We’ve all said things we’ve immediately and eternally regretted, and a sudden, thoughtless, inexplicable quip made when 14 year Paul McCartney was told that his mother had died, has haunted the former Beatle ever since.
“What will we do without her money?” the teenage Paul blurted, not knowing how to handle his shock and grief. Then he went to bed and cried all night, clasping his hands in prayer, promising God that he would be good if only his mother could come back.
So, it comes as little surprise, to learn this week that McCartney, now aged 70, has told a Brazilian fan that if he had a Time Machine he would like to “go back and spend time with my mum”.
To lose a mother at any time inevitably leaves a well of regrets. To lose one at 14 can be devastating, and it’s quite possible that the death of Mary McCartney in 1956 from an embolism after an operation for breast cancer, affected Paul’s life for ever.
Michael McCartney, who was then aged 12, remembers the terrible moment, too, and would later say how, just after their mother’s death, his brother Paul’s growing interest in the guitar turned into an obsession. Eight months later, in the summer of 1957, Paul was to meet John Lennon, who was also soon to lose his mother in a road accident. Their shared sense of loss helped, Paul believes, their early friendship.
Decades ago when I was at a Beatles’ recording session at Abbey Road studios, Paul took me into an empty studio, sat at a piano and played me a new song he was writing. It sounded to me like a hymn, and, though at that point, he didn’t have many lyrics, one phrase he repeatedly sang that night stayed in my head for over a year until the record was released. It was “Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom…”
The song, Paul would later say, came about as a result of a dream he’d had in 1968, when, although the Beatles were at the absolute height of their fame and creativity, deep fissures had begun appearing in the camaraderie of the band. John Lennon had recently become attached to Yoko Ono, and the future looked suddenly uncertain for the Beatles, which devastated Paul most of all.
Then suddenly in the middle of the turmoil, Paul found himself dreaming about his mother. “There was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes,” he would recall, “and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly ‘Let it be’.
“It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really as if she’d visited me at this very difficult moment in my life and given me this message. ‘Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow and it will work out.’”
We are all products of our upbringings, and Paul McCartney no less than anyone else. So what kind of parents did he have, and what was she like, the mother who, at 47, died so young and so suddenly.
Like many of their generation Jim and Mary McCartney were, when they married in 1941, already in their thirties, an aspirant lower middle class couple in the largely working class city of Liverpool. Jim, at the time, a fire-fighter in the Blitz, was professionally a cotton salesman, and Mary, born Mary Mohin, a midwife.
In fact, having been in charge of the maternity ward at Walton Hospital, Liverpool, she was awarded the privilege of giving birth to Paul in a private ward, and her ambition for her elder son was that he would become a doctor. Paul’s father, Jim, a really lovely man, had had a little trad jazz band before he married, so there was music already in the little family.
But by the mid Fifties the McCartneys were doing well, and, for Mary, life must have seemed splendid when in 1956 she began to complain of pains in her chest. She put it down to the menopause, and her GP agreed. But then the pains got worse, and when Michael one day came home from school and found her crying, she went to see a specialist. Breast cancer was diagnosed and an operation immediately booked.
Despite instructions to rest, the day before she went into hospital she cleaned the house and washed and pressed her sons’ clothes. She wanted, she told her sister, to leave everything ready, “in case I don’t come back”.
The following day Paul and Michael went to see their mother after the operation. There was blood on the white sheets. “It was terrible,” Paul would remember.
An hour after they left, as the last rites were read to her, Mary turned to her sister and said, “I would have liked to see the boys growing up.”
Jim McCartney was devastated. Seeing him crying was the worst thing for Paul.
Somehow Jim McCartney struggled through with his teenage sons. Both Mary and Jim had wanted to Paul to go to university, but soon music became everything for Paul as another career beckoned.
But, as with all those who lose a parent when young, thoughts of his mother never left him. Nine years after her death he would, without the help of any of the other Beatles, write and record his most famous song, Yesterday. Once again it was a melody that came to him in, he believes, a dream. The lyrics, however, might be telling. “I said something wrong,” he sings, “now I long for yesterday”. Was that a veiled reference to what had, until then, been the worst moment of his life, and the words he wished he’d never said?
On that night in 1968 when he played me Let It Be for the first time, my impromptu private audience was cut short when a fair haired American young woman in a raincoat turned up at the studio along with her small daughter. Her name was Linda Eastman, and she and Paul were to marry, in the teeth of much fan opposition, a few months later. “It was,” he would say, “as if my mum had sent me her.”
That Paul should wish he could go back in time to get to know his own mother better is entirely in character for this very conservative man whose childhood was, in many ways, cut short by her early death. Youth is inevitably a selfish time, and it’s only as we get older that we begin to see the world from the perspective of those who’ve gone before us, and to understand the struggles they made on our behalf.
John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and many others helped make Paul McCartney the man he became, but Mary and Jim McCartney shaped him first. As all our parents first shape us.