Great Expectations

Great Expectations06The news got through to me sideways, as news sometimes will. Mid-evening a friend, David Lloyd of SevenStreets and Bitten magazine asked if he could use one of my Greatie photos from last weekend. ‘Of course’ I’d agreed. And checked back a couple of hours later to see what he’d wanted it for.

To find he’d written a thoughtful article about our city of contrasts, calling it A Tale of Two Cities.

“Joe Anderson and the council will, we have no doubt, be delighted at the Everyman’s triumph (although they can take none of the credit) – but they should be very wary of the Everyman ever staging A Tale Of Two Cities. Because, when it does, it would only need to glance in the direction of Great Homer Street to see a city the council’s washed its hands of. A city of lost opportunities. Fudge and compromise, of timidity and duplicity.

And, in an equal and opposite way to the Everyman, this matters too. Because we are both these cities at once. And wouldn’t you think someone in Dale Street would notice the disconnect? Would stop and say, hey, maybe there are people outside Planning and Regeneration would could, actually, do things better, if we let them?

Stirling knows: you don’t need £27m to make a building beautiful, resonant and fit for purpose. That’s why it has a special category for buildings under £1million. So why do we fail to see the potential in every corner of the city? Why does our selective blindness trip us up time and again? Why is Great Homer Street Market’s £2million new home akin to a Syrian refugee camp? Is that what we deserve too?”

Which is how the news sneaked in to me sideways. Amidst worries that the new Greatie is by no means all that it could be, is the news that our new Everyman has won – something.

Yes, we’ve won the Stirling Prize. The nation’s major architectural prize for the best new building of the year. Being naturally and helplessly in love with all things Liverpool this made me want to run out of the front door and dance in the street. It being not as often as it should be that the nation turns its eyes towards us and says ‘You’re definitely the best’ at, well, anything.

But before I got my shoes on I paused and had my own Dickens moment. A moment of reflecting on Great Expectations. The Great Expectations of March 1st this year.

When the children sang.

When the children sang.

And the poet spoke.

And the poet spoke.

And the Liverpool Lantern Company unlocked the doors.

And the Liverpool Lantern Company unlocked the doors.

While a city watched in wonder.

While a city watched in wonder.

And loving delight.

And loving delight.

As our beloved Everyman...

As our beloved Everyman…

Renewed and rebuilt. Re-entered our lives.

Renewed and rebuilt. Re-entered our lives.

I remember David reflecting at the time about the quality of the culture in a city that could get so collectively excited about a theatre. He was right, we did.

And the nest day?

And the next day?

We could hardly wait.

We could hardly wait.

To run up and down the new verandah.

To run up and down the new verandah.

Look at our rooftops from a new perspective.

Look at our rooftops from a new perspective.

And see our cathedral from a brand new angle.

And see our cathedral from a brand new angle.

Since when? Well, unlike me, David loves the theatre and has written glowingly on SevenStreets about the quality of the productions so far.

And the stage is a thing of wonder.

And the stage is a thing of wonder.

The whole theatre is. Feeling like what it replaced.

The whole theatre is. Feeling like what it replaced.

But so much more full of possibilities.

But so much more full of possibilities.

An architectural triumph, in fact.

An architectural triumph, in fact.

And, because by now you’ll know I’m working myself up to have some sort of a go at it, the best new piece of architecture of the year in Britain – it’s official.

And behind the scenes?

And behind the scenes?

Well, the day our old Ev closed for good, we all looked around it to see what the actors and set designers and costume makers had been putting up with while we contentedly had our lunches and drinks in the Bistro. And the shocked word on most of our lips was ‘Squalid’.

Not squalid now.

Not squalid now.

Spaces fit for artists and artisans.

Spaces fit for artists and artisans.

Perfect down to the tiniest architectural detail.

Perfect down to the tiniest architectural detail.

A theatre that just works.

A theatre that just works.

A credit, as has now been recognised, to the whole of Liverpool.

So what’s the matter? What’s bothering me?

Well, time I suppose. You see, for me the importance of the Ev we lost, the Ev that had to go to make way for this one, was that it was one of the City’s main gathering places. Through the very dark days of the 1970s and beyond we could always rely on the warm welcomes of each other in Hope Street. The poets, the musicians, the politicians, the lost and the lonely lot of us would gather there – moaning and complaining, sure – but also dreaming our brilliant dreams together. Of the bands we’d form, the books we’d write and the love we’d make as our City rose again out of the ashes of Thatcher.

Well rise we have and proud and pleased we are of it. Not blindly self-congratulatory, because there is much effort and thousands of conversations to be had and actions taken before it’s a fair city for us all again.

But, and here is my point for the day. So far, these conversations are not being had in the Everyman. Because as a gathering place it doesn’t quite work, yet.

There are good ideas.

There are good ideas.

And quiet corners.

And quiet corners.

And our carefully filed past to refer to.

And our carefully filed past to refer to.

But some of the place just doesn't work yet.

But some of the place just doesn’t work yet.

The Bistro never draws me in.

The Bistro never draws me in.

And I know many Liverpool people who feel the same.

It's something about the light.

It’s something about the light.

And it's definitely more than a little about the food.

And it’s definitely more than a little about the food.

The Street Level café is a great idea and when I go to the Ev, which isn’t very often, it’s there I’ll go.

For a cup of tea.

For a cup of tea.

Because the ‘food offer’ is bettered by, well, nearly everywhere else in the square mile around it.

Now I realise me and the likes of me are umbilically attached to the old Ev. To the wonders and the quiet simplicity of the food served up there. So it pains me to hear Liverpool people describing what they’ve had at the new Ev as ‘poncey’ or ‘pretentious’ or, worst of all ‘all right, I suppose, but a bit pricey.’ It pained me to sit there with one of the architects of the place a couple of months back and see her struggling with a gargantuan filled role that a passing hippo would have baulked at.

Food designed for the display case, not the human mouth.

Food designed for the display case, not the human mouth.

Still, in the life of a building these are small matters that time and attention can put right. But in the moment of elation last night, when David’s article slipped the news to me sideways, my first thought was ‘Great, that’s the architecture prize and its chattering classes sorted out. Now let’s make the place work for the rest of us.’

Liverpool, you see, needs an Everyman that works for all of us.

For quiet days.

For quiet days.

And high days and holy days.

And high days and holy days.

We have Great Expectations.

We have Great Expectations.

 

17 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. Alan

    Thanks Ronnie for saying what I and, I suspect, a lot of people have been thinking about the new Everyman Bistro. I didn’t want to moan about it as it can end up just coming across like you’re an old stick in the mud, someone who is afraid of change etc. But you’re right – this part of the redevelopment isn’t working at the moment. I don’t think all is lost, though… I do think it’s a really nice space and I think there is the potential for it to generate the same kind of warmth as the old place. But there is something missing right now; something that isn’t just the canteen-style dining, isn’t just the communal seating… it’s something less tangible. I don’t even know what it is myself but it’s not there right now and as such I’m generally inclined not to want to shell out £8 plus for two drinks when there are more vibrant, cheaper alternatives nearby. It’s a real shame.

    Reply
  2. Gerry

    I was going to write something about this today, but you’ve done the job brilliantly, Ronnie. I like the new Everyman, and I’m glad that the building has won the Stirling Prize. But I have one giant reservation – the Bistro. It’s a soul-less space, part of a chain, and in no way a resurrection of the old Bistro where you queued sociably for your food, able to compare the menu offerings laid out on the warmers before you. The idea of having to book a table, and be waited on, in the Bistro – well, sod that. When Gemma Bodinetz says that the ‘Everyman was built with humanity at its heart’, a big part of that was the Bistro, and that’s one big thing that’s been lost. The rest, though, makes a theatre for a city to be proud of.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thanks Alan and Gerry. We’re all pleased but bothered today aren’t we? My natural instinct would be to go down to the Ev and celebrate today, for lunch or tea. But I know I won’t, not yet.

      Reply
  3. Sara

    Well said! I was so looking forward to the Bistro reopening and so disappointed the first (and only) time I went. I could have been in any other trendy “eatery” in Liverpool. Whilst the new Everyman was being built, I was trying to find a replacement for the Bistro: now the new Everyman is open, I am still trying to find a replacement for the Bistro.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      You and many of us Sarah.

      While you’re looking, I think you might enjoy the Meeting House Café down at the Liverpool Quakers place in School Lane, just next to the Bluecoat. Whilst in no way attempting to be the ‘new’ Everyman, it has good vegetarian food and a quiet charm all of its own.

      Reply
  4. John V

    Again I find myself agreeing with you (no surprise there). The building is no doubt of merit but Gerry sums up the new Bistro quite correctly as ‘soul-less’ Have visited once and unlikely to return as our city now has plenty of other new eateries to savour. Many are vastly superior in both value for money, quality and atmosphere. Thanks for the tip about the Meeting House Cafe it’s added to our ‘bucket list’.
    I hope the new Ev Bistro can find that special something again but am presently doubtful this can be achieved.

    Reply
  5. Ronnie Hughes Post author

    Hi John, yes, thinking about it, in the bleak days of the 1970s the Everyman had that area of town pretty much to itself and we were all deeply grateful it was there. Now it’s trying to compete with the likes of the Clove Hitch, Number 60 and the Quarter by being a bit like them. And so it’s not being particularly special. So perhaps we’ve hit on a creative exercise to help the new Ev come to life?

    “Imagine everywhere around you is a wasteland as far as gathering, eating and drinking places are concerned. Now reinvent yourself to be the only place for all of those that anyone for miles around will feel they need.’

    Reply
  6. KT

    Thoughtfully written. Speaking as someone younger though, who went to the Everyman Bistro in 90s/2000s, mostly to poetry events, I always thought Ev Bistro was overpriced/overated even then. My generation of people, doing much the same thing as yours was in the 70s/80s as does every generation, tended to view it as somewhere “older people went” out of nostalgia rather than us seeing it as our “alternative place.” We went to places like Brook Cafe, Magnet, the generation younger than me now go to Dumbulls, 24 Kitchen Street, Mello before its closure. Even if the Bistro had remained exactly the same, I think it had long since lost the role you speak of for anyone under 35.

    However the theatre remained important to us in a range of ways (when it wasn’t closed down which we shouldn’t forget, and indeed the role the bistro played in saving it) I remember vividly a primary school trip when they showed us the trapdoor! And later being part of a writers group there. I’m sure you’d agree, a brilliant theatre for future generations is the most important thing. I know a lot of the old guard were against this redevelopment in general, but I fear if it had been left to those with glorious memories of the place and the utopias they dreamt of between wine, conversation and kisses, the theatre would have crumbled and died along with their memories. Like you say, the Stirling Prize is a nice thing for national, international recognition for our still maligned city, but more important is a decent, sustainable building in which to tell our stories.

    We all have nostalgia, but sometimes Liverpool has been close to drowning in it. I see this as another exciting step in a city which seems to have so much more potential than when I was a young teen in the 90s.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thank you Kenny, very well said. Of course there is a tendency for us all to view our own lives as sort of ‘the beginning of history’ and our own awakenings as the time when things were working at their best. I admit in the article to being ‘umbilically attached’ to the old Ev.

      Nevertheless, and even to the end of its life, it maintained a position as a major gathering place for a wide variety of people. And the new Ev is not doing that yet. I’ve been in there at times you’d think it might be full, only to find it well more than half empty. It’s clearly made a good restart as a theatre, but the rest of us have not taken it to our hearts yet. So I do hope getting this major prize will give the people who run the place the nerve to bring the building into its own as a gathering place again. Not to recreate the old Ev. That’s gone and won’t be back. But to be somewhere less bland, somewhere more interesting and inviting than it is at the moment.

      All new buildings take time to grow into themselves. To become loved. To become woven into the lives of the city’s people. And so it is with this one. Its particular difficulty is, of course, that it’s based on and even built from the bricks of its predecessor. Well it’s time to create something new inside those old bricks. Not somewhere like the past. But somewhere as unique and important as Hope Hall and the old Everyman were in their day.

      Reply
  7. KT

    Very well put. I haven’t eaten in the new one, but then I rarely did in the old one, more of a Greggs pastie person. But indeed if the food and atmosphere of the bistro is dissapointing so many, perhaps it is time for the organisation to reflect once the Strirling party dies down, and for them to ask “what can we do to improve on what we’ve got.” Like you say, in the life of a building, lighting and menus can always be changed.

    Reply
  8. Paul Cook

    Interesting article as usual, Ronnie. I haven’t been to the new Everyman yet but will get round to it at some point. I visited the Bistro a number of times over the past few years but never thought it was anything special. Just a normal cafe. Perhaps these places mean different things to different people. My one visit to see a play was about four years ago. A wonderful production of the Ragged Trousered Philanphropists, one of the most important books of the 20th century.

    I’d like to add my recommendation of the Quaker Meeting House cafe. Been there a bit recently and the food is very nice. And it’s a living wage employer! Do all the trendy cafes on Bold Street do this? On a recent visit I mentioned your blog article about it to one of the staff. She went off and had a look. I think she was quite please with your lovely writeup.

    Reply
  9. Jonathan

    Yes, yes and thrice yes. The new Ev is a thing of exquisite beauty from outside and I’m sure from inside too as a theatre – the full length foyer and balcony are lovely. I’m going on Tuesday to see a play and can’t wait. But my one trip to the new Bistro lasted 30 seconds.

    No, no and thrice no! It felt like a set in a TV studio. Cold, dark, bleak and harsh. It chilled the soul! So different from the heaving, roaring haven of ale and hearty conversation bouncing off the long tables and low ceilings of the old Ev. I know it wasn’t perfect, and KT is spot on that the overpriced, under portioned food of the old Bistro was ludicrously over rated, but where else could you have a pint of Guinness with Pete Postlethwaite in full Lear gear DURING his play?

    As a place for live drama – it’s primary purpose – it seems we have a winner. As a beautiful piece of city we are also blessed. But as a gathering place for every man and woman, the stage has yet to be set.

    Reply

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