What do Ian McKellen, Eleanor Rathbone and Jon Brodie (the inventor of the football goal net) have in common? If you’re up on your local tourism knowledge then this should be a bit of a doozy. No? Well, as of 7th March 2017, they all have blue plaques dedicated to them in Liverpool. While the work of Rathbone and Brodie – as a campaigning independent MP and civil engineer respectively – is celebrated in other ways across the city, the recent addition of McKellen to the blue plaque brigade was a slightly surprising one. “Sir Ian McKellen sat here on table five and enjoyed a jacket potato and a latté,” runs the inscription on the plaque that was installed in the Liverpool Guild of Students’ bar recently, after the celebrated actor delivered a talk on a range of LBGT issues to a group of the University of Liverpool’s students.
Of the other 20 or so blue plaques erected across the city region, it’s surprising again to note how few of them have anything to do with The Beatles. The house that John Lennon lived in with his Aunt Mimi on Menlove Avenue features heavily on the myriad official and unofficial Beatles tours that you can go on – but then, so does Paul McCartney’s family home on Forthlin Road, as well as Penny Lane, St. Peter’s Church Hall and plenty of other things with significance to the Fabs that don’t have blue plaques. There is a bustling industry in ferrying people around these sites for photo opportunities, and it’s so much part of the fabric of Liverpool as a tourist city that most of us have become blind to it. It’s even become a comforting background buzz.
There was a time when I was an unwitting cog in this bootleg Fabs tourism industry too. A few years back when I worked in my local pub (the Egremont Ferry on the promenade in Wallasey if you must know – fantastic views across the Mersey, sarky bar staff, the works), we’d regularly have visitors popping in asking if this was the place Paul McCartney used to come for a drink. Perhaps they’d grown tired of the usual Beatles attractions (and almost certainly been underwhelmed by what state Strawberry Fields is in nowadays) and were looking for something a little off-piste. They were very well versed in their post-Beatles folklore too, because Mr McCartney was a regular visitor to the pub, although not when I ever worked there: not that I ever let this fact get in the way of the stories I doled out, you understand. “Ooohh, you’ve just missed him,” I’d say, while slipping a menu into their hands. “He popped in for a half of Cains and a packet of scampi fries after his morning walk, left about 10 minutes ago.”
For a period in the 90s, McCartney was indeed a patron of The Eggy Ferry, and The Vaults up the road – but an infrequent one at that, only venturing in for a quiet pint when he was visiting his cousin. There must have been something in the normality and relative anonymity that he liked about coming in and being treated like one of the locals. There was even a legend that used to do the rounds that he would hire out one of the pubs at New Year for big family celebrations, but I never did find out if that was actually true. What definitely isn’t a myth, however, is the story of him and Linda engaging in some jovial pub singalongs with the locals, in the very pub I worked in for seven years. I know it’s a fact, because there’s a video of it on YouTube. The grainy footage was filmed in 1973, and is remarkable in no other way than to capture one of biggest musical stars on the planet enjoying a bit of old fashioned, unglamorous fun down the local boozer.
Everyone seems to have their own Beatles story along lines like this – taxi drivers have several dozen up their sleeves, which they dish out to unsuspecting out-of-towners – which shows that we’re all somehow engaged with the culture of using our heritage as a tourism tool. It’s often seen as exploitation in some quarters, but I personally don’t think there’s an awful lot wrong with making a big song and dance about The Beatles if it helps encourage some kind of proto-industry that works off the back of their legacy. It shows that we’re actually quite proud of them for a start, and I’d argue that the prevalence of Beatles nostalgia has even helped us understand our own wider cultural legacy a bit more. Think about it from an outsider’s perspective: if a prospective visitor to this city sees Liverpool as this place that seethes with civic pride, celebrates the achievements of its own, makes museums dedicated to telling their stories and welcomes in others who want to come and embrace that energy and use it to create new stories, you’re going to want to come and sample that atmosphere, and be enriched by the personalities and stories that it’s all built on. And if they want to spend their money on hotels, food, Lambanana souvenirs or tickets to a sporting event while they’re here, so be it.
Valuing our past in this way shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing – but the way to do this without hampering forward progress is to understand exactly how a healthy music ecosystem exists on the ground. There’s no reason why a healthy music ecosystem, like we have in Merseyside today, can’t exist side by side with a robust music tourism industry. In fact, I’d argue that there’s an imperative for us to find that balance, or else the opportunities we all have now won’t be available to the generations that follow. And what will have been the point of all your Beatles Stories and British Music Experiences then?
I’d just like to finish by mentioning Dan Lucas, a well-respected sports and music journalist who worked for The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, who passed away suddenly on Sunday 12th March. We only met very briefly at the end of last year, falling very easily into a conversation in a small bar in Rennes that roiled around the Cook vs Root captaincy debate, but I was no less shocked by his tragic death aged just 31. The thoughts of all of us at Bido Lito! are with his friends and family at this sad time.