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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 18 December 2015

Happy (offensive) Christmas

A heart-felt wish for the best of Christmases to my reader, whoever, whatever and wherever s/he is.  And, while I’m about it, a Happy New Year too. 

Winter scene, A Bit About Britain

Christmas is still a special time in Britain, whatever you may read about the efforts of the so-called ‘politically-correct’ brigade.  There are, so it is said, public authorities and businesses that ban Christmas decorations on the grounds that such fripperies and baubles could offend non-Christians.  For the same reason, apparently, it is the policy of these sensitive souls to substitute traditional Christmas salutations with something anaemic - ‘Happy Winter’, possibly.  The irony of sending a Christmas card bereft of any Christmas message or iconography amuses me no end.  I have no first-hand experience of this form of bigotry, though if it is promoted by any publicly-funded body I would have something pithy to say about people who work for me wasting my money.

Winter scene, A Bit About Britain

The erosion of freedom of speech in the United Kingdom is genuinely worrying, but you do wonder if accounts of sterilised Christmas traditions have been exaggerated, or even manufactured, by right-wing journalists and politicians who are equally as bonkers as their PC counter-parts.  Even so, some of the things you hear are so bizarre they could be true.  Nor would it appear that Britain stands alone; rumours of politically-correct ‘winter celebrations’ drift across the Pond.  The Roosevelt Field Mall (shopping centre) in Long Island has been heavily criticised for putting Santa Claus in a glacial theme, rather than the usual holiday village.  Starbucks, already in trouble in the UK for not paying taxes, has allegedly selected a non-Christmas festive design (whatever that means) for its mugs and instructed its servers (known, for some reason, as ‘baristas’) not to wish its customers ‘Merry Christmas’ in case anyone gets upset.  Oh dear.

I often hear people grumble about Christmas, but I’ve never actually heard anyone say they are offended by it – except for its over-commercialisation.  Apart from occasionally (very) nasty tribal squabbles between Catholic and Protestant, the UK has a pretty good record of religious tolerance in recent centuries.  We need to keep it that way.  People of good heart – whatever their particular beliefs - would surely find it inconceivable not to respect public displays of faith as has been customary for many hundreds of years?

Winter scene, A Bit About Britain

But Britain is decidedly secular in character and a recent report suggested that Christianity has declined to such an extent that its contribution to public life needs to be diluted.  However, being a practising Christian is not a prerequisite for believing in Christmas, whilst a religiously-neutral Christmas is obviously a contradiction in terms.  The roots of Christ’s Mass lie in mid-winter religious celebrations enjoyed long before Christianity reached these islands, and our modern Christmas includes traditions that would be alien to early Christians.  So what the detractors of Christmas are saying is not simply that people may be upset by Christianity, but by the traditions themselves.  In other words, it is the culture that might cause offence. Oh dear (again).

Sheep, A Bit About Britain

Well, Christmas is part of Britain's culture and heritage.  The culture is full of imperfections and others are available, but this one is mine.  If it’s yours too, and bearing in mind this is the season of peace and goodwill, I urge you to immediately go out and offend someone.  Do it today by holding Christmas in any way you want. Sing carols, put up your Christmas tree, exchange presents, remember the Nativity, go to church, pray, burn the Yule log, eat well, see those you love – and so on.

Sheep, A Bit About Britain

If Christmas is not part of your culture – have a happy Christmas anyway, enjoy the holiday if you get one and I wish you peace and prosperity for the coming year.

One of the characteristics of British Christmas in recent years has been somewhat of a competition between larger retailers over who has the best TV advert.  My current personal favourite is the offering from the supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, featuring the antics of a hapless cat, Mog.  Mog’s Christmas Calamity is hilarious – though it has a slightly twee ending and I’m puzzled that this creature eats boiled eggs.  Egg Mog? Be that as it may – take a peek at it on YouTube – last time I checked, it had 25+million hits.  If it offends anyone, I’m truly sorry.  Really.

I want to thank anyone who has popped into A Bit About Britain and stayed to read anything, particularly if they have left a complimentary comment.  It tickles me that people come back – even the anonymous ones (we know who some of you are) – and that A Bit About Britain is read in so many places around the world.  Apologies for not saying thank you, or visiting other blogs, as often as I would like.  See you again in 2016.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The gardens of Holker

Holker Hall, Victorian, West Wing, Elliptical Garden

Holker Hall (say ‘hook-ur’) is one of those places you could easily miss if you didn’t already know about it – which now you do.  In fact, Holker is a renowned grand estate, house and home, but it is stuck on the fringe of south Cumbria in north-west England, well away from passing trade along the busy M6.  It is handy if you are in the Lake District, though, or if you are heading to Barrow-in-Furness and, inexplicably, want to delay your arrival.  Follow the brown signs and there is Holker, on an attractive peninsula jutting out into Morecambe Bay, a couple of miles south of the charming village of Cartmel.  Which, as everyone knows, is where sticky toffee pudding comes from – but that’s another story. 

Beech arch, Holker, Summer Garden

Actually, Holker’s lands were once owned by the Priory at Cartmel.  A house has stood on the same spot since the 16th century, with additions and refurbishments made by each succeeding generation, resulting in the exuberant pile you see today.  A serious fire in 1871 destroyed the west wing, which, sadly, caused the loss of several notable pieces of art, including works by Canaletto, Holbein, Kneller and Rubens.  It was rebuilt by leading local architects Paley and Austin in what has been called ‘Elizabethan Gothic’ style, but which us normal peasants would probably classify as ‘over the top Victorian’.

Elliptical Garden, Holker, gardeners

Interestingly, Holker Hall has been owned by just three families since being wrested from the church, passing by inheritance from the Prestons to the Lowthers and then, in 1756, to the Cavendishes.  It remains the home of the Cavendish family and they still manage the estate.  Holker was first opened to the public in 1950 and visitors continue to be welcomed into the West Wing, and parts of the gardens and grounds, today.  I am uncomfortable with the cliché of real-life Lord and Lady Crawleys, desperately trying to hang on to a vanished world and battling unfriendly socialist governments.  From what I can make out, the current Lord and Lady Cavendish, Hugh and Grania, inherited massive debts and have preserved Holker Hall by embracing change, through a lot of hard work, inspired vision – and listening.  It is a business, but it is only thanks to them that Holker has survived as a recognisable stately home - and for public enjoyment.

Red Admiral, Tortoiseshell, butterflies, Holker

Holker Hall boasts 25 acres of delightful gardens – some formal, some informal – inside a 200 acre park, framed by Lakeland fells and the grandeur of Morecambe Bay.  Caught on one of those rare dry days in this part of England, I’m pretty sure the gardens are impressive at any time of year.  I had the good fortune to visit when summer was morphing into autumn, a day of ridiculously blue skies, and to tag along with a bunch of people who knew their plants.  I’m sure they knew quite a bit about other people’s plants too.  Plus, there was the promise of coffee and a bun at half-time.  What more could you ask?

Fountain, Neptune Cascade, Holker

The formal, Elliptical (because that’s its shape) Garden catches the sun outside the West wing.  There’s a bush in it that is a magnet for butterflies.  I stood for ages, waving my camera around, vainly trying to capture the beauty of these fragile creatures; but I can’t remember the name of the bush.  Beyond the Elliptical Gardens, formality continues with the Summer Garden, built on former tennis courts and with a wonderful laurel arch which just draws you in.  It’s a place for peaceful, idle, wandering.

Fountain, Neptune Cascade, Holker

The Neptune Cascade, framed by rhododendrons, was allegedly inspired by visits to Rajasthan.  Sunlight created a rainbow over the fountain as water flowed over local slate.  At the top, a 17th century marble statue of Neptune, made by Italian craftsmen.  A short distance away, there’s an 18th century statue of the revered 16th century architect Inigo Jones, originally in Chiswick House in West London.

Statues, Holker, Neptune, Inigo Jones

Through woodland with picture-postcard open parkland beyond, you’ll find the Great Holker Lime.  Photographs do not do justice to this handsome and astonishing tree.  Planted in the early 17th century, it has a girth of 7.9 metres (almost 26 feet), but the trunk is far from regular in shape; its growth has formed child-size crevices – folds, almost – which hint at ancient secrets.  It is (apparently) one of Britain’s 50 great trees; I hadn’t realised before that there was an official category, had you?

Great Holker Lime Tree, Holker Hall

Adjacent to the Great Lime is the Pagan Grove, an amphitheatre scooped out of the ground which would be a good place for small theatrical productions and a picnic.  Also nearby is the labyrinth, built in 2002, which is more like a charming, but slightly pretentious, work of art than something to get lost in.  Beyond that, the curious, but oh-so impressive, sundial, five feet in diameter, carved in blue-grey Kirkby slate by craftsmen employed by the Holker Estate.  Good grief - is that the time?

Labyrinth, Holker Estate

Sundial, Holker

There is more formality in the Sunken Garden, with its lion-head water feature.  As one who can barely distinguish a weed from a weigela, the intricacies of gardening are mostly lost on me, though I relished the semi-organised beauty and tranquillity of Holker’s formal gardens.  Yet I think my greatest pleasure was wandering through the managed woodland, where even I could spot strange, or unusual, trees, and where clever planting suddenly revealed views that triggered spontaneous smiles of contentment.

Holker Hall, Summer Garden

And then it was time for tea.  And a bun.

Holker, restaurant, stables, clock tower

You need to check Holker Hall’s website for details of opening times, and for more information.  This will also tell you about the various events held there, including the very popular annual garden festival.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Lennon and McCartney’s childhood homes

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.

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, 1963

A short discourse on being a Beatles fan
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 well over 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', y' know."  - John Lennon, interviewed in 1963.

Cavern, stage, Beatles, museum, Liverpool

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.  This is 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 like ‘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 they 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, because he got back late and was 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.

Aunt Mimi, John Lennon

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.  He was welcomed with open arms.

Mendips, Menlove Avenue, L25

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 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 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.

Mendips, Menlove Avenue, L25.  Middle-class.

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 DickBarton, 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.  Paul is convinced that ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘I am the Walrus’ were partly inspired by the poem, Jabberwocky.  But young Lennon also loved the JustWilliam 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.  It’s interesting to note that William was far from being a working-class hero, though; he had a comfortable home with servants.

20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, 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.

Paul McCartney's home, 1955, Beatlemania, 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, L18.

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, and 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, but 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.

Lonnie Donegan, skiffle

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 screaming 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 kiss 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 liberating, 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 appearance 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 also knew a few banjo chords.  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.”

So 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, somehow 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.

George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Cavern, Pete Best

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, she 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’.  Julia’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. 

Mendips, John Lennon, Beatle tour, 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 it all, what sardonic quip would make mockery of us and the whole trip thing.  I recalled the furore in the US when his comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus was quoted out of context, and felt the irony of people’s pilgrimages in Beatle-land to the places associated with them. Our fellow-pilgrims were a mixed bunch, from all over the UK as well as Denmark and Israel.

John Lennon, musician, songwriter

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 wisely 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.
20 Forthlin Road, rear.

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 also 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, 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.  Perhaps the EU isn’t as close a community, legally-speaking, as I thought.  Hmm.

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 often the same stories – myths, perhaps – about the Beatles vary!  But 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 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.

The guy at Mendips was less relaxed; questions seemed to unsettle him a little; he did not know his subject quite as well.

We went there first, tumbling out of the bus in anticipation.  A line from the uncomfortably, and possibly prescient, number ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ popped into my head – ‘a soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust’.  What?

Mendips, kitchen window, John Lennon, emerald green, Raleigh Lenton, bicycle

You enter Mendips along the side of the house through the back door into the kitchen – as visitors would when Mimi lived there.  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 admitting that I had one.  Did they have preferred sides, I wondered, because John was right-handed and Paul left-handed? 

George, John, Paul, 20 Forthlin Road.

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 ‘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.

Obviously, because he was already a teenager when he moved there, 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.  What you DO get a sense of is the fact that this is where the two lads did a lot of their early work - though the National Trust's claim that this is 'the birthplace of the Beatles' is a bit of hyperbole.  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.

Forthlin Road, front door, lavender

The guide mentioned the interesting piece of trivia that all the walls in the living room have different patterns of wallpaper, because it was cheaper to buy the ends of rolls.

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 history.  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.  I leave you with a link below to 'In My Life' from the 1965 Rubber Soul album.  It seemed appropriate.

Check out the National Trust’s website for more information on tours.

A Bit About Britain will shortly feature other locations associated with the Beatles story, including the excellent museum of that name, as well as places like Penny lane, Strawberry Fields and Woolton, where John Lennon and Paul McCartney met.

There are scores of books on the Beatles.  ‘Shout’ by Philip Norman is good and Mark Lewisohn’s ‘All These years – Volume 1’ is supposed to be (I’ve not read it).  Ray Coleman’s ‘Lennon’ is definitely worth a read.  Paul McCartney’s biography, ‘Many Years From Now’ by Barry Miles is informative, but occasionally a little turgid.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Lord Mayor's Show

State Coach, Lord Mayor of London, Lord Mayor's Show

Other cities may well have their own, rudimentary, mayoral celebrations, and jolly fine they undoubtedly are.  But the Lord Mayor’s Show is the one that takes place annually in the City of London.  Its origins date back more than 800 years and the associated procession is claimed (by its organisers) to be the longest and best prepared in the whole wide world.

City of London Police, independent police force, Lord Mayor's Show

Nor should anyone confuse the Lord Mayor of London, a title first recorded in the year 1189, with the new-fangled, plain, Mayor of London, a political post which has existed merely since the year 2000.  The City of London is a distinct local authority area within the wider metropolis, based on London’s historic heart, and these days the main financial and business district.  It is often referred to simply as, ‘the City’ and, sometimes, as ‘the square mile’ (surprisingly, because it’s about that small).  You can identify a City of London address by its ‘EC’ post code.  In the City, only the Sovereign takes precedence over its Lord Mayor, who is the annually elected head of the City of London Corporation - reputedly the oldest continually elected body in the world.  The most famous Lord Mayor of London is probably Dick Whittington – an actual, not a pantomime, figure who really was mayor three times in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.  The recently invented Mayor of London, a post held by Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, is directly elected every four years and has a serious strategic remit for the greater London area as a whole, whereas the theoretically non-political Lord Mayor of London’s role is more ceremonial and ambassadorial – and focussed on the City.  Got it?

Lord Mayor's flotilla, Southwark Bridge, London Bridge, Tower Bridge

13th century London was the largest city in Northern Europe, with a population somewhere between 15 and 20,000.  As an institution, it was rich, influential and hard to control.  Possibly hoping for powerful support in his disagreements with virtually everyone, King John confirmed the office of Lord Mayor by a charter in 1215, which granted Londoners the right to choose their own mayor each year.  It was a condition of this that each newly elected mayor should travel upstream, beyond the security of the City boundaries through what was then countryside, to the much smaller town of Westminster, in order to pledge loyalty to the Crown.

QRB Glorianna, Lord Mayor, livery craft, London

Shortly after this, the Lord Mayor of London was one of the 25 barons – and the only one there in an official capacity – to put his signature to Magna Carta.  Clause 13 of the Great Charter confirms that “The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water.”  It then goes on to confirm similar rights to “other cities, boroughs, towns and ports”, so I’m not sure of the particular significance of this clause; nor does there appear to be any reference to precisely what ancient liberties etc London enjoyed before 1215.  This could keep a lawyer happy for hours.

Lord Mayor's flotilla, Blackfriars Bridge, pageantry, London

I digress.  The journey the Mayor first made to Westminster to swear his fidelity to bad King John has, so they say, been repeated every year subsequently without fail, whether at time of war, peace, plague, or whatever, to swear loyalty to the 34 kings and queens who have reigned ever since.  Presumably, the Lord Mayor swore allegiance to Parliament during the interregnum.  In any event, it is from these old roots that today’s Lord Mayor’s Show, part pageant, part carnival, has evolved.

Canaletto, painting, Westminster Bridge, Lord Mayor's Show

Details vary from year to year, but in recent times there have been three main parts to the show.  It begins with a flotilla of boats and barges on the Thames, a river pageant. This celebrates the mayor’s original journey, which would have been by boat.  Next comes the parade, a procession of something like 7,000 participants in the region of 3 miles long, crammed into a 1.7 mile route from Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence in the City, near Bank, to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in Westminster.  In the evening, the grand finale is a spectacular firework display over the Thames.

The State Coach, Lord Mayor, St Paul's Cathedral

Lord Mayor's Show, Britain's armed services, Royal Marines

The Lord Mayor’s Show is a key event in the London Calendar and always takes place on the second Saturday of November.  Most roads in the City are closed all day and the Embankment is closed until the evening.  Trying to move around by road in the area is hopeless – it has always been a day to avoid when coordinating weekend work in the capital.  Sometimes, the weekend of the Lord Mayor’s Show coincides with that of the National Service of Remembrance, held in Whitehall on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, 11th November, which causes further road closures around that part of Westminster.

The Lord Mayor's Show, commando, 19th century policeman, Viking

In any event, despite living and working in and around London for many years, I had never seen the Lord Mayor’s Show until we visited London for other reasons in 2014.  In fact, it was only when we spotted the grandstands near St Paul’s the night before that we realised the Lord Mayor’s Show was taking place.  So in the morning we took the opportunity to stand on the Millennium Bridge to watch the flotilla, grabbed some breakfast and then parked ourselves on Ludgate Hill and saw the entire procession go by – which I can tell you took about 2 hours.

Livery companies, fruiterers, solicitors, pipe-makers and tobacco blenders, actuaries, men with funny hats

The first carnival floats ever were the decorated barges that took part in the medieval Lord Mayor’s procession centuries ago.  The flotilla we saw was astonishing.  Like a scene from a bygone age, the Queen’s Royal Barge, Glorianna, carrying the Lord Mayor, was surrounded by the traditional craft of London’s livery companies and port authorities.  It reminded me of an old oil painting – the Venetian artist Canaletto painted the Lord Mayor’s Show five times.

Magog, Gog, ancient guardians of London, Thames Tideway Tunnel, Chinese dragon, ladies from Malaya

London’s livery companies have evolved from the medieval guilds – essentially trade associations regulating standards and training, which were once extremely powerful.  The oldest is the Worshipful Company of Weavers, which was founded in 1155.  According to the Corporation of London, there are 125 livery companies, covering every trade and profession you can think of and many that don’t immediately spring to mind: grocers, ironmongers, drapers, actuaries, mercers, fletchers – even the more modern information technologists and world traders.

Lord Mayor's Show, music, Christ's Hospital School Band, Royal Yeomanry, London Scottish

The colour and flamboyance of each company’s livery (yes, that’s why they’re called livery companies) is an essential part of the procession.  This also includes units of the armed forces with London associations, educational establishments, marching bands, civilian services, figures from history, costumes – a mixture of all sorts of things.  It is a glorious cacophony of music, noise and colour, which changes every year.  Somewhere near the front, ever since the reign of Henry V (1413-1432), will be Gog and Magog, traditional guardians of London, descended from the pagan giants who once inhabited these islands.  You’ll be glad to know that the ones in the parade are just effigies.  Somewhere near the end comes the State Coach, a completely over-the-top fairy-tale vehicle built 250 years ago, which can be seen in the Museum of London when not in use.

Napoleonic Society, centenary, Battle of Waterloo, 1815, Napoleon

Household Cavalry, Royal Horse Artillery, carriages, Lord Mayor's Show

So, if you happen to be near London on the second Saturday in November, you might want to take a peek at the Lord Mayor’s Show.  It’s a piece of living history – and particularly good if you’re fond of men in funny hats and tights.  Mind you, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, allegedly found it quite irritating and wrote that he regarded the pageantry as “poor and absurd”.  But what did he know?

Lord Mayor's Show, State Coach

State Coach, Museum of London

I hope my meagre pictures capture something of the atmosphere of the event for you.  As usual, hover your cursor over an image to see an explanation.

To find out more, visit the official website for the Lord Mayor’s Show.

Pikemen and Musketeers, Honourable Artillery Company, HAC