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20 Forthlin Road: the Spiritual Home of The Beatles

by Gavin Martin
27 February 2011 4 Comments

Step inside the spiritual home of The Beatles. A house of joy, a house of fun, a house of music.

Baby Beatles

Unpublished piece written for and read at Talking Musical Goes To Liverpool as part of The Writing On The Wall Festival on July 17th 2010 at Parr Street Studios Liverpool.

Its often mentioned that Lennon and McCartney were drawn closer by having both experienced the loss of their mums in childhood. Thats undoubtedly true but when I first visited Forthlin Rd I could, through the Nat Trust’s painstaking curative restoration, FEEL the love Jim (McCartney) gave to the motherless children that gathered there. His own sons, Mike and Paul, sure, but John Lennon too.

With his own father awol and his guardian Mimi notoriously prim, proper and unimpressed with the vulgarities of beat, skiffle or rock n roll Lennon found recreational license and creative freedom at Forthlin Road. Mary McCartney, Paul’s mum, died the year after the family moved into Forthlin Road.

That loss undoubtedley struck deep, auguring a vein of melancholic memory that would recur later in Paul’s songs – notably Let it Be. But rock n roll can heal the soul and despite initial reservations about Lennon’s waywardness Jim implicitly understood this and nurtured what would become the in time the most celebrated British songwriting partnership of the century.

Grief would always be there but in 20 Forthlin Road, after Mary’s passing, Jim McCartney – danceband leader, horticulturist and single parent insured it was not dwelt on overly. Jim saw to it that grief’s corrective – creative life – thrived in the motherless home.

He had bakelite speakers running upstairs to the boys bedroom, he had presciently bought a piano from NEMS Brian Epstein music shop long before Brian became the Beatles manager. It was on that piano and with his dad’s guitar that Paul would write songs with John. Mike’s photography was encouraged, the kitchen used as a dark room you can see in the Forthlin Road installation that Mike and Paul restaged Magritte paintings for the camera.

Smile – Jim didnt allow sadness to take hold, Forthlin Rd was the funhouse.

Appproaching the house for the first time I was struck by ripe fullness at the corner of the street – the cherry tree’s fruit had fallen, their vintage tramped out on the pavement by passers. Id never seen anything like it anywhere in England, cherry wise. Of course Carl Jung had called Liverpool “the pool of life”, could it be that here was the well spring?

Allerton, the area of Liverpool where Forthlin Road is situated takes its name from Alder Trees themselves a Druidic symbol of new life, rebirth. And of course Mary before her early death was a midwife. Read the tea leaves, check out the leylines. See the signs?

Is Forthlin Rd where the British quivalent of Robert Johnson visit to the crossroads and a deal with the devil took place? No because the Johnson story is racist bullshit. Like John and Paul, Johnson made a deal with love. All My Loving, Love Me Do, She Loves You. And so on.

Any Beatles tour of Liverpool worth its Mersey salt presents sharp variations in the city’s social class and psycho geography. Brian Epstein’s grand house high on hill, the two up two downs terraces where Ringo and George were raised. The preraphaelite Lever Village on the other side of the river – where The Fab Four played their first ever gig with Ringo.

“Smile – Jim didnt allow sadness to take hold, Forthlin Rd was the funhouse.”

Pleasantly suburban, with a simple circular design – like an embrace – with garden front and back, 20 Forthlin Road lay in the aspirational working class bracket, people looking to build a better life after the war. Visiting it helped explain how The Beatles came to soundtrack my 60s summers of optimism.

Everyone knows about that unifying, now much mocked, all you need is love (and peace) vibe. It wasnt necessary to wait around for the acid kick in – or the summer of love to come round – to feel it. As a pre primary school kid in 63, 64 I feasted on it via the bounty of thrills, elation and togetherness in She Loves You, All My Loving, From me To You, I Want To Hold Your hand and so many more.

Mum ironed in the living room in my childhood home, its structure and suburban setting not that different from Forthlin Road. World At War was on TV, she was telling me about the horrors of the Belfast WW2 Blitz. But in the other room there was this music my sister Sharon had collected. It had at least in part been, beautifully and poetically, formulated in Hamburg.

Less than two decades before, my father had been in Germany, entering the horror of Bergen Belsen to liberate people (if people can be liberated from hell). But there is something deeply wonderful that John and Paul had gone there to Germany to plan a musical battle to replace the war of munitions, terror and horror.

In my presexual infancy the libidinous metaphors in the lyrics and hormonal rush powering the Beatles songs was a joy still to be discovered. But I GOT the songs meaning at a profound level. So much so I had to tell the world all about it.

Brandishing my Beatles toy guitar prop, I’d go into the garden to greet the older children – that is the 6- 10 year olds coming home from school – and sing the songs. Those Beatles songs were mantras, Nursery Rhymes from heaven. What value the preacher’s cold, dead words and officious delivery when put against such sensation jangling euphoria?

I would proclaim the Good News that She – some nameless Goddess, The Earth Mother, My Mother, what or whoever – Loves You. Or that I wanted to hold your hand…and so on. At a very real level the Beatles connected me to people I didnt even yet know – in USA, Australia, New Zealand, Africa.

30 years later, when I met them, they confirmed it was so.

Maybe “nothing is real”. I believe that, to a degree, but the feeling, the magic divined and presented by the Beatles music, was and is as real as anything could be. Maybe that’s why when I went to Forthlin Road for the first time I cried – spontaneously, completely unexpectedly, in the living room.

Im not particularly religious, growing up in Northern Ireland put me off, but I can only think of a religious comparison to explain why I might have cried. I was standing there, right on the spot where you could see, in one of the excellent Mike McGear McCartney shots deployed throughout the Forthlin Road recreation, John and Paul had written I Saw Her Standing There.

Saw who – the ghost of Mary and Julia? Or Margaret, my own mother? Man, was I tripping! Mike’s picture shows them seated round the fireplace, the lyric sheet on the carpet in front of them. The realisation struck me – as  I imagine it might do to a Catholic arriving at the healing centre of Lourdes or the Messiah’s birthplace.

Suddenly, in this little mundane suburban household, on this routine tourist trip, I was getting an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness and joy. IN my mind THIS obviously was THE place, the place where it all began. Paging Mister Carl Jung, have found the pool of life!

Those Beatles songs were mantras, Nursery Rhymes from heaven. What value the preacher’s cold, dead words and officious delivery when put against such sensation jangling euphoria?

A site of a great victory in an eternal war waged to free this country, this world, from its shackles of pain and petty hangups, fucked up repressions and manifold oppressions. One to sustain the passion and return to, often. Because one good thing about music being used as a weapon in the war of the ever rebelling, screaming to be heard, naturally hedonistic soul – is that “when it hits you feel no pain.”

And of course Bob Marley, who wrote that, was, like anyone making music in their wake, deeply affected by The Beatles. Some time not too long after visiting Forthlin Road I had the opportunity to talk to Paul McCartney on the phone. It was 2001 and his rather good Driving Rain album was being shamelessly promoted with the addition of  apppalling last minute cash-in Freedom, a miserably failed attempt to provide America with a post 9/11 anthem.

To a beloved entertainer grown used to the vanities of the market place it seemed a move as natural as breathing. But for an old soppy idealist like me it was disconcerting. What happened to the Beatles dream, the world, the culture suggested by those songs I loved as a kid?

It was dispiriting to speak to McCartney and hear him championing the then burgeoning US bombardment of Afghanistan. What would John say ? Give War A Chance? Thats how The Independent would headline the piece that resulted.

I think I threw Paul slightly when I picked up his phone call. Almost the first thing I said was ”Id like to thank you for all the love you’ve put into the world.” Later I told him about my experience in Forthlin Road which he quite correctly devined was about more than simply The Beatles.

Well of course he was right because The Beatles are about more than The Beatles – they are about love, life, death, the families we are born into and the ones we choose to make. Thats just how it is. Paul had, I knew, been to Forthlin Road since the National Trust had taken over but he sat outside in his car, never went back in to witness what I imagine would be an eerie recreation.

“Think how many psychiatric sessions I’d have to go through to prepare for that…and recover from it,” he joked. But then, having been there, it seems obvious to me that, whether Paul choses to go back or not, he cant avoid or ignore it. Because what happened in Forthlin Road will always be there with him. It changed and shaped him and a large part of my, our, world.

At some level, at many levels, it made us feel the best, within ourselves.

Lets hope it still can.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Lou 5:14 pm, 2-Oct-2010

This is a good piece, except for a glaring factual error. McCartney NEVER championed the bombing of Afghanistan. There's a big difference between advocating the defense of freedom and advocating war. Or should the British have just let the Nazi's run roughshod over Europe. McCartney's song, whatever you may have thought of it, was about how some things are worth defending. Life Freedom. Seriously, how could anyone argue against that?

Gavin 7:51 pm, 2-Oct-2010

Macca's opening comments in the 2001 Independent feature mentioned above - "Normally you're a pacifist and you don't want any kind of war at all, but occasionally something so atrocious happens there's gotta be some kind of response. I'd like to see the bombing stop but what are you gonna do, turn the other cheek? I don't think that is possible. "When I started getting into thinking like this it took me back to conversations we used to have in the Sixties. All the guys sitting round saying if there was a war we'd be pacifist. But I made one little disclaimer and said, 'But if Hitler was invading, and I had a family, I really would feel I have to do something.' I remember people thinking, 'Oh oh, stiffening of resolve here.' I knew it was true, deep in my veins. "It's like we used to live with this thing every Christmas in London, where the IRA would say, 'We're doing a bombing campaign.' And we'd go, 'How irksome, I hope it doesn't hit me when I'm shopping.' After the New York attack, my attitude was like, screw you man, just screw you. I've got kids living in London. Are you gonna do a bombing campaign? How dare you? If you want to take my kids out – well, screw you. Come and talk about it, right in my face baby." Were pretty unequivocal in support of the then burgeoning, now still ongoing - and totally disastrous - war in Afghanistan. The fact that the risible Freedom failed to become the anthem Sir PM had hoped for suggests I wasnt the only person who thought it a Mersey trout of a cash in.

Lou 11:14 pm, 2-Oct-2010

Every thing he said sounds perfectly reasonable to me, especially as it was said in the wake of a very very emotional time. And lots of people supported going after the terrorists hiding in Afghanistan. I live in one of the targeted cities and I certainly did. Instead, the Bush admin changed gears for its own self-interests and started an illegal war in Iraq. And at no point did McCartney support that. He supported going after terrorists, as any sane person would after what happened on 9/11. Only a fool sits back and waits for another attack. ... It's really sad that a songwriter, moved by a major calamity, is not allowed to express his feelings about it without being accused of cashing in. Was John Lennon cashing in when he wrote Give Peace a Chance? Some cynics would say yes. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume Lennon wrote it because he believed in it. I give So McCartney the same benefit of the doubt.

Lou 11:56 pm, 2-Oct-2010

Plus, there was strong global support in the wake of 9/11 for a "war on terrorism." And if the US govt had done that, and went after bin Laden when it had the chance and the resources, early on, many people would have supported that. Instead, the Bush admin diverted its attention to the horrible war in Iraq and years went by. Today, what's happening in Afghanistan is VERY different from what people supported doing a decade ago.

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