John Lennon: What really happened in his childhood We thought we knew (2023)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

John Lennon: What really happened in his childhood We thought we knew (1)

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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.

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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


What happened to John Lennon in his childhood? ›

As a child, Lennon was a prankster and he enjoyed getting into trouble. As a boy and young adult, he enjoyed drawing grotesque figures and cripples. Lennon's school master thought that he could go to an art school for college since he did not get good grades in school but had artistic talent.

Did John Lennon have a traumatic childhood? ›

John Lennon's childhood traumas are documented in series of songs he wrote in the late 60s and early 70s: Julia, Mother, Working Class Hero. In fact the whole of his first solo album is an extended therapy session aimed at healing his troubled psyche.

What was John Lennon's last words? ›

Although their intimate conversations remained private, Paul's wife Linda McCartney once revealed John Lennon's last words to his former band mate. As Ultimate Classic Rock reveal, they were: “Think about me every now and then, old friend.”

What kind of childhood did John Lennon have? ›

Lennon's childhood was unsettled, with an absent father and a mother who simply couldn't handle motherhood… After the age of four, Lennon didn't even live with his mother, instead living with his childless Uncle George and Aunt Mimi.

Did John Lennon have any disabilities? ›

Lennon suffered from a severe form of dyslexia, which affected his ability to read, write, and perform music. While Lennon often joked about the condition, it was a source of much frustration and embarrassment for him during his lifetime.

Was John Lennon a neglectful father? ›

He Was a Neglectful and Abusive Father

Dorothy Jarlett, Lennon's housekeeper during his first marriage, described Lennon's behavior towards Julian as aggressive and violent. Lennon appeared to resent his son and would often berate him.

Did John Lennon ever apologize? ›

When the band arrived in Chicago in August 1966, Lennon held a press conference to publicly apologize. “I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing,” Lennon said. “I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don't know quite what I've done.

What was John Lennon's biggest fear? ›

Despite being revered as a songwriting genius, Lennon was deeply worried about what his legacy would look like and how people would remember him after he was gone. “I remember John was a bit insecure,” McCartney said during a revealing interview on the CBS programme 60 Minutes.

What was John Lennon's last words to his wife? ›

While travelling in the car on the way back from The Record Plant, Lennon spoke to Ono for the last time. “I said, 'shall we go and have dinner before we go home?' ” Ono recalled. “And John said, 'No, let's go home because I want to see Sean before he goes to sleep.

Who was the smartest Beatle? ›

In a 1987 interview, McCartney said that the other Beatles idolised Lennon: "He was like our own little Elvis ... We all looked up to John. He was older and he was very much the leader; he was the quickest wit and the smartest."

What are three interesting facts about John Lennon? ›

6 John Lennon Fun Facts Only Die-Hard Fans Know
  • John Lennon Gave Mark Chapman an Autograph. ...
  • He Was a Part of a Bunch of Bands Before Beetles. ...
  • He Didn't Choose the Now-famous Round Glasses. ...
  • Before He Died He Was Actually Legally Blind. ...
  • He Claimed to Have Seen a UFO in the '70s. ...
  • Lennon Was a Really Terrible Driver.
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What did John Lennon say about life? ›

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." "All we are saying is give peace a chance." "A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality."

Which Beatle had the most difficult childhood? ›

Familial upheaval in infancy had a less obvious impact on Ringo than it did John. What marked him more profoundly was a series of health crises in his childhood and adolescence. Three times doctors warned Elsie and Harry that 'he'd not make it through through the night' (Lewisohn).

Which Beatle grew up the poorest? ›

John Lennon

On paper, John Lennon's early childhood was a textbook example of the social deprivation often experienced by single parent families in the mid Twentieth century.

Did any of the Beatles have mental illness? ›

Paul McCartney says The Beatles suffered from mental health issues: “There were a lot of things we had to work through” Paul McCartney has said that The Beatles most likely suffered from mental health issues, but they were reluctant to discuss it at the height of their fame.

Which Beatle had ADHD? ›

9. John Lennon (1940-1980) The popular Beatle is thought to have had ADHD due to his disruptive behavior and inability to focus on his lessons growing up.

What Beatle was dyslexic? ›

John Lennon did not know he was dyslexic until much later in life, but he always knew he was different than all the others.

When did John Lennon find out he was dyslexic? ›

John Lennon

It wasn't until in his later adulthood that he discovered he has dyslexia. He couldn't spell right nor remember other people's compositions, but he could write his own effortlessly.

Did John Lennon have an inappropriate relationship with his mother? ›

One is that, later in life, Lennon confessed to having had boyhood sexual feelings for his mother, Julia, a free-spirited young woman who died in 1958. John described a childhood experience, lying in bed with his mother and accidentally touching her breast, "and I was wondering if I should do anything else....

What song did paul McCartney wrote about John Lennon's son? ›

The writing and recording of "Hey Jude" coincided with a period of upheaval in the Beatles. The ballad evolved from "Hey Jules", a song McCartney wrote to comfort John Lennon's young son Julian, after Lennon had left his wife for the Japanese artist Yoko Ono.

Did John Lennon love his son? ›

John's relationship with his son was distant and, after he moved to New York with his new love Yoko, it was several years before the two saw each other again. In 1973, Julian began to visit his dad regularly during the Beatle's affair with May Pang, and John encouraged his son's interest in music.

Did John Lennon leave money to his sons? ›

He left all his wealth to Yoko and their son, Sean, as the only beneficiaries of his estate.

Why was John Lennon's mother's house called the House of Sin? ›

BBC reports that though the famous Beatle never lived in the three-bedroom home (he lived down the street with his aunt Mimi), he regularly visited his mother and would practice guitar at the house. His aunt referred to the place as the “house of sin” due to Julia's refusal to marry her live-in partner.

What did John Lennon do before the Beatles? ›

In the late 1950s, John formed a rock group called the “Quarry Men Skiffle Band”, which was a precursor to the Beatles. In 1957, he met and formed a successful musical partnership with Paul McCartney. They complemented each other very well.

What was the tragic death of John Lennon? ›

On December 8th, 1980, the world was shocked by the tragic announcement of the death of John Lennon, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Lennon was shot and killed outside of his home in New York City by an unknown assailant. At the time of his death, Lennon was only 40 years old.


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