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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, May 07, 2004
    A threshold to the ends of the earth

    New art's going up all over the city centre all the time. Stopped at the end of Old Hall Street today to have a look at this - a 'gateway' to the business quarter, on the site of the old interface between Atlantic-facing Princes Dock and eastbound Leeds-Liverpool canal.

    The quote on it reads "Liverpool - Threshold to the Ends of the Earth", attributed to a Michael O'Mahoney in 1931. The symbolism is obvious. The historical context is not. The Liverpool Architectural Society website can't tell us who O'Mahoney was. It gives us clues about his context though - the flash tour of the city's buildings is a reminder that by 1931 Liverpool's boom architects were bringing their work to completion - the India Buildings (for the Blue Star Line) and the (former) Martins Bank (both 1932) were among the last to go up in a business quarter confidently resembling the New York and Paris of the jazz age. Symbols in stone of the city's strong international trading links, which not long after began to fade as the lights went out on Empire, and which today's developers are trying to recover by invoking the trading triumphs of the past.

    The reality is, the city hardly lives up to that billing just yet, if it ever will. The only other source I've found for O'Mahoney's quote offers a very different perspective. In this fuller version he's not describing the business-like city but the river on which it stands:

    "Today our ferry boats, floating shuttles, ever weaving the life of one community into another, move ceaselessly day and night over the face of the waters, as if conferring upon the Mersey the first right among the rivers of England to proclaim: 'Men may come and men may go, but I go on forever'... The fascination of the Mersey is inescapable; it is a threshold to the ends of the earth"

    The language is a bit inflated, but O'Mahoney is connecting here to the elemental realities which assist, enable, outlive, eclipse all human business. The city wouldn't be here at all without the river; and while it's good to see the new optimism in those investing in its trade, there's a sense of deeper time, of new gateways coming and going while the Mersey tides keep flowing.

    Today the city is in thrall to other flows - particularly the flow of information in our networked world. And in a networked world, in one sense, location hardly seems to matter - where is Google? But it does matter - how Google's architects got together and how they now structure their offices and lives must impact on the service they provide.

    Which is why Liverpool might become a threshold to the ends of the earth, tomorrow. As might Lostock or Little Bongs, or anywhere where a combination of computer access and a community working creatively together offers an original way into the global networks.