“So we’ll drive around Liverpool visiting all the Beatles locations in an exact replica of their Magical Mystery Tour bus?”
“That’s right” the Scouse drawl comes down the phone “Unless the bus breaks down of course.”
Despite this rather inauspicious start – as I’ve always been enormously keen to see where The Beatles legend was born, the childhood homes, the schools, the streets they walked and where they met – I duly book a place on the bus, grab a camera and make my way down to Liverpool’s Albert Dock.
A Beatles fan since a child, I feel I’ve gleaned my nerdy share of mop-top facts and have a suitably fervid Fab Four obsession. I’ve walked the Abbey Road zebra crossing (bare footed, of course) and stood, craning a neck, outside Paul McCartney’s near-by house. However, the die-hards I met there: a group camped outside for days, a woman who retraces Macca’s 1960s walk from his house to the Beatles’ studio every day, made me slightly nervous for what sort of crowd I would find on this particular Mystery Tour charabanc.
Before the tour started though I had got wind that the Mystery Tour coach was unable to stop outside either Mendips – John Lennon’s childhood home – or the church where John and Paul first met at a village fete in 1957 and where, almost unbelievably, there is a gravestone for an Eleanor Rigby.
Not wishing Merseyside Council parking regulations to deny me a snap outside these two top Beatles draws I head to St Peter’s Church under my own steam.
At the spot where Lennon’s group, the Quarrymen, played their set watched by a 15 year old McCartney – now nestling between the grave for the uncle who helped bring Lennon up and legendary Liverpool manager Bob Paisley – I come across another tour. A private group, two Milanese and a Columbian, are being taken round in a taxi by a very animated and rather intense Scouse tour guide.
“You not doing a tour then, mate?” he asks me. “Tomorrow,” I say “The Magical Mystery Tour”.
He winces. “Not good?” I ask. “They’re ok, but a bit basic. They don’t even take you inside the pub that was on the front of Ringo’s (uncelebrated, 70s solo album) Sentimental Journey. Can you believe that!”
He then leads his group, who I’m unsure have more than a rudimentary grasp of English, back to the taxi reeling off facts about Quarrymen ex-members and I watch as the three imploring faces look out of the window as it makes its way to some other obscure Beatles related location.
At Mendips I am just having my photo taken, casually leaning on the gate, when a car hares up on the side of the pavement and parks quite illegally and indecorously on the grass in front of the house. An impatient father jumps out and pulls his son onto the wall, takes a picture and gets back in yelling for the boy to get a move on, they have another 5 stops to go… Well it’s one way to do the tour I guess. Any hopes of actually getting inside Lennon’s home where he was brought up by his uncle and the formidable Aunt Mimi are long abandoned as it is a National Trust property with a fairly hefty entry price and a waiting list stretching into the months.
That evening Paul McCartney is coming back home, playing the Liverpool Echo Arena, and there are posters and a buzz all around town. I have long given up on a chance for this obvious hot ticket too, but when I arrive at the Magical Mystery Tour departure point next morning, many of my fellow tour party obviously were in attendance. I talk to a couple of Italians who tell me how incredible Sir Paul was.
“Don’t you think his voice has gone a bit?” I ask, having witnessed the McCartney horror show at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. “Oh we were singing too loudly ourselves to hear what he sounded like” they tell me. And I suppose this is the point. It doesn’t matter what McCartney does now, it’s what he represents. The separation between the living, breathing musician on stage last night and the heritage figure immortalised with a statue in town and whose childhood home we’re going to visit like some National Trust castle is never more distinct than on this tour.
But there’s no time to think of this as we’re welcomed onto the coach by the typically Liverpudlian chipper tourguide (“Where are you from, love? New Zealand? And you? Finland? We haven’t had many Fins. Manchester? You’ve come down here for the culture have you?”) and we’re off, first stop Ringo’s home.
Ringo’s old stomping ground is now all boarded up and looking rather sorry for itself, but still the cameras flash. Pictures are taken of everything, I even see one Japanese taking a picture of his ticket to join the tour, and when we pull up outside George Harrison’s house, the tiniest 1 up 1 down you could ever imagine, I feel sorry for the residents inside as flashes pop outside their windows. A child playing outside between the legs of the tour party taking up the whole of the ginnel-like Arnold Grove. It comes as no surprise that the neighbouring house is up for sale and Harrison’s besieged old house has a huge ‘Beware of the dog” sign.
Back on the bus we travel through the Liverpool streets, soundtracked by Beatles tunes and a running commentary on the sights and the history, though what the Japanese, hesitatingly translating everything for his wife, makes of the intricate details of how the Beatles changed managers and their various contract wranglings is unclear.
The stories keep coming as we head to Mendips and a plump mother and daughter duo from Birmingham who have been looking emotional since we were queuing up outside the Mystery Tour bus burst into tears as our tour guide recounts in typical sentimental Scouse the tale of Lennon’s childhood and the death of his mother. However, when we’re informed that the bus won’t be stopping handkerchiefs are stuffed away and howls of complaint ring out. I sit back, smug that I came yesterday, as the despondent complaints rumble through the coach.
Our briefly beleaguered tour guide atones with insider information, as we pass Lennon’s very first house, in Newcastle Road, that the secret bidder when it was recently put up for sale was none other than Yoko Ono which seems to mollify our bus of Beatles nerds somewhat and soon we’re outside Strawberry Fields and the two Brummie blubbers are touching the (replica) gates and welling-up again.
It does seem rather surreal to be driving around Liverpool in a bright Magical Mystery Tour bus, and we become the object of Beatles spotters’ attentions ourselves as we snake down Penny Lane and cameras are pointed our way as we’re pointed out the bank where the banker never wore a mac and the shelter in middle of the roundabout (pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray: absent).
I note, however, one of our party has had a perma-scowl since we boarded the bus. I ask his friend what’s wrong. “Oh he has no interest in the Beatles at all. I’m the one who’s crazy about them”. The non-Beatle Believer looks up from his phone: “I’ve never even really heard them” he says, glumly.
His friend has paid for them to come over from New York for this and has enough enthusiasm for both of them.
“I had friends who lived in the Dakota building when Lennon lived there. I walked past his open front door once. I saw his white piano!” he tells me with great alacrity. “Don’t tell the others here” I tell him. “They’ll all want to touch you or something.” He suddenly looks uncomfortable, eyeing the 20-stone Canadian in the McCartney t-shirt whose ears have pricked up in the seat in front of him.
Next stop is 20 Forthlin Road, Paul McCartney’s childhood home. Another National Trust property with a long waiting list as only 15 people are allowed in at one time on one of the tours to see the recreated homes – Forthlin Road with mismatching 50s furniture and tatty curtains to represent the lower class of the McCartney’s compared to houseproud Aunt Mimi.
Our tour guide tells us that McCartney often comes back to see his old house. He is always told by the neighbours that he’s missed Macca by minutes. He thinks he gets tipped off when the Magical Mystery Bus is coming and scarpers. “He might come and have a look today as he was in town last night of course. But..” he falls into an awed whisper “..he never goes in. Don’t you think that’s strange?”
Maybe he doesn’t want to see the curtains.
Anyway, as we’re getting back on the bus, the two Italian girls of our group are hanging back, talking between themselves. It transpires they’ve decided to stay and wait at the Macca mecca to see if the man himself does indeed turn up. I think I detect a sheepish look of guilt on our guides’ face as we drive off, waving to our Italians. “Well, he might turn up..” he mouths to driver.
We drive along past Dovedale junior school where Lennon and Harrison both attended, 3 years apart, and the church where McCartney was a choirboy, but the locations are starting to get a bit too abstruse for me. When the tour starts pointing out a park where Lennon’s parents went on dates in the 50s and possible locations for each of the Fabs literal conception, and we even pause at Beatles’ manager Brain Epstein’s favourite synagogue, I feel our 2+ hours on the tour is starting to peter out.
The rest of the congregation are all smiles though, and full of thanks and handshakes as we disembark for a final time outside the Cavern.
The Beatles aficionados mill around the rebuilt – fraudulent – Cavern Club – admiring the few veritable Beatles artefacts, while hovering with uncertainty around the signed photos of Ray Quinn and pictures of ‘The Fonz’ visiting the club – hoping to disregard the tat polluting their axiom of Beatles legend.
I take this chance to have a chat with our guide for a final time. He tells me that when all the touring bands come to Liverpool, they all join the Mystery Tour. The day before The Flaming Lips were on the coach. Everyone wants to see the Beatles sights. This tour has been running since 1983 and it’s not nearly the longest running in town. He hasn’t had to research any of the stories or the places on the tour, he tells me “You’re just born with this kind of information in Liverpool.”
As the New Yorkers alight the bus I ask the reluctant tourist how he’s finally enjoyed it.
“Yeah, it’s pretty good” he considers “If you like the Beatles”
Well , you can’t argue with that.