Wed, Dec 24, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Imagine peace

John Lennon was shot 28 years ago this month, but his widow, now 75, travels the world preaching peace and love in his name — and in her art. Here she talks about begging for food as a child in wartime Japan, her two husbands before Lennon, and the daughter who was hidden from her for more than 20 years

By Miranda Sawyer  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Notoriously, John Lennon once described Yoko Ono as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does.” This is still true today. How do you think Yoko spends her time? Lying in bed for peace? Yowling in recording studios? Rubbing her hands as she counts her millions?

Well, on Oct. 9, Yoko was in Reykjavik, Iceland. She had a packed agenda. First, she was presenting the LennonOno Grant for Peace. This year, its US$100,000 was split between Iceland, for its work on geothermal energy, and Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist. Second, Yoko was switching on her Imagine Peace Tower at Reykjavik harbor, which sends a laser beam shining into the air between Oct. 9 (Lennon’s birthday) and Dec. 8 (the date of his death). Third, she was the VIP guest at the launch of an Icelandic postage stamp in honor of Lennon.

Though I couldn’t get my head around this strange collection of occasions — I kept asking the PR: “Yes, but why Iceland?’ — they seemed representative of Yoko’s work, which moves fluidly between peace, art and her late husband’s memory (not so much music these days; she says she doesn’t have the time). So a trip was arranged and we all convened in Reykjavik. Then, overnight, Iceland went bust.

Suddenly, Yoko’s events seemed irrelevant, if not insulting — a foreign artist donating thousands of US dollars for peace when the economy of the entire country has just disappeared. For a start, how could Iceland cash the check? In the end, Yoko, a tiny figure dressed entirely in black, including cap and sunglasses, made a well-received, if hippy-flavored, speech: “We are here today to celebrate the unveiling of the true human spirit, which we have been hiding for such a time of need.”

She then sat gamely through interviews with earnest local journalists asking whether Iceland had a special place in Lennon’s heart: “Well, he didn’t make it here when he was living but now he is coming here in a different way, he is here in spirit. He doesn’t go everywhere, you know!”

In the evening, there was a ceremony for the lighting of Yoko’s Imagine Peace Tower. A memorial to Lennon, it has “Imagine Peace” in various languages engraved around the base and was lit for the first time last year when Yoko and others, including Ringo Starr and Olivia Harrison, all stood around the light as it illuminated. I’ve seen a DVD; it looked amazing, if cold. “Could you put it up in the Caribbean next time?” jokes Ringo.

LET THERE BE LIGHT

This year, a storm prevented anyone getting to the island where the light is sited, so Yoko’s entourage and Icelandic dignitaries gathered in the top-floor bar of our hotel to witness the Peace Tower lighting. The event lacked a certain drama. Instead of huddling beneath the elements, sea crashing on the rocks below, we stood around, ate nibbles and drank wine. There was a three-two-one moment and Yoko pressed a button. Nothing. Yoko said: “Why isn’t it working?” And then a column of light began to shine into the dark sky.

Sean Lennon, Yoko’s son, was there with his girlfriend. His birthday is Oct. 9, same as his dad, so every year his celebrations are overshadowed. Peering through the window, Sean said: “Mom, it’s beautiful, fantastic. Really amazing.” Some of Yoko’s team had tears in their eyes. Not me. I squinted at the pale, distant light and thought: what is all the fuss about?

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