In Process

The Beatles, Aunt Emily, and Me

The Beatles were never my band. Throughout my childhood, I heard their music all the while, everywhere, but never really listened. They were just there, in the background. My aunt Emily listened to the Beatles all the time. She’d play “Michelle” over and over again, a scratched 45 rpm, on her old record player, in a bedroom she shared with my elder sister. “Michelle, ma belle…I love you, I love you, I love you, that’s all I want to say…” My aunt Emily had a rather tragic life; “Michelle” comforted her somehow. I never knew it then. I could hear it playing through the downstairs ceiling. Emily came to live with us after her mother and father, my nan and grandad, died in quick succession, both of lung cancer, like my mother. My grandad was a coal man. They’d lived together in a little terrace house in Holden Street, central Liverpool, off Upper Parliament Street, in Toxteth, where my mother grew up.


In the mid-1960s, they’d received a letter telling them their house was condemned, that it was deemed a slum, and they would have to move out soon. The street and the surrounding neighbourhood would be demolished, residents shipped out to a spanking new abode at Cantril Farm, beyond the city limits in Knowsley. It was a brave new prefabricated world, a mass housing project the likes of which Jane Jacobs had already condemned in Death and Life of Great American Cities. But authorities in Britain paid little attention to Jane, just as they paid little attention to homegrown critics. They’d not listened to British sociologists Peter Willmott and Michael Young who, in the late 1950s, had published Family and Kinship in East London. The pairing warned of how centralised bureaucratic housing programs were ignoring the needs of the people they intended to serve. Willmott and Young said Bethnal Green’s slum clearance plan would devastate tight-knit class and kinship networks. The East London neighbourhood, like Toxteth, was poor and crumbling, in dire need of attention. Yet it was also a world rich in social relations and mutual support systems—vital resources for healthy social and community life.


Before long, Cantril Farm began to bear another label: “Cannibal Farm.” Even before it was finished, the estate was falling apart. Tower blocks were leaky and damp; there was no sound-proofing between apartments; communal corridors smelt of piss, lacked lighting, and what lighting there was often didn’t work; elevators were usually broken. There was no public transport, no doctors’ surgeries, no shops, no nothing, a high-rise wilderness set in a wilderness, a fallow field in a fallow field, cut-off from anywhere, from any memorable past and any discernible future. It was row upon row of austere breeze-block towers, homes for twenty thousand wounded denizens, mushrooming on land the council acquired at a snip. Little wonder my Nan didn’t last very long in this wilderness, nor my grandad. Both died a few years later, broken hearts within a broken community.


Shortly after, my thirty-something aunt Emily developed ovarian cancer. Before she died, at forty—same age as ex-Beatle John—she came to live with us. For a few happy years she went into remission, quit her job at Woolworth’s, managed to live on sickness benefit, and listened to “Michelle” a lot. Her single bed was shoved into the alcove of my sister’s bedroom, tight against the far wall, near the airing cupboard, making room for my sister’s own bed. Above her bed, my aunt Emily had cello-taped a poster onto the wall, of Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago—after Boris Pasternak’s novel and David Lean’s film. My aunt Emily wasn’t bothered about Boris Pasternak or Russian literature or director David Lean; it was Omar Sharif she idolised, along with the Beatles, her two burning passions. I remember the poster’s caption: “A LOVE CAUGHT IN THE FIRE OF REVOLUTION.” Yuri Zhivago looked dreamily out into the distance, with Omar’s dark glowing eyes as radiant as ever; resting on his shoulders was the very beautiful head of Lara, played by the very beautiful Julie Christie. The beautiful couple cheered up my aunt’s less than beautiful life.


It was her favourite film. We’d seen it together at the Plaza cinema in Allerton—me, my aunt Emily, and my mother. I remember being sick in the intermission. I’d eaten too much ice cream. Aunt Emily always spoiled her only nephew, gave me anything I wanted, often more than I needed. The chocolate ice cream came back up near the marble goldfish pond they had at the Plaza in those days. Shimmering turquoise illuminated the whole foyer, sparkling water, rippling and reflecting off the cinema’s ceiling and walls. I don’t remember much of Yuri and Lara’s doomed love affair, nor anything about Aunt Emily’s doomed love affairs; unmarried, she was likely a lifelong virgin. Yet she was besotted by Omar, never tired of reminding people that she had an intimate connection to Dr. Zhivago. And she didn’t just mean that poster on her bedside wall.


Down the road from our house were a half-dozen little stores—a post office, a greengrocer, and a baker, all no more of course. Back then the greengrocer was Tushingham’s, John Tushingham’s store, whom we all knew at our house. In a funny quirk of fate, John was actually dad of Rita, and Rita Tushingham, you might remember, was the actress who played Lara and Yuri’s illegitimate love child— simply “the girl” in the film. She was the niece that General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) was searching for. I don’t think my aunt Emily ever met Rita, or even saw Rita; she’d have dearly loved to have bumped into her at the counter where dad worked the bacon slicer. I don’t think anybody ever saw Rita around pop’s store after she’d become famous. You can’t really blame her, preferring Omar Sharif and his glittering ice palace wonderland to dreary old Garston, where there was nothing to do and the sun never shone. But that didn’t matter to my aunt Emily. She was merely glad that Rita was somehow close by, reinforcing her bond with Yuri, and with Omar, and with those dark radiant eyes staring out across my sister’s bedroom.


Our house was pretty crowded in those years. I had the tiniest of box-room bedrooms; from my bed I could almost reach out and touch both sidewalls. I don’t remember doing any homework, never reading or studying anything. Not sure where I’d have done it anyway. There was no space, little inclination, nothing to motivate me, no point. My grandad, my father’s father, also lived with us and that closed the walls in even more. He took up the entire front room of our ground-floor, meaning we did everything in the single back room; ate, watched TV, entertained, got under each other’s feet. My grandad had his bed in his room, an arm- chair, a small black and white TV set, a little table where he took all his meals, alone. He only ever came out to use the bathroom or to take his afternoon stroll. He’d always shout out, telling my aunt Emily to turn her music down. He didn’t like it playing too loud, had no sympathy for anybody, the dying included. Each morning, no matter what the weather, he donned his old worn tweed suit, with its waistcoat, plus a tie, had a cooked breakfast prepared by my mother, at nine o’clock prompt, fried bread, bacon, tomatoes, and an egg, a “Jim Special” we called it. His name was James— “Lord Jim,” we anointed him.


By contrast, he always called me “Charlie”; not sure he ever remembered my name, or wanted to. He never bought an Xmas or birthday present, never bought me anything. He behaved like an aristocrat in exile, an aristocrat retired from reading the meter for the Gas Board. At one o’clock, without fail, he’d expect lunch served, again by my poor old ma, a “biscuit sandwich”—white sliced bread, cheese, Branson pickle, a digestive cookie, a cup of tea. For dessert, he only ever ate tinned fruit, mandarins or pears in syrup, never anything fresh. At six o’clock, he’d call out for “tea,” after which he’d settle back into a night’s TV. So it went, with tyrannical regularity. One day, during a summer heatwave, dressed in full suit, all buttoned up, he sat in a deckchair in the garden, fell asleep in the shade, and died. My mother found him dribbling at the mouth. My sister and I both cheered.


Every time I’ve heard “Michelle” since, I feel sad. Those Beatles’ records don’t have positive associations in my life. That’s probably why I used to shudder outside the Dakota apartment building, thinking of John and the Beatles, glad I was in New York not Liverpool, no longer throwing up at the Allerton Plaza; poor John; poor Aunt Emily; poor me at Quarry Bank, my old school, John’s old school. As I grew up, I knew I needed something more than the Beatles, needed a different sort of music, not one that took me back to Liverpool, that made me sentimental, but one which propelled me forward. Something Else!was Ornette Coleman’s debut jazz album from 1958, which set the tone (and tonality) for me. Besides, there was nothing about my Liverpool past to feel sentimental about, other than that world was no more, was dead was dead (as Kerouac said), people largely forgotten, some best forgotten. My aunt Emily, my mother, my nan and grandad, Holden Street, the old Liverpool I knew, Lord Jim, Tushingham’s, Dr. Zhivago staring out—all gone. Quarry Bank has even gone, changing its name years back. My old playground is a supermarket, the Smithdown Road hospital where I born an Asda (owned by Walmart). Even Cantril Farm has gone, not-so-solid breeze-block melted into air, along with all those high hopes.


Andy Merrifield