Screams like teen spirit: girls go wild at a Beatles concert, Christmas 1963. Photo: Sharok Hatami/Rex
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Forty pairs of abandoned knickers: Maureen Lipman on the Fab Four in Hull

In the second half, John Lennon stepped forward to the mike, thighs straining against his shiny and confining suit. He shook his locks, lowered his eyes and let me have it.

Where I came from, you were a Beatles girl or a Rolling Stones girl. Just as, a few years earlier, you were a Connie Francis or a Juliette Gréco girl: white shoes and a beehive hairdo or black roll-neck, kohl and flatties. Mecca Locarno or basement jazz room, Pepsi-Cola or whisky sour: queuing at both. This was Hull, 1963, before it had culture and a marina, when David Whitfield covered “Cara Mia” in a blazer made by my dad and Philip Larkin darkly traversed the university library.

I was 17 years old, working on my English, art and history A-level syllabus and mooning around my bedroom listening to Doris Day and reading The Golden Notebook. I was a good enough actress to do a convincing squirm at Elvis’s gyrations, but frankly I had less idea what “sent” my gang of schoolfriends than I had of the unification of Italy 1871.

Every end of term Paddy, Ann, Marilyn, Janet, Leonie, Kay, Jennifer and me – the arty girls – led the whole school out on to the playing fields and performed an entire Sunday Night at the London Palladium show. Marilyn Atkinson’s “Cliff”, with tight trousers and lacquered quiff, drew more screams than the real thing. Crushes abounded. I had gaggles of fans who waved autograph books at me. We were legends.

One of my “crushees” had a dad who worked at the Regal Cinema and therefore had access to free seats at the forthcoming Beatles concert. A giggling posse of navy blazers asked me if I would like to go along and, out of pity, I agreed – after all, it was only 18 months since I had stalked Pauline Melville after her performance as the maid in Cranford. As far as I was concerned, the Beatles were a nice-sounding group of young men with shiny hair and no lapels. Nothing to sing about.

At the concert, the music was completely drowned out by the screaming. It was tribal, and I viewed my fellow mortals from my balcony seat with the same amusement and disdain I felt when audiences rose and lumbered out before the end credits ran on Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 – which I saw 15 times. So unprofessional!

Then I reached my road to Damascus. In the second half, John Lennon stepped forward to the mike, thighs straining against his shiny and confining suit. He shook his locks, lowered his eyes, put his overbite delicately in place and let me have it:

 

The best things in life

are free

But you can keep it for the

berds [sic] and bees . . .

Someone very close to me screamed the most piercing of screams, a primal mating call. I looked around peripherally without losing sight of the tiny demigod in front of me:

I want mo-o-o-ney.

Thass what I want.

My Cornetto dangled. Sweat ran across my upper lip and down my virgin armpits. The screaming was increasing in volume and intensity. Someone was about to implode. I realised with an electric shock that the screaming someone was me. I continued to scream for the next 40 minutes. The rest of the concert is a blur. As is the smug excitement of my fourth-year fans, and the moment their heroine was dragged away from the stage door by her dad to his Morris Oxford.

“Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three,” Larkin wrote. He wasn’t far wrong. The next day, I had a voice like Eartha Kitt; the manager of the Regal told my dad they’d cleared away 40 pairs of abandoned knickers at the cinema; and life, as I knew it, was never the same again. I still thank John Lennon from the bottom of my heart. From that day on, I understood what Martha Quest in The Golden Notebook was actually doing it all for. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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