Illustration: Chloé Stephenson / @chloartee

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Exploring our city to find hidden tensions and overlooked beauty, author Jeff Young follows the visitation of a mysterious white stag to Bootle and ruminates on a city’s wont to transcend reality.

But once in a while the odd thing happens,
Once in a while the dream comes true,
And the whole pattern of life is altered,

Once in a while the moon turns blue.

H. Auden

In the opening scene of Michael Cimino’s Bambi, a woman drives along a north Liverpool road, past car showrooms and junk-sprawl rental sheds. The driver doesn’t know it yet, but she has passed through a mysterious rip in reality, into a wilder, stranger Liverpool, an altered state of wonder and impossible possibility. Through the windscreen she sees, suddenly, a fantastic beast and she cannot believe her eyes – a white stag running, past Skoda and Volkswagen dealers, into a version of Bootle that no one has ever dreamed of. Liverpool’s reality has tilted off its axis into a mythic dream-warp and the antlered beast is a spectral visitant from a wilder region beyond the city sprawl…

Let’s put to one side for a moment the obvious/regrettable fact that Michael Cimino didn’t make a live action film version of Disney’s Bambi and set it in Bootle. On Twitter, for a few, fleeting moments, one of Liverpool’s most boring stretches of road is made strange, re-enchanted. I watch the beast as it runs along the roadside, heading north towards the container docks in Seaforth, dragging strangeness in its slipstream. Where has it come from? Where is it going? What is it thinking? It comes out of a secret portal like a half-forgotten myth out of a storyteller’s throat; something strange – at last! – something unexpected in the humdrum everyday grey. I watch the footage several times, scraps of myth-memory assembling in my imagination, out of the pages of Man, Myth & Magic, of Celtic legends in childhood picture books, of fantasy novels. White stag, messenger from the underworld, the beast that appears when a taboo has been transgressed, when we are in trouble. An omen, a warning.

Once in a while the odd thing happens, an unexpected event or vision startles us into seeing the city in a different light, as if the subconscious of the city has broken through its skin like a dream-fiction escaping, becoming part of the external reality, messing with the document. In Naples I watched crystal meth addicts outside the train station, dancing in slow motion in a half-asleep choreography. Five minutes later I saw a lion tethered in a fruit and veg shop when I stopped to buy some oranges. Ten minutes later I was browsing in a shop full of puppets in a street full of wedding dresses.

Sometimes the city has its own imagination, it is a dreamer and the dream. When I was 17 and working as a filing clerk in the city’s business quarter, I watched an airship slowly circling the tower block I worked in. I walked through a plague of ladybirds – a moving sidewalk of insects in their thousands, crawling like a beautiful disease over the terraces and aerial walkways of New Hall Place’s brutalist sandcastle. For three days the city became a hybrid of architecture and insect, a melding of the revolting and the beautiful. Instead of just moving through the city from workplace to sandwich shop, to train station, the unexpected moment made me pause, and look, and wonder. The city wasn’t just the monochrome grind of work, shops, traffic, commute, work – it was spontaneous and strange. It had become science fiction, like the J.G. Ballard books I was devouring at the time, like a Roxy Music B-side.

“Sometimes the city has its own imagination, it is a dreamer and the dream”

Sometimes the unexpected moment is a place, rather than an event. In Liverpool I duck through the covered alley into the secret garden of the Bluecoat Chambers, into a different atmosphere, a decompression chamber, a pause that slows the city down. It has a different mood to the surrounding streets, a different tempo, a different music. It is an altered state and, in turn, it alters us. I stand in front of the old Wine Lodge on Moorfields, missing Richard Wilson’s Turning the Place Over, that audacious perforation in the ruins – abandoned architecture transformed into art. And then the bucket fountain in Beetham Plaza, the sound of falling water and kinetic clang and spill of Richard Huws’ glorious mechanical water theatre – again, a pause, a different urban atmosphere. (And don’t listen to the property developers when they say they love the fountain and want the best for it, and that’s why they want to move it somewhere else because that is utter spiv-speak.)

So, this white stag running, this glimpse of something unexpected – it startles me. Spontaneous glimpses of wonder don’t happen very often in the junk-sprawl of the North End docklands, in that mediocre subtopia of multi-storey car parks – an array of parking options – and iconic Grade A office developments. It’s unlikely we’ll turn a corner in some visitor economy development and catch a glimpse of something that makes our hearts leap with joy – unless you’re the sort of person who gets excited by a conference centre or yet another office block that Junk-Sprawl PLC describe as ‘iconic’ when they really mean imagination failure…

Once in a while the odd thing happens – Batman is on the roof of the Liver Building and Liverpool is Gotham City – the ever vigilant Caped Crusader watching over the city that never sleeps; day after day at sunset, God switches on his glorious free cinema and the sky hallucinates a dissolving dream of reds, pinks and yellows; in the dark of an autumn night I lie on the ground and watch the space station passing over Otterspool like a sky-spider unspooling a thread of light across the night; on the Mersey, seven porpoises head upstream on the incoming tide, as if the river is rewilding itself; I come out of the Brewery Tap and suddenly see the artist ATM’s Northern Dune Tiger Beetle scuttling across the bricks of a Stanhope Street building; look up there, above the Cathedral and spot the peregrine falcons, up there on the edge of things, the Gothic silhouette…

I wander through the North End docks, looking for tomorrow. Even though the developer’s brochures and websites tell us these non-places are the future of the city it feels like the end. This is not the city, this stultifying ‘seamless extension’ of car parking options, wheelie bin storage areas and ‘varied range of leisure and lifestyle amenities’. There is no sense of place, no story, no dream, no imagination, no heart or soul – the main reason being there is hardly a soul to be seen.

Michael Cimino’s Bambi doesn’t end well. The white stag keeps running north, trailing memories, dreams, stories and visions in its slipstream in a doomed attempt to warn us that our soul is being sold. That the story is being erased. That the odd thing is being repurposed as a nothing. In a car park on some industrial estate the white stag – trapped, wild eyed, panicked and desperate – is cornered by the police. And then it’s shot. It doesn’t belong here, in the last days, in the dead days of the non-place. Once in a while the odd thing happens. It happened. It’s over. Black out. The dream did not come true.

Jeff Young is a Liverpool-based writer for theatre, radio, sound art installations and performance. His memoir, Ghost Town: a Liverpool Shadowplay was published in March 2020 by Little Toller.

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