Friday, June 28, 2019

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Christ, You Know It Ain't Easy...

You know how it is. You've been putting off some unpleasant task for years and years. One morning you think "Is there any reason today shouldn't be the day that I do it?" And you finally get around to it. And of course, it's never as bad as you thought it was going to be. You wonder why you didn't get it out of the way years ago. 

You know the kind of things. Fixing the boiler. Getting your teeth checked out. Watching Monty Python's Life of Brian. 

I was slightly too young to go and see Life of Brian when it first came out, two years after Star Wars, although lots of people in my class seemed to have managed. They also managed to get in to see Alien in the same year. Alien was an "X": it would now be called an "18", but "X-Rated" sounds much sexier. The first X-Rated film I ever saw was The Fog. I was only 17 and it was not very frightening. Monty Python's Life of Brian was a Double A, I suppose mainly because of Graham Chapman's penis. 

At University I started to move in evangelical circles, and "I have never seen Monty Python's Life of Brian" became a bit of a shibboleth. Oh, we said, we aren't like Johnny Muslim, we don't think the film should be banned and we certainly don't want to chop anyone's head off, we merely choose not to go and see it. All things are permissible but not everything is beneficial one Corinthians six twelve. You wouldn't expect me to go and see a film making fun of the death of my Grandfather, would you? Oh but Andrew the film isn't making fun of the death of Jesus. If anything it is making fun of the death of Kirk Douglas. Have it your own way. Perhaps I just don't think crucifixion is a very funny subject. 

So I rather got stuck with this as a point of honour. I had Never Done Drugs and I had Never Seen Life of Brian. I persisted in my obstinacy even after it was pointed out to me exactly what had been in those chocolate brownies I used to like so much. Time passed and it became one of those films I just never got around to watching. 

Last night I was editing the latest installment of my commentary on St Mark and felt the need to say a few words about the Messianic Secret. It is a curious fact that in Mark's Gospel Jesus doesn't want anyone to know who he really is. Demon-possessed people keep screaming "you are the Son of God!" at him and he keeps straightly charging them to hold their peace. 

"You might almost think" I found myself typing "That only the true Messiah denies his divinity." 

Oh come on, I thought, this is silly, and went to the back room and switched on Netflicks. 

It would make an excellent punch line if I could now say: "And do you know what? It really is the funniest film ever made. I can't believe I've been avoiding it for so long." It would be almost equally good to be able to say "All my worst fears were realized. It really is a desperately squalid and offensive movie." 

Unfortunately, I wasn't particularly shocked or offended, and I very much doubt that I ever would have been. But I am equally sorry to report that I didn't actually think it was all that funny. 


The film feels like a collision between two slightly different ideas. Someone clearly thinks they are making a comedy adventure, somewhere between Planet of the Apes and Inspector Cluesoe. A young man, Brian Cohen, joins a revolutionary sect because he hates the Romans. ("A lot.") He becomes involved in an inept plot to kidnap the governor's wife, spends a lot of the movie being chased by Roman guards, and is eventually captured and crucified. Some of the characters have Biblical names and the nominal setting is Jerusalem; but this material has only the vaguest connection to the New Testament. The central gag about revolutionaries who spend more time arguing among themselves than they do fighting their oppressors could have been set in any milieu. 

The humor is much broader and more mainstream than I remember Monty Python's Flying Circus being, depending as much on old fashioned slapstick as on surrealism. The idea that two different groups of rebels infiltrate the palace at the same time, and fight each other rather than joining forces is a little bit funny, but the actual fight seemed interminable. I kept wanting to shout out "Get on with it!" like Captain Blackadder at the music hall. In the years between Flying Circus and Life of Brian John Cleese had made two seasons of Fawlty Towers which is shaped like a sit-com but is actually a sustained piece of vaudeville knockabout, so maybe that the place Cleese wanted to be. But it is a little disappointing that a comedy troupe which made its name with jokes about Proust and Descartes is now basing entire routines around a character called Biggus Dickus. Pilate can't say his Rs and Biggus Dickus can't say his Ss and all the other characters find this incredibly funny. Perhaps "He wanks as highly as any in Wome" seemed cleverer at the time than it does in wetwospect. These were the days when you could hardly say "bloody" on the BBC. But I kept thinking of Eric Morcambe's advice to Andre Previn "We mustn't know it's funny. If we find it funny then the audience won't." 

This part of the film takes as a starting point that left-wing political organisations are intrinsically funny. The jokes have not worn very well: it is taken for granted that we will all find it comically absurd that Eric Idle's character thinks they should say "men and women" rather than "men" and issue press statements about the rights of "men and women and hermaphrodites". It's political correctness gone mad. "Stan" wants to stand up for the rights of women because he wants to be one, and the other lefties say that they are going to fight for his right to have babies even though it is biologically impossible for him to do so. You can be kicked off Twitter for saying that kind of thing. (Also: women with false beards.)

Credit where credit is due: I laughed out loud at one  gag. While they are arguing about the difference between "the Judean People's Front" and the "People's Front of Judea" someone says "What ever happened to the Judean Popular Front" and someone else says "He's over there." But even this seems to assume that chaps like us all agree that political disagreements are really only ever arcane disputes of nomenclature.  

This is most obviously problematic in the famous "what have the Romans ever done for us..." sequence. This is basically the same gag as "no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition..." and is probably the best sketch in the movie: "Reg" (John Cleese) won't relinquish his basic proposition no matter how many exceptions are made. Maybe we are supposed to infer that religion and politics are equally matters of faith and you can never convert a true believer with counter-arguments. Maybe the point of the running Judean Popular Front / Popular Front of Judea gag is that religion and politics are both equally prone to sectarianism and schisms. But what most people are going to see on the surface is that the whole idea of revolution is ludicrous and that these silly olden days people with funny hats and big noses can't see that they are much better off under the Roman Empire than they would have been without it. For all their irreverence, the Pythons have imbibed the 1950s English public school Kool-Aid. The Roman Empire, like its successor the British Empire, was ultimately a Good Thing. Take up the white man's burden. It was alright for the Roman's to conquer Britain because at that time the British were still natives. 

The spirit of the English public school hovers over the whole thing. (Some of the school sketches from Meaning of Life were originally going to be in Life of Brian, presumably as some kind of framing sequence.) Another pretty funny sketch involves Brian writing anti-Roman graffiti in Latin and being chastised by a Roman soldier because he has conjugated it wrongly. I suspect the joke itself would now get lost in translation: no-one automatically associates Latin with their schooldays, and a teacher who twisted a boy's ear in that way would get locked up. Or is the idea of a police officer correcting a vandal's grammar funny even if you don't know what public school Latin masters used to be like? In his infamous BBC 2 debate with the Bishop of Southwark, John Cleese was still fuming about a bad sermon he had heard at his Prep School, some thirty years previously. 

So far, so not quite as funny as Carry on Cleo. Kenneth Williams would have done a better job with "Welease Woderwick" and, come to that, Michael Palin would have had a good time with "Infamy! Infamy!" But the film's reputation depends on what is strictly a digression: while running away from Pilate's guards, Brian quotes some passages which he once overhead Jesus preaching and is pursued by a mob who think he is the actual Messiah. 

If the Bishop of Southwark honestly thought that Brian represented Jesus, or that the movie was contending that Jesus was like Brian then he hadn't been paying attention. (There is a persistent oral tradition that he had in fact missed the first fifteen minutes of the screening.) The exact point of the movie is that Brian is as unlike Jesus as anyone could possibly be: he is a rather ordinary man who has, absurdly and ridiculously, been mistaken for Jesus. That is what comedy professionals call "a good joke". But Life of Brian cannot get away from its origins in sketch comedy: the whole "Brian mistaken for Jesus" conceit is exhausted in two set pieces. There's a rather wearisome sequence in which Brian tries to hide out in a hermit's cave while his followers say things like "How should we fuck off, oh Lord?" and everyone says "juniper berries" a lot. And then there is a very much cleverer sequence in which a huge crowd gathers outside Brian's window. The idea that Brian has to debate with a huge mob of "followers" who all chant back at him in perfect unison is clever, silly and original, and it builds up to the famous moment where the crowd mindlessly chant "we are all different!" while one dissenter says "I'm not!" The Messianic leader whose only message is "don't follow leaders"; the followers who says that they'll only believe he's the Messiah if he says that he isn't; the man in the crowd who asserts his individuality by claiming to be the same as everyone else. Joseph Heller wrote an entire book based on these kinds of paradoxes. I forget the title.

Michael Palin said that if the film had a point, it was Brian's speech about not doing what other people told you, thinking for yourself, not following leaders and watching the parking meters. I think that the message most audiences would take away would actually be "religious people and (left wing people) are crazy" or "funny olden days Jews would say that anyone was the Messiah." Tim Rice had made that joke rather better eight years earlier. 

Chekov said that if you do something slowly, it's tragedy, but if you do the same thing quickly, it's farce. So perhaps the point of the angry mob is that the kinds of doctrinal arguments which take centuries to develop in real life are here shown breaking out in seconds. Or perhaps it is just quite funny for hundreds of Jewish people to stand outside a naked man's window and wave their shoes at him.

There are really only two or three scenes that could be said to directly mock or lampoon Christian iconography. In the first sketch, Three Wise men are shown worshiping a new baby. The character who appears to be the Virgin Mary turns out to  be Terry Jones doing his standard cockney housewife voice ("oh dear, Mrs Niggerbaiter's exploded"). She doesn't know what Myrrh is and neither do the Wise Men, who have to rush back in and reclaim their gifts when they realize they've come to the wrong stable. One could imagine this having been a stand alone Flying Circus sketch; with standard issue BBC costume and a painted backdrop: in which case it would have provoked a couple of stiff letters to the Radio Times but very little else. The trouble is that Life of Brian has, or at any rate is able to fake, Hollywood level production values. The opening shots (which quite specifically allude to Ben Hur) would not have disgraced a serious Biblical epic: desert, stars, Bethlehem street scene, lush pre-Raphelite stable, heavenly choirs singing something which is not quite Adeste Fidelis... The music and the cinematography say "This is something profound and awe inspiring" and then we transition to Terry Jones in drag. The presentation still has the capacity to shock: the actual material is essentially harmless. 

In the second sketch, Jesus -- played entirely straight and working from the New English Bible -- is shown reciting the beatitudes to some entirely sane followers. We pan back to the grown-up Brian and his mother who are at the back of the crowd and can't hear what's being said. The scene presupposes, contra Muggeridge an English school level familiarity with the material. If you don't know the text, then "blessed is the Greek" and "blessed are the cheese makers" aren't funny. But the sketch rapidly stops being about people mishearing the Sermon on the Mount and becomes about who has the biggest nose. Perhaps the sketch is saying "Isn't it sad that even when the greatest sermon of all time is being preached, some people will not pay attention and fight about trivia instead?" But I think it is probably mostly saying "Isn't it funny that Jews have big noses?" 

I don't, incidentally, think that the film contains what are now known as Tropes. It doesn't say that Jewish people are rich or mean or that they secretly control the media. But there are a lot of nose jokes. 

There is a set up, later in the movie, about Brian's father not being Jewish but Roman, but this doesn't particularly pay off either as a joke or a plot point. Terry Jones is a clever man -- he followed up Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a serious scholarly book about Chaucer -- so it is possible he has in mind the old libel that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. If you happen to be aware of the Panteras theory you might possibly stroke your beard and say "aha, we see what you did there". But it doesn't make a great deal of sense in the actual movie. 

The Sermon on the Mount sequence could also be imagined as a one-off sketch in a BBC studio. Imagine:  no actor playing Jesus, no crowd, just four Pythons in robes and sandals saying "Speak up!" as the viewer gradually spots which famous meeting they are ignoring. 

Two hundred years ago, if you had tried to imagine a scene from the Bible, you would have found that your mental stock of imagery came from stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations. Maybe water colour pictures in your children's Bible. Now, most of think in terms of Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told. (Life of Brian was largely filmed on sets which Zefferilli had left behind.) So unconsciously, we feel that we are looking at the actual nativity or the actual Sermon on the Mount. The idea is smuggled in that these people are talking over and mishearing Jesus's actual preaching. The fact that Jesus himself is portrayed respectfully accentuates, rather than mitigates, my sense of discomfort. 

And of course, that is the exact point. Nothing is sacred. No-one should ever take anything seriously; or at any rate everyone should sometimes take some things frivolously. Of course you would fly out to Tunisia, go to some trouble of enacting the Sermon on the Mount so it looked like an oil painting come to life, and then use it as background for nose jokes. If you could get Karl Marx and Che Guevara into a BBC studio, then of course you would ask them trivia questions about football.

The part of the film which made me most uncomfortable was the crucifixion sketch. Brian's crucifixion is not Christ's crucifixion: it is portrayed as a mass execution for insurrection and strongly recalls the ending of Spartacus. ("I'm Brian!") But that's a two edged argument: Kubrick's Spartacus becomes Christlike precisely because he is crucified. So, as a matter of fact, does Conan the Barbarian. Tens of thousands of people were crucified by the Romans, but two thousand years of Christian art means that any image of a body on a cross automatically makes us think of Jesus. (In Christian art, the two thieves are generally shown being bound to T-shaped scaffolds, specifically to avoid the sense of there being three sacred crucifixes, side by side.)  It takes some seconds for Brian to be attached to a cross. There are no jokes; it is simply part of the narrative. The imagery deliberately recalls that of Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps there is only one way to represent a crucifixion cinematically. But it still felt to me as if something holy and (depending on your point of view) horrible at popped up in the middle of a Carry On film. And maybe that's in itself a joke.

There is a whole genre of newspaper cartoons in which a man tied to a medieval torture wrack says something ironically chirpy. There used to be an advert in which a French aristocrat cheers himself up after having had his head chopped off by smoking a Hamlet cigar. Jokes of this kind specifically exclude any horror or empathy: we can't tell a joke about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman up before a firing squad if we are thinking about the horror of a military execution at the same time. We can't both laugh at a cartoon of a man on a desert island and imagine what it would be like to die of dehydration. A one-frame cartoon of a group of people being crucified while singing "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" could have been funny on precisely this level. It's not a joke about crucifixion or death or torture: it's a joke about the false optimism of chirpy musicals in which whistling a merry tune and thinking about your favourite things is the solution to all life's problems. 

But he have been asked to treat Life of Brian as a story, albeit a very silly one, and to think of Brian as a person. Graham Chapman plays him straight, and a lot of the jokes rely on us empathizing with him to some extent. (We have to share his embarrassment when he inadvertently appears nude in front of a huge crowd of people; we share his irritation at being chased by a crowd; we even think he is talking quite good sense during the "you are all different" sequence.) So are we supposed, at some level, to look at this scene as if a character we quite like is being hurt and killed? A whole sequence of people come to see Brian on the cross, momentarily raising his hopes and then dashing them. (Is it just me or was this riffing on the old English folk-song about the prickle-aye bush? (*)) Are we supposed to be hoping that Brian will get off? Or is Brian at this point merely a line drawing or a cartoon who we are not supposed to engage with? Or is the clash of registers the whole point -- that in this corner we have a moderately serious Hollywood depiction of the death of Jesus/Spartacus and in that corner we have some comedy Jews singing "for he's a jolly good fellow"? 

A very long time ago I saw a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado in which, utterly bizarrely, the beheadings alluded to in the script are depicted on stage as Texas-style lethal injections. I didn't find it funny; it made me feel very uncomfortable indeed. I found the ending of Life of Brian unsettling in the same way. Maybe I was meant to.

Python always depended on surprise: the idea that there is a Ministry of Silly Walks or that a man named Ptang Ptang Olay Biscuit Barrel is running for election is funny exactly once. The endless repeats, revivals, and people who won't stop quoting it at you have infallibly destroyed the joke. I went into Life of Brian knowing the general concept, even if I didn't know all the punch-lines. Perhaps if it was still 1979 the general sense of shock and incongruity would have carried the day. "Oh. My. God. They look like Bible characters but they are making cock jokes." (Viz started in the same year Life of Brian came out: there, the joke was "Oh. My. God. They look like characters from the Beano but they are making cock jokes.")  

So anyway. I've seen it now. Wasn't particularly offended. Didn't think it was very funny. Can't get over the Bishop of Southwark's accent. I have never seen Bambi or Gone With The Wind either. The Last Temptation of Christ is rather good.



Thursday, June 13, 2019

What I Did On My Weekend Off

On my weekend off I went to Liverpool to have a look at the John Lennon exhibition at the city museum. I went on the train. It would have been cheaper to go on an aeroplane and change at Dublin, but it would have taken longer and been less good for the environment. I had intended to see the exhibition last Autumn, but my leg exploded and I went to see Southmead General Hospital instead. I decided that if I was going anyway, I had better stay a couple of nights and see some of the other Beatles related sites as well. I used to be rather nervous about hotels: I thought that they were enormous posh buildings with snooty staff who called you sir and expected a tip or else scary seaside bed and breakfasts where you have to make conversation with the landlady over breakfast. I have recently discovered that for fifty quid Travelodge will give you a bed for the night, complete anonymity and as much breakfast as you want.

The exhibition, entitled Double Fantasy, is very well done. There is lots of video footage; lots of photos; some music; some very informative text; and a fair smattering of holy relics: the green card; the New York tee shirt; the white suit; the bedspread.

Everything which can be white is white. The first thing you hear is the opening chords of Imagine. The last thing you see is a recreation of the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park. The beardy peace guru may have had some kind of musical career before he hooked up with the strange Japanese art woman, but this exhibition doesn’t cover it.

Yoko believed that audiences and artists should collaborate in the creation of works of art. We see the installation which first cut through John's cynicism about the avant-garde. Everyone knows the story. There is a ladder in a white room (everything is white) and a magnifying glass on a string. You have to climb the ladder and use the glass to look at the ceiling. What you see on the ceiling is the word "yes" in tiny letters. We have to take this on trust; the ladder is behind a barrier. We do each get a little white badge with "you are here" written on it to take him. I do not know if this is the actual ladder and the actual magnifying glass and I do not know if it would make any difference if it wasn't.

There is some footage of John and Yoko on the David Frost programme, early in their relationship. She is showing a white canvass (everything is white) into which members of the audience are invited to hammer nails. The canvass and the nails make the artwork. “How did that feel?” John asks Frost. "I am probably very shallow" Frost replies "But I feel like a man who has just hammered a nail into a canvass."

For this exhibition Yoko has created a large white wall and supplied a large quantity of white post-it notes, on which we are asked to write a thought about Love. I think we were intended to write about how much we love John Lennon, but most people have decided to write about a friend or family member. I think Yoko would still approve.

Someone has written "Jodie Whittaker is crap" on one of the post it notes. I take the liberty of removing it. Removing nails is part of the creative process too.

I heard Yoko Ono sing at Glastonbury. She is undeniably charismatic and for the duration of the show I believed everything she said. Some of the screaming was pretty moving. I still have one of the white pencils she was handing out to the crowd.

You can't really blame a dadaist for being ridiculous. I find some of her conceptual stuff quite funny and even moving. Typed instructions for creating un-creatable works of art are on display

Tunafish Sandwich Piece 


Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time. 
Let them shine for one hour. 
Then let them gradually melt into the sky. 
Make one tunafish sandwich and eat it.


This eventually became the book Grapefruit and caused John Lennon's most famous song.

One whole wall is given over to an enormous enlargement of the back cover of the Two Virgins album. The album itself rests in a glass case, modestly wrapped in brown paper. "An image of them facing the camera was used on the front cover" explains a caption, tactfully. We are warned that Liverpool Museum does not endorse the lyrics of Woman is the N-word of the World.

There is a mini-cinema where you can watch hours and hours of John and Yoko's home movies. Self-Portrait, the 45 minute study of John's willy is mercifully absent; but I watch the beginning of Smile. It involves John Lennon looking directly into a camera and smiling. ("Imagine a painting which smiles once in a billion years".) It seems to be filmed in real time, but John doesn't appear to blink. He looks happy. I found it quite compelling in a funny way.  After ten minutes I went downstairs for a cup of tea. John was still smiling when I got back.

There seems to have been a moment when the sixties were turning into the seventies when everyone moved slowly and aimlessly and seemed detached from their surroundings. Beat in the way the beat poets were beat; exhausted, defeated, but somehow serene and beautiful. You can see it in Magical Mystery Tour; you can see it in Monty Python; you can see it in Jonathan Miller's riff on Alice in Wonderland. It is definitely there in Imagine, the TV movie which John and Yoko made to go with the album of the same name. The couple drive through their estate in a black car; they row across their private lake to a private house on their private island and play a game of chess; with white pieces on a white board. While John's vicious attack on Paul McCartney plays on the sound track ("the only thing you done was yesterday") the two peace gurus purposefully play snooker in blindfolds. It's much more watchable than Magical Mystery Tour although the tunes aren't so good.

Some wiseacre always says "Oh, that'll be the drugs" at this point. I Am the Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever are not the product of LSD. They are the product of something rarer and more subversive called "imagination". ("Imagine the moon was a grapefruit.") But there is no doubt that John and Yoko did abuse substances (including, as Yoko put it, "the big one") and perhaps these films do show what the world looks like after you've done that. Everything used to be monochrome; then it turned pastel shaded and psychedelic; but now everything is white and we are all at peace.

Was it just a dream? You may say I'm a dreamer. The dream is over. It is not dreaming.


The Beatle-themed site-seeing tour is called, inevitably, the Magical Mystery Tour and costs £20. It whisks you round Liverpool for just long enough to have your photo taken by various famous road-signs.

I suppose I expected Penny Lane to be in central Liverpool, perhaps a trendy street with cinemas and a night club. But the point of the song is that it is a nowhere street; no different from thousands of roads where thousands of Mums did their shopping. It is still possible to have your hair cut there and there is certainly a bus-shelter on a traffic roundabout. The fire station recently closed.

Some kids are about to start playing football on a school playing field. (It is one of eight schools which Brian Epstein was expelled from.) They look at us through the bars with what I hope is bemusement but is probably contempt. How many coachloads of old people stop outside their school to photograph that street sign every single day? It is not the original sign: that has been nicked hundreds of times.

Everyone assumes it is Penny Lane because everything there was so cheap; but in fact it is named after one George Penny. He was, almost inevitably, a slave trader.

Strawberry Fields is actually Strawberry Field, at one time a home for orphan girls and unmarried mothers. The Salvation Army still own it: they are planning to reopen it as a center to help unemployed youngsters get back on their feet. There is nothing to see but the gate. We look at the gate and take photos to prove that we have looked at the gate.

The bus parks at the bottom of the hill, on Menlove Avenue, the street where John Lennon grew up. That's the most valuable thing, to me, about this kind of trip. It allows me to visualize places which I have read about and see where they are in relation to each other. The point of Strawberry Fields is that John Lennon could jump over his garden fence, run across a neighbor's garden, jump over another fence, climb a tree...and spend a happy hour looking at the girls from the orphanage. He went to a boy's school. There's a lot of repression in his songs, and a corresponding amount of misogyny: all about guys wanting to "win" and "have" women and make them "mine" and tell the world in general and rival stags in particular that a particular "little girl" is their personal property. The harmonies are wonderful.

No: that isn't the point of Strawberry Fields at all. Strawberry Fields is a generalized dreamlike impression of childhood. Looking at the gate doesn't bring it any closer.


Other bus tours are available. The man providing the Magical Mystery commentary mentions that it is possible to see the inside of John Lennon's house. "But none of the original furniture is there. It's just a recreation." Considering that the tour is run by (and includes a free ticket to) the Cavern Club, this is a trifle unsportsmanlike. It is still possible to climb down four or five flights of stairs into the arched cellar with bare brickwork and a tiny little stage where a jobbing singer plays Beatles covers sixteen hours a day. (And other things. If you haven't heard Elvis's American Trilogy sung with a Scouse accent, you haven't heard anything at all.) He did a very good job of encouraging us all to go na-na-na na-na-na-na na-na-na-na hey Jude, and added the line "never buy the Sun" into Here Comes the Sun. Pleasingly, everyone cheered. I assume that "everyone" is a tourist like me. I suppose a real Liverpudlian would no more go to the Cavern than a Dubliner would go to Paddy O'Grady's Irish Theme Pub. But it's another item ticked off the list: went to Liverpool; sang Hey Jude in the cavern club, booed Rupert Murdoch. Except....The original Cavern Club was demolished in 1973: this is very much only a recreation. One cellar is probably quite a lot like another, and the fake-Cavern gives a fairly good impression of what the original Cavern must have been like. And if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. From now on whenever I read something about the very early days of the Beatles this is the image I will have in my head.


On the waterfront is something called The Beatles Story, which also costs £20. It reminded me of one of those grottos that Santa Claus used to live in on the top floor of Selfridges. You are guided through a series of tableaux representing different stages of the Fab Four's career. This is a recreation of what the Mersey Beat offices probably looked like; this is a recreation of Brian Epstein's record shop; and this is a life-sized recreation of the Yellow Submarine. You even get to sit in a row of airline type seats to recreate the Beatles Conquering America. John Lennon's sister Julia provides a recorded commentary which is rather sweet.

John Lennon's original white piano is on display in a recreation of the white room where he filmed the Imagine video. While the Salvation Army were doing building works, the actual red gates of Strawberry Field were incorporated into a Strawberry Fields diorama.


In 2001 Yoko Ono bought the property where John Lennon had grown up and donated it to National Trust (along, conceivably, with a soap impression of his wife). The National Trust, which is more used to curating the stately homes of England already owned Paul McCartney's house, and wasn't quite sure at first if it wanted to collect the set. Menlove Ave is a real street of real houses with real people living in them; so you have to buy a ticket in advance (price £20) and get ferried to the site in an Official Minibus. Only those who arrive on the Official Minibus are allowed to set foot in the shrine; you have to physically hand your cameras over on arrival.

In the cold light of day, there isn't that much to see: a back kitchen; a hall; the morning room, the dining room, the lounge, and a bathroom "retaining some of the original fittings". The guide, who grew up in the area himself, paints a vivid picture of what life in the house ("an almost posh house on an almost posh street") was like. John's Aunt Mimi made everyone come in through the back door so they wouldn't get mud on the carpet. She approved of Paul ("your little friend") but thought George was a scruff. She didn't like John's habit of affecting a scouse accent because she thought she had brought him up to talk properly.

Then you go upstairs and you see John Lennon's childhood bedroom. And if you have studied all the biographies and seen Nowhere Boy and read Spaniard in the Works any kind of skepticism melts away, as I imagine it does in the Church of the Nativity. Or, come to that, Santa's grotto. 

This. Is. The. Room. Where. J*o*h*n L*e*n*n*o*n. Used. To. Sleep. John Lennon the little English schoolboy who wanted to be Just William. John Lennon who listened to the Goon Show and endlessly reread Lewis Carol. (His copy of Alice in Wonderland is placed neatly on a table by the bed. Goo-goo-g'joob.) There are a few pin-ups from contemporary magazines on the walls. The poster of Brigit Bardot which the boy John stuck to the ceiling above his bed for an obvious purpose has not been reinstated.

This isn't, in fact, how John left his room: it's how Yoko has asked for it to be laid out. "Everything that happened afterwards germinated from John's dreaming in his little bedroom at Mendips" she writes  "which was a very special place for him. An incredible dreamer, John made all those dreams come true - for himself and for the world...I hope you'll make your dreams come true too."

In the front room there is a big ticking clock inscribed with the name of John Lennon's grandfather. When John moved to the Dakota building in New York, he asked for the clock to be sent there, because the ticking reminded him of home. Understandably, Yoko cannot bare to part with it so she has had an exact replica made, at vast expense.

The replica has replaced the real thing. A better piece of conceptual art than all the ladders and willies and tuna sandwiches in the world.

Let me take you down 'cos I'm going to Strawberry Fields.

Nothing is real.


There is a statue of the Beatles on the docks. It looks as if they have stepped out of A Hard Days Night. The caption tells us that the Beatles are synonymous with the city and that they never really left.

But they really, really did.

I look at the school photos in Aunt Mimi's hall, and I look at the film of the beardy guy in the white suit.  It's like there are two entirely different John's.

When a young Canadian boy with a tape recorder interviewed John during the Montreal bed-in, John tells him to grow his hair for peace, take his clothes off for peace, piss for peace. It isn't always clear what he means. How is unorthodox coiffure or fouling the street going to cause the nations of the world to disarm? 

The reason he believes in peace, he says, in another piece of footage, is that he is actually a very violent person. On one occasion he nearly killed a man. Right at the beginning of his career, Beatle-John went on holiday to Barcelona with his manager. As you do. A Liverpool DJ drew the same conclusion that everyone else has always drawn, and John punched him.

So when John and Yoko are gallivanting around the world, talking about peace "as if they had personally invented it" they are really talking about inner peace; spiritual peace; personal peace. If I, John Lennon, who beat a man up for calling me queer, can renounce my violent side, then so can you. And if everyone embraced their inner Maharishi then armed clashes between incompatible political systems would come to an end. War is over if you want it.

John Lennon's message of peace is a decade long repudiation of the man he used to be. The John who sang about giving peace a chance in posh hotel rooms was actively repudiating the violent teddy boys who used to listen to rock and roll records and read dirty magazines in that little box room. The bus tours and the statues and the fake Cavern are trying to claim Liverpool-John back from Greenwich-Village-John. But it can't be done. As soon as he had some money he left that terraced house and bought a mansion. From swinging London, Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane seemed appareled in celestial light; but he never came back. I don't think Liverpool can ever quite forgive him. 

So, anyway, that's what I did on my weekend off.




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Friday, June 07, 2019

locked myself away for the weekend. not talking to any humans, even the nice ones. some chance i will have something written my monday lunchtime

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

sorry for prolonged silence. might manage to write something over the weekend, who knows. 

assume this is 500 biting words on trump/farage/johnson