Prize-Winning Paperback Writer
The Final ChapterBy Malcolm Borthwick. Spring 2021
The world isn’t short of books about The Beatles but Craig Brown, whose book won
the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, tells Malcolm Borthwick why his is different
This article originally featured in Baillie Gifford’s Spring 2021 issue of Trust magazine.
In June 1957 Paul McCartney failed his Latin GCE O-Level exam. This meant that he stayed down a year and struck up a friendship with a new classmate he recognised from the bus as a fellow smoker. Impressed by his guitar playing, McCartney introduced the boy to his friend John Lennon. That boy was George Harrison. This is one of the many chance encounters which changed the course of The Beatles. Craig Brown includes many more in his book, One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time.
“So much of The Beatles is based on timing and chance,” claims Brown. The most legendary instance was on 9 November 1961 when Brian Epstein walked down 18 steps into the damp basement of Liverpool’s Cavern Club to watch four scruffy musicians. Brown describes their act: “Between songs, the three yobs with guitars start yelling and swearing, turning their backs on the audience and pretending to hit one another.” Epstein is with his assistant Alistair Taylor, who describes them as awful. “They are awful,” agrees Epstein. “But I also think they’re fabulous. Let’s go and say hello.” Epstein ended up being the business brains behind the band. He helped the quartet crack the American market, and managed their tours, image and their success.
Brown talked to me over Zoom from his book-lined study in his house in the Suffolk coastal town of Aldeburgh. There’s an eye-catching Victorian reproduction of the Ghent Altarpiece on his wall that he bought at an auction.
Perhaps best known as a contributor to Private Eye for over 30 years, Brown is also a columnist with the Daily Mail and recently wrote Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret. In terms of style, the latter is similar to his book about The Beatles. Martha Kearney, chair of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction judging panel, says Brown has “reinvented the art of biography” and describes his book as “a highly original take on familiar territory”. One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time is a series of vignettes about the Liverpool band which not only provide a colourful and witty insight into the Fab Four, but also into the parallel lives of those in their orbit, a disparate group of rivals, rogues and relatives.
Jimmie Nicol: A Beatle for 10 days.
© Fred Warren/Daily Sketch/Shutterstock.
One of Brown’s favourite characters is Jimmie Nicol. Nicol was plucked from obscurity to replace Ringo Starr when the latter was unable to join the band’s tour of Australia in June 1964 because he had tonsillitis. Things were going well for Nicol until he fell out with Epstein on the last day of the tour when he broke the band’s hotel curfew. The next day, he was escorted to the airport by Epstein before his fellow band members had woken up. There was a brief halo effect for Nicol on returning to England, but after stints as a musician in Gothenburg and Mexico City, sightings of him became fewer and fewer. He continually blamed Epstein for putting pressure on promoters to blacklist him. Nicol’s former wife in Mexico says he never recovered from his brief stint as a Beatle.
“It seems like
I treat it more
“It’s like a morality tale,” explains Brown. “Nicol was given a glimpse of being a Beatle for 10 days and never gets over it. It would have been much better if he hadn’t been given that glimpse. I’m very interested in the people who are washed-up or the people who were failures, as it were, next to the huge success of The Beatles. Often the lives of people who fail are much more interesting than the lives of people who succeed.”
The sheer volume of Beatles literature was a help but also a hindrance to the author. “It’s helpful doing it largely from other people’s work. It seems like pilfering, but I treat it more like writing history,” he explains. “I had about a quarter of a million words of research notes and could have written a book seven times as long. I was overwhelmed and there was a time when I had to stop digging around and start writing.”
What’s astonishing is the band’s meteoric rise to fame, which Brown charts in his book. Two hundred people attended their first concert in 1963 at the Two Red Shoes Ballroom in Elgin, between Inverness and Aberdeen. Five months later they had their first number 1 hit with From Me to You and their debut album Please Please Me went to number 1. The following year they cracked the American market, attracting an audience of 73 million viewers (41 per cent of the US population) on The Ed Sullivan Show – the second largest viewing figures in the history of commercial television, topped only by the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 (106 million viewers). At the end of 1964, Brown says they were the most famous young men on earth.
“One of the things that writing the book really brought home to me is quite how young they were,” says Brown. George Harrison was just 17 when The Beatles formed in 1960. “You’d expect them to be completely thrown by fame, but oddly until 1965 or 1966, they weren’t,” adds Brown. “It was a bit like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five: they formed a unit and knew each other really well. It was them against the world and they really enjoyed it. It was only later, once they got used to fame and wealth, that they started to become jaded and irritated with each other. That’s understandable.”
In just seven years of recording, The Beatles produced 13 albums, as well as inspiring a host of musicians including Chrissie Hynde, Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. They were idolised by teenagers, wooed by prime ministers and respected by royalty. Even the Queen paid tribute to them at her golden wedding anniversary: “Think what we would have missed if we had never heard The Beatles.”
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Malcolm Borthwick is editor of Trust. He was formerly the BBC’s economics and business editor in Asia and the Middle East, and vice president of corporate affairs at BNY Mellon.
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