Interview for The Sunday Times • Friday, August 30, 2019

Paul McCartney on what climate change and Brexit mean for his grandchildren

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
The Sunday Times
Interview by:
Alex O’Connell
Read interview on The Sunday Times
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Album This interview has been made to promote the Hey Grandude! (audiobook) Official album.

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Paul McCartney is a grandude on a mission. Now 77, he has just finished a tour of North America, is back writing songs and busy turning the film It’s a Wonderful Life into his first Broadway musical. More surprisingly, he has written a bedtime story, Hey, Grandude!, a picture book about a magical grandad who takes his grandchildren on adventures.

After a day’s work in the studio in London, he calls me as he’s driving along the Thames, apologising for the poor reception. “Yeah, this is Paul,” he says, the fuzz on the line like the distortion you get when a whammy bar is placed next to an amplifier. “I hope the signal holds. So let’s get going!” he says.

Why write books for babes when your own children are grown up? Heather, the daughter of Linda — and Paul’s adopted daughter — is 56. Mary, Stella and James, his children with Linda, are 49, 47 and 41, and even his youngest child, Beatrice, with his former wife, Heather Mills, is 15.

“I’ve got eight grandchildren of my own,” says McCartney. Mary and Stella have four children each, whose ages range from 7 to 20. “One day one of them just said, ‘Grandude, can you do this?’ and it kind of stuck — the kids started calling me that for a joke and I thought, ‘Well, it is kind of funny.’ It’s a nice old thing, so I wrote some stories about the character Grandude.”

Scribbling a children’s book is a different process to songwriting and McCartney, who has written more than 500 songs in his lifetime, felt somewhat liberated. “It’s different because with lyrics you are thinking of fitting them to music, they’re more like poetry,” he says. “In this case, you are just telling a yarn, so there are not so many structural constrictions, you can go anywhere you want.”

In the 32-page book, illustrated by Kathryn Durst, Grandude, a twinkly-eyed adventurer with a white beard and sandals, takes the grandchildren — “the Chillers” — on epic voyages with the help of a magic compass. They herd bison in the desert and dodge avalanches. He assures me these scenarios were not based on real playdates.

As well as his long-term family homes in East Sussex and London, he has places in New York, the Hamptons and Arizona (his third wife, Nancy Shevell, is American). “I have been to a beach with my grandkids, which was the first location, but, er, that’s about as far as it goes,” he says. “It’s really just a little bedtime book kinda thing.” McCartney has form as the king of understatement having famously calling the Beatles a “great little band”.

What sort of a grandad is he? The sort who parachutes in when there’s a childcare crisis? “Er, no,” he says. “The main time I am with them is on holiday. We have a couple of holidays every year with them.” Earlier in the month he was in the Hamptons, where McCartney has a family house and Stella has a cottage. “That is mainly when I read to them.”

You might imagine that McCartney has shelves heaving with first editions of everything from Hans Christian Andersen to Roald Dahl, collected over the years, but, nope. One of the reasons he wrote the book, he says, was to have something to read to the grandchildren. “I’m not stuffed with kids’ books, I did all of that. So now, when the kids come to stay, I have grown-up books, you know?”

One evening when the grandchildren were over he was so desperate that he turned to poetry.“I had to read to the kids that night so I looked for a suitable poem and hoped that it was suitable for bedtime.” He chose an ee cummings anthology and started on may I feel said he.

McCartney chuckles. “But as I went through it, it became more and more inappropriate. It was a little raunchy, you know, and the kids loved it, of course. And I thought, ‘I don’t know this poem!’ — well, I knew it, but I didn’t know exactly how it went. It’s kind of a boy and a girl talking. It’s this little romantic, flirting thing going on. The kids were giggling as I was digging a hole for myself. It was fun and the joke is that they keep asking for it every year. ‘Grandude, read the poem!’ they say. That’s why I did the book, I haven’t got many kids’ books left any more.”

McCartney does not recall being read to as a child, growing up in Liverpool with his mother, Mary, a maternity nurse, and father, James, a cotton salesman and jazz pianist. “I didn’t know my grandparents, they died before I was born, either on my mum’s side or my dad’s side,” he says.

“My mum and dad weren’t the reading-to-children type, my dad had fixed up headphones in the bedroom which went to the radio so we listened to the radio instead of reading a book.” Radio Luxembourg was his Enid Blyton.

“It was only when I grew up and had kids of my own that I thought to read to them, and they loved it, things like Narnia [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis], the famous ones, hard to remember . . . Harry Potter was too late, Lord of the Rings was too heavy and complicated, more like How to Catch a Star [a picture book by Oliver Jeffers]. It was mainly me reading to my kids, and my own kids read to their kids and probably more likely now the kids read themselves. They are avid readers.”

Once he could read, McCartney remembers tucking in to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (“I was given that as a kid”) and Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty, “which was lovely”. “I was also given [John Bunyan’s] The Pilgrim’s Progress, which I didn’t get on with. It was one of my aunties who was trying to educate me and cleanse my soul,” he says with a laugh. Not much chance of that.

I tell him that I like how his Grandude is not afraid to put the kids in challenging situations; a two-fingers up to risk-averse culture. McCartney pauses to consider. “I agree with you,” he says, “but it wasn’t conscious. I didn’t really worry about whether it was PC or not. They just had fun. It’s a rainy day, they are bored and grumpy, they discover that Grandude is magic and has this compass where he can take them to all the places on the postcard. The other important thing for me was that it wasn’t too long, because some of these stories go on for ever and you are asleep before the kids are. And I wanted it to end with the kids going to bed to get them nice and sleepy.”

He says he was never going to produce a dystopian door-stopper. “When I started writing it, it fell off the end of the pencil, I was just having fun. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t want to get too serious about this.’ I am not a children’s author, I am a songwriter and a performer kinda thing.” Kinda thing? “I just wanted it to remain loose.”

The grandchildren have given their seal of approval. “They have read it themselves.They like it, I am very glad to say.” He is not reinventing himself as a children’s author, however. “I don’t want to become the eyeball of David Walliams,” he says, archly. “It’s too much like work.”

Parenting, he says, is far harder than grandparenting. “You are less responsible. The parents are going to say how much screen time they can have and see to it that they go to bed on time. You [as a grandparent] don’t have to bother with that. I like the babysitting thing because you can spoil the kids a bit. I picked up a rug in America, that says: ‘Grandchildren spoilt here!’ ”

I bring up a passage in Hunter Davies’s authorised biography of the Beatles in which Davies, a friend of McCartney, remembers a holiday in December 1968 when Paul brought Linda, in the very early days of their relationship, and her young daughter, Heather, to Davies’s rented house on the Algarve. Davies and his wife, Margaret, had two small children, Caitlin, Heather’s age, and Jake.

Hunter and Paul had very different parenting styles. Davies writes that Caitlin used to go on expeditions in Paul’s car with Heather and Linda and was allowed to take the wheel — “much to our horror, sitting on Paul’s knee”.

Davies continues: “That started the first of several little clashes over the upbringing of children. Another time, Jake started playing with a huge carving knife, so I grabbed it off him. Paul said that was not the way to train them. They should discover danger for themselves. It was how they learnt. I said, as parents you had to look ahead, anticipate the results of actions that children could not see, otherwise they might end up with fingers missing.”

I wonder if his same relaxed attitude has extended to his grandparenting. McCartney pauses. “Parents are naturally very careful and I think these days much more careful,” he says. “It depends what sort of knives you are talking about. If you just mean knives and forks, which is what I was talking about, then, great, you have to get used to it. But now with the situation these days, you can’t give children dangerous knives.”

However, he says he was always pretty laid-back about a bit of rough and tumble. “My kids always used to climb over the sofa and jump behind and off, sometimes they would fall, but you just cross your fingers and think, ‘I hope they don’t hurt themselves.’ By and large they didn’t and they learnt how to fall, it was good for their physical well-being. I think if you are too mollycoddled then it can be dangerous because if you are in a situation where you need to react quickly you’re not ready for it. So I gave them quite a bit of physical freedom.”

I congratulate him on his adult children and their achievements: Heather, the artist; Mary, the photographer; Stella, the fashion designer; and James, the musician. They appear grounded — no mean feat. “Well that’s nice of you to say that, thanks,” he says. “We certainly tried to not have spoilt brats and tried to treat them like most of their schoolmates. I remember asking the other parents, ‘What do you give the kids for pocket money?’ I didn’t want to go any higher than they were. Our kids weren’t Little Lord Fauntleroys. [He puts on a toffee-nosed voice] “Oh, I get £20!” They are great kids, they have their feet on the ground, so that’s nice.”

I ask him about his grandchildren’s generation and the challenges they face: climate change, Brexit . . . no decent pop music (haha). McCartney is optimistic. “I think you have to take it as it comes. When we were kids it was a different set of dangers. You know, internationally, Suez was happening when I was a kid and you would hear the parents talking about it, but I didn’t care at all. I thought, ‘It is nothing to do with me.’

“So with Brexit, I think as far as the kids are concerned, I don’t think it’s going to worry them.” He’s more concerned about environmental issues and knife crime, although he thinks young people are managing. “Climate change? You know, I hope someone does something sensible soon. It’s really refreshing to see that the people [doing something] are the kids. Other people are just looking for money in the short term. The situation in the big cities is more dangerous. While there are more reports of tragedies happening, the kids I know just kind of get on with it.”

He tells me that one of his grandchildren, he won’t say which, was mugged at knifepoint recently. “In London, one of my grandkids, one of my older grandkids, was mugged and got his phone taken. That takes me back to my childhood when I was mugged in Liverpool, so I am able to talk to him. He was saying the worst thing was that he should have just thumped the guy; he came back and felt a coward. I said, ‘No, no, no, no! The guy had a knife and you don’t know, the guy might be able to use that knife.’ So it is scary these days.”

He explains what happened to him in Liverpool, all those years ago. “When I was a kid it was four guys and they nicked my watch. I was of a similar age. I just happened to be on my own, bigger kids came along and it was the same feeling. [I thought at the time] ‘I have got to learn karate and be a black belt — and then I’ll get ’em!’ It was the worst thing.”

McCartney is reluctant to say that the world has become more perilous. “Each generation has their own set of dangers so you do your best, and hopefully come through it, and show them kindness and love and try to show them the good things in life and” — he pauses, ever the pro, pulling the subject back to the book — “and reading to kids at bedtime is part of it.”

Yet books must compete with screen time. McCartney understands this and says he would have been a gamer if he was growing up now. “There’s no ignoring them, they are here to stay,” he says. “Once kids have got great video games they are gonna want to play them. If I was a kid these days I’d be the same. What I notice is that some parents limit the amount of time. ‘OK, you can have two hours on a Saturday morning and that’s it.’ The kids have been upset, but that is too bad. It’s like when I was a kid, you can’t stay out till 11pm playing football, you have to come in and go to bed. It’s a whole different world — I think that is what everyone is dealing with — it’s just a new set of challenges.” He puts on a mock-advertiser’s voice. “So I suggest that you just get hold of Hey, Grandude! and read it instead!”

Paul McCartney was given the nickname “Grandude” by his grandchildren – MARY MCCARTNEY

Last updated on September 13, 2019


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