Ever since Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians we’ve been fascinated with the idea of reading famous people’s mail. Perhaps it’s our innate voyeurism coming to the fore or the usual obsession with celebrity, but over the years countless books of letters have appeared on the market and found many a willing reader. All kidding aside, some of these have provided fascinating insights into both the character and creative process of many brilliant minds. Reading the collected letters of someone like Virginia Wolfe or the correspondence conducted by Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller is every bit as enthralling as most works of fiction.
A good collection of letters should not only satisfy our idle curiosity about the person who penned them, but hopefully it will give us some hitherto unknown insights into their character and what made them tick. However when you’re dealing with a figure who was in the public eye as much as John Lennon was and continues to be, you have to wonder what, if anything, new there is to bring to light. Even before he was gunned down in 1980 he had lived most of his adult life in the glare of the spotlight with almost every breath he took recorded and dissected. So, what, I wondered, could The John Lennon Letters, published by Little, Brown and Company, and edited by longtime family friend and author of the only authorized biography of the Beatles, Hunter Davies, offer to complement our picture of him?
Even more pertinent, perhaps, is the question as to whether Lennon even merits this type of treatment? Sure he was a prolific songwriter, sometime poet and never afraid to voice his opinion. However, there’s no record of him ever engaging in an exchange of letters a la Miller and Durrell with anyone to think there would be sufficient material out there for a book. In his introduction Davies cedes this point by admitting a great deal of the book’s content are not in fact letters from Lennon to anyone. He also admits that many of the letters are in fact a few words scrawled on the back of a postcard or short messages posted in reply to requests for autographs by fans.
Now after having read this introduction I have to admit to being a bit wary of what was to follow. However as the book was okayed by the guardian of all things Lennon, Yoko Ono, I knew it couldn’t just be an attempt by the editor to cash in on a famous name. You can say what you like about Ono, but her love for her late husband can’t be denied and she would never give her blessing to something without some worth. I was also impressed by the effort Davies had gone to in gathering the material collected here.
For over the years Lennon memorabilia has gone from being collectible to being spectacularly valuable. Many of the seemingly innocuous pieces of paper that ended up on the pages of this book have passed through numerous hands since they were written, and I’m sure there are countless others secreted away in vaults and safety deposit boxes around the world slowly accumulating dust and value. The twists and turns involved with tracking down some of the material reads like an agent following a paper trail in a John Le Carre novel.
Wisely Davies elected to lay out the book in chronological order and divide it up into short digestible segments. From childhood all the way through to his final days in The Dakota apartment complex in New York City the turbulent path of Lennon’s life is followed in the book’s 23 parts. Even more important is the fact that Davies has gone to a great deal of effort to place everything in its proper context. So instead of simply reprinting what looks like a child’s standard thank you letter to an aunt for Christmas presents, we find out who this aunt was, what she meant to Lennon and what the letter signified about his relationship with Mimi, the aunt who raised him.
While there has been a lot made of the fact that Lennon was raised by his aunt, the various letters to cousins and other relatives he wrote over the years reveal the unhealthy influence this woman had on him. While Lennon almost never says a word against her things he lets slip give a picture of a woman who belittled him and attacked his sense of self worth his whole life. One of her constant refrains was he “got lucky,” implying that, as Lennon says in a letter written in 1975 to his cousin Liela, “i.e. I have no talent”. We also learn Mimi went out of her way to run down both Julia (Lennon’s mother) and his father Freddie. When John did manage to reconnect with his father he hid the fact from Mimi for as long as possible.
Not all of his relationships with his family were so negative, but there seems to have been a great deal of underlying tension. As he says in another letter to Liela, “Stranger still that my (our) family should always (nowadays) seee mee in terms of $ and c….tho before I guess they saw me in terms of ‘problem child’… or an orphan of sorts. TO ME….I’LL ALWAYS BE…..ME” (misspellings and punctuation copied from original letter). From his letters and other references his fondest family memories were of an aunt and uncle in Scotland. He makes numerous references to missing Scotland and will sometimes even attempt to write in a Scotts “accent”.
Of course anyone reading this is going to want to know what the book reveals about his relationship with his fellow Beatles. (If you don’t know their names I doubt you’re reading this review, but for posterity’s sake they were Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard “Ringo Starr” Starkey.) While nothing new is really revealed, it’s obvious he remained very friendly with both Harrison and Starr while relations with McCartney never really recovered from the termination of The Beatles. Some of this seems to have stemmed from disagreements about who should be handling the business affairs of Apple. Paul wanted to use his first wife’s (Linda Eastman) family and the other three became dissatisfied with their handling of matters.
When McCartney wanted to release his first solo album the other three had the record company push back its release date so it wouldn’t conflict with of Let It Be. As a letter they sent him shows, they didn’t ask him, they just told him they had done so after the fact and they hoped he would understand. While there’s no indication as to who instigated the request to the company, it’s not hard to imagine McCartney thinking Lennon was behind it. Business aside, the two men hadn’t been getting along personally, as a letter from Lennon to and about McCartney show. Part of it seems to stem from McCartney and his wife’s attitude towards Lennon’s new wife Ono and how much their apparent rejection of her hurt him.
Anyone the least bit familiar with Lennon’s writing will know he was fond of both sarcasm and nonsense writing. This tendency was established early on in his life as can be seen in the reproduction of the parody newspaper he produced in grade school called The Daily Howl. As you read through the book and the years pass by you gradually realize how little he changed as he aged. The grammar and spelling might have improved somewhat (although as Davies points out it’s sometimes hard to tell whether mistakes are deliberate or not) but the same sort of childish humour continued to prevail throughout his life. In some ways this is funny, but in other ways it shows a disturbing tendency to not mature.
While The John Lennon Letters might not offer any startling revelations into the life or character of Lennon, what it does do is provide as comprehensive a biography, or autobiography, of the man as we’re likely to ever see. Davies is not only able to place each note, no matter how insignificant it might appear, into context, his comments on them are both informed and insightful. Unlike others who have to rely on second or third hand sources for their information, Davies was a friend of Lennon and is able to base his opinions on first hand knowledge of events described. However, this doesn’t prevent him from including dissenting opinions from those who disagree with Lennon’s accounts of circumstances.
While individually most of these notes and cards are fairly meaningless, collectively they work together to confirm the image we’ve always had of Lennon as the complicated Beatle. Always outspoken, always witty, sometimes almost cruel, but always interesting, 30 years after his death he continues to fascinate us. This collection of letters can only add to our fascination of this rare and witty man.