In more normal times, there rattles around the roads of South Liverpool a bus on the side of which is emblazoned the legend “Magical Mystery Tour”. The passengers – Spanish, French, Americans, Londoners – board amid the hubbub of the city centre and are then driven away from the solemn watch of the Liver Birds out to Aigburth, Allerton and Calderstones, hoping to see where the revolutionary movement of music, fame and, to their fans, no doubt, love that was the Beatles began. Why? Well, of course, some are run of the mill tourists, on board because Trip Advisor told them to, but many of those who make the journey are trying to commune with the spirit of that era, or what they imagine it to be. Specifically, they want to encounter the world that formed John Lennon, by far the most ideological of the Beatles. It is a pilgrimage, of sorts: perhaps he really is bigger than Jesus after all? Not quite, but, as the (albeit misguided) celebrity video of ‘Imagine’ that heralded the start of lockdown creative tweeness demonstrates, there are plenty of people who believe that Lennon’s Weltanschauung still has resonance today, some forty years after his death
I cannot help but think that these devotees will be disappointed by what they find. I love South Liverpool dearly, but it makes a strange Nazareth. The Magical Mystery Tour Bus wends its way not through warped mushroom forests of psychedelia but down quiet and well-tended avenues and past row upon row of polite brick cladding. Yet, in truth, this was, is, the world in which Lennon belongs, for he was, I would argue, the last Victorian.
It would be hard to dispute that the world which formed Lennon was one which resonated with Victoriana. It was not only the bricks and mortar of Lennon’s childhood which were crafted in that era but the very class from which he came – lower-middle, suburban, proud but not privileged – owed its existence to it too. Lennon’s childhood landscape – both physically in the shape of Strawberry Field (which was a vast neo-Gothic edifice, not a commune of amiable fruit growers) and mentally in his devouring of the works of Lear and Carroll and Kingsley – was one that was near totally Victorian. Yet such was the upbringing of almost every English man or woman in the early to mid-twentieth century – the short, fat queen and her subjects cast very long shadows. Lennon, I would venture, is unique in that he remained a child of that strange age of angst and ego – in his character, in his interests and in his ethos – to the very end.
The influence of those Victorian absurdists in I am the Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever is abundantly clear, but Lennon’s Victorianism goes beyond the literary or the aesthetic. He was fervidly, restlessly preoccupied by those grand questions – of war, peace, Heaven, and Hell. Imagine is as much a child of the sphere of thought diagnosed by Arnold as I am the Walrus is a product of the imagined world of Carroll. Most importantly, he believed, fervently, not only in the radical nature of his own solutions to those grand questions but also in their truth. Such doubt blended with self-belief was a hallmark of the 19th Century mind; as Grossmith knew when he created Pooter – no creed has ever had a higher and yet deeply conflicted opinion of its own judgement than bourgeois Victorian liberalism. At root, then, Lennon’s was a radicalism which only respectability can engender.
Of course, this might seem contradictory but that’s rather the point. That mix of deep self-assuredness with an enshrining of doubt when it came to the received wisdoms of society is not, as polemicists of my generation often claim, a hallmark of “Boomerism” (of which Lennon is considered a prophet) but rather profoundly Victorian. Lennon saw no issue with appealing to communitarianism and univocity of human feeling (Help! may not be the most emotionally developed of the Lennon penned Beatles songs, but its message is pretty clear) but also, as any and all anecdotes of him bear witness, living in a way that had made a God out of his individualistic instincts. Like Marx, or Rhodes, or that other great Liverpudlian Liberal, Gladstone, he saw nothing ridiculous or morally suspect about a single great man pontificating on and to humanity as a whole. In short, Lennon’s life was a masterclass in that most Victorian of values – hypocrisy.
The heady cloud of scientism, orientalism, individualism and angst that had been gathering for the previous sixty-four years did not simply dissipate in the face of the champagne-fuelled dawn of Edwardian gaiety as soon as Victoria died. Instead, through the life and oeuvre of one of the cultural titans of the second Elizabethan age, Victoriana, with all its arrogance and angst, lived on. Perhaps the itinerary of red brick and wrought iron ought not to be such a mystery to the passengers of the blue bus after all.
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