In it, Kirwan creates a fascinating alternative biography for each of the Fab Four, now that destiny, or the amazing accident of fate that brought them together, has irrevocably passed them by.
“I had always heard that John Lennon would have been a success without the Beatles,” Kirwan said, “but I don’t agree. Probably because I have known many men who were like Lennon, who were great musicians, great songwriters, but who always had some flaw that would hold them back. Flaws like arrogance or defensiveness, say, flaws that Lennon shared — and that had their roots in his own working-class background — and I came to believe it would have been unlikely that he would have prospered on his own.”
In his new telling, the world that the Beatles changed by the sheer force of their own artistry has now stubbornly refused to give them their due. Only Paul, who has changed his name to Paul Montana — and become a Las Vegas-style lounge act — remains a working musician. The others lead stifling working-class lives in Liverpool. And English society has lost out too, embracing an ever-hardening social and political conservatism that ultimately allows the National Front to enter government with the Tories. It’s a bracing reminder — by dint of its absence — of the unprecedented challenge that the Beatles sound presented to Britain and the world at the time.
“The second part of ‘Liverpool Fantasy’ examines what might have happened to the British political scene in the Beatles absence,” Kirwan said.
Even in the Flower Power ’60s, Enoch Powell still felt emboldened enough to make his famous “Rivers of Blood” anti-immigration speech in, of all places, Wolverhampton. Although at the time he was emphatically hooted and jeered by the young as an out of touch relic, in the novel he finally finds the airtime that history denied him. In the absence of the Swinging Sixties, Kirwan reminds us, Powell’s message is free to find greater purchase. Is this what would have happened to Britain if those astonishing songs had never been released? Would the nation have continued to stagnate, to the point where a man like Powell could have prospered? If the mood had been different, if the young weren’t marching for a better world — what then? “Liverpool Fantasy” asks — and goes far toward answering — such provocative questions.
In our own era of bitterly contested elections and ever-widening economic uncertainty, it’s instructive to recall the wave of euphoria that spread over the UK and Ireland — and eventually the world — when “Please Please Me” hit the airwaves in January 1963. “Back then,” Kirwan said, “we were still in the grip of a post-war authoritarianism. But the very sound of that song, with its euphoric ebullience, seemed to sweep away all the shadowy cobwebs and make it fun and hip to be young.”
In the novel, Kirwan is attentive to the big picture, but in conversation he also privately acknowledges his own debt to the band: “Without them, I’d probably still be living back in a small town on the southeast coast of Ireland.” To his generation, he makes it clear, the Beatles were more than just a band; they were archetypes of the possible. And their radical message, which was the same from Swinford to Smolensk, required little interpretation: All that you need to live a full life, believe it or not, is love.
It’s no surprise then, given his understanding of the Beatles achievements, and the unique perspective that arises from his own creative endeavors, that Kirwan can write such a thoughtful and timely novel about what happens to a society and to an individual when they lose their faith in their own creative daring. The Beatles didn’t set out to change the world, but they couldn’t help it. Authority — be it political, social, or sexual — is always called into question whenever a riotous new art form is born. (And Kirwan is in no doubt concerning our collective debt to Lennon and McCartney.) But in “Liverpool Fantasy” he’s actually exploring a far more stimulating premise: What if it had never happened? Who would they be? Who would we be?
In our bland 1950s redux age of boy bands and macho rap stars grown famous for reciting unvarnished conservative creeds, there’s a new urgency to his question that Lennon himself would have understood.