A Meeting with Macca -- Peter Leyland
A long time ago, maybe before some of you were born, I had two American pen-friends obtained through a popular music station named Radio Caroline: the first, Jo, was a leggy fifteen-year-old from New York who liked Bob Dylan and Ayn Rand, although not necessarily in that order; the second, Sandra, was a girl-next-door type from West Virginia who early in our correspondence sent me an intricately arranged wreath of chewing gum wrappers. As my tale is more concerned with Sandra, we will leave any questions about Jo's liking for The Fountainhead to one side for the moment.
Anyway, the story is not really about my pen-friends but about Paul McCartney and how when I was fifteen I met him. I had just completed my paper round and, having grunted at Mr Lund's bowed back that I'd finished, I came out of his shop onto the pavement.
“Hey Pete, Paul McCartney’s in Mr Orlans, buying a camera.”
This was from a know-it-all friend and I stood there disbelieving, but sure enough a few minutes later out from Orlans the chemist, next door to Lund's, came the now familiar figure with the camera slung from his shoulder. As he passed, heading for a waiting taxi, he noticed my blazer:
“Old school eh?” he said, tapping my badge, which was green and had a Latin motto. I hurriedly searched in my pocket for paper and a pen. This had a blue barrel and a metal lever for pumping the ink:
“Can you open the taxi door for me?” he said.
A small crowd was now gathering but I did as he asked. As he sat in the cab, I thrust the primed pen and the paper into his hands for a signature.
A hasty scribble and it was done. I stepped back, the door closed, and the taxi sped away.
And there the story might have ended but for Sandra. I had written, you see, my regular air-mail letter to her, telling her all about the event, and one to Jo of course. I wasn’t two-timing them. It was just that one didn’t know about the other.
I had met them as I said through Caroline, a pirate radio station, which was then broadcasting pop music from the North Sea. I would listen to it every morning, while I was lighting the fire. This was my routine chore before setting out on the paper round for which I received 10/- per week. I would prepare coils from sheets of The Liverpool Echo, spread the coal round them and ignite the results with the gas poker. As I worked, I listened to songs about the bright elusive butterfly of love, or how I might as well try and catch the wind.
I really wanted to know about this love thing so I had made contact with the pen-friend circle which was being advertised on the radio. It offered to make introductions to girls for you: you see an all-boys school wasn’t the best place to learn anything of importance so you had to be more creative - and sure enough, I soon got two replies. In those days Liverpool was still a busy port and had a booming cultural industry of theatre, poetry and music. So, it was a good thing to come from there. The Beatles were just beginning, and the fact that two of them had attended the school that I went to, was no small advantage. One of my teachers used to brandish proudly the cricket bat that he claimed to have used on George Harrison’s backside – yes, we had corporal punishment - and Paul McCartney’s lyricism had been encouraged and nurtured by another teacher there, Alan Durband, who was a student of F.R. Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge. He was just leaving the school as I was arriving.
Anyway, to return to my story. I had corresponded with Jo and Sandra for a few months and I found that I really needed to improve my penmanship to keep up with them. It was a fortnightly letter and they both wrote lots to me on lovely paper, sometimes slightly scented. We had exchanged photos, Jo posed sitting on a USA mailbox in New York, Sandra in a colour-photo booth in Virginia. I had sent mine to them, in black and white, wearing a crew necked sweater. Sandra described me as ‘cute’, Jo was non-committal.
On learning of my meeting with Paul McCartney Jo was unimpressed, but Sandra put me into a quandary by asking if she could have the badge that he had touched. Now I didn’t know too much about girls then. As I said the school was all-boys which was the practice at the time, but I definitely wasn’t up to disappointing them, not yet anyway.
What could I do?
I could carefully unpick the badge from my blazer with scissors and remove it, that was one solution, but how would I explain that to my mother? She had not yet met with the my-son-is-interested-in-girls question, that was still to come, but I didn’t think she would agree to sewing on a new badge for me. This was in the days before domestic science was a subject for boys, and I had none of the necessary skills to do it myself.
The answer came to me suddenly!
I would buy another badge and send that to Sandra.
This all had to be done surreptitiously because you couldn’t just go into a shop and buy one and they were quite expensive as I found when I consulted the catalogue. In the end I wrote a letter to the firm, accompanied by a postal order, and after a couple of weeks the badge arrived in a brown paper package. Having rolled it around a bit to make it look a bit worn, I sent it to Sandra, who I imagined would be waiting with bated breath for the receipt of something that Paul McCartney might have touched.
And here endeth the first lesson: instead of receiving a grateful letter from Sandra, scented maybe with patchouli oil, nothing happened. She never replied. All that gum that she must have chewed to make the wreath was lying trodden into the sidewalks somewhere in Virginia, unregarded just like my badge. Perhaps she knew it wasn’t the real badge, and perhaps I should have paid more attention to Jo despite her fondness for Ayn Rand.
I have to confess that I did prefer Jo really. 'The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken’, she wrote to me in her next letter, quoting that memorable line from Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues. When I visited New York in the 70s I thought that I might just bump into Jo, like I had with Paul McCartney, and have another story to tell.
No such luck.
Peter Leyland 20/12/21
*Inspired by Paul McCartney's publication of his lyrics just in time for Xmas. Some names have been changed
Hope St. photo and Text from 111 Places In Liverpool That You Shouldn't Miss (2016)
Paul Muldoon's Introduction to The Lyrics 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney (2021)