In his poem Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin wrote that sexual liberation (the word he actually used is less appropriate for a family newspaper on a weekend) began in 1963; after the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. Until then, there was “bargaining, a wrangle for the ring… a shame that started at sixteen and spread to everything”.
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If 1963 was a seminal year, then the clubs and taverns of Liverpool were the hot spots where it all began; clubs with names like the Casbah and the Cavern, where four young men in mop-tops, with their guitars and clean looks, started singing, Yeah, yeah, yeah, and nothing was the same, ever, again. Now those clubs are long gone, embedded in people’s memories, and resurrected in clean, kitschy surroundings in a museum, without the messiness, the smells, or the smoke that wafted through the air, giving the city a new beat, a new meaning.
If all of that was too late for Larkin, it was too early for my father, who studied in Liverpool but left the city in 1960 after graduating with a management degree, returning to India. Over the years, he has often complained about Liverpool’s cold weather, praised the polite but aloof people of England, and grumbled quietly about how hard it was for him to get vegetarian food in those days, and how he had to make do with tomato soup and rice pilaf, day after day. He is a fan of K.L. Saigal and Rabindrasangeet, and I often wondered what he’d have made of the Beatles. I needn’t have worried, for many years later, when I was a teenager and played songs like Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Yellow Submarine on my tape recorder, he’d smile, his feet tapping gently. Maybe there were places that he remembered he didn’t tell me about; he remembered them all his life, though some had changed, some forever not for the better, some had gone, and some remained.
Rewind: The Cavern Club, where the Beatles originally performed. (James Simpson/BWP Media/Getty Images)
My father was right about Liverpool’s weather. Liverpool was cold, all right. As my son and I walked along the windswept promenade by the Mersey, the wind howled, forcing us to wrap ourselves, even though it was late summer. From the pod of the giant Ferris wheel, the city offered a clean look, the imposing cathedral towering over the buildings surrounding it. If Manchester made its fortune in cotton mills, a significant part of Liverpool’s prosperity owed its roots to the slave trade. Liverpool knows that past, and has a sober museum which tells the story of the slave trade with a matter-of-fact intensity, digging deep into the past and taking us to West African homes, and bringing us to the present, reminding us of the inequities we continue to live with.
Seagulls flew over us, chattering noisily, as if challenging the avuncular liver birds sitting on top of the Royal Liver Buildings. They flew past those static statues, mocking the liver birds who stayed firm, perpetuating the myth that the female looks out for sailors returning home, while the male keeps his eye out for taverns and pubs that might still be open.
The statue of Eleanor Rigby
The Beatles split 40 years ago, but the city tries to squeeze every penny it can out of their lives. The city’s airport is named after John Lennon. There is a Beatles Museum on the waterfront, a much-hyped Beatles 3D tour, and several companies take you in taxis and buses on trips to sites made famous by the Beatles’ songs. The museums make good use of the Beatles’ songs, and you can’t help humming the tunes you think you grew up to, for the Beatles have the amazing ability of making you feel young no matter what your age, and making you feel you were there when it happened, even if you may have heard them the first time years after they stopped being a group.
In Woolton at St Peter’s Parish, you can find the gravestone marking the passing of a 44-year-old Eleanor Rigby. On Stanley Street, there is a statue of a woman sitting on a bench. She is called Eleanor Rigby and it is dedicated to all the lonely people. There are signs pointing towards the Cavern Club, although the original club where the Beatles performed closed down in the 1970s, and a new club, using some of the old bricks and materials, opened a decade later. There is the Strawberry Field, near Beaconsfield Road and Menlove Avenue, with a replica of the original wrought iron gates. Fans have stolen the street sign for Penny Lane so often that the city decided to paint the street’s name on the wall, rather than keep on replacing them, only to have them stolen again.
The Beatles performing in Liverpool in 1962
We go to the waterfront one last time. Seagulls soar in the sky of this free city, where the ships now open doors to children, where warehouses have become museums, and cabs promise a magical mystery tour.
Then, you picture yourself in a boat on that river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Or, beneath the blue suburban skies, you can look for the barber with photographs of all the heads he has known, the banker who never wears a mac in pouring rain, the fireman with the portrait of a queen, and a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray.
You may not find them on the streets, but they stay with you, they are part of your Liverpool.
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