We were in Manzi's one night, a fish restaurant in London--John, Yoko, George, Patti, Terry Doran and Pete from Grapefruit, Pete Shotton, Joan and I, when John passed a note up the table to me. Would you and Joan like to come to America with Yoko and Me on the Queen Elizabeth?
All we needed was a visa for John. We had three weeks, or four and that seemed enough time. Allan Klein, The Beatles' new American business manager made an application in Washington and Peter Brown, their personal assistant in Britain made appropriate noises to the U.S. Embassy in London.
The three weeks, or four, passed. There had been faint answering echoes from Washington and Grosvenor Square, but none loud enough to sound like a visa. John however, and Yoko, pressed on as if everything were OK--which is the only way to approach anything--and packed into trunks the incredibly complex material on which they plan to base bag productions, their new joint company formed to funnel their creative energy into world markets. Films, books, records, miles of tape, clothes for a thousand occasions, white tail-coats, white top hats, black leather suits, tennis shoes, boots, fur-coats, acorns for peace, anything the everyday traveller would need to cope with the worst extremities of the equator, both poles and Manhattan, a concert at Madison Square Garden and a visit to the White House. Came the final week of preparation and the pressure was stepped up on the U.S. immigration authorities.
The Sunday Express forecast Johnw ould maybe not get a visa: but maybe he would, they said leaving the reader free to make up his mind or remain confused, whichever he chose. The Sunday Express also listed George and Patti as prospective passengers: this too was less than accurate. George and Patti had other plans--they were house-hunting in Gloucestershire.
By Wednesday, John and Yoko had decided they would fill the remaining two days in redoubled frenzy of preparation discarding sleep like Tom Jones his tie, or Jim Morrison his trousers. There was a new reason for their determination to sail on the QE2--Ringo and Maureen too had booked staterooms, one deck below John's on the starboard side. John and Yoko's room was to have been 1050, Ringo and Maureen's 2081.
Ringo (and Maureen, with Zak and Jason) was to be on the Queen with Peter Sellers (and his daughter Victoria) with Joe McGrath and Denis O'Dell (and their wives) as, respectively, the stars, director and producer of the Movie "Magic Christian" from the book by Terry Southern who also planned to sail with the Party, along with Tony Palmer, pop journalist and film documentarian. In short, the QE2 looked like being a very bright warm scene--a new, widely acclaimed ocean liner, old friends and new, free under God's sky for five wondrous 25-hour days (you gain an hour a day on the Atlantic run, westbound). By Thursday John and Yoko's packing was almost done. John was invited to the U.S. Embassy to re-state his reasons for travel. The Embassy official listened and said he would be in touch with them. They returned to their office in Apple to continue with the tin trunks. Their calm was undisturbed and down in Sunningdale, John and I prepared for embarkation next day, with Dominic and Annabel (at 20 months and eight weeks) the two youngest of our six children. We packed with some energy but with diminishing confidence for we saw the time running out for John's visa. Night came on Thursday without an answer from the U.S. Government or its London representatives.
At 1 a.m. on Friday, John called from Weybridge. "Did I wake you?" "No, we're still packing. How does it look?"
"I don't know," he said. "We're ringing Klein to see if he's had any word from Washington, I'm also trying to find Peter Brown but he's out. I don't know any man who spends so much time eating." I said it was after midnight, so maybe Peter reckoned he was eating in his leisure time. At heart a generous man (generous to a fault his uncle used to say). John agreed. "Probably, probably. He has a right to eat." Anyway, he said, "Joan and I were to sail anyway, no matter what happened to John and Yoko, we were to go if only to look after the baggage, which must surely be the biggest personal equipment consignment since lend-lease.
"What will you do?"
John said "We'll go to Southampton too, maybe the visa will still come."
Such a dear, optimistic man, so full of hope. It would break your heart.
At dawn we woke and moved the suitcases downstairs. Mal Evans phoned.
"I never have any sleep the night before a tour", he said. He was in Weybridge, rounding up the final bits and pieces for John and Yoko. The Mercedes would be down for us, he said. John and Yoko would come in the Rolls, and the Apple van would be down with their luggage and also with the equipment to be used by two men of the documentary film unit who had been hired to record the voyage for John and Yoko. The fourth car in the convoy would be Mal's. Thus in procession, would Apple bowl down the A30 to Southampton and the open sea.
In New York Harbour, John planned to lead the entire ship over the loudspeaker system in a "Song For Peace".
At 10 a.m. our car came and Mal also arrived. Joe our driver said John and Yoko were running out of time and also they were running out of confidence. The visa had not come.
Body blow. We saw the four elder children off to school. Said goodbye to Joan's Mother, got in the Mercedes and set off south. Somewhere around Camberley, half an hour later, a white Rolls Royce appeared int he wing mirror. It was John and Yoko, and they were going to Southampton. Yes! The car overtook us and John's amplified voice rang out over the A30. "Good morning". We followed the Rolls for a few miles and then she pulled into a car park near Basingstoke, by a tea shop. John got out followed by Yoko.
"We're not going," he said. "It's no good. I've been ringing from the car and the visa's not through. We're going to make a last call from this cafe, and then have breakfast. But you go, have a good time."
"Have another honeymoon," said Yoko.
They said they would make a film in Southampton to back up "The Ballad of John and Yoko" and then return to Apple.
It was abominable. They could bring more fun and peaceful energy to New York than any couple in England, but they did not have the rubber stamp of the U.S. Government in John's passport and what chance has fun in the face of authority or peace for that matter. We said goodbye to the two of them and to Mal and bashed on to the coast. Twenty miles from Southampton came another Rolls, a black one. It was Ringo, Maureen, Zak, Jason and their staff of two, Alan and Stella. We felt better. It was good to see friendly faces.
At Southampton we met Cunard's people--those with smiles and P.R. badges and those with small rank and loud voices. A small battle at the foot of a staircase was resolved in Ringo's favour and he and his party were allowed aboard.
We went to our rooms and the stewardess said "I believe you are my namesake . . . . . . Aspinall". It seemed Neil had been booked on the liner originally but he hadn't come because Susie had just had a daughter. That was the first disappointment for the crew because if you are looking forward to meeting your namesake, and your name is Aspinall, it is no big deal meeting a Taylor. The Steward came and asked after Mr. Lennon. I said he hadn't come yet. "A visa hold up, you know how it is". Probably he'd board at Le Havre our only port of call in France, we suggested. A man came to check the lights, and had that look of Beatle spotting. Someone else said "How are the Lennons?". And I said they weren't here. "Not yet". We still kept a small hope alive. Back in London helicopters were standing by for a Le Havre drop should the visa come. Another crew member said "Is John Lennon here?". I said "Not yet", and he said are any of the others on board. "Ringo" we said, "and his family". The sailor brightened up "Well that's good".
We sailed at lunchtime, 12.30. It was exciting, it always is, but there were two empty beds in the next stateroom and it didn't seem fair. It didn't seem fair.
We met Ringo and Maureen again on the way to dinner. "Hello Scouse" said a sailor "How's it going?". "Great" said Scouse Ringo Starr, public property, first class fare paying passenger in QE2 notwithstanding.
"You certainly messed up my daughter's life" said the sailor and Maureen looked puzzled.
"She worships you, never met you," said the sailor. We got in the lift to take us to the grill room and the sailor pursued his point. He tapped his nose and said in a confidential voice you could hear from one corner of the lift to the other, but no further.
"Sorry to hear the bad news about Len, Scouse".
"You know, John Lennon". Ringo said it was sad and we all felt bad again.
We were by now in Le Havre and Cunard's PR man said a helicopter drop was still possible. So we all felt better again. Up and down, up and down you go. The Grill room was lovely. Peter Sellers came by with Joe McGrath and Denis, one time head of Apple Films, now a close friend of the Beatle family Apple. We ate well and talked about the ship's night-time amenities. Ringo, addicted long ago to dark discotheques, as the only real dancer among The Beatles he was particularly hooked on the old ad lib. But recently he's been more settled in deepest Surrey. Ringo said he fancied a revival of old habits for the five days afloat. Maureen was delighted. But as the meal progressed, and though it was fine food in a room fit for a King, his face became smaller and smaller and his eyes darkened and he began to look, in short, smashed. He drank a desultory glass of champagne, a gift from the film's financiers, and said he had better go to bed, telling Maureen to go to the ship's discotheque anyway. But it isn't the same, it isn't the same at all on your own so the pair of them retired early and Joan and I with the film people, went up to the darkened club and stayed long enough to hear the Applejacks, an early Birmingham group once gifted with a Beatles song Like Dreamers Do (Remember?) Now playing their own material with some skill and about to rename themselves "Seth" as part of an image-change.
We took in Ronnie Carroll's floor show in the Q4 room, and so to bed. Sea calm. Next day I met Ringo in the corridor, clear eyed and fresh complexioned, dapper as hell, camera round his neck on his way to gamble with Denis O'Dell and the other punters on the ship's run. This is a game played daily in the theatre bar whereby you guess how far you have come. You lose, but you enjoy losing. That is the way with gambling. We are having a good time by now. We have learned with John's absence and I have photographed John and Yoko's empty beds in case they wish to use as the cover of their next Apple album which should be titled "John and Yoko Afloat" with nothing but the sound of a heavy sea running.
The heavy sea came by Sunday. Saturday night was the first sign that there is more to sailing than wandering around the Hiltonian luxury of a floating pleasure palace. There is the sea, the element our metabolism is not built for. We are in the discotheque on Saturday and Ringo decides to give the new Beatle album its first public performance anywhere in the world.
Alan brings it and it is played to the amazement of those with ears to hear. The waiters, led by a man who is as old as Long John Silver and not in the vanguard of pop-lovers, grumble about the decline of musical standards. A hundred yards away his contemporaries are dancing to the hokey cokey and the Gay Gordons. Ah, they could write music in those days.
Sunday, Peter Sellers, Tony Palmer, Denis, Joe, Ringo, Maureen, Joan and me, and Dominic we all go by invitation to meet the officers in the Ward Room. It is high on the ship, right at the top and it is swaying and we are swaying and we decide to a man that we are sea-sick. Ringo drinks half a glass of beer and says "Goodbye for now". We all take a pill. For seasickness. We then get better.
The QE2 is a splendid ship, we are thinking. We have phoned John and he asks is it swinging? Well no, there are only 620 people on board and it is capable of carrying 2,000 or more. It will be full returning. From New York. The QE2 is ahead of her time and, so the designers say, she will age gracefully. The aim was to make her a floating hotel resort able to compete with other great hotels for Cunard believe that the competition is not with the air which is transportation, but with the land.
There are so many dances on board you would have to be in a wheelchair to remain immobile. There is so much entertainment (from--on Radio, Dvorak's scherzo capriccioso Op 66 by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawalisch to Basil Stutely and his Orchestra in the Queens Room) that you would have to be the pinball wizard not to find something you can dig.
Anyway, Saturday Ringo and the rest of the gang met the Captain, and Sunday Peter Sellers saw the engine room. Sunday night we discoed again and drank too much. Monday Joan and I had a little party and John rang and asked me if I had written anything for the Beatles Book.
"Yes," I lied. So here it is, to be telexed by anyone with fortitude, to Apple's new telex system in Savile Row.
I hope you enjoy it. If it seems nothing much has happened, then that is how it is. It is a lovely leisurely life and it must be done by everyone before we die.
It is a wonderful escape from whatever reality is. Yet it is a reality of its own for the 900 officers and crew on board. For them, it is their home and their way of life and inveterate grumblers though sailors are, they have a way of coping which is very charming.
We are having a good time, our gang in our simple fashion. Ringo is over his sickness, Maureen cannot get enough of the Petits fours. Zak and Jason and Dominic play happily in one of the best nurseries in the world and God's sky is still overhead and his sea is to be overheard below. We are alive and well and at sea.