john davies
notes from a small curate

    Wednesday, September 08, 2004
    Parish Walks #6 - Leisure pursuits
    Squeezing through a gap in the metal fence in a corner of West Derby Cemetery is an unconventional way of entering the leisure park at the side of Stonedale Crescent, best known as the site of the East Lancashire Road Showcase Cinema. But it is revealing.

    We begin our walk along Lower House Lane, named after the sole farm along this stretch a century ago. Along the walls of West Derby Cemetery, consecrated in June 1884. Wide, green and spacious, this cemetery is still not full. We peer through the substantial wire railings protecting the Jewish Cemetery; cover our faces as an enthusiastic municipal mower-driver skids through ninety degrees throwing a mess of soil, grass and debris onto the path we walk; and we pass through what is clearly a Roman Catholic area of the cemetery (stones marked with appeals to the saints to "pray for me"), wondering if this, like other Liverpool cemeteries, is segregated. As in life so in death, for generations of this city's Protestants and Catholics, the stones a silent witness to a sectarianism set irreversibly in the very layout of this place.

    Squeezing through a gap in the metal fence to enter the arena of corrugated sheds into which daily pour the shoppers and pleasure-seekers of Croxteth and Kirkby, we emerge on a service road behind Iceland Frozen Foods bordered by scrubby bushes. Here, men sit in a number of vehicles, engines running, appearing to be waiting for others who are queing up to a door in one of the cabins. They each hold papers - job sheets, perhaps, or pay slips. Whatever their business, it appears to be lively today.

    Our next discovery is the identity of the vast white anonymous building which has been the backdrop of our walk across the graveyard. It is the Gala Bingo, which does little to announce its presence but, at 3.30pm, attracts private-hire taxi drivers anticipating fares. Three women emerge together from the plastic lobby, and head towards Iceland.

    The whole site is full of these sheds: across the way from the bingo, a massive square building with faux-Grecian pillars is being renovated. Beyond, cream with red trim, is the squat, wide Showcase, its outer walls decorated with little signs absenting the company from any responsibility for damage or loss to customers vehicles on the great swathe of surrounding tarmac. And in the other direction, a long row of shops with Iceland at one end and Kwik Save at the other.

    This is anywhere-England, a collection of identical units with a back-story of economic colonisation. Here are two big supermarket chains both having their genesis in North Wales; Poundstretcher, controlled by Pepkor, South Africa's largest retailer; Superdrug, owned by Kruidvat Beheer BV, a Dutch drug store chain, Midlands-based Motor World, and a sun-bed centre whose provenance is probably more local, and whose decor is certainly the most creative and individual of any unit on this site: their lobby area painted wall-to-ceiling with gorgeous sunny beach scenes.

    The curve of the car park is tight here, but this does not stop large vehicles taking the turn at speed, to our peril. At the junction with the A580 East Lancs artery a combat-style off-roader with enormous tyres which have never touched anything but tarmac booms out bass sounds to the annoyance of others waiting at the lights, louder even than the sqealing airbarkes of passing articulated lorries.

    Now we are in Americana - here is the Deep Pan Pizza Co, KFC, a drive-thru McDonalds. Here, the city of Liverpool greets travellers emerging from the motorways with the banner DINER - THE GREAT TASTE OF AMERICA. This is a tatty sign, for the original diner has closed and the gleaming tin building now houses the Silver Wok Restaurant.

    The Showcase is run by National Amusements, based in Dedham, Massachusetts, which ranks among the top exhibitors in the world, operating more than 1,354 indoor screens in the United States, United Kingdom and Latin America. It is the parent company of Viacom, which includes Paramount Communications, MTV Networks, Nickelodeon, VH1, Blockbuster Video, and other major entertainment properties. A very American business. But the cover of the magazine we thumb in the empty cinema lobby carries a very Welsh icon: the face of Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is globalization personified, born Swansea on 25th September 1969 to father Dai, a factory worker, and mother Pat, a seamstress, the Showcase Magazine tells us she is now "the new queen of Hollywood."

    In this building which is any-place and no-place, Catherine helps connections to be made. Her latest film is The Terminal, set in an equally anonymous place. It is the story of a man (Tom Hanks) trapped in JFK Airport (by immigration) but 'released' by the love he discovers with a flight attendent he meets (Zeta-Jones). In an ironic line in The Terminal a fellow-traveller asks Hanks, "Do you ever feel you're just living in the airport?" Each night here this story is playing to houses full of factory workers and seamstresses and their peers.

    Finnigans Sports Bar sounds like an Irish theme franchise, but it may actually be the most authentic leisure venue on site, catering for the inhabitants of the outer edges of this deeply Celtic city. We smile at the gaudy poster advertising the highlights of Finnigans' week: MERSEY IDOL TALENT COMPETITION - 1000 CASH PRIZE.

    Inside, the wide dark venue is set out for maximum payola. On one side the tables are set for family steak meals, in the centre hangs a large screen ready to roll-down for Sky TV coverage, and at the far end are banks of gaming machines. There is a lot of standing room around the bar area to fill the place on big soccer nights and a-grand-for-grabs local talent shows.

    Here, over a Coke, we bring our afternoon's observations to an end. The topic is football - money - culture. On the wall behind us are two expensively-framed autographed shirts: a Michael Owen Liverpool top and a Wayne Rooney Everton top. Both players groomed in the city's soccer academies, both having very recently moved to clubs which Franklin Foer describes as "multinational conglomerates ... which buy championships each year." I am reading Foer's book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, which offers snapshots from soccer around the world which help describe effectively some of the complexities of our present economic situation.

    I reflect on the growing popularity of places like Finnigans in connection with the growing gentrification of our soccer stadia. With match-going being rendered unaffordable to the traditional football-goer it may be that the matchday rituals of the ordinary working person are being transferred to Sports Bars like this: the gathering, the drinks, the comradeship, the game. The only differences are that the bar won't close at kick-off and that the match is digitized. People, ever adaptable, are turning any-place and no-place into meaningful space.