Lennon in longhand

Published: 09 December, 2012 10:03 IST | Rito Paul |

The John Lennon Letters by Hunter Davies contains a motley of undoubtedly funny doodles, hormonal stream-of-consciousness mush, honest lyricism, and makes for a rather breezy biography of an icon immortalised countless times before

John Lennon is one of those people — with a cultural imprint so deep and luminous, and a fan-following so crazed that every throwaway bit of his life, every scrap of his body and mind is endlessly fascinating and valuable.

Everyone’s curious about Lennon
In 2007, a lock of his hair was sold for $48,000. So, there is little doubt that every word that he ever scrawled on a piece of paper would be a much-prized collectible. The quality or the literary value of his words have no bearing on the matter. As Hunter Davies, the British author-journalist, who wrote the earliest and perhaps most definitive of The Beatles’ biographies, writes in the introduction to this compilation of Lennon’s letters, notes and scribbles, “Even if the contents are not new or earth-shattering, readers will be interested to see what he wrote, to whom and how he illustrated those letters.”

A postcard to Ringo from India in 1968 

Lennon would’ve loved Twitter. Oh yes, he would. Davies writes, “The reaction of John Lennon to most things, whether joy or anger, fear or loathing, fun or fury, was to write it down. He responded with words, not just music.” Lennon’s lunatic need to express every rushing thought in his brain without pause or consideration and a total lack of self-editing is just perfect for the churning lather of brain-barf that is the twitter-verse. Only John Lennon is John Lennon, and even his brain-barf is touched by genius… sometimes.

A curious self-portrait of Lennon on a six-fingered hand

Lennon’s Howl
Lennon began writing much before he began writing songs. He wrote and illustrated a homemade newspaper called Daily Howl when he was just 12. It’s a delightfully funny send-up of newspaper stories and comics of that time with some memorable doodles to boot. By the age of 18, Lennon was very much in love. And with hormones coursing through his veins, his writing turns into stream of consciousness mush. This from a love-letter he wrote to his then girlfriend and later, ex-wife, Cynthia Powell: “I love you, I love you I love you I love you I love u I lllllove U I love you LIKE MAD I do I do love you YES YES YES”. He goes on in this vein for the rest of the letter.

The Beatles singer, songwriter and guitarist John Lennon photographed in June 1966, playing the harmonica, his guitar rested on his knee. PIC COURTESY/Keystone Features/Getty Images

It’s almost a stylistic pre-cursor to the song that sent a whole generation of teenage girls into conniptions. When Lennon and McCartney crooned “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” girls in the audience screamed and threw candy at them and then fainted. For those who worship at the altar of The Beatles and disparage modern teen idols like Justin Bieber, a good exercise in perspective would be to compare the lyrics of She Loves You or I Wanna Hold Your Hands to Bieber’s breakthrough single, Baby.

A letter to Cynthia for Christmas in 1958

Qualitatively, there’s not much difference. Yes, of course, Lennon and McCartney evolved to write infinitely more elevated lyrics in their later albums. But the songs that fuelled Beatle-mania were the same mix of banal mush and repetitive chorus that make Beliebers (Bieber fans) delirious.

Word clay
While Lennon’s early song-writing may have been straight and narrowly dictated, no doubt, by the commercial impetus of a band trying to find its feet, his letters and notes certainly belied a fascination with words. Lennon viewed words as malleable things — unshaped clay to be moulded into whatever took his fancy at the potter’s wheel of his pen. To George Harrison’s mother, Lennon writes, “I hop you are verin hoppin in Englands and are soom tow gow tooe Canidah to Canidah.” (I hope you are very happy in England and are soon to go to Canada to Canada) — a line of phonetic experimentation that wouldn’t look out of place in Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake. And, like Joyce, Lennon exalted in his pun-making. So ‘letters’ becomes ‘lettuce’ and ‘The New English Bible’ becomes ‘The New English Bottle’. Of course, he didn’t write like this to everyone, but it seems the fonder he was of the recipient of the letter the more he would tear down the brickwork of the English language.

Lennon’s homemade book, written when he was 11 years old

But not everything Lennon wrote was fun and games. There are moments of honest emotion and lyricism. Writing to Stuart Sutcliffe, a close friend from Liverpool Art College which Lennon attended for a bit, he starts with a bit of poetry, “I remember a time when everyone I loved hated me/ because I hated them… I can’t remember anything/ without a sadness/ so deep that it hardly/ becomes known to me. So deep that its tears/ leave me a spectator/ of my own STUPIDITY/ And so I go rambling/ on with a hey nonny/ nonny no (sic).” Lennon had a father he hardly knew and his mother left him in the care of his aunt when he was very young. His overbearing jocularity was perhaps a way of corralling his “sadness so deep”. 

Random and otherwise
The book covers pretty much all of Lennon’s abbreviated life. The later bits go into the travails of his various relationships, his alienation from his wife Cynthia and his son Julian, his love for Yoko Ono and, of course, the break-up of The Beatles. This part of his life has been so widely recorded and intensely parsed over that the letters hardly throw up many revelations. There is regret and loneliness, but that is part of a rock-star life lived under the acute scrutiny of worldwide fame.

So, what is one to make of John Lennon, the man from his non-publicised writings? As much as can be made out from any person’s random thoughts and scribbles meant for private consumption. Lennon’s letters are hardly the strenuously drafted affairs of serious writers, he wears his status of writer and lyricist extremely lightly and seems to blurt out every thought that passes his mind without much consideration for grammar or spelling. Often, they feel like the ‘60’s equivalent of text messaging, with the added charm of Lennon’s wit.

This makes for curious and often hilarious reading, but to make grand assumptions about his inner life from these letters would be highly presumptuous. Davies, having written a biography of The Beatles and having had personal interactions with them is perfectly placed to provide periodical context to letters, and the book as a whole works as a breezy biography of Lennon. But for fans of Lennon or The Beatles, the worth of the letters aren’t tied to the quality of its content. Every curve of Lennon’s often illegible handwriting, every unusual turn of phrase is manna to a Beatles fan because just like his hair every bit of anything that came from Lennon brings them infinitesimally closer to the person they idolise. So, if you are one, it’s very much worth your time and money to pick up this book.

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