“Don’t use the front door, come round the side. Keep those mucky shoes off my good carpets!”
It was an unusual National Trust welcome, but it brought back distant memories of everyday life in the sixties, when money was scarce, and carpets expensive, and only to be cleaned by the application of elbow grease. Less than two decades after the end of World War Two, the “make do and mend” tradition was still generally promoted by our parents’ generation. All possessions had to be treated carefully and with respect and be “made to last”.
So the welcome resonated – especially as we approached “Mendips”, the middle class Liverpool home of the young John Lennon and his Aunt Mimi, who brought him up through most of his childhood. Mimi was undoubtedly houseproud, as well as socially aspirant, and that greeting would certainly have assailed the ears of John’s two council estate chums, Paul and George, when they came round to practise their skiffle.
We were with my oldest school friend – friends since September 1963, when the Beatles surge to fame was under way, so it felt appropriate. As an only child, I lack the siblings who can share earliest childhood memories, so school friends become that bit more important.
Of course, touring the childhood home of a Beatle was always going to be emotional and insightful, but, like The Beatles themselves, you can’t help wondering if the tour is as much about us as them.
We go in through the tiny porch at the side of the house – an extension built by Mimi’s husband, George, to make the kitchen seem more spacious. Our “mucky shoes” step on to tiles – hard wearing and easily cleaned, and, like linoleum, common in kitchens and bathrooms in these times.
It is at one surprising and redolent to see the sparseness of the kitchen –no need for expansive storage with fresh food bought every day for each meal, the basic sink and draining board, virtually no “white goods”, a reminder of the hard graft that went into “keeping house” in those days.
The National Trust have done a good job of reinstating many of the original features in the house and installing fittings and furnishings contemporary to the early 1960s, so there is a good sense of how it would have been when John lived here.
Next door, a tiny room with a small table in the window – a place for the young Lennon to be alone, occasionally doing homework, more often busy with his drawings and scribblings in his own secret code so Mimi would not understand: the basis for his later writings and art. Outside in the early days were just fields and countryside, no doubt an inspiration to the art obsessed teenager.
As we go through the house, there is a strong sense of the inter-war rise of the middle classes – the lounge, the dining room – and that front porch, reserved for the entry of “those and such as those”, but providing a fine, closed off, echo chamber on the rare occasions when John and his skiffle mates were allowed to practise at “Mendips”.
The lounge has a cluttered feeling, familiar from our childhoods, with heavy furniture and dark colours – a room to display “good taste”.
However, after Mimi’s husband, George, died, suddenly and fairly young, she was left with a financial struggle to keep up appearances and raise the young Lennon in a manner which she considered appropriate.
The answer lay in taking in student lodgers, which she may have hoped was a double win. Clearly, the rental income would be invaluable, but Mimi would certainly have hoped that the presence of “academia” in the house would have impressed John into the need for study and qualifications. These were the days when students were largely earnest young men in blazers and stripey scarves, their horn rimmed glasses often focussed on their books. Surely the perfect role models for John?
We see the dining room with its large central table – a study room for the lodgers, and their double bedroom up the stairs, but John’s reaction is less clear.
He failed to achieve a single o-level – skiffle and art having claimed him, as well as the psychological trauma of his mother’s death when he was seventeen. However, Mimi’s fall back position – gaining him a place at Liverpool Art College – and his willingness to attend, suggest that, despite his later protests, Lennon was perhaps not quite so “unteachable” as might be thought.
Whatever the case, we all benefitted when John adopted the bohemian lifestyle of the art college and his later fascination with Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirscherr – all fuel to his developing creative output.
His small single bedroom at the top of the stairs was a reminder of teenage years, when returning after a night in the pub, the trick was to get all the way up the stairs and into your room without the living room door opening to reveal an inquisitor parent who would, without doubt, assess the state of your sobriety.
Before central heating, this room would have been chilly in winter, but there is something ineffably moving to stare at the bed and imagine John and Paul sat hunched together on it, trying to work out the chords of skiffle hits or their own tunes on their first basic guitars.
The iconic story of this room is told by the guide: “Recently Bob Dylan came on the tour incognito, though someone surely should have recognised the Robert Zimmerman name on the booking. Only when they got to this room did he identify himself and ask the guide if he could have a moment alone in John’s bedroom. The guide stepped outside and closed the door, and a few moments later heard Dylan tuning John’s guitar.”
Upstairs is completed by Mimi and the students’ bedrooms and the bathroom. To maximise income, the students had the double bedroom while Mimi slept in a smaller room – another sacrifice she was willing to make to her aspirations and to ensure a suitable home for John.
It must have been a comfortable house – far from the cramped chaos of the terraced two up two down terraces so familiar about Liverpool, but it was suburban rather than upper class and as we leave I can’t help but revise my long held opinion of Mimi as little more than a snob. Aspirational she may have been, but she also provided John with a kind of stability which might otherwise have been lacking, and maybe that helped give him the confidence to perform and write, albeit in the face of his many insecurities. I think Mimi did her best, in light of the times she lived through.
As we leave “Mendips”, I reflect on the power of space and location and the ability to imagine the young John before he was a Beatle, living a life in surroundings not dissimilar to mine a decade later.
And one more surprise awaits me.
At the gate, the guide points up the road to a spot at a junction with Vale Road – about fifty yards away: “And that’s where John’s mother, Julia, was killed.”
I admit that the death of Julia has not really been a major part of my Beatle lore, other than knowing she was run over near to Mimi’s house. I had never realised how close to “Mendips” the accident occurred, and standing on the pavement looking across Menlove Avenue, it suddenly seemed very real as the guide explained what had happened.
“It was mid July 1958 and Julia had been for tea and chat with Mimi. As she stood at the gate saying goodbye to Mimi and one of her student lodgers, John’s pal, Nigel Walley, came up, only to discover that John was actually at Julia’s house at Blomfield Rd. Julia joked that Nigel could “escort” her to the bus stop and they walked up to the corner of Vale Rd where he lived. The bus stop was, and still is, diagonally across the road from where they parted. The central part of what is now a dual carriageway was occupied by tram tracks in 1958, with low hedges between roadway and tracks. Focussing on the bus stop and not missing her bus, Julia seems to have cut through the hedge and into the path of a Standard Vanguard being driven by an off duty police officer, Eric Clague. Though he was an unaccompanied learner driver, it seems the fault was Julia’s, as she crossed without looking. Nigel heard the crash, saw what had happened, and went to get Mimi who rushed to her sister and became hysterical. There was nothing to be done.”
Even after sixty odd years it is strangely resonant to stand on the spot and hear the details. Such a nondescript traffic accident, such a major impact on a family and a future cultural icon.
Mimi always blamed the driver of the car, perhaps understandably, but it is easy to reconstruct the reality. Though mid July, it is after 9.30pm so well into twilight. Traffic was far lighter in those days so crossing roads without looking too carefully was much more common. Through the tram wires and lampposts, Julia may well have seen the double decker bus coming in the distance but failed to notice the lower down, small Vanguard. From Clague’s point of view, he would have been driving along a quiet road, late in the evening when a woman suddenly appeared out of the hedge. We are told he was not driving at speed and he certainly tried to brake.
Nigel Walley felt some guilt in the aftermath – an almost inevitable: “If we had talked for another minute – or a minute less, would the accident have been prevented?” He wondered if John in some way blamed him for what happened.
Later, Eric Clague would leave the police and become a postman. On his round he would deliver increasing bundles of fan mail to 20 Forthlin Rd, the home of Paul McCartney, and our next destination.
It hits a sombre note as we climb back into the minibus to travel to Paul’s childhood home.
When we are young, the world seems huge but our own world within it is small, and that was especially true for youngsters in the late 1950s.. It is little over a mile across the golf course from Lennon’s home to McCartney’s. Even in the minibus it takes less than ten minutes and we pass St Peter’s Woolton, where John and Paul were introduced to each other at the Fete, and Allerton Cemetery where Julia is buried. At “Mendips” we saw how Strawberry Fields was only a short distance away and now we pass the chip shop where Paul remembers first being aware of the rumbustious John in a queue, long before they were introduced.
Time to reflect: imagine if that had been their only interaction.
Then we overtake a No 86 bus at a bus stop and the guide reminds us – that’s the bus and the stop in
“Made the bus in seconds flat.
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream..”
Though close in actual distance, there is a far bigger gap in status between “Mendips” and 20 Forthlin Avenue where Paul lived, and that is immediately obvious as we turn into the road.
This was part of the Mather Ave council estate, built at the start of the fifties, as part of Liverpool’s attempt to recover from the war time blitz and inner city slum properties. In her own way, Mary McCartney – Paul’s mother, was as aspirant as John’s aunt Mimi – but whereas Mimi was much concerned with middle class appearances, Paul’s mother was more concerned with working class respectability – an interesting contrast to the often perceived backgrounds of the songwriting pair. The McCartneys had progressed from a prefab in Knowsley to a council house in Speke and now to a desirable Allerton home which was only three or four years old when they moved in.
The houses on this estate had been designed with care and were built with quality and functionality, with gardens front and back and, at last, indoor toilets. Number 20 is part of a mid terrace and still retains the original neat appearance.
The visit experience, as well as the house itself, differs from that at “Mendips”.
Whilst John’s house was run by a very private woman, intent on appearances and very self aware, for most of Paul’s time in Forthlin Rd, it was a male household – Paul, his brother Mike and their widower father, Jim, and, as Mike was an early photography addict, their life there is far better documented – in words and pictures, and it is clear that it was a happy and warm home. That’s not to say that Jim was not principled in his parenting – he certainly valued education for his lads, but as a former musician, he was perhaps possessed of a creative warmth that Mimi may have lacked.
We go round the back first, into a small garden that still has the original coal shed and the borders which were well tended by Jim. A deck chair is set out and the boys remember their dad sat there completing crosswords, getting them to help, establishing their love of words at an early stage.
The National Trust have restored both houses to the state of furnishing and arrangements as they would have been when John and Paul lived in them, but Forthlin Rd has the added advantage of Mike’s original photographs – so we see Jim doing his washing at the big Belfast sink in the basic kitchen, or in that deck chair with a crossword, a young Paul looking over his shoulder. Then there’s John at the cooker, kettle boiled, about to make a cup of tea as Paul looks on. Mike was well into experimenting with his photography, and there’s an early picture of John, Paul and George standing outside at the back of the house.
Favourite for me, perhaps, is the picture of John and Paul in the tiny dining room, sitting on the couch, guitars in hand, against the fireplace, working on a number. It was in this room they completed “She Loves You” – and having done so, went through next door to the “parlour” to play it to Jim. He thought it was good but suggested the Americanised “Yeh yeh yeh” would be better as “Yes Yes Yes”.
I stand in the dining room transfixed by memories. “She loves you” was number one when I started secondary school and first met the friend standing next to me. And now it’s almost sixty years later!
In the parlour is an upright piano. Paul’s mother rather disapproved of all the Irish relatives coming round and having a sing song around it, but after her death, when Paul was thirteen, it became a regular event, no doubt lightening the load Jim had to carry. Listening to early Beatles songs now, it is clear that Paul’s exposure to his dad playing all the popular show tunes of the fifties – from Rodgers and Hammerstein and the like, had a great influence on their tunes and lyrics, which, when overlaid with their rhythm and blues influences, instigated that innovative sound.
Upstairs, and Paul’s bedroom is an echo of John’s – small and functional, and with that single bed on which he must have sat for hours, mastering chords and trying out lyrics. It may well have been here he wrote “When I’m sixty four” – when he was fourteen.
Whereas on their rare visits to “Mendips”, the Quarrymen were often relegated to the front porch to play, at Forthlin Rd, the lads had the use of the dining room and, as so many burgeoning musicians would do over the years, they would sometimes play in the bathroom to gain the echo effect off the tiles.
Out in the back garden again for the end of our visit, the guide points out the drainpipe by the back door. “When Paul was late home, Jim would lock the door, and Paul would climb up the drain pipe and come in through the bathroom window.”
So we were looking at another song inspiration!
Paul and Mike McCartney are always insistent that visitors to the house should know it was a happy home and indeed we are played recordings from them welcoming us on our visit and emphasising the fact, but I found a rather melancholy atmosphere there, as if Mary’s early death had cast a shadow over the home that could never entirely be displaced by the closeness of Jim and his two sons.
My mother’s childhood friend, Frank Danher, was a cousin of Paul’s mother (and bizarrely was later the parish priest of my school friend who is alongside me today). He would tell my mother that he worried for Jim and the boys and would visit them, attempting to offer support. It was a story repeated amongst the wider McCartney, Mohin and Danher families who all “rallied round”. In the fifties, I suppose, a man was considered incapable of bringing up a family alone. But it has to be said that Jim does not seem to have done too badly!
I had expected to be fascinated by seeing the homes where Lennon and McCartney grew up – I was less prepared for the insight into their particular dynamic and the influences which contributed to the partnership.
They both lost mothers when they were teenagers, but the impact played out differently for them.
Coming as it did against a background of childhood instability, and at a time when John was just establishing a kind of relationship with Julia, her death was probably the driving force behind much of his future troubled personality. It was often mentioned that he had the fear that he would lose anyone he loved.
For Paul, a happy family unit was suddenly no more when his mother died, and there is an irony in her career as a midwife and health visitor who brought and preserved life in others. As a Beatle, Paul was, perhaps, the one who always sought to please, had a well developed awareness of others needs, and often verged on the edge of sentimentality. It is not difficult to link those traits to the loss of a much loved mother whom he would always seek to make proud – and to the closeness with his dad and brother.
John’s development of a slightly depressive, prickly persona was his way of defending himself against the pain caused by the loss of Julia, as he wrote indeed: “You had me but I never had you.” One might claim he was in denial for much of his life.
Brought together by an equal loss, sparked into creativity by their conflicting reactions to that loss, both understanding and not understanding their partner’s state of mind – no wonder the energy produced brought forth such prodigious talent.
I have to admit to being both moved and excited by our visits to these two houses. It seemed they reflected the best of the Beatles’ work – familiar but revelatory, challenging but comforting, similar but different.
The original title of “A Hard Day’s Night” was “Eight Arms to Hold you” – and visiting these houses echoed the idea that the Beatles held us – through their talent and familiarity, their ordinariness and their remarkable uniqueness. It was a conundrum based on how they made us feel and how we made them feel.
I’m left with John’s words from “I am the Walrus” – who knows, maybe part of his scribbles at that small table in the room next to the kitchen in “Mendips”:
“I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together”.