John Lennon: What really happened in his childhood We thought we knew every detail of John Lennon's life. But his half-sister kept quiet about what really happened in the Beatle's childhood - until now. John Walsh reports

Each unhappy family, as Tolstoy remarked, is unhappy in its own way - but the great Leo could never have anticipated how a family's unhappiness could be worsened by the accretion of half-truths and Chinese whispers in the celebrity media and publishing circuit.

Julia Baird knows this all too well. As the half-sister of John Lennon, she's had to monitor a blizzard of inaccuracies about her beloved sibling. "Our hidden histories have been hung up across the giant screen of the sky," she writes, "inviting inspection and criticism from all and sundry, and dissection from Beatles experts and John experts." Now, though, she has made a valiant stab at setting things to rights.

It's a tragic story, and at its centre is Julia's and John's mother, also called Julia. She was one of the five Stanley sisters - Mimi, Betty, Anne, Julia and Harriet, all born in the shadow of Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral. Julia Stanley - red-haired, exuberant, musical and headstrong - was only 14 when she began seeing a hotel bellboy, Alfred Lennon, to her parents' chagrin. Alf became a ship's steward and spent long periods at sea, but their romance survived his absences. They were married in a register's office in 1938 with no family members present; Alf put to sea the following day. When war broke out, the Liverpool shipyards were bombed but the family (now living in Penny Lane) survived. Alf, now a merchant seaman, came home long enough to make Julia pregnant, then decamped across the Atlantic. The baby was named John Winston Lennon. With the child's father mostly out of the picture, Julia and John moved in with her disapproving father. Julia became pregnant by a passing Welsh soldier and was persuaded to give up the baby girl for adoption. Then, while waitressing, she met "Bobby" Dykins, a demonstrator of invisible mending, and they fell in love.

What followed has been the stuff of much confusion. As several Lennon biographies will tell you, the five-year-old John went, by arrangement, to live with his aunt Mimi in a house nearby called Mendips, while his mother started another family with Bobby. Unable to marry, because the chronically absent Alf was still alive, they had two children, Julia and Jackie, while John would pay the occasional visit. That's the representation of life that Baird is anxious to overturn in Imagine This: Growing Up with my Brother John Lennon.

She has been a tenacious guardian of his flame since 1985. "Only five years after he died, there was a BBC 'celebration' of John's life that I watched and it was so badly wrong," she says. "I felt I had to do something, so I put together a handwritten, limited-edition copy, using all the family photographs. I got it properly published in 1988. But the story is still escalating. I still hear and read things." Such as? "That my mother gave John away. That she went to live with a man who had two children from a previous relationship - [her eyes blaze with indignation] as if my sister and I weren't born to our mother at all!" The truth, it seems, involves the grotesque, condemnatory figure of Aunt Mimi, who waged a bitter war with her own sister for possession of the little boy, claiming that Julia and her new man were disgraceful public sinners; their house an unfit arena in which to bring up a child. She effectively kidnapped John and barred the door against poor, distraught Julia when she called to see her son.

What brings a tremble to Baird's voice are the revelations she unearthed in researching the past. She discovered, for instance, the existence of her half-sister, the baby sent away for adoption. And through a fog of mutterings and hints by her Aunt Georgina (known as Nanny), Baird gradually revealed that Mimi, the sainted, hell-and-damnation moralist, had for years been sleeping with her lodger (she in her fifties, he in his twenties). Baird contacted the ex-lover, whereupon he confirmed the affair, and the fact that Mimi, despite being married, years before, had been a virgin when they got together.

This opens a whole can of psychological worms about the reasons for Mimi's appropriation of John. "People come to terms over relationships, don't they?" said Baird. "Mimi and her husband obviously came to that agreement [ie not to have children] before their wedding day. But I've come to the conclusion that her taking John away was an act of opportunism."

Her book is an act of worship to a brother she clearly adored, but is also a tenderly evoked memoir of a Liverpool childhood - the noise, the music, the skipping, the Meeting Tree, the jam-buttie picnics, the street games they played - and a glowing tribute to her sainted mother, who seems to become younger and lovelier as Baird describes her role in teasing out the teenage John's interest in music. Julia taught him to play his first instrument, the banjo, standing behind him with her hands on his. She played the ukulele (she did a good George Formby impression) and the piano accordion, and, in the music explosion that followed the appearance of Lonnie Donegan and Elvis, she welcomed into the house umpteen friends bearing drums, washboards and rudimentary bass guitars.

Baird's book is full of lovely vignettes about the pre-Beatles period: John singing the lachrymose "Nobody's Child", the rise of The Blackjacks in their monochrome shirts and pants, the famous back-of-a-lorry gig at Woolton fête when, "The Quarrymen arrived on a lorry, and would leave that evening as half the Beatles"; the first Quarrymen gig at the Cavern, which Paul McCartney missed because he had to be at Scout camp in north Wales. Lennon's adored mother features so centrally in this chronicle of growing success that when the defining event of Lennon's life occurs - Julia was run over by a car outside Mimi's house and killed when he was 17 and his sister 11 - we feel a corresponding ache and loss, and a furious sympathy for the author and her little sister, who were kept from the funeral and not told of their mother's death for 10 weeks because they were illegitimate and shamed the family.

It has taken Baird a lifetime to put herself together after the tragedy that ruined her childhood; it's not surprising she has spent so long picking over the past, trying to tease out the family secrets and straighten out the facts. It's also not very surprising to find that she became a special needs teacher, working for many years with "excluded adolescents". Her favourite person in the world was a brother who became an excluded adolescent at 17, and disappeared forever into the big world where feelings count less than renown.

Does she think the death of his mother led indirectly to his success? "Of course. Many of his songs were chronicling his life and feelings. John said once in an interview, 'I'm not one for doing autobiography, I'd never do anything like that.' and I thought, 'John, all your songs are autobiographical.' Didn't he see it? Or did it come from depths he wasn't aware of?" Does she wish he'd never picked up the guitar? She gives a weary grimace. "Yes. Definitely. He'd be here, wouldn't he? So yes."

'Imagine This: Growing Up with my Brother John Lennon' by Julia Baird is published by Hodder, priced £18.99

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral