John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Albert

Part 4: John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Albert

Today’s slide show:Liverpool

The soon-to-be-relocated yellow submarine

LIVERPOOL—They’re moving the yellow submarine soon. It has fallen prey to a problem common to vessels of its kind: leakage. Four workmen and a supervisor in a suit brought yards and yards of coordinating yellow tubing to clear away the stinky bilge. The smell was getting pretty ripe (“It was dis-gust ing,” according to a workman), but the real reason for all the attention is that the area it’s moored in will soon be redeveloped, so this piece of Beatles memorabilia must be readied for relocation.

This scoop comes not from my own inquiries—I was jet-lagged and a bit shy besides—but from the fearless intervention of former Slate Fray Editor Moira Redmond, who spent too many years as a reporter for Radio City, Liverpool’s upstart commercial station, to stand by while I stared blankly at the scene trying to puzzle it out.

I’m taking advantage of more than just Moira’s nose for news. She’s a native Liverpudlian whose grandfathers were both dockers, so not only can she guide tired visitors on the quickest route from Lime Street Station to Mathew Street—former home of the Cavern Club—she can also point out historical artifacts the guidebooks leave out. “You see that shelflike thing over there?” she asked at the Albert Dock, pointing across to a wall on the other side of the water. “I remember my granddad showing it to me as a kid. It’s where the dockers would leave their lit cigarettes while they went on the ships.” They were too much of a fire risk to be allowed on board, but the workers weren’t expected to sacrifice their ciggies for safety. “Well, if that’s not it, it was somewhere round here.”

It must’ve been noon when we walked down Mathew Street, and yet, other than one family of four consulting a Beatles tourism guide, we were the only camera-wielding visitors on the street. I expected to have to queue to photograph the statue of John, the Beatles-themed wall art, or the latest incarnation of the Cavern Club, but the only people I had to worry about walking through the frame were local workers hurrying to lunch.

Mathew Street is like mop-top memory lane, except the memory has been corrupted by commerce—there are two venues on the street with “Cavern” in their names, though neither has anything to do with the club in which the band played—and bad art: I’ve rarely seen one street crammed with so much statuary, hardly any of which represented even the third-best use the metal could’ve been put to. Moira pointed out The Grapes, a pub in which members of the press could always count on finding Allan Williams, “the man who gave away the Beatles,” whenever they needed a quote on topics pertaining to the Fab Four; and the tragically unmarked former location of Eric’s, a club as crucial to the punk and new wave era of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as the Cavern was to its time. Moira informed me that Brian Epstein lost the band a pile of money in early souvenir sales by insisting on high-quality materials and exacting design standards. Judging from the Beatles tat available on Mathew Street today, this consideration was long since abandoned.

In the peculiar economics of art and commerce, the Tate Liverpool’s real Picassos can be viewed for free, but it costs nearly $20 to see simulations of real-life people and places at The Beatles Story a few hundred yards away. Still, the amount of attention paid by visitors appeared to correlate with the amount of money being spent. The only place I’ve seen museum visitors so entranced is at Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam. Here, kids who couldn’t possibly remember the Beatles’ active period—most of them were born at least a decade after John Lennon was killed—listened to every word of the audio commentary before moving on to the next room.

If you have the money and your expectations are appropriately low (expect replicas of the Cavern and NEMS, the Epstein family record store, rather than rare Beatles memorabilia), The Beatles Story is worth a couple of hours of your time, if only for the audio tour that includes several fascinating interviews. (Or so I’m told: My own headset had a faulty connection that caused fill-in-the-blanks listening: “Bri­­_ _­­stein ___ ____ NEMS, the _____ ______ shop.” When I dutifully told the staffer in charge of audio guides that the player kept cutting out, she smiled and said, “Yeah, they’ve been doing that a lot lately” and put it back in the pile to be issued to the next punter. Never has poor customer service seemed so charming.)

Thanks to Moira’s chauffeuring, we also made cameos at other Beatles pilgrimage sites: Penny Lane, a bland road whose only lure is a much-photographed street sign; Mendips, the house in which John Lennon grew up, a semidetached in a leafy suburb that, to a British visitor attuned to class signifiers, reveals that, unlike his bandmates, John had a cozy, middle-class upbringing; and Strawberry Field, a children’s home around the corner from Mendips, where John hung out as a child. Judging from the graffiti around the entrance (visitors have even added an “S” to the “Strawberry Field” sign to bring reality in line with the Beatles’ art), a lot of foreign tourists schlep out into the middle of nowhere to photograph a sign. Four years ago, someone went further and walked off with the home’s wrought-iron gates. (They were later recovered from a scrap dealer.)

Of course, there’s more to Liverpool than John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Like other British industrial cities in the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially in the north, the economy tanked here, and Liverpool’s docks—its economic heart since the Industrial Revolution—fell idle. In 1981, riots in the inner-city neighborhood of Toxteth brought government funding to Liverpool. Soon after, the city was one of the first to exploit its urban heritage to attract tourists—a plan that must have seemed insane when first proposed; the British equivalent of selling cruises down Love Canal. (Yes, Salford had the same idea at about the same time.) Where once its warehouses stored cotton and trade goods, Albert Dock is now the home of three major museums—the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the Museum of Liverpool Life, and the Tate Liverpool—as well as shops, restaurants, and The Beatles Story.

The makeover has been incredibly successful—the regional tourist board claims that Liverpool is now Britain’s favorite day-trip destination—and it was recently named the 2008 European Capital of Culture, an honor that guarantees further investment and should bring even more attention to the area’s tourist attractions.

The perfect place to experience Liverpool past and present is on the Mersey Ferries. Faced with closure in the 1980s, the ferries were relaunched as a “heritage and visitor attraction.” A trip that was once a commuter run is now a “river explorer cruise,” complete with an educational narration tracing the history of Liverpool’s role in the slave trade and New World immigration and recounting the story of the landmarks visible en route. As the boat pulls in to the Pier Head, looking up at the “Three Graces”—the imposing early 20th-century buildings representing the city’s accomplishments in the fields of insurance, shipping, and commerce—the PA blasts out “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” Gerry and the Pacemakers’ classic Mersey Beat anthem. There were plans to build a fourth grace to represent contemporary Liverpool, but architect Will Alsop’s design was rejected as “unworkable.” Perhaps the city council is holding the space for the yellow submarine.