What connects Paul McCartney's postman and John Lennon's tragedy?
What connects Paul McCartney’s postman and John Lennon’s most searing tragedy? The answer is just one of the many astonishing Fab Four coincidences that make CRAIG BROWN’s mould-breaking biography the most gripping of all
Every day throughout 1964, a postman called Eric Clague would deliver another bulging sack of fan letters to 20 Forthlin Road, Liverpool, where Paul McCartney had been brought up, and where his father still lived.
That year, The Beatles were the four most famous young men in the world. In the first week of April, all top five singles in the American charts were by The Beatles.
Who was Eric Clague? Six years before, he had been a junior constable in the Liverpool police force.
On July 15, 1958, while off-duty, he had been driving a standard Vanguard sedan along Menlove Avenue when a 44-year-old woman stepped into his path. He braked, but too late: his car hit the woman, hurling her into the air.
An ambulance arrived, but there was nothing to be done. Julia Lennon was dead.
At that time, Eric Clague was a learner driver who was not supposed to be driving alone. His case was brought to court. Though an onlooker claimed Clague had been speeding, he denied it. The jury chose to believe him, and returned a verdict of misadventure.
As he left the courthouse, Julia’s sister, Mimi, waved her walking stick at him. ‘I got so mad . . . that swine . . . If I could have got my hands on him, I would have killed him,’ she said.
Who would have imagined that the same man who drove the car that killed John Lennon’s mother (pictured together) would go on to become the postman whose job it was to deliver thousands of fan letters to Paul’s family home?
Despite his acquittal, Clague was suspended from duty and resigned from the police force shortly after. He then took a job as a postman, which is how he came to be making deliveries to the Allerton district of Liverpool.
He never told a soul of his involvement in the death of Julia Lennon until he was eventually tracked down by a reporter 40 years later, in 1998.
‘I have been haunted by this for all these years,’ Clague confessed. ‘Hardly a week goes by when I don’t think about it. Ever since The Beatles became famous I have been expecting this to come out.
‘To be honest, I’ve been dreading it . . . I remembered how the family had blamed me, and I wanted to tell them that there was really nothing I could have done.
‘Mrs Lennon just ran straight out in front of me. I couldn’t avoid her. I was not speeding, I swear it. It was just one of those things that happen.
‘I read later how his mother’s death had affected John Lennon terribly. I feel desperately sorry about that. But, as I say, it was just an accident.’
Only after The Beatles became world famous did Clague read in a newspaper that John’s mother had been killed by a car in Menlove Avenue, Liverpool.
During research for his book One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time, Craig Brown kept chancing upon remarkable coincidences surrounding the coming together of the band, and later serve as the inspiration for some of their songs
‘I put two and two together and realised that it was his mum that I’d killed. Everything came back to me and I felt absolutely terrible. It had the most awful effect on me. The Beatles were everywhere, especially in Liverpool, and I couldn’t get away from it.
‘My postman’s round took me to Forthlin Road, where Paul McCartney used to live. At the height of The Beatles’ fame, I used to deliver hundreds of cards and letters to the house. I remember struggling up the path with them all. But, of course, they just reminded me of John Lennon and his mother.
‘It’s something I have always kept deep inside. I haven’t even told my wife and children. I suppose I will have to now.’
Who would have imagined that the same man who drove the car that killed John Lennon’s mother would go on to become the postman whose job it was to deliver thousands of fan letters to Paul’s family home?
While I was researching my book One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time, I kept chancing upon remarkable coincidences like this.
For instance, in October 1963, when She Loves You was top of the UK charts, and well on its way to selling a million copies, Paul McCartney was asked to judge a dancing contest on the TV pop show, Ready Steady Go!
For instance, in October 1963, Paul McCartney was asked to judge a dancing contest on the TV pop show, Ready Steady Go! Paul picked a 14-year-old girl called Melanie Coe as the winner
Four teenage girls had to mime to Let’s Jump The Broomstick by Brenda Lee: the winner would get a signed copy of The Beatles’ LP Please Please Me.
Paul picked a 14-year-old girl called Melanie Coe as the winner. The producer of the show was so impressed that he offered Melanie a year’s stint as a background dancer on the show, which meant she rubbed shoulders with stars such as Cilla Black, Stevie Wonder and Dusty Springfield.
Had she not been picked out that day by Paul McCartney, might Melanie Coe have remained content with the life of an ordinary schoolgirl?
Instead, she grew restless and took to roaming discos in London, against her parents’ wishes.
On one occasion, she even bumped into John Lennon and his entourage in a club off Carnaby Street, and John invited her to join them for a drink. As in The Beatles song, she was just 17.
Touched by these two chance encounters, the first with Paul, the second with John, what young girl could have resisted the lure of adult life?
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Melanie became pregnant. One afternoon she left a note and left home, off to live with a croupier in Bayswater, West London.
But what McCartney would not realise was that Coe’s shot at fame would end in her becoming pregnant and running away from her family – leading to the Beatles-penned song She’s Leaving Home
On February 27, 1967, Paul McCartney happened to be reading the Daily Mail when a story head-lined A-LEVEL GIRL DUMPS CAR AND VANISHES caught his eye.
It told the story of desperate parents searching for their daughter, Melanie Coe, who seemed to have everything money could buy.
‘I cannot imagine why she should run away,’ her father was quoted in the newspaper as saying. ‘She has everything here. She is very keen on clothes, but she left them all, even her fur coat.’
Without realising Melanie was the very same girl he had picked to win the prize three years earlier, Paul was inspired by the story to write She’s Leaving Home.
‘I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up . . . It was rather poignant,’ he recalled.
‘When I showed it to John, he added the Greek chorus, long sustained notes, and one of the nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly.’
John found the chorus — ‘Sacrificed most of our lives’, ‘We gave her everything money could buy’ — simple to write: these were the very same complaints he had heard so often on the lips of his strict Aunt Mimi.
The Beatles recorded She’s Leaving Home on the evening of March 17, 1967. By this time, Melanie Coe was back home with her parents, who had managed to track her down. When she first heard the song on the Sgt Pepper album, released at the end of May, she had no idea it was about her.
‘But I remember thinking it could have been about me,’ she said. ‘I found the song extremely sad. It obviously struck a chord. It wasn’t until later, when I was in my 20s, that my mother said, “You know, that song was about you.”’
Melanie’s mother had seen an interview with Paul on television and he said he’d based the song on the Mail article.
‘The most interesting thing in the song is what the father said: “We gave her everything money could buy,” ’ Melanie said. ‘And in the newspaper article, my father says almost those words.
‘He doesn’t understand why I would have left home when they bought me a car and they always bought me expensive clothes and things like that.’
Quite by chance, Paul McCartney had also hit another nail on the head: before starting work as a croupier, Melanie’s older boyfriend had, like the man in the song, worked in the motor trade.
Coincidences such as these occurred in The Beatles story so often that, at times, I began to feel they were pointing to some sort of deeper synchronicity: it was almost as though a series of apparently random events had conspired to shoot these four working-class boys from Liverpool to the forefront of popular culture.
Back in 1957, Paul had been a bright grammar-school boy, so much so that he had been encouraged to take two of his O-Level exams — Spanish and Latin — a year early. But over the course of the year, Paul grew steadily more interested in records and guitars, and, like so many boys his age, let his studies slip.
This meant that he failed his Latin GCSE, which meant he was forced to remain in the Remove, alongside boys much younger.
Among his new classmates was a 14-year-old he recognised from the bus as a fellow smoker. He had never spoken to him before, but now that they were in the same year, the pair of them began to grow close. This boy was called George Harrison.
So if Paul had worked a little bit harder at his Latin, he would have passed his O-level, which would have propelled him up a year, and George Harrison would never have been invited to join The Beatles.
And Paul would never have been born but for the chance decision by Hermann Goring to bomb Liverpool one particular night in November 1940. On that night, Mary Mohin, a 30-year-old midwife, was visiting her friend Gin’s mother in Scargreen Avenue.
By chance, Gin’s brother Jim, 38, a member of the wartime Fire Brigade, was also there. The sirens started to sound and, as the bombs began to fall, Jim and Mary, both unmarried, started to chat. The conversation flowed and, by the time the all-clear had been sounded, they both felt that they were meant for one another.
After a brief engagement, they married on April 15, 1941. Just over a year later, Mary gave birth to their first child, a boy. They christened him James Paul McCartney.
That John ever met Paul was almost as random. On July, 6, 1957, Paul’s school friend, Ivan Vaughan, suggested they go to the church fete at Woolton, where two of his mates would be playing in a skiffle group.
If Ivan had come up with some other idea, Paul would never have gone to the church fete, and so would never have encountered John, who was, after all, nearly 17, while Paul had just turned 15.
As for Ringo, if he had not been an extremely sickly child, it’s unlikely he would ever have learnt to play the drums. At the age of seven, he had been in hospital for a year following a burst appendix, which had then caused peritonitis. On his first night in hospital, the doctors had warned his mother he was unlikely to survive.
He was back in hospital for his 14th birthday, this time with pleurisy and TB. Convalescing in a hospital in the Wirral, he used to look forward to the fortnightly arrival in the ward of a music teacher, who would bring along a selection of percussion instruments — tambourines, maracas, triangles, tiny drums.
The children were expected to join in, playing Three Blind Mice and London Bridge Is Falling Down. But the young Ringo stubbornly refused to participate unless he could play a drum.
When the teacher left, Ringo would continue drumming on his bedside cabinet, in the absence of anything more drummable. This time, he remained in hospital for two years.
By the age of 21, he had become the drummer with Liverpool’s top band, Rory Storm And The Hurricanes; in July 1962, The Beatles invited him to replace Pete Best.
Coincidences abound in The Beatles’ story: from 1963 to 1967, Paul lived with his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, and her family in London’s Wimpole Street.
Jane’s mother, Margaret, was a professor at the Guildhall School of Music, and she was happy to teach Paul the recorder: he played it on Fool On The Hill. By chance, 15 years earlier, one of Margaret Asher’s students had been George Martin, whom she had taught to play the oboe.
Lennon’s second wife, Yoko Ono, always claimed that, before she met John, the only Beatle she could name was Ringo, because ‘Ringo’ means ‘Apple’ in Japanese.
Quite by chance, when The Beatles set up their own company, they gave it the name Apple.
One of the most random chances of all was surely Brian Epstein’s decision to pay a visit to the Cavern Club on Liverpool’s Mathew Street.
Epstein ran his family’s record store, but was much more interested in classical music, so would have preferred to be visiting the Philharmonic.
When the four young musicians sauntered on to the stage, he recognised them from his shop: they were the ones who lounged around in the booths, listening to the latest discs and chatting to the girls, with no intention whatsoever of buying a record.
Between songs, the three yobs with guitars started yelling and swearing, turning their backs on the audience and pretending to hit one another.
Epstein’s assistant, Alistair Taylor, noticed Brian’s eyes widen with amazement. Neither of them was used to such abusive behaviour.
After the show Taylor said: ‘They’re just awful.’
‘They are awful,’ agreed Brian. ‘But I also think they’re fabulous. Let’s just go and say hello.’
Today, most Beatles historians agree that, without Epstein’s brilliant management, The Beatles would never have got off the ground.
John Lennon was intrigued by such coincidences. He had a particular fascination with the number 9, and was often keen to point out that he had been born on October 9 and lived at 9 Newcastle Road, Wavertree, Liverpool. All the names in that address contain nine letters, as does the name McCartney.
John’s songs included One After 909 and 9 Dream, and Revolution 9 appeared on The Beatles ninth album.
‘Nine seems to be my number,’ Lennon once observed. ‘So I’ve studied it, and it’s the highest number in the universe; after that, you go back to one.’ Of course, like searching for human faces in a cloud, those who look hard enough for a particular pattern in life will eventually find it.
Needless to say, many fans have spent an inordinate amount of time finding meanings in Beatles’ lyrics that their composers never imagined.
For instance, some fans convinced themselves that each verse of Come Together contained a description of a different Beatle — George, the holy roller; Ringo, the shooter of Coca-Cola; Paul, the good-looking one who’s so hard to see.
As was so often the case, this interpretation never occurred to John, who had composed it.
But, in a funny way, this does not necessarily mean it is untrue: when it comes to The Beatles, you cannot help but feel that they were propelled by forces beyond themselves.
One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time by Craig Brown is published by Fourth Estate, £9.99. © 2021 Craig Brown
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