Shortly after ‘Anton’s claims of Graham putting ‘about a billion volts’ through his ‘fucking bell end’, Runton’s Romany beastmaster and I took his dogs on their evening trot around the Estate, discussing names for the new stables block as we did so. This had not, however, been the original subject of our conversation. Originally, it was the question of how to reduce the rabbit population of Runton in a manner that the RSPCA won’t find cruel, the only workable solution being to continue to use the same dogs happily bouncing along beside us. I find talking about country things with Graham intimidating, because he invented the outdoors and I am something of a dunce anywhere other than the Northern Line. As a result, I often find myself babbling about things I do know about, to compensate. So, while being shown how to discharge a shotgun or mend a fence, I will divert proceedings to contemplate the corrosive effect of monetarist economics on free market capitalism, or the German invasion of the Soviet Union or, as in this case, a chestnut mare called Never Say Die, who won the 1954 Epsom Derby and in doing so became the fifth Beatle. Make no mistake: without Never Say Die’s efforts on that rainy Derby day, there would be no Beatlemania, no pop music and, to paraphrase Hey Jude, which would not have been written, the world would be a little colder. As Graham gave instructions to his dogs by whistling implausibly loudly through his teeth, which no one born in a city can do, I embarked upon a story.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, Mona Shaw, 17 years old and the firebrand daughter of a British army Major awaiting the expected Japanese invasion of British India, gave birth to a son. The father, Donald Scanland, was killed on duty with the Royal Navy before the child was a year old. Three years later, Mona married an army boxing champion called Johnny and, with the fortunes of war irreversibly with the Allies and Indian independence looming, the little family boarded a troop ship for England, arriving in a Blitz-battered Liverpool on Christmas Day 1944. In her
suitcase, Mona carried a quantity of her parents’ jewellery. Whether this was a goodwill nest egg or acquired by other means is unclear, but Mona felt it might come in useful in her new life in the Motherland. She was not wrong.
Ten years later, the clan were settled in Liverpool’s agreeable West Derby district. Life was relatively comfortable, but Mona yearned for a home like the spacious colonial property in which she had spent her childhood. On a whim, she sold the jewellery and staked the proceeds on a horse in that year’s Epsom Derby. Never Say Die was priced at an unappetising 33-1 but, with a teenage Lester Pigott at the helm romped home. With the considerable winnings, Mona decided to buy a windmill in St Helens, ten miles away, and move the family into it. The day before the sale was to complete, however, her son told her of an allegedly haunted house his schoolfriends had been talking about. The property, 8 Haymans Green, wasn’t haunted, but it was derelict, overgrown, and without occupants for many years. It also had fifteen bedrooms and three acres of land. Mona bought it on sight.
Renovating the house in a whimsical Oriental style, she opened a coffee bar in the basement and began taking bookings from local bands keen to play anywhere that would take them. Although miniscule, the Casbah, as Mona had called it, became a notable venue and, one afternoon in 1960, earnest 16 year old guitarist George Harrison, always more business savvy than his bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney, blagged a residency for the Silver Beetles there. Harrison had decided against mentioning that the Silver Beetles didn’t have a drummer. Without a drummer they weren’t a band. If they weren’t a band they wouldn’t get the residency. Unbeknown to everyone, destiny was hanging in the balance. Happily, Mona’s eldest son was a drummer. A somewhat pedestrian, limited drummer with little in the way of flair, but a drummer all the same. The three Silver Beetles pounced on him, and became four. The energy and originality of their shows put them in demand, their reputation eventually securing them a gruelling musical apprenticeship that would take them to Hamburg, the Cavern Club, and unimaginable realms beyond. Never Say Die‘s Derby triumph had underpinned everything, and the four human Beatles were on their way. The countdown had started. History held it’s breath.
Sadly, it released it again quite quickly with regards to Mona’s son, Pete Best, who was sacked by the band after two years and hundreds of shows, six months before Beatlemania screamed itself into the world. He had to go, of course – Ringo Starr was galaxies ahead in terms of technique, musicianship, charisma and pure Beatle-ness, but it is impossible not to feel sorry for Pete as the Sixties raced ahead without him. His best friend, Neil Aspinall, did little to soften the blow by first becoming the Beatles’ road manager and then getting Mona pregnant. In fact, Never Say Die had a longer career than Pete Best, who never went on to win the St Ledger by eight lengths or be rated the fifty-third best racehorse of the twentieth century. Admittedly, Never Say Die didn’t end up with a road named after him by a sympathetic Liverpool Corporation employee, but didn’t repeatedly try to kill himself as the result of having the ultimate showbiz millstone around his desperately sad neck, either.
My story over, we trudged on in silence, the dogs scampering hither and yon in the airy early evening.
‘So what I’m saying,’ I said at length, ‘is that I’d call the stables ‘Never Say Die’. You know, the efforts we’re putting in and all that. Bit of a story to it as well.’
There was another, shorter pause. Graham spoke.
Main: The Fifth Beatle, Never Say Die, painted by Red Rum.
Top inset: Our hero, front left with all his legs going like mad, ushering in the Swinging Sixties.
Middle inset: Mona Best. Good eyebrows, nice frock, ace tipster.
Lower inset: The Casbah Coffee Club. This is the entire venue. The bands played at the end where the picture of the three Beatles who aren’t Pete Best are.