but the world is saying it’s going to be alright and we are rolling towards a place where anything is possible.
The hubbub of the city on a Saturday morning is a different kind of hubbub to that of the city on a weekday. Then everybody is rushing about, trying to get to work or business meetings or catch another train somewhere. On a weekday there is no time for pleasure but come Saturday the atmosphere changes. People are more relaxed, more prepared to let the whole world drift on by. I like this. There’s no sense of any troubles, nobody looks worried or agitated. People are not here for any really serious reason, just pleasure. All seems good in Liverpool today. So where, amongst this happy crowd, shall I go first? I have several hours to kill before the play starts so that’s plenty of time to do loads of things… I just don’t know what.
I first head in the direction of Bold Street. A part of me thinks about going to see the old bombed out church of St Luke’s at the end but I don’t get that far. I turn around and go back the other way, deciding I didn’t really want to come down here in the first place. So why do I do it? I really don‘t know. I wander, aimlessly, in the other direction as if I were heading for the Albert Dock and then I divert towards the Bluecoat where I know there’s a second hand bookshop that’s worth looking around. I only found this place by accident because the Bluecoat is well tucked away down a side street and not advertised. You have to know it’s here really. This is the oldest building in central Liverpool and the bookshop here is the proper, old fashioned sort of book shop with old fashioned leather books abounding from floor to ceiling. I see a few things that interest me, some Daphne Du Maurier’s, a rack of old time pulpy sci fi novels by the door… There’s a copy of The Pearls of Lutra by Brian Jacques, a book I read a very long time ago. The spine, the cover, it’s the same edition or there abouts and for old times sake I open it up to take a look and have a nose at the price. It’s only three pounds but bloody hell… IT’S SIGNED. ‘To my friends at Halesowen School, Brian Jacques.’ If it wasn’t Halesowen (I can’t quite remember) it definitely began with a H. I stand, frozen, thinking that this is a great find. The price is exceptionally good… But I put it back. Let someone else have the joy of finding it. I already have a signed Brian Jacques of my own (A first edition copy of Loamhedge) so to have another would be greedy. And to point out… This is the second signed book I’ve come across this year. To quote Ian Fleming- ‘The first time is happenstance, the second coincidence. The third time is enemy action!’ If I find one more signed book then something is definitely going on.
I enter into a few more shops, a wander around Burton’s, into Next, but otherwise I’m circling to nowhere. Eventually I end up in a modern looking coffee bar where I nearly keel over upon learning the price of a very small lemon cake and a medium coffee that I have just ordered- £5.50! I nearly say that I don’t want the cake but I put up and shut up instead. The thing is gone in two bites and the coffee (an Americano) isn’t great either. It’s kind of terrible. Upon leaving I decide that this is one place I certainly won’t be coming back to.
One voyage around Waterstones later and I’ve decided where I want to go. I go back in the direction I came from with a plan to be all cultural and sophisticated. I’m going to the theatre later on after all so I might as well do other things of a similarly high brow nature, like visit an art gallery, like the Walker? The only bit of the Walker I’ve seen is the sculpture gallery on the ground floor so it will be nice to see the paintings. On the way I pass by the Empire theatre, which I’ll be coming back to later, but there’s no big sign saying that The Mousetrap is on today. I wonder momentarily if I’ve bought a dodgy ticket and this performance is all a swizz but then I remember that I bought it direct from the theatre website so it can’t be.
At the Walker they’re advertising an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art and I am very interested. I always find the term Pre-Raphaelite to be a bit confusing because it implies that the Pre-Raphaelites were followed by the Raphaelites and then, presumably, the Post-Raphaelites but those latter two never existed. They called themselves ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ because their work was supposed to be reflective of the time before the renaissance, IE: Before Raphael. It might have actually been funny if, once the movement faded, some bright spark started a ‘Raphaelite’ brotherhood, painting works inspired by Rapahael, but it never happened. I look forwards to this as I head up the main staircase, though I soon find it is somewhere at the back and before I get there I’ll have to take in some of the none-pre-Raphaelite art. No biggy. That’s what I came for anyway. They also happen to be hosting jazz sessions today, which is an added bonus. Pre-Raphaelites and Jazz… The two go hand in hand!
I like the first room very much. There’s a painting of Jesus doing the Night Fever dance and in front of him a bronze statue of a man wrestling with a snake. This statue catches my attention and I want to know more about it but there’s no information on it. I can’t even find it on the website so whatever this is it will have to remain a mystery. Across the room I am drawn to one particular painting, one of a Roman centurion standing in an archway, behind which fire rains down from the sky onto some helpless, cowering people. It is a depiction of Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius by a man called Edward John Poynter and is known as ‘Faithful Unto Death.’ I stare at it for a long time, utterly smitten by this gorgeous work and noticing different bits and details like the debris scattered at the centurion‘s feet. I want this on my wall, I decide. Reluctantly I tear myself away from the painting and it isn’t long after that I find the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition… And discover there’s an entrance fee of seven pounds. It’s a huge disappointment because I think seven pounds to look at some paintings is a bit on the steep side. One or two pounds I wouldn’t mind but seven is taking the biscuit in my opinion. Never mind. there are plenty more paintings to see…
One of Godfrey Kneller’s Charles II paintings is here, painted around 1680. At school one of my art homework assignments had been to research an artist and one of their paintings. Kneller was the one I had chosen, with emphasis on THIS painting. The only reason I remember that assignment is that I ended up being told by the teacher (a woman with the unmistakable signs of what I can only describe as male pattern baldness) that Kneller wasn’t a suitable artist for the sole reason that his style was ‘uncopyable’ by my youthful and artistically inferior hand. The fact that the bald headed woman had never said anything about imitating the style when she set the homework be damned of course! To see it in the flesh after all these years is something nice and now that I can see the brush strokes up close I pompously start to think that it was entirely possible for me to copy his style.
There’s also Holbein’s Henry VIII, one of the many, many, many variants of it. This is the famous one though, the one that is always shown on book covers and television and movies. This is THE image of Henry VIII. I can’t help but sit down on the bench opposite and stare at it. Suddenly everyone wants a look and as I sit down all the other people in the room suddenly gravitate towards it and start staring as well, as though they’re expecting that by my sitting down King Henry is going to leap out of the frame. They go away after a few seconds when they find that nothing is happening. It’s a big painting and like with Poynter’s centurion I stare at it for a while. Then I turn to the Mona Lisa, which is behind me.
Hang about, isn’t she supposed to be in the Louvre? Well this is a copy and not actually the famous Giaconda. Unlike in the Louvre where she’s protected by six inches of unbreakable plate glass, guarded night and day and constantly stared at by thousands of tourists, nobody is paying this any attention except for myself. It’s very similar to the one in the Louvre though… What better way to protect the world’s most famous painting than pass it off as a copy in another art gallery whilst simultaneously making a big fuss about another copy? No. Stop being silly! The real Mona Lisa is in the Louvre.
Somewhere in the building the jazz sessions begin and the music drifts through the museum. This is good… This is cool. It adds an atmosphere. I’m in the modern section when Cheek to Cheek starts up. Yes… I certainly am in heaven here, though half of these modern works are little more than childish scribbles in my opinion. I could do better than that and maybe one day I should try. I start dancing, from painting to painting, though subtley and not so that anyone else notices. The music puts an edge to the place and makes visiting an absolute pleasure. It means that I leave happy, despite not having seen the Pre-Raphaelites. Can all art galleries come with a jazz band please? Much appreciated… Thanks.
My feet take me to the library next door, which has an exhibition space and a lot of rare books on display. The entrance is all modern and I make my way up the escalator to the next floor. It’s an impressive looking place but as I search for these exhibitions I am to find something even more spectacular. The Picton Reading Room is the heart of the library, a circular space with a massive dome above and three floors of books around the outside. Iron, spiral staircases take the explorer up to the first floor but the top floor is restricted. In the middle is a huge lantern and attached to the sticky out book shelves on the second floor are smaller lanterns. This is a beautiful, late Victorian homage to the written word. I wander around the first floor, dipping into the alcoves and picking some of the books from the shelves before going into the next room where there’s a ‘Shakespeare 400’ thing going on. They have famous quotes on bits of paper that you can take a selfie with, or write your own if you wish. ‘If music be the food of love then please, I want some more?’ I think not! Where’s ‘cry havock and let slip the dogs of war?’ Not here! Well I write that down but don’t take a selfie. Then I get lost trying to find my way out of the library. Apparently you can get onto the roof as well… But maybe that’s for another time.
I’ve got enough time left to spare a brief wander around the World Museum. It’s quieter than the last time I was here and thus much more enjoyable. There are children but they don’t run around and they aren’t so noisy. This pleases me. I only go around the aquarium, the dinosaur bit and the top floor spacey section, the bits I didn’t see last time. I’m feeling a tad peckish as well so I think about getting a quick bite to eat before the play begins. There’s a Sainsbury’s not too far away and as I’m passing opposite the theatre to get to it I see a huge queue lining up before the doors. A look at my watch tells me I have loads of time left- Forty five minutes! Enough to grab food, eat it and still have some to spare. I buy a Danish pastry and then go back to St George’s to where I can eat it whilst watching this line of people outside the theatre. I’m getting worried again now. Have I misremembered the time the play starts? I check my ticket… Nope! Have I been swizzed and all those people are going into some different play? They’re probably just queuing up so they can have a drink in the bar or collect their tickets. As I don’t want to do that arriving fifteen to twenty minutes before the performance starts sounds about good to me. It’s enough time to buy a programme and find my seat and settle in for the next few hours.
At the end of my pastry there is still a good thirty minutes to spare. I think about what else I can do around here and then I decide that since everybody else is queuing up, I might as well too. There are about three entrances and the first I come to hasn’t got much of a queue so I get in very quickly and start to look for where I can buy a programme. It takes me a while and eventually the place to get them turns out to be right opposite the door. Instead I’ve gone up the stairs to the second floor and am weaving between crowds of people, looking for someone selling programmes. I begin to think they might not have them for this performance and then I see a woman holding one. She’s gone before I can ask her where she got it. Ok… Serious now. Where are the programme sellers? I go back down to the ground floor and ah bellisimo! There they are! So now, clutching onto it for dear life, I head for my seat.
It’s a good one considering it’s one of the cheaper seats; at a slight angle but with a good view of the stage, not low so I have to crane my neck upwards for the entire performance and not so far back that I can’t see the actors. I read through the programme and admire the architecture whilst I’m waiting the last twenty minutes for the play to start. The Empire is an old world classy charm of a theatre, Edwardian in its style though built in the mid nineteen twenties. It’s the way a theatre should be. It should encapsulate the magic of the stage, make you feel like you’re somewhere special. And the theatrical art is special. Sitting and watching a performance upon the stage is like having a veil lifted upon another world. It’s like standing at a window, looking in on a party you’ve not been invited to. Everything is happening a few feet from you, so close that if you shouted out to them the characters could hear you. You are so close that you are almost a part of that world but not quite of it. But you can never do that. To shout out or to pass through the barrier onto the stage would be to break the spell forever.
By the time I come out again I feel immensely privileged to have seen this play. It is, in short, a fantastic performance. I would not say spectacular for the play itself has nothing that could be considered spectacle. It’s just a good old fashioned tale of murder and suspicion. And now that I’ve seen I can safely say that I understand why it’s been going for so long. This is Agatha Christie at her most fiendish and deceptive. The solution (and as instructed at the curtain call, I shall never reveal it) is rather simple but at the same time it is very devious and twisted in a way that only Agatha Christie can pull off. It’s also a lot of fun, not only to watch but to listen to the other people around you, their reactions, the ‘oohs’ and the chuckles and their guesses as to who did it. ‘I think it was him…’ ‘Really? I think it was her because…’ And then at the end the gasps as the killer is revealed and people still discussing things as the curtain descends. ‘Oooh. I didn’t expect that!’
Personally, as I walk the short distance back to the train station, as I lean against the platform wall, as I stare out of the window of the train and as I climb the ramp out of the previously thought abandoned station and cross the bridge, the train I just got off lurking below like a scene out of some rural idyll, I can’t help but think that the play was worth the money. Heck… The day was worth it. This is the kind of day that you wish would never end. And already I know the destination for my next adventure… Next stop New Brighton!