So this purports to be the first part of the Preface of AU John's memoir. Early childhoods explained by an ersatz John Lennon. Forgive me the liberties I take. The detail I've added, beyond what you can find on the Internet or the biographies, is pure fiction, but I hope this helps to drive the story while still being believable. :) For example, I have no idea if John's mother had a mental illness, although based on what I've read about her, it seems highly likely to me. I also tarted up John's early school years to fill in detail and make them more pitiful. For the story's sake. But I do base it on John's own general comments about his miserable school years.
A reminder: when the story moves from part of the "memoir" to 'present day' - meaning late 2005 - the present day stuff will be in italics.
WARNING: THIS IS FICTIONAL: Drops of reality surrounded by a sea of fiction!
Preface, Part I
With Eyes Closed, Misunderstanding All
(1940 – 1955)
BACKGROUNDS AND BEGINNINGS
JOHN - 1940 -1945
I was born first. And right from the start I was enmeshed in a melodrama. As you will learn as you read this book, my life continued to be a melodrama, and still is – to some extent – to this day. I started out the way I meant to go on.
Here are the vital statistics. I was born sometime during the afternoon of October 9, 1940 in Liverpool, England. There was a war on, and there had been bombing raids by the Nazis the night before. My mother’s name was Julia Stanley. According to family legend, my father, Alfred Lennon, was away in the merchant marine, so my mother’s older sister Mimi Smith stayed with my mother throughout her labor. I was born in a hospital with either bombs going off (Mimi’s version) or not (the official recorded version). However, there were plenty of air raids going on in the days that followed, so it is not inaccurate to say that bombs went off when I was born.
My mother’s paternal family - the Stanleys – consisted of middle class solicitors, bankers, and a few scattered professionals. She was the fourth of five strong-willed daughters, and while she inherited the strong will, she did not inherit the discipline and emotional strength of her four sisters. In short, Julia had what I have come to believe were mental health problems; these began to exhibit themselves when she was a child. She had terribly strong emotions, could not control them, and they often just overwhelmed her, like when an electric fuse goes. Not unlike me.
Mimi was the oldest Stanley daughter. Mimi was a private executive secretary. She married late in life to a man who, along with a brother, managed a family business. Their courtship had lasted seven years. His name was George Smith. George, poor love, I’m convinced, was a closet case. He was sweet, gentle, ineffective, and Mimi ordered and bossed him around like nobody’s business. They had no children.
Julia didn’t finish high school. She couldn’t sit still, and couldn’t concentrate, and the headmistress informed my grandfather that he shouldn’t waste his money on school fees, so she left school when she was 15 years old. To top it all off, Julia was a firebrand, getting into shouting matches with the other girls, playing hooky, and playing pranks on friends and neighbors. Whatever was in her head would come out of her mouth. Soon after she left school, she became pregnant. This put the Stanley house in an uproar. She was sent off to some maternity home until the baby was born, and the baby was then put up for adoption. It was a girl. (This girl later turned up in Scandinavia, and we met each other as adults.) Julia was clearly a free spirit, but it was worse than that for her uptight family. She was an emotionally disturbed free spirit, so she ricocheted from one disaster to the next.
The Lennons were another kettle of fish altogether. My father Alfred (“Alfie” or “Freddy” – he was known by both) took to merchant ships when he was a teenager, which was common in the family. The ships he worked for were berthed in Liverpool. Alfie apparently was quite the young blade, and he allegedly had girls in every port. According to some of my Lennon relatives, there have been whispers about illegitimate Alfie children up and down the British, French, and Spanish coasts. This has never been proven, but the fact that the family still whispers about it 70 years later is a pretty good indication that the man was, at the very least, profligate with his affections.
I don’t know how Alfie and Julia met. I have no photographs of them as a young couple; I don’t think one even exists. This is because they weren’t really a “couple”. They were ships passing in the night. Alfie later tried to convince me that he wanted to get back with Julia after his stitch in the merchant marine during the War, but she wouldn’t have him. While I know he came back to “get” me and take me to New Zealand (of all places) after the War, there is no independent corroboration of Alfie’s claimed unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation with my mother. Who knows if it really happened? It might have, because Julia had moved on to another man by then. What’s more, she was emotionally fragile, and would never have wanted to leave her sisters behind in Liverpool, so the idea was a non-starter anyway.
This is the problem with discussing my childhood. I don’t know which abomination to describe first. I also cannot trust anything my mother or my father said, and my mother’s family was biased against my father and protective of my mother, so I do not believe I ever got the straight story on any of it. And, more to the point, my mother and father did not keep records, didn’t write letters, nor did they communicate in any organized way with their family members, so the story of what went on during the brief time they were together died with them.
There is one thing that went on between them, however, that even the world knows about. They conceived me. This much I’m sure of.
My first two years are shrouded in mystery. That is because I lived with my mother for the first two years. My Aunt Mimi once told me that Julia and I were living in a bedsit in a not-very-nice part of Liverpool at the time, but – again – there is no independent corroboration of that. Julia evidently would dump me at one of her sister’s homes for days and even weeks at a time when she was off with a new man on a lark. This would happen fairly regularly, I’ve been told. Mimi bore the brunt of it, because she was childless.
When I was about two, Mimi repeatedly reported my mother to child services because I was sleeping in the same bed with Julia and her common law husband. She made these reports in an attempt to wrest custody of me away from her sister. In the end, she won, and Julia was persuaded to turn me over to Mimi. Mimi was convinced she was doing this for my benefit, and perhaps she was, but the way she went about it seems a bit harsh on my mother. For the next three years I lived primarily with Mimi and George. During this time I believe my mother was hospitalized for the first time for mental illness. I do not know much about it, other than she had serious depressions and would become suicidal, followed by periods of intense exhilaration and mania. Her first hospitalization was for a few months, according to what Mimi told me.
Perhaps the most traumatic experience of my first five years might have occurred just before my fifth birthday, in September 1945. I was living with Mimi at the time, and one day my father showed up. I don’t know if he called first, or just showed up on Mimi’s doorstep by surprise, but I think he did call first, and he insisted on taking me on a 2-week trip to Blackpool. Mimi was not happy about this, but she packed me a little suitcase. Mimi claims that my father’s plot was to take me back to New Zealand with him, where he had emigrated. Suspecting this, she persuaded Julia to confront Alfie in Blackpool and take me back. But soon thereafter, Mimi manipulated my mother into returning me to her.
My father claimed that when Julia came to confront him about me, they had a terrible argument. Although my father places me there as a pitiful witness, I have no independent recollection of this. According to my father’s version, the culmination of the argument between my parents allegedly was the brilliant idea that I should be asked to choose which parent I preferred to live with: Julia in Liverpool, or Alfie in New Zealand? I supposedly chose my father. Allegedly, my mother ran out of the house in tears, broken by my betrayal. In this version, I ran after her yelling her name, and that is why my father let me go.
Mimi’s story was a bit different. She claimed that Julia never mentioned any arguments at all - that Alfie just handed me over to Julia upon demand.
I write about this as ‘versions’ because I have no memory of being asked to choose. Perhaps it happened, and perhaps I have buried it, but it came as a complete surprise to me when my father disclosed this information in an interview he gave in the late sixties, once I was famous. I personally think he made it up to make himself look better - more sympathetic; recent research has shown that perhaps he wanted to sneak me away to New Zealand with him, but he never made much of an attempt to make that happen once Julia demanded my return. And he certainly never bothered to follow up with me after he returned to New Zealand.
I realize that none of the so-called “grown ups” in my first five years of life are shown in a good light in this recital. My mother comes off as feckless and irresponsible. My father comes off as perfidious and selfish. And my Aunt comes off as manipulative and devious. Sorry about that. I spent the first 40 years of my life making excuses for them, and justifying their unjustifiable conduct, to the point where I actually believed it was somehow my fault, and that I was undeserving of love. I have spent the last 30 years of my life peeling away those levels of crusty old bloody bandages and getting to the bare-naked ugly facts. Mimi died over a decade ago, and in the wake of her death I began to unpack the emotional problems related to the upbringing I received from her as well. So - I’m not taking any responsibility for this craziness anymore; I was a victim of it, it happened to me, it damaged me emotionally in a way that negatively impacted my life for decades. But I’m no longer emotionally entangled in it.
John put the book down. His eyes were filled with tears. Writing about this part of his life had been therapeutic in a way, but it still hurt like hell when he reread it. He’d decided to try reading this section over and over until it no longer hurt him. It was going to take several readings for this to happen, if it ever happened.
He was sitting at the kitchen table at Cavendish and it was mid-afternoon. Christmastime again. It felt sometimes as if the years were literally flying by, like the pages of a calendar being quickly turned in an old Hollywood movie. Just three years ago he had first begun writing his memoir, and now it was published and he felt a little empty. That project had consumed a great deal of his psychic and emotional energy, and now it was done. What should he do next?
He and Paul had finished a two-month tour through North America that fall to support Chaos and Creation. It had been a wild and woolly experience, with huge crowds, lots of critical praise, and the album had done extremely well. So that project was also done. John supposed that Paul had a few things up his sleeve (when did he not?), but at the moment John felt bereft of creative impulse. He looked down at his book, laying splayed out on the table, and shrugged. He smiled a little. The next part of this chapter was more fun: it was about Paul.
PAUL (1942 – 1948)
Paul was born in the midst of a heavy blitz late on the night of June 18, 1942. Fireballs were exploding all around. It was an augur of things to come. His life has been somewhat of a minefield that he has had to tiptoe through ever since. In fact, that night’s bombings were among the worst Liverpool suffered during all of World War II, and there is famous film of the huge dock and warehouse fires from that night, with valiant civil service workers desperately trying to put out the fires.
One of those workers was Paul’s father, James McCartney, who was too old to go to the army, so he joined the civil engineers and spent most of the war fighting fires, and clearing bombed out buildings. This was dangerous business, because there were numerous unexploded bombs in those buildings, and many a civil engineer was killed by accidentally stumbling over these “UXBs” as they were called.
While Jim was fighting the fires, his wife Mary Patricia Mohan McCartney was giving birth with the assistance of one of her midwife friends in the maternity ward of a local hospital, where - due to her seniority as a nurse - she was given a private room. Due to the blackout because of the bombing, there were very few electric lights on, and so Mary and the midwife worked partially by candlelight. Mary was a registered nurse, and practiced as a midwife, so she was well equipped to preside over her own first child’s birth. According to correspondence between family members shortly after Paul’s birth, Mary was directing all the operations, and providing all the instructions, and even cut the umbilical cord herself. Hmmm. I wonder who that reminds me of?
Jim claims that be went home and cried after he finally got a look at his infant son. He told reporters in the ‘60s that his son “was all red, and he had marks on his face, and his ears stuck out. I thought he was the ugliest baby I ever saw. A few days later he looked a whole lot better, and he was a lovely baby after that.” Photographs – of which there are a goodly amount (especially given the relative poverty of the family) – attest to the latter but not the former.
Jim McCartney - whose father Joe had been a bass trombonist in a brass band - had led a ragtime jazz band in his youth playing piano and trumpet, although his forays into that profession had been depressingly unsuccessful. He sold cotton as a day job, but for many years hoped to keep his music dream alive. Paul loves to tell the story of how his dad’s band (which also counted Jim’s brother Jack amongst its members) was so unsuccessful that they changed names and costumes every six months to fool the club owners and the public.
Mary Mohan was the daughter of an Irishman who had gone to Ireland to find a new wife upon Mary’s mother’s death. Mary disliked her stepmother, Rose, very much, and had left home to live with her aunts at the tender age of 14. At age 16 she was living away from home studying to be a nurse. She was independent, and did not like having people tell her what to do. Not unlike her eldest son.
Jim McCartney met Mary Mohan during the blitz, sitting in a backyard bomb shelter. Mary was sharing digs with one of Jim’s sisters, Jane (“Jin”), and Jim had come over to visit when an air raid was called. The air raid went on for hours, and Jim and Mary talked and joked, whiling away the boring nighttime hours, with a few minutes of each dragging hour punctuated by terrorizing falling bombs. Jim was a natural-born entertainer, and led everyone in song, and Mary, shyer by far, was no doubt entranced. Still, her young adulthood is something of a major mystery beyond her nursing training, since she did not share her secrets with her family members, and was not particularly fond of her stepmother, so it is not known whether she had any beaux in her life before Jim. She didn’t confide in her girlfriends either, and to the extent she had girlfriends they had fallen by the wayside after she married. She was a person who kept her problems to herself and soldiered on. Again: not unlike her eldest son.
Jim and Mary married in 1941. For a woman to marry at age 31 meant she would have been considered to be a “spinster,” and Jim had long since fallen into the “confirmed bachelor” category. Within a year, their first son was born by the light of the Nazi bombs: James Paul McCartney. They had one more son, Peter Michael McCartney, who was born about 18 months after Paul, on January 7, 1944. As James later adopted his middle name ‘Paul’ as his moniker, so later did Peter do the same: he became known as “Mike.”
The brothers were close, very close, but scrappy, too. “Paul was a bit of a bossy pants,” Mike explained to me, “but I was a saboteur. It was my goal in life to undermine my brother at every turn, just to keep him in check.”
“Hey,” I said back to him, “I thought that was my job!”
“It takes two of us to keep him in line,” Mike opined, “He’s much cleverer than we are.”
But I digress. (And by the way, I do a lot of that. You might as well get used to it now.)
Paul and Mike had numerous uncles and aunts, and dozens of cousins, and the two sides of their Irish clans - the McCartneys and the Mohans - were quietly at war. The McCartneys, it seemed, had immigrated to England from Northern Ireland (County Antrim), where they were reviled by some of their neighbors as Protestants. Even worse, they were royalists. Meanwhile, the Mohans, also from Northern Ireland (County Monaghan), had come down through Scotland to England, probably for economic reasons, but remained steadfast anti-royal Catholics.
“It was a bit tricky,” Paul admits. “You had to be careful what you said at the family dinner tables. You only had to say one word wrong, and plates would fly.”
“We had to pretend to hate the royals when we were with the elder Mohans, and then we had to hate the Pope when we were with the elder McCartneys,” Mike added. “It was confusing, and sometimes one or the other of us would mess up.”
“A group of our McCartney cousins once told us that we were going to hell because we were Catholic, ‘but don’t tell your mum we said so’. Do you remember that Mike?” Paul asked.
“I had nightmares for weeks...” said Mike.
“We just had to smile and nod a lot, is what I remember,” Paul concluded.
(Now I understood where both Paul and Mike got their exquisite manners, their tact and diplomacy, and their never-ending supply of harmless self-deprecating small talk.)
Aside from avoiding the minefields at the family dinner tables, the McCartney brothers got into all kinds of physical mischief, and suffered a series of traumatic near-death scenarios as a consequence of this.
“Paul loved to play in the woods, and I followed along,” Mike told me.
Paul laughed then and added, “Both of us had a tendency to want to challenge our environment. In our imaginations, we were on daring, secret missions to save mankind. So, we were always climbing the tallest trees, and daring each other to go out further on the limbs than what was strictly safe. We had a number of failed operations.”
“He means we fell a lot. Sprained wrists, ankles, dislocated shoulders, broken clavicles, scraped knees. Our dad once joked to our mum - who was a nurse - that she was running a mini army field hospital in our kitchen,” Mike added. “And then there was that time we were playing beside a big muddy hole by the side of the road, and we fell in.”
“We didn’t know it was so deep, or we might not have chanced it,” Paul pointed out. (I love that he said they ‘might’ not have chanced it; my guess is they would have done it anyway.)
Apparently, they struggled in this deep hole, fearful of drowning, and unable to climb out because of the slippery mud on all sides of the hole. They were struggling in that hole for maybe as long as an hour before some Good Samaritan came by and pulled them out.
“I was actually more afraid of mum at that point, than I was of the hole,” Paul remembered.
“She was a clean freak, and she hated it when we came home all covered in dirt,” Mike explained for my benefit. “Stand in the corner time, for both of us, upon our dejected return home.”
I was getting the idea that Mother Mary might have been a loving and nurturing mum, but she was also something of a stickler and a disciplinarian.
Mike: “We had to brush our teeth for three whole minutes three times a day. She set a timer and stood there watching us.”
Paul: “Our Auntie Jin used to joke that we would wear the enamel off our teeth.”
(So this explained why Paul was always so obsessed with brushing his teeth. He has brushed them at least four times a day for as long as I’ve known him.)
“And our fingernails!” Mike suddenly cried out.
At this ejaculated memory, Paul groaned involuntarily, and hid his face in both of his hands.
Mike (continuing) said, “She’d go after them with a little brush almost until they bled.”
(Yup, Paul is always cleaning his fingernails, too. He has the cleanest fingernails of any guitarist I know.)
Among Paul’s many infamous exploits as a young boy I have been told, (infamous amongst the family, but heretofore never disclosed to any of those nefarious reporters, fans and writers that come nosing around), are the still-cherished memories of various cousins. No one can remember what age they were when they happened, but - to me at least - they suggest a few patterns of behavior with which I later become intimately familiar within just a few months of becoming his friend.
For one thing, Paul leads behind a shroud. To everyone else looking in, there always appears to be some other person who is the ‘leader’, but Paul’s secret is that he leads the leader, and just pretends for the sake of the leader’s ego to be a follower. Almost all of the mischief and trouble Paul, his brother and their cousins got into in their young childhoods came about because of Paul’s inspired ideas. Cousins have told of an afternoon spent frying insects with a magnifying glass, trying to cook eggs on a hot sidewalk, and stuffing a bossy female teenage cousin’s pillow with talcum powder, so when she lay back on it a huge and billowing cloud of suffocating powder came flying out and covered her entire upper body. They told me of his idea that they should hide for two hours in a closet from the parents of the house while those parents desperately searched for their lost lambs. And my personal favorite - tying a garden hose on one end to a light fixture in the garden, and the other end of the hose to a van bumper, so when an unobservant uncle drove off, he proceeded to drag both the hose and the light fixture with him down the road. Apparently the neighbors were all laughing and shouting at him, and he later confessed to his family when he retold the story that at first he thought they were all happy to see him, and he’d never known he was that popular.
On the other hand, the saving grace to Paul’s Cecil Lord Burghley plotting behind the grown-ups’ backs was that when the shit hit the fan, he would always step forward and accept full blame for the resultant damage, but he would do so with such enormous charm, credible remorse and plausible excuses that the grown-ups would mitigate the punishment significantly if not eliminate it entirely.
Paul remembers why he took personal responsibility for the acts of the group. “I would get very upset inside, and I wouldn’t be able to put into words my defense. I preferred that I just confess and get the punishment over with, than to explain my thinking and my motivations. I didn’t mind, really. I found that being punished for my ideas or actions was better than having to explain my motivations.”
Call this foreshadowing of the future.
Clearly, Paul’s first 6 years on earth reflect the creation of a person who was sure of who he was and who he wanted to be, and sure of where he wanted to go and what he was willing to put up with to preserve his independence. I suggest that it was also a period when family members began to understand this dynamic of his personality, and whether they acquiesced intentionally or unintentionally, they learned to cater to this larger-than-life personality.
John was laughing as he finished the section. What a tonic Paul was! Reading about his wacky enterprises as a wee child had lightened John’s heart on that dreary afternoon. It was like magic, the effect Paul had on John.
Reluctantly, John turned the page...
JOHN (1945 – 1955)
At age 5, I was living with my Aunt Mimi and with poor Uncle George, full time. Aunt Mimi “vanished” my mother. She didn’t speak of her around me, and no one else did either. Whenever I brought up Julia, she referred to her as “your Aunt Julia.” It would be five years before I would spend any time with my mother, but I would call her “Aunt Julia” or just plain “Julia” until I was 15 years old. I knew she was my mother – I did remember what happened to me when I was five – but it seemed best to allow Mimi to have her little deception than to argue with her about it.
Once Mimi more or less had custody of me, my life began to be a tiny bit more predictable. I at least knew where I would be sleeping that night - in Mimi’s house - and I could deal with any craziness related to it tomorrow. For my first year of education, Mimi sent me to a Church of England primary school that was more expensive than she could easily afford, so she obviously had my best interests at heart.
My mindset during my childhood was otherworldly; I felt as though I was living in some kind of an alternative universe where no one understood me, or could even begin to understand me. This belief became a kind of mantra for me as I approached adolescence. I had begun to feel like I was intrinsically smarter, more talented, more inspired than anyone else, but no one could see it but me. I thought I saw the world more plainly, with more depth and understanding, than did anyone else. Things seemed to play themselves out in my imagination, and so when the things actually happened as I had predicted, I felt ever more powerful. I was living in my head, with endless fantasies and imagined exploits alive and explosive in my brain. The activity in my brain felt more alive than anything that was going on in my “real life”.
Mimi provided everything I needed from an objective point of view. But what she could not give me was undemanding, unconditional love, such as the love that children are supposed to get from their mothers before they grow old. Mimi always had conditions, and I was never capable of fulfilling them. I can’t say that I tried effectively to meet her conditions; however, I did try on my own terms. This was never enough. She always found my efforts wanting, and I always felt as though I was giving up more than I was getting. We ultimately entered into a kind of game of ‘chicken’, where she would expect me to give in to her, and I would hold out for my own identity. These games of chicken usually ended in a draw, and it caused Mimi not to trust me and to see me as a challenge, and it caused me to distrust Mimi, and to reinforce my belief that no one would ever truly love me without a whole lot of questions being asked and answered.
I had two neighborhood friends who remained close friends to me throughout my life. One of them, Pete Shotton, I met when we were 3. He lived next door to Mimi on Menlove Avenue. He is still alive and kicking, and we still correspond and hang out together when I’m in Liverpool. Sometimes he comes and visits me in London / New York / Los Angeles. The other, Ivan Vaughan, lived across the street from Mimi’s house, and I met him when his family moved in. He was a few years younger than me, and we befriended each other when we were 8 and 6 years old, approximately. Ivan was the one who later introduced me to Paul, with whom he shared a birthday, a close friendship, and a classroom at the Liverpool Institute. Sadly, Ivan died in 1993, having suffered from multiple sclerosis for decades. But Paul and I remained close friends with him until the end.
Pete was a classic towhead – his hair was so blond it almost had no color. He had freckles all over his face, and he was the perfect sidekick for a kid like me. Whatever crazy idea I had, he would go along – even if he had doubts about it. I don’t think he ever even tried to talk me out of a single stunt. (Of course, he wouldn’t have been a good sidekick for me as a young adult; he never could get me to back away from my stupidest most dangerous tricks, and by my late teens and early twenties I was having some pretty physically dangerous ideas.) Pete has this to say about me:
“You were a wild and restless kid, and you had a way of sweeping me and our other friends behind you in a kind of wake. We couldn’t seem to pull away, even when we knew we were headed for certain doom. When we were very little, our mischief involved sneaking into the cupboards to steal biscuits, or finding a way out of the garden. I seem to recollect you were always pushing the limits, looking for a way to escape whatever confines you were in. I would quietly follow, and do what I could to assist, but all the ideas and suggestions came from you. I couldn’t stay abreast with you, so I followed just behind. The only kid who ever could stay abreast of you, or avoid the pull of your wake, was Paul. He was a very independent kid, I remember. I used to wonder at it.
“You and I of course went to the same primary school for a very brief period, but were separated after about a year, I think. I went to a government school and you went to a different primary school. I was moved because we couldn’t afford the tuition anymore. After that, we only saw each other after school and at the weekends.”
Aunt Mimi did indeed move me from my first school, and I am sure the tuition was part of the equation, but the more pressing reason for my move was that I was not welcomed back. I would not sit still in class, got in fights with virtually every boy in the class at one point or another, used “naughty words” (who me?) and was not progressing satisfactorily in my schoolwork.
I remember this because I was traumatized by Aunt Mimi’s reaction when she got the letter from the headmaster. She was screaming at me and telling me how ungrateful and undisciplined I was, “after all I’ve done for you.” (If I heard that once from her, I heard that a million times – she was still saying it when I was in my forties, right up until the time she died.) I remember I cried myself to sleep that night, and then I further disgraced myself by wetting the bed. So, the next day there was another humiliating confrontation with Mimi related to my inability to control my bladder.
Mimi searched around and found a second tier primary school for me to attend nearby. It accepted me, and thus I started on school number two.
My school problems were not over with the move. I was a regular visitor to the headmaster’s office, because I would not sit still and was rude to the teachers. I don’t think at this young age I was deliberately trying to be rude to the teachers. I think I just had a very relaxed view of authority figures, and didn’t pay due deference to them. I never did “get” the need for authority figures. I still don’t. All they do is annoy the rest of us, right? I don’t remember all the things I did wrong; I do remember some of the punishments, however. Once, the headmaster pulled down my pants, put me over a stool, and paddled me with a cricket bat for a very long time. Then I had to stay there, in that position, for an even longer time, while other boys and teachers came in and out of the room. It was quite humiliating. I also wonder now if the guy was a pedophile. Another time, I was called up to the front of the whole school at an assembly, and I had to stand there throughout the whole assembly holding up a sign that read, “I do not know how to behave.” This one backfired on them though, because every time the teachers looked away, I would make faces at the kids and they’d all start laughing.
School was just a continuing nightmare for me. No one understood me there, and even what I considered to be my most innocent behavior was constantly being misinterpreted and some other boy or a teacher would take offense. I had no credibility by this time, of course, so if it came to my word against that of anyone else, I would not be believed. The older boys were irked by my cockiness, and emboldened by what they saw as a free shot at harassing me, and they bullied me ruthlessly. I stuck to my guns, grimly, and never told on them. But it only served to further isolate me from my peers. My classroom marks were disappointing, to say the least. I dreaded when school reports were coming out, because my Aunt would rant and insult me and threaten to throw me out of her home every single time. She would explain to me that there were no stupid people in her family, and it had to be those lowlife Lennons who made me stupid.
Before my third year at my second school, the headmaster informed my Aunt that I could remain there, but I would have to repeat the previous year’s form. I was eight years old. Aunt Mimi went ballistic, and informed me that I had humiliated the entire Stanley family, and I wasn’t to tell anyone – “ANYONE!” – that I had been set back. I also became the laughingstock of my school. Complete strangers would come up to me in the schoolyard and say things like, “You’re the backward one, right?”
Not surprisingly this stress only served to push me further into my fantasy world, and away from “real life”. Honestly, the only times I felt as though I had any merit at all were when I was playing with my small handful of neighborhood friends, including Pete and Ivan, none of whom knew what was going on at my school or in my Aunt’s house and still thought I was the coolest thing ever. When I finally confessed all of this to Pete many decades later, he was shocked.
[“I had no idea you were going through that, John. You should have told me.”
“What could you have done? It was better for me to have one safe place, and that was with you and our mates.”]
I developed shingles in that third year. Imagine: an 8- year-old with shingles! It was extremely painful, and the iodine they put on it then stung like crazy. I would run and hide and scream when Mimi was trying to apply the iodine, which only made her angrier and more verbally abusive. She told me repeatedly that the rash was “disgusting”, and that I looked like “a scabby Mick from Dingle.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I got the gist that it wasn’t a good thing in her eyes.
Mimi wasn’t always abusive. Sometimes she was patient and kind, and she could be hilariously funny. She was not a hugger or a kisser. I don’t think she ever kissed me – if she did, I don’t remember it. Emotions were “messy” to her; that is the word she would use when I cried. I eventually learned not to display my emotions to her. I cried myself to sleep most every night, and I had fantasies about my “real” mother and father coming to rescue me, and then everything would be perfect. I am sure Mimi loved me, and did the best she could with me. I didn’t want for a roof over my head, or nice clothes on my back, or a private education – for whatever that was worth, under the circumstances. I always had three square meals a day, and timely and good quality medical care when needed. I was never left alone without adult supervision, and I was never physically abused.
It was just that there was rarely any warmth in that house, and it was so bloody unpredictable. One day she would laugh if you did a certain thing, and the next she would be screaming at you and insulting you for doing the exact same thing. Even poor Uncle George skulked around the house on tiptoes, like a ghost, fearful of upsetting She Who Must Be Obeyed. Mimi hated noise, clutter, and dirt. I remember tracking some grass in from the outdoors once, and she screamed at me and told me I had to take a hand brush and clean the entire rug on my hands and knees. After that, I would always wipe my feet before coming in, and then I would study the ground to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently tracked something in. I have a specific memory of once following after my friends, picking up the odd piece of grass off the floor as they went by. Mimi liked classical music, and she liked to sit in her chair, smoking and with a glass of wine, reading heavy literature. Any kind of extraneous or ambient noise would distract her, and she would become irritable. One time Uncle George and I were giggling in my room – he had brought me a harmonica – and she came in, told us both we were behaving “childishly” (I was nine, by the way), and then she spotted the harmonica. She took it away, telling me I wouldn’t be needing it, and it was only just a nuisance anyway. A few days later, George brought me another harmonica, but admonished me never to let Mimi see or hear it. I made sure she didn’t.
After my fourth year at my second school, I was told I was not welcome back. I had apparently failed to complete my second attempt at the same form, and thus was asked to leave. My Aunt Mimi was beside herself. The summer of 1950 was the worst summer of my life until 1968. She was so angry with me that she insisted I receive private tutoring all summer long, and I was not permitted to have any free time. And when I wasn’t being tutored, I was cleaning out the already pristine garden shed, or mowing the already trim lawn, or scrubbing the already squeaky clean windows. There was no end to the chores she found for me to do, and the only time I wasn’t staring at a schoolbook or doing a chore, I was sitting in church (Anglican of course) praying for self-discipline. Aunt Mimi’s brand of Anglicanism held that English people did not pray for their “souls”. What a waste of time! No, you had to pray for practical things to improve yourself, and in my case apparently it was my lack of discipline that had caused all this trouble. I was permitted to interact briefly with my cousin Stan on Sundays before dinner if his family came to Mimi’s. Stan still remembers that summer.
“You would have thought I was the one who was grounded,” Stan explained when I interviewed him for this book. “I took it very personally that you were being treated that way. I complained about it to mum, and she just shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘that’s Mimi, she’ll never change.’ I don’t know if you remember, but you also weren’t allowed any sweets that summer. I used to sneak some in my pockets and give them to you when no one was looking. But Mimi found the wrapping for one in your pocket, and I was not permitted to see you for the rest of the summer. Did you remember that?” (I hadn’t, actually.) “I was scared of Mimi. Terrified, actually, is a more accurate word. Everyone in the family was terrified of her. No one could talk to her, she knew everything, and if anyone tried to argue or disagree they would be smacked down by a nasty, sarcastic comment. So at least you know that you came by it honestly, John.”
“Hey, thanks mate.”
“Sure. No prob.”
John closed the book. He’d decided he was depressed enough, and didn’t need to make it worse. It was time to scrounge around and make dinner, anyway. He checked the wall clock and saw that it was 4:30. He wondered where Paul was and reflexively picked up his cell phone and pressed the key that would connect him to Paul’s phone - they had a private number that only they two ever used. The phone rang but twice, and Paul was on the other end.
“What’s up?” He asked in his usual cheerful way. For whatever reason, this made John feel better already.
“When will you be home? I’m planning dinner,” John explained.
“When do you want me?” Paul asked. He was at the McLen offices finishing up a very boring meeting with the accountants.
“I always want you now,” John said suggestively, “but I can have dinner ready by six.”
“I’ll be there by six, and maybe sooner,” Paul promised.
John felt 100% better after hearing Paul’s voice. He got up and began to search the fridge and his memory for a really great vegetarian recipe. He wanted to make Paul smile the way Paul made him smile.