|We Loved John, He Was Part of Us
Johns Cousin, Stanley Parkes, Shares
Memories of Lennon Family Life
by Lorna MacLaren
As new images of Lennon are prepared for
the web, writer Lorna MacLaren meets the
Largs cousin determined to reclaim him
for the family.
You could be forgiven for assuming that Stanley Parkes is the antithesis of all things rock'n'roll. He lives in a picturesque corner of Largs and walks his dog along the beach on blustery days.
When taking tea with him and his wife, Janet, in the lounge of their neat home, images of screaming teenagers, drug-fuelled parties and concepts like Beatlemania don't spring immediately to mind. Yet for more than 40 years this couple have had their lives touched, not only by the legend of the great sixties pop group, but by blood ties to a man who jokingly claimed greater popularity than Jesus Christ - John Lennon.
They have memories that Beatles enthusiasts can only dream of. They were special guests at the premiere of A Hard Day's Night in Liverpool and Help! at the Dorchester in London, and mingled with the stars of the time. Stanley recalls meeting Marlene Dietrich and overhearing the presenter David Frost trying to impress a girl by boasting that he was friendly with John Lennon. "I was sitting beside him trying not to smirk. He didn't have a clue that I was one of the family."
Stan, 69, is Lennon's first cousin and oldest surviving relative. He has a hearty laugh and appears much younger than his years. A tiny trace of the Liverpool lilt still can be detected in his Scots accent, and when he smiles there is, for a second, a whisper of the family features.
Now the keen photographer has put together 12 intimate portraits of Lennon for a special family plaque that is to go on-line in a month and will also be available to buy. He says he wants to "reclaim" his cousin for his own family.
To the world Lennon was and still is a cultural icon. However, to Stan Parkes he was the beloved younger cousin who would tag along on trips to the barber or for a kick about in the park. When the Beatles played in Scotland in their early days, Stan, then living in Edinburgh and working in the motor trade, would drive John to meet George, Paul, and Ringo before enduring scratches and lipstick messages being scrawled on his bonnet by hysterical fans.
"Paul's girlfriend at that time, the actress Jane Asher, was lovely," chips in Janet as she offers more tea. "I would say that George was my favorite of the boys, he was a real gentleman."
The recent visit of Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, to Liverpool, where she unveiled a statue of her late husband at the city's airport, stirred up bitter resentment in Stan which the years have not eased. He still blames "that woman" for ostracizing Lennon from his family.
"Why she was invited to unveil the statue and not one member of John's family was present amazes me," he says, the friendly expression drawn tight. "Julian and his mother, Cynthia, live abroad now, but the family is still in touch with them. I went to see Julian when he played with his band in Edinburgh a few years ago."
Stan admits to being glad that Ono bought Lennon's childhood home in Menlove Avenue, Liverpool, for the National Trust, but adds: "I just hope she gives it to them like she promised."
He changes the subject, proudly showing family photographs of Lennon posing with a new bike as a child, or as a teenager smiling into the lens, jacket casually slung over one shoulder. "I remember he came to see Jan and I and was very excited because he'd just cut a record called Love Me Do. I thought it was quite good."
Among Stanley's mementos - he was always a keen photographer and collector of family memorabilia - is a wistful, scrawling correspondence from Lennon, from his home in New York, saying: "I miss Scotland more than England." The family connection north of the border came about by chance. Stanley grew up in Liverpool with Lennon. They were the sons of sisters, two of a family of five strong-minded women.
Stan's father died early and the boy was sent to a boarding school in Peebles. In 1949 his mother married Bertie Sutherland, a dentist from Edinburgh. The boy's home became Ormidale Terrace, overlooking Murrayfield Stadium.
Stan recalls: "It was then that John started coming up on the bus to visit us in Edinburgh. There were six cousins altogether, but John, our cousin Liela and I were especially close."
Favorite memories are of a croft at Durness owned by Stan's stepfather. The children and adults would squeeze into the car and head north, a special trip that went on from about the time John was nine until he was 16.
"He loved his holidays up there," says Stan. "He would race around the hills, build dykes, pick things off the sand, and do sketches of the crofts and scenery. He never forgot those times and still talked about them when we got together as adults."
Stan recalls Lennon's own father as a bit of a character referred to in the family as "that Alf Lennon." John's mother, Julia, meanwhile, had met another man and it was up to Aunt Mimi, matriarch of the family, to take on the mother role for John when he was just five.
His words are of a family custodian rather than a fan. He is still obviously protective of his incredibly famous relative, laughing when talking of John's acid sense of humor, then visibly moved when reliving the morning the news came through of the assassination. Lennon was in contact until a few weeks before he was shot dead outside his New York apartment in 1980.
Stan shakes his head sadly: "He told me he wanted us all to have a family reunion at our aunt's down in Liverpool and that he was really looking forward to talking about old times. To this day we don't know if John was buried or cremated. Yoko didn't invite us to the funeral and we had to deal with our grief in our own way. The whole world was in shock over losing such an important musician and we were lost in the middle somewhere just missing our John."
Again the anger towards Ono surfaces as he recalls their marriage. "I went to visit them at a huge mansion in Ascot that John bought. He took me outside and we mucked around on this vehicle he had bought that could drive through lakes and over rough terrain. It was like we were boys again. As soon as we got back to the house, and her, John just clammed up and withdrew again. It was heartbreaking."
While he speaks he is fondly watched by wife Janet, who attempts to lighten the subject. She agrees their seaside town lifestyle is a lifetime away from the former whirlwind of parties and premieres. Stanley admits the band were caught up in a lot of wild living when they hit stardom, but, true to his more conservative nature, he remained apart from the more extreme rock'n'roll excesses. He says: "I was at one of their parties and could see there were a lot of drugs around. There was a cup of tea by the side of my chair and out of the corner of my eye I saw a hand drop something into it. I fished it out and it was LSD. I just had to laugh. There was no way I was getting caught up in the drugs scene."
He was also a visitor to the famous Abbey Road studios when the Beatles were recording, and John had him roped into playing backing pieces. "Some of us would be given symbols, drums, things to shake or bang or told to sing 'la la la'," he says. "Apparently all the pieces were used on some of the early records. I've no idea which ones I'm on, but that was my only brush with recording stardom."
On looking around their home, there are no photographs of the Beatles or hints that John Lennon is a relative. Instead, portraits of a baby stand out among the ceramic ornaments. This is the couple's own son, John, named after Janet's father, who died from a heart complaint in 1967 when he was two. "These days our boy's illness could probably have been treated," says Stan. "John tried to do what he could to get him to Great Ormond Street hospital in London for surgery, but it was too late."
Janet is grateful for Lennon's concern. "I liked him. He was a little sarcastic, but I think that was a defense mechanism. I suspect he was actually shy and slightly afraid of women. There is no reason why his photographs should dominate our room. He was just another member of the family."
Today Stanley has a project of his own. He plans to put together a framed series of pictures in what will be called the Lennon Family Album. Through the Solid Gold Disc Company, which has organized similar projects for sixties stars including Buddy Holly, the album is a framed copy of 12 family photos of John Lennon, stretching back to childhood and through to portraits with first wife Cynthia and his son, Julian, as a baby. Still at prototype stage, it will go on sale in May, here and abroad. The photographs are mostly taken by Stanley.
"I wanted to do something which shows John not as a superstar but as a family man," he says. "Despite contrary press reports, he actually had a happy and a middle-class childhood with a loving family unit around him. Deep down he always knew and appreciated that."
Copyright © 2002 Lorna MacLaren