Beginning A Book Of Beginnings

I picked this up in Waterstones recently, knowing that it would be my kind of thing. Ancestry; pre-history; our shared humanity: I love all that.

The more I learn the more I want to know. Roots, beginnings, of where we came from, and how.

I sometimes think of myself sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery. In the chair opposite is a man from Africa. Or a man from China. Or maybe a woman from the Philippines. They might not particularly look like me, in fact they’d look quite distinct from me. But whoever it is we would still be connected. They would still be one of us.

But just imagine if the person sat in the chair was a Neanderthal. Could you get your head around the fact that he’d be other? Not us at all?

Of all the hominid species that we know of (so far), it’s the Neanderthals that capture the imagination the most. Maybe perhaps because of how, in some ways, they were quite similar to us, or maybe more so because of how recently (in comparative terms) they fell away.

Though you could say (spoiler alert-even before picking up the book) they never fully did.

I’m only sixty-odd pages in and it’s great writing for a layman like me, not dry at all, with the start of each chapter instilling a sense of wonder in both our origins and shared beginnings.

Each chapter is headed by a drawing, and I love this image, from Chapter Two, of us reaching out to our maternal line, a line that snakes off into the distance, beyond memory, photograph and record. Taking unknown directions while holding maybe the odd recognisable trait, going that far back that even the stars above have shifted position.

Elsewhere Sykes writes:

We are the embodied heritage of all our mothers. The predecessors of your eyes focusing on these words first saw light over 500 million years ago. The five dextrous fingers moving these pages have clutched, grasped, scrabbled for 300 million years. Perhaps you can hear music, or a recording of this book right now; that ingenious triple-bone ear structure began listening for sounds of love and terror while we scuttled beneath saurian feet. The brain processing this sentence had ballooned almost to its current size by 500 thousand years ago, and was shared by Neanderthals.

I hope that’s whetted your appetite. Now I’m logging out of City Jackdaw to begin chapter four, reading newly written words while looking far, far over my shoulder into the distance behind me.

Celebrating The Big Five-O #2: The Cavern

“Let’s see a show of hands,” the tour guide said. “Put your hand up if Ringo is your favourite Beatle.”

No hands. He nodded, both sagely and sympathetically.

“George?” There was one hand. “You know what? It’s always the George fans that come up with really deep snippets of information that nobody else knows.”

“Paul?” Five hands went up which, as there were only thirteen people on this midday tour, meant that for “John?” seven hands went up.

So Lennon nicked it, but, as Millie voted for him and is only just on the start of her journey, things can change. You don’t have to have favourites (though of course everybody does) as the group truly was the sum of its parts.

I watched an interview last night from 1988 when George and Ringo were on a chat show together. The drummer explained their following (when the group was still active) as thus: “I got all the mums. And the kids. George got the mystics, John got the intellectuals and Paul got the teens.”

Our tour finished and Millie and I headed for the place that this selective following first started.

Matthew Street, dark and grainy in the old sixties film footage, was now neon bright but empty as the pre-Christmas afternoon crowds sought the bars and restaurants as refuge from the cold.

You can see from this photo that the place is a bit more swish now.

Our tour gave us free entry to the legendary Cavern. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s mostly the same. John’s murder marked the beginning of Beatles-based tourism, but the original Matthew Street buildings above ground had been demolished. But of course below ground buildings aren’t demolished but filled in.

In 1982 it was excavated and the above ground section rebuilt using the original bricks. I once wrote a Jackdaw post called If Walls Could Talk, Concrete Confess, about a pub that used to be run by ancestors of mine, a pub long gone but holding ‘that which is valued in meaning’.

I like to think that those Cavern bricks have somehow soaked up to hold every note that has ever been played there. Not just by the Fab Four but also all of the other legendary performers that have graced the place too.

Imagine one day having the ability, along the lines of our DNA technology, to extract that trapped sound and being able to replay it again. Wouldn’t that be cool? Doing it in this same place – The Beatles playing the Cavern all over again.

Today the Cavern occupies 70% of its original space, and as far as I was concerned, when my daughter and I descended those steps, we were following in the footsteps of The Beatles and all.

It’s The Cavern, guys!

There was the enclosed space; there was live music; there was a performer recounting his time when he once met Paul McCartney; there were other artists waiting in a line that stretched back decades.

And there were us – an eager audience sat drinking, singing along to Beatles covers and generally soaking up the atmosphere.

Just like those bricks.

I had a beer and my daughter a coke, before having to set off to catch our train back to Manchester. We gave our seats to a couple of women who’d just arrived from Sheffield and seemed to know every song word for word. Words that had returned to source.

I fancy coming back again one weekend to spend a bit longer here. Have a few more drinks and maybe stay over. I might even do the tour again.

I think someone else is tempted, too.

Celebrating The Big Five-O #1: Beatles Tour

Well, we almost never made it. Not to fifty, I mean, for you just can’t pause time, but to the tour itself.

I’d booked my fourteen-year-old daughter, Millie, and myself onto the Cavern Club’s Magical Mystery Tour, as part of my rearranged plans (rearranged because of Covid, surprise surprise), to mark my fiftieth birthday. A Beatles tour for us both in Liverpool followed by a few nights in Edinburgh on my lonesome.

I’m notoriously hopeless at finding my way around (not a good asset for a one-time postman) and I thought I’d given us enough time to allow for the odd wrong turning. The tour was set to start at 1.00pm, with no option to roll over onto a later tour, and so it was a now-or-never situation we’d stumbled into.

After a train journey from Manchester and then walking for a while in the general direction, we had ten minutes to find the office where we were to pick up our tickets. I’d already stopped for two sets of directions from locals, and a puffing Millie was asking me to slow down as I kept glancing at the time. I knew we were near, being close to the docks, but it didn’t help that my Google Maps was insisting that we were currently in the middle of the Mersey! Yellow Submarine, anyone? Talk about your magical mystery tours

Technology was proving no help at all and I was just beginning to accept the fact that we weren’t going to make it when we turned the next, oblique corner and a wave of relief set in.

Our chariot was awaiting in all its gaudy colour.

We boarded the coach bang on 1.00pm, playing it casual while Millie wiped her brow. Only a little familiar with Beatles music (yes, I feel have been failing as a father), she was worried that she might be asked questions along the way that would expose her. I told her that she might just be asked what her favourite song was.

“No!”

“What will you say?” I asked.

With no sense of irony: “Help!”

And so we were off into Beatleland. Or rather Ringoland, to begin with, for we were first to encounter a few places within a stone’s throw of each other that are related to the Beatles drummer. There was his primary school, his first home and, within sight of this, his second home, and also a pub that was to feature on the cover of his first solo album, Sentimental Journey. This was to be the first indication of a Beatle member’s Sense of Nostalgia.

As you look at the cream painted window sills on this photograph, count down five houses. You’ll see that that particular house has no window sill because this was the house where Ringo was born and fans have chipped it away to take as souvenirs!

Madryn Street, site of window sill theft

Next up was another birthplace, this one belonging to one George Harrison. Situated on a small cul-de-sac, he was born in this house in 1943, living there until 1950. His early years passed behind that upstairs window which was his bedroom.

12 Arnold Grove

You could picture him as a young lad, coming and going through that doorway, little knowing what lay in store for him.

A man named Ernie has lived next door to this house since right back in the sixties, and can remember fans gathering outside. He would often go out talking to them. One evening, long after The Beatles had split, he looked out and who should he see through his net curtains but George Harrison himself, stood in the road, looking up at his former home. (Sense of Nostalgia #2.) And so he went outside and spoke with him too, over a cigarette.

The place must have retained a place in George’s heart, for in years to come whenever he checked into a hotel he did so under the pseudonym of Mr Arnold Grove.

By this point Millie had been drawn in and was thoroughly enjoying the tour, having her photograph taken in front of these landmarks. Me? I may have had a few taken . . .

The young tour guide made things entertaining, and asked if it was anyone’s birthday as, if so, that person would hold the honour of choosing their favourite song to be played to everybody on the coach. Mine was in four days time but I kept quiet, deferring to a lad in his twenties whose birthday was on that very day. He picked A Day In The Life. I would have gone with Hey Bulldog.

I’m not sure now if I’ve got our order of stops in the correct order, but anyway I’m sure most people will recognise these iconic gates, festooned with a Christmas touch.

Let me take you down, ‘cause I’m going to . . .
Walls and gate posts daubed in fans’ graffiti

These gates held no significance for the young John Lennon because he was a trespasser. He’d climb over the walls to gain access to the grounds, most probably to the rear of here as that was closer to his home. He’d go in and climb trees, and when writing the song that immortalised this place he would refer to his long-held idea that he was somehow different to other people, although he didn’t know if he was a genius or insane:

No-one I think is in my tree / I mean, it must be high or low

As a Beatles nut I thought I knew the stories behind most of the Beatles song lyrics, but I learned something new here. When John’s Aunt Mimi used to chide him for going into Strawberry Field, saying he’d get into trouble if he was caught, he’d reply that they wouldn’t hang him for it. Hence the line:

And nothing to get hung about

I missed out on a couple of photographs of places when we didn’t disembark the coach, due to my technical incompetence. One, alas, was a place of great significance, considered as the birthplace of the Beatles: St.Peter’s Church hall, in Woolton where, on the 6th of July, 1957, following a performance by Lennon’s skiffle group The Quarrymen, mutual friend Ivan Vaughan introduced John Lennon to Paul McCartney. This is where it all began.

But now, more graffiti!

We travelled along Penny Lane, and as we did so we listened to the song. We saw the barber’s shop:

In Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs . . .

We also saw the bank (and cocked up the photograph 🙈)

On the corner is a banker with a motorcar . . .

I knew that Paul had been writing about this place that he knew well, but I thought that he’d taken a little creative license as I didn’t think that there was actually a

. . . shelter in the middle of a roundabout

(Yes, I lost that photograph too!)

But it’s still there. Paul used to wait for his next bus behind that shelter, watching the pretty nurse

. . . selling poppies from a tray

He was just writing about the things that he saw on his journey along the way. Ordinary, everyday things that he would make special. I don’t think I’ll ever listen to the song in the same way again.

The graffiti bit I mentioned?

If you look closely in the bottom right hand corner,
you will see McCartney’s signature, added in 2018 during an episode of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke

As we travelled along, our guide gave an almost casual “See that white house on your left ?”

“That’s where Beatles manager Brian Epstein lived.”

And then another:

“That was John Lennon’s home.” It was bought by Yoko and donated to the National Trust for the fans.
Mendips, where John lived with his Aunt Mimi. The window on the far left was his room where he wrote some of his songs. This was the house where Mimi famously told him “The guitar’s alright, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.”

This last stop was my favourite.

Paul’s childhood home of 20 Forthlin Road

This was the home where he lost his mother. This was the home where John used to call around to write songs with his mate, sitting toe-to-toe, encouraged by Paul’s music loving father. Behind that window above the door, magic was created. One After 909; She Loves You; When I’m 64; She Was Just Seventeen. The list goes on.

Sense Of Nostalgia #3:

You may have seen that aforementioned Carpool Karaoke episode where Paul and Corden returned to Forthlin Road, but I preferred this story that we were told: One day Paul had returned with his son, James, showing him the places where he’d grown up as a child. Sat in the back of a car at the end of the street, windows blacked out to preserve the musician’s anonymity, they were disturbed by a knock on the window. Seeing it was just a young boy on his own, Paul wound down the window.

“If you give me a pound I’ll show you the house where Paul McCartney used to live.”

A laughing Paul handed all the coins that he had on him over to the bemused young entrepreneur.

From this house we can follow Paul’s journey, as explained in A Day In The Life:

Woke up, got out of bed / dragged the comb across my head

He would come out of this house, out of this gate, to turn left and head down the street to the bus stop at the end.

Found my coat and grabbed my hat / Made the bus in seconds in flat

This is where he’d get the number 86 bus to Penny Lane. That place with the shelter on the roundabout.

Found my way upstairs and had a smoke / And somebody spoke and I went into a dream

I wonder who that person who spoke was, but we do know that one day, on one of those countless bus journeys, he saw another lad in school uniform, carrying a guitar: George Harrison.

I will leave this post here, as it’s longer than the usual posts that I write in Jackdaw, but I wanted to share some of this journey with you guys while also preserving it for myself. I’ll speak of our visit to The Cavern in my next post.

If I took one thing away from this day it was this: these were just four ordinary working class kids, writing about their average daily lives.

They each created songs and images about their day-to-day life, places of trespass where they spent their childhood; things that they saw from the upper deck of a bus. Local scenes that one day would be experienced by the rest of the world.

I think Millie took something from that, too. She wants to go again.

Castle Rock

With my fiftieth birthday fast approaching, I’ve been marking it by taking my daughter on a Beatles tour in Liverpool and then spending a few nights alone up in Edinburgh (both of which I’ll speak about at a later date).

In the meanwhile I’ll just leave this with you, taken on my first evening in the Scottish capital. Amidst the music and lights, keep an eye out for James Bond and the Big Yin popping in too.

ABBA And The Friday Feels

You guys have heard me say it before: I’m a creature of nostalgia. That’s nothing new. (Literally.)

I’ve often thought, without having a death wish, that, of the gang I used to hang with in my youth, I hope I’m not one of the last to go as I don’t think my heart could take the sentimental overload.

I was born in ‘71, which means that in three months time I’ll be fifty. I’m sharing that half a century milestone this year with some of my favourite albums: The Doors’ La Woman, Lennon’s Imagine, and the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, among others. Music that I’ve connected with and taken with me across the decades.

Last night I watched the reveal about the quite astonishing return, after all this time, of ABBA, unveiling not only a whole new album (Voyage) and two songs from it, but also a concert that is being planned in London with the aid of technology.

ABBAtars, no less.

I saw this photograph of the four Swedes dressed up in the outfits that they wore to help create these new altar egos. They look like something out of the 80’s science fiction movie Tron.

The finished result, based on their look in 1979.

Experiencing the two new songs from this first album in forty years transported me right back in time to the first family home that we all shared back then. I’d only be about five years old, my brother eighteen months younger. My folks had a cassette player on the wall unit by the door, with an early ABBA compilation album primed to play. My Mum introduced us: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for . . . ‘THE MURRAY BROTHERS!’” We’d both be playing drums on an upturned bin and a biscuit tin respectively, while we sang along.

That was, of course, the seventies, the hazy, intangible seventies, where my affected memory always reconstructs those times in the brightest and gaudiest of colours.

My Dad is no longer with us, and my Mum no longer remembers ABBA (Alzheimer’s), but those happy days (and that group in particular) is something I’ve brought along with me to this very day. And that connection has been reinforced by listening to this new material.

Both songs (maybe more so because of the lens that I experience them through) are rich in sentiment. The first one, I Still Have Faith In You, is a ballad sung by Frida, about the special relationship shared by all four group members. I thought that this one was just okay, maybe a grower, the emotion of it coming more from the accompanying video that shows the four of them in their prime, until replaced by the ABBAtars that appear towards the end.

But it was the Agnetha-led second song, Don’t Shut Me Down, that cranked up the feels a notch. I wasn’t expecting the emotional punch that took me right back to my crude beginnings.

It sounds like classic ABBA, recognisable ABBA, and when Frida joins in it demonstrates that, no matter their age, when those two singers combine those two voices, magic is created.

It’s a magic sorely needed in our world, a magic capable of time travel.

And like all true nostalgists, I see hidden meaning and significance in everything. Making it relatable and personal, I excitedly informed my wife:

“Jen – ABBA have got back together for my 50th!

Happy Birthday to me.

Time For Truth, Truth In Time

I was reading Stephen King’s Joyland, which I’d picked up in a charity shop, over my morning coffee when I encountered the following line:

When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction

Is this fact or fiction, so to speak? This line was unearthed in a work of fiction. And, to further blur the lines, truth can be found in fiction and fiction hidden in truth. But what about what it refers to, in regards to history? Our own history?

Revisionism. I’ve known people alter the facts to suit and justify their own particular narrative. Events recounted that don’t quite match up with our own recollection of things. I guess we all know someone like that.

But what about me? Do I ‘write’ fiction about my past?

I think I’m mostly the opposite. At the time, wherever along my timeline that ‘time’ was, I’d sometimes put a spin on things. Make myself appear more favourable and, forever the storyteller, embellish things for entertainment purposes, playing to the audience.

And of course obscure things I’d prefer not see the light of day. We’re all human and life is a learning curve.

Now, further down the line and removed by years and even decades, I recount how things really were back then from my own perspective (and it’s all about perspective, isn’t it?), with an insight I didn’t possess at the time.

Maybe age brings with it, along with wisdom, a certain candour. A candour maybe recognised by encountering an alternate version of truth in the midst of a work of fiction.