Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my blog?
Updated: Apr 13
We’d just got out of the ‘Mad Day Out’ psychedelic taxi at the gates of Strawberry Fields when a car came screaming to a halt beside us, spraying up gravel, horn blaring, and the driver gesturing animatedly. Dan and Will — my two London-based nephews — clicked into ‘alert’ mode as I took two steps to the right and put Ian, our driver and guide, between me and what was possibly a knife-wielding lunatic.
At the bidding of the driver, Will leant forward, gingerly opened the passenger door and, in doing so, secured himself a second-hand copy of the Beatles’ 1962-1966 compilation, commonly known as the ‘Red’ album. Smiles broke out as the driver, a chirpy gent of retirement age, explained that he was having a clear out of old possessions and thought he’d find a fan of the Fabs who would appreciate it. We were to discover over the next couple days how lucky Will was to be picked out of the masses of fellow devotees who were in Liverpool on the trail of the mop-tops.
Flashback three months
Mrs B and I were discussing possible destinations for a long weekend. She favoured Vienna, or maybe Budapest.
“How about Liverpool?” I suggested.
“Why?” was her simple and succinct response.
“Beatles!” I replied.
“Why don’t you go with your nephews?”
“All right. I will.”
As it happened, we were on our way to a family gathering where Dan and Will would be present.
“So,” I began, once the handshakes and hugs had been dished out, “how do you two fancy joining me on a Beatles’ weekend in Liverpool?”
“Yeah!” they crowed as one, so laying the foundation for what follows.
Back in the taxi
We’d been to Penny Lane and seen the shelter in the middle of the roundabout, the last remaining bank, the barber’s (still going, but under a different name), and the blue suburban skies. Ian also took us to see where John, Paul, George, and Ringo had lived and other Beatle-connected spots. But the one that really raised the goosebumps for me was St Peter’s Church in Woolton and its attendant hall.
Ian produced the famous photo of John and the Quarrymen playing their skiffle on the back of a truck:
“The lorries were parked there,” he said, outlining the route they took and telling the tale of Lennon and McCartney’s first meeting, just over there. The vibe was amplified as we were standing next to Eleanor Rigby’s grave at the time.
The tour in Ian’s taxi also took in John and Paul’s childhood homes, well, the exteriors. For full access, our £36-a-pop tickets with the National Trust would form our Sunday morning entertainment before heading off to Lime Street station and home.
After two hours with Ian stretched into three, because he was “enjoying it,” (I suspect because it made a change to be talking about the football) we parked ourselves at the hotel bar for restorative lunchtime beers and Beatle-based ruminations before descending into the archives.
There are two Beatle-themed museums in the city: The Beatles Story, which is on Albert Dock, and the Liverpool Beatles Museum on Mathew Street, where the hen parties gather from 10 a.m., unfazed by forgetting to pack any warm clothing and fuelled by prosecco and good humour.
No solely because my visit to The Beatles Story coincided with that of two coachloads of Portuguese and Spanish teenagers, The Liverpool Beatles Museum —with its broad assortment of artefacts, personal effects, and rare photos — is better. It was created by Roag Best, who is the son of long-time Beatle confidant and ex-head of Apple, Neil Aspinall, and Mona Best, the mother of the group’s original drummer, Pete. Even in the face of the weirdness, coincidence, and chance that envelops Beatledom, that remains a striking fact.
The Cavern Club
“It’s not the real one, you know. They knocked that down. The Beatles never played there. It’s just a cash-in.”
We knew that.
Nevertheless, after an early steak dinner, we headed up Mathew Street — which boasts live-music bars with names like Rubber Soul and Sgt Pepper’s, not forgetting a statue of Cilla Black — to the Cavern.
A charismatic warm-up bloke with an electric guitar and a decent singing voice did what it said on the tin and got the crowd jumping, or at least as much as the sticky floor would allow, before the headline act, a handy three-piece band, embarked on their set of, mostly, Beatles’ covers.
As audience joined forces with the group, the lead singer exhorted us to give it some humpty: “Come on! You’re at the Cavern!”
You know, what? We were. For, at that moment, when we hit the heights of ‘Twist and Shout’ just like those ghosts from all those years ago, yes, we were at the bloody Cavern and no mistake.
The Childhood Homes
Sunday morning saw us sharing a minibus from Speke Hall with a six-strong, three-generation family from Pittsburgh and a couple of shifty Scousers, enroute to John’s house: 'Mendips' on Menlove Avenue; a broad and leafy boulevard and unlikely home to a Working Class Hero.
It was both interesting and odd. In his generally excellent book, One Two Three Four, The Beatles in Time, Craig Brown is rather sour about the concept but I think he —along with the naysayers from the National Trust that he quotes — misses the point. This house, with the porch where John and Paul used to play guitar and sing, is of great cultural significance and means a lot to its visitors.
Our guide was a little…unusual. An ex-teacher who’d come out of retirement to act as a host to people who were more interested in the minutiae of the house and its famous occupant than the National Trust man’s railings on his pet subjects: snobbery and his own failure — unlike John and me — to pass the Eleven-plus (an exam once taken by British 11-year-olds to determine which senior school they would attend).
He mentioned his failing the exam again and it was too good an opportunity to miss:
“I passed,” I shrugged, thinking it might get him off the subject and pitching it as an aside, rather than an interruption of his latest diatribe on John’s Aunt Mimi and her bourgeois attempts to best the neighbours.
There was a reassuring rumble of laughter from the assembly and our host engaged on his tic of repeated blinking which he seemingly employed to jog his memory and mumbled something about being “honoured to be in the presence of a grammar-school boy.”
I gave a magnanimous wave and repeated my clear link with Lennon every time he brought up the Eleven-plus, i.e., a lot.
To 20, Forthlin Road, the childhood home of Paul McCartney.
Among the things that made me connect more with this house than John’s was the presence of a piano in the front room. (Not the original, which is in the house that Paul bought his dad in the sixties and where Macca still stays when in Liverpool. But he did play this one in that episode of Carpool Karaoke.)
There are also some great contemporaneous photos by Mike McCartney of John and Paul writing and playing, which are mounted as near as possible to where the events took place. A drumkit is set up in the back room where they used to rehearse, thanks to the sympathetic attitude of Paul’s father, Jim.
It might not be evident from the Eleven-plus goings-on at Aunt Mimi’s house, but I generally prefer to adopt a low profile on such occasions, so, while what follows was fun to start with, it soon became a source of some pressure.
As our guide at the McCartney home —a sweet and charming woman — was talking about Paul’s brother Mike, she said, “I suppose you’d call him a sort of ‘comedy musician’, does anyone know what else he did?”
Well, she was looking directly at me, so I chipped in, “He’s a photographer.”
As she pointed out the photos, it was soon plain that we were off to a flyer.
“There’s a picture on the wall there of Paul’s Auntie Jin,” she said.
Everyone zeroes in on photo.
“Does anybody know which song mentions Auntie Jin?”
It’s all rather quiet. She looks expectantly at me.
“Er, is it ‘Let ‘Em In’?”
At this point, I may have heard an admiring American voice saying something about “a guy that really knows his stuff.”
We scoot around a few more wall-mounted photos and inspect the bucket in which Jim used to wash out the family smalls.
Our guide asks who knows what the Beatles’ ever first number one record was.
“’I Want to Hold Your Hand’,” cry a couple of our American companions, in triumph.
“Well, that was in America…,” she says, and looks over…
“I think it was ‘Please Please Me’,” I say, rather apologetically.
I get the impression that the once respectful mumblings are turning into comparisons to a “pain in the ass.”
Nevertheless, this is turning into a duet, with questions aimed directly at me:
“Does anyone know which solo Paul album that photograph featured on?”
Fearful of the crowd turning on me, I tried to keep it zipped but these words came tumbling out, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.”
“A singer called Helen Shapiro featured on that tour. She had a big hit with…?”
“’Walking Back to Happiness’.” Well, nobody else was contributing.
By now, I was beginning to worry that I was going to be asked something I didn’t know the answer to and be pelted with fruit and doughnuts.
Our guide continued: “A notable moment in Beatle history was when they played the Royal Variety Performance in 1963. In front of an audience of royals and assorted bigwigs, John uttered the famous line: “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands...”
Polly, for that was her name, gazed at me expectantly as she fed me the line and, finally, — after a lifetime spent rehearsing — I was able to be John Lennon in front of a paying audience: “… and the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewellery.”
Let It Be
After a trip around the bedrooms, we three were the first downstairs and about to depart the McCartney residence, when Polly said, “If anyone wants to have a go on the piano, please feel free.” It turned out that Will was the only one among us with any musical chops, so he took to the keys and dished out an acceptable instrumental version of ‘Let It Be’. As the sound drifted upstairs, a phalanx of our excited American cousins called out, “Who was that playing?” and they piled down the stairs.
Dan and I observed our fellow tourists embark on a mission that could hardly be described as onerous: That of persuading Will to return to the piano for an encore. As we remarked on him backing into the limelight and making not a bad fist of appearing bashful and reluctant, Polly said to Dan and I, “You’re going to rip him for this, aren’t you?” Only mildly, Pol, only mildly.
With Will picking out, in the main, the right notes and a clutch of folks sharing what they do when they find themselves in times of trouble, that was the single occasion when the ‘No Photographs or Filming’ rule rankled. It certainly didn’t bother us in John’s old bedroom, where we fired off a couple of snaps because the guide stayed downstairs.
John’s house (slight return)
Peculiar foibles notwithstanding, I’m going to show there’s no hard feelings and let the guide have the last word. (Despite his sometimes Fawltyesque behaviour and the veins throbbing in his temples, he was more fun than the snooty and schoolmarmish guardians of, oh, let’s say the Stourhead estate on the Somerset/Wiltshire border.)
As he led us into the kitchen through the back door, he warned us to mind the step: “We’ll have no tripping in John’s house,” he said.