She was a beautiful person — it came from something deep inside her.
Jim adored her. I remember how he'd sometimes tell us a story he'd
picked up from the businessmen at the Cotton Exchange. If it was a bit
off color, Mary used to look at him and say, "Husband!"
— Olive Johnson —
(A longtime family friend of the McCartneys,
remembering Paul's mother, Mary)
EVERY MOTHER'S SON
Nobody in Paul McCartney's family can remember a time when they didn't reside in Liverpool. For well over a hundred years now the clannish, closeknit, McCartneys have called England's largest seaport home.
McCartney's father, James, one of nine children, was born July 7, 1902, to tobacco cutter Joseph, and mother Florence Clegg, at 8 Fishguard Street, Everton, one of Liverpool's roughest neighborhoods. Educated peripherally at nearby Steer Street School, Jim was partial to music and taught himself piano, after a fashion, on an old upright.
"My dad was actually a pretty fair pianist, you know," McCartney commented recently. "He played by ear, his left one! Actually, he was deaf in one ear. He fell off a railing or something when he was a kid and busted an eardrum. But yes, he was definitely my strongest musical influence." As a lad of about ten Jim landed his first position, working at Liverpool's Theatre Royal after school. McCartney remembers: "My dad used to work on a spotlight in the music halls and so he got a lot of influence from all that ... He worked on the limelights when it was actually just a piece of lime that they burned. He had to trim pieces of lime and he used to come home after the first house . . . bring home old programs . . . Auntie Millie would iron them and he'd take them back for the second house and flog them again."
At the age of fourteen the elder McCartney entered Liverpool's then-thriving cotton industry as a sample boy for A. Hannay & Company of Chapel Street at wages of just six shillings a week. He worked diligently and, fourteen years later, in 1930, was promoted to the rank of salesman, hawking the company's wares to wholesale merchants from around the world. In his spare time he moonlighted as a gardener for the company's top brass and pursued his passion for music, forming first a swinging musical ensemble billed as the Masked Melody Makers, then later, the popular Liverpool dancehall attraction, Jim Mac's Jazz Band.
A gregarious, young man-about-town, Jim met his future wife, pretty Mary Patricia Mohin after the start of the Second World War at the McCartney family home at 11 Scargreen Avenue, West Derby. Mary, a nurse at nearby Walton Hospital on Rice Lane, was staying temporarily with Jim's newlywed sister Jin and her husband, Harry Harris, and had stopped by to visit the McCartneys that evening after work. Coincidentally, that same night the Third Reich showered Liverpool's busy harbor with bombs, forcing Jim and Mary to spend the night huddled together downstairs. "It was love under duress," Mike McCartney told me in a 1984 interview in Liverpool. "They were together ever after, even until Mum's sad passing."
Born on September 29, 1909, at 2 Third Avenue, Fazakerly, Liverpool, Mary was one of four children. Her mother, Mary Theresa (Danher) Mohin, and a baby sister died during childbirth in January 1919. Shortly afterwards, her father, Owen Mohin, married a surly spinster from Ireland called Rose. He tried hard to integrate his second wife into the family, but Mary, for one, couldn't accept the new woman in her father's life and opted instead to stay with a maternal aunt until she finished school.
At fourteen she went into nursing, accepting a junior position at Alder Hey Hospital, later moving on to a slightly better assignment at Liverpool's Walton Hospital. After ten years of devoted duty she was promoted to the position of full nursing sister. Seven years later she married Jim McCartney.
They officially tied the knot on April 15, 1941, in a full church wedding at St. Swithin's Roman Catholic Church, Gill Moss, in Liverpool. Thereafter they took furnished rooms on Sunburys Road, Anfield. Not long afterwards, work at the Cotton Exchange was suspended. Unfit for military service due to his advancing age (thirty-nine) and ruptured eardrum, McCartney found work at Napier's aircraft factory as a center lathe turner, helping to manufacture fighter planes. On the side he worked as a firefighter.
Their first child, James Paul, was born on June 18, 1942, in a private ward in Walton Hospital. As Mary had been an employee of long standing, the head nurse waived the normal visiting hours and allowed the senior McCartney to visit mother and son whenever he wished. "He looked awful, I couldn't get over it," Mr. McCartney recalled. "When I got home I cried, the first time for years and years ... But the next day he looked more human. And every day after that he got better and better. He turned out a lovely baby in the end."
Following his stint at Napier's McCartney went to work for the Corporation of Liverpool's Cleansing Department as an inspector, making certain that the city's garbage men toed the line in their quest to keep Liverpool clean. Mrs. McCartney too soon went back to work, this time as a visiting health aid. Her second child, Peter Michael, was born January 7, 1944. By now the McCartneys had moved to a new prefab bungalow on Roach Avenue, Knowsley Estate, in Liverpool after outgrowing their old digs in Wallasey. Soon after Mike's birth Mary was stricken with mastitis, an inflammation of the breasts.
After her recovery she was appointed a domiciliary midwife and was thereby entitled to subsidized housing, moving the family first to Sir Thomas White Gardens in Liverpool's bustling city center, and later to 72 Western Avenue on the working-class Speke Estate. Paul's first memory, from around this time, is of someone coming to the door, presenting his mum with a lovely, hand-colored, plaster dog. He is not sure why, but figures it was probably in appreciation of some special kindness or concern she had shown towards one of her many new mothers. People stopped by quite often just to say thanks or maybe even leave her a little present. According to her family, that was the kind of affection she inspired. "I have another memory of hiding from someone, then hitting them over the head with an iron bar," McCartney recalls, "but I think the plaster dog was the earliest."
Intent on seeing her little family steadily move up in the world, by 1949 Mary had wangled yet another new home from the council, this one a large, reasonably well-equipped row house at 12 Ardwick Road on the outer reaches of Speke. Shortly after moving in, the little McCartney lads almost lost their lives by falling into a nearby rain-filled lime pit their father had repeatedly warned them against, made even more deadly by the fact that neither of the brothers had yet learned how to swim. After much hysterical thrashing about, Mike was finally able to grab onto an old tree limb, thus holding them both aloft until a neighbor heard their pitiful pleas for help and came to the rescue.
Their first school was Stockton Wood Road Infants' School. Although both brothers were baptized Catholic, after much deliberation their parents decided not to send them to a church-run school, opting instead for the more down-to-earth values encouraged by the state. While at Stockton Wood young Paul had occasion to view his very first flick. It was a big-screen adaptation of British radio hero Dick Barton, Special Agent. So emotionally overwhelming it was to the little boy that only a few death-defying minutes into the film he jumped up, pushed his way past his thoroughly enthralled schoolmates, and ran like the dickens outdoors.
By 1950 the mushrooming post-war birth rate had made Stockton Wood School hopelessly overcrowded. As a result, a number of children were shifted to Joseph Williams Primary School in Gateacre, a bouncy, thirty-minute bus ride into what was then still the heart of Liverpool's balmy countryside. At Joseph Williams young master McCartney grew rather portly. It was "the only time anything outwardly affected him," his brother observed, "and I remember the feeling of sheer one-upmanship whenever we had an argument, to counter with a lightning 'Fatty!' before running like hell to escape the ensuing wrath."
Despite the many petty tribulations of youth, Paul was actually quite a disciplined and committed student. Easily passing the feared eleven-plus examination, an educational must in Britain for those wishing to advance to university, McCartney was admitted to the Liverpool Institute on Mount Street in 1953. It was here that his first "artistic" expression blossomed. Going through her son's pockets one wash day, his mother happened upon an explicit drawing of a naked lady, with great care and attention having been paid by the artist to the pubic area. For two agonizing days McCartney steadfastly and convincingly held his ground. "It must have been done by my mate, Kenny Alpin," he protested over and over. In the end, however, the strain became too great and he eventually confessed. "The shame was terrible," he admitted years later. From that moment on McCartney made sure he remembered to check his shirt pockets.
Without question one of young Paul's greatest natural attributes was his smooth sense of diplomacy and persuasive charm. Apprehended red-handed perpetrating any number of naughty boyish pranks (on one occasion he and his brother almost accidentally burned down their Aunt Jin's garage while conducting an experiment to see if fire would defy the law of gravity and burn upwards), he generally managed to weasel his way out, often leaving brother Mike to take the heat. While never brutal, Jim McCartney believed in the concept of corporal punishment. On one occasion when the two broth-ers had crossed the line of acceptable behavior and were caught out, only the more stubbornly honest Mike was spanked. "Tell him you didn't do it and he'll stop," the cagey Paul shouted. On those rare occasions, however, when there was no possible way to avoid the inevitable, Paul would stand silent and emotionless as his father disciplined him. Afterwards, Paul would quietly engage in some tiny act of residential sabotage like sneaking into his parents' bedroom and tearing his mum's prized lace curtains almost imperceptibly an inch or two along the bottom edge. "It was just Paul's way," his dad rationalized years later.
Although not really the student his brother was, Mike too soon racked up the appropriate percentages and was admitted to the Institute. For Mary it was a triumph. Both her boys were now well on their way to respectable careers and prosperous futures. With a good, solid education behind them the sky was the limit. If they were fortunate they might even one day become teachers themselves. It was an exciting possibility. Daydreams aside, however, at the "Inny" (as the boys affectionately called it) McCartney continued to do well scholastically, eventually leaving the school with accumulated "0" levels in Spanish, German, and French.
Consistently popular with both his masters and schoolmates, Paul was voted "head boy" several times during his career at the Institute. This rare honor gave young McCartney the proud privilege of assisting teachers such as English professor Alan "Dusty" Durband with a multitude of classroom chores including roll call, delivering notes back and forth to the office, and furnishing his fellow students with the necessary school supplies. "He was always respected by the other boys," remembers Durband.
I don't remember him playing the fool; he was a well-behaved sort of fellow. But I think he was privately what he became publicly — the person always ready with a witty comment: he would make all his mates and peers collapse with laughter at the sotto voce remark, rather than the public one. It was very much the Liverpool wit: he would be very much like a joker would be, making a nuisance of himself on the front row. He was hardly a withdrawn figure. ... He was responsible for organizing the class, but never in any bootlicking way — he was just a good executive.
Characteristically eager to please those he perceived to be in positions of authority, inwardly McCartney harbored very mixed feelings about his life at school. "Homework was a right drag," he later confessed in Hunter Davies' The Beatles: The Authorized Biography.
I just couldn't stand staying in on a summer night when all the other kids were out playing. There was a field opposite our house in Ardwick and I could look out the window and see them all having a good time. There weren't many other kids from the Institute living round our way. I was called a college pudding, 'fucking college puddin' was what they said.
All I wanted was women, money, and clothes. I used to do a bit of stealing, things like ciggies. We'd go into empty shops, when the man was in the house part at the back, and take some before he came in. For years, what I wanted out of life was SI00. I thought with that I could have a house, a guitar, and a car. So, if money had been the scene, I'd have gone wild.
Later the footloose McCartney family moved house again. This time home was a neat and airy row house at 20 Forthlin Row, in Allerton. Notably, this was their first residence that had the benefit of indoor plumbing, quite a comfort on cold and rainy Liverpool mornings. Ensconced as they now were in such heady, lower-middle-class comfort, the conscientious McCartneys had great reason to feel confident about the future. Tragically, on October 31, 1956, Mary McCartney died suddenly after an operation for breast cancer at Liverpool's Northern Hospital.
Mike had accidentally stumbled upon his mother softly crying in her bedroom one afternoon after school. She was clutching a crucifix and a photograph of a distant relative, now a priest. Mike figured he and Paul must have done something terrible to upset her. Desperate to protect her sons, Mary never even told them she was sick. For quite awhile,
apparently, she even hid it from herself, treating the intense pain with Bisodol, an over-the-counter medicine, and explaining it away to her husband as simply "the change." Deep down of course, Mary, a top-drawer nurse for twenty-three years, must have realized something was very, very wrong. Admitted to the hospital just two days prior to her death, she confided to a relative that she would have loved to see her boys growing up. Just before the end, a pair of rosary beads were tied to her wrists and the hospital priest gave the agonized woman the last rites of the Catholic church. Paul was only fourteen, Mike just twelve.
That evening the two boys cried themselves to sleep. Paul later admitted it was his mother's untimely death that initially turned him off religion; he had prayed silently for days for his loving mother to return home. "Daft prayers, you know; if you bring her back, I'll be very, very good for always. I thought, it just shows how stupid religion is. See, the prayers didn't work, when I really needed them to as well."
The week of the funeral Paul and Mike went to stay with their Auntie Jin, their father having no wish for them to see him so badly broken up. Mary was finally laid to rest on November 3,1956, at Yew Tree Cemetery, on Finch Lane, Huyton. Mike McCartney, perhaps more adept than his brother at expressing his emotions on a one-to-one basis, reflected on mother Mary's passing in an interview with British journalist George Tremlett:
I think about her because she was great and I was very close to her .. . She was a good woman, and that's why I feel so sentimental about our childhood ... really... At that age, you have no idea how tough you are going to have to be when you go out into the world. My mum's death was my first big knock. But my dad taught me a lot of things; we both owe him a lot... Of course, it would have been easy for him to have gone off getting drunk every night. But he didn't. He stayed at home and looked after us ... he could have gone right to the top in business if he had played the rules like they are now, if he had wanted to kill... It would have meant neglecting us, and he wasn't prepared to do that, either ...
It has rubbed onto both of us; neither of us has really got the killer streak. We didn't realize it so much at the time but now Paul and I are very grateful to him, and we realize what a fine man he is. We look back now, and we think of Mum, and we see how beautiful it all was, and we understand now what he must have gone through when she died. If he had gone off with other women, and gone out getting drunk, we would have been so screwed up inside.
But how did Mary's death really affect Paul? It seems he is simply more comfortable — and more effective — expressing what matters most to him through his music. His extemporaneous remarks often conceal, more than they reveal, his true feelings. "It's almost like once something really touches a nerve with him the only convenient reaction in his repertoire is to instantly recoil," says a friend. "But you can rest assured Paul's actually as emotionally vulnerable as anyone else, perhaps even more so. It's just a defense mechanism, that's all. Anyone who chooses to read it differently is simply uninformed."
Not surprisingly, after Mary died life on Forthlin Row was far different for the McCartneys. Jim, of course, was now forced to be both breadwinner and full-time housekeeper. Although his sisters, Mill and Jin, helped out when and where they could it was still a terrible strain on the fifty-three-year-old salesman. "The winters were bad," the elder McCartney was quoted as saying in 1967. "The boys had to light the fires themselves when they came home from school. I did all the cooking. The biggest headache was what sort of parent was I going to be. When my wife had been alive, I'd been the one who chastised them. I delivered the hard stuff when it was needed. My wife had done the soft stuff. . . Now I had to decide whether to be a father or a mother or both." And of course the pain of losing his wife never really went away. "I Missed my wife," he reflected. "It knocked me for six when she died."
Foremost in Jim McCartney's homespun philosophy of child rearing was his concept of what Paul and Mike termed "the two 'ations,'" short for "toleration" and "moderation." Jim lectured that if only his sons would take these two watchwords to heart then they would avoid hurting not only others, but ultimately themselves as well. Remarkably, both McCartney brothers seem to have heeded his sage advice. Both seem to rally for the underdog, and try to avoid, as far as possible, deliberately hurting anyone. Perhaps Mike was right; what old Jim lacked in "killer instinct" he more than made up for with his lifelong commitment to kindness, compassion, and a thoroughly British sense of fair play, all attributes that young Paul, in particular, would find useful in the extraordinary years to come.
"Lose a mother and find a guitar," goes Mike McCartney's memorable line regarding his elder brother's eventual fascination with music. In many ways, this simple sentiment says a lot about what was going on inside his soon-to-be-famous brother back then.
As children neither of the boys really showed any special interest in music. Their father did sign them up for piano lessons as youngsters but made the mistake of starting them in the summer when all their little mates were buzzing around outside, wanting them to come out to play. After about two or three lessons, getting them to practice became a high-stress situation and so, reluctantly, Jim allowed them to quit. Later he insisted Paul try out for a spot in the Liverpool Cathedral Choir but he resisted and apparently deliberately cracked his voice at the audition. Eventually though, Paul did sing in the St. Chad's Choir off Penny Lane for a time but soon tired of the choirmaster's overly regimented approach and dropped out.
Sometime later, Paul inherited from his father an old trumpet on which he learned to pick out a few tunes such as "When the Saints Go Marching In" by ear. He was fond of listening to the radio and especially enjoyed singing old film tunes such as "White Christmas," "Over the Rainbow," and various Fred Astaire numbers. "I like a nice tune, you know," he observed in the early seventies.
The first concert he ever attended was a performance by Eric Delany's Band at the Liverpool Empire. He also occasionally went to nudie shows with his mates at an establishment called the Pavilion. "They would strip off actually starkers," he later remembered. "Some of them were all right as well. It was funny letting us in at that age."
Following his short-lived flirtation with the trumpet Paul suddenly picked up on the guitar. His first instrument, a low-budget acoustic, soon became the overriding force in his life. "It's funny, but everyone remembers their first string box," he recalls. "Mine was a Zenith. I'd no idea where it was going to lead at the time ... I started bashing away and pretty soon had the basic chords well and truly learnt. Then I got a bit more ambitious and bought a solid Rosati (a 'Lucky Seven'). It only had two strings and when I played it it didn't produce a very melodic sound. But I kept the volume right down and it seemed okay to me." According to his brother, McCartney became obsessed: "He was lost. He didn't have time to eat or think about anything else. He played it on the lavatory, in the bath, everywhere."
One summer's holiday at Butlin's in Filey, Yorkshire, the two siblings entered something called The People's National Talent Contest, performing together, reasonably enough, as "The McCartney Brothers," squawking out what Mike has termed a "passable" rendering of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love."
Paul then launched into a raucous version of Little Richard's signature, "Long Tall Sally." Literally shivering with stage fright before, during, and after the jittery performance, Mike effectively put a premature end to the fab new singing duo right then and there by rushing offstage to throw up into the very nearest container. Paul remembers:
[At Butlin's] they used to have these talent shows, and my cousin-in-law was one of the red coats who had something to do with the entertainment. He called us up on the stage. I had roy guitar with me. Looking back on it, it must have been a put-up job; I don't know what I was doing there with my guitar. I probably asked him to get me up. I went up with my brother, Mike, who had just recovered from breaking his arm and looked all pale. He had his arm in a big sling . . . We did "Bye Bye Love," and then I finished with "Long Tall Sally."
Ever since I heard Little Richard's version, I started imitiating him. It was just straight imitation, really, which had gradually become my version of it as much as Richard's. I started doing it in one of the classrooms at school; it was just one of the imitations I could do well. I could do Fats Domino, I could do Elvis, I could do a few people. I still can!
Along with McCartney's interest in the guitar came a growing awareness of rock 'n' roll. Before long it wasn't just the music that had captured his imagination but the whole freewheeling, rock lifestyle as well. A fellow classmate at the Institute, Ian James, also took up the guitar, and soon the two were cycling around Liverpool with their instruments strapped to their backs, looking for places to play. Much to Jim McCartney's dismay Paul had even taken to wearing the sort of clothes a guitar-picking teddy boy might choose. With his long, slicked-back hair, piled high above his forehead, narrow drainpipe trousers, and white, sparkly sportscoat, his perpetually innocent, choirboy face seemed incongruous. At fourteen he was far from being a tough Liverpool teddy boy, but he was also ivy leagues away from being the proper English schoolboy his father would have preferred.
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Hopping on board the bus, mornings, for the dreamy, half-hour ride to school, McCartney soon made friends with the driver's son, George Harrison, who, like McCartney, was smitten with the guitar. The two soon started hanging out together after school and inevitably began the thankless job of teaching themselves the new chords necessary to carry forward their boyish fantasies of one day playing in a big group.
Those fantasies would soon move a major step closer to reality.