10 February 2008

Eleanor Rigby Is Real

What do those British kids know that I don't know?

Ah, look at all the lonely people.

I got the answer from Paul Garland of El Paso, Texas, who sent me this photograph he had taken of a gravestone in the churchyard of St Peter's Parish Church in Woolton, Liverpool.

This was the church where John Lennon met Paul McCartney on the 6th of July 1957 (great photo's of this earth-shattering event here). 17-year-old John Lennon was fronting his skiffle group, The Quarrymen, at the church fete (see the programme below). Between the afternoon show in St Peter's garden and their evening slot in the church hall, the then 15-year old Paul McCartney showed John what he could do with a guitar. John later admitted he was gobsmacked. They must have talked, and walked, in the churchyard. Soon after, Paul joined The Quarrymen. And pop culture would never be the same again.

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came
Father Mckenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

But the Beatles were wrong. Somebody came.

And left a gravestone to prove it.

This got me thinking.

Is the Eleanor Rigby of worldwide pop fame now a real person, or is she still fictional? Remember, 47% of British teenagers think she is real; are they right or wrong?

Top of the reality pops was "King Arthur": 65% of teens thought he had been a real king of Britain. Wouldn't they be surprised to know that fusty old antiquarians have been trying to pinpoint the real King Arthur since at least the 9th century?

What about the others on the list? Dick Turpin? 34% of British teens think he's real, too. I was asked about Turpin on Archaeoporn, and had to admit that the legendary highwayman had something "true" about him; at least, someone of that that name was hanged for his misdeeds on 7 April 1739 at York. Ballads, Beatles, and other tall tales may preserve such kernels of history.

That's history for you.

A gravestone, the church programme, a hit song. Thank you, Paul Garland, for pulling this all together. That's how history works.

And it reminds me (yet again)that the story of Queen Zenobia would be dismissed as tripe fiction if it weren't for a handful of coins....


  1. Judith,

    After giving it some thought I agree with you. Eleanor Rigby was a real person. For sure.

    But the lonely person that the Beatles sing about was fictional.

    I guess the preponderance of evidence weighs in for her being mostly fictional.

  2. Anonymous11/2/08 16:44

    I would see it a different way, that the Beatles wrote things that were fictional about a real person. Call it historical fiction :-)

  3. Is it historical fiction, tenthmedieval, when you take over nothing but a name? We have no reason to think that Eleanor Rigby was even 'lonely', poor thing. How many other names that come down to us from antiquity or the medieval period are equally empty?

    At least Dick Turpin was a highwayman.

  4. Anonymous4/3/08 22:01

    Hi, I'm Richard, from Richardthinks. For some reason my ISP has suddenly stopped seeing lj, so I thought I'd respond here, if that's OK.

    I've edited the post since your comment, but mostly with more inflammatory stuff.

    If I missed the point of your posts, I'm afraid I'm still missing it: I think, in the Eleanor Rigby post, you're suggesting that the reality of a character, who appears in fictions and scrapes against non-fiction, is not so easy to assess, even when you have evidence. I know nothing about the historical Eleanor Rigby, perhaps her history was never recorded. The character of the Beatles song is, presumably, fictional, but it affects the attention we pay to the gravestone. I'm not sure that the legendary accretions don't dent basic reality.

    Regarding Richard's Itinerarium, I'm obviously not in your league and must bow to your superior knowledge of the subject. It's hardly a neutral source, though, is it (if such a thing could be imagined)? Am I right in thinking it's the text that has Richard and Saladin spitting dozens of people on outrageously long spears, or lopping off multiple heads with one strike?

    It can provide good evidence regardless of its intention, but how easy is it to slip a knifepoint between fact, myth-making, wishful thinking and all of that? If the topic is Richard's character, how factual is its account? How reliable is our 'correct' view of Turpin?

    In the end, though, I think the most important question is "what was the question asked of the survey respondents?" If they were asked "were the following persons real?" and presented with a list including Eleanor, would they be wrong in ticking "yes?"

  5. Hi Richard, thanks for responding to my comment on your website ( Richardthinks).

    Surely the difference between King Arthur, Richard Lionheart, and Winston Churchill -- to take just three examples -- is the existence (or not) and quality of primary documentary evidence, which may be written or archaeological, as well as the legendary accretions.

    Sure, the Itinerarium (on which I am by no means an expert and claim no superior knowledge) incorporates fabulous features but the point is that we know from other sources (eastern and western) that a king named Richard really was on Crusade in the Levant in the late 12th C and did engage Saladin in battle. There are many other extant documents of civil and military events in his life. As there are of Churchill's; but not of King Arthur's.

    Slipping a knifepoint (in so far as we can) between fact, myth-making, and wishful thinking is what we do when we study history. The survey results are disquieting because so many young British people don't know or care what is real. Perhaps you're right and it's a generational thing.

    "Whatever" :-)

  6. Anonymous5/3/08 18:31

    I take your point, and I'm certainly not saying that there's nothing to choose between Arthur, Richard and Winston in the degree of historical reality we allot them, just that the survey seems to have been poorly framed, and that where a figure is debatable (such as Turpin) we shouldn't be surprised if we get inconclusive results.

    The bigger issues seem to be Churchill and Holmes: if 23% of respondents really don't know Winnie existed and 58% don't know that Sherlock didn't, that's disquieting. It's also so weird that I think some further investigation is in order. Sadly, I can't find either the survey or the data online.

    I know why this bothers me, and it's partly as a historian: if, as the Telegraph reports, history is withering away in schools then, apart from dwindling attention being paid to historians in general, we can expect a politically illiterate public in the near future (at least, history was the only place I was exposed to ideas of politics in my school curriculum in England, 20 years ago... maybe things have changed). On the other hand, I read that a report commissioned by the Tories called for history to be made compulsory up to the age of 16 to give pupils a better sense of British identity. If that's the motivation for teaching history, maybe it's not worth getting upset about it...

  7. The actual survey is probably not on the web because it was a commercial project commissioned by UKTV Gold.

    From UKTVGold's website (link provided in the original post above) comes this rather smug conclusion:

    The results provide a fascinating insight into the influence that popular TV, film and fiction has had on the nation's perception of history over the last 50 years.

    That's part of what bothers me, too. It's now just too easy for the Tories (or anyone else) to fabricate 'national identity'. Look how hard Churchill had to work to get his version of history across: win a war, govern, write great books....

    It doesn't seem fair.


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