Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Inspired and Inspiring

“Eleanor Rigby Died in the Church”

Before the Industrial Revolution and the opening of the great quarries in the nineteenth century, Woolton was a  village. Old terraces remain in the centre and isolated sandstone houses survive, stranded on islands in the middle of today’s  approach roads. Now Woolton is  a smart suburb of Liverpool with large, detached houses and thirties semidetached, an abundance of coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, and the  famous Woolton Picture House dating from 1926.

The parish church of St. Peter’s was built in 1886 using the same local sandstone  as Liverpool Cathedral, the latter one of the last customers before the quarries closed. The church has windows by Charles Kempe and William Morris, and its bell tower is  the highest point in Liverpool. When I visited it was enjoying an Open Day with a profusion old documents, photographs, maps, and local  history books on display.

But my objective was Eleanor Rigby. The dark, narrative song about loneliness came out in 1966 on  the Beatles’ Revolver album  and on a 45rpm single, its hauntingly beautiful, pensive lyrics oddly paired with the chirpy  Yellow Submarine. The origin of the name of the protagonist  is disputed. Paul McCartney  suggested that it was inspired by the actress  Eleanor Bron, who had starred with the Beatles in the 1965 film Help, combined with the name of a store in Bristol, Rigby and Evens Ltd., which he had noticed during a visit to Jane Asher when she was performing at the Bristol Old Vic.

But in Woolton they see things differently, for it was here at the Woolton Village Fete in July 1957 that John met Paul. The day’s events included: a procession; the crowning of the Rose Queen; a fancy dress parade; a display by Liverpool police dogs; and  performances in the school grounds behind the church by John Lennon’s band the Quarry Men Skiffle Group. The latter also took second billing, after the George Edwards Band (me neither), at the Grand Dance held in the church hall at 8pm with tickets priced at two shillings, and “refreshments at moderate prices.” In the hall they have marked the spots on the floor where a mutual friend introduced a sixteen-year-old John to a fifteen-year-old Paul and the latter auditioned to join the Quarry Men.

And in St. Peter’s churchyard, across which the young John and Paul frequently took a short cut, a headstone bears the name Eleanor Rigby. McCartney said that he had no recollection of ever seeing the stone, but he  admitted that he could have unconsciously borrowed the name.

Personally, I was predisposed to find the origins of Eleanor Rigby here, and so I discovered was everyone else. In many churches a famed connection with the Beatles and a trail of curious fans might have elicited a chilly response. But here the  wardens and parishioners extended  the warm welcome at which Liverpudlians excel. In response to my question, an enthusiastic volunteer explained where the grave was, urging me to look out for Father McKenzie’s prototype as well. He explained that if I went to the edge of the graveyard I could look upon the location of the stage where The Quarry Men performed in 1957. Then he drew my attention to the additional presences in the churchyard of George Toogood Smith, John’s uncle, and of Bob Paisley – the Liverpool football manager, he explained, noting my blank expression. Cheerfully he instructed me to come back if I failed to find any of these treasures, offering to abandon his post and conduct me thither personally. In many a larger cemetery I have wished for such  assistance, but here I left him surrounded by other eager visitors, while I located Eleanor Rigby  with ease.

Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby

Died in the church and was buried along with her name

The original Eleanor Rigby worked in the City Hospital at Parkhill, married Thomas Woods in 1930, and sadly died at only forty-four of a brain haemorrhage.

Only a few graves away was John McKenzie.

John McKenzie

Father McKenzie

Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave

John McKenzie, only a short distance from Eleanor Rigby, come on, it’s obvious they were the inspiration for the song.

Then following my friend’s directions, I also located  George Toogood Smith and Bob Paisley.

George Toogood Smith, John Lennon’s uncle
Bob Paisley, Liverpool Manager

St. Peter’s holds  Open Days every summer to coincide with International Beatle Week. They offer leaflets with the plan of a walk incorporating Strawberry Fields and John’s childhood home, Mendips, and another of the parade route from 1957. If you doubt your ability to follow a map there is no shortage of folk eager to show you round. The church’s website has a special section on the Beatles where there is a copy of the programme from the 1957 fete.  Impossible to read it without wishing you were there.

I recommend an excursion to see St. Peter’s and meet its warm, friendly congregation. If you are  lucky, your visit may coincide with a performance in the church hall by the remaining Quarry Men. But most importantly pay your respects to the original Eleanor Rigby, most assuredly the muse,whatever Paul McCartney  may say, for one of the greatest Beatles songs ever.

Ivan Franko and The Stonebreakers

For over six weeks Ukrainians, led by the brave and seemingly tireless Zelenskiy, have been fighting to protect their homeland from an evil and brutal invasion. And even as they have fought in defence of their country, they have negotiated too, working and hoping for a political compromise which allows them autonomy and freedom to choose their own way of life.

There are no words for the horror, ugliness, and violence of war. Every night we have watched the news on television, every morning read the newspapers. War is death, injury and mutilation, homelessness, hunger and degradation, fear of an ever-present threat. Part of a privileged generation in a privileged country who have not known war in our lifetimes I cannot claim to empathise, to know anything of the feelings of those who have fled or the fears of those who remain. I can feel only shame for our own government’s failure to welcome refugees.

In happier times I travelled around Ukraine on the Ukrainian railways. Then the distinctive blue trains with their yellow stripe provided a comfortable intercity sleeper service for tourists like me,  and the carriage guards greeted us with tea in the mornings. In recent weeks, those trains have been involved in a massive evacuation programme,  carrying as many as 200,000 people a day, two million in the first two weeks of the war alone, to the west of the country, returning packed with humanitarian aid.

When my train took me to Lviv I visited the Lychakivske cemetery  where I found Ivan Franko (1856-1916), nationalist poet, journalist, activist, and reformer, he was a co-founder of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party in 1889. On his grave a massive sculpture of a  stonecutter “crushing the granite wall” references his poem Kamenyari, The Stonebreakers, an allegory of the Ukrainian struggle for liberation from her oppressive past under the Polish, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. For foreign oppression is not new to Ukraine. In the 1340s the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and The Kingdom of Poland split the country between them. As the power of Lithuania declined, Poland tightened her hold until a challenge by Russia in the seventeenth century subjugated Kyiv and Northern Ukraine, while  the Poles remained in the West. In the eighteenth century  the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires carved up Poland between them and the Austrian Hapsburgs  annexed Lviv and the West. Against this background of colonisation and foreign dominance, Ivan Franko took a leading part in the rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the nineteenth century. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the turmoil of the Russian Revolution allowed Ukraine a very brief period of independence after the First World War, but the Polish-Ukrainian war (1918-1919) effected a return to Polish ascendancy in the West, while the Polish- Soviet war (1918-1921) precipitated the incorporation  of most of Ukraine into the Soviet Union. Occupied at separate times in the Second World War by the Nazis and the Soviets, Ukraine emerged under Soviet domination. At last, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine obtained a fragile independence in 1991, until on 24 February this year a new Russian invasion brought war.

In the same cemetery as Franko  l discovered Maria Konopnika, (1842-1910), Polish poet, novelist, translator, advocate of women’s rights and Polish independence from Prussia and Russia, and the flowers were piled as high on her grave as they were on Franko’s. Even more surprisingly I stumbled upon the burial ground of the  Polish Eaglets, young Polish volunteers who “defended” Lviv in the Polish-Ukrainian War. Polish workers began the restoration of this cemetery within a cemetery, which had been used as a truck depot after World War Two, in the late eighties, and following Polish support for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, it officially reopened in a joint Polish-Ukrainian ceremony in 2005. And today it is the old enemy, Poland, which has opened its borders and whose people have welcomed more than two million refugees.

In the last week, the war in Ukraine has taken on ever darker and more evil tones,  Russian forces sinking to new depths attacking civilian targets including schools and hospitals, and from Bucha  footage  has emerged of civilians who have been shot with their hands tied behind their backs. A Russian missile strike on a crowded railway station in Kramatorsk, where four thousand people were waiting to board the trains which would evacuate them  to safety, killed over fifty people  and injured more than a hundred. In the face of these war crimes  the possibility of any  reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians seems a naïve and absurd hope. I know how easily in those circumstances I could soon burn with indiscriminate hatred for Russians, and who can fail to understand any Ukrainian who feels that way.

And yet many brave Russians although fully aware of the consequences for themselves have dared to oppose their government’s  war: Marina Ovsyannikova who held up signs during a state TV news broadcast reading “Don’t believe the propaganda,”  and “Russians Against the War”,  was arrested and detained by riot police . Others have had their homes vandalised and lost their jobs for signing petitions against the war. Anti-war protests have been criminalised, and even referring to the attack on Ukraine as war or invasion, carries the threat of fifteen years in prison. Protestors have responded by holding up blank sheets of paper, placards reading “two words” or bearing eloquent asterisks. Blue and yellow flowers materialize at war memorials  and anti-war graffiti appear. Tens of thousands, described by Putin as traitors and enemies of the state, have left Russia and now gather at protests around the world, and independent Russian journalists are working in Ukraine to break the Kremlin’s stranglehold on information; one of them, Oksana Baulina, was killed by a Russian missile in Kyiv while filming damage in the city from an earlier attack.

Franko’s poem spoke not just of smashing through rock with sledgehammers but also of building a strong dwelling and a new life. The determined courage of the Ukrainians, the generosity of the Poles, the bravery of Russians who stand up to their government, and the well-tended graves in the  Lychakivske Cemetery foster hope even in the darkest of times that there will come a day when the war is over and Ukraine is free again, and the blue trains with their yellow stripe  carry only carefree holiday makers,  when old hatreds while not forgotten are forged into new friendships, and a new memorial may find a place alongside Franko, Konopnika,  and the Polish Eaglets, remembering those Russians who stood with Ukraine.

Ivan Franko, co-founder of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party
Maria Konopnika, Polish Nationalist
The Polish Eaglets

6.30am Lviv station in happier times

The blue and yellow train about to depart Lviv for Odessa
Morning tea on Ukrainian Railways

Slava Ukraini

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