It was 40 years ago today

In fact, it wasn’t 40 years ago today, only twenty in the Beatles’ song Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Being about 8 years old when it came out I had no idea what it was about at all. I still pretty much don’t, unless they were doing that oh-so-British I-rony thing, mocking the loss of Empire while losing it, like the fox pretending the grapes he couldn’t have were sour. So far so blah. I always preferred the Stones to the Beatles anyway.

But 40 years ago today was the night not that the music died, but John Lennon certainly did. I wasn’t much of a Beatles fan and I wasn’t much of a John Lennon fan. There was a bit too much of the Northern cultish about the whole thing, I thought. Too much McCartney fakery – I loved the fuzz guitar but listen to that Macca “scream” in Revolution. Then tell me about integrity.

Too much 1950s and skiffle and that corniness about the whole act. The Beatles. Because like beat, daddio. Geddit, hepcats???? Sure, Help was a great movie you could happily dump your kids in front of, if you had any, but that faux-knowing smart-mouth mockery thing got a bit stale and old. Maybe I knew I was going to be a teacher one day.

But I didn’t 40 years ago. It was cold that night, a bitter cold just like tonight, when I’m wearing a wooly hat indoors. I was living in Bath, just at the end of my first term at the university there perched high on a green hill far away, with a room in a house in Larkhall. Not the Scottish one.

My Larkhall was near Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill the other side of the scar of the A46, a place of woodsmoke, a pub with stone flag floors and a wooden skittle alley out the back, just to the side of the area where they’d so obviously once changed the horses on the coaches for the very last leg of the journey from London to Bath. It had a supermarket, a pub, a chemist, a hardware store, a grocer and a Chinese take-away, everything in weathered Bath stone in a little hollow on the edge of the city, within walking distance of the eighteenth-century buildings that made it a World Heritage site. It was pretty much all I wanted in a place, then or now.

I had a 650cc Triton with cut-off exhausts and high bars, a degree course in the city I love, a warm room in a nice house with nice people, a couple from London, their eight-year-old daughter and their nutty dog. He was an engineer who did his apprenticeship just after the war in a garage behind the Portobello Road. He told me about how he bought a V12 Cadillac some GI had abandoned. It had four carburettors. Each of them took a half gallon of petrol, he told me. All he could afford to do was start it up and run it for a few minutes once a week. Petrol was still on ration anyway. She was a deb at one time. She worked on the checkout in the supermarket now, still with an accent that could petrify a Labrador across four fields.

I had a girlfriend too, those dark, cold nights. She had a fast orange car and a pony-skin coat, long boots and a black jumpsuit. I know. But she really did. I couldn’t believe it either. They let anyone work in a bank in those days.

She was staying over the night we heard the news. We’d been out somewhere, to some pub, because we didn’t know much else to do in those days and what imagination we did have was devoted to how we were going to get together after the pub in the shared house with an eight year-old monitoring every creak on the landing.

I remember we lay together listening to the news. It didn’t make any sense. OK, I didn’t much like John Lennon’s stuff, but although I used to shoot back then, I couldn’t imagine shooting John Lennon. He was 40. He’d be 80 tonight.

A man called Mark Chapman shot him, claiming according to Wikipedia that he didn’t like Lennon’s lifestyle, his remarks about Jesus and as a catch-all, that Holden Caulfield, the central character in the Catcher In The Rye made him do it, which probably trumps the putative answer to “What would Jesus do?” being “Go and shoot John Lennon, obviously.” Catcher has sold north of 65 million copies, which isn’t bad for a first-person narrative about a self-regarding teenage mess-up who spends so much time thinking he has a monopoly on authenticity that he can’t even keep an eye on a bag full of games kit on a school trip.

Seventeen years later I spent a spare day in New York walking Holden Caulfield’s day out. It was freezing. I thought I was going to get mugged outside MOMA when someone begged for change and I offered them some energy bars I had. The guy said he wanted money instead, proving that in New York at least, beggars can be choosers. I told him to go and get a job, the same way I got money. We didn’t part as friends. I remember the cold that seeped through the foggy November streets of New York. I remember the freezing fog of my walk back across the fields this afternoon, when I miscalculated how long it would take to go and get some Eccles cakes in the nearest town. I remember the cold the night John Lennon died.

I remember a lot about that time. The smell of woodsmoke in that little Georgian village. The frost. The feel of the cold in the bones of my arms. The sparkling beginning of everything, despite the dark and the cold inside my nostrils, the cold of Carol’s pony skin coat; her elfin face, cold from outside. I just don’t quite understand how somehow it’s 40 years ago today.

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