It’s not my intention to turn this into an obituary site, mourning the loss of the great and the good. However, after hesitating over the loss of a formative influence last week, salt was rubbed into the raw wound with the announcement of the loss of another icon. I guess that there are relatively few people in the world equally mourning the losses of an American poet and a Scottish footballer within a few days of each other but, for a specific generation of Liverpudlians, both Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ian St John are significant cultural icons. On this occasion, my resolution cracked.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (24 March 1919 – 22 February 2021) was 101 and I celebrated his birthday on these pages last year. He was one of the beat poets of the 1950s, and a painter, but was equally important as a publisher of that poetry (including Allan Ginsberg’s Howl) and the founder of the City Light Bookshop in San Francisco.
Ian St John (7 June 1938 – 1 March 2021) was 82, and one of the players that helped football manager Bill Shankly establish Liverpool FC as a force in English football after he joined the team in 1961. He remained a major influence in the team for the next ten years, scoring 118 goals in 425 appearances, including the winning goal in the 1965 Cup Final against Leeds United (pictured).
After playing for Liverpool, St John played for a few other teams and tried his hand at football management, but became better known as a tv pundit in a second career. In partnership with Jimmy Greaves he established Saint and Greavsie as a popular alternative on independent television, from 1985 to 1992, to the more serious (and boring) BBC previews of Saturday afternoon football. It’s easy to overlook the significance of that programme, but it shifted the focus of sports programming towards performance analysis and entertainment and away from the reverential, statistical focus of traditional broadcasting.
Formal obituaries often include a selection of anecdotes or trivia to add a further dimension to their subjects’ public identities; however, both Ferlinghetti and St John had such textured and varied careers that their lives don’t really need any artificial enhancements yet the stories help us to celebrate their lives rather than mourn our loss. About Ferlinghetti, for example, I learned that he was a US navy skipper during WW2 and participated during the D-Day landings in Normandy; he used his rank to ensure that his ship was full of classic novels to ensure that his crew were never short of something to read, and after the war he returned to France to study for a doctorate in literature at the Sorbonne.
St John, in contrast, nearly didn’t even become a Liverpool player because it seems that Shankly’s first choice of player at that time was Brian Clough, but Clough chose to join Sunderland rather than Liverpool and speculative history throws up a myriad of alternative consequences. Also, it appears that St John narrowly missed out on being appointed manager of Leeds Utd instead of Brian Clough, and by the time Leeds got round to sacking Clough 44 days later St John was managing another club, Portsmouth, so there’s another host of alternative histories there too.
But enough of the speculation – in terms of facts I learned that St John initially trained as boxer, which explains his readiness to square up to opponents who he felt were getting too physical in their tackling. Also, as the manager of Portsmouth he was responsible for buying Chris Kamara out of the Royal Navy so he could be a professional footballer, and Kamara has gone on to be an entertaining football pundit in his own right as St John did.
In a final note of tragic coincidence I read that St John died in Arrowe Park hospital on the Wirral where Gerry Marsden had died only a couple of weeks earlier. Gerry’s anthemic rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone became the soundtrack to those performances by St John and the others, but the Anfield Kop had already adapted The Routers recording of Let’s Go! by doing the claps and then singing St John! instead. And like Gerry, Ian St John was welcome back at Anfield until the very end.
And the header quote? If it seems familiar it’s from Byron so here’s the whole text.
George Gordon Byron
6th Baron Byron (1788-1824)
So We’ll Go No More a Roving
So, we'll go no more a roving So late into the night, Though the heart be still as loving, And the moon be still as bright. For the sword outwears its sheath, And the soul wears out the breast, And the heart must pause to breathe, And love itself have rest. Though the night was made for loving, And the day returns too soon, Yet we'll go no more a roving By the light of the moon.