- since 2011 -

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

In search of blue plaques, hideous monsters and happy creatures

Modern Prometheus 2.0: mural for the Francis Crick Institute

Modern Prometheus 2.0: mural for the Francis Crick Institute

Surely there'll be something that commemorates where the mother of all monsters was born. Just finished Frankenstein and in London with time to kill. So as we're here on Euston's concourse, instead of disappearing straight down the tube escalator/crossing into Bloomsbury/moseying over to the British Library and St Pancras, let's hang a double left out onto Eversholt Street, past the sex shops and student lettings agencies and into deepest Somers Town, to see if Mary Shelley's birthplace on Polygon Street has been blue-plaqued.

Frankenstein may have been published in the same year, 1818, as Jane Austen's Persuasion, but genteel Hampshire this ain't. Sandwiched between the arse-ends of two mainline stations, Somers Town was formerly home to a colleague and pal of mine from Leith whose claim to fame was sharing a squat with Wattie from punk legends The Exploited and whose party-piece was clambering onto restaurant tables to perform rousing renditions of Hail, Hail, the Hibs are here. Of Somers Town he was wont to say, "They should knock it down and build a slum."

There's no mention for Mary among the blocks of low-level, rabbit-hutch housing from the 1970s, at least nothing intentional: on Ossulston Street, just off Polygon Street, is a construction site behind a row of murals by local schoolkids depicting lab equipment, DNA strands and lots of big scary eyes. They're building a biomedical research centre here for the Francis Crick Institute, named after the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who dismissed religion, advocated eugenics and explored (it says on Wikipedia) 'how molecules make the transition from the non-living to the living'.

You're there before me. "It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn," proclaims Victor Frankenstein, "the outward substance of things, the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man... Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world." Only at the Francis Crick Institute (Frankenstein...Franciscrick) they won't be experimenting so much with human body parts - they'll be using mice, rats, fish, frogs, fruit flies and nematode worms instead.

Skinner Street: where Coleridge's poem gave young Mary Shelley the horrors

Skinner Street: where Coleridge's poem gave young Mary Shelley the horrors

Undaunted I take the Piccadilly Line for Holborn and Skinner Street for the house in which Mary grew up and, legend has it, hid behind the sofa to hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge recite Rime of the Ancient Mariner, his hypnotic 'poem of delirium', to her rad dad William Godwin.

This looks more promising. The nearby Finsbury Estate's towerblocks may not transmit the same 'sublime ecstasy' as the Arctic and Alpine icescapes in Frankenstein, but their drab bulk gives them a brooding, melancholic presence. Skinner Street's handsome terraces begin where quirky Exmouth Market ends in a part of London between Sadler's Wells, the Barbican and Smithfield Market and St Barts. But again, no plaque for Shelley and not the slightest nod to her magnum opus; no alehouse called The Modern Prometheus' (Sewn-On) Arms, not even a greasy-spoon called Big Frank's.

There is a macabre memorial in the vicinity, but it's for the old Bone House & Graveyard where 80,000 burials took place on a plot of land originally intended for less than 3,000: 'Each night bodies were exhumed and burnt in the Bone House with their coffins to make room for fresh burials', reads the rather gratuitous sign which if it could speak would sound like Vincent Price. 'Local residents got ill from the fumes and suspected that Mr Bird, the manager of the burial site, was burning bodies after having buried them' [cue manic echoing laughter]. It's a little park now.

(It'll transpire I've been looking in the wrong places: there's a blue plaque for Mary Shelley over in Chester Square, Belgravia where she spent her last years from 1846-51; today it's home to Roman Abramovich and Margaret Thatcher, among others, and the average house price is £6.6m; down in Bournemouth there's another plaque at St Peter's churchyard where Mary, her parents and the heart of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley are interred).

As Herman Melville would've seen it: The Port of Liverpool 1836 by Samuel Walters, part of the large collection of marine art in Merseyside Maritime Museum

As Herman Melville would've seen it: The Port of Liverpool 1836 by Samuel Walters, part of the large collection of marine art in Merseyside Maritime Museum

My prodigal quest calls to mind another recent read: Redburn, Herman Melville's semi-autobiographical story about a cabin boy who sails from New York to Liverpool in the 1830s, and looks in vain for the hotel where his late father had stayed on a business trip to England three decades earlier (on the corner of Lord Street where Boodles is today, according to my calculations). On this 'filial pilgrimage to spots which would be hallowed in my eyes', his only reference is a guide to Liverpool purchased by Redburn Snr at the time and still containing his scribbles and marginalia.

And again, Exchange Flags as experienced by Melville and his fictional alter-ego Redburn

And again, Exchange Flags as experienced by Melville and his fictional alter-ego Redburn

There's an extraordinary passage in the novel in which he uses the guide to trace his father's footsteps from Old Hall Street across Chapel Street and through the archway of (the old) Exchange Flags buildings into the cobbled square with its Nelson Monument - a route countless waves of us have followed since. Liverpool, says the flickering-lightbulb brigade, has a flair for time-lapse phenomena, and this affecting scene seems to be no exception:

So vivid was now the impression of his having been here, and so narrow the passage from which he had emerged, that I felt like running on, and overtaking him around the Town Hall adjoining, at the head of Castle Street. But I soon checked myself, when remembering that he had gone whither no son's search could find him in this world. And then I thought of all that must have happened to him since he paced through that arch. What trials and troubles he had encountered; how he had been shaken by many storms of adversity, and at last died a bankrupt. I looked at my own sorry garb, and had much ado to keep from tears.

All of which gets Redburn/Melville meditating upon the mutability of cities like Liverpool, London and his hometown New York: their sands are 'forever shifting'; it's in their nature to change, slowly and inexorably or dramatically at pace; sometimes at a price (wartime devastation, economic recession etc) and often with an Ozymandian disregard for their own past: 'For the cope-stone of today is the corner-stone of tomorrow'.

Princes Dock today (left), once of forest of masts, now a place for seagulls to sit off, and a section of the mighty Dock Wall

Princes Dock today (left), once of forest of masts, now a place for seagulls to sit off, and a section of the mighty Dock Wall

Some parts embrace change more easily than others. For instance the warehouse-lined arteries of Rope Walks, the alt-cultural counterweight to Liverpool One's consumerism, suit their feeling of flux; Grosvenor's game-changing shopping complex does at least acknowledge the historic grain of the city, superimposed upon the old 'Pool' that flowed from the foot of St John's Gardens along Paradise Street to Canning Place. Developers Peel want to steam ahead with their plans for Liverpool's immense and largely obsolete Central Docks while the city's World Heritage Site status flounders in their backwash. But change doesn't always signify progress, especially not in hindsight.

Half-a-century ago planners played mad scientist with Liverpool, proposing an eight-lane elevated inner ring road which would connect the M62 to the heart of the city and on through the new Kingsway Tunnel to the M53 on the Wirral [mouth agape] to compliment other abominations like the Byrom Street flyover, St John's Precinct and Concourse House at Lime Street (since demolished). The least said about Everton's high-rises and the thinking behind the Speke, Kirkby, Cantril Farm and Netherley estates, the better.

Old faithful: Water Street's grand, graceful architecture

Old faithful: Water Street's grand, graceful architecture

In Liverpool city centre, one enduring stretch has remained unchanged since before the war - simply because it's so good. Voted one of the country's five favourite thoroughfares by BBC Radio Four's Today programme, Water Street sweeps majestically from the Town Hall to the waterfront (actually crossing the Strand and continuing down to the Pier Head between the cliff-faces of the Royal Liver and Cunard). The colour of its buildings - a swathe of pearly grey/creamy white - was literally set in stone by Liverpool's Brahmins as they adopted the signature shade, scale and style of the Beaux Arts architecture that had colonised American cities since the start of the 20th century.

Water Street's bold but harmonious buildings were bequeathed by shrewd custodians. The challenge today: beat that. Embrace the spirit of grand, dignified architecture for which Liverpool was once known; make an equally lasting impression but enhance rather than destroy the existing urban fabric.

Who knows whether tomorrow's tourists will be as enthralled by the tumid skyscrapers of Peel's 'Liverpool Waters' scheme as Melville was by the city's pace-setting dock technology (by contrast 1830s New York only had wharves on which vessels could moor): those 'long China walls of masonry; vast piers of stone and a succession of granite-rimmed docks, completely enclosed, and many of them communicating, which almost recalled to mind the great American chain of lakes: Ontario, Erie, St Clair, Huron, Michigan and Superior. The extent and solidity of these structures seemed equal to what I had read of the old Pyramids of Egypt'.

Working horse sculpture, Canning Dock, entitled Waiting

Working horse sculpture, Canning Dock, entitled Waiting

Redburn is a must-read for serious historians of Liverpool. But for all its evocations of furious seas and familiar streets, it's perhaps the wonderfully observed working horses (now celebrated in Judy Boyt's bronze sculpture at Canning Dock and a display in the adjacent museum) that steal the show:

They are large and powerful brutes, with such sleek and glossy coats, that they look as if brushed and put on by a valet every morning. They march with a slow and stately step, lifting their ponderous hoofs like royal Siam elephants... So grave, dignified, gentlemanly, and courteous did these fine truck-horses look - so full of calm intelligence and sagacity, that often I endeavoured to get in to conversation with them, as they stood in contemplative attitudes while their loads were preparing... But there is a touch of divinity even in brutes, and a special halo about a horse, that should forever exempt him from indignities. As for those majestic, magisterial truck-horses of the docks, I would as soon think of striking a judge on the bench, as to lay violent hand upon their holy hides.

Excuse me for ending with a quantum leap to another continent and wholly different culture, but Eduardo Galeano's masterly three-volume archive of the history of Latin America, Memory of Fire, has an extract about pack llamas written at roughly the same time as Redburn with more or less the same sentiments. Small world...

"Happy creatures," says Flora Tristan. Flora is travelling through Peru, her father's country, and in the mountains discovers 'the only animal man has not been able to debase'. The gentle llamas are more agile than mules and climb higher. They resist cold, exhaustion, and heavy loads. With no reward they give the mountain Indians transport, milk, meat, and the clean and brilliant wool that covers their bodies. But they never let themselves be tied up or mistreated, nor do they take orders. When they let up their queenly stride, the Indian implores them to get going again. If anyone hits them, insults them, or threatens them, llamas throw themselves on the ground, and, raising their long necks, they turn their eyes heavenward, the most beautiful eyes in Creation, and softly die. "Happy creatures," says Flora Tristan.

'This looks more promising. The nearby Finsbury Estate's towerblocks may not transmit the same 'sublime ecstasy' as the Arctic and Alpine icescapes in Frankenstein, but their drab bulk gives them a brooding, melancholic presence'


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All Play and No work

Peel on wheels

Walk on Water

Blue jays over Botetourt

Golden Virginia

Georgia on my mind

Strange Magic

Nurse Gosling's book of verse

Titanic 2.0

Love for sail

Bex maniacs

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Wings of desire

World cities works of art: some offcuts

World cities: some works of art

'I have no idea what other people do'

Raiders of the well looked-after Ark

Railroad blues

Blog on the grog

Did you hear that too?

A cherub astride a what?

A time to dance

Ghosts of Mount Urgull

Postcard from San Sebastian

El Camino, with knobs on

'Of the city, by the city, for the city'

Guggenheim Bilbao: as good as it gets?

Still small voice

On the waterfront

Raise the botanic

Old man of the sea

What a carve up

Gates to the city

Brand of hope and glory

Two of a kind

Kingdoms of Heaven

Green and serene

Seville for divvies

Ride a Black Swan

The pub on the beach

On Savannah and Charleston

Still chasing the birds

The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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