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Monday 20 May 2019

modern activism

The art of peaceful protest

  • Almost exactly fifty years ago, John Lennon and Yoko Ono took over a hotel room in Montreal to stage a ‘bed-in’ for peace
  • The seven day-event pulled in celebrity visitors and the press, but was widely derided in the media
  • The legacy of that demonstration can be traced to protest culture now from Bob Geldof’s meeting with world leaders to Extinction Rebellion

By Peter Aspden

In the last days of May 1969, the world’s most famous newly-weds, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, along with Ono’s daughter Kyoto, arrived in Montreal to spend a week in one of the Canadian city’s top hotels, the Queen Elizabeth.

On their arrival, an immigration officer asked politely what they planned to do. “Have a rest, really,” said Lennon. Search footage of the encounter for an ironic twinkle in Lennon’s eye, and you won’t find it. Both he and Ono look exhausted after a frantic few weeks first courting, then avoiding, the world’s media. What they needed was a week in bed. Which is exactly what they were planning.

But rest didn’t come into it. Montreal, they had decided, would be the venue for their latest “bed-in’ for peace, following try-outs in Amsterdam and the Bahamas. Once ensconced in the hotel’s room 1742, they put out the message.

Lennon and Ono in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. This was about more than getting some rest

They would spend the entire week in bed, talking to friends, casual visitors and journalists. They would pose for television cameras and argue with antagonists. They would divert the world’s attention from their marriage – routinely reported, not without rancour, as the seduction of a confused pop star by a pretentious non-westerner (harsher words were used) – towards something weightier: the cause of peace.

In tune with their  skill set, the bed-in would be part publicity stunt, part performance art project. Lennon knew plenty about the first; Ono was steeped in the second. The idea was solid, more carefully considered than its apparently spontaneous occurrence: the outspoken Beatle would bring in the press, while Ono supplied the blue-sky thinking.

So commenced the bed-in. If journalists harboured  hopes for salacious material from the mere fact of watching a married couple in bed together (they most surely did) they were quickly disappointed: Lennon and Ono, who had a few months earlier released an album called Two Virgins, adorned with a full frontal nude photograph of themselves, appeared in ultra-respectable,  pyjamas and nightgown respectively. Their manner was homely, their behaviour towards each other loving, respectful and not at all erotically inclined.

The cover of Two Virgins was in stark contrast to Lennon and Ono’s demure dress in Montreal

Lennon – he mostly talked to the press and visitors, not least because many of them ignored Ono – calmly and repeatedly put forward the aims of the bed-in: to encourage peaceful resolution of all human affairs; to condemn violence in all its forms; to persuade onlookers of the power of the micro-gesture. This is what they could do for peace, he said; perhaps we could think of another way to help. “Stop asking us if you think it is going to work,” said Lennon in a relatively rare exasperated moment. “Do something yourself.”

Room 1742 was soon full of fans, television crews, and critics. Lennon, never one to shirk confrontation, relished the chance to persuade cynics of the value of his cause. The most persistent was Al Capp, the American cartoonist famous for his take-down of counter-culture causes, who arrived at the room in blistering form: “I’m a dreadful Neanderthal fascist. How do you do?”

The cartoonist Al Capp was asked to leave after clashing with Lennon

Capp’s clumsy sarcasm is excruciating to watch in  footage of the encounter. Lennon is initially patient, conciliatory even. But Capp is unimpressed. “I think that everybody owes it to the world to prove they have pubic hair,” he says of the Two Virgins album sleeve. He insults Ono, and ridicules the peace project. “Whatever race you are the representative of, I ain’t part of it,” he jibes. Eventually he is asked to leave.

Most  other discussions held around the bed during the week were friendlier and more revealing of Lennon’s thinking of the time, especially on the wider issue of how best to effect change in a world which, by the end of the 1960s, was steeped in violence and confrontation. Lennon had appeared ambivalent on the subject, never more literally than in The Beatles’ 1968 song Revolution on one version of which he sang, with deliberate obfuscation: “But when you talk about destruction, Don’t you know that you can count me out (in)”.

By the time of the bed-in, he had made up his mind. “The only way we can change the system is by doing it non-violently,” he told the comedian Tommy Smothers, another high-profile visitor. “The only way to do it is Gandhi’s way.” But the idea of peace, he said, needed to be “sold like soap… with gimmicks and salesmanship”. It needed to appeal to housewives and children, without “intellectualism”. If Lennon’s aspirations came from Gandhi, his methods came from the advertising agencies and publicity machines he had seen bloom alongside, and help promote, his rise to fame.

Lennon was too sharp to succumb uncritically to the hippy dream. Here was his inner Mad Man speaking with clarity and cunning. Alison Gordon, a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, saw it in action. “I recall the whole experience… in a golden glow,” she said of the bed-in week, “not so much for the ineffable shimmering of the experience, but because John and Yoko had taped clear yellow gels over all the windows, so the light came through warm as honey. They knew how to dress a set.”

Lennon proved himself a master of the soundbite but the press tended to ignore Ono

Conversations continued through the week. With the media, Lennon proved himself a master of the soundbite, while with the various acolytes who dropped in – Beatles fans, yoga instructors, Hare Krishna singers – he was charming and good humoured. Humour was essential to his persona. The surrealist in him was convinced that the absurdity of the world would lead to a peaceful renunciation of its crass objectives. “If somebody made a joke in one of those disarmament conferences, maybe they’d disarm,” he tells one interlocutor. “Jokes are good. Let’s have more jokes.”

On the seventh day, June 1, there was music. Lennon picked up his guitar (as did the visiting Smothers) and called for an eight-track tape recorder to be brought in. He and Ono had been gestating the idea of a peace anthem, to be performed live and rush-released as a single. The shuffling rap he came up with, using nonsensical rhymes, had a catchy chorus: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance”. The song was primitive in its simplicity, yet conceptually ahead of its time: it came out under the name of the Plastic Ono Band, a virtual pop group. “You are the Plastic Ono Band,” read an advertisement for the single, involving the record-buyer in the creation of the song. Customer engagement, they would call it today. It charted instantly.

Bono and Bob Geldof with UN General Secretary Kofi Annan. Such meetings are a direct legacy of the bed-in

What was the legacy of the bed-in? Lennon would have scoffed at the notion. The event was widely derided at the time, treated as the ultimate vanity project of a burnt-out celebrity and his eccentric new muse. But there were reverberations. One was that pop stars became more aware of their potential to influence events outside their own circle. That would ultimately lead to the highly-publicised meetings between U2’s Bono and Bob Geldof with world leaders, attempting to change the world, and achieving, materially, substantially more than Lennon and Ono.

Peaceful demonstration, cannily marketed, still takes place and is still noticed. The mass media – beginning to be overshadowed by social media – continue to be drawn to movements such as Extinction Rebellion (“XR”), and figures such as the charismatically uncharismatic Greta Thunberg, whose protests engage with larger issues than the end of war: the end of the planet itself. These initiatives are invariably well-organised, slick and perhaps a little boring.

Greta Thunberg engages with larger issues than the end of war: the end of the planet itself

But the cultural landscape is radically changed from that of fifty years ago. There are a million reasons why it is impossible to imagine the world’s biggest pop stars – take Jay-Z and Beyoncé – succumbing to the gently shambolic vibe of the Montreal bed-in. The most important one is that they know that it wasn’t very effective. Without power, control and certainty, the modern-day celebrity is bereft. Artists, in the meantime, have become the new pop stars. Ono is feted around the world’s vibrant contemporary art scene with more respect and affection than was ever afforded her during her marriage to Lennon.

The bed-in was – considering the profile of its protagonists – a curiously humble affair. Its greatest aspiration was audacious yet innocent: that people would be enraptured into action by two lovers lying down on a soft mattress, just as the world was about to get hard-headed. Sure enough, the event would ultimately be commodified into cultural irrelevance. In 2008 the hand-written lyrics to Give Peace a Chance were sold at Christie’s for more than £400,000.

“We’re humorists… that’s John and Yoko, and we stand a better chance under that guise…”

Lennon, who often warned the world that he was not to be taken too seriously, would have reacted wryly to that. His wit was always his trustiest weapon. Earlier that year in a BBC interview, he had compared the couple’s activities to the comedy of Laurel and Hardy: “We’re humorists… that’s John and Yoko, and we stand a better chance under that guise, because all the serious people, like Martin Luther King, and Kennedy, and Gandhi, got shot.” It was another moment of high irony, but he would never know it.

What activism means today
Alanna Byrne, Extinction Rebellion activist

This weekend marks 50 years since John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their ‘Bed-in for peace’ protest. Today, although world peace still feels like a distant reality, we face an even graver threat – human extinction – due to the climate and ecological crisis.

This creative ‘lie-in’ may have shown that you can capture the attention of the world with the unconventional. However, when faced with the current emergency, figurative protest of this kind does not go far enough. As a member of the non-violent direct-action group, Extinction Rebellion, I love that our protests are artist-led, creative, engaging and fun. But they must also transcend the symbolic.

They must tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency, no matter how stark, and communicate the urgent need to take action. This means taking to the street, blocking some of the busiest roads in the world if necessary, and creating non-violent disruption in order for our message to manifest itself within the public consciousness.

Having worked in the charity sector for several years, I’ve campaigned, marched, signed petitions and protested. And although these have played an important role, I’ve also known for a long time that they are not enough. That’s why, when I discovered Extinction Rebellion while blocking one of five bridges back in November of last year, I knew that this movement was different.

Not only were they calling the climate crisis what it is – an emergency – and taking action. But they were advocating for a regenerative culture that encourages us to reconnect with our world and each other, while inspiring strength in confronting the reality of all we face to lose.

So, while I commend the peaceful protest of John and Yoko, I also stress that these symbolic protests are no longer enough to tackle the existential climate and ecological crisis we face.

Because this is an emergency. We cannot take it lying down.


My activist city 
Ben Moss, Bristol resident and co-founder of Bristol Wood Recycling project

I moved to Bristol because the counter-culture activity attracted me here, from the arts to the environmental projects. I am the co-founder of a recycling project which is a co-operative not-for-profit social enterprise collecting so-called ‘waste’ across the city, which we transform into resources through an inclusive volunteering programme. Our vans go to houses, universities and manufacturers, and we work by the maxim: ‘Think global, Act local.’

I have lived in Bristol for 16 years and in that time I have seen a huge amount of grassroots activism across the city emerging as social enterprises such as ours. There are projects such as the Bristol Bike Project and food growing initiatives like Incredible Edible and Feed Bristol.

The city has been taking local action for some time – I remember big Critical Mass bike rides when I first arrived, and a large demonstration against the visit to the UK of George W Bush’s visit to the UK.

There have been anti-austerity marches which have been union-led. There has been direction action against inadequate employers, with the community union, ACORN, leading lots of amazing petitions and marches outside landlord and employer offices. The community-led projects often come out of meetings in pubs and cafes when people decide to make a difference and take action.

Bristol has its legacy of slave trading and some in the community have felt that there has been compromised naming of landmarks in Bristol which doesn’t acknowledge this history enough. For example, the shopping precinct, redeveloped around ten years ago, was to be named the Merchant’s Quarter, which relates to the present-day secret society of self-styled philanthropists who facilitated and financed colonial slavery in the past – the Merchant Venturers. After a lot of sound and protest, they changed the name to Cabots Circus – but even this is not neutral, as Cabot was the instigator of the slave-trade who came to the city to take boats to the Americas. The other successful campaign we have had is to rename the music hall in the city. It is currently called Colston Hall but, again, this relates to an old family from the city that derived its wealth from the slave trade. It will be renamed when it reopens in 2020.

The city is alive with this kind of activism and it packs a real punch. I have heard Bristol described as a Rebel City and this rings true.

All photographs Alamy, Getty Images

Further reading

For a photographic record of the bed-in, including personal recollections that give a vivid sense of the intimacy, Give Peace a Chance, compiled by Joan Athey and edited by Paul McGrath.

The best of the Lennon biographies is John Lennon: The Life, a sympathetic account by Philip Norman.

Lennon was never better served than through his own words, collected compellingly by Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner in Lennon Remembers.

For an often hilarious filmed record of events of Montreal, which concludes with the making of the anthemic Give Peace a Chance, watch Bed Peace (1969).

Peter Aspden

Peter Aspden is the former arts editor of the Financial Times and continues to write about cultural affairs for the paper.