Herman Melville, before he was figuratively chasing that dick Moby, was a young man in big city with nothing but an old erroneous guide book. Instead of navigating the choppy seas of maritime revenge, he slipped and slid through towering streets and floods of people, finding the information he had was woefully inadequate. Frames of reference he had been led to believe, no longer stood, unexpected realisation crashed all around him. He looked up to the birds, ever watchful. Guiding or taunting him? An early resentment of sea life in a nascent stage?
But these weren’t any birds.
And it wasn’t any city.
It was, as Roger McGough’s poem has it, the Gateway to the Atlantic.
The birds above were Liver birds. As the sun glinted off their arched metallic wings he read in his guidebook that they were long extinct. He wrote a novel, and in that novel was a reference to these now extinct creatures.Trouble was, they weren’t extinct. In fact they had never ‘tinct. Or at least had not ‘tinct in the traditional sense.
Melville’s out of date and woefully inaccurate guidebook had tricked him once again. But some myths are just asking to be perpetuated. So Melville, misled a final time by that dusty book, convinced many more people of the existence of the Liver bird, now extinct.
Like a noble balletic Dodo.
Going back a few thousand years to another singular male figure on a quest… John the Evangelist, whose soaring and dazzling Gospel is represented by the eagle who climbs high, rising with Christ, towards the sun, is the first part of the alchemy of the Liver bird. Many lecterns in churches take the shape of an eagle with wings outstretched. And you thought it was because it was a bird of pray…
The imaginative and evocative John was associated with the vibrant and compelling Liverpool, through another John, over a thousand years later: King John. He granted the town charter in 1207. John’s patron saint was St John (not as imaginative as his namesake clearly) and he often used eagle and bird imagery. The bird in the Liverpool coat of arms is holding a spring of broom, broom apparently associated with the Plantagent family. So take a pinch of eagle and then, a bit of sea salt?
Through time this bird evolved, as birds are wont to do. The scousers looked round their gateway to the Atlantic and soon found the bird to take on decidedly more aquatic qualities.
This city of kind hearts and cormorants, with an eagle’s pride and the former’s resourcefulness. Outsmarting and outwitting Herman Meliville and all that look upon them. Part eagle and part cormorant. The liver bird is both/and. Not either/or. Like the city it has made its home, it’s more than the sum of its parts. Inspiring more colorful myths and legends even to this day.
Quirky and striking, both real and mercurial.
To the Liver birds!