The parable of John Lennon, writer

Antonio Taormina

In His Own Write, il primo libro di John Lennon, uscito nel marzo del 1964 / the first book by John Lennon, published in March 1964

Few figures in the world of culture and show business have had so many biographers, hagiographers and exegetes as John Lennon: thousands and thousands of pages, written ceaselessly and often pointlessly (if not to attempt to gain a place in the aura of such a great legend). As part of a piece of sociological research carried out a few years ago in the United States, a range of people were asked where they were and what they were doing when they found out about Lennon’s death. The interviewees offered up clear images of a moment of dismay and shock shared by people right across the country. Such a strong collective memory would have been unlikely to occur had Lennon been no more than a pop musician or the fourth element of a magical combination. He led the Beatles to the centre of the cultural stage and from there he conquered the media, before becoming the symbol of a generation on the verge between political commitment and creativity. He was a great communicator – it was no chance that at the start of his second artistic career he decided to meet Marshall McLuhan, one of the pioneers of the studies into mass media phenomena – an artist known for his great intuition, capable of shifting seamlessly from pop to experimentation and even into counterculture. And so where did all of this start?

During his school years, ill at ease with the academic curriculum, Lennon dedicated much of his time to reading, writing and drawing. In his book, Peter Shotton – a classmate of his during primary and grammar school, and who remained friends with him even during the Beatles period – recalls John’s passion for Edgar Allan Poe, James Thurber, Edward Lear and also for two children’s writers: Kenneth Grahame and Richmal Crompton (the creator of the Just William character), while Mimi Smith, the aunt with whom he lived, would tell of his interest in Balzac. Yet his first love was Lewis Carroll, or rather the two books dedicated to Alice: Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking-Glass. During his time at the Quarry Bank High School, which began when he was 12 years old, his earliest ambitions as a writer came to light, leading him to produce the Daily Howl, a collection of poems, short stories, comic strips, drawings and caricatures bound up in the world of school, to which he would add periodically. Those pages already show traces of his love of the grotesque, as well as for wordplay.

However, the decisive moment in his training came about when he was admitted to Liverpool Art College in 1957, and where he came across students such as Bill Harry, who was later to become one of his biographers. He also came into contact with young artists and poets who introduced him to the Beat Generation of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso, as well as the Angry Young Men. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was very much in fashion at the time: a book which was to reappear tragically in Lennon’s story (Mark Chapman had a copy of it with him on the evening that he shot him).

When Bill Harry published the Mersey Beat, a magazine dedicated to the Liverpool and Merseyside music scene, he asked John for a piece on the origins of the Beatles, which was then published in the first issue on 6th July 1961, under the title Being a Short Diversion on the Dubious Origins of Beatles. Under the pseudonym ‘Beatcomber’ – chosen by Harry, drawing on the ‘Beachcomber’ column in the Daily Express – he also appeared on Mersey Beat with several short stories and poems, such as I Remember Arnold and On Safairy With Whide Hunter.

Shortly afterwards, Beatlesmania broke out, transforming the group from a musical phenomenon into a popular obsession (although their lasting cultural consecration was to come only some years later).

Yet on 23rd March 1964, In His Own Write came out in English bookshops: a real book by John Lennon, and the publishing house – Jonathan Cape of London – soon realised that they had a bestseller on their hands. It in fact ended up in the book review pages, attracting the attention of official critics, and marking the start of the career of a new and promising writer. In His Own Write was then to be followed, a little over a year later (on 24th June 1965) with A Spaniard in the Works. Its great commercial success led to a high number of reprints and editions; in 1966 Penguin would in fact bring them together in a single volume, The Penguin John Lennon (1). In 1968 the works were also adapted for the stage, directed by Victor Spinetti and first performed on 18th June at the Old Vic in London. Also in this field, Lennon managed to stand out by virtue of his great originality. The two books, of which the early editions had adopted the design and cover photos by Robert Freeman (friend of the Beatles and creator of the album covers of Meet The Beatles and Rubber Soul), were not classifiable in any conventional publishing typology. They are collections of prose passages (some in theatrical format), poems and drawings, juxtaposed in keeping with their own logic, which – albeit indirectly – lead us back to the authors of the great English tradition of nonsense verse.

As a matter of fact, nonsense was to be the distinctive element in his literary production of those years, where the puns which he learnt to come up with when reading Carroll counterweight his innate tendency towards parody (from the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, right up to a story featuring Sherlock Holmes). John’s stories and poems are filled with metaphors, amphibologies, homophonies, and amusing escapades through morphology and syntax.

It must not be overlooked that the two books that Lennon wrote constitute the first experience of one of the Beatles outside the group; furthermore, at the end of 1966, John would start shooting How I Won the War directed by Richard Lester: the first film without the other three...

After A Spaniard in the Works, despite his public’s expectations (not to mention a contract with Jonathan Cape), Lennon interrupted his public literary career. Influenced also by Dylan, he was then to channel all his creative drive as a writer into his song lyrics, taking on a first-person role and starting to write about his own personal experiences. He explained this in an interview given to David Sheff for Playboy in 1980: “In My Life was the first song I wrote that was really, consciously about my life, and it was sparked by a remark a journalist and writer in England made after In His Own Write came out... He said to me, ‘Why don’t you put some of the way you write in the book, as it were, in the songs?’”

But he didn’t stop writing; on the contrary, he continued to write assiduously over the years to come, as emerges from the same interview: “Actually, it was when I stopped music and started this househusband business. I got frantic during one period that I was supposed to be creating things, so I sat down and wrote about two hundred pages of mad stuff – In His Own Write-ish. It’s there in a box…”

Those 200 pages (which largely date back to the years 1975-1979) together with other writings dating back to 1968, were to become Lennon’s third book (at this point no longer expected): Skywriting by Word of Mouth. And other writings, including The Ballad of John and Yoko, published after his death, on 10th October 1986 by Harper & Row in New York, and at the same time by Pan Books in the UK.

Skywriting draws on the structure of the two previous works, featuring short stories, prose excerpts and drawings, but it is in actual fact made up of two separate parts. The first, which is undoubtedly of greater interest for those who are interested in Lennon’s story, constitutes his only real autobiography (at least from the period of time from 1968 onwards), and uses a more direct language, despite maintaining the vein of sarcasm so typical of the author. The second part takes us back closer to the original Lennon, yet with a more pronounced experimental take, which was to beg comparisons with William Burroughs.

Various essays have debated the theme of Lennon’s literary forefathers, picking out masters of several eras of English literature, including Swift, Dickens and Thackeray, yet the focus has come to rest on his relationship with Lear, Carroll, Thurber and Joyce. In fact, the author most commonly called into question is James Joyce (1882-1941), or more precisely the later works of Joyce, such as Finnegans Wake (1939), one of the fundamental works of 20th-century literature by virtue of the revolutionary value of its language, which foresees a complex and sophisticated use of puns, defined by the author as ‘polyhedrons’.

In the various interviews given on the topic, Lennon was fairly elusive. In July 1965, during the BBC radio programme World of Books he declared: “I’ve bought all the books that were said to be like mine. I bought a book about Edward Lear. I bought Finnegans Wake, Chaucer, and I’ve found nothing in common with any of them… I’m too close to school age to read Dickens or Shakespeare. I hate Shakespeare...” On this and other occasions, he maintained that his way of writing was entirely spontaneous and bereft of models, and that to those who asked him about his use of the onomatopoeia, he would in turn enquire, “Automatic pear?” And yet in an interview in December 1964 with Gloria Steinem for Cosmopolitan, he acknowledged that, along with Alice in Wonderland, he had also read some short stories by Thurber and Conan Doyle. Under various circumstances he would even go so far as to define his wordplay ‘Joyce-ish’. So?

Undoubtedly, Lennon was lying to an extent. In 1986, shortly after the release of ‘Skywriting’, People Magazine wrote: “Candid and scathing... A reflection of its author’s contradictions as well as his creativity and enduring appeal.”

However, a special place should be set aside in Lennon’s bibliography for The Toy Boy: a poetic composition published in the December 1965 issue of an American women’s magazine, McCall’s, the front cover of which sported Gene Kelly dressed up as Santa Claus. The Toy Boy was not part of the first book, nor of the second, and neither was it to be included in Skywriting by Word of Mouth. It was not accompanied by any comment or presentation, occupying the second half of a page depicting Lennon in a shot taken by Robert Freemann, portraying him sitting on the ground in a bare room next to a life-size panda teddy, his arm lying across its shoulders. Something of a rarity in Lennonian iconography, highlighting his fragility and his more sensitive side. There’s something mysterious behind The Toy Boy: in December 1965, Lennon was already a highly well-known personality, and as a writer he had by this time made his presence felt, and yet this new work (in all regards a world exclusive) came out somewhat sotto voce, no mention of it even being made on the front page. In all likelihood, it was probably written for the third book, for which publication was foreseen in 1966 yet which never came into being. The Toy Boy is made up of 73 lines – his longest work in verse after The Wuberlog, published in A Spaniard in the Works, which features 121– eight verses of nine lies each, based on rhyming couplets (following the rhyme scheme: AABBCCDDE).

From a literary point of view, it stands among his greatest works. Just like in his previous poems, John adopts a language imbibed in lyricism, doing away with the use of puns yet while maintaining the iconoclastic spirit and sense of humour for which his entire opus stands out. His inspiration gradually shifted from the use of nonsense to the search for ‘soundsense’. The Toy Boy tells of a boy and some toys in his room, which do not believe that child is alive (during the day, they are nothing but objects). The child, on the other hand, realises that while he is asleep, the toys have a life of their own; he tells his parents about this, and they believe him to be mentally disturbed, leading to his being marched off to see a psychiatrist. In the first part of the poem, it’s the toys that do the speaking, while the child sleeps, while in the second half the tables are turned. The contents are underpinned by the autobiographical revelation of his state of isolation and the unrest he underwent both as a child and then within the Beatles, as is shown in a famous interview granted to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner in 1970, in which he speaks of his awareness of his artistic potential: “I realised it when I was a kid, when I was writing my poems and painting. I’ve always felt different.” James Sauceda, one of the most affirmed scholars on Lennon the writer, sees analogies between the lines of The Toy Boy and those of the Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1940) by T. S. Eliot, on which the musical Cats was later to be based. Compared to Lennon’s musical production, we come across the same fantastic inspiration in many of his later works, while the rhyming couplets inevitably take us back to many of the Beatles’ songs of the day, such as Drive My Car (1965), written by Paul with help from John on the words. It must be said that shortly after, the adoption of more complex musical forms was also to lead Lennon to rethink his lyrics from a stylistic point of view. His lines were to take on more elaborate structures, breaking away from a strict meter so as to embrace the broader scope offered by free verse, adopted in all the songs by the ‘older’ Lennon, from Tomorrow Never Knows, (1966), to Strawberry Fields Forever (1967), and even All You Need Is Love (1967).

After Skywriting, two other books were to be published posthumously: Ai. Japan through John Lennon’s Eyes in 1990, based on his study of the Japanese language, and Real Love: the Drawings for Sean in 1999, a book for children written for his second son. They are both based on John’s work as an artist (especially the second), along the same lines as the drawings to be found in the three previous books, for which he had been compared to Thurber and Saul Steinberg, although he himself claimed greater interest in the work of Ronald Searle.

In the Los Angeles Times in 1986, Terry Atkinson wrote: “Had he never sung a note, John Lennon would have made his mark as a successor to Lewis Carroll, James Joyce and other brilliantly playful moulders and expanders of the English language.”

(1) In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works were first published in Italy (as a single edition) in 1990 by the Arcana publishing house, edited and adapted by Donatella Franzoni and Antonio Taormina.