The city of Liverpool has intrigued me ever since I heard my first Beatles record and my youthful idolization of John Lennon always made me want to go there. But what tipped the scale was reading the 2007 book Imagine This by Julia Baird, his younger sister, and seeing the 2009 movie Nowhere Boy, made from the book and directed by Samantha (Sam) Taylor-Johnson.
Both tell the story of how John became a ward of his Aunt Mimi and later reconnected with his mother Julia, only to lose her a second time when she was killed by a drunk driver. The movie stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as John, and he’s brilliant, with Thomas Brodie Sangster perfect as a young Paul McCartney.
But the film pivots on the tension between Kristin Scott Thomas as Mimi and Anne-Marie Duff as Julia, as they both wrestle for the affection and forgiveness of the teenaged John Lennon. Both women are stellar in their roles and I became obsessed with their story.
I set out to learn as much as I could about their lives. I found myself frustrated at Mimi’s efforts to control John and to contain him. He became an angry young rebel when his mother was killed. But I was fascinated by Julia’s enthusiasm for his potential and her efforts to teach him to play the piano, and to learn the banjo and guitar.
It was Mimi who told John he had little hope of making a living by playing guitar.
It was Julia who encouraged him and fanned the creative flame.
Julia Lennon (nee Stanley) was a vivacious woman who simply wanted to enjoy life in the dreary years during and after the Second World War. John’s father was a merchant seaman and eventually the couple drifted apart. She wanted to love and to be loved. Eventually, she had an affair with a soldier and a daughter who she named Victoria was born. But the scandal meant she had to give up her baby for adoption.
By this time, Mimi, the righteous older sister, had taken custody of John and refused to let him see her. Julia later began to live with John Dykins and had two more daughters, Julia (author of Imagine This) and Jackie. But since she wasn’t married and their small house had no room for her son, the teen stayed with Mimi.
Fortunately, Liverpool’s standards and morals have changed over time.
I don’t want to give away details of the book and the movie. I’ll just say they drove me to travel to Liverpool to soak up the city and to visit the places where my hero had lived. Still, the ghost of Julia began to haunt me.
When I landed at John Lennon Airport last spring, I felt at home. Its motto, “Above us, only sky,” struck a chord and I quickly caught a bus to take me to my hotel on the bank of the River Mersey. I stayed at a well-appointed Holiday Inn down at the Albert Dock, and within easy walking distance of the downtown promenades and shopping.
Every Liverpudlian I met was friendly and fiercely proud of their city, and its traditions and history. That includes the legacy of the Beatles and other entertainers such as Cilla Black, Julian Lennon, Gerry Marsden and more than 100 other rock ‘n’ rollers. They also love their pro football teams – Everton, Liverpool and Tranmere.
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the release of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the city had all kinds of celebrations to mark the event. This year is the 50th anniversary of the release of the White Album. One of the most heartfelt songs in that collection is Julia, John’s ode to his mother. It’s one of my favourites.
According to The Independent newspaper, a 2016 study commissioned by the Liverpool city council estimated that the Beatles’ legacy brings in 81.9 million pounds (C$142 million) and generates 2,300 jobs each year. The Beatles-related economy is growing by up to 15 percent a year.
Clearly, I’m not the only fan to make the pilgrimage. And it can get expensive. A guided tour of Mendips, the house were John grew up, and 20 Forthlin Rd., former home of McCartney, costs 23 pounds (C$41) for adults. But ardent fans are willing to pay to wander through the small rooms where the budding songwriters composed some of their early hits.
Julia’s house was two kilometres or so away, something John didn’t find out until a cousin showed him the way. That discovery led to a tentative reunion – mother and son were afraid of Mimi’s wrath. But eventually the sisters reconciled, although John continued to live at Mendips, her daughter writes.
While they were together, Julia taught John to play some piano, and showed him how to play a banjo and later the guitar. John loved spending time with her but his happiness was shattered when she paid a visit to Mimi’s house on July 15, 1958. She was killed as she left when a drunken off-duty police officer struck her with his car. She was 44. “I lost her a second time,” John later told an interviewer.
In the next few years, John became angry and disillusioned. He drank heavily, he fought and struggled to control his emotions. He formed several rock groups and played in many locations around the city. Eventually, he and Paul, George Harrison and Ringo Starr reached Hamburg and their fame began to solidify.
Today, fans can visit The Cavern and even stay at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel around the corner. There are Beatles landmarks all over the city and visitors can travel to Penny Lane and Strawberry Field. On Penny Lane, there’s still a barbershop, across the street from the roundabout where “a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray.”
Every cabbie I encountered had a wealth of Beatles stories to share and they all know how to find the homes where the four lads lived.
I decided I couldn’t leave Liverpool without paying my respects to Julia. She reminded me of my mother in so many ways. I discovered she was buried in Allerton Cemetery. I hailed a cab and went to Section 38 to find her resting place. An obliging trio of grave diggers took me to the spot and I was surprised to see her tiny headstone.
The inscription simply says “Mummy,” then lists four names – “John, Victoria, Julia, Jackie.”
It’s easy to miss unless you know how to find it. There had been no headstone, just a wooden cross, for many years, until Julia’s family furnished the stone.
The cemetery is a lovely spot, and there are many parks and open spaces throughout the city. Liverpool is a great location for walking and enjoying the art and statuary to be found everywhere. This city makes clear it should be known for more than just its famous Mersey Beat and football. And its restaurants are among some of the finest in the country.
But the most moving part of my trip was finding Julia’s grave, and having the chance to reflect on a mother’s love and influence on her child. It was Julia who lit the spark that triggered an explosion of fame for her son and his three companions. She never knew the effect she had on musical history at the time, but I’m sure she does now.
For now, she also has John with her, always. And I wish I’d had the chance to know her.
Peter Bailey is an award-winning newspaper editor and writer with more than 40 years of experience. He specializes in automotive and travel writing, and lives in Hamilton, Ont.