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The real story of Strawberry Fields

Blog | By Francis Kenny | Mar 06, 2023

Strawberry Field, Liverpool (Photo: Eirik Newth)

''Strawberry Fields' is not about a girl's orphanage. The true inspiration lay elsewhere, within a breakout at a juvenile hall.

John Lennon informs us that there were two famous houses near where he lived:

'One was owned by Gladstone: a reformatory for boys, which I could see out my window, and Strawberry Field, just around the corner from that, [which was] an old Victorian house converted for Salvation Army orphans.'

Strawberry Field was a mansion built in 1870 and was owned by a wealthy shipping magnate, it was sold on, and in 1936 the Salvation Army opened a home for young girls there. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was set in John's childhood, but John's time at Mendips has been misunderstood and covered over and so the full background and meaning of the song has never been questioned. On many occasions, John, and especially Mimi, have painted a picture of an idyllic past and at other times the degree of John’s unhappiness as a child has surfaced.

Near to Strawberry Field was a merchant’s mansion, named Woolton Vale, later to become, Woolton Vale Remand Home.

Commenting for himself and John, John’s Cousin Stanley declared that, ‘The bad boys’ borstal intrigued us,’ it contained youngsters who had been convicted of theft, truancy or ill-disciplined – the types of children whose parents didn’t want to know. It’s not too hard to imagine John gazing out his bedroom and catching sight of one of these unhappy, unloved and rejected children staring back from a barred window. In his 15 years at Mendips, John would have likely caught sight of boys leaving or entering the building, in their regulation coarse brown uniforms accompanied by a member of staff, youth officer or even a policeman.

On 29 December 1965, a breakout by a group of boys occurred at the Woolton Vale Remand Home that made headlines in all of the local papers. Given the close proximity of Gladstone Hall to Mendips, the novelty of this news would, no doubt, be passed to John from friends in Liverpool. Months, after this news filtered down to him, John began filming How I Won the War it was during this time that John began work on ‘Strawberry Fields’. The body of the work was completed and all that was missing was … the title. The lyrics themselves had no setting, imaginary or otherwise.

Later in his home music demos of the song, John uses a working title for 'Strawberry Fields Forever' of 'It's Not too Bad'. Almost half the songs The Beatles recorded came to the Abbey Road recording studio with a working title. The vast majority of these songs had their finished title within the body of the lyrics, for example, the working title 'Seventeen' was used for 'I Saw Her Standing There' and 'Hello, Hello' for 'Hello Goodbye'. Some songs had working titles that were 'alien' to the lyrics, for example, 'That's a Nice Hat' was the working title for 'It's Only Love' and 'Bad Finger Boogie' for 'With a Little Help from my Friends'. John's demos put the emphasis on the line, 'It's not too bad', as if this is to be the title of the song. This is different from other working title songs by members of The Beatles in which an original lyric is brought into play as the final title. With 'It's Not too Bad' there is no mention of 'Strawberry Fields', spoken or otherwise, on John's demo and this is after just two months since the idea for the song was conceived. So, it is fair to assume that the lyrics John came up when he was in Almería were not connected to Strawberry Fields, but instead were influenced by somewhere else…Gladstone Hall.

The Beatles were slipping away from John. The release of A Hard Day’s Night saw John taking the lead vocal solo six times. Taking into account John and Paul’s joint efforts, a rough estimate of John’s music on the album was 19 minutes out of an album time of 30 minutes. With Revolver John had five lead vocals with 13 minutes of his music on an album of 33 minutes and with Sgt. Pepper John would provide lead vocal on four songs and clock up a measly 10 minutes of his time on an album that ran for 40 minutes. John’s crown was slipping and he knew it; the period of ‘It’s Not too Bad’/ ‘Strawberry Fields’ was one of full-tilt deep introspection. Paul’s studio technical efficiency was there for all to see, grounding itself in Revolver and given full bloom in Sgt. Pepper.

And although ‘It’s Not too Bad’ was a precursor to this notion of childhood, it could well have given John an insight into using the location of Strawberry Field as a cover for the meaning to the lyrics’ real origin. The initial and brief concept for Sgt Pepper about children growing up, discussed by John and Paul, gave John a way out of explaining the lyrics to ‘It’s Not too Bad’. Now he cast his mind around towards ‘selling’ the deeply personal yet ambiguous lyrics of ‘It’s Not too Bad’ and did so by tagging on a chorus surrounding a vague notion of the girls’ home. When listening to the lyrics we see the chorus is fairly straightforward. ‘Nothing is real’ is again a nod by John to confusion, which is fairly easy to understand, as to the line, 'Nothing to get hung about', let's not get upset?

If we omit the choruses of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and examine the original body of 12 lines and factor into account the corrosive effect of Mimi and the painful and lasting effects of his childhood, the interpretation of the line, ‘Living is easy with eyes closed’, is revealed in John’s explanation of the lyric:

‘It was pretty straightforward. It’s about me and I was having a hard time.’

John is telling us that, contrary to the previously portrayed idyllic childhood, he was ‘having a hard time’. After all the years since his childhood and the fame, fortune and fan worship, now, years later, John is telling us that he still remembers that part of his life and that it is important that he can instantly recall this childhood memory, such is the impact and remaining pain he feels and is recalled now into public view.

At times, the party line of the cherished childhood is broken by comments such as: ‘When you’re a child you can only take so much pain.’ Some of the lyrics have a meaning known only to John. With other lyrics, we can give an educated guess, such as ‘Misunderstanding all you see’ could well be a reference to one of John’s early literary influences, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and ‘Imagination is the only weapon in the war with reality.’

It is unclear why John would ‘nail on’ a Salvation Army home while the surrounding aspects of the home are not even addressed, whereas Paul’s ‘Penny Lane’ is full of movement and images. In ‘Penny Lane’, Paul gives us a barber’s shop that shows photographs, a banker driving a car, little children who laugh at the banker, a fireman, a portrait of the Queen, heavy petting, a clean fire engine, a pretty nurse, the selling of poppies, a bus shelter, a barber shaving a customer, a fireman rushing about, the rain pouring and all this beneath the blue suburban sky. This is the evocative imagery of childhood. John gives us a care home, but no orphans or children, or the hustle and bustle of children at the annual fair, the brass band, playing games, children running around having fun in the summer sunshine, nothing, just a building that we are invited down to visit.

The previous citation of the lyric, ‘No one I think is in my tree’, is a pointer towards ‘Nobody seems to be as hip as me’, followed up with ‘I must be crazy or a genius. It’s that same problem I had when I was five.’ Two things seem to be taking place here. Firstly, since the break-up of The Beatles, ten years before the quote, John was reinventing himself and still in major competition with Paul, and is therefore trying, in a subtle way, to say ‘look you can see I’m not crazy so I must be a genius’. Secondly, at the time of this quote, the concealment of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ had lasted over a decade, and John was happy for this to continue.

The main body of lyrics are a challenge to the listener without an understanding of the painful and deeply damaging time in Mendips, along with the sudden and tragic loss of his mother, with whom as a teenager John had rekindled a strong relationship through his visits and staying over. So why didn’t John reveal the true inspiration for ‘Strawberry Field Forever’? To make a declaration that the song was about a reform home for boys would have brought up questions that John didn’t want to answer, questions regarding the regime at Mendips.

The belief has mainly been that John’s unhappiness stems from him being ‘deserted’ by his father and abandoned by his mother, but this unhappiness goes much further. Few had an insight into John’s life at Mendips with Mimi, but Cynthia Lennon did:

She loved to fuel the image of the stern but loving aunt who provided the secure backdrop to John’s success.… She battered away at John’s self-confidence and left him angry and hurt. (and she) ‘hurt and humiliated John’.

John’s half-sister commented that Mime was a: ‘Hypocrite to the core.’ While Paul McCartney was to comment: ‘She was the kind of woman who would put you down with the glint of an eye.’

In public, John’s mother Julia, and especially his father Freddie, became the fall guys, the cover-up towards the destructiveness of living with Mimi. Why? Because if John was to give a full insight into the distress and hurt that fuelled ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, this, in turn, could well lead to a possible disclosure as to his dependency on Mimi, who had put a roof over his head, put food on the table, paid for his fees in art college and, up until the age of 21, gave him pocket money. How could he make it known that the opinionated, wise-cracking, witty rock 'n’ roll rebel he portrayed had developed out of the passive acceptance to the regime at Mendips? His single-mindedness, determination and resulting mental anguish to finding fame and fortune in return for an escape from Mendips turned out to be a poisoned chalice. It was the callousness and mental torment that John had been schooled into accepting.

The non-stop rain of soul-destroying remarks like this had their effect and John would later give an insight into his poor mental health, recalling his depression and thoughts of suicide. John declared: ‘Some people cannot see that their parents are still torturing them even when they are in their forties and fifties.’ ‘Strawberry Fields’ was, to John, ‘psychoanalysis set to music really.’ Considering how psychoanalysis is seen as therapy to release repressed emotions and experiences, where do summer fairs and the Salvation Army fit in. John informs us: ‘You don’t want to do with people you can’t stand, the people you hated when you were ten.’ The question that immediately jumps to mind: who did John hate at the age of ten?

'Strawberry Fields Forever' reflects a dream of a young boy's escape. It was an iceberg, its top a whimsical salve of idealistic times, of an image of contented and cared-for orphaned girls and summer fairs, but below the visible iceberg lies a collection of causalities, of dysfunctional families, unwanted, unloved and neglected children contained within barred windows and locked doors, with no escape, except through their imagination, and along the road, a stone's throw away was another child with a similar existence. Woolton Vale Remand Home and 'It's Not too Bad' was the pearl in the oyster and 'Strawberry Field Forever' its shell. This cannot be in any doubt.

Even John tells us 15 years after the song's conception: ‘My influences are tremendous, from Lewis Carroll to Oscar Wilde to tough little kids that used to live near me who ended up in prison and things like that …’

Francis Kenny is author of The Making of John Lennon