For this week’s stop on our literary tour through the pages of my novels, I’m inviting you to meet me under ‘Big Willie’, the striking statue which adorns the main entrance to the building which was formerly one of Liverpool’s best known department stores, Lewis’s. The statue was created by Sir Jacob Epstein to symbolise Liverpool’s resurgence following World War II. The bronze figure is 18 feet high and stands on a plinth shaped like the prow of a ship. It’s official title is Liverpool Resurgent, although everyone I know calls him by him nickname!
The store and the statue were very much a part of my student days, when the Saturday afternoon ritual was generally to meet up under said statue, duck into the department store for a free spray of scent from one of the many perfume counters that arrayed part of the ground floor and trot into town for a spot of shopping, or maybe just window shopping, since we didn’t exactly have money to burn.
The store is no more and the building has been converted into an Aparthotel. We can quickly admire the lambanana as we pass through the new dining room. The mural in the background is the original from Lewis’s restaurant the 1950s which was rediscovered during the building refurbishment. More about the original Superlambanana, here.
The statue, which still presides over the Aparthotel entrance, was made famous in the 1962 song In My Liverpool Home sung by The Spinners. “We speak with an accent exceedingly rare, meet under a statue exceedingly bare…”
Listen to the immortal words and savour the ‘exceedingly rare’ accent which, during the 30 years I lived in Liverpool, I managed both to acquire and discard (most of the time).
Within the pages of You’ll Never Walk Alone, feisty Lucy and her handsome boyfriend, Pierre visit Lewis’s for a spot of unorthodox out of hours shopping, accessing the store on a Sunday (there was no such thing as Sunday opening back in he 1980s) via one of the underground tunnels which run under the city – more about those on a future tour. While they’re dodging the security guards, they bump into another iconic figure of the 1980s, singer and songwriter, Pete Burns.
In those days, still building his musical career, Pete Burns worked at a small but popular independent record store, Probe Records, an important stop off point for musicians and fans of the alternative music scene in Liverpool. Located in Button Street, just around the corner from the more famous, Mathew Street (home of the Cavern Club), it was always packed on a Saturday.
‘He caused a sensation in Liverpool because he was the ultimate head-turner,’ recalls Geoff Davies, Probe Records MD. ‘The nearest I ever got to being involved in a fight was when I stopped some fella beating him up in the shop because he took exception to his appearance.’
He was also notorious for his maltreatment of customers, sometimes throwing their purchases at them because he disapproved of their selection. He was a frequent visitor to the cosmetics counters in Lewis where I remember seeing him wearing his striking all-black contact lenses. Quite a disturbing sight close up.
Now, if you’ve got all your vinyl, let’s return to Lewis’s and join Lucy and Pierre as they start their own spot of shopping. They’re about to go on a trip to the Isle of Man and they need to pick up a few bits and pieces…
Excerpt from You’ll Never Walk Alone
“You’ve been here, you know, out of hours, before?”
Lucy nodded. “Okay, after you…”
Pierre opened the door slowly and peered into the corridor. They both slipped out and hurried past the metal loading doors which stood opposite the goods lift. There was a flight of worn stone steps next to it. Pierre took the steps two at a time, Lucy following him. He opened the door at the top of the steps cautiously, listening for signs of the security guards. He jerked his head for Lucy to follow him. They emerged next to the curtain which led to the changing rooms on the ground floor of the store. Pierre scanned the sales floor. There was no sign of any security guard.
“Okay,” Pierre whispered. “Keep away from the windows, just in case one of the boys in blue come strolling past. I think the luggage department’s over there.” He pointed. Lucy nodded. “It’s just after the perfume counter…I know this store,” said Lucy. “We often pop in for a free spray of scent!”
Five minutes later they had each picked out a case. Lucy lingered by the perfume counter. Her hand hovered over a bottle of Chanel No.5. Just then, they heard the sound of someone whistling from the far side of the store, close to the main entrance. Lucy turned to Pierre who had been admiring the watches. He gestured to her to get down. The guard was coming up the main aisle. Lucy and Pierre inched behind the nearest counter, leaving their cases at the side of the aisle. The guard’s footsteps slowed; he was only a few feet away from where they were crouching. Lucy realised she was holding her breath.
“Aye, aye,” he said. “Who’s been leaving the stock out of place?” They heard him pick up one of the cases. Just then, his two-way radio crackled into life.
“Receiving, Charlie…over.” There was a pause and more crackling. “Can’t hear yer, Charlie. Where are yer?” They heard him put the case down. “Listen, Charlie, I can’t hear a bloody word on this thing. I’ll meet you by the main doors and yer can speak to me where I can hear yer.” They heard the guard’s footsteps marching back the way he’d come.
“Let’s go,” Pierre mouthed to Lucy. “Keep low,” he indicated with his hand. Lucy nodded and followed him as he picked up the cases and weaved through the side aisles and display stands. They had almost reached the changing rooms when one of the ruffles on Lucy’s skirt caught on the protruding arm of a loaded display stand which carried a selection of rather fetching straw boaters. Lucy felt the material snag. The hats bobbed jauntily as Lucy struggled to free the lace trim from the metal prong.
Just then a man appeared from behind the nearby make-up counter where he had obviously been busy with a selection of products. He grabbed the display stand just as it was about to crash to the floor. As he set it straight, Lucy finally managed to free herself. She looked up to see that he was dressed in tight shiny black PVC trousers and a tight black shirt. His eyes were very strange. No colour, just huge black pupils.
Pierre turned. His face lit up with a smile. “All right, Pete,” he whispered. “Better scarper, the guard’s by the front door.”
The man nodded and headed for the exit by the changing rooms. Pierre and Lucy followed.
“Who’s dat now?” The guard called out. They turned to see him charging up the central aisle, already panting with the effort.
They hurried through the door and ran down the stone steps. As they reached the bottom they heard the sound of a two-way radio coming from the corridor where they had entered from the tunnels. Pierre and Pete looked at each other for a second, then charged the goods doors in front of them. A piercing alarm bell started to ring.
“Run for it,” Pete yelled over his shoulder as he headed for the back alley at the back of the store.
Pierre strode across the road to a graffiti-covered door in the building opposite. He put one of the cases down and turned the handle. The door swung inwards. He and Lucy had just disappeared from view as the two security men emerged on the street. Hands on hips and breathing heavily they scanned the street. Charlie turned to his colleague: “I’m getting too old for this.” The other man held his hands up. “Let’s go sit down; I need a smoke.”
Pierre and Lucy were threading their way through a narrow service corridor. On the other side of the breeze-block wall they could hear the whirr and screech of the underground trains.
“That was Pete Burns, wasn’t it?” said Lucy. “You know him?”
“Sure. He’s a regular to the tunnels. Someone who looks as different as that needs a bolt hole occasionally. I mean, he’s confident and all that, but sometimes people don’t, you know, accept the way he looks and want to have a go at him.”
“We danced to his new record at the club last night, didn’t we?”
“Your DJ friend has good taste. That tune’s definitely going to the top.”
Let’s let Pete Burns and his band, Dead or Alive, play us out with the very single Lucy’s talking about. Released as a single in 1984, ‘You Spin me Round’ reached No. 1 in the UK in March 1985.
Photo credits: Liverpool Echo, Wikipedia, Aparthotel Adagio