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The John Lennon Letters, Edited by Hunter Davies

This long-awaited collection of John Lennon's letters shine a light on an era, and the man

Arifa Akbar
Friday 12 October 2012 13:49 BST

The triumph of these 200 or so letters is that they are not just about John and Mimi, or John and The Beatles, or John and Yoko. They are all of that but, within the framework editor Hunter Davies gives them, they're also about a time and place, and Lennon's role within it. It is hard to distinguish whether the honestly and innocence of some of his correspondence reflects his personality, or his era.

The most unexpected aspect of the collection is the openness with which Lennon responded to his fans. A man who was met off a plane by a sea of screaming girls was not above hand-writing them considered letters. Davies suggests this was partly for publicity. Even so, they speak volumes about the nature of celebrity in this time. Fans had a direct line. At the height of his fame, Lennon wrote to them (as well as journalists) as unguardedly as one might today to a friend or colleague.

Take the letter to "Sylvia & Kathy", to whom he sends the home addresses of George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr; or the letter he wrote "Jean" about the Maharishi and the search for truth; or one to Beth Dewar, a possible fan to whom he wrote about transcendental meditation's similarities to Christianity. He grew close to a Norwegian fan, Lindy Ness, while in Hamburg, writing fondly ("you're a gas man") and in a slightly tortured stream-of-consciousness.

Yet fame – maybe even the fan-mail – came between him and his family. Hundreds of letters arrived at his home in Surrey and later New York, and family correspondence was sometimes lost among them. His letters to his cousin Leila, are the most revealing, and the least angry, though he expressed family frustrations. It is to Leila he writes, poignantly now, "I bet I live till a ripe old age." It is not his volcanic open letter to Paul and Linda McCartney (the "John rant") nor his bitterness towards his first wife, Cynthia, that provide the highlights.

We get a keener sense of Lennon's inner life through his fan and family letters, silly postcards, scrawled notes, doodles. He greatly valued humour ("Your majesty, I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing... and against "Cold Turkey" slipping down the charts"). He was prone to being angry, snide and then funny and forgiving in the same letter. He had an early literary ability: a devilish, delightful relish for tricksy, Edward Lear-ish wordplay and rhyme.

We are reminded that he wrote two volumes of poetry with an unpublished poem here. His love of words went beyond song-writing, although his four-page Christmas card to Cynthia while still at art school has "I love you" repeated like a tune: "I love you yes yes yes".

Earlier this week, Philip Hensher and Diana Athill spoke about the value of hand-writing on a Radio 4 programme. Here, we see what they mean. Lennon's scrawls have an energy, a personality. His illustrations have verve. Even the to-do lists in the last chapter are as riveting as they are banal. Lennon's force of personality stops the smallest doodles from being mere memorabilia.

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