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A modest liking for Liverpool

Updated Friday, 27th May 2016

In the 1880s, W D Howell lived in England, recording his impressions of the places he visited. In this extract from Seven English Cities, his Atlantic crossing ends in the docks of the Mersey.

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Why should the proud stomach of American travel, much tossed in the transatlantic voyage, so instantly have itself carried from Liverpool to any point where trains will convey it? Liverpool is most worthy to be seen and known, and no one who looks up from the bacon and eggs of his first hotel breakfast after landing, and finds himself confronted by the coal-smoked Greek architecture of St. George's Hall, can deny that it is of a singularly noble presence. The city has moments of failing in the promise of this classic edifice, but every now and then it reverts to it, and reminds the traveller that he is in a great modern metropolis of commerce by many other noble edifices.

St George's Hall, Liverpool Creative commons image Icon calflier001 under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license St George's Hall

I

Liverpool does not remind him of this so much as the good and true Baedeker professes, in the dockside run on the overhead railway (as the place unambitiously calls its elevated road); but then, as I noted in my account of Southampton, docks have a fancy of taking themselves in, and eluding the tourist eye, and even when they "flank the Mersey for a distance of 6-7 M." they do not respond to American curiosity so frankly as could be wished. They are like other English things in that, however, and it must be said for them that when apparent they are sometimes unimpressive. From my own note-book, indeed, I find that I pretended to think them "wonderful and almost endless," and so I dare say they are. But they formed only a very perfunctory interest of our day at Liverpool, where we had come to meet, not to take, a steamer.

Our run from London, in the heart of June, was very quick and pleasant, through a neat country and many tidy towns. In the meadows the elms seemed to droop like our own rather than to hold themselves oakenly upright like the English; the cattle stood about in the yellow buttercups, knee-deep, white American daisies, and red clover, and among the sheep we had our choice of shorn and unshorn; they were equally abundant. Some of the blossomy May was left yet on the hawthorns, and over all the sky hovered, with pale-white clouds in pale-blue spaces of air like an inverted lake of bonnyclabber. We stopped the night at Chester, and the next evening, in the full daylight of 7.40, we pushed on to Liverpool, over lovely levels, with a ground swell like that of Kansas plains, under a sunset drying its tears and at last radiantly smiling.

II

The hotel in Liverpool swarmed and buzzed with busy and murmurous American arrivals. One could hardly get at the office window, on account of them, to plead for a room. A dense group of our countrywomen were buying picture-postals of the rather suave office-ladies, and helplessly fawning on them in the inept confidences of American women with all persons in official or servile attendance. "Let me stay here," one of them entreated, "because there's such a draught at the other window. May I?" She was a gentle child of forty-five or fifty; and I do not know whether she was allowed to stay in the sheltered nook or not, tender creature. As she was in every one else's way there, possibly she was harshly driven into the flaw at the other window.

The place was a little America which swelled into a larger with the arrivals of the successive steamers, though the soft swift English trains bore our co-nationals away as rapidly as they could. Many familiar accents remained till the morning, and the breakfast-room was full of a nasal resonance which would have made one at home anywhere in our East or West. I, who was then vainly trying to be English, escaped to the congenial top of the farthest bound tram, and flew, at the rate of four miles an hour, to the uttermost suburbs of Liverpool, whither no rumor of my native speech could penetrate. It was some balm to my wounded pride of country to note how pale and small the average type of the local people was. The poorer classes swarmed along a great part of the tram-line in side streets of a hard, stony look, and what characterized itself to me as a sort of iron squalor seemed to prevail. You cannot anywhere have great prosperity without great adversity, just as you cannot have day without night, and the more Liverpool evidently flourished the more it plainly languished. I found no pleasure in the paradox, and I was not overjoyed by the inevitable ugliness of the brick villas of the suburbs into which these obdurate streets decayed. But then, after divers tram changes, came the consolation of beautiful riverside beaches, thronged with people who looked gay at that distance, and beyond the Mersey rose the Welsh hills, blue, blue.

III

At the end of the tram-line, where we necessarily dismounted, we rejected a thatched cottage, offering us tea, because we thought it too thatched and too cottage to be quite true (though I do not now say that there were vermin in the straw roof), and accepted the hospitality of a pastry-cook's shop. We felt the more at home with the kind woman who kept it because she had a brother at Chicago in the employ of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and had once been in Stratford-on-Avon; this doubly satisfied us as cultivated Americans. She had a Welsh name, and she testified to a great prevalence of Welsh and Irish in the population of Liverpool; besides, she sent us to a church of the Crusaders at Little Crosby, and it was no fault of hers that we did not find it. We found one of the many old crosses for which Little Crosby is named, and this was quite as much as we merited. It stood at the intersection of the streets in what seemed the fragment of a village, not yet lost in the vast maw of the city, and it calmed all the simple neighborhood, so that we sat down at its foot and rested a long, long minute till the tram came by and took us back into the loud, hard heart of Liverpool.

I do not mean to blame it, for it was no louder or harder than the hearts of other big towns, and it had some alleviation from the many young couples who were out together half-holidaying in the unusually pleasant Saturday weather. I wish their complexions had been better, but you cannot have South-of-England color if you live as far north as Liverpool, and all the world knows what the American color is. The young couples abounded in the Gallery of Fine Arts, where they frankly looked at one another instead of the pictures. The pictures might have been better, but then they might have been worse (there being examples of Filippo Lippi, Memmi, Holbein, and, above all, the Dante's Dream of Rossetti); and in any case those couples could come and see them when they were old men and women; but now they had one another in a moment of half-holiday which could not last forever.

In the evening there were not so many lovers at the religious meetings before the classic edifice opposite the hotel, where the devotions were transacted with the help of a brass-band; but there were many youths smoking short pipes, and flitting from one preacher to another, in the half-dozen groups. Some preachers were nonconformist, but there was one perspiring Anglican priest who labored earnestly with his hearers, and who had more of his aspirates in the right place. Many of his hearers were in the rags which seem a favorite wear in Liverpool, and I hope his words did their poor hearts good.

Slightly apart from the several congregations, I found myself with a fellow-foreigner of seafaring complexion who addressed me in an accent so unlike my own American that I ventured to answer him in Italian. He was indeed a Genoese, who had spent much time in Buenos Ayres and was presently thinking of New York; and we had some friendly discourse together concerning the English. His ideas of them were often so parallel with my own that I hardly know how to say he thought them an improvident people. I owned that they spent much more on state, or station, than the Americans; but we neither had any censure for them otherwise. He was of that philosophic mind which one is rather apt to encounter in the Latin races, and I could well wish for his further acquaintance. His talk rapt me to far other and earlier scenes, and I seemed to be conversing with him under a Venetian heaven, among objects of art more convincing than the equestrian statue of the late Queen, who had no special motive I could think of for being shown to her rightly loving subjects on horseback. We parted with the expressed hope of seeing each other again, and if this should meet his eye and he can recall the pale young man, with the dark full beard, who chatted with him between the pillars of the Piazzetta, forty years before our actual encounter I would be glad of his address.

IV

How strange are the uses of travel! There was a time when the mention of Liverpool would have conjured up for me nothing but the thought of Hawthorne, who spent divers dull consular years there, and has left a record of them which I had read, with the wish that it were cheerfuler. Yet, now, here on the ground his feet might have trod, and in the very smoke he breathed, I did not once think of him. I thought as little of that poor Felicia Hemans, whose poetry filled my school-reading years with the roar of the wintry sea breaking from the waveless Plymouth Bay on the stern and rock-bound coast where the Pilgrim Fathers landed on a bowlder measuring eight by ten feet, now fenced in against the predatory hammers and chisels of reverent visitors. I knew that Gladstone was born at Liverpool, but not Mrs. Oliphant, and the only literary shade I could summon from a past vague enough to my ignorance was William Roscoe, whose Life of Leo X., in the Bohn Library, had been too much for my young zeal when my zeal was still young. My other memories of Liverpool have been acquired since my visit, and I now recur fondly to the picturesque times when King John founded a castle there, to the prouder times when Sir Francis Bacon represented it in Parliament; or again to the brave days when it resisted Prince Rupert for three weeks, and the inglorious epoch when the new city (it was then only some four or five hundred years old) began to flourish on the trade in slaves with the colonies of the Spanish Main, and on the conjoint and congenial traffic in rum, sugar, and tobacco.

It will be suspected from these reminiscences that I have been studying a page of fine print in Baedeker, and I will not deceive the reader. It is true; but it is also true that I had some wonder, altogether my own, that so great a city should make so small an appeal to the imagination. In this it outdoes almost any metropolis of our own. Even in journalism, an intensely modern product, it does not excel; Manchester has its able and well-written Guardian, but what has Liverpool? Glasgow has its Glasgow School of Painting, but again what has Liverpool? It is said that not above a million of its people live in it; all the rest, who can, escape to Chester, where they perhaps vainly hope to escape the Americans. There, intrenched in charming villas behind myrtle hedges, they measurably do so; but Americans are very penetrating, and I would not be sure that the thickest and highest hedge was invulnerable to them. As it is, they probably constitute the best society of Liverpool, which the natives have abandoned to them, though they do not constitute it permanently, but consecutively. Every Cunarder, every White Star, pours out upon a city abandoned by its own good society a flood of cultivated Americans, who eddy into its hotels, and then rush out of them by every train within twenty-four hours, and often within twenty-five minutes. They understand that there are no objects of interest in Liverpool; and they are not met at the Customs with invitations to breakfast, luncheon, and dinner from the people of rank and fashion with whom they have come to associate. These have their stately seats in the lovely neighboring country, but they are not at the landing-stage, and even the uncultivated American cannot stay for the vast bourgeoisie of which Liverpool, like the cities of his own land, is composed. Our own cities have a social consciousness, and are each sensible of being a centre, with a metropolitan destiny; but the strange thing about Liverpool and the like English towns is that they are without any social consciousness. Their meek millions are socially unborn; they can come into the world only in London, and in their prenatal obscurity they remain folded in a dreamless silence, while all the commercial and industrial energies rage round them in a gigantic maturity.

V

The time was when Liverpool was practically the sole port of entry for our human cargoes, indentured apprentices of the beautiful, the historical. With the almost immediate transference of the original transatlantic steamship interests from Bristol, Liverpool became the only place where you could arrive. American lines, long erased from the seas, and the Inman line, the Cunard line, the White Star line, and the rest, would land you nowhere else. Then heretical steamers began to land you at Glasgow; worse schismatics carried you to Southampton; there were heterodox craft that touched at Plymouth, and now great swelling agnostics bring you to London itself. Still, Liverpool remains the greatest port of entry for our probationers, who are bound out to the hotels and railroad companies of all Europe till they have morally paid back their fare. The superstition that if you go in a Cunarder you can sleep on both ears is no longer so exclusive as it once was; yet the Cunarder continues an ark of safety for the timid and despairing, and the cooking is so much better than it used to be that if in contravention of the old Cunard rule against a passenger's being carried overboard you do go down, you may be reasonably sure of having eaten something that the wallowing sea-monsters will like in you.

I have tried to give some notion of the fond behavior of the arriving Americans in the hotels; no art can give the impression of their exceeding multitude. Expresses, panting with as much impatience as the disciplined English expresses ever suffer themselves to show, await them in the stations, which are effectively parts of the great hotels, and whir away to London with them as soon as they can drive up from the steamer; but many remain to rest, to get the sea out of their heads and legs, and to prepare their spirits for adjustment to the novel conditions. These the successive trains carry into the heart of the land everywhere, these and their baggage, to which they continue attached by their very heart-strings, invisibly stretching from their first-class corridor compartments to the different luggage-vans. I must say they have very tenderly, very perfectly imagined us, all those hotel people and railroad folk, and fold us, anxious and bewildered exiles, in a reassuring and consoling embrace which leaves all their hands—they are Briarean—free for the acceptance of our wide, wild tips. You may trust yourself implicitly to their care, but if you are going to Oxford do not trust the head porter who tells you to take the London and Northwestern, for then you will have to change four times on the way and at every junction personally see that your baggage is unladen and started anew to its destination.

 

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