From the moment you step off the escalator that carries you up from the bowels of the earth below Liverpool Central, your mind goes into overdrive – evidently, in Capitals of Culture people think quicker – and you observe, quite effortlessly, that in order to reach the surface you will have to ride a second moving staircase. Not in itself a genuine epiphany perhaps, but what has roused your grey cells from their habitual torpor is the sudden realisation that at Lime Street, only several hundred yards away, there is only one escalator. Fuck me! Can no one else have noticed this? You look around you and are disconcerted by the calm of your fellow travellers, who are patently oblivious to the fact that something fishy is going on.
When you emerge into Bold Street and daylight, unease gives way to shock. If you weren’t seeing this with your own eyes, you would never have believed it could happen in Liverpool, but the evidence is irrefutable – every last piece of litter has been stolen. You look around frantically for a policeman, but then think better of it: this isn’t just a case of petty theft by juvenile environmentalists; this is a wholesale clean-out that can only have been perpetrated with the knowledge and connivance of people in power. Disorientated, you take refuge in Waterstone’s, and here you are momentarily reassured by the familiarity of the surroundings: the Three-for-Two book offers, the half-price English Countryside and Cat calendars, and the absence of Charles Bukowski and Damon Runyon from the bookshelves.
Breathing normally once more, you head up towards Lewis’s. Under a sign that says “Culture Quarter” – since when, you wonder, have Scousers been referring to parts of their city as “quarters”? – and points in the direction of St John’s Market, a group of multiracial scallies are comparing their couteaux Stanley. You do not linger. Not out of fear, you understand, but because today you have a precise objective, and time in the Cultural Quarter waits for no man.
Five minutes later you are in London Road, a UNESCO Site of Protected Squalor refreshingly untainted by the 21st Century Renaissance, and a genuine repository of popular culture. Over the uniquely sordid façade of the Adult Pleasure Parlour, a sign in a first-floor window promises Halal Meat. Preferring not to dwell on the disturbing implications of this, you press on up the hill to the TJ Hughes Museum of Liverpool Life. Disappointingly, your favourite part of the shop, the Scuba Diving Department, has ceased to exist – explorers of the Mersey coral reefs are now constrained to journey to Warrington or Widnes to purchase their equipment – but in the Main Store visitors can still enjoy the colourful traditional spectacle of Post-Christmas Returns, when daughters bring back the blowlamps their drunken fathers mistook for hairdryers, and old gippers attempt to get money back on disintegrating slippers bought in 2003.
It seems wrong to leave without making some kind of contribution to the upkeep of the place, so you buy a suitcase large enough to carry some Culture back to Italy and wheel it past the pools of vomit to Lime Street. Where a funny thing strikes you on your way down to the train: the escalator here is twice as high as the ones in Liverpool Central.