The Beatles FAQ
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The Beatles FAQ

The Sad Ballad of John & Cynthia

He was ‘aggressive and rebellious’ and she was ‘Miss Prim’.

John and Cynthia at art college

John and Cynthia met in September 1958, at Liverpool College of Art, where they were both in their second year. In her memoir John, Cynthia recalls:

I’d seen John around the college but had never spoken to him: we moved in completely different circles. I was surprised to see him in the lettering class — he didn’t seem the type for the painstaking, detailed work involved. He hadn’t even brought any equipment.

A reluctant and disruptive student — ‘most of the time he did no work at all’ — Lennon had been banished to the lettering (calligraphy) class when all his other lecturers refused to teach him. Here the established pattern, of poor attendance and even worse behaviour, continued. When John did show up, he ‘did his best to disrupt the class’.

His appearance was equally unpromising:

When I first looked at John I’d thought, Yuck not my type. With his teddy-boy look — DA (duck’s arse) haircut, narrow drainpipe trousers and a battered old coat that was too big for him — he was very different from the clean-cut boys I was used to.

There also appeared to be a social divide, which Lennon, with his reputation for ‘caustic wit’, liked to exploit:

I had always…{been} anxious to please and do well, but John was the opposite…aggressive, sarcastic and rebellious … I was terrified he might turn on me and he soon did, calling me ‘Miss Prim’ and taking the mickey out of my smart clothes and posh accent.

Shared bonds

In fact, that their backgrounds were more similar than appeared on the surface. John’s loud promotion of himself as a working class outsider was misleading. Though his early childhood had been emotionally unsettled, he had grown up in a comfortable suburban home and attended one of the best schools in Liverpool.

Like Cynthia John had also recently experienced devastating bereavement:

A mutual friend told me that his mother had been killed in a car accident at the end of the previous term. I missed my father {who had died around the same time} desperately so I felt for him.

After months of flirting, the romance finally got off the ground at the end of year party.

While we were dancing to Chuck Berry John Shouted. ‘Do you fancy going out with me?’

‘I’m sorry but I’m engaged to this fellow in Holylake’. The moment I said it I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me — I knew I sounded stuck-up and prim.

‘I didn’t ask you to fucking marry me, did I?’ John shot back.

This exchange established the tone of the eight-year relationship that would follow. John: boorish/playful. Cynthia self-doubting and hopelessly in love.

That night their physical relationship in a room borrowed from fellow student Stuart Suctliffe. The romantic ambience was unpromising:

{there were} no curtains and a mattress on the on the floor. Clothes, art materials, empty cigarette packets and books were scattered around it.

In John, Cynthia concedes that they were ‘an unlikely couple’ but insists that ‘from the outset we had made a deep connection’. Aunt Mimi saw things differently. From their first meeting — a genteel afternoon tea at Chez Mendip — it was clear that Cyn was never going to pass the audition.

I was sure that Mimi hadn’t liked me … later I grasped that it wasn’t personal. Mimi didn’t think any girl was good enough for her boy.

In fairness to the ‘sharply observant’ Mimi, she may also have correctly intuited that John needed a more strong-willed partner to check his wilder tendencies. She would later grudgingly accept that Yoko was ‘a sensible girl’ in this regard.

Less defensible was Mimi’s flagrant social snobbery. While her nephew endlessly teased Cyn about her supposed poshness, Aunt Mimi told John that his girlfriend was ‘common … a gangster’s moll’.

Again, there was an unintended kernel of truth in Mimi’s description of the dynamic between the young lovers.

…There was an air of danger about John and he could terrify me. I lived on a knife edge.

Lennon alludes to the nature of this ‘danger’ in Hunter Davies’s official biography of The Beatles, published in 1968.

“I was in sort of a blind rage for two years. I was either drunk or fighting. It had been the same with other girlfriends. There was something the matter with me.”

More accurately he was ‘drunk and fighting’ — and the fighting often arose from a combination of jealousy and booze. An early example — in which Lennon slapped Cynthia’s face after watching her dance with their mutual friend, Stu Suctliffe — caused Cynthia to hit her head against a wall. This lead to a three month break in their relationship but the pattern continued.

In the Seventies, Lennon confessed to his violent past (‘I was a hitter’) and appeared genuinely remorseful.

I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry if I made you cry. I’m just a jealous guy

Nevertheless, there was a lot of ugly behaviour behind the lyric of Jealous Guy — and Cynthia bore the brunt of it.

By 1962, John and Cynthia had been together for four years. The last two of these included long periods in which John was playing away (in every sense). While his career was clearly in the ascendant, Cynthia had slid from being a star art student to a reluctant teacher trainee.

In July came a double blow on the same day. The first, that Cynthia had failed her final teaching exam, was half expected. The second, also predictable, seems to have caught her unawares.

Amazing as it sounds now, John and I had never used contraception.. we honestly thought it would never happen to us. Until it did.

The news filled her with dread. She put off informing John for several days.

Eventually I plucked up all my courage and told him…he went pale and I saw the fear in his eyes. For a couple of minutes we were both silent. I watched him as I waited for a response. Would he walk out on me? Then he spoke: ‘There’s only one for it, Cyn. We’ll have to get married.’

There have been more romantic proposals.

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Kieran McGovern

Kieran McGovern

I grew up in an Irish family in west London