John Lennon's difficult childhood left him with a delinquent streak
he never shook off, yet the Beatles may have been sharper for it
13 December 2009
Sam Taylor-Wood's film, Nowhere Boy, paints John Lennon's formative
years in the broadest of brush strokes. He is a troubled but gifted
teenager caught between two women, two worlds. His mother, Julia, is
working-class, wild-spirited and mostly absent, and his aunt, Mimi
Smith, is respectable, strict and domineeringly present. Julia loved
Lonnie Donegan; Mimi listened to Tchaikovsky. In Lennon's case,
nature triumphed over nurture.
Lennon was born during an air raid on 9 October 1940. His father,
Alfred "Freddie" Lennon, was a merchant seaman and only fitfully
present during his son's childhood. When he returned to Julia in 1944
after a long absence, she was pregnant by another man. It was Mimi
who complained to the social services that her sister was unfit to
look after the young boy, an intervention that began the sisters'
long battle for John's affections. One of the more traumatic
childhood scenes, shown in flashback in Nowhere Boy, shows the
five-year-old John being instructed by Freddie to choose whether he
wanted to live with Julia or him. John first chooses Freddie, then,
in tears, runs up the street after his mother. After that, Freddie
disappeared from Lennon's life for two decades, only to resurface
after his son had become famous. By then, Mimi was Lennon's mother in
all but name. When an American magazine offered to publish her
memoirs, Mimi rang and asked for his advice. "Take the money, Mimi,"
he said, "and tell them I was a juvenile delinquent who used to knock
down old ladies." There was more than a grain of truth in that description.
The John Lennon that Aaron Johnson portrays in Nowhere Boy, though,
has had his sensitivity amplified and his arrogance turned down. He
dresses like a teddy boy, but there is barely a glimpse of the
semi-delinquent behaviour of his grammar school years the gangs he
led, the shoplifting, the hapless pupils and teachers he bullied or
his fascination with, the disabled and the disfigured. In A Hard
Day's Night, someone asks Ringo if he is a mod or a rocker. "I'm a
mocker", he retorts. But he wasn't. Lennon was.
Lennon filled notebooks at Quarry Bank school with drawings of human
grotesques and, as his first biographer, Ray Coleman, put it,
"developed an instinctive ability to mock the weak, with whom he had
no patience". An early girlfriend, Thelma Pickles, who hung out with
Lennon at art school, later recalled: "Anyone limping or crippled or
hunchbacked, or deformed in any way, John laughed and ran up to them
to make horrible faces."
The cruelty, like the anger that occasionally erupted from time to
time into physical violence may have had its roots in his constant
childhood feeling of not quite belonging anywhere, or to anyone. Mimi
treated him sometimes as her son, sometimes as an equal. Julia, doted
on him when she saw him, but was absent for most of his childhood.
The death of the young Lennon's surrogate father, Mimi's husband
George, in 1955, was the first of four deaths that would wound and
harden him. Julia died when John was 17; his best friend, Stuart
Sutcliffe, died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage in 1962; and his
manager and mentor, Brian Epstein, who nursed an unrequited love for
Lennon, died of an overdose in 1967.
Julia's death was the most unexpected. She was hit by a speeding car
driven by a policeman; Lennon retreated into himself, bonding with
the young Paul McCartney, who had also lost his mother as a boy, but
barely talked about the loss of Julia until years later when his long
bout of primal therapy helped create the musical cry for help that is
"Mother" on his first solo album.
Lennon's most recent biographer, Philip Norman, has suggested that
the 14-year-old Lennon was sexually attracted to his mother, having
become aroused when he accidentally touched her breast. "I was
wondering if I should do anything else," Lennon told a journalist
years later, "I always think I should have done it. Presumably she
would have allowed it." Taylor-Wood's film hints at, but pulls back
from, that transgressive moment, which is probably for the best given
Lennon's tendency to say things for effect. His adolescent need to
rebel and offend stayed with him long into adulthood, his maturity
arrested by the gilded prison of celebrity and the copious amounts of
LSD he took in the mid to late 60s when he seemed intent on
obliterating his troubled psyche.
Such was the emotional tumult of John Lennon's early years, it is
difficult to imagine him having an uneventful life even if he hadn't
been famous. The restlessness that willed him into stardom was such
that it helped overthrow the last vestiges of Victorian Britain in
the youth-led surge that shaped the 60s.
His upbringing was comfortable in a material way but unstable
emotionally, and in the art school years that end the film, he found
a milieu where he almost belonged. He was a bohemian and a rebel, by
turns arrogant and insecure; the classic outsider who came to define
the boundaries of the mainstream by reacting against them; the
nowhere boy who became Britain's most famous pop star but never quite
transcended his troubled childhood.