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6 September, 2008

La Machine: Day Two

Like yesterday, La Princesse's itinerary was spread throughout the entire day, with long intervals between events, so, again, we reluctantly decided to miss the first.  The giant spider was scheduled to wake outside the Cunard Building at 11:30 and be 'serenaded' for an hour, before sleeping again until 15:00 when she'd walk through the city centre, reaching Lime Street station by 21:00.  In hindsight, our decision was rewarded, as there had been a 'miscommunication' between the French artists & the British promoters, and the 11:30 crowd received a musical performance with no visual spectacle – La Princesse didn't move.

Yesterday, the crowd had been a little smaller than I'd anticipated: 'only' about 5,000 people had made the effort to come out on a wet Friday evening after a full school/working week. That had allowed us the freedom to change our vantage points quite frequently yet still find places towards the front of the crowd. However, today was very different: a dry (if rather grey) Saturday had tempted out a lot more people, not to mention those who'd happened to be shopping in the city centre anyway. The crowd was at least five times larger, at ~25,000, and that's just in the immediate area: the local press reported "hundreds of thousands" overall. One report claimed that more people filled Castle Street to see La Princesse pass the Town Hall than had welcomed triumphant sports teams or even The Beatles at the height of their success in the 1960s.
The crowd seemed to be larger than the organisers had anticipated, too: again in Castle Street, a bride heading for her wedding at the Town Hall was unable to push through the crowd until a police escort was provided and, worryingly, I saw an ambulance totally trapped within the mass of people. Later in the day, we were turned away from Lord Street/Church Street, Liverpool's primary shopping avenue, by police officers who claimed it was absolutely full – that's difficult to even visualise.
Hence, we had to pick our viewpoints more carefully and occupy them further in advance of the spider's arrival: in total, we saw her pass three fixed locations where we'd calculated that she'd pause for key activities.

The first was Derby Square, at the junction of Castle Street (with the Town Hall at the far end) and Lord Street. In accordance with the itinerary, but almost exactly an hour late (luckily, as we'd arrived late too, due to trains being very full), La Princesse appeared up Water Street then headed towards us though clouds of smoke and a seemingly solid mass of people. My anticipation had been great, but didn't exceed the thrill of reality: I'll never forget the sight of her rearing up over the crowd, spraying water from her mouth & spinnerets and lifting a couple of her attendant 'scientists' high into the air on her forelimbs.
Apart from the view up Castle Street we'd chosen Derby Square because La Princesse was scheduled to participate in a 'water ballet' there. A 'leaked' press release had warned journalists to wear waterproofs irrespective of the weather; good advice since, despite the implication that a 'water ballet' would be something rather delicate, it actually consisted of the spider being bombarded by water cannon until 'persuaded' to walk away down Lord Street. Great fun, which rapidly taught me to interpret the cannon's preparatory hisses in time to pull out my camera and photograph the ascending jet of water then get the camera back inside my coat before the descending jet of water arrived.

Via a circuitous 'parallel' route, we tried to get ahead of La Princesse before she could reach the bottom of Lord Street at Paradise Corner, but as I mentioned, we were turned away by the police and hence missed the spider being sedated again by a snow machine, to sleep for a couple more hours. At least that gave us plenty of time to wander around and find the next optimum viewpoint. I tried to get right up to the sleeping spider whilst the scientists were away, but the police were regulating pedestrian traffic: I could see other people examining La Princesse from touching-distance, ~10 paces away from me, but I'd have had to walk about 500 m through dense crowds if I'd wanted to circumvent the police lines.

We eventually settled on a location at the other end of Church Street, at its junction with Parker Street. An 'apparatus' had been set up there, which I initially interpreted as being a battery of flame cannon, but which proved to be an array of musical instruments powered by burning gas. Our vantage point was a bank of concrete benches surrounding a tree – others had scaled lamp posts or phone boxes. It was great to be above the crowd, entertained through the long wait by watching the technicians work, and when La Princesse finally began to move, again almost exactly an hour late, we could see her all the way up Church Street.

Curiously, a small excavator had laboriously arrived in front of us shortly before La Princesse. Identified in the press release as a 'Manzimouk' (or maybe that was its given name), it consisted of a cab, digger arm, two wheels at one end and two supporting legs at the other, so had arrived on a trailer then shuffled into position using its wheels and arm. I could see the desired visual effect: the stubby legs were vaguely arachnoid, and the main hydraulic arm operated in the same way as La Princesse's limbs. As expected, she seemed to interpret 'Manzimouk' as another spider, perhaps a rival, and reared up in aggression. Accompanied by the booming pyro-instruments and more conventional musicians, the display was extremely dramatic, with attendants being lifted high into the air.

All too soon the set-piece ended, and La Princesse moved on towards Ranelagh Place (passing directly above us, which was a little unsettling), so again we tried to get ahead of the procession by a different route. Time was limited, and the crowd outside Lime Street station was already established, so it wasn't easy to find a good spot. My mother ended up on an embankment, which I think had a good view, but I stayed in the flow of pedestrian traffic (annoying) alongside a road sign, as I planned to stabilise my camera against it; by now it was fully dark, and unsupported night photography, on tiptoe to see above the crowd, would have been near-impossible.

After a few minutes of being jostled, mainly by people dressed for an evening out rather than to watch a giant spider – they must have been annoyed by the crowds, but could have been more patient – I experienced the renewed thrill of seeing La Princesse turn into Lime Street and charge towards me, spitting and spraying water. She seemed intent on continuing towards William Brown Street and the Queensway Tunnel, but the scientists had set up a wall of flame cannon to block her way. Instead, she was attached to a giant crane and was lifted back onto the side of Concourse House, where she'd first appeared on Wednesday. This time, the scientists remained 'onboard', continuing operation of the airborne spider then bracing the legs against the building as she was sent to sleep by the snow machine. I'd obviously been impressed by the operators' animation skills, but hadn't guessed that they were acrobats too, until seeing them abseil off the spider, from ~¾ of the way up the 49m-tall tower.

And that was the end of Saturday's wonderful show. I wanted to wait and take a few more photos after the crowd had dispersed, but it had been a long afternoon & evening, so we ducked straight into a nearby entrance to Lime Street underground station, and caught a (crowded but prompt, unlike last night) train back to Hooton, then went back to Wales to download the photos.

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