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Date: 18/09/07

Does This Train Stop On Merseyside? (*)

Had an interesting day today.

I mentioned last week that I was thinking of going up to see the Josh Kirby Retrospective at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool.

This was quite an undertaking for me. As I also said last week, I don't care for travelling very much. If it were possible for me to just click my fingers and be somewhere else, and then click them again and be instantly back home again, I'd be a happy man.

As it stands, however, I view any journey as needing to be planned out with near-military precision.

Although it's a mere thirty or so miles away, I hadn't been to Liverpool itself since October 1980, when I went to see a Hawkwind gig at the Empire. Bearing in mind that it was dark the whole time I was there, I didn't get to see the place at all - just the bits between the bus and the pub, the pub and the theatre, and the theatre and the bus.

Add to this my very unflattering prejudices about the place and its people (developed through sheer hard work over a number of years), and an extra dimension of uncertainty was added.

Well, nothing ventured...I caught the 07:43 bus (which did turn up - thank you, Arriva) down to the station. I was there for eight o'clock, which was a bit of a nuisance, because my train wasn't due until after 08:30.

Anyway, it turned up a handful of minutes late, but given the state of the track on parts of the Wrexham-Bidston line, that's only to be expected.

I'd not travelled on this particular line since 1978, when some friends and me went the two stops from Gwersyllt to the old Wrexham Central and got off without paying (well, nobody asked!). I hadn't gone this far up it since 1972 when, as a boy of ten, I went with my parents for a day out to New Brighton. Gosh, this is adventure!

We passed through all the village stations - Gwersyllt, Cefn Y Bedd, Caergwrle, Hope, Penyffordd, Buckley, Hawarden, Shotton, Hawarden Bridge (which is nowhere near Hawarden; but then Buckley station - previously called Buckley Junction - isn't very near Buckley, either), and then on over the border. Neston, Heswall (which used to be called Heswall Hills way back in the when), Upton and finally to Bidston, where we had to change trains.

Because we were still a few minutes down, the train from West Kirby to Liverpool came in just a minute or so after we'd got there, so it was a quick transfer to Merseyrail for the journey under the river.

Then, at one of the Birkenhead stations (I forget which), an entire class of ten-year-olds got on. They were OK really, but I was quite happy when they got off at James Street.

On to Moorfields and then Lime Street, where it was my turn to get off. As the Wirral line is completely underground, I had to get up to street level. Lime Street station has the only escalator I've ever come across which gives you the 'bends' going up, and vertigo going down. I found my way out of the station, and realised I'd come out on the 'wrong' side. No matter, I went round the corner and found myself in St George's Square.

This was my first happy surprise. Liverpool city centre is full of fantastic old buildings of character: St George's Hall, North Western Hall, the old court building and, of course, the Walker Gallery itself. I took a few pictures as I made my way up.

Inside the Walker, and having finally found the Kirby exhibition, I was slightly disappointed to see that photography was forbidden. Understandable, I suppose, although what they could possibly fear from my cack-handed efforts I can't imagine.

If you're not familiar with the name, Josh Kirby (1928 - 2001) was a Liverpool-born artist who worked in many fields, but is perhaps best known for his work for science-fiction and fantasy publishers. His covers for Terry Pratchett's Discworld™ are the most famous of these.

But that wasn't all he did, and the exhibition was happy surprise number two. The breadth and scope of his work and his talent is fully on display in this exhibition. He not only did book covers (his cover for a version of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man is rightly regarded as a classic, and he didn't just work in the SF/fantasy field), but he did abstracts (these mostly in the early part of his career), film posters (the one for The Return Of The Jedi is featured here, plus the one for The Life Of Brian which was too rude to be used), illustrations for role-playing games, and even very good jigsaw puzzles.

In all of them, his capacity for detailed and exacting work is clear, allied with a mastery of composition and use of space. His colours are quite extraordinary: the explanatory cards in the exhibition claim that red was his signature colour, but to me a Josh Kirby means the most remarkable shades of blue, almost like enamel, but which are clear and bright without any sense of them blaring out at you.

An hour and a half seemed to fly by, and it still seemed too short a time to go around it, despite my dwelling in front of a number of his works. It was time to move on, as I had other things planned.

My original thought when planning the trip was that I would move on from the Walker to the Liverpool World Museum just a few yards down the road. Looking at their website however, I couldn't see anything there which would hold my attention for long. I then changed tack: it would be a pity, I thought, to go to Liverpool without taking a look at the city's two famous cathedrals, the modern Roman Catholic Metropolitan, and the more traditional-style Anglican cathedral. So, I did some research on Google Maps and planned out my route. It can be difficult to judge the scale of these sometimes, so I wasn't entirely sure how long it would take me.

So, leaving the Walker behind, I followed my supposed route to the Catholic cathedral (or 'Paddy's Wigwam' as those incorrigible Scousers call it - you'll know why if you've seen it). After a short while, I found that I'd taken a wrong turn very early on, and was approaching the cathedral from the south rather than the north. This meant a detour, and this coincided with the exit of hundreds of students from their classes (the cathedral is in the university quarter).

Having successfully swum against the tide of the nation's brightest hopes (oh gods, spare us all!), I found myself sitting in full view of the frontage of the cathedral, eating my lunch.

It was shortly time to move on. I knew how to find the Anglican cathedral from there: you just followed Hope Street. That wise philosopher, theologian and failed chartered accountant Kenneth Arthur Dodd once remarked upon the fact that the two major sects of Christianity should have their churches so close to one another, "...and connected by a street called Hope".

A couple of hundred yards later, I was standing beside my second cathedral of the day. It was pretty quiet around there, but then again this church is in more grounds than the other one. I walked around the outside taking photographs for a while (note that I didn't go in to either one of them: this is partly out of a lingering sense of decorum, and partly because I have this totally irrational worry that someone might try to convert me - and succeed), and then moved on to check out my final target of the day.

I'd heard about the strange pyramid-shaped tomb someone had made for himself, and my friend Alex had sent me the photograph he took of it last week: so, the competition was on!

I knew it was in Rodney Street. My main problem was that my initial itinerary had not included going right around the outside of the Anglican cathedral (I'd doubted whether I'd have the time), so I had to work out my way back up town.

Needless to say that I got slightly lost. My map wasn't very accurate either, although I did notice that parts of Liverpool aren't very good for having street names properly signed.

After an interesting and unscheduled stroll through the city's Chinatown (where the street signs are bilingual - something I never thought I'd see in England), I found Rodney Street.

(It was here where I encountered my only authentic Scouse smack-head divvies of the day, but I managed to avoid their attentions.)

Halfway up on the right is a derelict church. There, in the overgrown churchyard, was the tomb of one W. McKenzie, who had a pyramid erected probably in order to fulfil his wish that he be buried sitting upright at a table with playing cards in his hand (he was a notorious gambler, it seems). It isn't possible to get into the churchyard itself, but the tomb is so close to the road that it isn't necessary.

A few snaps of that, and then...well, then I had nothing more I wanted to do. It was only about 1:10 by this point, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to get a train for nearly an hour. So, I wandered back to St George's Square for while. I would have stayed out there longer, but a hard shower of near-freezing rain came over the city at this point, and I scurried for the sanctuary of Lime Street Station.

Having gone down the same precipitous escalator I'd come up a few hours before, I found myself on the platform and discovered that there was a train for Bidston due any minute. I decided to take it, even though it would mean a slightly longer wait for my connection to Wrexham.

An uneventful journey home followed, and I got back in the house shortly after 4:00.

I'm glad I went. The exhibition was sufficient to override my innate dislike of cities. Who knows? Perhaps I won't wait twenty-seven years until my next visit.

(* A reference to this magnificent song by the band Amsterdam)