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Julia Baird - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 3 / 5 / 2014

Julia Baird - Interview


Lisa Torem talks with John Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird about her reissued memoir, 'Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon'

Julia Baird’s relationship with her famous half-brother, the late John Lennon, and late mother, Julia Stanley, is explored in-depth in her touching memoir, 'Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon'. Julia states in the foreword that “our mother never had a chance to speak for herself”; that “she has been vilified, portrayed as a feckless woman….” What Baird is referring to is the mythology that has surrounded her mother and has been, sadly, and until the publication of her book, accepted as the truth by generations of Beatles fans. The real Julia Stanley, according to the author, was an exceedingly musical parent whose love for her children was unconditional. Had her situation taken place a few decades later, she suggests, her mother would not have been demonised by her family’s narrow-minded, post-war morality. Julia Stanley married the sea-faring Alf Lennon, who left his bride to fend for herself and raise the young John Lennon without benefit of emotional or financial support. Although he left his wife and child alone for years, he refused to grant her a divorce. Thus Julia Stanley found herself between a rock and a hard place. The young and beautiful Liverpudlian struggled to keep her marriage afloat despite her ambling husband’s ways, but eventually found companionship and love with “Bobby” Dykins, with whom she would raise daughters, Jackie and Julia, without the legal benefit of marriage. Despite providing a loving home for her daughters, Julia Stanley was severely judged by her siblings. Ultimately the eldest Stanley sister, Mimi, demanded custody of John, claiming her younger sister’s lifestyle was unstable. Despite the family dysfunction, there were happy recollections. John Lennon enjoyed Baird’s teenage writings, “He said I should be a writer or journalist,” she muses, recanting when he peered over her shoulder and laughed at a story she had created by pounding away at her manual typewriter. Baird remembers when her half-brother visited their home, often accompanied in later years by other friends and musicians, including former Beatle Paul McCartney (McCartney’s interviews are available on Baird’s website). The lads would, comically, rehearse in the family bathroom where the acoustics were just right. Julia Stanley’s banjo playing and warm sense of humour would delight the young men and John developed a strong bond with his biological parent, whom he would have to visit secretly. But the relationship was cruelly cut short when Julia Stanley was killed by an off duty policeman. Julia Baird was eleven and John was seventeen, and their mother’s death created a cavernous hole that would leave Julia, Jackie and John eternally distraught. Baird uses interviews with members of the Quarrymen (the band which preceded the Beatles) to drive home the point that her older brother was crushed by the sudden and unexpected tragedy. Because Baird was under eighteen, she was not able to watch the Beatles up close at The Cavern, but the age limit didn’t stop her from trying. She immersed herself in “black eye make-up” and dressed in “dyed black jeans” but still couldn’t get past the strict doormen. She did, however, frequent the club to hear other popular bands and got to know Brian Epstein and the woman who would be John Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia Lennon. Cynthia remained a good friend to Baird and in the early years sponsored London shopping sprees. Baird was grateful when Cynthia referred to Jackie and Julia as “John’s sisters” because “our own family” talked about them as “outsiders”. As the years progress, Julia Baird chronicles how fame would eventually form a wedge between her and her iconic brother. “Our brother was being adopted as the world’s property,” she exclaims when describing the early furore of Beatlemania. As for fame and its repercussions, Baird feels dubious. She rejoiced in her brother’s success and clearly understood the happiness it brought but stated, “…I wished it hadn’t taken him so far away from us.” Nevertheless, she never gives up trying to re-establish their early connection. At one point, she tries to locate him at the Apple office and gets treated disrespectfully by two staff members. After John’s death, she hopes to carry out John’s family promises by contacting Yoko Ono, but is rebuffed again. Still, she finds a certain degree of peace in her quest for truthfulness and validation. To her journalistic credit, when Baird lacks the personal historical context, she finds others: friends, acquaintances, relatives, fans, etc., who can fill in the blanks. Julia Baird’s writing is visceral and deeply moving. She fights for her mother’s rightful legacy and, through her many interviews and insights, we experience a kinship with Julia Stanley as well as a deeper understanding of the complex John Lennon and how the erratic ghosts of his upbringing spawned genius lyrics, striking melodies and mood swings. Whilst many books have been written by Beatles and Lennon “experts,” Julia Baird’s unique window seat provides an unprecedented and authentic read from one who experienced the day-to-day joys and drama. Remarkably and with a heart unencumbered with bitterness, she cares for her relatives in their later years and feels grateful for any information they pass on to her. In the latter part of the book, she concludes the narrative by exhuming some truly surprising skeletons. The book includes a series of charming black and white photographs that illustrate John Lennon’s school outings, seaside holidays, train travels and extended family. Jackie, Julia Baird, Julia Lennon and Mimi are included, decked out in elegant clothing. A labour of love, the book required years of research and led to a movie deal, which, according to Baird, went awry. But Baird also discovered a legion of dedicated Beatles/John Lennon fans that were excited to hear the true story of their heroes told by a legitimate source. When I attended The Fest For Beatles Fans in New York in early February, I briefly met Baird, who was presenting, signing books and introducing the Lord Mayor of Liverpool to excited fans up until the last possible moment. After a quick detour to The House of Blues for another signing and presentation, she spent time in the US on holiday where we got in touch. In interview with Pennyblackmusic, Julia Baird spoke about her book. PB: Hi Julia. Thank you for taking time from your holiday to speak with us. How did you compile your interview subjects together for the book? JB: Well, I know them all. Everyone I interviewed I know so I just rang them up. PB: And people were quite willing to speak? JB: Paul McCartney in particular was. I interviewed Paul for it to confirm that all of the Beatles stuff was right; that every single bit was correct so we sat together for a couple of hours. PB: Growing up as John Lennon’s half-sister, did you see evidence of his genius at an early age? JB: No. People think they made it overnight. They did so much work before it all started, before they really became big. It wasn’t an overnight thing, and as Paul told me they did eight hundred hours of rehearsal just in Hamburg alone. It was not an overnight thing by any means. PB: You felt that the ‘Nowhere Boy’ film was not accurate and that they took liberties even though you made yourself available as an advisor and the film was to be based on your book. What do you think happened? JB:. Right from the start, it was meant to be based on the book. That was the whole thing. We had terrible rows with the publisher and the screenwriter. I was never allowed to meet the scriptwriter, who was in his thirties. What does he know? He was not even from Liverpool. They’d already written the script by the time they approached me but I didn’t know it at the time. When they gave me the script to read, I was crying. It was just awful. As an example, they told me they had found somebody to play my mother. I had seen Cate Blanchett play a beautiful version of Elizabeth 1 in the film ‘Elizabeth’. She was facing out to sea sideways, looking out over the English Channel at the end of the film. Her hair had been curled for the part. I nearly fainted in the cinema because she was utterly beautiful. It was our mother, so I wanted her to play her in the film and proposed her. They said, “Well, you know, she’s pregnant,” and I said, “Yes, I know.” And then one of them said, “Anyway, I wonder if could she do a thick Scouse accent,” and I looked at her and said, “My mother didn’t have a thick Scouse accent.” And she looked right back at me and said, “Yes, she did.” I said, “She didn’t.” “Yes, she did.” Now it turned out they had already written the script. They had stuff in the script that they had to take out. I said, you will be sued. These people are still alive. But with my mother, they could do what they like. You cannot libel the dead and John’s not here to defend her. The film was an absolute travesty and in the end we were tied in knots, so I asked them to take my name off the credits as a result. It still, however, says “Based on a book by Julia Baird,” which they had promised they wouldn’t do. I kept my side of the bargain and they unfortunately didn’t keep theirs. PB: How do you feel about some of the songs John wrote about Julia? How do you feel when you hear them? JB: Very sad. The song ‘Julia’ – I have the words written beside my bed. It is beautiful. It is very, very, beautiful. PB: You are involved with The Cavern (LT: Cavern City Tours) in Liverpool. What is your role there? JB: I’m the director. It’s a strange thing. I was a school psychologist and when I retired to write the book. I thought I’d have more time and got a bit more involved. In 2004, I eventually became director of The Cavern. I was a sort of cultural, honorary ambassador for the year 2008 in Liverpool. We have a city of culture all over Europe, and each year a different city is assigned this fabulous accolade because you get a lot of money from Europe, and Liverpool got it in 2008, so I did a lot of work for that including bringing the Anne Frank exhibition to Liverpool. It happened to be Holocaust Memorial Day, a big one, so we combined it and brought the Anne Frank exhibition to Liverpool, and that’s my contribution to it, and since then I’ve stayed involved in promoting Liverpool. PB: Thank you.

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Julia Baird - Interview

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