Mid­dle class hero

John Len­non wasn’t a work­ing class hero af­ter all, ac­cord­ing to a new film by Sam Tay­lor-Wood. The one-time Young Bri­tish Artist tells Don­ald Clarke how she was drawn to the for­mer Bea­tle, whose trou­bled early life mir­rored her own, then fell in love with

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

I T SEEMS hard to be­lieve now, but, well into the 1970s, large swathes of the world’s pop­u­la­tion felt The Bea­tles were noth­ing more than a pass­ing fad. In­deed, it was hard to find any­body born be­fore 1930 who be­lieved the band’s records would en­dure for an­other decade. Yet here we are. Re­cently re­mas­tered CDs of the White Al­bum join copies of The Bea­tles: Rock Band game be­neath the world’s Christ­mas trees.

In the mid-1990s, you en­coun­tered a sim­i­lar class of unim­pressed huff­ing about that hud­dle of Bri­tish con­tro­ver­sial­ists known as the Young Bri­tish Artists. Un­for­tu­nately for the red-faced re­ac­tionar­ies, Tracy Emin and Damian Hirst still crop up on our tele­vi­sions. Rachel Whiteread con­tin­ues to de­liver beau­ti­fully per­plex­ing sculp­tures. Steve McQueen made the stun­ning movie Hunger. And the smart, ami­able Sam Tay­lor-Wood – here’s where the two threads link up – has just di­rected a lovely film about John Len­non’s early life en­ti­tled Nowhere Boy.

“It was ir­ri­tat­ing when we were la­belled the YBAs,” she re­mem­bers with a chuckle. “Ob­vi­ously th­ese bub­bles do of­ten burst, but many of us have stayed as pow­er­ful artists and con­tinue to do good work. That is sat­is­fy­ing.”

Nowhere Boy, for all its charms, does not look like the work of a di­rec­tor who came up through gallery-based video art. Whereas Hunger, McQueen’s study of Bobby Sands’s fi­nal de­cline, fea­tures long, near-ab­stract shots that refuse to fur­ther the nar­ra­tive, Tay­lorWood’s pic­ture, shot by Ar­magh’s own Sea­mus McGar­vey, is a com­par­a­tively con­ven­tional piece of work. The cin­e­matog­ra­pher and di­rec­tor find odd, gar­ish colours in the con­fec­tionary and packaging of the late 1950s, but the pic­ture never even hints at avant-garde ru­mi­na­tion.

“Yes, I have had some crit­i­cism lev­elled at me about that,” she says. “But I felt that there was no room in this story for me to get too in­dul­gent about my art. I felt I had to keep telling the story and any ef­fort to cut in beau­ti­ful long shots of grass or what­ever just felt like I was cheat­ing. Ninety-seven min­utes isn’t that long to tell such an in­tense story.”

The “in­tense story” de­tails Len­non’s com­plex re­la­tion­ship with his trou­bled mother Ju­lia and his sta­ble, bour­geois Aunt Mimi. Ini­tially a di­rec­tion­less, hy­per­ac­tive wiseacre, Len­non grew up with his aunt – who, sadly, out­lived him – in a mid­dle-class sub­urb of Liver­pool.

The script sug­gests that Ju­lia, who lived just round the cor­ner, may have been se­verely bi-po­lar. It is, in many ways, a sad story, but Tay­lor-Wood paints Len­non’s up­bring­ing as less gritty than songs such as Work­ing Class Hero might sug­gest. Af­ter all, the im­pec­ca­bly posh Kristin Scott Thomas plays Aunt Mimi.

“Yes, there is a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion about him,” she agrees. “He came from a posher sub­urb of Liver­pool and Mimi was an as­pi­ra­tional fig­ure. He was es­sen­tially brought up mid­dle class. It was Paul who lived in that world of gritty work­ing-class hous­ing es­tates. There is a pa­tro­n­is­ing view

“Yoko hoped we would un­der­stand the John she knew and loved. When she saw it she loved it and sent me a note that made we weep”

of the north that it’s all grim. I wanted to get away from that and paint it as an ex­cit­ing en­vi­ron­ment – the mu­si­cal cen­tre of the world for a while.”

Tay­lor-Wood ad­mits that it took her a while to grasp that she was en­gag­ing with “one of the great icons of all time”. In con­ver­sa­tion, she ex­hibits a blithe can-do spirit – bol­stered, per­haps, by two suc­cess­ful bat­tles with can­cer – that spreads cheer­ing de­grees of warmth about the room. She seems nei­ther ar­ro­gant nor over-con­fi­dent, but she ap­pears pre­pared to tackle any task without quiv­er­ing in trep­i­da­tion. Con­sider her deal­ings with Yoko Ono and the rest of the Len­non fam­ily.

“I sent out e-mails to mem­bers of all the fam­ily be­fore mak­ing this film,” she says. “I asked them if they wanted to make con­tribu- tions at the script stage. I got a note from Yoko, but she kept very much at arm’s length dur­ing pro­duc­tion. I showed her some shots be­cause we re­ally needed to use John’s song Mother. She’d never given the rights be­fore, but some­how I never doubted she would give them to us. And she did.”

Of course, both Ono and Tay­lor-Wood move in the same world. Yoko Ono was, in­deed, a pi­o­neer in the class of con­cep­tual art that so ab­sorbed the YBAs.

“We had met in the art world in pass­ing,” Tay­lor-Wood says. “But this was dif­fer­ent. She didn’t know what kind of film we were go­ing to make. She hoped we would un­der­stand the John she knew and loved. When she saw it she loved it and sent me a note that made we weep. That was a great en­dorse­ment on a per­sonal and prac­ti­cal level.”

Glanc­ing at that synopsis of Nowhere Boy, it’s hard not to as­sume that Tay­lor-Wood saw au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal par­al­lels be­tween Len­non’s early life and her own. She seems to have had a trou­bled child­hood. Born in south Lon­don in 1967, Sam said good­bye to her dad, a char­tered sur­veyor, at nine when he left home to be­come (no, re­ally) trea­surer of the Hell’s Angels. A few years af­ter that, her mother, now mar­ried to a yoga in­struc­tor and liv­ing in some class of com­mune, walked out and left her with her step­dad. Sub­se­quently – in an in­ci­dent with con­spic­u­ous echoes in Nowhere Boy – she saw her mother pulling down the shut­ters in a nearby house. Tay­lor-Wood had no idea the woman lived in the area.

“I think I did see some au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal el­e­ments,” she says. “That was among many other rea­sons I was drawn to the project. I un­der­stand that no­tion of re­treat­ing into your imagination to es­cape. I knew where he as com­ing from and where his creative spirit came from. Yes my mum did dis­ap­pear when I was 16 and, yes, she was just round the cor­ner and I didn’t know. But that was just a few months. In Len­non’s life the trauma lasted for years.”

What about that ap­par­ent hip­pie up­bring­ing? Many folk who went through that sort of ex­pe­ri­ence – liv­ing in a com­mune with com­pul­sory yoga and mung beans – re­acted by rush­ing to­wards con­form­ity. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of hip­pie chil­dren changed their names from Lo­tus to Ju­lian and went into mer­chant bank­ing.

“No. That was never in my mind,” she laughs. “But I think did rebel against my up­bring­ing in my own way. Iam in­cred­i­bly strict and full of bound­aries with my chil­dren. That does come from grow­ing up with the op­po­site. I have very old-fash­ioned val­ues, but, at the same time, I live in the mo­ment and ad­here to my own rules.”

Tay­lor-Wood at­tended Gold­smiths Col­lege in south Lon­don with a ma­jor tranche of the gang that was to be­come the YBAs. Damien Hirst, Steve McQueen, Mark Wallinger and Sarah Lu­cas were all at the in­sti­tu­tion. In ret­ro­spect, the group had lit­tle else in com­mon bar a ten­dency to­wards the con­cep­tual. Hirst chopped up his sharks. McQueen made wry black-and-white films. Of­ten work­ing with McGar­vey, Tay­lor-Wood en­joyed film­ing ac­tors in ap­par­ent states of dis­tress, hys­te­ria or artis­tic trans­port.

“I don’t think that we were a move­ment,” she says. “It’s hard to see why we were grouped to­gether as YBAs. The only thing we had in com­mon was we were from a sim­i­lar age group. The fo­cus came be­cause the work was pow­er­ful and creative and fresh and new. It was very ex­cit­ing to be part of.”

Tay­lor-Wood’s life ap­peared to be drift­ing to­wards the idyl­lic – mar­ried to art dealer Jay Jo­pling, the first of two chil­dren grow­ing up nicely – when, in 1997, she was di­ag­nosed with can­cer of the colon. A mere three years later, hav­ing only just been given the all clear, she con­tracted (ap­par­ently un­re­lated) breast can­cer and un­der­went a mas­tec­tomy. Those sorts of ex­pe­ri­ences change a per­son.

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