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The gravestone of the real Eleanor Rigby and her family

I happen to be in a small graveyard in the Irish countryside. It’s a bitterly cold Monday afternoon, snow is on the way. A friend is checking for weeds on his parents’ grave. There is a bottle of Weedol or Roundup somewhere in the car. Between you and me the grave isn’t very organic or eco-friendly, but best keep my trap shut.

I’m not weaving through the tombstones deliberately looking for inspiration, not this time, though you can’t help noticing all those names and dates in a graveyard, can you?

As you pass the headstones, urns, statues, knick-knacks, wreaths, flowers, lichen, marble, rust and weeds, the sheer physicality of the place triggers far more ideas for stories and characters than, say, mousing and clicking through the funeral notices on an RIP.ie kind of website.

I can’t help it. It’s almost as if the tombstones are talking. “Ah c’mon mister,” one says, “I’ve a great story behind me.” “Me too,” says another. “You could turn me into a cracking short story.” “Ah go on.” “Yeah, go on.” And so on.

Mr Scroggie

I love one particular tale – possibly an urban myth – of how Dickens settled on the name of Scrooge. During a visit to Edinburgh he came across a tombstone for a man named Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, in the Canongate kirkyard just yards off the city’s Royal Mile.

The tombstone described Scroggie as a “meanman”. Dickens later wrote in a notebook: “To be remembered through eternity only for being mean seemed the greatest testament to a life wasted.”

Dickens had misread it. Mr Scroggie was in fact a “meal man” – a corn merchant. The real Scroggie was by all accounts a fun-loving 24-hour-party person, but too late: Scrooge was born.

The tombstone that inspired Dickens is no more. It was removed in the 1930s when the graveyard was redeveloped.

Daisy Hawkins

Fast-forward to the mid Sixties as Paul McCartney doodles away on his piano in the EMI studios at Abbey Road.

“I got this name in my head, ‘Daisy Hawkins picks up the rice in the church’,” he recalls. “I don’t know why. I couldn’t think of much more so I put it away for a day. Then the name Father McCartney came to me, and all the lonely people.”

But Father McCartney was too close to home of course. People might think it’s Paul’s Dad that’s sitting knitting socks and writing sermons.

So our Fab Four Beatle goes through the phonebook (another essential source for character names of course) and comes up with “McKenzie”. How random, as the younger generation would say.

OK, now it’s Father McKenzie. And poor old Daisy doesn’t last long picking up rice at his church either. She’s killed off and replaced by Eleanor: McCartney blames Eleanor Bron for this (she starred with the Beatles in the film Help!).

As for the Rigby surname, McCartney says it came from “Rigby & Evens Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers” in Bristol. He spotted the name of the shop while visiting his girlfriend of the time, Jane Asher.

Now cue the spooky music (rather than the chorus of “Eleanor Rigby”, I’m thinking more of a gothic organ piece from that Hammer Horror movie The Abominable Dr Phibes). The graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Liverpool happens to contain the gravestone of a real-life Eleanor Rigby (1895-1939). Honest.

And St Peter’s happens to be where Lennon and McCartney first met on the Woolton Village garden fete in July 1957. Coincidence? A subconscious thing?

The photo above of the real Eleanor Rigby’s final resting place is by Joe Hodgson (who says “I’m from Clayton in Bradford in Yorkshire, which is aces”). You have to scroll halfway down the lines to find her name.

That grave could tell a story or too. It’s now a regular Beatle shrine. Yes, if only graves could talk.

As for those lyrics…

Lyrically, Eleanor Rigby is one of the Beatles’ darkest songs. There is a sense of detachment as it moves back and forth from present to past tense and keeps shifting perspectives, presenting scenes like a film script (“Look at him working…”)

As Ian MacDonald put it in his definitive guide to the Beatles’ recordings, Revolution in the Head:

MacKenzie’s sermon won’t be heard – not that he cares very much about his parishioners – because religious faith has perished along with communal spirit (‘No one was saved’).

For novelist AS Byatt the song has “the minimalist perfection of a Beckett story”. Had Eleanor Rigby’s face been kept in a jar by the mirror, it would suggest the less disturbing idea of make-up. But behind the door, inside her house, it suggests she “is faceless, is nothing” (this is from a 1993 radio talk quoted by MacDonald).

For more on the song’s origins, check out the Beatles Bible (tagline: “Not quite as popular as Jesus”).