Four Writers’ Homes

Clouds Hill

TE Lawrence’s home was a small cottage called Clouds Hill. I read somewhere recently that the house had now been refurbished and open to the public. It is a small place and I remember seeing a TV documentary about Lawrence where someone who visited in the past advised that guests were generally left to their own devices, that food was eaten from tins left in the cupboard and that a lot of classical music was played.

Lawrence of course was more popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, the man who organised the Arab revolt during the First World War. As the feature film by David Lean tells us, Lawrence was dismayed by having to lie to the Arab people, telling them that Great Britain would honour their claims for freedom at the end of the conflict when in fact the UK had every intention of holding on firmly to the Arab lands.

Churchill was impressed by Lawrence and invited him to attend the Paris peace talks.

Lawrence later wrote his classic book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom upon which the film Lawrence of Arabia was based.

A number of elements of the book have interested scholars ever since. The book is a work of history but also a great work of literature and readers have wondered ever since about whether the work was accurate, especially as in one infamous chapter, Lawrence relates how he was captured and beaten by a sadistic Turkish officer.

In that same TV documentary, Lawrence’s brother addresses the camera and sheepishly tells the viewer that not many people can understand how someone can enjoy pain. That was in response to a 1960’s newspaper report about a man who claimed Lawrence paid him to be beaten regularly. Clearly Lawrence was a complicated man. In later life he hid from the public by using the names John Ross and later T E Shaw. He was fatally injured in 1935 after a motorcycle accident.

After a little research I find that the property is now owned by the national trust and is open regularly for visitors. Find out more at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/clouds-hill

Chartwell

Nothing that I can add to the mountains of books and articles written about Winston Churchill can make much of a difference, but anyway, here we go. Can there ever have been someone who was not only a great politician but also a great writer and also one of the giants of history? I have always felt a tiny spark of excitement when even now I read Churchill’s words on when he attained the premiership in the dark early days of World War II. ‘I felt,’ he wrote ‘as if I was walking with destiny.’

The amazing thing is that only a few years previously Churchill was a has been, a man written off as a former chancellor who had crossed the floor of the house once too often and now was distrusted by everyone.

As it happened, his dire warnings about Nazi Germany and the impending war made him the obvious choice to succeed Neville Chamberlain, whose policies of appeasement had perhaps led Britain towards the path of war.

Churchill’s home, Chartwell had been bought largely from the proceeds of his books. Indeed he was fond of commenting ‘all this, came from my pen.’

During the time of his so called wilderness years he spent a lot of time at Chartwell and even built some of the walls there with his own hands. He painted there and prior to World War II many informants came to him to reveal information with which he used to call attention to the tragic state of unreadiness of the UK for war.

This is also a national trust property. You can find more about visiting Chartwell here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chartwell

The Boathouse

It’s a long time since I visited Dylan Thomas’ house in Wales. The house is in the village of Laugharne and is not far from one of his famous watering holes, the Brown’s Hotel which I’m pretty sure was bought by one of the comedians from TV’s Men Behaving Badly.

The boathouse was bought by a trust some years ago which saved the property from collapsing into the sea. It’s a lovely place and on the day I visited, we had to leave early although I can’t remember why. I came back the next day and the staff remembered I had left early previously and let me in for free. I wandered about Dylan’s old house and sucked in the atmosphere before buying various books and pamphlets about Dylan and his works.

In another old TV documentary I tend to watch now and again, the presenter, a poet himself, thought he could imagine the conversations of Dylan and his wife, the chit chatting, the arguing and the making up later, or so he supposed.

I took a primitive digital camera with me and took a few shots of the house and Dylan’s famous writing shed. I read somewhere recently that the shed has now been removed and taken to a museum with a duplicate shed now occupying the site.

I enjoyed my visit and Dylan’s own poem always makes me think of it:

In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks
And palavers of birds . . .

Click the following link for more information on the boathouse: https://www.dylanthomasboathouse.com/

Mendips.

Lennon is a different kind of writer of course. He did publish a couple of books of his doodlings, one was called In his own Write if I remember correctly but mostly his creative urge went towards his music. Early on, he and fellow Beatle Paul McCartney agreed that all their songs would be known as Lennon and McCartney songs, even though some were written totally by Lennon and some totally by McCartney. Sometimes McCartney would finish off Lennon’s song, other times Lennon would sort out a problem song McCartney couldn’t finish. It was a great collaboration, perhaps the greatest in pop history.

Picture courtesy wikipedia

All the Beatles were from Liverpool of course. Lennon was brought up by his aunt Mimi in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton.

Many years ago I used to have a cigarette vending machine round and one of my sales areas was Woolton. One of the pubs I used to service there was a small modest place, owned by two former Shell tanker drivers. They had retired and pooled their retirement money to buy this small pub. They made little money they told me, in fact neither of them ran the pub, they employed a manager to do so.

One was a quiet chap, the other a pretty talkative fellow. The manageress never spoke to me much but the talkative owner was always in the bar and he usually made me a cup of tea and we would have a bit of a natter and then I would be off on my way to service some other pub.

One day we started talking about Lennon and my friend mentioned that Lennon had lived just around the corner from that very pub. Later I followed the directions given to me and found myself parked outside a typical 1950’s looking suburban semi-detached house. Surely Lennon came from a deprived background, a rough and tumble council estate? But no, there was a blue plaque on the wall denoting Lennon had indeed lived here. It was somehow not what I was expecting.

Since I last visited here I see that the house is now owned or at least managed by the national trust along with Paul McCartney’s former home. Click this link for more information: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/beatles-childhood-homes


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Holiday Book Bag 2018

There’s nothing I love more than a good book and as usual, here’s a quick round-up of the books I’ve taken on holiday to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. As I’m flying I’ve not brought any hardbacks, just four paperbacks. All my books are usually sourced from the Internet or second-hand book shops but the ones below, with one exception, were gifts.


Lennon, the Definitive  Biography by Ray Coleman.

This is a book first published in 1984 that has been revised and updated. It’s been subtitled the ‘definitive biography’ although that’s not a phrase I’d use to describe it. It’s a decent enough book don’t get me wrong but as for ‘definitive’, that’s another matter. The writer has known Lennon as a journalist since the heady days of the early sixties when the Beatles had their big breakthrough in the pop charts so has had the opportunity to talk with Lennon first hand regarding many events in his life.

The first part of the book appears to be the new revised section and details what has happened to Lennon’s work and image in the years since the book first appeared although really, this section would be better placed at the end of the book.

The writer has no time for music journalists who waxed less than lyrical about later Beatles’ records released in the last thirty odd years, things like The Beatles at the BBC released in 1994 or the Beatles Anthology. Reviewers who gave those records a poor reception get short shift indeed and the reader is quickly reminded of their chart topping sales. In their defence though pop music journalists tend to look forward to new music, not back to the old. More scorn is saved for Albert Goldman who wrote the book The Lives of John Lennon. Personally I thought that was rather a good book; it’s certainly more compelling than this one although it tends to focus on Lennon in a negative way whereas this book is very generous towards Lennon. It’s the book of a Lennon fan and focuses on the events in Lennon’s life in a very positive way.

Another annoying aspect of the book is that when Lennon and the Beatles achieve fame, the book drifts off into a lot of general observations about Lennon’s life and music and the narrative tends to lose the thread of his life story. A similar thing happens when discussing John’s son Julian when the narrative jumps forward to discuss things that have not yet happened in the story’s timeline. Sorry but I like my biographies to stick to a certain amount of chronological sequence.

Both John and Yoko emerge from this book as whiter than white although the truth of John Lennon is, I suspect, somewhere between Albert Goldman’s critical book and this work of praise.

After writing this review, here in Lanzarote, we went for a meal at the Casa Carlos restaurant. As I scanned through the menu I could hear something familiar playing in the background. I couldn’t recognise what it was at first. It was an instrumental version of something, then I realised what it was: Love me Do. I’m sure the sharp-tongued John Lennon would have some choice words for the restaurateur after hearing an easy listening version of his work as background music.

Being Elvis by Ray Connelly

Subtitled A Lonely Life, this is a biography of Elvis Presley by another music journalist, Ray Coleman. Elvis became the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll who inspired Lennon, McCartney and a whole host of others to become musicians and pop stars. I’ve read quite a few biographies of Elvis, all much thicker than this one but this is a great holiday read being both interesting and informative. The foreword to the book was particularly insightful regarding the impact Elvis had on other musicians. The author recounts two phone calls, one to Bob Dylan and one to John Lennon where he happened to mention that he had been to Elvis’ 1968 comeback concert. Both those highly regarded stars bombarded Coleman with a series of questions about Elvis showing that despite their own success and achievements, they were still at heart Elvis fans.

The book goes on to recount Elvis’ beginnings as a poor white boy in segregated Mississippi who became an incredible phenomenon; revolutionising pop music, earning hundreds of millions of dollars and yet at the end of his life was dependent on loans from his bank to keep going as he had made few investments with his money.

Time and time again, Elvis was disappointed at the poor standard of the songs that he was presented with, especially in his films, however the book reveals that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted music in which the writers were willing to use Elvis’ own music publishing company and who were willing to give up a percentage of their royalties for Elvis and the Colonel. Elvis just appears to have put up with this intrusion into his artistic life as he didn’t like confrontations with his manager. The result was that he went from the cutting edge of pop music to somewhere at the back. It was only after his comeback concert in 1968 that he decided ‘enough is enough’ and decided to sing whatever took his fancy, no matter who wrote or published it.

In his later years Elvis was fat, bloated and addicted to amphetamines, sleeping tablets and diet pills. He worried how his fans would react to a tell-all book written by former members of his entourage. A final confrontation appeared with Tom Parker. Elvis threatened to sack him but Parker demanded back payments of 2 million dollars. Free of Parker, Presley could have got himself a new manager who perhaps could have sorted out his personal issues and engaged a new record producer, more in tune with the times. Sadly, he decided to stay with the ‘Colonel’.

Elvis died in 1977 of a heart attack. At the autopsy some months later 14 different drugs were found in his body, some in toxic quantities. It seems clear that drug abuse was a significant factor in his death.

A pocket-sized introduction to Elvis but nevertheless, an interesting and fascinating read.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

This is the only novel I’ve brought with me on this holiday. I particularly chose it because I’ve read two of Ellroy’s non fiction books on previous book bags and I wanted to read some of his fiction. This is a detective story set in 1940’s Los Angeles and is a fast-moving story of cops and murderers and how to get on in the LAPD of the time. It’s written in the first person and is laced with LA jive talk and slang that really evokes the time and place. A good read but a little gruesome for me and I didn’t like the ending when you think the case is solved and then something else happens, and after that, something else.

A Daughter’s Tale by Mary Soames.

This is a memoir by Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary. I had it down on my reading list as I supposed it was a biography of her father, however, it’s not a biography at all but a personal memoir of her life as Churchill’s daughter. It starts off with her early years living with her family in Winston’s famous house Chartwell. It’s a record of life in a different time and the writer talks about her retinue of animals, her nanny, the servants and all the things you might imagine surround her in an upper class home in the 1930’s. One interesting observation is that in 1935, Churchill, strapped for cash after the Wall Street collapse of 1929, considers selling Chartwell and his daughter quotes a letter he has written to an estate agent saying that his family has mostly flown the nest and that his life is probably in ‘it’s closing decade’. How wrong he was! The portrait the author gives us is an oblique one, Churchill seen from a different angle.

The early part of the book is not so interesting and the author constantly quotes from school girl diaries giving us a sort of Enid Blyton world of lunch and dinner menus, dog walks and pony rides and debutantes balls and a time when ‘coming out’ meant something far removed from what it does today.

The later part when Hitler plunges the world into war was when the book finally began to interest me. On the back cover the Sunday Express is quoted saying the book is a ‘delightful memoir’. I don’t think I can sum the book up any better.

As usual, here’s the video version below. I shot a couple of versions, one was too dark and another had problems with wind noise. I should have gone for take 3 really but the lure of the swimming pool was too much . .


One final book, Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977. You can buy the book by clicking the icon below to go straight to Amazon!

Floating in Space

Will the Real Fifth Beatle Please Stand Up?

The story of the Beatles is a story that envelops anyone who is interested in music. A whole generation grew up with them and watched them morph from mop tops to hippies and beyond. That same generation was shattered when John Lennon was killed and saddened when George succumbed to cancer. The Beatles have always been there and have always been a part of our lives. It seems to me that there is always something in the media about the Beatles and one thing that comes up time after time is the mysterious fifth Beatle. The fifth Beatle is a sort of honary title bestowed either by the media or the Beatles themselves. We all know who the Beatles were; John, Paul, George and Ringo, so who was the fifth Beatle? Here are a few of the contenders.

beatlesStuart Sutcliffe.
Stuart was a great friend of John Lennon’s and John invited him to join the band despite his lack of musical talent. In fact he couldn’t even play the guitar properly which dismayed Paul McCartney no end. However, John was the creator of the band and the leader. John and Stuart met at Art College in Liverpool where Stuart had a reputation for being a talented artist. Stuart later went to Hamburg with the Beatles where they had a long term gig as the resident band at a club in the Reeperbahn district. There he met and became involved with a young photographer called Astrid Kirchherr and stayed with her when the rest of the Beatles returned to the UK. Sutcliffe enrolled in Hamburg art college to further his artwork. Astrid was a stylish influence on the Beatles and encouraged them to abandon Brylcream and try the now famous mop top haircut which was popular at the time with students in Hamburg. She was studying art and photography and took many famous photos of the group.
Sutcliffe began to experience severe headaches and after one such episode in 1962 he was rushed to hospital. He died on the way there, the cause of death later diagnosed as a cerebral haemorrhage.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Brian Epstein.
Brian Epstein was the manager of his family’s music store in Liverpool city centre, NEMS. Epstein worked hard to make the store a success and it became one of the biggest music stores in the North of England. The story goes that a local music fan came into the store and ordered a copy of ‘My Bonnie’ which the Beatles had recorded with Tony Sheridan in Germany. Epstein was curious and made enquiries about the group, later going to see them at the Cavern in Liverpool. Some have dismissed this story, as Epstein was bound to be aware of the Beatles through the local magazine Merseybeat which was on sale in NEMS and featured the Beatles in their second edition. Whatever the original facts are, Epstein liked the Beatles immediately, watched their performances several times at the Cavern and eventually approached them with an offer to be their manager. Brian Epstein went on to manage the Beatles until his death in 1967. His management of their business lives was not too successful as he was perhaps, like everyone, not prepared for the whirlwind global stardom into which the Beatles were catapulted. Marketing and licensing opportunities were lost and other artists that Epstein managed felt that they were overlooked as Brian concentrated on the Beatles.
Brian Epstein died in August 1967. The coroner recorded his death as an accidental overdose.

George Martin.
Brian Epstein made many attempts to get his band a recording contract with little success. One record producer famously told Epstein that ‘Guitar groups are on the way out!’ Epstein persevered and managed to get George Martin, a producer for the EMI label Parlophone to record the Beatles. Martin, who had previously worked on comedy records with stars like Peter Sellers, was reportedly not completely impressed with the Beatles’ music but more so with their wit and banter. Drummer Pete Best did not impress Martin either and he engaged a session drummer to work with the Beatles on their first recordings. That was to have important repercussions for Pete and the band later.

John Lennon and me . .

John Lennon and me . .

George Martin paired his formal musical expertise with the Beatles raw talent and in fact either wrote or performed many of the orchestral arrangements on their recordings. The violin quartet on ‘Yesterday’ was one of Martin’s ideas.
He died at the age of 90 in 2016.

Pete Best.
Pete Best joined the Beatles in 1960 on the eve of their departure for Hamburg. He became a popular member of the group, especially with the fans and was noted for his James Dean-like moody good looks.
His mother Mona, had bought a large house in Liverpool that was formerly the West Derby Conservative club and she modelled the basement into a coffee bar which opened in the early sixties as the ‘Casbah’ and Pete played there regularly with his group the ‘Black Jacks’. Paul McCartney spotted Pete there and convinced him to join the Beatles in Hamburg.
On New Year’s Day 1962 the Beatles, including Pete on the drums, recorded fifteen songs as part of an audition for Decca. Decca ultimately rejected the Beatles but Epstein bought the tapes and managed to get George Martin from Parlophone to listen to the tracks. He liked them, offered a possible recording contract to Epstein but wanted to record the Beatles himself first. In June of 1962 the group went to Abbey Road studios to play in the recording studio for George Martin. They played a number of songs but then Martin decided he wanted a session drummer to stand in for Best. Later, the Beatles learned that at the next recording session, planned for September of 62, the engineers still wanted a session drummer so they decided that it was time to replace Best. Their new drummer, Ringo Starr, was also replaced by a session drummer and George Martin has said he was surprised that the group wanted to get rid of Pete. Pete at the time, was the most popular Beatle with the fans. Whatever the ins and outs of the issue, whether it was Pete’s drumming, the fact that he was a bit of a loner and spent little time with the others, or just didn’t fit in well with them, we will never know for sure. The three other Beatles, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison tasked Brian Epstein with giving Pete Best the sack. He was out and Ringo Starr was in.
Pete Best had missed out by a whisker on global fame and fortune on a massive scale.

beatles-alternate-album-cover-a-hard-days-night-mono-33.gifDerek Taylor.
Taylor was a journalist who worked for newspapers in the North West. He wrote a review of the Beatles in concert and gradually became a trusted insider and confidante of the group. Later, Brian Epstein asked him to become their press officer. He left the Beatles after their US concert tour in 1964 but returned in 1968 to become the press officer for the Beatles’ Apple Corps. In the late seventies Taylor collaborated with George Harrison on his memoir, ‘I, Me, Mine.’

Derek Taylor died in 1997 while still working for Apple on the Beatles’ Anthology book.

Neil Aspinall.
Neil Aspinall was the Beatles’ road manager and personal assistant and surprisingly, he was originally employed by Pete Best on behalf of the band. Neil drove the band up and down the UK to various gigs in a small Commer van for which he paid £80. Aspinall was a great friend of Pete Best and offered to resign from his work with the Beatles in sympathy with Best’s sacking but Best apparently felt Aspinall should carry on. Later, Aspinall became manager of the Apple Corps when Brian Epstein died. He was the executive producer for the Beatles’ Anthology.
He died in New York in 2008.

Murray the K.
Murray the K was a New York disc jockey in the early sixties. When the Beatles first went to the USA in 1964 Murray was an instant hit with the band. He accompanied them to various events in the US and even broadcast his radio show from the Beatles’ Plaza hotel suite. He claimed to have been named the fifth Beatle by either George Harrison or Ringo Starr and his radio station WINS built him up as the ‘Fifth Beatle’ in their publicity.


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Personal Heroes and bonne sante

Picture courtesy wikipedia

Everyone has their heroes, writers perhaps more so than other people because it’s our personal heroes that inspire us or perhaps even make us want to write. I come from a working class area of Manchester called Wythenshawe and when I get a bit down and look at my pile of rejected screenplays, essays and novels that seems to get bigger monthly, I wonder if I will never make it to the big time as a writer. That’s when I think about four working class northern men who did make it big, who worked hard at their craft and had incredible success. They weren’t authors but musicians; the Beatles!

One hundred percent northern through and through, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr became the Beatles and didn’t just make it to the top of the hit parade they reinvented the pop music industry and their genius as both writers and performers will live on as long as music is listened to.

Many moons ago when I worked for a cigarette vending company I used to visit a small pub in Woolton and the owners of the pub were two retired ex shell tanker drivers. They were both friendly guys but one in particular was outgoing and talkative and if he was on duty at the bar we would always have a good chat while I sorted out the cigarette machine. One day we got onto the subject of the Beatles and Lennon’s working class background and I was surprised to hear that Lennon’s house was just around the corner. Woolton is a very pleasant middle class suburb of Liverpool and I remember thinking what? This is where Lennon was brought up? John Lennon always struck me as a typical working class guy and his image as a sort of working class hero led me to assume he had a background in a rough and tumble area of Liverpool, like the Dingle where Ringo was brought up. The truth was different. Perhaps Lennon fermented the working class hero thing, perhaps the fault was mine, I just assumed something without knowing the facts.

Driving round the corner I found Lennon’s old house, 251 Menlove Avenue. This was where Lennon lived with his aunt Mimi from the age of five. He was living here when he started his first band, the Quarrymen and also when he met Paul McCartney. Lennon’s life was one heck of a journey taking him around the world with the Beatles and finally to New York with Yoko Ono where he was shot and killed in 1980.

This blog is about personal heroes and I’ll introduce you to more of them in another blog but for now I’d like to finish by wandering off the subject and returning to that pub in Woolton.

I’m not totally sure but I think the pub was the Derby Arms and the owner, whose name I cannot remember told me a story about the death of his father. His father was an old chap, a veteran of the first world war and had picked up a habit in France of always having water with his meals and he would always raise his glass and toast ‘bonne sante’ to whoever he was with.
My friend went to visit him in hospital on his deathbed and asked the nurse how his was. ‘OK’ they replied ‘but a little dehydrated. Try and get him to drink a little water’
In the hospital ward the son passed a glass of water to his father’s lips and the father murmured ‘bonne sante’ before passing away.


So to all you who are reading, let me wish you ‘good health’ and if you enjoy my writing  why not take a look at my book. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.