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John Lennon lived at Mendips, 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton, Liverpool L25 from 1945 until around 1963. Paul McCartney lived at 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, Liverpool L18 from 1955, also until around 1963.
With some people, you’ll always remember where you were, and what you were doing, when you heard they’d gone. Even people you never met, but who made a difference to you in some way. JFK, Elvis, Princess Diana and John Lennon, to name a few, all seem to have this effect on their admirers. I woke in a Cricklewood bed-sit on a bleak December morning in 1980 to the shocking news of Lennon’s murder in New York, by some nutter who should never have possessed a peashooter, let alone a lethal weapon. To say that I was angry and profoundly sad would be a classic understatement. His old group, the Beatles, had split, acrimoniously, ten years previously. It was unthinkable that John, hero, troublemaker and flawed genius, had left the room for good. For fans still in denial, this finally settled the question; there really would be no Beatles reunion. What their publicist, Derek Taylor, called ‘the twentieth century’s greatest romance’ had truly come to an end.
Or had it? In the relatively short time they were around, the Beatles transformed popular music and were in the maelstrom of a cultural revolution that helped change the UK – and probably other places too – forever. Along the way, they brought millions of people a great deal of pleasure. More than half a century later, they still do. My children, born decades after the Beatles stopped making records, enjoy their music. People still buy Beatles music – rarely at a discount, incidentally – and other artists continue to cover and record numbers written by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. There’s more to it than that, though. There’s something legendary about the Beatles – and it’s far too simplistic to blame Lennon’s assassination for that. George Harrison’s overly early death in 2001 at the age of 58 captured headlines round the world and provoked widespread, dignified, grief. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney continue to sell tickets and be highly newsworthy, with the latter (now Sir Paul) headlining mass concerts from Live Aid to Live 8 and the Queen’s Jubilee. Facebook, launched three years after George Harrison died, has a Beatles page which has almost 42 million ‘likes’. The Rolling Stones, who formed in 1962 and are more or less still with us, have fewer than 20 million ‘likes’.
“ ‘How long are you gonna last?’ Well, you can’t say, you know. You can be big-headed and say, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna last ten years.’ But as soon as you’ve said that you think, ‘We’re lucky if we last three months,’ you know.”
John Lennon, interviewed in 1963.
In any event, a steady stream of tourists – or pilgrims – make their way to sites associated with the Beatles in their home city of Liverpool, and elsewhere. But it is in Liverpool where the story begins, before the madness of Beatlemania and the rancour of later years. Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road, the former Liverpool homes of John Lennon and his friend and song-writing partner, Paul McCartney, are open to the public. But the only way to see inside them is to book tickets on a National Trust tour. Incidentally, just to finally make the point, I’m not aware of hoards of Stones fans trekking off to Dartford to see where Mick and Keith grew up. Mind you, Jimi Hendrix’s former flat in Bond Street is now open for visitors, so you never know.
The Liverpool houses are where the teenage John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote together in the early days, before the Beatles, more often than not when they should have been at school or college. This is where numbers such as Love Me Do, I Saw Her Standing There, One After 909, Please Please Me, I Call Your Name and When I’m Sixty-Four were conceived. You can sit in the living room at Forthlin Road where John and Paul smoked tea and hammered on their cheap guitars while Paul’s dad was out at work; or stand in the porch at Mendips where John’s Aunt Mimi banished them when the noise got too much for her – though Paul reckoned the acoustics were good there! You can stand by the garden at Mendips, imagining a young boy happily playing at cowboys and Indians, or being taught cricket by his kind uncle George. You can try to imagine a leather-clad Paul scaling up the back of Forthlin Road to climb in through the bathroom window, when he was back late and got locked out.
These places are more than just shrines for Beatle fans. They were family homes and there is a wonderful, charming, and completely natural innocence about them – as well as a certain familiarity if you’re of a certain age.
The young Lennon and McCartney
John Winston Lennon was born at Liverpool Maternity Hospital on Oxford Street in the evening of 9th October 1940. The Second World War was in full swing. As Mary Stanley, known as Mimi, ran to the hospital to meet her new nephew, Hitler’s Luftwaffe pounded the docks and the back-to-backs. The baby was packed under the bed to keep him safe.
John’s mother, Julia, had married Alfred Lennon in 1938. Fred Lennon, a ship’s steward, was at sea when his son was born and is generally portrayed as a wayward character. The marriage floundered. Julia had a daughter from a fling with an unknown army officer, but finally settled down in a one-bedroomed flat with a hotel waiter, John ‘Bobby’ Dykins, and her young son. It was not considered an appropriate environment for a child, however. So in 1945, the 5-year old John Lennon went to live with his Aunt Mimi and her husband, George Toogood Smith, at their house, Mendips at 251 Menlove Avenue in the leafy suburb of Woolton. The boy was welcomed with open arms.
Mendips was built in 1933, an attractive three-bedroomed semi-detached home like so many others to be found, even today, on the edge of Britain’s towns. Its style is what the cartoonist and critic Osbert Lancaster humorously referred to as by-pass variegated. It has a bellboard, because the builders anticipated that the owners would employ a maid, an attractive bay window, stained glass and a garden. At some point, someone named it after a lovely range of hills in Somerset. It was all very middle-class.
Fred Lennon suddenly reappeared in 1946 and took John off to Blackpool, hotly pursued by Julia. Here, the young boy faced a trauma that probably stuck with him for years, when he was asked to choose which parent he wanted to be with. He went back with Julia, who delivered him to Mimi, and Fred disappeared from John’s life again – until the Beatles achieved fame.
Mimi and George were childless and, in their different ways, doted on their nephew. Mimi was devoted to John, and determined that he should never return to an empty house, but was a no-nonsense type of person. George was a softer touch. He came from several generations of farmers and used to run the dairy at Woolton. John learned to read on his uncle’s knee, from words George picked out of the local paper, the Liverpool Echo. He rigged up an extension from the radio to John’s bedroom, so that the lad could listen to his favourite shows there, like Dick Barton, Special Agent and the Goons. The zany humour of the latter appealed to Lennon’s intelligence and sense of the absurd. It would come to influence his own, sometimes off the wall, and sometimes cruel, wit. He was an avid reader – a particular favourite was the work of Lewis Carroll, which perhaps fed some of the imagery in Lennon’s work. But young Lennon also loved the Just William books of Richmal Crompton, about a boy who had a gang and was rarely out of trouble. Some see fiction becoming reality; by all accounts, John liked to be leader of the gang and he certainly had a rebellious streak. But William was far from being a working-class hero; he had a comfortable home with servants. On the other hand, I don’t suppose there were too many working-class hero children’s books available in the 1950s.
20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, was (and still is) about a mile away, across Menlove Avenue and the other side of the golf course. It is part of a 330-house estate built by Liverpool Council to help replace the city’s slums and 10,000 homes destroyed by wartime bombing. The McCartneys, Jim, Mary and their two sons Paul and Michael, moved there in 1955.
James Paul McCartney was born in Walton Hospital on 18th June 1943. Mother Mary was a nurse and Jim had been a cotton salesman. After the war, Mary became a midwife and her work enabled the family to move to new estates being urgently erected to the south of Liverpool, at Speke, first to a house at 72 Western Avenue, then to 12 Ardwick Road. Paul remembers the roads being built, the trees and grass being planted. Though money was tight, the McCartney brothers had a happy childhood with parents who had aspirations for them beyond Speke. This could be a frightening, violent, place with fights between rival gangs and where young Paul was once mugged. He did well at primary school, passing the eleven-plus exam which in those days determined whether youngsters would go the more academic grammar school for their secondary education, or to a more technical, trades-orientated, secondary modern. Paul qualified for a place at the Liverpool Institute, one of the best schools in the country, which regularly sent its pupils on to Oxford or Cambridge. It was on the bus journey between Speke and the City centre that McCartney met another Institute pupil, George Harrison, who lived not far away at 25 Upton Green.
Allerton had a much better reputation than Speke and, so far as Mary and Jim were concerned, the move to Forthlin Avenue was a step up in the world. All seemed well but, less than a year after they got there, Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was discovered too late; she died on 31st October 1956. Paul was fourteen, Michael twelve and a grief-stricken Jim, at fifty-three, was determined to keep home for them.
Paul loved art; but one of his main coping strategies was to immerse himself in music. The McCartneys had a certain musical heritage. Jim had his own band, Jim Mac’s Jazz Band, in the 1920s, and played the trumpet and piano. An upright piano stood in the front room at Forthlin Road. He taught Paul harmony and, at the age of fourteen bought him a trumpet. Paul, realising fairly quickly that you couldn’t sing with a trumpet in your mouth and that it wasn’t that good for attracting girls, swapped it for a £15 Zenith guitar.
John also passed his eleven-plus, and headed for another of Liverpool’s high-achieving grammar schools, Quarry Bank High. Here, the masters wore gowns and the cane was widely used. John fought against what he viewed as the mindless conformity of it all. He had little respect for most of the teachers and one of his main activities was skipping lessons. He was caned scores of times, but amused his fellow-pupils with cartoons and verse, often lampooning the masters, which he kept in an exercise book called the Daily Howl.
In 1955, tragedy and trauma struck; kind, gentle, Uncle George died suddenly of a haemorrhage; he was 52.
1956 was a big year for music in Britain. The young Lennon and McCartney must have heard Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel at around the same time, along with thousands of other kids, swiftly followed by Fats Domino doing Blueberry Hill and Little Richard belting out Rip It Up. Then there was Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. American music had been finding its way across the Atlantic for most of the twentieth century and there was nothing particularly new, either, about rock ‘n’ roll, as such. Even the year before there had been Rock Around the Clock – but Bill Haley already looked at least forty; how could you take him and his ridiculous curl seriously? Presley & Co, though, had an attitude and animal quality that instantly appealed to teenagers struggling against grey, repressed, 1950s Britain. The BBC did not broadcast these subversive sounds; but they could be heard by tuning into Radio Luxembourg on 208 medium-wave in the evenings, often illicitly for fear of parental disapproval. The emergence of these talented rock ‘n’ roll greats also coincided with a wave of skiffle music in Britain, mainly popularised by a nasal-voiced ex-jazz musician, Lonnie Donegan, reworking an American blues-folk number, Rock Island Line. British popular music owes Donegan big-time. Skiffle only required basic instruments – a guitar, a banjo, a tea chest bass, a washboard…anyone could do it, couldn’t they? It was DIY rock ‘n’ roll.
John and his mates had taken to sagging off school and spending time at Julia’s. Julia was a hoot; unlike Mimi, she didn’t seem to worry that John was rapidly failing at school. She liked the new music too, even calling a new kitten ‘Elvis’, and she knew a few banjo chords too. John somehow cobbled together £5 10 shillings (£5.50) and sent away for a guitar, ‘guaranteed not to split’. He told Mimi that Julia had bought it for him. Later, under pressure, Mimi shelled out £17 for ‘a real one’ from Hessy’s, Liverpool’s premier musical instrument shop.
“The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.”
John was galvanised into forming a group with his chums Pete Shotton (washboard), Rod Davis (banjo) and Eric Griffiths (guitar). With a surprising nod to the school he detested – or maybe it was a piece of Lennon irony – it came to be known as The Quarrymen. And it was the Quarrymen that a mutual friend of John and Paul’s suggested McCartney might like to see performing at St Peter’s church fete in Woolton on 6th July 1957.
The historic meeting of John and Paul, and what happened next, is deservedly another chapter in the story. In a nutshell, Paul was bowled over by the band he saw, and by Lennon in particular. John recognised that Paul was the better guitarist, and that he also knew how to tune a guitar. So shortly after meeting at the church fete, the Quarrymen got a new member. Then John, despite failing all his exams, managed (with the help of his long-suffering headmaster) to get a place at Liverpool College of Art – right next door to the Liverpool Institute that Paul, and George Harrison, attended. George joined the band in early 1958.
The stage was set. But, like every great story, the Beatles’ combines all the best elements, including humour, achievement and tragedy. John’s mother, Julia, was a regular visitor to Mendips. Though chalk and cheese, the two sisters complemented one another and had a shared love of John. After leaving Mimi one July evening in 1958, Julia crossed Menlove Avenue into the path of a car driven by an off-duty policeman and was killed instantly. She was forty four. John had been waiting for her at her house with ‘Bobby’. His mother’s death would haunt John’s life; but he and Paul now had something else in common which would help bind their partnership.
Mendips and Forthlin
There’s a regular flow of visitors to the former Liverpool homes of Lennon and McCartney. And everyone, including me, poses outside for photographs. 20 Forthlin Road is a fairly quiet side street; Menlove Avenue is a busy dual carriageway. As previously mentioned, though, the only way to see inside the houses is to book a tour with the National Trust.
The instructions were to assemble in the characterless foyer of Liverpool’s Jury’s Inn Hotel, where we would board a mini-bus. After the flock had been gathered in and the bus made its way out of the City Centre, the driver asked if we’d like some music. No prizes for guessing what people clamoured for; it was undeniably cheesy. I couldn’t help wondering what Lennon would have made of all it all, what sardonic quip would have mocked us and the whole trip thing. Recalling the furore in the US when his comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus was quoted out of context, I felt the irony of pilgrimages in Beatle-land was inescapable. Our fellow-pilgrims were a mixed bunch, from all over the UK as well as Denmark and Israel.
Aunt Mimi got fed up with Beatles fans visiting Mendips, even camping in the garden. Jim McCartney was similarly besieged. In 1965, John bought Mimi a house at Sandbanks, a luxurious suburb of Poole, in Dorset. He wanted to keep Mendips, but Mimi would have none of it. Yoko Ono bought it in 2002, because she was worried it may fall into the wrong hands and be commercially exploited. She then donated it to the National Trust so that it could be looked after as a place for people to visit. Paul bought Jim a place in Heswall, on the Wirral (which I’m told the McCartneys still own) and 20 Forthlin Road passed into the hands of the Jones family, whose home it was for 30 years. The National Trust bought it in 1995.
Credit where credit is due, the National Trust has gone to an awful lot of trouble to recreate these houses as they were in the late 1950s/early 60s. At Forthlin Road, they have had the help of the McCartney family, especially Sir Paul and his brother, Mike – whose wonderful photographs adorn the walls. Mike McCartney, it may be remembered, was also part of a group, the Scaffold, which had several hits in the 60s. At Mendips, Mimi took in students to supplement income, and the Trust has greatly relied on the memories of some of those that stayed there – right down to the colour schemes and crockery in the kitchen. The attention to accuracy is such that they have even gone to the bother of taking out the double-glazing installed by the Jones family at Forthlin Road, replacing it with original period windows from a house across the street, and putting new double-glazing into the donor’s property.
Irritatingly, for obscure ‘copyright’ reasons, interior photography is not allowed. This didn’t seem to stop the Danes clicking away with their mobile ‘phones when they thought no one was looking.
The National Trust guides were exceptionally good – human and down-to earth with plenty of anecdotes. Even the driver was amusing and informative – though it is surprising how much stories – myths, perhaps – about the Beatles vary between tellers. The girl – woman – at Paul’s house was particularly impressive. With enthusiasm sparkling from her eyes, she gave the impression of knowing Sir Paul personally. “He pulled up in his red Lexus: of course, it had plastic seats…” Perhaps she does know him; anyway, she was obviously a fan and that love of her subject came across. She told us that Debbie Harry had been on a tour and had tinkled the ivories in Paul’s former living room. A hooded Bob Dylan, apparently, turned up on a tour. I wanted to know if he was a member of the National Trust. She didn’t know.
The guy at Mendips was less relaxed, almost edgy; questions seemed to unsettle him a little; perhaps he was new.
We went there first, tumbling out of the bus in anticipation. A line from the uncomfortably, and possibly presciently, titled Happiness is a Warm Gun from the White album popped into my head – ‘a soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust’.
You enter Mendips along the side of the house through the back door into the kitchen – as visitors did in Mimi’s day. This would save the hall carpet from dirty shoes. I could almost picture Paul turning up – Mimi referred to him as John’s ‘little friend’. Or George Harrison; Mimi deeply disapproved of his Teddy-Boy dress and thick Scouse accent. Outside the kitchen window stands a green Raleigh Lenton bike – similar to the one John was given for passing his 11-plus exam. The kitchen – like the rest of the house – has been refitted back to late 1950s/early 1960s style, to an extraordinary level of detail. Through there to what Mimi called the Morning Room, a kind of halfway house between the lounge and the dining room, which was in fact the place with the radio (and, later, the TV), where meals were eaten and Mimi would sew. A wall clock is engraved on the dial ‘George Toogood, Woolton Tavern’ – it’s probably a replica, commissioned by Yoko, the original having been sent to John in New York by Mimi. The guide didn’t know anything about it.
Above the doorway leading from the morning room is the electric bellboard to summon the non-existent maid. The dining room, used as a sitting room and study by students, contains a number of fascinating photo albums. The lounge, in earlier days reserved for special occasions, has familiar bookshelves either side of the fireplace, installed in the 1950s. John’s bedroom upstairs has been recreated, with posters of Elvis and Brigitte Bardot. The Daily Howl sits on a cabinet near the window.
It’s a young man’s room; hard to reconcile with the tough wise-guy front that Lennon often displayed. I had read previously that visitors need to be wary of Beatle-heads ‘having a moment’ in the porch. Well, I don’t mind admitting that I had one. Did they have preferred sides, I wondered, because John was right-handed and Paul left-handed?
I could relate to Mendips. The porch reminded me of my own from childhood and we too had a lounge that was out of bounds most of the time. Mrs B liked Mimi’s house. Rather like Paul’s fictional grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night, it was very clean. But, more importantly, she felt Mimi was a kind woman who loved her sometimes wayward nephew very much indeed.
You don’t get the same sense of Paul McCartney as a child at Forthlin Road as you do of the young John Lennon at Mendips. Obviously, because he was already a teenager when he moved there. What you DO get a sense of is the fact that this is where the two lads did a lot of their early work. The downstairs layout is simple – in through the front door, left into the lounge, through to the dining-room, right into the kitchen, left into the back garden or right back into the hall. It’s a circular design that Sir Paul used in his own house. Upstairs, an indoor toilet (luxury!) and the boys’ bedrooms, in so many ways similar to John’s. Jim had also rigged up extension headphones so that Paul and Michael could listen to the radio in bed – just like George had done for John.
Outside in the front garden is a lavender bush. Jim was a heavy smoker and Mary used to bring lavender into the house to mask the smell.
One of the biggest impressions I left Mendips and Forthlin Road with was how familiar it all seemed. I guess most people who grew up in the UK anywhere between the 1950s and 1970s could recognise and relate to these houses. If that’s you, it’s like walking in part of your own past. The décor, furniture – even the things on the shelves in the kitchen – were familiar. Ajax cleaner. Omo detergent. Hey – the Beatles were just like us – except they were exceptionally talented, worked hard to perfect their craft and, yes, had some lucky breaks too.
What would Mimi and Jim make of it all, I wonder?
One criticism – the tour was a bit rushed. There simply was not enough time to read and look at everything. But maybe no time would have been be long enough for some of us. I leave you with a link to In My Life, which seemed appropriate, from the Beatles’ 1965 album, Rubber Soul.