So Wednesday found me on the 08.07 train from London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street for two bits of business: a speech at a VisitEngland tourism business forum, and a rather special photo opportunity. The press call was at an outwardly unremarkable 1930s semi in Menlove Avenue, a suburban street a few minutes’ drive from the station. I was there to confer Grade II listed building status on it, and a larger-than-usual posse of snappers, TV cameras and radio reporters had come along to see me do the deed.
Charming Period Property
Why had they come? Not, I think, as an architectural homage to the tidy front garden, nicely-maintained pale grey rendering on the walls or the sort of leaded lights set into the windows that were all the rage before the war, but are sufficiently unusual these days to get picked up in estate agent details as a desirable ‘original feature’. No, I don’t think so. The truth is, it was all comfortably suburban and, if the fore-mentioned hypothetical estate agent were asked to write it up, then ‘charming period property in need of some modernisation’ would probably sum it up. Even the house’s name – Mendips – spoke of an earlier, slightly more slow-moving era. A Grade II listed building pulling in local and national media, though? Hardly.
Well, I’ll labour this point no further because the truth, of course, was that we were visiting the childhood home of John Lennon which, along with the one a few streets away where Paul McCartney grew up, I was giving listed building status to. The National Trust run both properties these days, and have gone to enormous lengths to recreate the interiors pretty much as they would have been when John and Paul lived, wrote and rehearsed there. And, yes, it is eerie seeing furniture, books, kitchen utensils and groceries lovingly restored to the point where you feel you’re stepping into a time warp. And a time warp, for that matter, that takes you into an era when Macmillan was Prime Minister, rationing had only finally finished eight years previously, TV if you could afford it was all in black and white and Elvis Presley had 13 UK No.1’s under his belt* and was the biggest pop music phenomenon of all time.
And if you think that all this is a bit, well, transitory and superficial, then I’m inclined to disagree. The Beatles have stood a 50 year test of time so far and it was interesting to see, while we were in the house, that at least three guided Beatles** tours pulled up outside simply to let the tourists see the outside of John’s one-time home which, as I’ve suggested already, was utterly indistinguishable from its less famous neighbours.
Crafty and Surprising
And I mention all this because it’s helpful from time to time to be reminded that ‘heritage’ can be a crafty and occasionally surprising concept. A close relative of nostalgia and sentimentality sometimes, but none the less valid or potent for all that. And, yes, we all recall Noel Coward’s lugubrious observation that it’s ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ but sometimes cheap music takes on a life of its own and, to everyone’s surprise (including the artist him or herself very often) stays in the national consciousness many generations later.
I recall that when I listed the Abbey Road zebra crossing a year or so ago, the story went – quite literally – round the world. And if you ever get a dull five minutes on the internet, try logging on to the Abbey Road web cam which covers the crossing in real time, all day and every day. Within a couple of minutes I guarantee you’ll see a small group of tourists gather at one side in a huddle, send one of their number a few yards down the road with a camera, and then stride across before posing in a line, mid crossing, as a little homage to a group who split up – for many of them – ‘before (their) mothers were born.’
*Lennon and McCartney effectively put an end to the Presley era, of course, and ushered in an era of English male pop groups achieving astonishing success all around the world. A ridiculous number of them are still performing too and I’m sure there’s a gag there about ‘hip’ replacements, but we’ll let it pass.
**The tours seem to come in converted black taxis, with rather impressive painted livery and awesomely well-informed drivers providing a beautifully-judged commentary as only Liverpudlians can.
Beatles image by Beatlesmaniac11 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.