Sitting in a soft-stripped flat on the 21st floor of a semi-abandoned tower block in the Kensington district of Liverpool I am temporarily the highest resident on Merseyside. I can see the sunlight dapple the flanks of Snowdon nigh on 70 miles to the south. I can see the Wirral like a spatulate tongue licking the Irish Sea. I can see the Mersey itself, coursing through its trough of defunct docks. Towards Bootle, the gargantuan sails of wind turbines look like propellers powering the upside down burgh through the steely grey sky. Ranged across the mid-ground are the signature buildings of the city: the Liver Buildings with their sentinel herons; the mucoid concrete of the hospital; the dirty white stalk of the radio station with its restaurant revolving like a conjurer’s plate; and the two cathedrals, one the outhouse of the morally relativist gods, the other a split yoghurt pot oozing spiritual culture.
The graticule of streets spreads out from the base of my tower, a tight stacking of tiled roofs which gleam wet with rain. I sit here from dawn to dusk watching the weather systems roll in, completely divorced from the human life of the city. The block will soon be demolished. Twenty years ago, tens of these concrete snaggle teeth gnashed Liverpool’s flesh – but they’ve mostly been extracted. Draughts sough in the empty corridors and cavernous stairwells. As the block is emptied out – so is the city itself; and despite endless talk of regeneration, the fact remains that Liverpool has halved in population since the Second World War. To apprehend this you have only to observe the slow trickle of outward-bound traffic which is the rushhour, or descend into the financial district at 5.30pm, where you’ll find hardly anyone at all. The impressive Victorian municipal buildings lower in the dusk, stage sets for an epic long
Occasionally the Wirral is too tantalising and I grab my foldaway bicycle, sprint to the lift, plummet to the ground, freewheel all the way down the hill to the Pier Head and take the ferry across the Mersey. “Ferry, cross the Mersey!” sings Gerry over the Tannoy, while the Pacemakers plink- plonk their accompaniment. This is a moment of maximum urban quiddity, the song hymning the vehicle while you’re actually on it. It’s like a busker singing “Streets of London” in the streets of London, at once sweetly homely and infinitely claustrophobic. But all too soon we’ve heaved to at Seacombe and I’m pedalling along the magnificently sculpted Wallasey Embankment past the tidy villas of Egremont. On and on, the peninsula curving and curving to my left as I circumvent the last resort of New Brighton.
Empty sky, flat sea, sharp wind. The occasional lonely walker, head bowed to escape the oppression of the sky. If I felt alone in the echoing precincts of the city, I now feel completely abandoned. On the outskirts of Hoylake, a fat middle manager sleeps off his expense-account pub lunch slumped in his Vauxhall Omega, while I take a piss in a WC acrid with fresh saltwater and ancient urine. I thought I might walk from the point across to the tidal island of Hilbre, there to commune with seals, but in the event my timing is wrong, so I cycle to the station, fold the bike up and take the train back into the centre.
At Birkenhead we descend clanking into the tunnel under the Mersey, and suddenly all is echoing expanses of white tiling, festoons of cabling, and glimpses of tortuous machinery which suggest the dystopic vision of Piranesi. Intended for a far larger population, the superb local rail system of Merseyside is housed in caverns beneath the city itself, a ghost train endlessly circumnavigating the interior of this dark star of urbanity. But as if these tunnels, and the Queensway road tunnel under the river, weren’t enough of a vermiculation, in the last few years a group of enthusiastic volunteers have been opening up the Williamson Tunnels. These brick-lined conduits were built by a local magnate during the early decades of the 19th century. Some say they were a labour-creating project, a piece of proto-Keynesianism, intended to provide employment for soldiers returned from the Napoleonic wars. Others aver that Williamson himself was a Millenarian, and that the tunnels were intended as a refuge for Liverpudlians from the
If the tunnels’ genesis is in dispute, then so is their extent. Some claim there’s only a few hundred metres of them, but others swear that the whole fabric of the city is riddled like a vast Emmental cheese. Whatever the truth of the matter, the tunnels are a curious complement to the depopulation of Liverpool, an introjection of the municipality’s own sense of its emptiness; after all, if so many people have vanished, where can they possibly have gone to?