THERE’S scraping the barrel and then there is this dazzlingly indiscriminate collation of letters and memos and telegrams and postcards and doodles and shopping lists and action lists and lists of records to listen to and lists of books to read and lists of chores to give the staff and lists of stolen clothes (insurance purposes) and lists of diet foods and so on up to an adoring review for the New York Times of Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show Scripts.
“Edited” is pe
The John Lennon Letters Edited With An Introduction by Hunter Davies
Weidenfeld, 400pp, £25
rhaps not the first word that springs to mind when one considers Hunter Davies’s role in this production. He has all too evidently decided to go for volume; that is, to include every available piece of paper that John Lennon scrawled on or typed or ever sent to anyone. Some he sent to himself.
Davies has written at least two previous books about the Beatles and suffers the happy assumption that the entire world is still as fascinated as he is by what David Bailey has cattily described as “a boy band from up north”. We are instructed that “to a true Lennon addict, any scrap, any word is of interest, even a shopping list …”
The material is organised chronologically and more or less thematically. Lennon’s susceptibility to fads is thus well captured. His wonderful singing voice – his only peers in the rock pantheon are Orbison and Presley – was rasping, metallic, harsh, mocking, ironic. It was what the man himself once had been.
But after Sgt Pepper it dissipated as the Beatles descended precipitously into half-witted mysticism, Fair Isle pullovers and infantile gullibility. Magical Mystery Tour, some of The White Album, all of Abbey Road and Let It Be … these can only be regarded with gross embarrassment. Which might also be said of John and Yoko’s bed-ins, their wrongheaded causes such as Hanratty and Michael X, their all-purpose alternativeness, their smiley gurus, their chanting and primal screaming, and the catchily emetic Imagine.
And with each new craze came a new look. The man’s facial mutability was extraordinary. But his self-awareness is such that he understands the ephemerality of his guises and enthusiasms. While his public expression is that of a quick-change artiste, the private correspondent is constant. His handwriting is that of an intelligent being. He is often charming, which is maybe surprising. He evinces a generosity of spirit in letters to strangers. He is loyal to his often very odd relations and his ne’er-do-well father. His jocular punning and eternally adolescent verbal extravagance are recurrent. So too is a petulant sensitivity towards perceived slights, especially over the tiresome business of who wrote what. He was disproportionately angered by having only a walk-on role in George Harrison’s autobiography, though he may equally have been angered by Harrison’s star having risen higher than his or by Harrison’s antipathy to Yoko Ono: there had been no rapprochement before Lennon was murdered.
That crime’s hideousness is exacerbated by Lennon’s frequent pronouncements to correspondents that, having regained his health, he is going to live to “a ripe old age” and that as he approaches 40 he hopes “life will begin”.
He had just made his first record in half a decade since the birth of his second son. That period had been preceded by his separation from Yoko, when he lived with May Pang in California and spent most of his time legless in the company of Harry Nilsson and Peter Boyle.
It’s perhaps hardly surprising but still regrettable that this fascinating year of his life should have yielded no letters save for contrite, morning-after apologies for too ebullient behaviour in Hollywood bars.
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