John Lennon as writer and artist
At Woolton village fete I met him. I was a fat schoolboy and, as he leaned an arm on my shoulder, I realised he was drunk . . . Aunt Mimi, who had looked after him since he was so high, used to tell me he was cleverer than he pretended, and things like that.”
That is how Paul McCartney described his first meeting with John Lennon in the introduction he contributed to In His Own Write, Lennon’s book of poetry, drawings and surrealist rambles published in 1964. McCartney’s piece was succinct and, of course, a little cute. “He left school to join a group called The Beatles, and here he is with a book,” the introduction continued. “Again I think – is he deep?”
The typescript delivered to the publisher, Jonathan Cape, hints that rather more may have been required of McCartney. But 1964 was a busy year for him and the group: a flurry of hit singles, The Ed Sullivan Show, the indelible changing of the course of popular culture. “Dear Mr Cape,” he scrawled at the top of the page, “there are only 234 words but I don’t care.”
The original manuscript of the introduction reveals that “Mr Cape” did care, a little bit. On its other side, an anonymous hand has attempted to rewrite the piece, while another has crossed out some of McCartney’s original words. But the author had his way, and the short introduction was published as written by him. Today that same piece of paper, describing the genesis of popular music’s most successful partnership, has become a historical document, freshly up for sale at Sotheby’s for an estimated $20,000-$30,000.
The rest of the parcel of drawings and manuscripts being offered for sale at auction in New York on June 4 is all Lennon, a man who turned out to be a lot cleverer, and a lot deeper, than anyone suspected. They are being sold by Tom Maschler, the publisher who commissioned In His Own Write and its successor, A Spaniard in the Works (1965). He kept the original manuscripts from the books, given to him by Lennon, “in a drawer” for 50 years. They are estimated to fetch more than $1m.
Nobody had imagined, in 1964, that Lennon had anything as bizarre as In His Own Write up his sleeve. The early songs of The Beatles, mostly written on the hoof to meet tight deadlines, showed little signs of lyrical sophistication compared to the musical audacity and technical accomplishment with which they were delivered. Young boys and girls fell in and out of love, held each other, missed each other, got back together again. But Lennon’s imaginative world was already inhabiting a more curious space.
At Quarry Bank High School in the Liverpool suburbs, he had produced his own “newspaper”, the Daily Howl, out of scraps of paper – “Page after page of one-line gags, eccentric wordplay, spoof ads, cartoons, and the first evidence of a lasting obsession with Negroes, Jews and human grotesques,” writes Mark Lewisohn in Tune In, the magisterial first volume of his biography of The Beatles published last year.
As his formal schooling began to fall apart, Lennon, writes Lewisohn, enjoyed the ritual of taking the exercise book containing his jokes and doodles into school, “to be read aloud and passed around – and then, after being confiscated by the teachers, enjoyed by the Quarry Bank staff before John got them back at the end of term”.
Those snippets formed the basis of In His Own Write, and they surprised the wider world when the book was published. Many didn’t get it. The Conservative MP Charles Curran failed to appreciate the book’s plentiful and deliberate misspellings and puns, and used the opportunity to attack standards of education. “He has a feeling for words and story-telling, [but] he is in a state of pathetic near-literacy,” he said of Lennon’s efforts during a debate in Parliament in June 1964. “He seems to have picked up bits of Tennyson, Browning and Robert Louis Stevenson while listening with one ear to the football results on the wireless.”
On the whole, though, the reception for In His Own Write was positive. The Times Literary Supplement wrote that the book was “worth the attention of anyone who fears for the impoverishment of the English language and the British imagination . . . the humorists have done much more to preserve and enrich these assets than most serious critics allow. Theirs is arguably our liveliest stream of ‘experimental writing’ and Mr Lennon shows himself well equipped to take it farther.”
Speaking in his Holland Park apartment, Tom Maschler tells me he felt “curious” on the day of In His Own Write’s publication 50 years ago. Not just a little nervous, I ask? “Yes, I was nervous,” he confesses. “But the only reason I was nervous is because I wanted the book to be correctly evaluated. I took it very seriously. I thought it was a work of art and, of course, I still do. But it was written by a Beatle.” He pauses, to add drily: “And everyone thought that no Beatle could ever write a work of art.”
Maschler, now 80, has introduced a stream of prestigious writers to the British public, including John Fowles, Philip Roth, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. By 1964, he was already acquiring a reputation for boldness and originality: his first signing for Cape had been Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the UK rights of which he acquired for £250.
But he was an unlikely figure to dip a toe into the nascent pop world and find inspiration. “I was not an enormous pop fan but I was aware of what was going on around me,” Maschler recalls. Curiosity led him to commission a book on popular music from the author Michael Braun, who one day in 1963 presented him with a handful of weird writings and drawings. “They were done mainly on hotel notepaper, in scrawly handwriting, which I rather liked. I asked Michael who had done them, and he said, ‘John Lennon.’ I said, ‘When can I meet him?’ ”
Maschler encountered Lennon two weeks later, at a Beatles concert for the group’s Wimbledon Southern Fan Club, and was plunged abruptly into the excesses of Beatlemania. “I remember the girls – it was 80 per cent girls – passing their programmes through these grilles to get them signed by the group. And then three out of four of them would faint! There were eight ambulances on hand to help them recover. I waited for an hour and a half, just watching these girls keel over!”
It was unlike any other author meeting he’d had but Maschler and Lennon connected. They began to meet regularly at the Beatle’s London flat. “There were always kids screaming, it was like a zoo. I said to him, ‘This is insanity, come to my office,’ but he didn’t like going out because he was always mobbed.”
Soon they were working together on a weekly basis. “I was doing a Diaghilev. I was putting in far more time with him than I normally do with an author. He was unschooled. When the writing was bad, it was very bad. When someone like Ian McEwan goes off the rails, it might be for a sentence or two. But from time to time John would go right off the rails.”
When Maschler talked of a contract, Lennon directed him to the group’s manager Brian Epstein. “I didn’t know what to say. Here’s this kid earning more money in a day than the book would ever generate! I came up with a figure of £10,000, and Brian said, ‘Fine.’ All he was concerned about was that I was the right person to work with John. I could sense he was very protective of John.”
The book was published on a Thursday, and was favourably reviewed in most of the weekend papers. On Monday, Maschler found queues forming at the gates of Cape’s warehouse, booksellers desperate for more copies. In His Own Write went out of print within five days.
Mark Lewisohn describes the Lennon manuscripts as “extraordinary”. “We have his songs but this is another branch of his artistic expression. Some of it is in his own handwriting, written on hotel stationery: we have the ability to trace exactly when it was written. It is the archive in its purest and rawest form.”
The differences between the versions of the stories and poems in the manuscripts, and the final versions contained in the books, are telling. Any references to The Beatles are excised, confirming Maschler’s stated wish to separate the writer from the pop star. This was an age that evidently preferred integrity to opportunism.
One of the rejected pieces is a “news” item announcing the group’s first single: “A sog they whripe themselves called Lub Me Jew. The Beagles (Johb Paub, Georb and Rigo) hop to sell maby coddies of it. God luck lads . . . ”
Other excisions are surprisingly prudish. On a mock letter, which satirises pop fanzines, Lennon signs off with an innuendo: “Your hardened admirer”, which prompts a blunt response from an editor: “Glib smut”. An absurdist agony column didn’t make it to the book, for its less-than-wholesome advice: “Jealousy can wreck a marriage, try getting to know the postman.”
The largest estimate in the sale, at $50,000-$70,000, is for a nine-page autograph manuscript of a Sherlock Holmes parody entitled “The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield”, from A Spaniard in the Works. The relatively neat writing testifies to a rare period of calm in The Beatles’ itinerary: a holiday in Tahiti in May 1964, taken just two months after the publication of In His Own Write. “I remember coming up with a lot of little phrases while he sat at the table,” recalled George Harrison of the holiday. “If anybody said anything it would go in the book.”
“The Singularge Experience” was a strange and savage piece of work, revolving around the killing of a prostitute, murdered in her “happy hunting ground” by “Jack the Nipple” in revenge for giving him “the dreadfoot V.D.”. Lewisohn characterises Lennon’s “gentle spite” as a coping mechanism for dealing with his own discomfort.
For Beatles’ historians, a hard-set myth is dispelled: the phrase “a hard day’s night” was always said by Lennon to be an invention of Ringo Starr, uttered on the set of the as yet untitled film. But it appears here, in a story called “Sad Michael”, written before filming began.
Tom Maschler says that the principal reason he is bringing the material to auction is for the occasion to prompt a reassessment of Lennon’s drawings. “He is not very famous as an artist but he is really very good,” he says. His memory of Lennon is imbued with affection. “He was very wise, a mixture of immaturity and worldliness. We spent many hours together: I knew him but I didn’t know him. I was very moved by him. He was a very special person.”
Lewisohn’s interest is more academic: he is already at work on the second volume of his biography, due to be delivered in 2020. He says the raw state of the manuscripts and drawings are compelling evidence of the hectic lives led by The Beatles at the time, and the ability of one of their number to carve out some personal space for himself. “They were on the run and on the road at this moment in time. They couldn’t go out. You get a sense here of Lennon sitting in his room and going in another creative direction completely. He was completely switched on and on top of his game.”
What bounces off the pages is a kind of restlessness, an impatience with the limitations of an admittedly spectacular day job. “I would imagine these were all done at incredible speed,” says Lewisohn. “John wasn’t one to labour over things. He needed to do something fast, and move on. He was capable of expressing himself very quickly in all media.”
The archive also comes from a particular cultural moment. Those early reactions to Lennon’s work 50 years ago, from Tom Maschler but also from those reviewers who compared it to work by Edward Lear, Spike Milligan and Hilaire Belloc, were among the earliest attempts of high culture to engage with the pop world. Lennon’s work was a revelation: the man who helped write “I Want to Hold Your Hand” could also nurture demonic visions and a cruel sense of humour. There was substance beneath the shimmer, after all.
This was a surprise for a world in which sexual intercourse, pace Philip Larkin, had only just begun. But it was only a momentary state of innocence. Lennon soon reconciled the demons and the softer sentiments. Around the corner would be the songs that reflected his more shaded feelings: “In My Life”, “Nowhere Man”, the songwriting revolution that was “Tomorrow Never Knows”. The writer and the pop star became one, and culture was turned upside down.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
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