A political Paul

The Beatle talks about schooldays, the 1960s, 9/11, FR Leavis and the responsibilities of wealth and celebrity with his old schoolmate Jonathan Power
January 17, 2009

I went to school with Paul McCartney in Liverpool nearly 50 years ago, and we have remained friends, albeit distant, ever since. I joined the school a few months after most of the boys in my class. Alan Durband, our form master, asked Paul to make me feel at home. And he did just that. It was an act of kindness I remembered long after. I knew how boys could be.

The Liverpool Institute High School for Boys was then the city's top state grammar school, drawing some middle class but, in the main, the brightest of the working class and lower middle class—one of our old boys, Charles Glover Barkla, won the Nobel prize for physics. The Institute was the choir school of Liverpool cathedral. Paul auditioned for the choir but didn't get in—apparently the music teacher didn't think he was good enough. Another Beatle, George Harrison, was in the year below Paul. (John Lennon and Ringo Starr were educated elsewhere in the city—at Quarry Bank grammar school and Dingles secondary modern respectively.) The Liverpool Institute closed in 1985. Eleven years later, Paul opened the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, a fame academy for aspiring artists, on the site.

Paul is not known for his political views—John was always thought of as the political Beatle. But having been a political journalist for most of my life I wanted to talk to Paul about, among other things, the great political events of our lifetimes. I wanted it to be a casual conversation, like two old men sitting on a bench reminiscing about school days and some of the things that have happened since.

JONATHAN POWER: In different ways, me as a journalist you as a rock star, we have both had a ringside seat on the last 50 years—the 1960s, Vietnam, Nixon, Thatcher, Blair, the end of the cold war, Iraq and so on. But let's start with the second world war. In your classical work of 17 years ago, the Liverpool Oratorio, you included a lot of wartime memories.

PAUL McCARTNEY: Yes. My dad had a hearing defect and couldn't join the army, so he was in the fire service which was pretty hazardous because Liverpool was bombed heavily. He was quite a jovial guy and didn't talk about it much himself. But I did know about incendiary bombs and so on. And I remember sirens; I was born in 1942. I remember there being a kind of gung-ho spirit about the war. Later on during our teenage years, my first reaction was to say I'm a pacifist. But then I also knew that if we had been invaded I would have defended my country, my family—the animal instinct in me would have taken over. I have experienced it in minor ways on my farm when, for example, a ram butted one of the kids and I attacked him back. The animal in me said, "How bloody dare you! Right, mate!" and I had a go at him.

POWER: The second world war is seen by most people as a good war. But the first world war is generally regarded as a stupid mistake—and one that led to most of the horrors of the 20th century. Most wars, with good sense, can be avoided. We all know Iraq could have been avoided…

McCARTNEY: There was a very strong feeling after 9/11 that America had to do something. But I always felt that Bush struck out at the wrong boy in the playground… It could have been avoided, yes.

POWER: I remember reading that your blood was up after 9/11 and that—because of your father—you identified with the firemen who risked their lives at the World Trade Centre, but looking back, do you think you allowed your passion to overrun?

McCARTNEY: Definitely, yes. I think everyone did. I was in New York at the time. I was just taking off at exactly 8.50am and it was one of those memorable announcements from the captain: "Those of you on the right-hand side of the aircraft will notice there has been an accident and this has delayed our takeoff." I assumed it had been a runaway plane, as happened once before when someone had a heart attack at the controls. I just thought, "Oh God, it's gone into the Twin Towers and they are both on fire."

Being there, the worry then was "When is the next attack coming?" It was not just fear, it was more "How organised are these people? Are they going to poison the water?" There was a mood to be exploited. I have become quite cynical about how some of these recent wars have been started. Georgia is another example: I had been due to play a concert there in September. I had done a concert in Ukraine and afterwards I met the President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, at a little lunch party in Kiev given by the promoter. He invited us to go to Georgia to play and I was happy to do that. I like reaching out, particularly to the eastern bloc. They love these concerts; it symbolises freedom for them. I had done Moscow, St Petersburg and, as I say, Kiev. But then I was on holiday in early August and I picked up a New York Times, looked at it and went "my God, what's going on here?" I rang my promoters and they said, "No, the Georgia concert is off."

Then a bit later I was talking to people and I suddenly go click in my mind—I am not normally one for conspiracy theories, but we were in the middle of the presidential election. It was McCain, and Obama, Hillary was out of the running, and I did think "conspiracy theory"—you know the Skull and Bones club that Bush was part of at Yale. What do those guys do in a secret society? What do they cook up? I thought, faced with a situation in which McCain looks as if he is losing they might just say to Saakashvili, "Look you have a couple of regions up there that are playing up, why not do something about this? Why not tick them off and if you need military help we are right behind you, we will help you out." Could an offer like that have been made?

POWER: I don't think it works quite like that. After all, Condoleezza Rice went out to Georgia a month before, and said, "Do not provoke Russia." And Bush was right behind her. However, I think there was also a backroom going on, certainly there were neo-conservative, pro-McCain people, who wanted to take a harder line with the new Russia. And so Saakashvili was getting the official red light but he was also being told at the same time by very influential Americans, "If you do it, Bush will have no choice but to support you." I think that is how it works.

McCARTNEY: Yes, that sounds more likely. But the headline remains: wars can be manufactured, particularly when an economy is ailing.

POWER: When we first knew each other at school I remember making a passionate speech in the debating society, and someone stood up after me and said, "Now I have seen my first angry young man." What were your memories of the politics of that time?

McCARTNEY: My memories would be more musical, more to do with reaching out through music. I remember the end of term, bringing my guitar in, the only day you were allowed to—and standing on the desk of the history teacher Cliff Edge, a particularly nice teacher, and singing Long Tall Sally. I remember George [Harrison] bringing his guitar in too. The reaction you got from all the boys "Yeah! Wow! This is great"—I guess it made an impression and made me think yes, I should do more of this.

POWER: I remember that day! But we were also in a very academic school and we were in the fast stream up to O-levels, four years, not five like everybody else, we were being pressured to look at university. When did you decide to break with that?

McCARTNEY: It is funny; one of the things I love about life is that it often just takes over. You can make great plans, but fate steps in. In my case, I like the way that mistakes sometimes turn out to be the opposite. So I remember hanging around in the classroom one lunchtime and seeing all the guys in my sixth-form class working away at stuff and I said, "What are you doing?" and they said, "Writing to universities" and I had not the slightest clue that you had to do that. Nobody had told me. My mum and dad did not know; dad had been a cotton salesman.

POWER: But the teachers told us all how to do it.

McCARTNEY: Yes, but "McCartney, you never listen!" It was always in my end of term report: "If only he would pay more attention he would do well." I was dreaming. It was considered a crime, but for an artist it is not. In fact, it's a good thing. It's what we do. Fate blocked off the university route—because I didn't know the address of any university or what to say on the form, I think I sent something to a couple of colleges saying more or less "Dear Sir, Let me in."

POWER: Come on, you weren't that stupid! You were one of the brightest boys in our class. You like to make out you were the bad one, but you weren't. Anyway let's talk about the great cultural upheaval of the 1960s. I think 1968 is overrated; it was the culmination of something earlier—perhaps starting in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery and this preacher from a small black church emerged from the shadows, Martin Luther King. There was a lot going on before Paris.

McCARTNEY: That's right, I think a lot of the seeds were sown much earlier. But the generation before us had been brought up to toe the line: "Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die." But it became much easier for us to question things. I remember a lady coming to give a talk at the school about her experiences in Rhodesia, as it was then known. It was real colonial talk: "Oh, we have a boy to do that for us" and so on. I remember being annoyed, even though I was just in my early teens, and I asked a question, challenging her attitude. She said, "Oh no, no, no. That is how it is."
And I remember an auntie of mine, who had been lifted over a wall to see a black man when she was a kid because it was so rare, had this same attitude. She said, "No, you can't give them independence, they wouldn't know what to do with it." My reaction was "You must, you have to. We stole it, now we have to give it back."

POWER: In the 2007 film Across the Universe the director weaves a love story around Beatles music and, like quite a few other people, she seems to be saying that you somehow encapsulated this mood of the 1960s—you formed in 1960 after all—and you transmitted it like nobody else had been able to transmit it. Do you think that is true?

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McCARTNEY: Maybe. But the nice thing about it was that we didn't do it consciously. We sort of stumbled into things. For instance, Vietnam. Just when we were getting to be well-known someone said to me, "Bertrand Russell is living not far from here in Chelsea why don't you go and see him?" and so I just took a taxi down there and knocked on the door. There was an American guy who was helping him and he came to the door and I said, "I'd like to meet Mr Russell, if possible." I waited a little and then met the great man and he was fabulous. He told me about the Vietnam war—most of us didn't know about it, it wasn't yet in the papers—and also that it was a very bad war. I remember going back to the studio either that evening or the next day and telling the guys, particularly John [Lennon], about this meeting and saying what a bad war this was. We started to investigate and American pals who were visiting London would be talking about being drafted. Then we went to America, and I remember our publicist—he was a fat, cigar-chomping guy, saying, "Whatever you do, don't talk about Vietnam." Of course, that was the wrong thing to say to us. You don't tell rebellious young men not to say something. So of course we talked about it the whole time and said it was a very bad war. Obviously, we backed the peace movement.

POWER: You were a megaphone for a generation.

McCARTNEY: People often say to me, "Do you think music can change the world?" and I do, on a lot of levels and one of those levels is just the fact that famous musicians are listened to.

POWER: So behind the image of wild, rebellious young men was a growing sense of responsibility?

McCARTNEY: That's right. We thought of ourselves as just sensible young people. We didn't think we were specially wild. There were millions of people, we were part of a movement. We weren't the worst by a long shot. We were rather innocent. Perhaps in terms of responsibility we did sow some seeds for people who came after. People like Geldof, Bono, people who have the megaphone now.

POWER: Did you contribute to social progress?

McCARTNEY: In an innocent way, almost unintentionally, I think we made a contribution. I think there is a certain freedom inherent in the whole Beatles thing. I get people now coming up to me wherever I am in the world, particularly America, saying, "You changed my life" and I think I know what they mean. When we first went, America was football jocks and crew cuts and I think there is less of that now.

POWER: But is there a darker side to progress? The Beatles contributed to the loosening of social constraints and that has left many people floundering.

McCARTNEY: I don't know. It's a strange argument. I tend to believe that people will sort of self-regulate, so that it's good to give them freedom.

POWER: But some people need clear signposts, especially the less well educated. For many the 1960s was a liberation, for others it was a long dark night.

McCARTNEY: Well, you cannot give freedom just to one small bunch of people and not to everyone. It's, of course, a question of balance. It's like with children: you want to give them space to run, but at the same time you want to give them structure and discipline. You want them to see for themselves that discipline is quite a good thing. I think it's always worse when people don't have freedom, just think of pre-freedom Russia—you couldn't think, buy a Beatles record, enjoy music. But people can abuse freedom. Things can grow too wild. The ivy can cover the house and wreck it. You have to do a bit of husbandry, that is what civilisation is really.

POWER: Going back to the 1960s we should remember how culturally stifling the atmosphere was. I have just read a book about Rudolf Nureyev, and how he was dancing with Margot Fonteyn at Covent Garden and in the interval ran outside to the men's public toilet, found somebody there, had a quick one and was running back when a policeman arrested him.

McCARTNEY: Brian Epstein, our manager, was gay —or queer, as you would have called it then, not being derogatory. We were aware, because we had talked about it with him—he was a good mate to us—that if he was ever caught it meant jail. Again, that made us think why? Even in private, if you want to do that what does it have to do with anyone else?

POWER: If my memory serves me right, you never made a stand for homosexuality at that time.

McCARTNEY: It just never came up. Nobody ever said "what do you think about gay rights?" I think if they had said it we would have said it's a good idea.

POWER: Back home at that time Britain was seized with all sorts of troubles: there was a sense of decline, a stagnant economy, there were strikes all the time and lots of people were saying, "There are the Beatles and all this musical life in London but the British are just dancing on the deck of the Titanic."

McCARTNEY: It was not something we felt we could do anything about. We were doing our bit for the economy by creating exports. If there are big problems it's better to dance than just sit around and add to the problems. Your energy can affect other people.

POWER: In our lifetime we had the cold war and then its sudden end—that's when we should have been out dancing on the streets. But there was this lack of passion; it ended in a whisper not a bang.

McCARTNEY: I wouldn't say it went unnoticed. I remember it with great joy. Anyway the quote is ending in a whimper not a whisper.

POWER: Ah, the boy got an A in his A-level English!

McCARTNEY: I got my A, yes. Thanks to Alan Durband, our English literature teacher. He was a great teacher. I think he was the one who sat us together.

POWER: He was the one who singled you out, he made you head of our class and said, "Look, no messing around with Power, McCartney, it's only six weeks before the big exams." By the way what are you reading now?

McCARTNEY: The Dalai Lama's The Universe in a Single Atom. Did I ever tell you that I wrote to him once? He had written that, "As Buddhists we believe in not causing any suffering to any sentient beings." Then I found out he was not a vegetarian, so I wrote to him saying, "Forgive me for pointing this out, but if you eat animals then there is some suffering somewhere along the line." His reply is in one of my safe places, which means I have probably lost it! In Buddhism, you aren't meant to get too attached to anything, not even the Dalai Lama's reply! Anyway he replied saying that his doctors had told him he needed it, so I wrote back saying they were wrong.

POWER: We have both lived through the coming to life of the third world. At school we used to think of the masses of underfed people out there. Now these places are throbbing—Indonesia, India, Brazil, China. Even Africa is on the way up—if the current crisis doesn't undermine it. Do you get a sense that the world is making progress?

McCARTNEY: Yes, I do, slowly but surely.

POWER: Will our generation leave the world better than we found it?

McCARTNEY: I don't know about that, but what I do know is that our customs and habits need some quite severe restrictions to save the environment. Industrialisation in India and China is going to create a lot of problems—I once met the minister for the environment of India and he said, "We are about to enter the hole you are just getting out of." But I do feel that spiritually we are moving somewhere. Through mass communication, through the internet and so on, I think the idea that people are the same everywhere is starting to pervade our consciousness and that makes me optimistic. But that doesn't guarantee a benign future. I suppose we have either the Blade Runner future where everything has gone horribly wrong, or you have an enlightened future with the UN becoming more important and people and nations realising that most humans are very similar animals and that we can work things out.

Did you know I was just in Israel playing a concert? I was warned off going there, and then warned off going into the Palestinian territories. But I hooked up with an organisation called One Voice, which is half-Palestinian, half-Israeli, they are working for peace, still hoping for a two-state solution. Their feeling is that it's not far off, it's just hard for the politicians to sign off on it. I met some of them in Tel Aviv. I hadn't realised how intrusive the Israeli state is—if you want to do something like import a car into the Palestinian territories you have to get a permit from Israel. And a man coming to work in Israel has to start queuing at 3am to get to work at 8am. Isn't it time that we knocked all that on the head like we have managed to do, apparently, in Ireland.

POWER: Do you see it coming in the next few years?

McCARTNEY: I was certainly very inspired by these people in One Voice. I went to visit a music school in Bethlehem. I needed to go into Palestine if I was going to play Israel with a clear conscience. Everyone in the band wore the One Voice badges. I think that young people on both sides will get there.

POWER: What about this enormous financial crisis? Has the US been caught out by its own greed?

McCARTNEY: I think there is some truth in that. This is why a lot of us hope for a change in US politics with the election of Obama. He is the man for the job. I was very impressed by his decision to work on the south side of Chicago after getting his degree rather than take a lucrative job on Wall Street. I'm so glad he won. I think he will make a great president.

POWER: As one of the richest men in the world what's it like to be caught in this meltdown?

McCARTNEY: I am not one of the richest men in the world. There are many, many people above me.

POWER: And you have not taken a bad hit?

McCARTNEY: I don't know. If banks go bust I am sure we are all going to be hurting, because that is where we keep our money. In the 1980s when I was being advised to "get debt, man, it's great" I just said, no. I don't trust that idea; my father said: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." What has gone wrong is this idea of borrowing way beyond your means. I remember a while back hearing one minute that Donald Trump was bankrupt and then I heard he was building a fleet of new hotels, I remember thinking how could that happen? I guess he had people's confidence and they loaned him some more. In my case, right from the start my dad said it was not a good idea to buy a guitar on the never-never. You should wait until you could afford it. That is why my bass guitar is quite a cheap instrument.

POWER: Do you still use it?

McCARTNEY: I still use the same one, yes. There were two reasons why I bought the Hofner bass. One was that it was affordable, that was the main reason and the other was it was symmetrical for a left-hander, so it did not look odd. They did not make special left-handed instruments in those days.

POWER: You may not be one of the richest men in the world, but you are very rich. Have you ever thought about giving it all away, like Bill Gates?

McCARTNEY: I admire those guys. I think it's really great. But I have my own personality and my own way of doing things. I was taught as a kid that if you give you should do it modestly, so a lot of my philanthropic efforts are done quietly. A friend of mine once told me off for not giving enough. I said, "You don't know what I give. Let me tell you one or two things. When the tsunami happened I gave money. When my school in Liverpool needed money I gave it to them." I am asked daily for contributions. One Voice have a thing they want me to help with. That is more how I do it. I do not have a massive programme, a mission, because I am still writing songs, I am still making music. As I say, some of the best things that have happened to me have happened unwittingly and I rather like that idea. I think there is a strength in that idea. It does not put you too far above people. There is a danger of you looking like a man with a mission; it starts to separate you from people. So, it is an interesting idea—to spend my time giving money away—but I am an artist and there is a slight difference.

POWER: You must allow space for inspiration.

McCARTNEY: There has to be a big empty bit in my head that tunes can fall into.

POWER: In 500 years time there is a good chance that your stuff will still be sung and played. Does that give you a kind of awed feeling?

McCARTNEY: Yes. That gives me a great feeling. Even when that happens now, if I am in New York and, as happened recently, a black trucker leans out of his truck and says, "Hey, Paul, Let it be!" that thrills me. When we were kids, who would have imagined, in our dusty Alan Durband classroom that we would be here? That I would be sitting in my own office in London…

POWER: How could you imagine we were going to have such a rich life and I would be sitting here with the greatest pop star in the world, the guy I played cricket with in the school yard.

McCARTNEY: Americans would say "awesome." Let me tell you a little story to finish with. I was on a holiday recently in Long Island where I have a little sailboat and this nice lady lets me keep it on her beach. I just sail out very quietly on my own in the boat—me, the wind and the sail; it is a great balance to my high visibility life. As I was setting the boat up there was a group of guys just down the beach and I heard them singing. It was a quiet beach; there was nobody on it except me and them. I was just there staying with my girlfriend. I listened and it sounded so tuneful that I approached, and as I got closer I realised it was my song "Eleanor Rigby" they were singing. I just stood there until they finished and it was great, it was a beautiful arrangement—they turned out to be the Princeton Glee club. And when they finished I applauded them and said, "Can you imagine me as a kid in Liverpool, someone telling me that there would be an a cappella group of young men singing one of my songs on a beach in Long Island in America? It's uncanny."

POWER: I remember you telling me once that "Eleanor Rigby" was influenced by Alan Durband.

McCARTNEY: Yes, in a roundabout way. It was through the passion he instilled in us for the unlikeliest things, like Chaucer. For a 16, 17-year-old Liverpool boy, it is not easy to break through that barrier and get into Chaucer. And the passion he instilled in us definitely found its way into my songs. I think something like "Eleanor Rigby" owes a debt to Durband because I had seen structure, I had seen words put together in a nice order. He was taught by FR Leavis at Cambridge. I had never heard of Leavis, but I remember there was a Housman poem that we rather liked, but Durband insisted it was "sentimental old rubbish" and he said that came from the Leavis influence. So there is me getting this Leavis-Durband lineage. Durband gave me clues. For instance, he told me to read "The Miller's Tale," which was off-syllabus. He said, "They don't want you to look at this stuff, but you should have a look."

POWER: It is full of farts and fucks.

McCARTNEY: Yes the woman famously puts her arse out the window and she says, "Give me a kiss, my love," and he says, "What is this, a beard?" Well, that floored me. And I thought OK, now you have got me. I think we were very lucky to go to that school.

POWER: You kept in touch with Durband?

McCARTNEY: Yes. He retired to Spain and died a couple of years after. He was a lovely man.

POWER: Did you ever tell him the story about the pedigree of "Eleanor Rigby"?

McCARTNEY: No, but I'm not sure I knew then. It's the sort of thing you only notice when you look back.