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Book review: John Lennon's life in letters and notes

John Lennon's letters, collected in a new anthology by Hunter Davies, reveal the mostly mundane details of the late star's life and times. But, asks James McNair, do they add anything to the story of The Beatles?

A postcard written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Stuart Wilson / Getty Images)
A postcard written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Stuart Wilson / Getty Images)

The devil is in the details, they say, but when Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker reviewed The John Lennon Letters for The Guardian recently, he clearly felt its editor, Hunter Davies, should have let some of its minutiae be.

"The Post-it Notes Of John Lennon, anyone?" wrote Cocker, referencing letter 255. The said note is actually a shopping list for items such as onions and yogurt that Lennon left for his Dakota building personal assistant Fred Seaman at the Dakota building in New York City in 1979. We're reminded that Davies's book contains all kinds of ephemera, not just letters.

That Davies exercises such artistic licence was bound to ruffle a few feathers. Interviewed by The Review via email, he is unrepentant. "I knew [certain texts] would be picked-upon and mocked," he says. "Do I care? Do I buggery. If you look at the collected letters of great literary figures such as Robert Louis Stevenson, they include notes to his granny thanking her for birthday presents. It's sweet and banal, but part of the whole person."

Davies says The Lennon Letters is aimed at "anyone who has ever hummed a Beatles tune". Its come-hither reproductions of Lennon's original missives, some of which also have drawings and doodles, are certainly appealing. It's perhaps the more forensic Beatles fan who'll enjoy the book most, though.

Letter 259 is a postcard to Ringo Starr in which Lennon suggests he records a cover version of Blondie's Heart Of Glass. One also learns a little more about the "whole" of John Lennon reading letter 184, an apology to a waitress named Pam written on a card from Hahn's Flowers, Beverly Hills in 1974 during his infamous "lost weekend" period. (What did Lennon do to upset her, one wonders?).

Clearly, none of the above is revelatory, but The Lennon Letters does unearth texts of historical worth and poignancy. When Lennon writes about the difficult birth of his son Sean, or writes from Hamburg circa 1960 to reassure George Harrison's mum that her 17-year old son is fine, we are very much in the thick of it.

The book also reproduces the letter Lennon sent Queen Elizabeth II when returning his MBE in protest against "our support of America in Vietnam", and the testy communiqué he posted to Paul and Linda McCartney after The Beatles' acrimonious split. Elsewhere, there are handwritten set lists, telegrams and Christmas cards - and there's even an effusive book review of Spike Milligan's The Goon Show Scripts that Lennon wrote for The New York Times in 1973.

We know, too, that this chain of letters can't end well, and one feels a little grubby thumbing forward to letter 285. The last letter in the book, it's an autograph Lennon signed on December 8, 1980. Just hours later, Mark Chapman shot Lennon dead.

The book is another Fab Four-related coup for Davies, 76. His 1968 work The Beatles remains the only authorised biography of the band, and the 18 months of unprecedented access he was afforded to write it saw him sit in on sessions for the Magical Mystery Tour. ("Was I aware how privileged I was? Of course! I never wanted the 'research' to end.")

In one of his chapter introductions for The Lennon Letters, Davies even tells how, in 1967, he figured in a series of events that led Lennon to write a cautious but warm missive to Freddie Lennon, his estranged father. In today's Leveson Inquiry world, it is difficult to imagine such trust existing between a journalist and an A-list pop star.

Davies has carried this store of trust forward to The Lennon Letters. Though the texts have been sourced from Lennon's friends, family and myriad private collectors, monied or otherwise, Davies required the permission of Yoko Ono, who holds all copyright on such material, to publish them. Ono has also written a short foreword for the book which concludes, "Hunter, you did good."

That none of Ono's own letters from Lennon appear here is both unsurprising and understandable. If George Harrison's widow Olivia has letters from John to George, she's clearly holding on to those, too. With Ringo's self-explanatory 2004 collection Postcards from the Boys reproducing Lennon's missives to him, moreover, the absence of any letters from Lennon to McCartney is perhaps most conspicuous in Davies' book. He tells me he did approach McCartney, however: "Paul said he had two letters from John, but they were personal."

All of the above begs the question of whether The Lennon Letters might be something close to the last word on John Lennon and The Beatles. Davies thinks not. "Oh, there will be more", he says. "John's private diaries and his unpublished poems and stories, for example - I'm sure they exist.

"I know Paul has written creative stuff, too", he adds. "While staying with [me and my family] in Portugal in 1968, he started a novel on my typewriter. He would never let me see it."

The Lennon Letters teases out many different sides of the most complex Beatle's personality. Lennon can be tender writing to an unknown fan in Brazil, then abusive to a close acquaintance. Davies tells me that, even for him, the letters have thus far yielded "no dramatic single revelation.

"It was more seeing aspects of his character that were rarely visible" he says. "In his letters to his cousin Leila, John doesn't swear, rant or be silly - rather he is soft, sentimental, nostalgic and sensible."

As for any further insights into Lennon's/The Beatles' music, the book offers-up some titbits, but nothing that will have Mark Lewisohn scurrying to revise his scholarly book, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. That said, letter 178, Lennon's response to a question about Buddy Holly's effect and influence, is informative, and completists will want to read letter 150, Lennon's unpublished sleeve notes for his Imagine album.

The extensive detective work that Davies has undertaken to write informative notes on the provenance of each of the book's letters is impressive, and it's interesting to see which of the original recipients have hung on to their Lennon letters, and which have not. Asked about the whereabouts of his own letters from Lennon, Davies says: "I would never sell such stuff. They are going to the British Library."

Intriguingly, Davies' book appears to be an open-ended work. He knows that there will be more Lennon-penned texts out there, and he has set up the email address (johnlennonletters@ hotmail.co.uk) in the hope that any custodians of such material will contact him.

The same email account also welcomes further information or corrections to letters already published, and Davies's in-box is already reaping the benefits. "Letters 12 and 13 in the book always fascinated me", he says. "Who was Lindy Ness? Was she really Norwegian? Was John having an affair with her?

"Yesterday I finally found out who she was," Davies adds, but he isn't about to reveal all to The Review. "I'm afraid it would take too long to explain here," he says.

 

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.