It was fifteen years ago today, on September 6th, 1997, that I spent the afternoon touring Liverpool by myself. It was also the day of Princess Diana's funeral.
In August, 1997, I was a 20-year-old student beginning a semester abroad. I had just gotten settled at Lincoln College at the University of Oxford, where I was studying the classics for four weeks before embarking on a tour of the Mediterranean. I'm not sure what I was doing on the morning of Sunday, August the 31st, but at noon, when I went down to the dining hall for lunch, a friend told me the news.
|News of Diana's death|
"Did you hear about Diana?" she asked.
"She was in a car accident."
I nodded or something.
"She's dead," my friend said.
Princess Diana was dead? What was I to make of this? I felt, of course, the loss, the acknowledgement that she was far too young to die. Other than that, though, I didn't know what to think. I was willfully ignorant about the royal family in general and the princess in particular. They had just never mattered to me before. But now something tragic had happened, and I went out to the new shop to buy some papers before they disappeared.
Diana's death was the only talk of that weekend. The man at the take-away shop, our professor, the porter at our college--they were all distraught about this accident and had various theories about what had actually happened. We saw them discussing her death in low tones all over campus.
|Flowers and mourners|
But I already had plans, you see. I was going to go to Liverpool.
Not going to Liverpool was never a question. Shortly after arriving in England, I had gotten a Britrail pass for the purpose of taking trips around Britain during our long weekends from Oxford, and the first places I wanted to see were Penny Lane, Strawberry Field, the Cavern Club, and John Lennon's home in Woolten Village. And I didn't want to participate in any tourist "Magical Mystery Tour" crap or visit any souvenir shops. I just wanted some time alone to wander around.
|John Lennon's white piano and Rickenbacker guitar.|
On the way from the station to the river, one passes a bronze statue of Elanor Rigby. It's on Stanley Street, just around the corner from the Cavern Club. The statue, dedicated to "All the lonely people," is of a faceless woman in unkempt clothing, waiting alone at the end of an otherwise empty bench. Perhaps I knew this statue existed, perhaps not. I don't remember. What I do remember is the shock of finding it that day, because it was covered with a dozen boquets of flowers.
|Elanor Rigby's statue, 5 Sep 1997|
It took only another moment to realize that, no, the flowers were not for Elanor Rigby; they were more likely left there for Princess Diana.
That evening, as Queen Elizabeth gave a televised eulogy from her balcony at Buckingham Palace, I visited the Cavern Club. The Cavern Club is fake. It's a tourist destination. They closed the real one in 1973, then tore it down to make way for an underground station. And I knew all of this. But still, standing on the stage of the Cavern--reconstruction or not--I couldn't help feel a sense of accomplishment. I had made it there. I asked a stranger to snap my picture.
|At the Cavern Club. White suede shoes, of course.|
There was only one other person on the bus.
She was an older woman, fifty years old, maybe, and she started a conversation with me as soon as I sat down.
"I see we're the only ones not watching the funeral," she said. "You and me. And why should we? What was so special about Diana, anyway? What did she ever do for us?"
I had no idea what to say to her. Having been a Briton for less than three weeks, I did not feel qualified to offer an opinion on whether Diana had or had not been good for us. So I just nodded in agreement and looked out the window. The streets were empty. Everyone except for my outspoken busmate and myself was at home, watching Diana's funeral on television.
|I bought these mints at Penny Lane News.|
I found St. Peter's Church, where John and Paul first met, and where there is allegedly a stone in the graveyard reading the name of Elanor Rigby (I didn't look.) Next, I am reasonably sure that I found the site that John's mother, Julia, was killed when she was struck by a car. You won't find this on any tourist map, but I felt quite confident about it at the time.
Imagine walking down a deserted city street in the middle of a silent summer day, hearing nothing but a boys' choir singing "An Air From County Derry"from the television sets of strangers.
Having seen everything I had hoped to see, I walked back towards Penny Lane and waited until the bus, empty now, carried me back to the railway station in silence.