Thelma Pickles was born in 1941 in Liverpool, England and met future beatle John Lennon when she became a student at the Liverpool College of Art in 1957. He was sitting at the signing in table with another boy named Tony Carricker when mutual friend Helen Anderson introduced them.
"My eyes definitely set on John. Tony was prettier, more handsome, with dark hair and dark eyes, but John was so powerful. When he was in a group like that, the focus of attention went to him. He had a presence. I found him very striking from that moment on"
"My first impression of John was that he was a smartarse. I was 16; a friend introduced us at Liverpool College of Art when we were waiting to register. There was a radio host at the time called Wilfred Pickles whose catchphrase was 'Give them the money, Mabel!'. When John heard my name he asked 'Any relation to Wilfred?', which I was sick of hearing. Then a girl breezed in and said, 'Hey John, I hear your mother's dead', and I felt absolutely sick. He didn't flinch, he simply replied, 'Yeah'. 'It was a policeman that knocked her down, wasn't it?' Again he didn't react, he just said, 'That's right, yeah.' His mother had been killed two months earlier. I was stunned by his detachment, and impressed that he was brave enough to not break down or show any emotion. Of course, it was all a front."
Neither Thelma nor John were in a hurry to go home and set together on the steps of the Queen Victoria monument near the bus terminal, chatting. Their friendship blossomed as they discovered they had quite a few traits and experiances in common.
"When we were alone together he was really soft, thoughtful and generous-spirited. Clearly his mother's death had disturbed him. We both felt that we'd been dealt a raw deal in our family circumstances, which drew us together. During the first week of college we had a pivotal conversation. I'd assumed that he lived with his dad but he told me, 'My dad pissed off when I was a baby.' Mine had too. I wasn't a baby – I was ten. It had such a profound effect on me that I would never discuss it with anyone. Nowadays one–parent families are common but then it was something shameful. After that it was like we were two against the world."
Thelma's father had walked out on the family in 1951, profoundly affecting her. "My father had left me when I was ten. Because of that, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. In those days, you never admitted you came from a broken home. You could never discuss it with anybody and people like me, who kept the shame of it secret, developed terrific anxieties." The impression John had initially given was that he didn't care about his father leaving, but she grew to realise that he too had been affected by it. "As I got to know him, he obviously cared. But what I realized quickly was that he and I had an aggression towards life that stemmed entirely from our messy home lives."
John quickly nicknamed her "Thel" and by February of 1958 the two had become a couple. Whenever John's Aunt Mimi was out playing bridge, John and Thelma would meet up in the brick-built shelter on the golf course waiting til the coast was clear before heading inside the house to spend some quality time together. "I went to his house soon after. It seemed really posh to me, brought up in a council house. We were alone, he showed me round and we had a bit of a kiss and a cuddle in his bedroom. Paul and George came round and we all had beans on toast, then they played their guitars in the kitchen. I had to leave early because Mimi wouldn't allow girls in the house. She was very strict. She wouldn't let him wear drainpipe trousers so he used to put other trousers over the top and remove them after he left the house."
This was another thing that Thelma felt she had in common with John, her own mother hating the black stockings that Thelma liked to wear. Their rebellious streak didn't end with fashion however and they were soon sagging off college in the afternoon to hang out with other students at the pub round the corner known as Ye Cracke, or heading off to the cinema. "We used to take afternoons off to go to a picture-house called the Palais de Luxe where he liked to see horror films. I remember we went to see Elvis in Jailhouse Rock at the Odeon. He didn't take his glasses. We were holding hands and he kept yanking my hand saying, 'What's happening now Thel?' "
Some of John's other traits didn't sit quite as comfortably with Thelma. She went along with faking paers for his lettering class for him so that he wouldn't fail but when it came to his wicked sense of humor she sometimes left feeling uncomfortable. "John laughed and ran up to them to make horrible faces. I laughed with him while feeling awful about it. If a doddery old person had nearly fallen over because John had screamed at her, we'd be laughing. We knew it shouldn't be done. I was a good audience, but he didn't do it for my benefit. Children often find that kind of sick humor amusing. Perhaps we just hadn't grown out of it. He would pull the most grotesque faces and try to imitate his victims."
One victim of his mockery was another girl he'd had his eye on, Cynthia Powell. "I was in his camp of boys because I was a bit of an arty beatnik. Cynthia was dainty and sweet. We used to take the mickey out of her, but John always said he fancied her. He was certainly always attracted to her from the first time he saw her in the canteen"
In July of 1958 Thelma temporarily left college, effectively ending her relationship with John by her absence, but retaining their friendship. "It just petered out. I certainly didn't end it. He didn't either. We still stayed part of the same crowd of students." She was startled but pleased when she heard that John had taken up with Cynthia. "I thought she'd be good for him, temper his aggression. I knew she'd have to tailor herself into looking like Brigitte Bardot for him, and I remember reflecting on the fact that he'd teased her so much about being so proper. I remember thinking: 'He's got what he wanted-again''."
Thelma had always known about John's more agressive nature but while they were an item she hadn't felt threatened by it herself, often answering his acerbic remarks back in the same way. "Most people stopped short. They were probably frightened of him, and on occasions, there were certainly fights. But with me, he met someone with almost the same background." One night when John rounded on Thelma in front of several other students she turned on him telling him not to blame her just because his mother was dead and stunning him momentarily into silence. She hadn't said it to offend him, it was just their way of dealing with each other. "When we were no longer close, he was more vicious to me in company than before. I was equally offensive back. That way you got John's respect. ...John was enormous fun to be with, always witty, even if it was a cruel wit. Any minor frailty in somebody he'd detect with a laser-like homing device. We all thought it was hilarious but it wasn't funny to the recipients. Apart from the first instance, where he mocked my name, I never experienced it until I ended our relationship."
"We were close until around Easter of the following year, 1959. At an art school dance he took me to a darkened classroom. We went thinking we'd have it to ourselves but it was evident from the din that we weren't alone. I wasn't going to have an intimate soirée with other people present. I refused to stay, and he yanked me back and whacked me one. He had aggressive traits, mainly verbal, but never in private had he ever been aggressive – quite the opposite. Once he'd hit me that was it for me, I wouldn't speak to him. That one violent incident put paid to any closeness we had. I took care to not bump into him for a while. I didn't miss drinking at Ye Cracke with him but I missed the closeness we had. Still, we were friendly enough by the end of the next term. Because he did no work, he was on the brink of failure, so I loaned him some of my work, which I never got back."
A few years later Thelma briefly dated one of John's bandmates, Paul McCartney, who had just split up with his long term girlfriend Dot Rhone. "He used to come into the Art College canteen with George Harrison. Paul was quite young then, and George even more so. They were both overshadowed by John's personality." By the time they were dating, Paul had "developed from the plump young schoolboy into someone very much his own person."
Not a great fan of Rock'n'Roll, Thelma wasn't keeping up with the local success of John and Paul's band and was amazed when a girl in the Church Street coffee bar asked Paul for his autograph. "Paul said, oh it's just this beatles business. I wasn't clued in at all as to what was happening at this stage." She did however go down to the Cavern on occasion to catch The Beatles on stage. "They were certainly very big down there. people were screaming. I found the whole thing really strange. When we waked to the car afterwards, groups of girls would follow and they'd be extremely rude to me. I found it very odd that girls would behave like that. I must have been very naive."
By the time Thelma was dating in the Beatles' social circle for the third time she was a divorced woman by the name of Thelma Monaghan and the mother of a little boy named Nathan. This time she took up with famed Liverpool poet Roger McGough who was in the band The Scaffold with Paul's brother Mike. The strictly raised Catholic boy McGough found something attractively 'forbidden' about Thelma and plucked up the courage to chat to her at the Art College dance. "She knew things I didn't, was very independent so I suppose there was something of a femme fatale about her. I was flying in the face of everything I'd been brought up to believe. I was entranced, at the same time always thinking that in other ways perhaps we weren't suited."
"I met Thelma at the Art College, then saw her again at Hope Hall, and started taking her out. She had a flat in Princes Park, a three year old son, Natham, and she made her own clothes, was up–to–the–minute in fashion, went to London when we didn't, painted these abstract pictures and knew Paul McCartney. He would come round to the flat so I saw a bit of him which was interesting rather than exciting. Thelma was sassy and very much a woman of the age."
Although he found Thelma's upbringing startlingly unlike his own, Roger weathered parental approval and began staying over at Helen's flat during the weekends. Sometimes he'd run into John who would pop round on occasion to chat about the old art school days or borrow money. Thelma and Roger's relationship was said to be a frequently stormy one, but by the time Thelma was running a boutique called 'Monika' Roger had moved in permanently. Unmarried, they moved to 6 Huskisson Street in a now fashionable area of central Liverpool and Roger's book "Summer With Monika" was published by a local press. The book of poems was dedicated to Thelma who designed a cover for it made up of pink hearts.
All this time Thelma remained friends with Paul. She and Roger even stayed briefly at Paul's house, 7 Cavendish Avenue, which he was sharing at the time with girlfriend Jane Asher. Thelma noted "the large jar of grass on the mantlepiece for anyone to dip into, and the mirrored Indian cushions Jane had bought on Portobello Road."
Roger and Thelma eventually married in the early 70s and had two boys, Tom and Finn. "We thought having kids would keep us together but, to be honest, that marriage was dodgy from the start. We divided up our house in Liverpool and lived in separate parts. It was very painful. I was scrabbling around, and whenever I've been on my own, I've been dangerous to know. But then I met Hilary, at a bus stop. We stood there for ages, unaware that all the drivers were on strike. Thelma was still living next door. All very messy. I had to get out of Liverpool – and felt guilty about that – though, of course, I was really running away from myself. So Hilary and I came to London."
Retaining his trademark wit Roger recalled in his autobiography Said And Done, "Thelma had found another lover and I was living out of a suitcase. (I had thought of writing 'battered suitcase' but feared it might conjure up an image of something deep fried.)" The emotional poems he wrote during the break-up made their way into the publication "Holiday on Death Row" which was published in 1979. By the following year they were divorced.
Both Thelma and her two sons with Roger McGough pursued careers in television. She producing the series "Blind Date" for another Liverpool pal, Cilla Black. She also continued her art as an award-winning textile artist and is said to be working on her memoir, Illustrious Liaisons.
"I've never wondered what might have been. It sounds disingenuous, but I wouldn't like to have been married to John – that would be quite a gargantuan task! He would've been 70 next year and I just cannot imagine a 70–year–old John Lennon. I'd be fearful that the fire would've gone out."
SOURCES: Various Beatles and Lennon biographies, various Roger McGough interviews, information kindly supplied by Jeannette Caserta, A Gallery To Play To (the story of the Mersey Poets) by Phil Bowen, and an interview with Thelma in The Observer, 13th December 2009.