The bookshop shelves of March 23, 1964 were filled with an unusual new release. It arrived courtesy of publishers Jonathan Cape in the UK and Simon & Schuster in America. In His Own Write was described in its advertising as “a collection of stories, anecdotes and poems, illustrated with 24 full-page drawings and 12 text decorations by the author.” The author in question was John Lennon.
‘None of it has to make sense’
The book was priced at 9/6d, nine and sixpence, or 47.5p in decimal currency (roughly 65 cents today), and had a preface by Paul McCartney. It was a vehicle for Lennon’s surreal imagery and humor, with largely nonsensical words that owed much to his love of the fanciful comedy of his British radio favourites the Goons. “None of it has to make sense and if it seems funny then that’s enough,” observed McCartney.
In his mock-biographical “About The Awful” note on the back cover, Lennon wrote: “I was bored on the 9th of Octover [sic] 1940, when, I believe, the Nasties were still booming us led by Madalf Heatlump (Who had only one).” This was a reference to World War II and the bombing attacks on Britain by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler. “Anyway, they didn’t get me. I attended to varicous schools in Liddypol. And still didn’t pass-much to my Aunties supplies.”
A literary smash
If Beatles fans may have been somewhat bemused by that off-kilter style, that didn’t stop the volume selling in huge numbers: In His Own Write was reported to shift 50,000 copies on its first day on sale in the UK. The first US print run was 90,000.
The literary establishment approved, too. “It is worth the attention of anyone who fears for the impoverishment of the English language and the British imagination,” wrote no less an august journal than the Times Literary Supplement. Four years after publication, the book was turned into a play, performed at the Old Vic in London and directed by Beatles insider and actor Victor Spinetti.
The book arrived just a few weeks after The Beatles made their famous first visit to the US, prompting the official transatlantic arrival of Beatlemania. It was published the same week that their new single “Can’t Buy Me Love” was released, and as they dominated the UK album chart: With The Beatles was in the 16th of its unbroken 21 weeks at No.1, while their debut set Please Please Me was a week away from celebrating a year on the bestsellers, and still sitting pretty at No.2.
As Lennon told the BBC when In His Own Write was published: “I used to make the lads laugh…talking like that, and writing poetry. I used to write them and just give them to friends to laugh at, and that was the end of it. It’s just my style of humor.” Fifteen months later, Lennon followed it with another volume in the same spirit, A Spaniard In The Works.