While Mrs C was selecting packets of seeds at a local garden centre yesterday I killed time by browsing among the books on sale, most of them unappetising remainders. There were military books, gardening books, children’s books, books of photographs of ‘old Surrey’, and the like, and there was also a chunky volume by the eminent journalist Simon Jenkins called A Short History Of England. Out of curiosity I glanced through the index looking for any entries that related to rock and pop but the only one I could find for any modern rock musicians was for The Beatles with one mention on page 260, so I looked them up. It was a brief reference to them being awarded their MBEs in 1965, which Jenkins snootily dismissed with a remark to the effect that awarding MBEs to a ‘pop group’ somehow diminished the award, in effect suggesting they didn‘t deserve it.
Now Jenkins has written some intelligent articles for The Guardian, not least several proposing the decriminalisation of marijuana, but this struck me as the view of a pompous idiot. I was momentarily angry that the achievements of The Beatles could be dismissed so arrogantly, especially since Jenkins would have been writing in hindsight, many years after the group disbanded and also after the deaths of John and George. I couldn’t help but wonder how many others who were awarded the MBE that year, or any other year for that matter, are remembered, if at all, with anything like the distinction (and affection) in which The Beatles are held. Indeed, type ‘MBEs awarded in 1965’ into Google and the top ten listings all relate to The Beatles’ award. It’s difficult to find out who else got one – and there’s probably thousands – that year or any other year.
The nature of John’s death caused headlines throughout the world, of course, but so did George’s whose passing was far less dramatic and, to a certain extent, foreseen. When I was in Barcelona last week I spent time with my friend Fernando, a Beatles fanatic, who has saved copies of UK daily tabloid papers for 29 November, 2001, the day George died. He brought them out for me to look through and it was pleasing to note that every one of them devoted at least ten pages to their coverage of George’s death. I wonder how many other public figures, regardless of the field in which they made their name, could command such attention in death.
The mere ‘pop group’ to which Jenkins so haughtily refers in his Short History of England are as famous worldwide as any kings or queens, popes, statesman, sportsmen, writers... anyone you care to mention really. Their records continue to sell by the truckload. Paul and, to a lesser extent, Ringo are feted wherever they go. Their songs are the mother-load of popular music. Their achievements are such that their most eminent historian, Mark Lewisohn, is in the process of compiling a biography that, when the extended editions are complete, will occupy over 5,000 pages in six cased volumes. This is the tip of an iceberg that has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of books published about The Beatles – probably more than any other entity barring the Royal Family, certainly more than any other ‘entertainers’ in history.
So I threw Jenkin’s book back down on the table in that garden centre with the disdain it warranted. Like the rest of the books there it had been remaindered and was being sold off cheaply, a sure sign that it didn’t sell well. It deserved its fate, and this knowledge somehow restored my good humour. ‘Pop group’ indeed.