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Authors: Philip Norman

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All Julia’s sisters lent a hand in caring for John. But one sister cared specially—the one who, having no babies of her own, ran through the air raid to hold him. From the moment John could talk, he would say, “Where’s Mimi? Where’s Mimi’s house?”

“Julia had met someone else, with whom she had a chance of happiness,” Mimi said. “And no man wants another man’s child. That’s when I said I wanted to bring John to Menlove Avenue to live with George and me. I wouldn’t even let him risk being hurt or feeling he was in the way. I made up my mind that I’d be the one to give him what every child has the right to—a safe and happy home life.”

The fires ceased falling on Liverpool. The city, though cratered like a Roman ruin, returned to its old, majestically confident commercial life. St. George’s Hall, badly scarred, still stood within its columns, between equestrian statues of Victoria and Albert. Along the docks, the overhead railway remained intact, passing above the funnels and warehouses and branching masts, the horse-drawn wagons and clanking, shuffling “Green Goddess” Liverpool trams. Business resumed in the streets lined by statues and colonnades and Moorish arches and huge public clocks. At the Pier Head, that broad riverfront, congregations of trams drew up between the Mersey and its three gray waterside temples: the Cunard
Company, the Docks and Harbour Board, and the Royal Liver Insurance Company. The “Liver building” was still there, its twin belfries soaring higher than the seagulls and crowned with the skittish stone silhouettes of the “Liver birds.”

Liverpool was still business and banking and insurance—and ships. From the southern headland, under rings of tall cranes, came the rhythmic clout of Cammell Laird’s yard where they built the
, the
, the
Ark Royal
, the
. Across from Birkenhead, brisk river ferries crossed the path of ocean liners, warships, merchantmen, and the smaller fry of what was still Europe’s busiest shipping pool. Ever and again, from a slipway on the broad river bend, some fresh ungarnished hull would slide backward, and ride there, free of drag chains, while tug whoops mingled with cheers from the bank.

Liverpool was docks and ships and as such indistinguishable in Britain’s northern industrial fogs but for one additional, intermittent product: Liverpool was where music-hall comedians, such as Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, and Robb Wilton, came from. Some elixir in a population mixed from Welsh and Irish, and also lascar and Chinese, and uttered in the strange glottal dialect that simultaneously seems to raise derisive eyebrows, had always possessed the power to make the rest of the country laugh.

Liverpool “comics” were always preferred by the London theatrical agents. But there was a proviso. It was better for them to lose their Liverpool accents, and omit all references to the city of their origin. No one in London cared about a place so far to the northwest, so gray and sooty and old-fashioned, and above all, so utterly without glamour as Liverpool.

Woolton, where John grew up, is a suburb six miles to the southeast, but further in spirit, from the Liverpool of docks and Chinatown and pub signs pasted round every street corner. From Lime Street you drive uphill, past the grand old Adelphi Hotel, past the smaller backstreet hotels with no pretense at grandeur, past the Baptist temples and Irish meeting halls and grassed-over bomb sites turned into eternal temporary parking lots, lapping against some isolated little waterworks or church. Eventually you come to a traffic circle known by the name of its smallest tributary, Penny Lane. Woolton lies beyond, in wide dual carriageways with grass verges and mock Tudor villas whose gardens adjoin parks, country clubs, and golf courses.

Woolton, in fact, is such a respectable, desirable, and featureless suburb as grows up close to any British industrial city. Until 1963, it had only one claim on history. A lord of the same name was Britain’s wartime minister of food and inventor of the “Woolton Pie,” which boasted total, if unappetizing, nourishment for only one old shilling a portion.

The country village that Woolton used to be is still distinguishable in narrow lanes winding up to its red sandstone parish church, St. Peter’s. In the early 1940s, it was still more villagelike. It even had its own small dairy farm, to which people would go for fresh milk ladled straight from the churn. The farm and dairy belonged to George Smith, the quiet kindhearted man whom high-spirited Mimi Stanley had married.

George and Mimi lived at “Mendips,” a semidetached house on Menlove Avenue, round the corner from the dairy, almost opposite Allerton golf course. Built in 1933, it was a semidetached villa designed for the aspirational lower middle class, with mock Tudor half-timbering, windows inset with Art Nouveau stained glass, and the tiny living room beside the kitchen grandly described as a “morning room.” In the years before Mimi and George brought their little nephew, John Lennon, to live here, the house had even had live-in domestics. The untold million future acolytes of the self-styled “working-class hero” never dreamed he actually grew up in a house with a morning room, Spode and Royal Worcester plates displayed on ledges around its quasibaronial front hall, and servants’ bells in its kitchen.

Julia had settled only a short bus journey away, at Springwood. Her man friend, John Dykins, was headwaiter at the splendiferous Adelphi Hotel. Every afternoon, she came across to her sister’s to see John. He called her “Mummy”; his aunt he called plain “Mimi.” “John said to me once when he was little, ‘Why don’t I call
Mummy?’ I said, ‘Well—you couldn’t very well have
Mummies, could you?’ He accepted that.”

From the moment Julia gave him to her, Mimi devoted her life to John. “Never a day passed when I wasn’t with him—just that one time a year when he went up to Scotland to stay with his cousins. And at night, for ten years, I never crossed the threshold of that house. As I came downstairs I’d always leave the light on on the landing outside his room. This little voice would come after me, “Mimi! Don’t waste light.”

“I brought him up strictly. No sweets—just one barley sugar at
night—and no sitting around in picturedomes. He never wanted it. He’d play for hours in the garden in summer, in his little swimming shorts. I’d go to the butcher’s for pheasants’ feathers and I’d make him up like an Indian with gravy browning, and put lipstick for war paint on his cheeks. And when he said his friends were dead, they

“He never had a day’s illness. Only chicken pox. ‘Chicken pots,’ he called it. And he loved his uncle George. I felt quite left out of that. They’d go off together, just leaving me a bar of chocolate and a note saying: ‘Have a happy day.’”

Mimi, for all her briskness, liked nothing better than laughter. Julia had always known how to get her going so that she threw her head back and guffawed, slapping her knee. “I was very slim in those days. Julia would come in in the afternoon and dance up to me, singing, ‘O dem bones, dem bones—’ She’d only got to lift her eyebrow and I’d be off.

“John was the same. I’d be battling with him. I’d send him out of the room, then I’d flop down exhausted in the big armchair next to the morning-room window. He’d crawl round on the path and pull faces at me through the window. He’d come at me like a monster, going, ‘Woooo!’ He could get me off just the same way Julia could.”

When Mimi took charge of John she sent him to Dovedale Primary School, near Penny Lane. She took him there each morning, and each afternoon met him at the bus stop, near the Penny Lane traffic circle. In his class at Dovedale Primary was a boy named Peter Harrison whose younger brother George sometimes came with their mother to meet the three-thirty outpouring from school.

John did well at Dovedale, learning to read and write with precocious speed. He liked sport, especially running and swimming, but was inept at soccer. The discovery was made that he had chronically poor eyesight. His teachers thought that must be what made his English compositions so unusual. He changed almost every word into another one like it. Instead of “funds,” he would write “funs.” He loved reading, especially Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories about a lawless eleven-year-old. He loved writing and drawing and crayoning. He could amuse himself for hours with books or pencils in the tiny bedroom above the front door that had little space for anything but its red-quilted single bed, undersized wardrobe, and one-bar electric heater. Each Christmas, when Mimi took him to the pantomime at the Liverpool Empire, he would endlessly retell the experience in stories, poems, and drawings. At the age of seven
he began writing books of his own. One of them was called
Sport and Speed Illustrated;
it had cartoons and drawings and a serial story ending: “If you liked this, come again next week. It’ll be even better.”

One day, while playing in a nearby field, John encountered another seven-year-old with a pale pink-and-white face and fuzzy blond hair. The boy’s name was Peter Shotton; his mother kept a small needle-woman’s and grocery shop in Woolton village. The encounter quickly turned into combat. “I’d found out his name was Winston,” Shotton says. “I was calling out to him, ‘Winnie, Winnie …’ He got me down on the ground with his knees on my shoulders. I said: ‘OK, go ahead and hit me. Get it over with.’ But he couldn’t. He said: ‘OK, I’ll let you off. Just don’t call me that name again.’ I walked away, then I turned round and shouted, ‘Winnie, Winnie.’ He was so angry, he couldn’t speak. Then I saw his face break into a smile.”

Pete Shotton and John Lennon became inseparable friends. Pete lived on Vale Road, just round the corner from Menlove Avenue. The addition of another Vale Road boy, a mutual acquaintance, named Nigel Walley, added a new dimension. Three of them made enough for a gang.

Nigel went to school with Pete Shotton in Mosspits Lane. He also sang in the choir with John at St. Peter’s, Woolton. He had often sat in the choirstalls in his white surplice, wriggling with laughter at things which the white-surpliced John dared to do. “He’d steal the Harvest Festival fruit. And every time the Rector, Old Pricey, climbed into the pulpit, John used to say, ‘He’s getting on his drums now.’”

The gang grew to four with the arrival of another Dovedale boy, Ivan Vaughan. Thus constituted, it embarked on its career as the terror of Woolton. One of the earliest games was to climb a tree over the busy main road and dangle a leg down in front of an approaching double-decker bus, then yank it back to safety in the nick of time. If your foot scraped the bus roof, that counted as extra points.

“John was always the leader,” Nigel Walley says. “He was always the one to dare you. He never cared what he said or did. He’d think nothing of putting a brick through the glass in a street lamp. He’d dare us to go with him and play on the Allerton golf course, trying to hit golf balls across Menlove Avenue. Once, the police came and chased us off. We’d pick up these great clods of earth to chuck at the trains when they went into the tunnel at Garston. Something else was putting stuff on the tram rails to try to derail the trams.

“Shoplifting was another thing. We’d go into a sweet shop run by this little old lady. John’d point to things he said he wanted on the top shelf and, all the time, he’d be filling his pockets from the counter. He did the same at a shop that sold Dinky cars, in Woolton—opposite the Baths. He’d put a tractor or a little car in his pocket while the bloke was looking the other way. We went back to that same shop later on, but this time John hadn’t got his glasses on. He couldn’t understand why his fingers couldn’t get at the Dinky cars. He couldn’t see that the bloke had covered them over with a sheet of glass.

“We’d go to all the garden fetes in the summer, get under tents, and pinch stuff. People would come in looking for their trays of cakes and buns that we’d eaten. We went to one fete organized by the nuns, and somehow John got hold of this robe and dressed himself up as a monk. He was sitting with some other monks on a bench, talking in all these funny words while we were rolling about under the tent, in tucks.

“Pete was a bit of a bully, always picking on me, so John used to look after me. Whatever he told me to do, I’d do it. ‘Walloggs,’ he used to call me.”

Aunt Mimi approved of Nigel Walley. His father was a senior police officer. Mimi thought him a wholesome influence.

At the age of twelve, John left Dovedale Primary and started at Quarry Bank High [i.e., grammar] School, on Harthill Road, a mile or so from Menlove Avenue. Mimi, distrusting the school outfitter, got his uncle George’s tailor to make his new black blazer with its red-and-gold stag’s head badge and motto,
Ex Hoc Metallo Virtutem
(From This Rough Metal We Forge Virtue). On his Raleigh “Lenton” bicycle he would toil up the long hill to school, past old sandstone quarries, long emptied and overgrown. Woolton sandstone built the Anglican cathedral, as well as the many mock Elizabethan mansions in which Liverpool merchants indulged themselves at the height of their Victorian prosperity.

It was in a local timber baron’s mock-gothic “folly” that Quarry Bank High School was founded in 1922. Despite its newness it was, by the time John arrived in 1952, as steeped in academic lore as any of Liverpool’s ancient grammar schools. There was a house system; there were masters in gowns; there were prefects and canings. In later years, after it had produced two Labour cabinet ministers—William Rodgers and Peter Shore—Quarry Bank came to be nicknamed “The Eton of the Labour Party.”

John’s Dovedale friend, Ivan Vaughan, had gone on to Liverpool Institute High School. Nigel Walley was now at the Bluecoat School near Penny Lane. Pete Shotton was the only one of the Woolton gang who accompanied him to Quarry Bank. “We went through it together like Siamese twins,” Pete says. “We started in our first year at the top and gradually sank together into the subbasement.

“I remember the first time we both went to be caned. I was really terrified. John wasn’t—or if he was, he didn’t show it. We were both waiting outside the headmaster’s study. John started telling me the cane would be kept in a special case, with a velvet lining and jewels all round it. I was in tucks, even though I was so scared.

BOOK: Shout!
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