When A Queen Dies

When the statement was made that the Queen was under medical supervision, with doctors concerned for her health, the gravity of the situation was immediately acknowledged as the Palace don’t normally comment on, or share, private things like that.

And it spoke volumes when we learnt that her family members, independently of each other, were all heading up to Balmoral to be with her.

We knew that she had been working just two days before, appointing Liz Truss as our new Prime Minister. We had seen the photograph commemorating that moment, even though it illustrated as it did an increasingly looking fragility about her. Speculation had also been prompted by the fact that tradition had been broken: Truss travelled up to Balmoral, in Scotland, to be appointed instead of the Queen travelling down to Buckingham Palace where the previous fourteen appointments had been made.

This all pointed to something ominous happening. My wife was out shopping with her Mum, and I text her the news about the ‘medical supervision’. She didn’t have to fall back on her experience working in the funeral business to know what ‘all of her family are travelling to be with her in Scotland’ signified.

As the news rolled on it seemed that every news presenter had unobtrusively slipped into dark clothing.

I missed the announcement.

By this time my wife was back and we were getting ready to leave to take my son and a couple of his friends to their football training. While I was in the kitchen locking the back door I heard the National Anthem begin to be played in the lounge. I walked in to see the confirmation on the screen.

Queen Elizabeth II had passed away that afternoon. I went to the door and shouted to my wife who was stood by the car. “Jen, they’re playing the National Anthem now.”

“She’s died?”

Even though the woman was ninety-six and we always knew it was going to happen sometime, the question was still asked with an element of shock. She had been a constant figure throughout our lives, and quite irrationally we expected her to go on forever.

We drove to the football pitch, the kids asking questions from the back seat. Who will be in charge now? And then who? How will that happen? What will change?

My son mentioned the currency, which hadn’t crossed my mind. How strange it will be to see the image of Charles on our coins, notes and stamps instead of the ubiquitous Elizabeth.

King Charles, no less. The next time we hear the National Anthem, I thought,. every time it will be sang before our international matches , our cup finals. “God save our gracious King . . . Send him victorious . . .”

It will take some getting used to.

Smooth Radio was playing a solemn, classical track that I knew although I couldn’t remember its title. I had it on an old Melancholy CD somewhere.

“Dad, can you put Capital on?” my unappreciative son asked. Capital is the one I normally put on for him and his sister, conceding to their requests with the caveat “Any rapping comes on and it’s straight back over!”

I switched stations and the same music track was playing on that too. Smooth, Capital, BBC.

“It’s going to be this music on every station.”

“All night?”

All night.”

We arrived at the training pitch and parked up. Looking at my phone I saw I had a Facebook notification: a woman who, as a young girl, was my grandparents’ next door neighbour. She had tagged me in a photograph of herself stood with my brother and I, holding Union Jack flags while celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee at our street party.

That was back in 1977 when I was six. Queen Elizabeth had reigned for another forty five years after that. That brought it home, the length of time she reigned. The length of time she served. Seventy years in total.

Of course, while the lads trained, the Queen’s death was the topic of all conversation among the adults. Afterwards we called at a local service station for a coffee on the way home. Immediately outside the doors, and inside too, there were reminders of this historic moment everywhere.

In the immediate aftermath there has been talk about sports events being cancelled, of previous funerals and coronations.

The second Elizabethan era is over. We are now in a new period of British history, a period of new beginnings but also, conversely, a period of continuity. For in the following proclamations and fanfares, we have been witnessing events that have never been witnessed before. Modern technology is enabling us to see what in the past has taken place in private.

And I am surprised at how I’ve been feeling.

When pressed I’ve always said that I’m neither a monarchist nor a republican. I didn’t feel a particular strong connection to either camp, not enough to sway me in any direction. Not exactly apathetic, just a casual acceptance of what has always been.

But I love history, I love these islands.

And what I’m now discovering, with the help of modernity, is a deepening love for our age-old traditions, traditions reinforced by a reminder of this woman’s seven decades-worth of selfless service, service to this land that is in my blood and my children’s blood. Service that began long before any of us were born.

The Queen is dead. Long live the King.

The Seventies Slip Further Away

I was intending to do a post tonight about the death that I heard about yesterday, of a musical figure from my childhood, when suddenly news broke of yet another such figure.

The first one was Judith Durham. One of my first musical memories is of my Mum singing the song Morningtown Ride by her group (The Seekers) to us when we were children. I’d be coming up to four then, so it would be around 1975.

Decades later I could recall some lines of the song but not its title or its singer, so with the help of Google one day when on a nostalgia trip (I take these trips often, I’m that kinda guy) I typed up the words and was immediately transported back to the house that we lived in until 1977. And that song led to others, each anchoring me further for a while in a place and time now gone.

Isn’t it wonderful how music can do that to you?

R.I.P Judith Durham, 79.

And now there’s more breaking news, but my memories are much clearer this time and so the sadness more acute.

R.I.P Olivia Newton-John, 73.

Olivia Newton-John had passed away this morning. I guess she finally succumbed to her decades-long fight against cancer. I love her Jeff Lynne-penned hit Xanadu but my favourite of hers is Magic. And of course there was Grease when we were kids.

I don’t watch a lot of musicals but I’ve always had time to watch that one during the holidays.

You’re The One That I Want. What a finale.

‘Finale: the close or termination of something.’

That’s what the dictionary tells me. The close or termination of something. Some things survive, though. Somethings can be relived. Music and memories.

Rest easy, Sandy.

Newton-John and Travolta reuniting as Sandy and Danny in 2019, and the original Sandy in 1978.

Shaking The Heavens

My daughter Courtney surprised me on Father’s Day with tickets to see Kula Shaker in Manchester, at a venue I’ve seen them before. And, as lead singer Crispian Mills pointed out on the night, this time round it was quite an appropriate venue.

Their latest album release (a double album) is a bit of a concept album. Titled 1st Congregational Church Of Love And Free Hugs, Mills explains:

“It is set against a theatrical backdrop, a small church in a semi—fictitious English village called Little Sodbury. I just liked the mental imagery of the small church with a rickety, leaky roof and a great storm raging in heaven, with all these tiny people huddled together to tell stories and sing songs and make it through the dark night.”

The concert took place in the Albert Hall, which was built as a Methodist Hall in 1908.

Huddled together to sing songs through the dark night. Thankfully, though, with no leaking roof.

There are also connections with Manchester for the group: Mills told the audience that Manchester was a special place for them, we Northerners accepting the group when the ‘villains’ of London said “no.” It was after a gig in this city that they were signed by a record company.

The band made a nod to Manchester’s musical heritage during their performance of their popular song Tattva, breaking into the native Happy Monday’s Hallelujah.

My daughter, familiarising herself with their better known hits during the preceding days, asked me how old they were. On telling her that I didn’t know the age of every member of the group but I did know that the lead singer was born in ‘73 (with me checking in in ‘71) I think she was expecting four frail old men to take the stage.

But they blew her away. With Mills as energetic as ever and the other three in sync, they were only halfway through the opening number when she remarked to me “They’re great live!” Which came as a relief to a veteran like me.

And when Mills threw his guitar into the air, catching it on the spin before throwing himself down, horizontal, onto the wooden boards without missing a note, she exclaimed “My God!”

Not for the first time that that phrase would have been uttered in these surroundings. But what was definitely a first for Courtney, who already has a number of concerts under her belt, came during the encore: singing along to a song entirely in Sanskrit! (Govinda)

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.