In respectful memory of Cynthia Lennon (September 10, 1939-April 1, 2015)
I was skimming the New York Times on December 8, 2010 when I fell in love.
On that Wednesday, the Times included a short meditation by Yoko Ono, mostly about an inane late-night dispute with her husband. It stuck in her mind, presumably, because not long after that John Lennon was dead – and because it illustrated, in a trivial yet symbolic way, the blending of their two tea-drinking cultures (Japanese and British) in a Manhattan apartment.
In December 2010 I was already keen on several of the ingredients here: the 60s and their legacy, anything British, tea. But something about Yoko’s short piece drove me toward Philip Norman’s biography of John, then about a million other books on the Beatles and their world.
And while I’m a devoted fan of John, his group and solo work, when I say I fell in love, it was less with him than with the tea-making.
You can talk all day and night about the Beatles, collectively and individually; there’s so much known that they emerge larger than life. Yoko’s miniature domestic description is just life-sized. Real people, up in the middle of the night, getting the giggles over a cup of tea, just as they might anytime during John’s brief shining moment.
The more I work on the Beatles’ world – to be specific, on England between 1945 and 1965 – the more it thrives for me as a rich, down-to-earth era. That’s despite the fact that its most famous sons and daughters universally longed to escape it. As Peter Asher says, postwar England felt black-and-white even when you were living it, whereas America, land of Elvis, seemed to burst with color. But since I benefit from not having been there, I crave this period.
Two of the teachers who’ve steeped me in it are also Lennon ladies.
I was particularly sorry to hear of the death of Cynthia Powell Lennon at the beginning of this month, because her memoirs (the bitter A Twist of Lennon and the gentler John) enfolded me with delicious images of late-50s art college, cold-water bedsits, and what in the world it’s like to have a baby when you can’t leave the house for fear of rabid Beatles fans. While the men were living the high life – which John disgustedly described as “a plane and a room and a car and a cheese sandwich” – Mrs. Lennon had to pay attention to house, home, and how to make tea on a tiny gas ring.
Julia Dykins Baird’s The Private John Lennon: The Untold Story from His Sister (also titled Imagine This) got published for its future-Beatle stories, and they’re great. But John spent only a small percentage of his youth with his mum and half-sisters. The book is much more a portrait of the fabulous Julia Stanley Lennon Dykins and the Stanley family, a more dramatic ensemble than any soap opera could dream up. (Here’s a starter kit if you need one.) And because Julia Baird was still a child when her mother horribly, tragically died, her memories linger round the kitchen table with a side of chips and a treat of cold orange juice concentrate.
I had the honor of meeting Ms. Baird for about 90 seconds once, and I struggled to describe how evocative her book was to me. She signed it anyway and was very pleasant and gracious.
Don’t even begin to think that because I value the domestic side of these women’s memories, I’m suggesting that women do or should focus only on the domestic. (Head to MoMA if you want some very non-domestic Yoko Ono.) Yet there’s a feminist case to be made that daily life – what people wear, eat, sit upon – takes second place to politics or war precisely because it’s traditionally feminine. All the more reason to reclaim it, from the British 50s and 60s or any other time.
At any rate, do come round for a cup of tea.
Want more of what people wore, ate, sat upon, wrote with, played with, or kept on their nightstands in England in the 1950s and 60s? Visit my Pinterest board.