Was John Lennon really a revolutionary?

Maurice Hindle and Tariq Ali go head to head.

 

As we reported at the time, Maurice Hindle's previously unpublished interview with John Lennon, which appeared in the Christmas issue of the New Statesman, attracted a good deal of media attention -- not least in the Guardian, where Maev Kennedy concentrated on Lennon's remarks about a letter critical of him that had appeared in Tariq Ali's far-left journal Black Dwarf. (Lennon had railed against the revolutionary posturing of gauchistes such as Ali: "The system's a load of crap. But just smashing it up isn't gonna do it.")

Anxious lest Lennon's radical credentials be impugned, Kennedy concluded that the story ended happily:

John Lennon died on December 8 1980, shot on the doorstep of his Dakota building home in New York by Mark Chapman -- but by then had long since made his peace with Tariq Ali, and regained his radical laurels. The American journal Counterpunch four years ago finally published in full a long 1971 interview by Ali and Robin Blackburn, originally for the Trotskyist Red Mole, in which Lennon agreed with Ali that he was becoming "increasingly radical and political".

Maurice has responded to Kennedy's gloss on the interview in the Guardian today. And he rejects the suggestion that Lennon's flirtation with revolutionary politics lasted right up until the end:

Lennon much regretted his earlier association with the radical left, as the contents of the chapter entitled "We'd all love to see the plan" (quoting from the song "Revolution") make clear.

Writing in 1978, he stated: "The biggest mistake Yoko and I made in that period was allowing ourselves to become influenced by the male-macho 'serious revolutionaries', and their insane ideas about killing people to save them from capitalism and/or communism (depending on your point of view). We should have stuck to our own way of working for peace: bed-ins, billboards, etc."

Lennon's primary gift was for writing and recording songs that communicate with millions in ways that no ideologically driven political creed -- whether of the left or right -- ever could.

The debate hasn't stopped there, however. Tariq Ali himself has now entered the fray, conceding that Lennon's views did shift somewhat in the years following an interview he gave to Ali and Robin Blackburn in 1971, but insisting that they didn't move as far as Hindle suggests. His piece ends with this uncharacteristically breathless swoon:

I last spoke with him in 1979 when we discussed the likely impact of Thatcher's victory. He didn't sound too unradical in that conversation. If there is a record of it in some British intelligence archive, I would be grateful to see a transcript. Clearly, his views changed somewhat but I can't see him as a neocon supporting the wars and occupations in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The loss of his voice was a tragedy for millions.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain