But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.
Luke vi. 49.
The first time I visited Liverpool, seven years ago now, I got lost. And it was getting lost that made me stay. Somehow following the map I had been given by the university, and directing myself by the tower of the Anglican Cathedral until it disappeared behind other buildings, I managed to overshoot my intended destination and found myself on Upper Parliament Street. I was glad. I didn’t know much about the place before arriving, but here I was amid brilliant Georgian terraces the like of which I had only ever seen in London. It was not these terraces that informed my decision to come here however. It was the experience of rounding a corner off this street and finding a block of three-story, Georgian town houses gutted and blackened from attic to basement, their brickwork sprouting weeds, and buddleia where a roof should have been; the block was an apparent remnant of the Second World War.
A lot has happened to the city in those seven years. The ruined terrace was demolished in my third year of university to make way for a square slab of roughly-sown grass, bordered by drab two-storey social housing; and currently the city is undergoing the largest development it has experienced in over a hundred years. The following links will give the casual browser some idea of the scale of this work:
It is to be encouraged. Some of the work that is already finished is genuinely exciting. The city already feels a different place, as if it is ready to come awake again and catch up with the rest of the country. And yet, and yet…
What of the ruins? I mean this quite seriously. I am concerned that Liverpool is removing a huge part of its character and heritage by redeveloping these areas of dank, crumbling structures.
In 1825, when many of Liverpool’s finest buildings were being erected, the chaplain of George IV wrote the following on the recent work done to Windsor Castle:
Windsor Castle loses a great deal of its architectural impression (if I may use that word) by the smooth neatness with which its old towers are now chiselled and mortared. It looks as if it was washed every morning with soap and water, instead of exhibiting here and there a straggling flower, or creeping weather-stains.
The renovations to the castle caused great national debate at the time. Castles are of course central emblems of romantic thought, and yet the improvements made by Sir Jeffry Wyatville under the King’s instruction, robbed the building of much of what made it a castle. It became a tidied-up Gothic fake, whereas before it had largely been a genuine Norman pile. Liverpool is undergoing the same process in the present.
Before we go any further, we need to understand the Romantic ideal of the ruin, why creeping weather-stains might be valued more so than smooth neatness. It is not merely an arbitrary distinction, nor is it a purely sentimental notion. To do so, let us look at a little of the work of a poet, Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans (1793-1835). Here, a section from a poem entitled The Ruin and its Flowers:
Proud Castle! though the days are flown,
When once thy towers in glory shone;
When music through thy turrets rung,
When banners o'er thy ramparts hung,
Though 'midst thine arches, frowning lone,
Stern Desolation rear his throne;
And Silence, deep and awful, reign,
Where echo'd once the choral strain;
Yet oft, dark ruin! lingering here,
The Muse will hail thee with a tear;
Here when the moonlight, quiv'ring, beams,
And through the fringing ivy streams,
And softens every shade sublime,
And mellows every tint of Time—
Oh! here shall Contemplation love,
Unseen and undisturb'd, to rove;
And bending o'er some mossy tomb,
Where Valour sleeps, or Beauties bloom,
Shall weep for Glory's transient day,
And Grandeur's evanescent ray
And list'ning to the swelling blast,
Shall wake the Spirit of the Past,
Call up the forms of ages fled,
Of warriors and of minstrels dead;
Who sought the field, who struck the lyre,
With all Ambition's kindling fire!
It is a quite typical romantic view of the ruin. It is perhaps an obvious point to make, but notice that repeated ‘When’ at the start of the lines in this passage. It is a primary feature of the ruin that it connects the ‘now’ with the ‘when’, in a way that any other old building does not. I currently live in a very beautiful Georgian house, but the house remains in the now, it still fulfills its purpose. The ruin does not, it is merely a monument to the past. Or not merely, for the subject of Hemans’ poem is concerned with the way that nature has reclaimed this plot; the ‘the fringing ivy streams’ upon it, moss covers its tombs, ‘beauties bloom’ out of it. The ruin is in effect full of life; it is simply not human life.
An example in Liverpool of this is a cotton warehouse on Parliament Street. The building has for a long time been disused, and has sprouted a wall of bright purple buddleia, filled with butterflies each summer. It has subsequently become known in the city effectionately as the Buddleia Building, a name that will remain even once the buddleia has been removed.
But this is evidence of the ruin’s ideological strength. It is a meaningful name, not one picked by committee, but one given because the building’s desolation caught the imagination of people in the city. Imagination is of course what the ruin is about. In Hemans’ poem: ‘here shall Contemplation love, / Unseen and undisturb'd, to rove;’ the whole poem is about contemplation; imagining the past. When Hemans writes that ‘thy towers in glory shone’, of course she does not know that to be a fact, it is an impression created from the building as it currently stands. Equally the music, and the banners are also imagined. The ruin allows the onlooker to envisage the potential building, and in that the potential of the past.
Here in another of Hemans’ poems, The Lonely Bird, a bird’s song is made sweeter by the ruin in which it sings:
How can that flood of gladness
Rush through thy fiery lay,
From the haunted place of sadness,
From the bosom of decay?
While dirge-notes in the breeze's moan,
Through the ivy garlands heard,
Come blent with thy rejoicing tone,
Oh! lonely, lonely bird!
On its own, the bird’s song is of course lovely, but it is the surprise of it rushing from the ‘bosom of decay’, that makes it beautiful. It is that funny, archaic word (a ruin itself) ‘blent’ that informs the song, it is the combined effect of the ruin’s ‘sadness’ and the bird’s ‘gladness’ that creates beauty; it cannot be without the loneliness of the setting.
And nor can Liverpool be beautiful without its ruins, and yet the current desire is to tidy them up. The Casartelli Building on Hanover Street is a perfect example of this. It was an undeniably fine Georgian warehouse; the premises of manufacturers of nautical instruments. For years the building was a beautiful ruin. To the left here is a rather poor photograph of it from that time.
With its weather-stained stucco, and sad sagging façade, it looked like a building transplanted from Venice. And then it fell down. It was not being used; it reached the end of its natural life. All things die, even buildings.
Only the Casartelli Building did not die. It was rebuilt, or rather a building that looks virtually like it, was built in its place.
To the right, is a photograph of it today. Spot the difference. The current building uses none of the same materials or building methods that the original did, it just looks (excepting a few minor points) exactly like it. Except it has been washed clean. The yellow stucco gleams in the sun, and the left hand wall that runs down Hanover Street offers a fantasy of what its neighboring warehouses might (but didn’t) once have looked like.
It is a fantasy. It is historical pornography. It is aiming to do what the ruin does do; offer a window into the past, show what things once were like. Just as Hemans looks at the ruin and imagines by gone glories, we are meant to look at this building and do the same. Only it is a different building.
Increasingly this happens.
Below, is another development at Cleveland Square, three sides of which were demolished in the 1980s during the city’s apparent war against nice things. As part of the current redevelopment, these six shop fronts have been ‘saved’.
They’re perfectly lovely in their own way, but they’re pure invention. The brickwork, the windows, the paneling of the shop fronts, the metal balconies, are all new. This isn’t what the square was ever like; it is a Disney theme park attraction only the inhabitant mice have all been exterminated. Why are they kept at all, but to stir us into some false nostalgia for the past? They are kitsch, they are freakish, they are wrong.
The city does not need to invent signifiers of the past, it has hundreds of examples already, and in wiping out its ruins, in sanitizing its history with false images of historic chintziness, it is eradicating proof of an important fact of its history; the fact that in Liverpool for most of the twentieth century, there was very little investment and a lot of economic hardship. It is the same soap and water technique employed by George IV on Windsor Castle in the 1820s, though whereas he was at pains to hide the fact that his ancestors had been an uncivilized warring lot, Liverpool is busy painting over the cracks to hide the fact that it was ever poor.
Let us return finally to Hemans. In her poem The Ruin, the poet describes a different kind of ruin to the others I have shown in her poems here. Whereas these others portray castles that have fallen desolate, The Ruin considers a family home where ‘banners of knighthood have not flung’ but important, everyday events have walked their course:
Thou bindest me with mighty spells!
A solemnizing breath,
A presence all around thee dwells,
Of human life and death.
I need but pluck yon garden flower
From where the wild weeds rise,
To wake, with strange and sudden power,
A thousand sympathies.
Thou hast heard many sounds, thou hearth!
Deserted now by all!
Voices at eve here met in mirth
Which eve may ne'er recall.
Youth's buoyant step, and woman's tone,
And childhood's laughing glee,
And song and prayer, have all been known,
Hearth of the dead! to thee.
A similar fate has befallen Hemans’ own family home in Liverpool. The house which she spent her adult life in here, now languishes as dust beneath the forecourt of a used car showroom in Wavertree, but the place of her birth, the house from which her father ran his business and where she lived until that business failed, still stands as a noble decaying structure on the city’s Duke Street. It is a rather fitting monument. The back of the house is currently visible, and offers a rare glimpse of one of few remaining examples of court housing in the city, a large bow window hanging dissolutely over a long abandoned street.
For how much longer this will be visible I am not sure, it is certain to have been swallowed up in the rush to prove prosperity within the next five years. The house itself will almost certainly be changed. It might become apartments, or a bar, or be demolished entirely. I wonder whether its owners are aware of its heritage. But for the moment that does not matter, for the moment it is a fitting monument for a much-neglected poet, for the moment;
A presence all around thee dwells,
Of human life and death.