Everyone with the River Mersey flowing through their veins remembers where they were on the morning of Monday, December 8th, 1980 – barely two weeks before Christmas, the day Liverpool’s bus drivers and Mersey Ferry crews staged a 24 hour strike over pay.
I was asleep in bed in my parents’ home when the telephone rang. It was Ruby Williams who was about to finish her overnight news reading shift at Radio City.
‘You’ve heard the news,’ she shouted.
‘The bloody buses and ferries are on strike?’
‘John Lennon’s been assassinated in New York,’ she said.
‘John Lennon has been f**king shot dead in New York! ‘
I shook myself awake.
‘Get everybody in and tell the morning disc jockey to start playing nonstop Beatle’s tunes.’
Ruby sounded exasperated.
‘They’re already on their way. I left you until last to call because I knew you would have been out late last night and still have a hangover.’
As I sped down the dock road to the Radio City studios John Lennon’s Imagine was playing hauntingly on my station and details of that fateful night were beginning to unfold.
John Lennon was shot dead outside his home in the Dakota mansions in Manhattan. His assassin was Mark Chapman a born again Christian with a history of mental illness. The world was in mourning.
‘Get your contacts book out and start calling people for phone interviews,’ barked news editor Roger Wilkes.
I woke up Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McGear.
‘F**k off Kieran and stop taking the piss,’ he mumbled before he slammed the phone down.
Gerry Marsden was more receptive.
‘I’ve just been listening to your news. Liverpool and the world have lost a legend.’
‘McGear is back on the phone you,’ shouted Wilkes.
Mike was apologetic.
‘I’ve just had a nightmare that you called me to say that John was dead. Tell me it’s not true.’
‘I’m sorry it is true.’
‘Jesus, I must phone our kid.’
But despite their grief both singers gave emotional telephone interviews about the man Mike said had ‘Rocked the World.’
By now it was almost impossible to phone out. The switchboard was jammed with calls from radio and TV stations around the world.
Even Bert the uniformed commissionaire at the front desk was giving live phone interviews. As I headed for Mathew Street, the home of the new Cavern Club, I heard him tell one radio station in New York, ‘Liverpool is so stunned the buses and the ferries across the Mersey have stopped running.’
On the wall opposite the Cavern there’s a sculpture by my old mate Arthur Dooley called The Madonna. It depicts the Virgin Mary holding four babies in her arms and carries the inscription: ‘Four Lads who Shook the World’.
Mathew Street was deserted apart from Charlie, a photographer, from the Liverpool News agency Mercury Press.
‘We’re not going to get much here,’ said Charlie.
And then I had a brainwave.
We pooled our lunch money and I went to Fishlocks the Florists around the corner and bought a wreath. We grabbed a pretty young blond who was passing by and got her to lay the wreath in front of Arthur’s Madonna.
’Who’s John Lennon?’ she asked. ’Was he one of the Monkees?’
Charlie’s iconic image of Liverpool a City of Sorrow went around the world as did my interview in which he described how thousands of people had gathered in Mathew Street to lay floral tributes to John Lennon.
The Grapes Pub in Mathew Street where the Beatles used to drink was still closed but Alan Williams and Bob Wooler were already waiting outside for opening time. Alan was the Beatles first manager who famously couldn’t find his contract when Brian Epstein steamed in and took stewardship of the Fab Four. Bob was the Disc Jockey in the old Cavern Club when Cilla Black was the hat check girl. Unlike their contemporaries they had failed miserably to make millions out of the Merseybeat phenomenon and largely made their drinks money by tapping up tourists in the Grapes.
But they knew they could make big bucks from the American reporters who were already on the train from London to Liverpool the City of Sorrow.
That evening Roger Wilkes presented an hour long tribute to John Lennon, his life and his death far away from his Liverpool home.
And afterwards we joined Wooler and Williams in the Grapes.
‘The drinks are on us,’ shouted Williams waving a fistful of dollars. And when I left at closing time I had little recollection of going home.
The following morning the telephone rang.
It was Ruby Williams.
‘What’s up now?’ I mumbled.
‘The dockers have walked out in sympathy with John Lennon. Roger wants you to do a report.’
I yawned, ‘F*ck off and stop taking the piss. I have the day off to do my Christmas shopping.’
And then I went back to sleep convinced that I would wake up in the morning and learn it had all been a nightmare.