Pretending to be rich to get closer to the Beatles

If this is the price I have to pay to see rooms once frequented by Ringo Starr, then I'll pay it.

Over the years I have been living in the Hovel, I have taken a mild interest in the changing use of what was once the Beatles’ Apple Boutique, nearby on the corner of Baker Street and Paddington Street. (I love the band with a fierce love and have discovered that every possible stage and nuance of a relationship is covered by at least one of their songs.) For eight months, this was where they sold smelly Afghan coats, velvet loons and Mary Quant knock-offs. When they realised that because of their trusting, open-door policy everyone was nicking the stuff left, right and centre, they gave up and officially let the grubby hippies pick up everything they wanted for free.

I have always been grimly amused by the subsequent history of what used to be the epicentre of the doomed counterculture. When I moved into the Hovel, almost six years ago to the day, the ground floor of the building was an employment agency. Then, for about a year or so, when everyone got jobs and no one needed employment agencies any more, it was a void, its windows splashed with whitewash. Now, it has become an estate agent’s.

This is cheering news. Everyone needs estate agents’; the people who work in them are the unsung heroes and heroines of the neoliberal project. Many is the time I have, on a whim, feigned an interest in a property in one of the swankier parts of town, simply so I could stroll around some A-list gaff whilelistening to a git in a shiny suit exhaust his stock of superlatives.

Actually, never is the time I have done this and indeed the last time I did anything remotely like it was in 1994, when my wife announced that we were buying the weirdly planned and pleasingly shabby old house off the “wrong” side of the Uxbridge Road, where she and our cat and our children still reside. On that occasion, the estate agent was charming and honest and was also a huge fan of mine because I had been quoted on the back of Fever Pitch, a book that is popular among estate agents, for some reason.

Back to Baker Street. “A unique opportunity to own the ultimate piece of Beatles memorabilia”, announces the sign in an estate agent’s but curiously not the one on the ground floor of the building. The sign shows a charming street scene: the Apple Boutique being mobbed by a crowd of monochrome young people. (Just look at the people in that picture, or in the last minutes of the Let It Be film, as a bemused public looks up at the Savile Row roof on which the Beatles are playing their last gig – there’s not a merry prankster to be seen among them, just dark suits and slim ties.)

This, it would appear, is a picture of the end-of-the-show free-for-all sale, hence the crowd; the building in the picture has been painted white, in deference to the outraged complaints of local shopkeepers when it was first decorated with psychedelic rainbows. The design company, as I recall, wascalled the Fool. Oh, heady, innocent days when you could call your design company the Fool!

“A boutique development of five stunning apartments in the former headquarters of Apple, the Beatles’ record company”, continues the sign. “To preregister your interest, please contact . . . ” It goes on, incidentally, to boast that the company was formed a year or two after John Lennon was shot, although it doesn’t put it quite like that.

The snag is, I don’t think I’ve got enough money to put a financial stake into a property on the corner of Baker and Paddington Streets. A quick, nauseating look at my bank balance at the cashpoint of the Barclays directly opposite reveals that I have about £0.00 to last me until the end of the month, once I have taken certain essential expenses into account. (Michael Gove: it is not about the “poor decisions” I have made. I suppose I could stop drinking, if I listened to certain counsels. But I can’t, for reasons I will explain in terms that even an imbecile can understand – I have to drink this much in order to deaden the pain of having to drink this much in order to deaden the pain of having to live like this. Got that?)

However, I don’t want to miss this opportunity to walk through this heritage, to look out of windows that Ringo Starr once looked from. And if I am asked whether I have the funds, I could reply that I do, for I have love; and, if four of the building’s previous owners were correct, that is all I need.

'Tired of being shopkeepers', the Beatles give away thousands of pounds worth of stock at the Apple Boutique. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue