Christmas at TJ's
David Lloyd's not driving home for Christmas. He's walking up London Road instead, where all his festive memories lead him
Words by David Lloyd, photos by Jane MacNeil
I have a friend who swears that his first memory is of seeing David Bowie in a glittery onesie on Top of the Pops. Another is adamant that the earliest images his brain indelibly stored were of Kevin Keegan hammering home the final goal in Liverpool’s 1974 FA Cup victory.
Mine was seeing Pinky and Perky in the TJ Hughes grotto on London Road. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, I could pretend it was of me having a sleepover with the Osmonds or cheering Lulu’s Boom Bang-a-Bang to Eurovision victory. But we can’t choose our memories, and mine start with a pair of pigs on nitrous oxide, singing Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.
I remember walking through that underground tunnel that connected TJ Hughes proper with its bargain-bin alter-ego over the road. I remember the cold, hard bench I sat on, legs swinging, watching the pigs warble through their Pop Parade of hits.
I remember meeting Father Christmas in his grotto and picking a red and white plastic hooter as my gift. I gleefully honked it all the way down London Road. Mum told me to stop when she got to Browns to pick up some cufflinks for my dad. Browns the Jewellers certainly wasn’t the sort of place you honked in.
London Road still holds a charge of excitement for me. It’s hard to believe, when you see the sorry state of it these days. There’s no Christmas cheer at Machine Mart, and little in the way of tinsel and baubles at Freddy’s Chicken and Pizza.
But that’s the thing with memory. It outlasts its location. It’s as biological as geographical. But, in truth, it’s a bit of both.
When it comes to a love of a place, we’re not in control. We love our hometown because we have no choice. We were born to love it. Reason, and music, football and culture have nothing to do with it. It’s our hippocampus that calls the shots.
As we move around our city, we’re cementing our soul to its streets. Our brain is constantly sending out little emissaries; beacons that light up, helping us to navigate our way to the station when we’ve had too many tequilas.
These tiny neurons, called place and grid cells, can map our way back to our past too, even when the fabric of the present tries its best to wipe it from the grid.
Our bodies, and our cities, are locked in a life-long set of exchanges, and there’s no escape. No wrecking balls, failed civic schemes or half-built luxury condos are a match for these tiny, indelible markers.
It’s no wonder we get so attached to the stuff that surrounds us. We’re just one single interactive system. These streets we tramped in our youth will wait for us to return. No matter how long it takes.
Psychologist Robert Zajonc talks of the ‘mere exposure’ effect. Simply being exposed to something on a repeated basis, he says, is enough to make us like it. In other words, it’s not that we go to places because we like them. It’s more that we like places because we go to them.
Which explains why I’m standing in the semi-darkness of TJ’s basement, stocked high with last year’s must-have toys, trying to negotiate a floor with more ramps than a BMX track. And yet, somehow, I’m feeling warmer and fuzzier than I would at the Christmas tree forest in Paradise Street. For me, Christmas is more Liverpool gone than Liverpool ONE.
I head to the tills upstairs to buy some trinkets. The sales assistant is busy taking one of the coats off the rack to wrap around her frozen shoulders. “I can’t open the plassy bag, love, my fingers are like icicles,” she says, as I help her stuff my Adidas body spray and Thinsulate socks into the carrier.
“What’s it like here these days?” I ask.
“It’s the same as it ever was,” she says. “It’s TJ’s. It never changes. It’s just that people thought we’d closed years ago.”
In a way, they’re right. The store was taken out of receivership a decade ago by the company that — in a weird Liverpool twist of fate — also owned the vestiges of the Lewis’s empire, Lewis’s Home Retail. It’s why the ‘Lewis’s’ name is on the teetering columns of pillowcases and duvet sets. I can hear my mum’s voice in my ear, telling me that the bedding in TJ’s is a good bargain.
When TJ’s began it was part of that other great Liverpool department store name, Owen Owens, until they moved into Clayton Square, and Mr Hughes became sole proprietor of the gorgeous Audley House building in 1925. Just two years separate it from its centenary. But word is it’s unlikely to make it.
Outside, Jeff and Michael share Echo-selling duties. They’re sure this will be the store’s last Christmas on London Road: “The scaffolding company were here this morning, sizing the place up,” Jeff says. “They’re adding three floors to it and turning it into student flats, like they’ve done next door. But they can’t knock the place down, it’s listed.”
“You see the same people coming here, year after year,” Michael says. “They’re real Liverpool people. You don’t see them down town.”
I go back in, and head to the restaurant. I know where it is. My four-year-old self had put down little breadcrumbs to it years ago. I remember my mum telling me of the time my nan spotted a neighbour in here, sharing a jacket potato with a dolly bird from Vernons Pools over the road. Of how nan chased him around the shop with a fireguard until he scarpered into the street leaving his date to dine alone.
I remember my dad’s tales of being dragged kicking and screaming onto the number 19 tram to get fitted out for a school uniform. “My mum insisted that it had plenty of room for me to grow,” he says, “so I ended up looking like a bag of spuds anyway.”
The lure, for dad, was the promise of tasting a newly-arrived sensation: a knickerbocker glory. But it was not to be. “I was so traumatised by the women in the school uniform department pricking me with pins I just ran out the shop and got the next tram home,” he smiles. And when he tells me, he is there. I can see it in his eyes.
The grand domed glass ceiling of the restaurant still rises above me. But it flies over emptiness. Discarded clothes racks and showroom dummies. It would be hard to find a less auspicious spot to lay down new memories. Harder still when it’s student flats.
Our relationship with our home town is a bit like the ship of Theseus, I think. If every plank, rivet and mast has been replaced, what is it we’re clinging on to?
I get chatting to Margaret, who used to live around the corner in Stafford Street. “I come here with my sister every Christmas to reminisce about the old days,” she says. “We used to get our Christmas dresses from Colliers over the road, with the fancy tubes that whizzed up into the roof with your money.”
Margaret’s place cells were first laid down when Islington’s streets were lined with elegant Jewish-owned drapers and delis. Galkof’s gorgeously tiled kosher butcher’s facade (preserved at the Museum of Liverpool) speaks so eloquently of Pembroke Place’s rich Jewish community of émigrés, where now the faceless cliff of the School of Tropical medicine extension rises.
“London Road was lined with shoe shops and bustling with families who lived in the tenements that were all around here,” Margaret says, waving her hands in the nominal direction of the Bull Ring, Gerard Gardens and the Piggeries. All gone and yet, to the people still shopping here, still standing.
“When they bulldozed them all it’s no wonder the road went the way it did,” Margaret says. “It’s so sad. But we still love coming here. It brings it all flooding back.”
The more connections our brain makes to something, the more likely our thoughts are to lead us right back there. But connections are fragile things. If we don’t return to stoke their fires, they’ll fade away too.
I loiter outside the store with Jane MacNeil, the brilliant Liverpool street photographer I’ve commissioned to help me document the feature. We meet Pip and Maria, who’ve travelled in from Belle Vale to rekindle memories of their own. “I used to come here for a pie dinner with my mum for a special treat,” Pip says. “I always get a bit emotional coming back.”
“We’re all to blame, I suppose,” Maria says as Jane snaps away, and we hover by the Christmas window display of a wall of slipper boxes. “Everyone’s given the place up for dead. I remember the dancing waters every Christmas, it was magic,” Maria says of the store’s famous illuminated water features that transformed TJ’s into a London Road Bellagio.
“We’ve not been for a few years, and it’s heartbreaking to see the state of it now. This was always a really lovely shop,” she says, and nudges me, as if letting me into a secret, “their bedding is fantastic, you know. I bought all my son’s sheets here when he moved out.”
Maria’s right, of course. We all looked the other way. And you can’t have a place without a people. Or a people without a place. And yet whether we’re moved on, priced out, or swapped for students there are places, still, in this city that show us the way home. If we only let them.
Mum’s memory is fading. I tell her excitedly that I’ve just come back from TJ’s, but she can’t recall those trips to the grotto anymore. It’s up to me to carry the torch. As long as it’s still flickering, and as long as I can return, there are places I remember that will always be Christmas.