Authors: Philip Norman
“John went in first for the cane. I could hear it—swipe, swipe. Then he came out. What I didn’t realize was that there was a little vestibule you had to go through before you got into the head’s study. John came out through this little vestibule—though I didn’t know it—crawling on all fours and groaning. I was laughing so much when I went in that I got it even worse than he had.”
In 1955 Mimi’s husband, Uncle George, died suddenly after a hemorrhage. It was a shock to the whole family to lose the quiet, hardworking dairy farmer who got up every morning without complaint to do the milking and whose only unusual demand of Mimi was his two breakfasts a day. Uncle George had been John’s ally when he was in disgrace, smuggling buns upstairs to him behind Mimi’s back. Uncle George had bought him the mouth organ John carried in his blazer pocket and tinkered on for hours when he ought to have been doing homework.
Mimi was left alone to cope with a boy whose will was now almost the equal of hers and who seemed to glory in idleness and lawlessness and wasting the opportunities he had been given. From his first moderately virtuous year at Quarry Bank, he gravitated, in Pete Shotton’s company, to the bottom of the C stream, and made no attempt to rise again thereafter. The two were perpetually in detention or being sent to the headmaster’s study for a caning. Frequently, their exploits were serious enough to be reported to their homes. “I used to dread the phone going at ten in the morning,” Mimi said. “A voice would come on, ‘Hello, Mrs. Smith. This is the secretary at Quarry Bank…’ ‘Oh Lord,’ I’d think. ‘What’s he done now?’”
“It was mostly skiving,” Pete Shotton says. “Not doing the things the
others did. We were like wanted men. We were always on the run.”
Rod Davis, a studious boy in the A stream, had watched John and Pete’s double act since they were seven-year-olds sitting in a ring at St. Peter’s Sunday school and John had managed to put a piece of chewing gum into the teacher’s hand so that all her fingers stuck together. “I’d always known him and Pete as the school thugs, dragging on a cigarette they’d got behind their backs, or running into Marks & Spencers and shouting ‘Woolworths!’”
“John used to turn Religious Knowledge into chaos,” Pete Shotton says. “One day he cut out all the shiny white cardboard bits from a lot of Weetabix packets and made dog collars for the whole class. When the teacher, McDermott, came in, he was so angry, he couldn’t speak. Then he had to start laughing. He made us wear them for the rest of the class.”
The school punishment book records for what diversity of crime J. Lennon and P. Shotton were beaten: “failing to report to school office”; “insolence”; “throwing blackboard duster out of window”; “cutting class and going awol”; “gambling on school field during house match.”
“We were in detention once, clearing up the sports field,” Pete Shotton says. “I found this big envelope full of dinner tickets. You used to pay a shilling a day for a ticket to have your school dinner. These were the used ones that somebody had accidentally dropped. When John and I counted them, we found we’d got the whole school’s dinner tickets—about fifteen hundred of them. And they were worth a shilling each. We sold them off for sixpence each. We were rich. We even gave up shoplifting while that was going on.”
Even John’s talent for writing and drawing failed to earn him any good marks or exam distinctions. Only in the last forty minutes of every day, in the unsupervised prep period, would he show what ability he was relentlessly wasting. He would fill old exercise books and scraps of paper with his cartoons and word play and verse. His nonsense sagas, “The Land of the Lunapots,” and “Tales of Hermit Fred,” were passed to Pete Shotton first, then enjoyed wide under-the-desk circulation. “He’d do all these caricatures of the masters,” Pete says. “We’d stick them on bits of cereal packets and make a stall at the school fete where people could throw darts at them. We handed in more money than any other stall—and we still had five times as much in our pockets.”
Often they would cut school altogether. They would go on the bus to see Julia, John’s mother—now living with the nervous waiter the boys
called “Twitchy,” by whom she had two small daughters. “Julia didn’t mind if we’d sagged off school,” Pete Shotton says. “She used to wear these old woollen knickers on her head while she did the housework. She’d open the door to us with the knicker legs hanging down her back. She didn’t care. She was just like John.”
John, as he grew older, grew more and more fascinated by this pretty auburn-haired woman, so much more like an elder sister than a mother. For Julia did not echo the dire warnings given by Aunt Mimi and Quarry Bank. Julia encouraged him to live for the present, as she did, and for laughter and practical jokes. “She’d do these tricks just to make us laugh,” Pete says. “She’d put on a pair of glasses with no glass in the frames. She’d stand talking to a neighbor and suddenly stick her finger through where the lens ought to have been, and rub her eye.”
Julia thought as John and Pete did, and said the things they wanted to hear. She told them not to worry about school or homework or what their lives might have in store.
Jim McCartney was no stranger to female admiration. During the 1920s he led the Jim Mac Jazz Band, dapperly outfitted in dinner jackets, paper shirt fronts, and detachable cuffs that could be bought then for a penny per dozen. A photograph taken at the time shows a group of girls in silver shoes and stockings, their hair pertly fringed and bobbed, reclining with formal abandon on a dance floor around the Jim Mac drum set. Among them sits the bandleader with his formal wing collar and close-cropped hair, and his so familiar looking big brown eyes.
Jim was a cotton salesman working for Hannay’s of Chapel Street, Liverpool, an old established firm of cotton brokers and purveyors to the Manchester mills. His position, for a working-class boy, was a good one; he had risen to it by neatness, diligence, and a genuine flair for selling, though he lacked the ruthlessness that might have taken him higher. He had taught himself to play the piano by ear, as any young man did who wished for social grace. The Jim Mac Jazz Band performed at socials and works dances, occasionally even in cinemas. Their biggest engagement was providing incidental music for a silent Hollywood epic,
The Queen of Sheba
. When a chariot race began on the screen Jim Mac and the boys played “Thanks for the Buggy Ride.” During the Queen of Sheba’s death scene they played “Horsy, Keep Your Tail Up.”
Perhaps there were too many of those girls in silver shoes and stockings
around the drum set. At all events, Jim McCartney went through his thirties as a bachelor, working at the Cotton Exchange, playing his spare-time dance music, content for his family to be the hospitable reflection of his married sisters, Millie and Jin.
At the very point where he seemed resigned to bachelorhood, and the impending war seemed to confirm it, Jim McCartney proposed marriage to Mary Mohin. She, like Jim, was of the Liverpool’s medical services, a slender and gently spoken woman employed by Liverpool Corporation as a district health visitor. Herself in her early thirties, Mary could override the faint objection that Jim did not share her membership in the Catholic Church. They were married in 1941, shortly before Jim’s fortieth birthday.
Exempted from military service by partial deafness, he had been transferred from Hannay’s to munitions work with Napier’s, the firm that produced the Sabre aircraft engine. On June 18, 1942, while Jim was fire watching, Mary gave birth to a son in Walton General Hospital. She had worked there once as nursing sister in charge of the maternity ward, and so received the luxury of a private room. The baby was perfect, with a placid, impish smile and big eyes just like his father’s. Such was Mary’s love for Jim that the more famous saint’s name did not receive precedence. The baby was christened James Paul.
His first home was furnished rooms in Anfield, not far from the mass graves where the dead from the dockland blitz had been buried. Jim, no longer needed for munitions work, had left Napier’s and become an inspector in the local authority’s cleansing department. His job was to follow the garbagemen, seeing that they did not skimp their round. The work was badly paid, and to supplement Jim’s earnings, Mary returned to her former job as a health visitor. After her second son, Michael, was born in 1944, she took up full-time midwifery.
The process had already begun that was to gouge out the old, shabby, vibrant heart of Liverpool, flattening its bombed streets and scattering their inhabitants wide across an arid suburban plain. Communities that Hitler could not displace were now induced, by the hundreds of thousand, to migrate to new housing projects, dumped down amid transplanted industry and isolated by walls of dingy open air.
Mary McCartney became a domiciliary midwife on one of the several projects built around Speke’s new industrial parks. The rent-free public housing on Western Avenue helped to reduce the strain on Jim’s
small wage. The disadvantage was that Mary had to be available twenty-four hours a day. Her kindness and patience became a legend among people already suspecting they may have been forgotten by the authorities. Little gifts of plaster ornaments or somebody’s sugar ration were always being brought to the McCartneys’ back door, or left shyly outside on the step.
Her own children, despite the constant pressure, received immaculate care. Jim, who had been somewhat unprepared for fatherhood—and somewhat dismayed by Paul’s redness as a newborn baby—could only marvel at the ingenuity with which Mary found time, and money enough, to dress the boys beautifully and feed them with imaginative good sense. Her special concern was that they should speak well, not in broad Liverpudlian like other children in the housing project.
Paul came to consciousness in an atmosphere of worship. His aunts and the neighbors loved him for his chubbiness, his large eyes and amiable, undespotic disposition. The arrival of a little brother, and potential rival, showed him the importance of maintaining popularity. He soon discovered that he possessed charm, and learned early how to put it to use. Though the boys did things together, and were together in normal boyish scrapes, it would invariably be Michael, the more impetuous and turbulent one, who received punishment. Jim McCartney, for all his mildness, was of the generation that believed in hitting children. Michael remembers being chastised by Jim while Paul, who had escaped, stood by, shouting, “Tell him you didn’t do it and he’ll stop.” Where Michael would shout and cry, Paul, if his father hit him, showed no emotion. Later he would go into his parents’ bedroom and tear their lace curtains imperceptibly at the bottom.
Though Mary was a Catholic, she preferred to entrust the boys’ education to Protestant schools. Paul started in Speke, at Stockton Road Primary. Michael joined him there, and when the classes became overcrowded, both were transferred to Joseph Williams Primary, Gateacre. Here the same contrast was revealed between them. Paul was quiet and law abiding, and Michael, hotly argumentative. Where Michael found it difficult to absorb learning, Paul came out on top in almost every lesson with ease. He was especially good at English composition and art. His handwriting received praise for its clear regularity.
Money remained a difficulty, though the boys never knew it. Jim McCartney had left his job with the Cleansing department and gone back
to selling cotton. This, however, was not the secure trade it had been in prewar days with Hannay’s. After a hard week’s traveling Jim would be lucky to find six pounds in his wage packet. Mary took a second domiciliary job on the Speke estate, necessitating a move from Western Avenue to another council house, on Ardwick Road. Her husband, worried at the long hours she worked, was relieved when she decided to give up midwifery and return to regular nursing. She became a school nurse, making rounds with school doctors in the Walton and Allerton district.
Bella Johnson met Mary at the central clinic from which both of them worked. A round, little, jolly woman, Bella too was finding it difficult to make ends meet. She had been widowed at the age of thirty-six, with two small daughters to educate. This she had done so spectacularly well that one of them, Olive, now worked for the Law Society in Liverpool. The Law Society’s offices were only a street away from the Cotton Exchange. On her way to work, Olive used to pass the time of day with Jim McCartney, not knowing that his wife and her mother were colleagues and friends.
Mrs. Johnson and Olive got to know the McCartneys well. Bella remembered a family contented and normal, suffused by Mary’s gentleness and strength. “She was a beautiful person: it came from something deep inside her,” Olive says. “Jim adored her. I remember how he’d sometimes tell us a story he’d picked up from the businessmen at the Cotton Exchange. If it was a bit off-color, Mary used to look at him and say,
Olive had a small car in which they would all go on weekend trips into the Cheshire countryside. She became a big sister to Paul and Michael, joining in their games, rowing them in a skiff across the lake at Wilmslow. “Mary always made us a special treat at tea time,” Mrs. Johnson said. “I’ll never forget them. Apple sandwiches with sugar.”
On Coronation Day 1953, the Johnsons and McCartneys celebrated together at Ardwick Road. The boys had received their commemorative mugs and spoons, and Paul, in addition, had won a book as a coronation essay prize. They watched, as people did all over Britain in one another’s front parlors, the ceremonial flickering over a tiny, bluish television screen.
Michael McCartney sat at his mother’s feet, as ever. “He was the one you always felt you wanted to love and protect,” Olive says. “With Paul, you loved him, but you knew you’d never have to protect him.”
• • •
Paul passed the eleven plus examination without difficulty, and with sufficient distinction to receive a place at Liverpool Institute, the city’s oldest grammar school. The honor entailed a long bus journey each day from Speke into Liverpool and up behind the Anglican Cathedral to Mount Street, where the institute’s square portico jutted out into steeply plunging pavement. Founded in the 1830s as a Mechanics Institute for deserving artisans, the building had been later divided to form the grammar school and the college of art. Behind the heavy wrought-iron gates was an interior unchanged since Victorian times, save that the gas lamps over each classroom door were no longer lit on winter afternoons.
Non nobis solum
, the school motto runs,
sed toti mundo nati:
“Not for ourselves only but for the good of all the world.”