Thursday, September 6, 2012

Liverpool Lime Street and the Day They Buried Diana

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.

I hadn't.

"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
My classmates changed their plans for that weekend.  A few decided they were going to go to Buckingham Palace to be part of the official mourning.  And some of them did just that.  They were part of the crush when the Queen came out to address the crowd--so close, in fact, that when someone yelled out, "We love you!" they heard her reply--"Thank you."

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.
So I got on a train that Friday morning and found the smoker car for the six-hour journey.  Even before the end of the line, I felt I was in some place familiar, someplace I had been before.  I rode that train to the Liverpool Lime Street station, which seemed an appopriate place to begin my Beatles weekend.  I knew about Lime Street because John sings about it on "Maggie Mae," of course!  Where else could I possibly be but Lime Street?  I emerged from the railway station in high spirits and walked the half a mile to the River Mersey.

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
I stood there dumbly, trying to understand what I was looking at.  People in Liverpool must love the Beatles so much, I reasoned, that they leave flowers for Elanor Rigby.

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.
That night I found a hostel on Falkner Square and met some crusty Belgian punk rockers who invited me out to hear some music.  The next morning, I set out to catch the first bus to take me out to Woolten Village.  And when the doors wheezed open and I paid my 80 pence fare, I realized that something was out of the ordinary.

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.
The bus stopped.  I got off.  It was a beautiful, breezy day in Woolton, and I was the only one walking the streets.  After wandering for a while, I found Penny Lane, and, lookie there,  the shelter in the middle of the roundabout!  Next door was the Penny Lane News shop where, for want of anything more meaningful to do, I bought a packet of mints for 14 pence.  Then I found Mendips, John Lennon's childhood home, on Menlove Avenue.  It was just where it was supposed to be.  Backtracking, I found the gates of Strawberry Field, the old Salvation Army home, and snapped a picture, using my camera bag to prop up my Nikon.

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.

Walking along Quarry road and back again was an uncanny experience.  It was as if I had a private reservation for  Woolton Village that day.  There were no cars in the streets, no pedestrians on the sidewalk, no tourists getting in the way.  No one ever would have known I was there.  The only way I knew that there were people present was the music coming from the homes.  Every house had its windows raised high, as it was such a pleasant day, and as I walked past house after house, I heard the same church music emanating from each living room.  Everyone was inside watching Diana's funeral.

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.


  1. Amazing recollection! That day was meant for you and you only. Very few others would have appreciated it.

    1. Thanks! I must credit my powers of recollection to my old habit of keeping a journal. Glad you liked it.

  2. I really want to go sit on the bench next to Ms. Rigby.