In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works by John Lennon
Nicholas Lezard on the best books written by a pop star
by Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
What, I wonder, was the initial reaction of the countless thousands of young Beatlemaniacs when they read the literary fruits of their idol’s mind? This is a long way from “I Want to Hold Your Hand”: in “Nicely Nicely Clive”, a bride wonders whether she should have flowers round the spokes of her wheelchair. (“Does it really matter?” says her mother. “He won’t be looking at your spokes anyway”.) Or there’s Eric Hearble, who loses his job teaching “spastics” to dance because of “an abnorman fat growth a bombly on his head” (“We’re not having a cripple teaching our lads”); or this Sherlock Holmes pastiche: “‘Jack the Nipple’ said Womlbs puffing deeply on his wife, ‘is not only a vicious murderer but a sex meany of the lowest orgy.'”
I grew up with these books, as they had been lying around the house from the time of their publications, 1964 and 1965. Luckily their warped, occasionally sick humour, and what would now be racism and sexism beyond the pale, did not scar me for life, but there were occasions when I wondered whether they would. No one seemed to mind at the time, in those innocent days when Lennon could do no wrong. If anyone got upset or asked for their money back I haven’t heard of it. And as he later did with “Revolution 9” a few years later, Lennon capitalised on the world’s fascination with almost everything the group did to smuggle a work of subversive originality into the mainstream.
But there’s no gainsaying the almost instinctive verbal dexterity of the book, enough, even at the time, to impress the TLS. And this in an age when the idea that pop stars were illiterate oiks was still very much entrenched. In fact, you could say that Lennon’s crazed neologisms and language-mangling were, along with the almost insulting brevity of most of the pieces, deliberate engagements with such an idea – much as the lyrics of “I am the Walrus” were inspired, in part, by scorn at the news that his songs were being studied in class at his old school. (His English teachers there had considered him talentless – “a rejection which left deep scars,” as Ian MacDonald put it in Revolution in the Head.) These books remain not only the best books ever written by a pop star – they remain the only ones needed, really. The unsavoury elements, bespeaking as they do a consciousness far more troubled than the casual Beatle observer might have suspected, are crucial to their piquancy.
And the wordplay is still funny. It is a testament not just to our cultural heritage that we can still get the references in his remarks on the TV programme Panorasthma (“Do you prepare Rinkled Dinglebone or Tichie Bimplebean?” – to which the answer is “who the hell is Pimpled Dinkletoes?”), but to Lennon’s own – for want of a better word – craft. It’s a product also of his love for the Goons and Lewis Carroll (and Edward Lear – “The Wumberlog (or the Magic Dog)” would be impossible without Lear’s example). His list of the Famous Five by Enig Blyter still makes me laugh: “Tom, Stan, Dave, Nigel, Berniss, Arthur, Harry, Wee Jockey, Matoombo, and Craig?” He could even make deliberately lazy typos memorable: “Foing the dirty worj”, for instance (look at the adjacent keys). As Jon Savage says in his foreword, “These jottings stick like splinters in the mind,” and phrases such as “it must be now or neville”, “Haddy Grimmble, Randoob”, “crumb” (as opposed to “crumbs”) and “Last Will and Testicle” became, as far as I was concerned, ineradicably fixed to the point where they came more naturally than the proper English phrases they replaced. The drawings, too, are slapdash in just the right way, and are as inseparable from the text as Tenniel’s are from Carroll’s.
“There are bound to be thickheads who will wonder why some of it doesn’t make sense, and others who will search for hidden meanings,” said Paul McCartney in his own brief (but also sweet and well-written) introduction, but I think that, as a kind of automatic writing, it does betray something of Lennon’s internal state, however self-protectively offhand it looks at first sight.