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Ken Hoffman Mans up in Liverpool with his rockin' Beatles journey

Ken Hoffman Mans up in Liverpool with his rockin' Beatles journey

Beatles statue
An iconic statue of the Fab Four in Liverpool. Photo by Ken Hoffman

Standing in an agonizing, slow, endless ticket line at Etihad Stadium — c’mon the game’s already started — I struck up a conversation with a Manchester City soccer fan. Still a good 30 minutes from the ticket window, the conversation turned ugly. And it was my entirely my fault. Words count.

I asked him, “Does Manchester United play at this stadium, too, or do they have their own stadium?” The Man City fan glared at me, and with all seriousness said, “Don’t ever say that word to me.”

What word? What did I say that offended this guy to his soul?

“Don’t ever say the name of that other team,” he said.

Manchester United? You have a problem with ‘United?’ What am I supposed to say?

“You just say ‘scum,’ because that’s what they are.”

Okay, does scum play at this stadium, too, or do they have their own stadium?

Manchester United, or “scum,” has its own stadium called Old Trafford. It’s older and bigger than Man City’s stadium. Scum is the more popular and more dominant soccer team in Manchester — think Yankees and Mets in New York. Well, usually more dominant. This year, Man City is sitting top the standings in England’s Premier League, while scum is struggling for wins.

Kickin' it in Manchester (via Singapore)
Got a call recently from Singapore Airlines, inviting me to test-fly its Premium Economy Class on its Houston to Manchester leg that connects to Singapore. I’ve flown to England a few times — always to London — and never realized that there was a non-stop flight to Manchester, north of London, about halfway up England. I didn’t ace Geography in high school for nothing. Manchester is only 31 miles from Liverpool by train. I’ll spend a few days in Manchester and a few days in the Beatles’ hometown.

Singapore Airlines’ Premium Economy class is middle ground between economy and business, trending toward business. The seats are a little larger and more spaced out than economy. When you recline all the way back, your head isn’t in the lap of the person behind you. The TV screen at each seat is a lot bigger, and the food is way, way better than the typical school lunch tray you get in economy. The Premium Economy section is small, only 24 seats, so you feel special. The best part, if you catch the fare just right, you can fly Premium Economy for a lower fare than other airlines’ economy ticket to London. I have an English friend, when she pays her own way home, flies Premium Economy on Singapore to save money.

I didn’t know much about Manchester, except that David Beckham and Wayne Rooney played for Manchester United. I got lucky, the tourism board arranged for author Jonathan Schofield to give me a history lesson tour of downtown. He wrote the book on this city: My Guide to Manchester

Manchester is a big-time city, about 2.3 million population, same as Houston. Here’s a joke from Schofield that speaks to Manchester pride. Four Englishmen are talking about their country. They wonder, what’s the second most important city in England? The person from Liverpool says “Liverpool.” The person from Birmingham says “Birmingham.” The person from Leeds says “Leeds.”

The person from Manchester says “London.”

Mad about Man
Saw a poster that said, “On the sixth day, God created MANchester.” Remember when Houston had an art project throughout town called CowParade, with cow sculptures everywhere? Manchester has a similar deal called “Bee in the City,” with more than 100 bee sculptures, each depicting a particular facet of the city’s culture or history. Outside my hotel, there was a bee with the names of Manchester pop music icons, like Oasis, the Bee Gees, the Hollies, John Mayall, Morrissey, the Buzzcocks and Herman’s Hermits.

Along our way, I commented to Schofield that if I had to drive in England, I’d be in traffic court — or the hospital — first day. They drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right side of your car. Turning left would be troublesome and forget about traffic circles. You know that scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation where Chevy Chase is trapped driving in circles around the Lambeth Bridge roundabout?

Schofield explained why the English drive on the left side. He said, in days of olde (really olde), streets were narrow and fistfights were pretty common. Most people are righties, and when you walk on the left side of the road, your right hand is more handy for knocking the other bloke’s head off. In jousting, horses always pass on the left, for example. That’s how the tradition of driving on the left began, for personal protection in case fists start flying. 

I thought Schofield was putting me on. I Googled it. He was correct. Then he told me that, in America, we originally walked and rode horses on the left, too, just like our English forefathers. But after the Revolutionary War, to break tradition from the English, we moved to the right side of the road. He was right about that, too.  

My first day in Manchester, I hopped on the public tour bus. I always take the tour bus when I visit a new city. Two hours, hop on, hop off. Then I can return to the sites that interest me. The Manchester bus toddled past the Museum of Science and Industry on the site of the world’s first railroad station, Manchester Cathedral, Chinatown, Town Hall (under renovation), and the National Football Museum. I spent a couple of hours in the football museum. Did you know that scum is the richest soccer team in the world, worth about $4 billion, trailing only the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees as most valuable sports franchise overall?

Scum is so commanding in English soccer culture that four different teams consider them their arch rival. Too bad Man City crushed them this year.

Live in  Liverpool
The morning of Day 3, I walked to Oxford Road station for a train to Liverpool. No need to check the train timetable, there are 165 trains daily from Manchester to Liverpool. The fast train takes only 35 minutes. Most of the trains lumber along for 57 minutes. It takes me longer than that to drive from my house to Minute Maid Park for 7 pm game starts, and I live only eight miles — a straight shot on the Southwest Freeway — from downtown. 

Remember to hold your train ticket, you’ll need it to exit Lime Street station in Liverpool. I tossed my ticket on the train. When the station agent asked for my ticket, I went into my “I don’t speak English” tourist act and kept walking. (Never look back.)

I arrived in Liverpool, dropped my bags at a hotel, and jumped on a tour bus. You can take a regular tour bus of regular Liverpool attractions, like museums and churches and academies, or the Magical Mystery Tour bus of Beatles attractions. I guess I’ll have to take the tourism board’s word that there are museums and churches and academies in Liverpool.

Strawberry Field and Penny Lane
The Beatles bus takes you past John Lennon’s boyhood home on Menlove Avenue and Paul McCartney’s family home on Forthlin Road. We stopped at Strawberry Field for a photo op. We drove along Penny Lane and saw the barbershop, bank, and fire station in McCartney’s song. The tour guide carries a guitar and sings Beatles songs as the bus approaches places in John, Paul, George and Ringo lore.

The tour ends on Mathew Street, Beatles central, where the “Four Lads Who Rocked the World” played 292 times at the Cavern Club. The famed cellar club was torn down in 1973, but re-opened in 1984, reconstructing the Cavern Club brick-by-brick, 15,000 bricks from the original building. You’ll be surprised how small the stage was for the Beatles. One difference between old and new Cavern, the original club didn’t have a T-shirt and souvenir shop with lines of 21st century Beatles fans handing over their credit cards.

Mathew Street is a step back in nostalgia, with the Grapes bar, McCartney’s Bar, Rubber Soul Bar, Beatles Café, Sgt. Pepper’s Bar, and more Beatles links. There’s a new Magical History Museum a few buildings down from Cavern. It’s run by Roag Best, brother of the Beatles original drummer Pete Best, and features hundreds of artifacts from the Beatles early days in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany.

You’ll see Paul McCartney’s microphone from the Casbah Club,  John Lennon’s copy of the Beatles itinerary from their first tour of the U.S., George Harrison’s guitar from the Cavern, and Pete Best’s drum kit from Hamburg. A poster from 1962 advertises an appearance by the “Fabulous Beatles Rock Combo” with opening act “Gene Day and the Jango Beats.” The museum is five stories high, each floor packed with memorabilia, with a storage house more that will rotate in and out of the exhibit.

Everywhere you look in Liverpool, there are tributes to the city’s impact on modern music. There are statues of the Beatles at Albert Dock, a statue of Lennon on Mathew Street, statues of Cilla Black and Billy Fury. A “Liverpool Wall of Fame” plaque lists every No. 1 worldwide record by a Liverpool artist between 1952 and 2001. The plaque ran out of space after that. 

Walking back to my hotel, I paused in a betting shop — they’re everywhere — and wagered 20 pounds on the Astros that night. The clerk told me I was the first person ever to bet on American baseball at his shop. The Astros and I won.

I was in England six nights and ate fish ‘n’ chips five nights. I had “Sunday roast” with Yorkshire pudding the night I rested. My favorite chip shop was Johnny English on Bold Street in Liverpool. It’s tricky to maneuver there, but trust Google Maps on your phone.

A punny sign on the wall at Johnny English reads “In Cod We Trust.” I had the large fish ‘n’ chips order, hold the mushy peas. Fantastic, incredibly crispy, delicious fish splashed with malt vinegar covered my plate. Be still my heart, I love this place. I asked the woman behind the counter, why is this so much better than I get at home? She said, “We fry our fish in beef fat.” 

On second thought, please don’t be still my heart.