Imagine - the elder brother I never knew

Where were you when John Lennon was killed 15 years ago today? The playwright Alan Bleasdale remembers where he was - and how he felt, and why it still hurts to think about the hero he never met

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I am possibly the only person in Liverpool of a similar age to John Lennon, had he lived, who claims never to have met him. Or, indeed, any of the Beatles.

Believe me, everyone else had met one of the Beatles by 1963. The whole of the sixth form of my grammar school seemed to spend their weekends at parties popping pills in the presence of John, Paul, George or Ringo.

Especially George, for boy George, to his eternal chagrin, was and always will be the youngest of the Beatles. He was therefore more likely to be the social victim of a sad 17-year-old pupil who was only there popping pills, in the unlikely event that he was actually there at all, so that the pupil could stand taller and louder during school assembly on the following Monday morning.

This fame by association reached its zenith when a member of our chess club announced that his alsatian had impregnated Ringo Starr's mother's bitch. In the silence of castles and knights, someone else said that his mother was a close personal friend of Ringo's mother, and he knew for a fact that Ringo's mother did not have a dog of any description, and a fist-fight broke out.

Mind you, few ever spoke of John. For John was the leader of the pack. John was older, and John was dangerous and wore black leather. He did not suffer fools and schoolboys at all. Furthermore, he had the cruel power of sarcasm and that frowning "Who the fuck are you" look upon his face.

No one knew then that he was hopelessly short-sighted and insecure and sentimental beneath the butch bravado and broken-nosed swagger. In 1963 he never talked about his dreadful childhood.

Naturally, John was our total, complete and utter hero. Paul was far too pretty and always got the girls; Ringo brought out the worst snobbery that a grammar school education could formulate; and George, well, you know, George was always so young ...

An only child, I seemed to have spent most of my adolescence and some of my attempts at manhood in search of the older brother I never had. Lennon was an obvious focus of that desire, although with hindsight I suspect that it would not have been much fun being John Lennon's younger brother. If he could have seen me to find me, he probably would have hit me just for being there. And then felt deeply sorry. So the legend goes.

However, throughout the following two decades, that is how I very quietly considered John Lennon. I did not actually expect him to turn up at Christmas or at christenings and family gatherings, but he was the one I thought about, worried about, read about, was both bewildered and delighted by, and the only one whose records I still bought.

I lived in hope that despite the disappearances, the drugs and the drink and occasionally attempting to wear a tampon on his head in an American night-club, my secret older brother might one day grow up. I never thought that he would never grow old.

It would be gauche to admit this at dinner parties, perhaps, but I guess all of us know exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the worst news of all about someone "famous" we had known or admired, loved or even hated.

When I first heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated I was at the Cavern Club ("Home of the Beatles") in Liverpool. Eric Morecambe? Outside our house, in reverse gear, parking the car, listening to the news on Radio 1 and wistfully wishing to reverse for ever and ever. Elvis Presley? I opened our front door one morning and my big teddy-boy cousin fell into my arms in a mess of tears. Albert Goldman, the deeply vile and grotesque biographer of both Presley and Lennon? I laughed out loud and went to the off-licence.

John Lennon? Oh well. Oh dear. For the first and only time that I can recall, I woke up at three in the morning and went up to the attic to stare at my typewriter. I am accustomed to working at that time - as I write this it is 4.55am - but usually I would not have been to bed in between the thought and the process.

Relax. There was no premonition. Relax. I was not the walrus in my dreams, and "In My Life" was not on the stereo. Lennon did not visit me upon a flaming pie. I was merely deeply worried about Act One, Scene Three.

So I soldiered on, armed only with tannin and nicotine, vaguely aware that my wife eventually woke and began to prepare our children for school. Just before eight o'clock I heard a wild, shocked and shocking scream from two floors beneath me. Convinced of a domestic accident, I hurtled down the stairs to be met on the landing by my wife as she blurted out the already brokenhearted news that John Lennon had been shot to death in New York City.

I cried like I did not know that I could cry. I learnt later, when my mother died and our eldest boy was ill, that I could cry some more, but those are other stories. For, until then, death had stayed away from my vicinity since my grandmother died when I was seven. Maybe I had been saving it all up, to use it so ludicrously on this man whom I had, of course, not met, who was no doubt seriously flawed and certainly fatal.

I would, naturally, refuse to admit this at dinner parties, in public or in print, but I ended up later that long day and night spitting in crazed, impotent rage upon the first published picture of Lennon's murderer, Mark Chapman, in the local evening newspaper.

I will gladly leave it to others more cold and qualified than I am to explain why Lennon meant so much to so many total strangers. I do know that it is terribly easy to be sardonic and sneer at that muddled man -and at people like me who loved him from a distance. Yet still I do not really understand why it is that right now, all of 15 years later, at dawn's feeble attempt to turn to daylight, I still find myself wearing my handkerchief on my sleeve.

You may recall that on the Sunday following Lennon's death, thousands upon thousands of people congregated on the steps of the St George's Hall in Liverpool to pay tribute and homage. I was asked to go, but I was suspicious of some of the motives and also I did not want to flaunt my mourning as nakedly as I now seem to be doing.

However, a good friend of mine and his wife were there for the final massed chorus of "Imagine", which accidentally coincided with the Sunday licensing hours. They joined the people who flooded into the nearest public house, a sawdust place that was not best prepared to be a barstool in history.

In the far corner sat an elderly man much accustomed to solitary drinking. He may or may not have been nursing that night's first pint of Guinness and a packet of Woodbines, but he was certainly bewildered by the succession of people who wailed into the bar sobbing and mumbling the mantra: "John is Dead".

Finally, this man in the far corner of the pub turned to my friend's wife and asked her what this was all about. Emotional, but not tired, she told him through her tears that it was because of John Lennon. John Lennon was dead.

The man in the corner thought about this information for a time and then turned to her and said "All this because of John Lennon? Fucking hell, girl, can you imagine the scenes when Ken Dodd goes?"

Lennon would have loved that. I would have loved it a lot more if it had not been about John Lennon - that older brother I never had. I still cannot quite believe he is not still here, getting it all right and getting it all wrong.

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