Books & Manuscripts

When John Lennon Turned Paperback Writer

By Paige Thompson

In 1963, Tom Maschler, editorial director of John Cape, commissioned journalist Michael Braun to write a book on the contemporary British pop scene. Braun returned to Maschler one day with a set of drawings and writings scribbled on the back of hotel notepaper. Maschler began to read. And then began to laugh. The writing, he thought, was “extraordinarily witty”. The author: John Lennon

 

Tom Maschler, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Kingsley Amis and John Lennon at a Jonathan Cape event.

Maschler immediately commissioned Lennon to write his first book, In His Own Write, which was a huge critical and commercial success on publication in March 1964. Maschler remembers Lennon as being “surprisingly willing to listen to my editorial suggestions.” Lennon was then persuaded to write a sequel.  A Spaniard in the Works, which was published in June 1965, was similar in style to its predecessor but was more ambitious in scope and had a particular bite in its parodies against religion.

Numerous effusive reviews from high-brow press followed both publications. The Times Literary Supplement wrote that Lennon’s work was “worth the attention of anyone who fears for the impoverishment of the English language and the British imagination… the humourists have done much more to preserve and enrich these assets than most serious critics allow. Thiers is arguably our liveliest stream of “experimental writing” and Mr Lennon shows himself well equipped to take it farther.” Similarities were immediately drawn between the Beatle and James Joyce.  

John Lennon talking to Kingsley Amis at a Jonathan Cape event.

However some other readers took a different view.  Charles Curran, a Conservative MP, even used the book’s deliberate puns and misspellings to attack education standards in the country, arguing during a parliamentary debate in the summer of 1964 - “He has a feeling for words and story-telling, [but] he is in a state of pathetic near-literacy.”

Lennon gave both his manuscripts and drawings for the books to Maschler and in 2014, the majority of these relating to both books were offered for sale at Sotheby’s New York. A ‘white-glove’ sale, ‘You Might Well Arsk’ saw works by Lennon soar above their high estimates.

This small and select group of manuscripts for Spaniard in this December’s sale were not offered in 2014. The first of the lots (230), a corrected typescript of ‘Snore Wife and Some Several Dwarts’ is Lennon’s delightful parody of Disney’s Snow White. It is the tale of “several dwarts or cretins”, a jealous “Queen or a witch or an acorn” who revenges herself on Snore Wife with an apple “parsened with deathly arsenickers”, and a handsome prince who ate the witch, smashed the magic mirror, but refused to marry the heroine “on account of his health, what with her being poissoned and that, but they came to an agreement”.

Lot 230 – John Lennon, corrected typescript of ‘Snore Wife and some Several Dwarts’, [1965]. Estimate: £6,000–8,000. 

The undoubted highlight is the complete autograph manuscript poem, ‘The Wumberlog (or the Magic Dog)’. The longest and most ambitious poem published by Lennon, its surreal nonsensical narrative follows a young boy who is helped by a talking dog to a magic island inhabited by the Wumberlog (a “highly feathered crow”). As with so many of Lennon’s poems and prose pieces, there is a savage darkness behind the wit and wordplay. 

Lot 232 – John Lennon, complete manuscript poem for ‘The Wumberlog’, [1965]. Estimate: £30,000–50,000.

Lennon simply saw them as “personal stories which were expressive of my personal emotions” (Rolling Stones, 1971) but his prose offers an alternative insight into the creative spontaneity and darker musings of a Beatle at the height of Beatlemania. The cruel humour favours the underdog and attacks the establishment.  “The underlying bitterness of much of what Lennon writes about marriage and family life, for example, as well as his Joycean excursions into language fantasies, are something else altogether” (Thomson, The Lennon Companion, 1988).

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