George Harrison: Living In The Material World by Olivia Harrison

Published to coincide with Martin Scorsese's lengthy biopic of the same name, George Harrison: Living In The Material World is a richly presented and sumptuous biography of the former Beatle told through photographs, archive interviews and new quotes from those who knew him.

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Although she receives the credit on the book's cover, there are precious few words by Olivia Harrison, George's widow, herself. She provides a tribute to her late husband towards the book's end, as does their son Dhani, but otherwise she plays the role of the 'quiet one'.

Her main contribution, however, is the assembly of archive photographs and memorabilia from the Harrison collection. And what a collection it is.

From the Harrison family's modest Liverpool roots to his grand gothic mansion Friar Park, we see holiday snaps, school-era sketches of guitars and the pre-fame Beatles, through to the years when he was one of the four most photographed men on the planet. His passion for India, motor racing and gardening, and his accidental entry into film production, make up the latter part of the book, as he largely retreated from public view but remained no less active.

While some of the images are well known, many are seen here for the first time, and capture George's public and private sides, at work, play, on holidays, in the studio, with friends, family and fellow musicians.

Not all the photographs are from the Harrison archives, however. Among the numerous credits are names including Yoko Ono, Astrid Kirchherr, Jurgen Vollmer, Dezo Hoffman, Mal Evans and Mike McCartney.

Harrison was a keen photographer himself, and his own images appear throughout the book. It is rare to see the world through The Beatles' eyes, but Harrison's fondness for turning his lens on the huddled journalists and photographers give a revealing insight into the mayhem of the mid-1960s.

The biggest revelation, however, is that Harrison kept a diary during the Beatles years. Just two extracts are reproduced: an entry for 1 April 1967 in which Harrison notes: "Recorded Sgt. Peppers Lonely-Hearts club-band - part 2", and another from 10 January 1969 in which he matter-of-factly documents the day he temporarily left The Beatles:

Got up went to Twickenham rehearsed until lunch time - left the Beatles - went home and in the evening did King of Fuh at Trident Studio - had chips later at Klaus and Christines went home.

While Harrison was evidently a man of few words, the fact that he was documenting each day during that tumultuous time is hugely significant. How delicious it would be for Olivia to publish the entire diaries for Beatles scholars to pore over.

Disappointingly, Harrison's first wife, Pattie Boyd, is all but airbrushed from this history. There is no mention of their relationship, which lasted from 1964 to 1974, nor their 1966 wedding. She appears in two photographs from India, and her only other mention is in a caption which runs: "George and Pattie's house, 1968".

Playing down their relationship is Olivia's prerogative; after all, it is her tale to tell. But consider this: were Yoko Ono to produce an anthology of John Lennon's life with barely a mention of his 10-year relationship with first wife Cynthia, Ono would inevitably receive the ire of Beatles fans the world over. It will be telling if Olivia Harrison gets off relatively lightly.

The picture is incomplete in other ways. Harrison's numerous affairs are not dwelt upon, his extensive use of drugs is downplayed, and his obstinacy and public surliness in the post-Beatles years is not considered. Instead, Harrison is presented mainly as a saintly figure, searching for spiritual guidance and the path to enlightenment through music, religion and meditation.

For all its faults, Living In The Material World contains enough previously unseen photography, poignant and revealing in equal measure, to become an object of devotion for all Harrison fans. It offers a rare revealing insight into the inner world of this relentlessly private man, and for that we should be thankful.

13 responses on “George Harrison: Living In The Material World by Olivia Harrison

  1. Matt Blick

    To be fair Patti does appear several times in the film which is less of an airbrush job than the Anthology film (where hardly any wives appear).

    I agree with the comments about affairs and drug use, that was mentioned, but glossed over in the film too.

  2. LP

    Brilliant review–I absolutely agree with you–those were the same concerns I had while I was watching the documentary. I thought there would only be a few who saw that. Also of note, was that much of the documentary’s contents could easily be learned (and in greater depth) from watching/reading Anthology. Plus, much more could be learned from reading Pattie & George’s autobiographies–I didnt learn anything new from watching this documentary. The only parts that thrilled me were the rare photographs interspersed and the home footage–especially of the Tahiti vacation. I thought there’d be more home footage/photos or Olivia/friends touching on the things mentioned in Pattie’s book–another perspective of that time. I will probably only get the book.

  3. NEIL

    It would be interesting to hear from Olivia about her attitude to George’s siblings. Presumably she is responsible for stopping George’s support payments to Louise.

  4. june42

    I completely disagree with this review which is highly churlish. Olivia allows George to speak for himself and there are many quotes at the beginning from George’s siblings Harry and Pete and their wives. And Pattie Boyd has had a chance to tell her story in ‘Wonderful Tonight’ . I get fed up with these mean spirited attacks on Olivia which are basically misogynistic

      1. june42

        It is mean spirited and misogynsiic

        Playing down their relationship is Olivia’s prerogative; after all, it is her tale to tell. But consider this: were Yoko Ono to produce an anthology of John Lennon’s life with barely a mention of his 10-year relationship with first wife Cynthia, Ono would inevitably receive the ire of Beatles fans the world over. It will be telling if Olivia Harrison gets off relatively lightly.

        You don’t think that is an attack on Olivia which has sexist overtones?

        1. Joe Post author

          It’s not an attack on Olivia at all, sexist or otherwise – it’s a commentary on how many (not all) Beatles fans tend to perceive the actions of Ono, and how some other Beatles wives and former partners are looked upon much more favourably. Hence the word “relatively”.

          Some partners (eg Pattie Boyd, Jane Asher, Olivia Harrison, Nancy Shevell) are generally seen in a sympathetic light. Others (Yoko Ono, Heather Mills, Linda McCartney during the 70s and 80s) tend to be treated much more harshly, even if their actions don’t necessarily deserve it. I’m not judging anyone as good or bad, just that there are definite double standards among Beatles fans. Person A does something, gets widely condemned by millions of fans. Person B does a very similar thing, millions of fans give her a free pass. This isn’t sexism on my part; it’s an observation on something that happens often among many of the more vocal Beatles fans.

          Personally I’d rather it didn’t happen, which is the underlying point of that paragraph you quoted. I never really understand why so many fans are so emotionally invested in who four men chose to marry. It’s a peculiar thing that doesn’t seem to happen to other musicians nearly so often.

          You still haven’t explained how I am being sexist, misogynistic, mean spirited or churlish. Your turn to justify yourself.

          1. june42

            You ascribe questionable and petty motives/behaviour to Olivia trying to portray her as resentful of Pattie, trying to portray their relationship as antagonistic . I have seen Olivia receive a lot of negative comments and outright hostility on a lot of social media f(Twitter/Youtube/facebook) from men most of which boils down to ‘how dare this woman represent George!’ I see some vitriolic misogyny accusing Olivia of appalling things which I will not repeat here- I can send links. I do not see Dhani getting similar abuse.

            Olivia and Dhani not ask to be put in the situation of maintaining George’s estate and it is clear from interviews it is a difficult task. But every time something is issued like ‘Living in the Material World’ or the Apple Years Box set Olivia gets a stream of negative comments on social media from male George fans . These do not get directed at Dhani

            Personally I believe if George trusted Olivia to maintain his estate (and it is clear from the terms of his will he did), then that is good enough for me

            And are you aware that George did not even want to mention Pattie in ‘I, Me, Mine’ (out of respect for her privacy) and that Derek Taylor had to get him to mention her?

            1. Joe Post author

              I didn’t try to portray anyone’s relationship as antagonistic or resentful, and I didn’t ascribe any motives to anyone. You’re the one who seems to be projecting here. All I did was note that a significant part of George’s life was barely mentioned in this book. I even said it was Olivia’s prerogative – it’s her version of the story! I’d liked to have seen a more rounded, fuller portrait, but this book is what it is.

              I’m sorry if Olivia has been receiving hostility on social media. I’m not a participant in that. Her name was on the front of the book I was reviewing, so I mentioned her in relation to its content. I don’t have the slightest problem with her representing George. She and Dhani seem to be doing a pretty good job.

              I’m getting fed up with justifying myself now, so I’ll stop. You’ve called me sexist, misogynistic, mean spirited, churlish and petty. Get off your high horse and find someone more deserving of your ire.

  5. june42

    Living in the Material World is 3 1/2 hours/208 minutes long. Olivia only appears in the final hour or 150 minutes in. She appears on screen for about 14 minutes in total (including film footage/photo stills) including 11 minutes of interview. 5 minutes of this are taken up with her account of Michael Abram’s attack. This is something Olivia has been obviously reluctant to discuss (she has only made brief reference to it in two other interviews), and this was her chance to record her account of what happened. Considering that Olivia was with George for 27 years, 14 minutes out of 208 is far from excessive. There was still time in the final hour for insightful interviews with Dhani, Eric Idle, Jackie Stewart and Tom Petty. And Olivia’s final words about the moment of George’s passing are just beautiful and comforting

    In the book of ‘George Harrison: Living in the Material World’ out of the hundreds of photos there are three of George and Olivia, two of George, Olivia and Dhani and one photo of Olivia by George – although only her legs appear! She also has only two of the hundreds of quotes in the book. This again is hardly excessive

  6. june42

    This is one of the two pieces Olivia wrote for the ‘Living in the Material world’ boo’- I for one find it beautiful and insight and am deeply grateful to her for writing it

    Nothing I can say about George speaks louder than his music. Knowing how reluctant he was to talk about himself lead me illustrate his years mostly in pictures. His life was fascinating not entirely by chance. He worked hard, was curious and energetic. He plunged into the heart of people, places and things he encountered, the good the bad. He claimed tonen a sinner but ever a saint

    Life to him was a quest for deeper meaning and everything was important to him but nothing really mattered. His particular way of embracing and dismissing life’s joys and disasters was completely disarming. He could let go as easily as I held on. ‘Be here now’ was repeated so often we actually did live in the moment.

    Time was shortened, stretched and often completely disregarded by his personal clock. At times he moved with the hours and the days and them to the rhythm of heavenly bodies in the cosmos. So life was a blink of an eye, but eternal. When he sang, ‘Floating down the stream of time, from life to life with me,’ he made parting so soon seem like waving goodbye for the afternoon.

    George read these words out loud each time we passed the clock tower in the garden. They will remind me of him and the infinite possibilities of our existence.

    Past is gone, thou canst not recall

    Future is not, may not be at all

    Present is, improve the flying hour

    Present only is within thy power

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