I went back.
I went back to Merseyside, the City I had visited just four weeks previous. Then, I had met friends from home and abroad, America, and we had taken the Beatles Tours, visited the Beatles museums and soaked up some of Liverpool’s welcome, character and wit and all things Scouse.
Even though I was brought up with the sound of the ‘Fab Four’, I had no real appreciation of who they were as people, as boys and men, of their struggles, their pain and the hows and the whys and the wherefores of how they got from A to Beatles. All of that either got buried somewhere along the way in my own life and theirs and only came out years later when the myths are replaced by the sometimes awful truth. At the time all this pop music stuff was so new and nobody had ever really trod this path before, at least not under the glare of such publicity and fame and this was the era when the little box in the corner of the room suddenly took on enormous power and its value, if that is the correct term, was being realised by those in politics and entertainment. These were uncharted waters for everyone, ‘The Beatles’ included.
Even now on returning to Liverpool, I was still locked into my childhood memories of them, they were….well, they were ‘The Beatles’ weren’t they? Their persona as human beings and all they went through had never occurred to me until I watched the film “Nowhere Boy”, which covers the first 18 years of John Lennon’s life. They were a part of my life, though not having a record player at home until the early seventies, I missed out on the 1967 to 1970 period of their music, save what I heard on the radio or saw on the TV and as a shy Grammar school teenager with anxious angst and fears and a queasy feeling that somehow this ‘all you need is love’ stuff was being dismissed by the stiff upper lip of England, but yet somehow it was planting a seed in my mind. I had some catching up to do with The Beatles, but that came later. Soon after I was off into Led Zeppelin and ‘Yes-land’ and ‘Prog Rock’ and I only caught up with them in the eighties with repackaged re-releases and in fact the first CD I bought, when that format became available, was ‘Sgt. Pepper’.
Something died in me when John Lennon was shot. An innocence maybe and a confusion of thoughts that made me wonder how this world worked, what forces were at work, dark and mysterious. I think that the over-riding feeling was confusion. I do not wish to trivialise Lennon’s murder, but perhaps his death was somehow symbolic of the term that has become known as a ‘black swan’, a seemingly random act that we never account for, was not preventable within the realms of our own limited thought processes and one we try to rationalise afterwards, to no avail. Perhaps his death was symbolic of all the powerlessness we feel in our own lives and that ultimately we have very little control over them. John summed it up himself, ‘Life is what happen to you when you’re busy making other plans’.
So I went back looking for something, but I didn’t know what.
I went back because I forgot my manners, I knew that much. I forgot to say thank you. So, a little chastened, I went back on my own to retrace my steps.
I went back looking for ghosts too, ghosts past and present.
When I was there last, she, Liverpool, was good to me. She wasn’t at all shy, she opened up her streets and avenues and all the places of the past which to me were once secret, all the nooks and cranny’s, the hiding places, the gates and little green gardens and the old terraced houses now showing their age, their windows hanging heavy like sad eyes, the years of chimney smoke and soot and industrial sweat running like black eye-liner, streaking down the brickwork with the tears of laughter and sadness that were shed in lives lived long and short.
I drove down Penny Lane where people and cars now rush everywhere, though my eyes saw only sepia-coloured cars that like me were running not on petrol but on nostalgia and in slow motion too, except that is, the one that took her, Julia, John Lennon’s mother, when she was only 44 and he was just 17. Not here, but just down the road. They had only just re-connected after being separated during the course of long running family difficulties and according to Paul McCartney, Lennon went through hell during his childhood and teenage years. Perhaps you are like me and all you really know is their music and had little idea how death and sadness and particularly Julia’s death haunted John throughout his life and maybe when you begin to know someone a little better it helps you to better understand the man and his music. The same goes for Paul too, losing his mother before she saw him bloom somehow seemed to bind him to John and they could look at each other and without even speaking a word, acknowledge ‘Oh, you too’?
I look at the photographs of my last visit and I see friends there who have come and gone, not physically but as visitors, fleeting glimpses of moments captured by light and lens, our intimate actions caught up in the web of life, all of us just going with the swing of things, playing our own tunes but putting together a song that somehow played out with harmony. We somehow dovetailed our minds with each other without rehearsals, save those who travel together frequently and who know the ways of each other a perhaps a little.
Like Lennon and McCartney, who had different hearts, but inhabited the same soul, their seemingly opposing take on life could find a compromise. McCartney tells of writing a song ‘Its getting better’ for the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album and he’s singing the line ‘I have to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time’, a euphoric sound and Lennon just cut straight in with ‘It couldn’t get much worse’, no doubt with a wry smile on his face. But they kept it in and so it went on, song after song, playing their hearts and minds and sensitivities against each other. They had the ‘nouse’ to realise what they had not only in their similarities, but also in their differences and McCartney says that at one time they had a run where they wrote maybe 300 songs together and every time without exception when they sat down to write, they never dried, a song always came out and was finished. If that’s not a kind of love, I’d like to know what is. Well, we too on our brief visit brought our different instruments, guitar, bass, drums and our different souls and somehow we knitted together memories, and what are memories really but ghosts that come back to haunt us, please us, excite us, even worry and trouble us and they keep coming back to us like one of those songs that sticks in your head, the kind you wake up in the morning with and it stays with you all day. ‘Ear-worms’ they call them. They can be damned annoying, that is if it’s a song you hate, but maybe they are a clue to our moods and feelings and we should let they play out until they are ready to go. I’m not sure you can kill a ghost, only allow it to come in, inhabit you for a while and let it leave in its own good time.
It was as they say back then pre-Beatles, when they and I and some of you were kids, a different age. Television sets were the size and shape of a child’s toy with imitation brown wood and smelled of something strangely hot as the valves heated up and warmed the plastic until the screen finally flickered into life with foggy pictures. My parents cat used to sleep on top of their TV and fell off many times too. You could watch her as she slowly slid off and then wandered the room in a daze for a few seconds, though the falls never completely put her off, just leaving her mystified. The radio or wireless, had few stations to tune into that were in any way ‘rock and roll’, save Radio Luxembourg or Caroline and I sometimes tuned in under the bedclothes to listen before falling asleep. The BBC Light Programme would play nothing more racy than Doris Day and ‘Move over darling’ (although frankly that is a damn sexy song!). Life was between the times, in between the desolation of the war and the new age to come, the pace of life was slower than now, but the heartbeat of emotions that raced and pounded through the war-torn streets could be no less volatile and full of potential harm and destructiveness as well as urging those inflicted with desire to move on, get out, find a better way. The roles of nature and nurture played out their parts as they would, kindly or not and the counselling of the human spirit was not always in abundance. You just ‘got on’ with life and there were rules to be obeyed, but Lennon was compelled to follow another path; the one least trodden. Elvis saw to that.
Much was still in short supply in those austere nineteen fifties and sixties, but if the ground rules told you what you shouldn’t or couldn’t do, the sky was full of imagination, space and time in which to lose yourself. There was time to dream. When we were here last, taking the Magical Mystery Tour, we spent time chasing dreams and shadows and the shadows of those dreams, shadows of lives burnt and etched into the walls where they leant, smoked and chatted up girls, shadows where they lay on green grass, idling and dreaming the days away, shadows where once they sat playing and singing, laughing and crying, feeling at once vulnerable and yet invincible. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we spent all that afternoon chasing shadows and chasing ghosts, but there was still life in these ghosts, some ghosts just won’t go away, nor should they.
So she showed me her mind and her imagination and she showed me that even here in all the dust and the dirt and the grime that the sounds and seeds of life could thrive and grow and their blossom could spread far and wide. The little black notes that Lennon and McCartney conjured up floated out of the chimneys of their houses like musical dots of smoke, then drifted down the lanes and fields and were drawn up into the clouds, turning the mourning grey Liverpool skies into rising white mushroom summer clouds which grew heavy with sound and when they could no longer carry that weight, the notes fell down as rain, down onto the dirty old town and ran into the gutters and streams and then into her, ‘The Mersey’ and from there they bobbed across the oceans to distant shores where kids would drink them in and get drunk on this new conciousness, this new freedom of expression, this revolution in the head. It rained when I was there last, more rain than anyone could ever remember. It poured down with music too, their music reigned o’er us and now whenever it rains, I always hear them sing, the notes hitting pavements and sheds and roofs and cars and hats and brolly’s, each strike sounding a note to a familiar tune. I heard them on this day too as the sun rose on my way up to Liverpool and Georges sweet acoustic notes heralded the birth of a bright new day. Ghostly tunes play all around me, wafting in and out of my mind. Ghosts never laid to rest.
Today, there would be no rain, only Sun and O how she shone this day.
I retraced my steps in golden sunlight, George’s ‘Sun-song’ in my ear, when I was walloped by the clanging chords that struck like an unwelcome alarm clock after a hard days night, chords that shouted ‘Lennon!’, as I too weaved in and out of the Corinthian columns of St. Georges Town Hall perhaps like he did. I made my way down to Pier Head and joined the queue for the Ferry cross the Mersey, the Mersey that never forgets its history and looks after its own. Scousers and visitors queued and waited for the lumbering ferry as it manoeuvred alongside the quayside, the skipper high in his nest, edging her closer until the ropes secured her and she bellowed a blast of smoke in relief, like a drag on a cigarette after sex. We climbed aboard and she chugged and chopped across the river and I caught a reflection of the City in the murky Mersey waters, a reflection that seemed to mirror in minor her soul sister city, New York, to where thousands of hopeful scouse ‘sailors’ set forth and came to embrace Miss Liberty and the eternal words of succour and comfort, as they nestled safely into her harbour and her arms,
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”,
never knowing, how could they, that years later their ghosts would be followed by the living, breathing, singing foursome who would revive the descendants of those huddled masses with songs to live and die for, exporting back to them a bright new music for a brand new age and which years later the remembrance of surprises me, in that the connection has perhaps never been truly honoured given the history that is so bound up between New York and Liverpool, that being that these two cities of song have never become ‘twin cities’. Maybe someone ought to have a look at that.
Down and out we went, passing ancient monuments of the past, the Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse, still bigger than any brick-built warehouse in the world and still standing, but now defiantly empty and a literal echo of a by-gone age, as if you listened you could still hear the shouts and noises of the workers bellowing from inside. Here on the docks were ghosts of stevedore’s and longshoremen and of the long dead men and then down we churned towards the open sea, where the whirling arms of modern windmills seemed to generate and hasten down a tear-drop inducing wind as we all braced ourselves against the gale that blew in from the Emerald Isle across the Irish Sea, the same wind that years before blew in the Lennon’s and the McCartney’s.
We gasped into port on the other side, taking on the new, disgorging the old and whilst we waited the pre-recorded people with fog-horned voices gave us a history lesson over the ships half-muffled sound system. A history of how New Brighton at the tip of the Mersey was once home to smugglers and wreckers and then became a seaside resort of huge proportions serving Liverpool and Lancashire before declining after the Second World War, but which now is taking on a new face and presenting herself with a fresh look. Perhaps even a ghost could sometimes do with botox and a face lift.
Ghosts linger here in the architecture too, architecture that mixes the Victorian with the Art-Deco and then there’s the extraordinary looking monolith that is the air-inlet building near Seacombe, though it looked to me like some sort of ‘death-machine’ at first glance, a kind of huge crematorium, a futuristic temple where those near to passing are called to to be exhumed and puffed out into the air, a still silent re-circulator of people, when in fact its function is the opposite, to keep drivers alive in the tunnels that worm there way under the Mersey by gulping in huge globules of air and preventing drivers from suffocating. No matter its benign purpose, my child’s eye still said it was scary looking!
We turned back towards home, the sun blinding off the Mersey, the seagulls providing a food-seeking fly-past, swooping and swapping positions with dive-bomb ease, adjusting to each gust of wind with a invisible flick of a wing, making us leaden footed humans look drunken and clumsy in the gale on our two-legged stilts. The wind was now drowning out all noise, a high-pitched siren of sound that moaned across the Mersey like the mouths of a million ghosts that sailed these waters past.
Chugging back to Pier Head a ghost of a song passed over our heads, “Ferry cross the Mersey” by Gerry and the Pacemakers, allowing us to wallow for a few seconds in the sixties when this City began to groan and tug itself out of its war torn past and find another export that was shipped back to the USA perhaps as a thank you for what she gave to her. In the Second World War Liverpool and Merseyside lost approximately 4000 souls during Hitler’s blitz. The Nazi’s were aware of the city’s importance for its connection with America with its docks and shipping facilities and it was the second most bombed place in England after London. The government kept the damage quiet for propaganda reasons and so as not to cause alarm and Liverpool handled 90 percent of the incoming goods from abroad and without these brave scousers, who knows what may have happened. It’s a strange kind of compliment that Hitler paid to the City that he gave so much attention to it as to want to demolish it.
As we came full circle the Liver Birds hoved into view and as the story goes, the female is looking out to sea, watching for the seaman to return safely home, whilst the male bird looks towards the City, making sure the pubs were open.
Walking off the ferry I passed one of the modern buildings that have sprung up these past years, this one too housing ghosts, a museum come film show centre with all things memorable that are connected to The Beatles, Elvis and Monroe, perhaps the three biggest icons of this past fifty years, apart from Diana of course, but then I went ghost-hunting there too in July 1997 and laid that one to rest too.
Statues, monuments and sculptures lined the promenade, ghosts of the past gone before us, sailors, singers and those who saved lives, all honoured and never to be forgotten.
I wandered up through the town and now the City had woken up this Saturday morning and its streets were heaving with shoppers and drinkers and eaters, mingling their accents with the tongue’s of back-packers and the ‘Fab Four’ hunters of the world, come to see the shrine where it all began, come to worship what is actually a humble temple. There’s no golden statues here, no eternally smiling Buddha’s, but they left their mark here and let the world know of their home town spirit and how it beats still in the heart of its people with their wit and humour and welcome.
There was one particular photograph that I had been looking for here. A bus headed towards me at a junction and had to turn left, so it had to slow and I leant on a lamp-post and pressed the trigger to capture the destination blind that read ‘Liverpool ONE’, which will by the time the bus reaches its terminus, have vanished into ‘OUT OF SERVICE’, a ghostly invisible transformation that repeats and repeats, just like the music fans who arrive, haunt the City streets and then vanish into thin air.
At Lime Street Station I walk on up the hill and I wondered if The Royal Nelson Hotel where we stayed is chock-a-block today, well maybe tomorrow it will be, when the Merseyside football ‘Derby’ kicks-off and both teams try to live up to the ghosts of the past, the Shankly sides and the Dixie Dean days still haunting the terraces and dreams of the fans who never say die and who never will forget or be forgotten.
I walked back to the car and drove south of the city towards the suburbs, Woolton, where I have someone to find, one ghost to exorcise today. I have maps and I follow them, but I go round and around in circles, so I follow my instinct and I feel like I am close and then there on the opposite side of the dual-carriageway it is, Allerton Cemetery. I can’t cross over the grass verge down the middle and there’s no openings just here and as I drive on looking for a turning I stumble onto Woolton ‘village’. The streets are narrow here and as I am looking around I think, was that what I think I saw?….yes it was…on the right…”Quarry Bank Road”….maybe…it flashed by so quick, Quarry Bank Road, ‘The Quarrymen’, little streets, little lanes and names that eventually circled the world. Little lives that they mined which grew big, lives spent digging out gold and jewels for us to share and brighten our dull days.
I find a flower shop and buy three small bunches and head back down the road and then turn into Allerton Cemetery. It’s huge and there’s a road running through it, but really its a river running through it, a river of laughter, memories and tears. I circle a chapel half-way in and pull over. There’s a notice board that details the Cemetery in sections. The section I want is right down the bottom end as far away from the entrance as you can get. I drive there.
And here it is. The plot. It’s here, she’s here, somewhere.
This part of the cemetery has a kind of isolation about it, perhaps because its the last section and after that there’s nothing but grassland until 150 yards where there’s a road running across the edge, but the sound of traffic is barely audible, as if respectfully quiet. The plot feels like an island here, as if it’s cut off from the main part of this huge resting place, an oasis of emotions that’s been planted here to grow and bloom, somewhere fruitful for ghosts to wander around. There’s a mixture of life and death here in this nether-world as many of the graves are decorated with colour and momento’s of all types depending on their lives and loves. It’s as if those living are trying to keep their loved ones alive, as if offering some kind of resuscitation in the form of remembrance, trying to keep the air alive with their persona. They are gone, but not gone, not yet, they still have a little life left in them and their spirit and soul are hovering here, ghosts waiting for us to finally let them go and do whatever ghosts have to do.
I step out out the car, with flowers a card and a photograph of her grave and though its an old photograph and all she had then was a wooden cross, luckily the grave next to hers is there in the picture and I can see the shape and colour of it and the names too and so if I can find that one, I can find her. I don’t know why but I feel nervous about doing this. Is it pretentious? Am I intruding into private grief? Walking over the buried bones of peoples loved ones may seem odd to some people, strange, ghoulish even, but they are gone, aren’t they? Leave them be, there’s nothing you can do for them. Dead is dead after all, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure.
I decide to tip-toe over the grass, treading lightly so as not to disturb them.
I step onto the grass and there is a tree on the edge of the plot that’s decorated with ribbons that are bound and twisted into wreath-like shapes, memento’s for the dead and as I step onto the grass someone whispers hello. Hello in a shrill but gentle voice, a welcoming voice, as if its OK to be here, to do this and that I am not intruding. I feel lifted now and I know I will find her. There’s that sound again, ‘hello’ and the wind that whistled down the Mersey has followed me here, but now it has died down to a breeze and it’s this breeze which circles the tree, spinning the wind chimes left hanging there, tinkling and twinkling her greeting yet again.
The singing ringing tree.
I try a logical way of finding her, walking over to the far side of the plot and slowly trawling past each grave one row at a time, looking for her name, but looking for the grave next door as well. Five minutes pass and the Sun is still good today, still shining but slowly beginning to sink, making the breeze just a little more chill across the fading October sky.
The next door neighbour is here, I think. I double check with the old photograph and the names match, but to the right there is no wooden cross now, but an upright grey stone about 18 inches high with names etched on it, Mummy; John; Victoria; Julia; Jackie in descending order. I look at the photograph again and then look back at the one in front of me. I’ve found it, I’ve found them, found her.
In the photograph there is a stone cat by the grave and it’s still there, so I guess, I hope, this is the right one. Now I can do what I have come to do and I feel happy and relieved that I can say what needs to be said.
To say thank you. Thank you to Julia, John’s mother.
Why John? Well there were three others in the band, as you may have gathered and they all played their part, in fact there were many who played their parts, band members who came and went, managers, wives and girlfriends, engineers and arrangers, the list is a long and winding road. But in the beginning it was John’s band, Johns force of will and desire that drove him and them to reach the ‘toppermost of the poppermost’ and it was his mothers spirit and love of music and musical ability that he seems to have inherited and that she showed and passed to him during their short time together. So this journey was like a return to the source, the well spring from which The Beatles arose, a return to where it all began, the acorn that grew into the mighty oak.
I unwrapped one of the little bunch of flowers and I see that there is an empty stone or metal pot next to the grave and so that’s where they will go, but first I sit down a few yards away and lean against another grave, hoping whoever it is won’t mind and there I sit and I write inside the card I brought, the last line of lyrics from The Beatles song “The End”.
“And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”.
On the opposite side of the card I write the names of those who came from near and far to visit Liverpool this Autumn 2012 and then tuck the card into a plastic wallet so it may keep a while, protected a little from the weather. I place the card under the stone pot and put the flowers in the pot and stand back and take photos and then sit down on a bench underneath the whispering tree. I sit not really to think, not to think at all actually, just to be, just to let it be.
As I am sitting a car draws up, a young lady gets out, walks to a grave nearby, tends the flowers, stays for a few minutes then drives off. Another car draws up, three people get out and go to the grave about ten yards away that is festooned with colour and lights and football memorabilia. “Welcome to my garden”, says a little plaque on the grave. They each tidy things, maybe say a few words I cannot hear and then as each one walks away they kiss their fingertips and touch the wooden cross at the head of the grave.
I will never know whether it was the now chill wind or the emotions of that moment, but looking on Julia’s grave, a few tears came and I left them where they fell on the ground, helping the grass to grow. I take out the two remaining bunches of flowers and take one over to the highly decorated grave where the family just were and leave one bunch there and take the other to the grave where the young lady was. It seemed fitting.
I go back to my car, turn it around and leave this forever never-never land where souls all but sleep, knowing that even if some arrived here too soon, everyone who is here is at peace and as George said, “All things must pass”. And I think so too.
I came here looking for ghosts, but realised that although her bones may lie here, Julia does live on and it was her, who was born with the egg that became John, who sang the songs that he heard and then he too gave his songs to us and so the circle is complete as we too pass them on for our own children and we then become ghosts to be let go of one day too.
I came looking for ghosts, but I think now that there on that bright October day, with the Sun going down and casting shadows from the gravestones over the still lush green grass that will lie fallow until spring comes full circle and it rises once more, I think that perhaps I had a insight into something a little more clearly than I had it seen before.
There is a line in a song by Leonard Cohen that goes, “Everything has a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in”
So I suppose what I glimpsed through that crack of light that bright sunny October day was a flash of my own mortality and our own possibility of immortality.
A little boy once said to his dying Grandmother, “Grandma, is it true that I won’t see you again when you go away?”
Grandma said, “Death is like a ship sailing away towards the horizon. There’s a moment when it disappears. But just because you can’t see it any more doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist”.