St George’s Hall – Minton Tile Floor – Liverpool

St George Window - Concert Hall - St George's Hall - Liverpool

St George Window

St George’s Hall is one of the most impressive buildings in Liverpool (in a city which has many) and gives an indication of the wealth that once passed through what was once claimed to be ‘the second city of the Empire’ – after London (although other cities claim this ‘accolade’, Glasgow and Bristol being two of them). The Minton Tile floor is an expression of this wealth.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the building itself (I’ll do that in other posts) as here I want to concentrate upon the Minton tiled floor of the main concert room, which has recently been on public view for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t long after the building opened in 1854 that a decision was made to cover the sunken part of the floor to protect the tiles for posterity. In some ways a strange decision as the covering of the more than 30,000 tiles takes away much of the splendour of the hall itself. Don’t get me wrong, the concert hall is still very impressive, but it’s a bit like a book with part of the story missing.

However, that decision made so long ago does mean that on the occasions when the floor is uncovered visitors get an unparalleled idea of what was it was possible to achieve during the heyday of Britain’s industrial greatness. Comparing the protected tiles with the surrounds you are able to appreciate the way that the lack of protection has taken its toll in some places but also to realise that these tiles are incredibly hardy as many areas have survived quite well.

So a few facts and figures. St George’s Hall, built in the middle of the 19th century, is classified as a neoclassical building. That means it takes its architectural influence from the buildings that remain from ancient Greece and Rome – and the Hall mixes the two. Not strictly so, but more or less Greek on the outside and Roman on the inside, especially in the main concert hall where the inspiration for the architect, Harvey Londsdale Elmes, came from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

At the time when it was unveiled the floor was the largest pavement of its kind in existence being some 140 feet long and 72 wide and was constructed using more than 30,000 tiles. The part of the floor that is normally covered is sunken and is a couple or feet or so below the walk way that goes around the edge of the hall. When uncovered it’s possible to see the grills that were all part of the central heating (and cooling) system that was all part of the original design and one of the first of its kind in the modern world – we have forgotten much of what the Romans had learnt. However, the covering of the floor meant that the imaginative innovation came to nought, at least in the main hall.

In the centre there’s the Royal Coat of Arms, measuring 5 feet in diameter. On both sides of that design the rest of the floor is basically symmetrical, along the length of the hall. Within those two areas are found: the Liverpool Coat of Arms; the Star of St George; the Rose; the Thistle; and the Shamrock. I’m afraid for the Welsh there is nothing, even though the Welsh had a huge influence on the early development of Liverpool and it’s more than likely that many of the men working on the site would have been Welsh, the building trades being where they tended to gravitate. Between these picture designs there are large swirling arcs which are made up of flower designs and filling the gaps geometric designs following a regular patter. At both ends of the hall there are semi-circles that have the face of Neptune at the apex and on both sides are sea satires and nymphs in amorous embrace, together with dolphins and other sea creatures. The dominant colours are buff, brown and blue.

To give an idea of how the tiles were made I can do no better than reproduce a description from one of the local Liverpool newspapers which carried a long story about the Hall at the time of its opening in 1854:

The antique practise of tile making, as appears from the existing remains of ancient works, confined the manufacture of the use of few colours or tints. The method commonly used seems to have been this: – A piece of well tampered clay having been prepared, of a proper size (usually about six inches square and one inch in thickness), a die, having some ornament in relievo was pressed upon it, the indented pattern thus produced was then filled in with clay of some other colour, generally white, the tile was then covered with a metallic glaze, which imparted to the ground (usually red) a deeper and richer colour, and gave the white ornament a yellowish hue. These tiles were often arranged in sets of 4, 16, or more, and sometimes intersected with bands of plain tiles, of a self colour, such as black, red and white, and frequently displayed great geometrical skill and beauty of effect. Good examples may be seen in the churches of St Denis and St Omer, in France, and specimens from the abbeys of Juvaulux, Westminster, and other buildings in England. The modern process of encaustic tile making, as adopted by Messers MINTON, HOLLINS and Co, enables them to produce not only a far greater variety and brilliance of colour in the general effect of a pavement, but admits of several colours being placed upon a single tile, thus producing a soft effect of fine mosaic work, in a much more durable and less expensive material.

From The Liverpool Mercury, September 19th, 1854

In the more distant past the floor was only uncovered at very long intervals, 10 years or more, but it looks like this event has set to become an annual affair. In 2012 it was ‘revealed’ for two weeks in January but in 2013 for two weeks in August. Next year, who knows.

There have been suggestions to try and construct a glass floor over at least a part of the sunken area but so far they have come to nought. And anyway that might allow an understanding of the skill of the craftsmen and the beauty of the design but not of its scale, which can only be appreciated when fully uncovered. To keep the floor on permanent display would bring into conflict the preservation of a unique architectural attribute with the desire to use a major City Centre public indoor space.

I hope the slide show below will provide an idea of what is hidden from view 51 weeks of the year.

Minton Tile Floor Reveal 2017

This year the floor will be uncovered between Thursday 13th and Wednesday 19th April. Entrance is via the Heritage Centre on St John’s Lane from 10.00 – 17.00 everyday. Entrance to the Great Hall is £2.50 (under 16s free). This allows the visitor to get an overall view of the floor from the balcony.

There are opportunities to walk on the floor, obviously providing a closer view of the art work. These will take place at 10.00, 14.30 and 17.00 each day the floor is uncovered. Most of the 10.00 and 17.00 slots have been booked. It looks like, due to the great demand, a further 14.30 slot has been arranged. These still have places. Each group is limited to a maximum of 30 people. Only bookable online by visiting the TicketQuarter website. Tickets cost £10.00 per person, plus £1.00 ‘Fee’ plus £2.25 ‘Fulfillment Fee’ – these ticket sites are becoming a license to print money! Type ‘Walk the Floor Tour’ in the search box. Ignore the ‘Sold Out’ message (if you do this as soon as possible) and then ‘Book Tickets’. The 14.30 tour, and possible a few other options, might still be available.

This year (as in the past) there’s another event, called ‘A Night on the Tiles’ which takes place daily from 18.00 – 21.00 on each day the floor is uncovered. This allows you to walk on the floor, you get a class of something fizzy and costs £12.00 plus a £2.25 Fulfillment Fee’. Get tickets in advance, online, at the TicketQuarter. Type ‘Night on the Tiles’ in the search box. The size of the groups is not such an issue and there’s a better chance of getting entrance if you are prepared to go in the evening.

 

Neptune and The Liver Bird - Concert Hall - St George's Hall - Liverpool

Neptune and The Liver Bird

Elysium – how not to attack a gated community

Elysium

Elysium

If there’s injustice then the Hollywood answer is to look for an individual hero to come up with the solution. This is merely a variation on the Christ story from the Bible where the oppressed are just sitting and waiting for someone to lead them into paradise. All that’s needed is a brave, fearless and self-sacrificing individual to come to the fore. This is basically the theme of the film Elysium.

Sometimes they chose themselves, sometimes they fall into the role by accident, sometimes they start off with selfish motives only to realise, during the struggle, that what they are really fighting for is the common good, often with a Damascene conversion event that tips him/her (although it must be said that the Christ as woman is the exception rather than the norm) over to the bright side.

We also have this repeated in the historical, political context. Auguste Blanqui in France in the 19th and Che Guevara in 20th centuries are merely modern equivalents of the Christ Redeemer. All right, they might have had good intentions but they got it entirely wrong. When such like movements have been able to gather a reasonable amount of support they inevitably end up being destroyed, with a greater or lesser loss of life. The movement in general suffers a set back, sometimes for a generation or more, and the ruling class are able to parade the dead body of the ‘messiah’ to show their foolishness and the futility of bucking the system.

Blanqui lived long enough to see the real way forward with the attempt of the Parisian working class to seize political and economic power in the Commune of 1871. It failed and tens of thousands paid the ultimate price of daring to challenge capitalism, but that failure was taken on board by Lenin who used the negative lessons to ensure the same didn’t happen during the October Revolution of 1917. Guevara’s body was thrown into the Bolivian jungle from a helicopter so that his grave wouldn’t become a place of pilgrimage and a possible rallying point for revolutionaries in the future. And the commercialism of his image in the almost 50 years since his death has had the effect of diminishing whatever revolutionary position he might have held.

Elysium also brings up another issue that plays in dominant role in 21st century society. That is the one that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’. We see a flash back of the young hero looking up at this huge ideal place in inner space – close enough for the poor left on Earth to be taunted but far enough away so that they pose a limited threat. The accumulation of filth and pollution has made the planet an undesirable place to live for the rich and powerful and they have chosen to live in the present day equivalent of a gated community, where life can go on with the problems and distress of the vast majority of the population ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

(Here it might be worthwhile stating that the original idea of Elysium (or the Elysian Fields) comes from Greek mythology and it was a conception of the afterlife reserved for mortals related to the Gods – so not a place reserved for most of us! In fact, even dreaming about going to such a place is as meaningless as the promises given by all religions which was parodied in the popular song of the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World) and written by Joe Hill in 1911. This song had a famous line which promised ‘Pie in the sky, when you die.’)

Those living in the slums which, in 2154 when the film is set, cover the whole of the planet, seek to get to this paradise which they can see every day (presumably only just through the thick layers of atmospheric pollution which over-population and lack of care for the environment has created over all the cities). They risk all, their wealth – which they hand over to gangsters to enable they to even make an attempt to reach the New Jerusalem, and their lives when they are the target of the missiles which are sent to blow them to smithereens when they get too close. This is an obvious reference to the way that immigrants risk all to get to countries they see as a better life opportunity than the countries in which they were born.

That’s not the problem with the film. It’s a clear allegory about present day society and what is happening all around us, in all parts of the world. That is the intention of the film-makers, their ‘good’ intentions in making a critique about the injustice that exists in the world, even more so in these days of ‘austerity’ when the brunt of the most recent economic crisis is being borne by the poor and the rich are getting even richer. (They even film in an existing shanty town of Mexico City – so the image of a future world of deprivation is already a reality for millions of people.) The problem with the film is the facile way in which it suggests the issues of inequality and injustice are to be resolved.

Immigrants have always got the dirty end of the stick. They leave their homes to go into an unknown. When they get to the place of their dreams, or even on the way, they are discriminated against, abused and robbed. (The reason there’s such a large population of Irish descendants in the Liverpool area is not because their ancestors chose to settle here, they were robbed of their meagre wealth by smart-arsed wide boys and they were stuck with nowhere else to go.) In present day Britain politicians of all political hues are out doing each other on the immigrant card, pandering to the lowest common denominator in the British population and similar is happening in Australia, all in preparation for upcoming elections and the thirst for power and having nothing to do with a considered policy on the international movement of people. And that’s not to mention the building of a barrier hundreds of miles long to prevent Latin Americans from crossing the Rio Grande and entering the ‘land of freedom and opportunity – bypassing the Statue of Liberty.

We get a perpetuation of the myth that it’s better to move away (run away, more like) from all the issues that exist in so many countries; the pollution, the overcrowding, the limited education, the lack of opportunities, the crime, the environmental degradation, the unemployment and the soul-destroying jobs when they do exist, the problems associated with drugs and booze, the racism, the sexism, the violence and all the other negative consequences that have arisen from and thrive under a class society. To where? To a place that all these things have miraculously disappeared? But that place doesn’t exist, at least for the majority of the population, and never will unless the underlying power structures are challenged and changed fundamentally.

In the place called Elysium everything that is negative on Earth is absent. The rich just spend their days having drinks parties out in the sun, lying by the swimming pool and their every whim being pandered to by subservient robots (human servants also having been replaced by machines). It seems quite bizarre that 150 years into the future the rich are still doing the same as they do today, only a few miles up from the surface of the planet – showing that there’s certainly no real development left within the capitalist system. It also seems to follow the argument of those who deny the human effect on climate change in that all we have to do is to place all our faith in technology, but here it is clear that technological advances are only for a select few.

Yet again the we are left with the impression that the poor are responsible for their own condition, that they choose to live in the filth that surrounds them. And to an extent they are, but not in the way that the film depicts. To build something the size of a small country in space would have taken an almost unimaginable amount of resources, and the only place they could have come from would have been the planet Earth. What were the people doing when their wealth was being stolen from them over the course of many years? Why did they assist in this plundering of scare and non-renewable resources? Why did they sit back and allow themselves to be robbed of what could have made the lives of the majority more bearable? Why did they allow the creation of an exclusive society that developed technology that virtually eliminated illness and death yet left the billions on the Earth’s surface with no resources to treat everyday common illnesses, diseases and infirmities? Why did they just let the rich do what suited them and to hell with the rest?

(But we don’t have to wait 150 years before asking those questions.)

They were probably watching mind numbing reality TV shows, soap operas or films like Elysium. The same attitudes that have led to the acceptance of the situation the world finds itself in at the moment, in mid-2013, where in country after country the people are being openly robbed by capitalism and in the vast majority of cases few are really fighting against it. Throughout the world too many people are thinking that maybe, just maybe, they will win the lottery and in that way escape from the bleak future which lays ahead. They want to join the rich, not make sure the rich aren’t able to treat the rest of us as chattel and servants to their desires.

The makers of Elysium might think that by proffering a hero led revolt against the elite that they are making a social comment, which might even stir people into action, but what they have made is a film which seeks to maintain the status quo. It might provide some viewers with the same sort of good feeling that I witnessed in a showing of Aliens in 1986, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) takes the controls of a huge machine to do battle with the Alien which raised a cheer around a packed cinema – something I’ve not experienced very often – but when they walk out the multiplex the situation will still be the same. That is, unless they forget the dream of a super hero coming to save them and get together and do the hard work of eliminating such privilege themselves – and making sure that it doesn’t return in the future.

And are we really supposed to accept that ‘the world will be turned upside down’ by the mere re-booting of a computer, however ‘super’ it might be?

The Bus from Bajram Curri to Tirana

Kosovo entry stamp

Kosovo entry stamp

How to officially enter a country without setting foot in it.

One of the joys of travelling is the unexpected. Well, I suppose, many people have come across a form of the unexpected they would rather not have experienced but those unpleasant situations can happen in your own country. The unexpected that I’m talking about is the experience when something happens, something changes, something develops in a manner that was totally unforeseen at the beginning, but all ends up well.

This was the case when I wanted to get from Bajram Curri, in the very north of Albania, back to the capital Tirana – more or less in the centre of the country.

I had arrived in the area via the Komani ferry and had spent some time (unsuccessfully) attempting to get to Thethi via Valbona. It was my fault (for a number of reasons) that I didn’t achieve my original goal but that wasn’t the first – and I’m sure it won’t be the last – time that such has happened.

But at some time I had to get back south and so decided on the bus route from Bajram Curri. I didn’t start out with no information, it’s just that the information wasn’t exactly accurate. This is where the adventure starts in a place/country where there is little accurate and up to date information. The only British guide-book I had at the time had so many flaws it was bordering on worse than useless. It might be argued that things are changing in Albania rapidly, and that’s true, but I came across errors that didn’t reflect changes that were made long before the particular edition was published. I don’t want to labour that point, just to say ‘beware of guide books’. Take into account the most important word in the phrase and use the information provided as an indication and not to consider it as gospel.

My guide-book gave the indication that the bus to Tirana would take a tortuous, uncomfortable and very slow route through the mountains. That wasn’t a problem. I wasn’t in any real hurry and it wouldn’t be the first time (or, again, the last) I had travelled on such bad roads. Getting older the pains last a little longer but a day or two of rest and a not insignificant amount of alcohol has always dissolved the aches and pains in the past. And, anyway, it was the chance to see another part of the country.

I was starting fairly early in the morning. The guide books seem to indicate that much of the transport in Albania tails off considerably after midday. That’s true in some places but my experience over my three trips to the country is that people in generally are wanting to travel later in the day and the buses or furgons (minibuses) are starting to fill the gap, one of the ‘glories’ of the free market. However, if you don’t have exact information it pays to start early, just in case.

I should have realised that something was not what I was expecting when I was asked by the driver, once I had discovered the next Tirana bound bus, to hand over my passport. Now, I don’t have a problem of not having my passport, especially when I’m out of the country. The worst that can happen is that I won’t be able to get home. When the request is unexpected it’s a little disconcerting but when I saw that he was asking for everyone’s passport (I was the only obvious tourist on the bus) I relaxed a little.

We left on time and I was trying to work out how long it would be before we made a turn off to the right. From the map the route would be, more or less, north-east for a few kilometres and then south-east along the rough road towards the town of Kukës. But we kept on going NE and climbing and coming down from the hills. A very attractive route as we were passing by the mountains and hills in the very north-east corner of the country. Everyone else was relaxed so I assume there was no attempt at a mass kidnapping.

Then we arrived at a border crossing, so now I understood why I had been asked for my passport. A big pile of passports was passed to the immigration but no one made any attempt to see if the passports bore any relationship to the passengers. I was now in Kosova.

At this point I still wasn’t sure of my eventual destination. I was sure that there wasn’t another major destination in the area that sounded like Tirana but not planning/expecting to enter Kosova I hadn’t done any research before leaving home. I few people got off at some of the towns we then passed through but the majority stayed on. I thought my best plan was to stay on to the bitter end and just play it by ear.

The bus picked up a better, faster and wider road and then I started to see signs for Prizren. That didn’t sound like Tirana and anyway we didn’t enter the town, skirting around it towards the south. The bus then took a major road, now moving quite quickly, in a south-westerly direction. Slow witted I might have been but I started to work out what was happening.

In place of going along a very rough, very slow mountain track that would have taken hours, we had kept to the best roads to make the most speed. The only way to do that was to leave the Albania and use the roads that had been paid for by the World bank, IMF and the EEC after they had successfully dismembered the old federation of Yugoslavia following a long, bitter and hugely expensive war, both in terms of resources and human lives.

On arriving at another border post my realisation was confirmed. Immediately after moving off at the border the passports were passed from the front of the bus to the back, mine arriving quickly as it was the only one where they didn’t have to check the photo to know who it belonged to. About 15 to 20 minutes later, overlooking the town of Kukës, we stopped for a break at a road side café, back in Albania with the known brand names for the beer and the like.

On moving off from there we travelled on an amazing motorway. Amazing for the effort needed in its construction and for the fact that there was so little traffic passing along it, in either direction. Again a road funded by foreign money but I couldn’t really see how it benefited the Albanians. Thousands travel every day along the coastal highways, from Shkodër in the north to Saranda in the south. Parts of that road are atrocious and work, in places, had been stalled for as long as I’ve been going there, presumably due to lack of resources.

Why this motorway in the isolated mountain area of eastern Albania was a priority has nothing to do with the Albanian people or their economy, but more for any future foreign interests. Mainly military, I would have thought, to get to the heart of the country and its capital Tirana, in the quickest possible time, in the event of anything developing that might have an adverse effect on foreign control of the country that has been an aim since the end of the 19th century. That’s my theory but would welcome any other ideas.

So I eventually got to Tirana, my original goal, and probably much quicker than my expected route. I wasn’t kidnapped and held to ransom. It was just the quickest way. The next time I’m in that area I will attempt the rough route and keep hold of my passport.

But now I have a stamp (only one – I didn’t get one for leaving Kosova) in my passport for entering a country in which I, literally, have never set foot.