An extraordinary performance of Different Trains in the world’s first railway station

An extraordinary performance of <em>Different Trains</em> in the world’s first railway station

An amazing event took place in Liverpool last night. On a railway station platform a mile from my home the American composer Steve Reich appeared on an outdoor stage to present a world exclusive presentation of his iconic 1988 composition Different Trains, performed for the first time with a film accompaniment created by documentarist Bill Morrison. Continue reading “An extraordinary performance of Different Trains in the world’s first railway station”

In the Black Mountains: walking a crooked mile to a crooked church

In the Black Mountains: walking a crooked mile to a crooked church

‘Where England ends half way across a field’ in the Vale of Ewylas, we followed a trail that led eventually to ‘the cleft Church at Cwmyoy, its displaced gravity’ (in Geoffrey Hill’s words from Comus). Unique since no part of it is square or at right angles with any other part, the church tower tilts at an alarming angle that outleans the Tower of Pisa. It’s an astonishing building that stands beneath a crag on the slope of a hillside with scarcely a house in sight. Continue reading “In the Black Mountains: walking a crooked mile to a crooked church”

In border country: haunts of ancient peace

In border country: haunts of ancient peace

A song of harmony and rhyme
In haunts of ancient peace.
– Van Morrison, ‘Haunts of Ancient Peace’

Last week we spent an all-too-short four nights based in the Black Mountains region at the eastern end of the Brecon Beacons. It’s an area that has inspired poets and painters, diarists and novelists: Bruce Chatwin called this area one of the emotional centres of his life.

For me, the trip had been partly impelled by reading Tom Bullough’s novel Addlands which is set in the Edw valley, north of Painscastle and Hay on Wye. But the literary and artistic connections in a landscape that still seems lost in time are numerous: Bruce Chatwin, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Francis Kilvert, Allen Ginsberg and Owen Sheers, David Jones and Eric Ravilious are among those who lived here, passed through and were inspired by this area. Continue reading “In border country: haunts of ancient peace”

Terence Blanchard and the Inner City Ensemble

Terence Blanchard and the Inner City Ensemble

Terence Blanchard is a magnificent trumpet player with a huge reputation. Even if you’re not into jazz you may have heard his music on the soundtrack of films, including most of those directed by Spike Lee – including, memorably When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Lee’s 2006 powerful film about Katrina and its aftermath.

So it was quite something to be able to hear Blanchard perform live at Parr Hall in Warrington recently as part of a new project – piloted by The Band on the Wall – in which he had worked with some of the UK’s most remarkable emerging musicians, as a mentor offering a bunch of thirteen musicians an apprenticeship culminating in live performances around the northwest.

What resulted was an evening of sensational jazz in which Blanchard treated us to stellar moments of trumpet virtuosity, while the young musicians of the Inner City Ensemble, left to their own devices by Blanchard for a major part of the gig, proved an equal match in both their collective playing and in individual  exchanges between instruments. Continue reading “Terence Blanchard and the Inner City Ensemble”

Inside Princes Road Synagogue: prepare to be dazzled

Inside Princes Road Synagogue: prepare to be dazzled

For several years, when the Heritage Open Days come round, I’ve wanted to see inside Princes Road Synagogue. But tickets for guided tours go so fast that I’ve always been disappointed – until this year. This time I got a place, and I was dazzled by what I saw.

The synagogue is a Grade II listed building which was completed in 1874. It was designed by two architect brothers, William and George Audsley, who created an unusual confection of Oriental, Moorish and Gothic features after they had travelled around Europe to gain inspiration for the design with its richly painted and gilded interior. The brothers went on to pioneer some of the first skyscrapers in New York.

The building cost £13,000 to build, a huge sum – over £100m in today’s money – entirely funded by members of the congregation, which, as our lively guide pointed out, was far removed from the image some might have of one composed of impoverished refugees from eastern Europe. The synagogue is a testament to the wealth and social position of Liverpool’s nineteenth century Jewish magnates, a group with wealth and taste that included David Lewis, founder of Liverpool’s once-famous Lewis’s department store. Continue reading “Inside Princes Road Synagogue: prepare to be dazzled”

Toxteth’s cathedral beneath the water

Toxteth’s cathedral beneath the water

Liverpool in 1847 was a grim place to be if you were poor, perhaps a recent immigrant fleeing the famine in Ireland. Being poor meant whole families living in single rooms in ramshackle tenements or in damp cellars, with no sanitation or fresh air. Drinking water – from a well with a pump if you were lucky – was often contaminated by raw sewage from a leaking cesspit. One historian, Gerry Kearns, has described Liverpool at this time as having been ‘created in haste by commerce – by men intent on immediate gain – reared without any tender regard for flesh and blood.’

But that year Liverpool Corporation did something remarkable, appointing the first Medical Officer of Health in the country, Dr. William Henry Duncan, who for the next fifteen years oversaw a programme of works that would see clean water supplied to the poorest areas of Liverpool for the first time, the installation of sewers, and a significant reduction in the number of families living in cellars and other unhealthy dwellings.

Alongside Dr. Duncan the Corporation appointed the first Borough Engineer, James Newland, who, together with the city’s first water engineer Thomas Duncan (another Duncan, but no relation) gave practical effect to Dr. Duncan’s vision by constructing a series of city reservoirs fed by gravity from a major new reservoir at Rivington Pike, twenty miles away in the Lancashire fells.

The Heritage Open Days this month gave me the opportunity of taking a look inside one of the city reservoirs designed by Thomas Duncan to hold water from the Rivington reservoir. The Toxteth Reservoir is still there at the top of High Park Street, a Grade II listed building completed in 1850. Inside the massive external walls of sandstone you enter a massive space, floored in brick with high vaulted brick ceilings supported on cast iron columns. This Victorian cathedral of brick columns and arches was submerged under water until it was finally decommissioned in 1997. Continue reading “Toxteth’s cathedral beneath the water”

David Kynaston’s Family Britain: different times, but no nostalgia

David Kynaston’s <em>Family Britain</em>: different times, but no nostalgia

In his brilliant social history of Britain David Kynaston doesn’t deal in nostalgia. Nevertheless, I can’t resist recording this moment in Family Britain when he interrupts his account of the country between 1951 and 1956 to devote a whole page simply to a list of products whose names will instantly cause time to run backwards for anyone who lived through those years: Continue reading “David Kynaston’s Family Britain: different times, but no nostalgia”