This article is reprinted. By AMANDA CABLE
At first glance there is nothing remarkable about the pristine 1930s semi where Colin Hall lives with his wife, Sylvia. Nonetheless, Colin welcomes visitors with a smile and a palpable sense of pride.
As he shows guests around the modest kitchen, dining room and neat front parlour, there is a sense of hushed awe.
But it is when he takes people up to the small third bedroom at the front, which overlooks the leafy suburbia of Menlove Avenue in Liverpool, that emotions begin to spill.
Because it was here, on the narrow wooden bed – with posters of Elvis and Brigitte Bardot staring down from the wall – that the young John Lennon dreamed his way to stardom and penned a string of songs that would captivate the world.
The kitchen where Colin prepares his meals is where John once sat to eat his favourite egg and chips, made by his Aunt Mimi.
The front room where Colin, 60, relaxes is where Mimi and her husband, George, built floor-to-ceiling book shelves, to encourage young John to read.
And the sparse, tiled bathroom where Colin brushes his teeth is where the teenage John played his guitar, trying to recreate the acoustics of a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Mendips, the house that raised a legend, is steeped in history. And as custodian to Mendips, Colin lives with the memory of John Lennon daily.
Four times a day, from February to November, Colin takes guided tours around the historic house, which was bought by John’s widow, Yoko Ono, in 2003 and given to the National Trust. He says, ‘Last year, my wife and I studied the names in the visitors’ book.
‘They came from 55 countries: Yemen, Chile, Japan, and an awful lot from Russia. We have young and old – there’s no age limit to the people who want to pay tribute to him.
‘Last May, a guided group arrived by bus, and I saw that Bob Dylan was among them. I paused for a moment, then I simply started my patter: “Welcome to Mendips, the childhood home of John Lennon…”
Later, when we reached John’s bedroom, Bob Dylan spotted the volume of Just William, which was one of John’s favourite books.
Dylan was fascinated by the book, and I remember thinking, “I’m standing in John Lennon’s bedroom with Bob Dylan.” It was a totally surreal moment.’
The story of how this softly spoken, retired teacher came to live in the home of his boyhood hero is an extraordinary one. Colin says, ‘I was nine years younger than John and, as a teenager, the Beatles were my absolute idols. As I was growing up, I felt a tremendous empathy with John Lennon.
‘We were both raised by women other than our mothers. John came to Mendips as a confused and scared five-year-old, whose parents’ relationship had broken down. He adored his mother, Julia, but was raised by her older sister, Mimi, who insisted she could provide him with a more stable upbringing.
‘In my case, I was adopted at birth, and I only discovered later that an auntie who had always turned up on my birthdays was, in fact, the mother who had left me.’
Colin, who has two stepsons and a daughter, had retired from teaching English and history and was living with Sylvia, also a teacher, in a Victorian villa in Derbyshire when friends spotted an ad in the newspaper. The National Trust was seeking a custodian for Mendips, to look after the house and to give the guided tours. Colin says, ‘I was looking for something else in my life and this job seemed the answer.
I went through several interviews before I realised that the job meant I would have to live at Mendips for nine months of the year because our home was a two-hour drive. It would mean living away from Sylvia for much of the week but, by now, I was so entranced by the house and the opportunity that I couldn’t turn it down. Sylvia knew how much the Beatles meant to me – and, incredibly, she didn’t stand in my way.’
So, seven years ago, Colin moved into the house that was to become his home and his passion, and Sylvia, who is now a children’s author, followed some months later. He says, ‘I wouldn’t say that you can actually sense John’s spirit
here, but the house has an extraordinary feeling of warmth. I thought I’d feel awkward, because I was effectively living in a museum, but from the moment I stepped inside, it felt like home. I’ve never missed the fact that we don’t have a TV, or minded that we live in one room upstairs and store our clothes away all the time.
‘Despite all these things, this felt like such a happy home. And I realise just how welcoming it must have been to the little boy who first moved here in 1945. At that time, John’s life was in turmoil.
He had been born during the Blitz in Liverpool, and must have remembered some of the bombing and devastation. His parents’ marriage was ending – he only saw his father, Freddie, who was a ship’s cook, a couple
In stepped John’s doughty and house-proud Aunt Mimi who, together with her husband, had purchased the semi in 1942.
They had no children – and young John was given the small front bedroom overlooking the tram lines. Modest even by 1950s standards, the room has been recreated by the National Trust just as John himself remembered it.
Colin says, ‘It was in his bedroom that he wrote his own school newspaper, The Daily Howl; he pored over his favourite book, Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass and, once Mimi had bought him his first guitar, he began to write his own songs.
‘It is standing at the doorway that most people feel emotional, because this is where Strawberry Fields and I Am The Walrus (inspired by Carroll) were born.
‘He sat on his small bed with its pink quilt and wrote Please Please Me with Paul McCartney. I still catch my breath when I think about it. This is the room where John felt most secure, where, he told Yoko, he would do his dreaming.’
Visitors to the house are shown, not through the front door, but around the side. Colin says firmly, ‘Aunt Mimi didn’t want her carpets to be worn down, so John would always walk up the side path and in through the kitchen. I like our guests to tread the same route.
‘There, hanging on the wall for years, was a poem he had written for his aunt. It began: “A house where there is love…” She treasured it. Mimi would collect apples from the garden and cook him endless apple pies, which he loved.
‘John’s friends have come on the tour and told me how Mimi would wash everything by hand in the sink, including sheets, which she would hang from the drying rack on the ceiling.
For years, this kitchen would smell of washing powder and fish, because young John would go to the market and collect fresh fish for the two family cats.
When John was still at primary school, he stepped out one Christmas and found a tiny kitten shivering by the roadside.
‘He brought it in, but Mimi refused to let him adopt the kitten until she had placed an advertisement in the local shop. When no one came to claim the kitten, she let him keep it and he called it Tim.’
Just by the kitchen is the morning room, which John loved. Colin says, ‘There was no central heating in the house, and ice would freeze on the inside of the windows. This room had a coal fire, so John would sit here and listen to Dick Barton: Special Agent! and The Goon Show on the radio.’
‘After Uncle George died, when John was just 14, Aunt Mimi struggled to make ends meet and had to resort to taking in student lodgers.
‘They used her bedroom and she slept on a modest fold-up bed downstairs, and the dining room, which is now used to display memorabilia, became a sort of student common room.
Legend has it that Aunt Mimi banished John – and his new, baby-faced friend, Paul McCartney – to the porch to play their guitars. When Colin met McCartney a few years ago, they talked about Mendips.
Colin says, ‘I met him at his offices in London and he recalled the echoing acoustics of the front porch. He remembered the pair of them singing Elvis’s Blue Moon, and said they called it their “echo chamber”. Paul said that his golden memories were sitting in John’s small bedroom listening to music and playing their guitars. He was visibly moved.’
John left Mendips when he went to Liverpool College of Art and moved into student lodgings in the late 1950s, but returned briefly to live in the dining room with his new bride, Cynthia, in the early 1960s. In total, he spent 18 years of his life in this unremarkable suburban semi.
Colin says, ‘I never tire of showing people around. Each busload brings different groups who are excited and deeply moved by the fact that they are about to step foot into John Lennon’s house. When the last tour has finished, I simply sit down and make my own tea.
‘The museum becomes my home – until the next day of tours. When I sit reading in the front room, I couldn’t want more from a home. And I know that John once felt the same.’
Colin pauses, and then adds, ‘I am not sharing a house with John Lennon’s ghost. I am living with a legend.’
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