Love is all there is
Donovan Leitchreviews The John Lennon Letters Edited by Hunter Davies, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 392pp, £25
Letters by their nature are private, so getting a peek at those of John Lennon is like having a hidden camera. We know so well the short forms of John’s words in his songs; to see him write in a free and rare and unconscious style is unique. Perhaps we can glimpse the poet behind the pose, perhaps not. So brace yourselves, my Irish readers, for Donovan’s review of the new book The John Lennon Letters. I know you know that Lennon is of the Irish in Liverpool, and it’s no wonder that John is as famous as tomorrow’s dreams.
Here we have John’s letters to friends, family and loved ones, and me, your reviewer, who was John’s chum in the halcyon days, when all the world was young.
It’s too easy to see this wonderful collection as leading up to John’s death. I would rather review the letters backwards and arrive at the beginning and bounce between the two. I leave the middle periods of the letters to you the readers to explore. And you will need to be brave explorers, as this collection is huge. It has to be big, as each letter facsimile is also typed, in case you can’t read the original.
So fast-forward to John’s last letters. They are autographs and lists. A famous guy dumping his famous past, in love with Yoko and Sean and his latest record.
It could be John’s last letter, an autograph on a torn page of a sort of school jotter, signed for Ribeah, a girl who worked on the switchboard at the Record Plant studios, where he and Yoko were working on her song Walking on Thin Ice: “for Ribeah, love John Lennon”, with a tiny “Yoko Ono” followed by the well-known round-glasses scribble and enigmatic smile. And ending with the addition of Yoko’s two eyes and nose, with her not-so-happy smile.
Most conspicuous is John’s signature, the “John” scrawl moving fast into the “Lennon”, as if his persona had finally become one with his sentiment. Note that the dedication is clear, “for Ribeah”, not “to Ribeah” – this is important for stars like John and I, a gift – and the comma, followed by the word “love”, could be seen as “leve” (leave?). And then the crazy bold signature that John dates that momentous year of 1980.
Now let’s contrast this so-called last scribble with John’s first writing that our editor, the intrepid Hunter Davies, has found.
Hunter, it must be noted, is privileged to be the only official Beatles biographer – the reason, no doubt, why Yoko agreed to help him collect and edit John’s letters.
John, at 12 bright years old, makes his own newspaper and titles it the Daily Howl: “The kindly Vicar of a parish, has kindly donated a kind donation, which he kindly decided to kindly donate to the Society for the Prevention of Standing on Toadstools. But it is found that the treasurer of the SPTT has run away to Garston, he went on the (booze) bus.”
I see it as a letter to John himself. How else can a young poet arrive? He creates his own platform and lampoons the establishment. The art, the satire and the oblique religious interest are all there. The Spike Milligan bizarreness is apparent (Spike created the radio show called The Goon Show, which John heard, of course), the toadstool, the early genius for uncovering hypocrisy. It’s all there; so young, yet so wise.
Our hidden camera reveals that John was a very good writer who wanted to sell a newspaper and who knew the vicar was a tart. And design was important too.
Back to the future and Yoko writes a Thanksgiving note – or is it John typing the text? “On this day of Thanksgiving we are thinking of you. We wish you a happy life.” Perhaps there were no emails in the New York Lennon kitchen back in 1980.
Mimi and Julia
Flash forward to the past, to Christmas 1951. John writes in joined-up handwriting to his Auntie Harriet: “Thank you for the book you sent to me for Christmas and for the towel with my name on it, and I think it is the best towel I’ve ever seen. The book that you sent me is a very interesting one. I am at the bottom of page 18 at the moment. The story is famous ships, it’s all about a man called Captain Kidd the pirate.”
Of course, John’s mother is absent and his Aunt Mimi is Mum. So what? John and I in India in 1968 on that famous Beatles/ Donovan meditation trip, explored his “no mum” status in his song Julia.
John asked me to help him write a song about the childhood he never had. But this is not sad. Because in ancient Irish culture children were “fostered” to aunts, mainly to protect them, often from a violent death. So to me it seems John was protected by “fosterage”.
Then flash backwards to the future; one letter that Hunter Davies finds shows that John is in touch with his foster parent just before leaving the planet. Hunter writes that “John is dutifully trying to ring Aunt Mimi most days. Presumably Mimi had been telling him as ever what he really ought to do.” The end of the letter is all that survives: “Love, Your nephew in America, Love John PS one cannot have ones BACK TEETH CAPPED!!!” And letters to her and his relatives in “The Pool” promise that he is coming soon to see them. Perhaps a cry for contact. Prior to exit.
Of course I cannot review every letter John wrote, but remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, and John loved Cynthia and John loved Yoko. And of course the clear and crystal truth that shines through all the darkness in that wonder-filled line . . . “Love is all there is”.
Open this book carefully. Maybe your dreams are here. And remember what John taught us all:only the bold are free. Buy or steal this book – it’s worth the risk.