Friday 23 February 2024

John and Yoko: Peace Nuts.

‘On 15 June 1968, John Lennon and I planted two acorns for peace at Coventry Cathedral. It was the first of our many Peace Events’.  (Yoko Ono, 1 June 2008).


Between June and August 1968, the first National Sculpture Exhibition was held in the ruins of St. Michael’s Cathedral, Coventry. The exhibition was sponsored by the Arts Council and by invitation of Canon Stephen Edmund Verney.


The Cathedral had been destroyed during the Luftwaffe raid on Coventry on 14 November 1940, and in common with St. Luke’s Church in Liverpool was left as a permanent memorial to the Blitz.


In early June, John and Yoko managed to secure an invitation via Anthony Fawcett who was a member of the organising committee to display their work alongside such renowned sculptors as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Roland Piche.


Very much in the early stages of their relationship, both physically and creatively, John’s idea was informed by an earlier work of Yoko’s he’d seen at the Indica Gallery on the day they first met. Yoko’s ‘sculpture’ was an apple on a perspex display stand, an organic, evolving piece representing the life cycle of birth, decay, death and rebirth (the fruit gradually decomposing until only the seeds remained).


John decided to plant two acorns as a living sculpture alongside all the ‘heavy old sculptures’ explaining that ‘in fifty years’ time, people will understand what we’re trying to say when there are a couple of lovely great oak trees up there’.


Fawcett warned the couple that they might face resistance from Canon Verney who was troubled by the couple’s out of wedlock relationship. Both were actually married at the time, but not to each other.


The day before the exhibition opened, John’s driver Les Anthony and Anthony Fawcett arrived in a car towing a trailer where they were outside the Cathedral by Canon Verney.  On the trailer was a large, white, garden seat in wrought iron, a number of plant pots and acorns.  Verney flatly refused to allow them to unload, and a huge argument ensued.


After ‘much nastiness’ and several phone calls to some of Britain’s top sculptors, the Canon realised he could not go back on his work and relented.


Two acorns were ceremoniously planted in plant pots facing easterly and westerly positions in a hole dug for the occasion by John and Yoko, both of whom arrived sensibly dressed for gardening work in their white suits, much to the amusement of onlookers.  The circular iron seat was designed to slot together, surrounding the acorns which would then grown inside the bench. On the seat was an engraved silver-plated plaque reading ‘Yoko’ by John Lennon, ‘John’ by Yoko Ono, some time in May 1968 


Lennon told the Daily Express that the planting was to symbolize that ‘East and West have met in Yoko and me’.


As late comers to the Exhibition, John and Yoko’s acorn piece was not included in the official catalogue and so they made their own, arranging to be photographed by Keith McMillan at the appropriately named ‘Sprout’, a basement next to Gregory Sam’s macrobitotic restaurant in Notting Hill Gate. The resultant image made clever use of perspective to give the impression that John and Yoko were sprouting from the plastic flowerpots.


Coventry Telegraph, 17 June 1968

Two days after the exhibition opened, the Coventry Telegraph reported that Mr Norman Pegen, part of the group responsible for staging the event had claimed he had taken the decision not to include John and Yoko’s submission inside the consecrated ground of the Cathedral, which incidentally had been visited by three of the Beatles – Paul, George and either John or Ringo, and Kenny Lynch on Sunday 24 February during the Helen Shapiro tour. 

The bench and acorns had been moved about 50-feet to the Cathedral's gardens. Pegan was quoted as saying ‘the Lennon-Yono (sic) piece is very good – but only as a garden seat and is being used as such by visitors’. Another member of the Cathedral staff noted that fans had already stolen the plaque. 

Coventry Telegraph, 20 June 1968


On 22 June 1968, it was reported that the acorns had been stolen.


Coventry Telegraph, 22 June 1968

More coverage in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, 25 June 1968 (both)

On Friday 28 June John wrote a letter in response to Canon Verney’s stance prohibiting the installation of John and Yoko’s sculpture within the grounds of the Cathedral, and the distribution of their privately produced catalogue.

The letter finds John at times angry, at others thoughtful and seeking appeasement: ‘Thank you for your Christian attitude….do you have to explain an acorn? I don’t understand why you can’t distribute our leaflet unless you worry about gossip...You talk about young people as if you know something about them - you obviously don't or you wouldn't be worried about our influence on themJesus would have loved our piece for what it is… could we not substitute something that is not worth stealing… ‘Sit here and think of a church growing into a bigger church’.


Failing to reach a compromise, a driver was sent to retrieve the bench. It was returned to Kenwood, John's home and was seen briefly in the 1988 'Imagine' film. 

So, what of the stolen acorns?


Remarkably, in the same week that Paul McCartney's missing Hofner Bass was found, it was revealed that John Lennon's missing nuts had also been located, and were the subject of this morning's unveiling at the Liverpool Beatles Museum on Mathew Street.


When Warwickshire Police Traffic Sergeant Mike Davies retired in 1980 he re-discovered the two acorns while clearing his desk.


Now in his late eighties, Mike wrote to the Beatles Museum on 27 November 2023 offering them the acorns, if there was any interest in them.


In the letter he explained that in late June 1968, a 20 year old Beatles fan had failed a breath test when stopped for suspected drink-driving just outside Budworth and was subsequently arrested and brought to a police station in Nuneaton, along with his girlfriend. Upon searching the young man, Warwickshire police found two acorns in his possession that had been wrapped in a lacy ladies’ type handkerchief and covered in a coating of his girlfriend’s clear nail varnish in order to preserve them.


The obvious question to ask them was why? The couple explained that they had been in attendance when John and Yoko planted the acorns under the bench seat. Noting their position they went back later on and ‘found them’, taking them as a souvenir of their favourite group.


Davies recalled how they (the Police) had gone through the rule book to determine what, if any, law they had broken.  They could not be charged with theft as this requires that the stolen object (a) has an owner  (b) be of value and (c)  has been taken with the intent to deprive the owner permanently thereof.  Davies determined that the acorns had no owner and no value, and consequently no law had been broken. He wondered how they would be able to identify the two acorns as the ones planted by John and Yoko, and whether they would grow should they be replanted given they were now coated in nail varnish. ‘They walked and the acorns were left’,  stuck in a desk drawer and forgotten about for 12 years.


 The 88-year-old said: ‘They were in my desk until I retired in 1980 when I put them in a cardboard box and that's where they remained until I decided to start clearing out my own personal things’.  When Mr Davies came across the acorns last year it took him a moment to remember the story behind them.


‘They were two seconds off going in the waste bin when I thought 'that was John Lennon and Yoko Ono'’.


Mr Davies searched Google for the details of the Beatles museum, on Liverpool's Mathew Street, and decided "for the sake of a stamp" to post the acorns there to see if they were of interest.

In the letter he sent, he said: "If not, just bin them. I certainly have no interest in them being returned."


Julia Baird, John Lennon's sister.

The acorns were unveiled by John Lennon's sister Julia Baird in front of an invited audience. For some of us who can almost recite what John was doing on a daily basis it was amusing to hear Julia admit that she had been completely unaware of her brother’s goings on in Coventry until the Museum asked her to take part in revealing the latest addition to the collection.

Julia addresses the invited audience


Beatle Siblings: Pete Best's brother shares a joke with John Lennon's sister.

Although the acorn event in Coventry predated John and Yoko's Bed-In for Peace campaign by some nine months, clearly the seeds had been sown, to pardon the pun. In 1969 the couple mailed acorns and an accompanying letter to world leaders and other prominent figures asking that the acorns be planted for peace.  Asked in 1971 whether they had received any response from the recipients John said that 'different heads of state actually planted the acorns, lots of them wrote to us...I believe Golda Meir (prime minister of Israel 1969-1974) said 'I don't know who they are but if it's for peace, we're for it' or something like that. There were quite a few people who understood the idea'.

Sadly 53 years on, the world is still in conflict. Yoko continues to spread a message of peace through various media and events.


With Julia Baird after the unveiling.

Thanks to Roag Best and everyone at the Liverpool Beatles Museum. See you at the next one!  

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