Love Wavertree’s Clare Devaney shares some thoughts on John Lennon, The Abbey, the future and dreams.
You can count on two things when you’re travelling around the world with a scouse accent – 1. someone will mention The Beatles, and 2. someone will mention some non-league amateur pub football team called Liverpool.
On my travels, I have blagged my way onto a stage in Tokyo to pay karaoke tribute to ‘Uncle John’, sat next to John Lennon’s statue on his bench in Havana and met four Giant Tortoises at a wildlife sanctuary in The Galapagos – John, Paul, George and the smaller, slower and slightly less developed one – sorry, Ringo!
Today – on what would, should and could have been John’s 80th birthday, I was lucky enough to spend some time at Lawrence Road Primary School in Wavertree, speaking with the Year 5 ‘bubble’ about Love Wavertree, campaigning, volunteering and litter picking as part of their current project on ‘social action’, supported by the LFC Foundation (them again!)
Looking around the room at the young people’s hopeful faces, full of excitement at the prospect of litter picking to change the world, I wondered what hopes and dreams those young Wavertree lads John and George had had when they were this age, and whether they could possibly have imagined the sheer scale of their future fame.
I know that in their teenaged years, they would head to The Abbey cinema together and – as George later recounted – that they were inspired toward a life of ‘Rock n Roll’ by seeing icons like Bill Haley in ‘Rock Around the Clock’ on the big screen, or more specifically by the reaction of the young women in the audience. In later interviews, George remembers ‘The big Art Deco cinema’ of his youth, while John included the ‘happy hours’ he spent in the circle of The Abbey in the original lyrics to ‘In my Life’. Reminiscences from John’s early girlfriends, like this from Pat Clark, underline just how happy those (non-film watching) hours were!
My own teenaged happy hours were, like so many others in this city, spent in The Cavern. I hope there is a long-past statute of limitations on these things, but back in the early nineties, it was the nightclub to go when you when you may have been 14 going on 18. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve had some interesting musical phases, with posters of Axl Rose swiftly replaced by posters of Take That! – but The Beatles have been an ever-present, gifted to me by my Aunt who saw them in their heyday and was in love with Paul until she saw them on The Town Hall balcony in 1964 and her head was turned by John whose hair, she still – at 81 – says wistfully, ‘shone like spun gold’
Growing up with Beatles sites and memorabilia all around Liverpool, much of which has been repackaged for tourists, I think we can get a little complacent about the value of our Beatles heritage. It wasn’t until I started working in culture and heritage and, specifically when I led the fieldwork for the Royal Society of Art’s three-year ‘Heritage, Identity & Place’ project that I realised how much it is the envy of other cities. Almost all of the cities we visited across the UK had a Beatles’ related story or plaque where they had played, visited, passed through or just stopped for petrol. It’s hard to believe that Plymouth with all of its heritage and specifically Plymouth Hoe with its famed history around the Armada and Francis Drake has copper casts of The Beatles’ bottoms were they sat once for a photo!
Despite my own Beatles fandom and interest in heritage, I had absolutely no idea that I had for twenty years lived within a few metres of George Harrison’s birthplace and first home at 12 Arnold Grove, Wavertree and even less idea – until I started volunteering with Love Wavertree and learning from our friends at The Wavertree Society – that we can also lay a decent claim to John, whose mum Julia worked at The Coffee House and who lived at 9 Newcastle Road, Wavertree, until he was 5. Unlike Mendips, where John then moved to live with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George, and Paul’s home at Forthlin Road, there is no National Trust plaque or statue or anything giving any indication at all of Wavertree’s stake in 50% of the biggest band in the world, ever.
Neither is there anything to mark the significance of The Abbey cinema (1939) which not only has documented Beatles heritage (and not just “John’s aunty’s friend’s neighbour’s wife’s dog ate my hamster”, but directly from The Beatles themselves), but which is also culturally significant as Liverpool’s first three-screen ‘Cinerama’, architecturally significant and strikingly beautiful in its Art Deco splendour, and forms a ‘set’ with Wavertree’s Lock Up (1796) and Picton Clock (1884). It’s astonishing that The Abbey is the only one of the three not listed, and I hope that Historic England remedy this in response to the application currently in progress (led by Save Britain’s Heritage and compiled by the brilliant Jonathan ‘JB’ Brown at @SharetheCity).
The listing application and an associated online petition have been delivered primarily in pre-empt to the not confirmed, but not denied, possibility that Lidl – who purchased the building from The Coop earlier this year – may seek to demolish the building and replace it with a new-build facility. There has been a huge public response to both the petition and the wider campaign, securing interest from the national media (see The Observer’s piece here) and, thanks to The Beatles links, making it into the international music press, as far afield as the NME in Japan! It was good to see The Abbey campaign feature in Save’s most recent press release and great too that renowned Beatles’ historian Mark Lewisohn makes particular reference to The Abbey in his comments, but very sad to see so many Beatles sites of note under threat.
The Abbey is so important in The Beatles’ story because its bright lights allowed those two young teenagers growing up in post-war Wavertree and South Liverpool to dare to dream. This comment on another Abbey piece on our website puts it so beautifully – ‘Cinemas make dreams’.
As part of our work at the RSA, we came up with a working definition of heritage as: “Anything inherited from the past that helps us, collectively or individually, to understand the present, and create a better future“. The so-called ‘heritage lobby’ has come in for some stick recently in Liverpool, being painted as dusty Luddites who want to preserve the city as a museum. In my experience, and quite contrary to this populist critique, people working in heritage are generally pragmatic and forward looking – and now they have saved us from the city-wide discomfort of a painfully misplaced zipwire.
Love Wavertree has been able to secure the floorplans for The Abbey building, which spans some 24,000 square foot on the ground floor with a first floor and a mezzanine each adding a further 4-5,000 square feet. The Coop and a string of supermarket tenants before them took up just 4,000 square feet of the ground floor space in a self-contained unit (and without the need to demolish the building).
Prior to Lidl’s purchase, Love Wavertree had been speaking with The Coop about the potential for the community to sub-let the additional space available within the building. We had thought then, and still think, that there is plenty of room to accommodate a supermarket in the existing unit, plus shared workspaces for creatives, social enterprises and small businesses, community kitchens and a cafe, perhaps lab space for food tech, innovation and sustainability research and – in line with the new Littlewoods Film Studios (and needed even more with the current onslaught of our cinema venues) an independent, community-led cinema. In short, there is plenty of room in the building for a nod to The Abbey’s past, present and future. A daring to dream ‘Futurama’ of its – and our – heritage.
Love Wavertree is ambitious for Wavertree and ambitious for our young people. We want to support their hopes and dreams and we want more than just a supermarket. We will be making plans, but for now, await the decision from Historic England with baited breath.
I hope, as the world celebrates this special year for John and as the Empire State Building is lit up in his memory, that we can do him proud and that once again we will see the bright lights on at The Abbey, ready to inspire future generations of young Wavertree dreamers.