When he was younger, Thomas Gorton worked as an alien on Merseyside.
Spaceport was a museum in a place on the Wirral Peninsula called Seacombe, a building stationed right next to the ferry terminals on the bank of the River Mersey, a tourist attraction whose existence felt almost improbable, given the lack of tourists or anything attractive. A wholly unimpressive building from the outside, inside were corridors dedicated to space exploration, exhibitions about Wallace and Gromit (in space) and a rocket simulator. Sonically it was poorly arranged, with the different beeps and clangs from each interactive module creating a constant, low-level cacophony. While ostensibly a place designed for children, in reality this was a destination for out-of-ideas parents and teachers organising school trips – it’s hard to imagine that any 11-year-old ever woke up on a Saturday morning and demanded to go to Spaceport.
Directly across the water from the museum, you could see Liverpool’s docks, the Liver Building and the city. Seacombe, a district of Wallasey, is less architecturally impressive, despite the towering Cammell Laird shipyard a couple of miles to the right. In recent years one thing has happened in Seacombe – Michael Portillo once stayed there for a BBC programme in 2003 where he swapped lives with a single mum and worked in the Wallasey ASDA. George Harrison also named a 1968 instrumental track Party Seacombe. It’s a decent tune!
In 2019, Spaceport shut its doors, having been losing a quarter of a million pounds per year since 2005. Visitor numbers plummeted year on year, with its peeling planetarium no longer cutting it in the Snapchat era. It’d bravely fought off funding cuts for years, riding out on the remnants of European money, journeying through space and time further into the abyss. Spaceport certainly had an aura of impending doom – its own. The whole building had the feeling of a football manager whose sacking was a matter of when, not if.
In early 2009, my dad handed me a job advert he’d cut out of the local paper: ‘ACTORS WANTED FOR NEW ALIEN WARS ATTRACTION AT SPACEPORT’. I’d not been to Spaceport before, and I can’t recall whether I’d even heard of it, even though I’d grown up on the Wirral before moving to Liverpool, where I was now living. I was desperate to move out of the booze industry. Working at a satellite town space museum pretending to be an alien or a marine seemed at the time like a dream job. And in many ways, it was.
Upon applying, I was asked to come to Spaceport for a week of training and auditions on half-pay. There were probably around 40 of us; I imagine everyone who sent in a CV got an invite – an elite collection of applicants this certainly was not. Two wiry, blood-boiled Glaswegians led the training like it was the Territorial Army, separating us into two groups – aliens and marines – and swapping these roles around throughout the day. Alien Wars had already been a successful franchise in Scotland, and they were driven to make it work here, too. Similarly, Spaceport management seemed wide-eyed at the prospect that this could put the museum on the map. The marines wore fairly simple black commando uniforms and carried fake machine guns, while the aliens donned highly accurate latex replicas of H.R. Giger’s xenomorph, complete with those long, bony fingers and the elongated, eyeless head.
At the beginning of the first day, it was explained that we were all now part of X-Factor-style auditions and some people would be told at 5pm that they wouldn’t be back tomorrow. I saw things you wouldn’t believe – a boyfriend sent home in front of his girlfriend, a grown man in tears, half-dressed as an alien. Brutal shit. I was 6″4′ by this point and extremely thin, so I knew I was in perfect shape for an extraterrestrial, and I quietly bet on myself to fulfil my potential as a freak.
The premise of Alien Wars was that it was a ‘ride’ that took over the whole museum at 2pm until the end of the day, every day. Aliens were purportedly being held captive in Spaceport – it takes a leap of faith for anyone to imagine that if government officials had captured beings from outer space that they’d keep them in Seacombe – but they had now escaped and were loose in the building. A team of marines would lead round a group of punters in the pitch-black museum with torches attached to weapons, while aliens screamed and leered out of nowhere, culminating in a genuinely terrifying final act where aliens would break into a lift and snatch an actor from the group.
After a week of auditions there were four aliens and four marines, with two of each on shift at any time, plus the plant. I was delighted to have been awarded a role as an alien on six quid an hour, complete with a complementary ferry pass to get over the water from Liverpool. The ferry was a beautiful, novel way to travel. I’d got on it as a kid, but to commute on it every day alone was genuinely special, particularly in the summer, standing out on the deck looking around at Merseyside’s subtly majestic shorelines, and watching men defend their wives from the pigeons that were frequently trapped inside the cabin.
At first, we attracted crowds, and there was a palpable local buzz about it. I was stationed at the first containment chamber in the ride, where I’d trigger dense smoke machines and deafening sound effects from my cell, before emerging to the screams of petrified people, the first alien they saw. Regularly, children would have to be led out, unable to continue. One kid actually shat himself; on another tour a woman fainted. We aliens regarded these incidents as signs of a job well done.
Despite it being mildly harrowing, the problem with it was that, once you’ve been, there isn’t necessarily a reason to go again, and there’s absolutely nothing else to do in Seacombe. So while the first two or three weeks were busy and relatively hard work, soon Alien Wars became a quiet, unattended ride, just a slice of forgotten entertainment on the banks of an industrial river.
We still turned up each day for our shifts, but ultimately there wasn’t much grafting required. We’d only step foot into the jet-black museum if people had paid to get in. The majority of the time we spent in the staffroom in the bowels of Spaceport, half-dressed in latex suits or marine gear, or outside smoking joints next to the Mersey. Every so often, a member of Spaceport staff would come in to say ‘you’ve got a group’ and we’d begrudgingly get up, don our costumes and head to our stations.
A single room was a curious place for office politics to play out – particularly with practically no work to do. Those four walls became a microcosm of micro-plots, more often than not involving Rambo, who referred dismissively to the aliens as ‘the bugs’ and seemed to think he was military. He was obsessed with making the women in the room laugh, which he managed infrequently, and enjoyed-slash-endured a competitive relationship with another marine, resulting in one horribly quiet playfight. Rambo (a seemingly self-appointed nickname) was a very athletic, good-looking man and an excellent marine – the only person on the staff who could really lay claim to actually being any good at this lark. It meant everything to him.
He was also a compulsive liar. While he didn’t smoke weed, he wouldn’t let you forget that he could get ‘bin bags of the stuff, and better than that shit you smoke’. He had told everyone he was ex-SAS. He told people he had a home cinema and a range of exotic pets. On a night out, someone from Spaceport ended up at his house (actually his mum’s house). No cinema, no reptiles. Word got back to Spaceport management that he might not be who he said he was and in a meeting we were all asked to provide references that could be checked. Rambo told everyone he wouldn’t be able to do that because ‘his documents were locked underground in Glasgow, due to the Official Secrets Act’. It was an exhilarating lie, mind-blowingly needless. I felt so alive when he was saying it, eyes locked on my fellow alien Chris, with whom I would later go onto to set up a band. Rambo was fired, and any chance that Alien Wars had of being any good was gone. It would last only a few more months.
As time went on and fewer people came, our ‘performances’ in the museum became more deranged. Often I’d be sitting in a box in my dark cell surrounded by apocalyptic sound effects, checking transfer gossip on an early smartphone, dressed in full alien gear while setting off smoke machines, waiting for the group to reach me.
The aliens started taking risks to break up the monotony, turning up in places we weren’t meant to, sometimes derailing the show. Getting back into position through tight corridors in the pitch black with an enormous head on wasn’t easy, and once resulted in me running into a wall in front of bemused customers who saw me struggling to get up and gather my senses once the marines had shone their torches on me. Hardly the nimble, super-strength xenomorph that Ridley Scott imagined. Our howls during the show became more unhinged, louder, more alien.
Opposite Spaceport was a pub, and every so often pissed-up men would pay the fee to go round Alien Wars with the objective of fighting the aliens during the elevator scene when they got up close. And we’d fight them back, lashing out with our huge gloves on, before returning to the staffroom to contemplate other worlds, sitting among tatty replicas of distant planets, waiting for the end to finally come.
Alien Wars feels like a relic from a bygone time when rollercoasters were still being advertised on television. Gathering children in a pitch-black room in the vague hope that they might shit themselves just isn’t the type of story we tell anymore. There was nothing empowering or educational about Alien Wars and that’s why it was good, at least for the few weeks when people actually attended.
Spaceport is reopening next year as a museum under a different name, rebranded as a science centre. After moving back north, I live nearby, and it’s fairly likely I’ll go with my son, walking around complaining that ‘it’s not like it used to be’, nodding at staff who have no idea who I am, retracing my steps through hallowed walls that house my past life, in a building that now feels alien to me.
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