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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.”