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