Celebrities, Music

Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction

The Times December 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

What must it be like to watch your child’s life spiral into drug-addicted chaos, reported daily by a rapacious press? Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction, its impact on the Winehouse clan, and why he believes she’s finally getting better

Photo – Phil Fisk

mitch winehouse

So, let’s get the great big elephant out of the room straightaway. Is there something a bit iffy about the way Mitch Winehouse appears to be making a career on the back of his daughter’s demons? What career, you might ask. Well, there are at least two documentaries in the pipeline in which he features large as day, as well as Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant, an online TV series that films him in his cab sounding off to various celebrity-lite passengers (David Hasselhoff; someone called Shaggy, who was told to take his feet off the seat) – “And don’t get me started on that Lady Gaga…” and so on – and now he’s even recording an album of his own, Rush of Love, due to be released in spring.

Isn’t it a bit weird, I ask him, since he would never have got an album out if… “Never. Not in a million years,” he jumps in. “Course not. I mean, I’m not an idiot. I know that I got the album ’cos I’m Amy’s dad.”

You love the limelight? “That’s a very good question, and you wanna know the truth? I do. There’s no getting away from it, Ginny. But I didn’t ask to go before the Commons select committee [to talk about addiction in families], just like I didn’t ask to go on GMTV or This Morning or Ian Wright’s show. They invited me. What am I supposed to do? Not go? And if I said, ‘I didn’t enjoy it,’ I’d be lying because I do enjoy it. But I don’t want it to come across that I’m big-headed and I love the limelight for the sake of it.”

It was for Amy’s sake, initially – a self-confessed “Daddy’s girl” with those words tattooed on her arm – that her father came to the fore to protest about various untruths, as he sees it, being written about his daughter. And now that the media have got a taste of Mitch, we find him distinctly more-ish. Although it’s debatable how much of that has to do with him being a convenient conduit to channel Amy, whose talent – and, more so, the personal turmoil that threatens to destroy it – makes her such an object of fascination.

For her father, of course, this objectification of Amy is part of the problem. The more insatiable the public interest in the details of her downward spiral, the longer it will take her to recover – or, according to him, stay recovered: “My daughter is a recovering addict. She is not a drug addict now.” He says she has been clean of drugs for a year. A whole year? “Yes, a whole year.” But according to one of the documentary-makers, Daphne Barak, who spent time with father and daughter in St Lucia and later wrote about it, Mitch had said there had been relapses since Christmas and, “She [Amy] didn’t [give up drugs] all of a sudden; she was talking about it for two or three months.”

When he talks to me, however, Mitch’s version of events is rather different. He tells me his daughter declared in August last year, “‘Dad, that’s it. I’m not taking drugs any more. I’m done.’ It did take her a couple of months, but she actually came off them in about October.” Part of me thinks that as Amy’s father, he is entitled to offer whatever edit on his daughter’s progress he wishes. But there is also something Faustian about accepting the role of the singer’s public mouthpiece that makes me want him to be, at least, consistent in what he tells us. At one point, he says apropos of an anecdote about him commanding Mick Jagger to pipe down during one of her performances: “What’s good about it is that it’s a true story. Normally, I make these things up.” Later, I make him swear on his daughter’s love that he hasn’t made up anything in this interview, and he does. So since he seems to me to be a good, warm-hearted bloke, we’ll take him at his word.

Barak, who did not endear herself to either her rival documentary-makers (with their My Daughter Amy as opposed to her Saving Amy) or her subjects, painted a grim portrait of Amy as a tragic child-woman – needy and obnoxious, in turn – who has substituted her drug addiction for alcohol abuse. Is this true? “Well, you know, having spoken to many counsellors and therapists and experts in the field, normally one addiction can follow another. But this isn’t an addiction; it’s just that she drinks too much every now and again,” he says. “It’s not alcoholism. I would say that she doesn’t drink every day, but when she drinks, she drinks a lot.

“But there are also positive addictions, like her gym work. She’s got the physiology – if that’s the right word – of, like, an Olympic athlete. The doctor who saw me last week said: ‘She could go into the Olympics, she’s so fit.’”

Is she happy? “Well… it’s difficult to know really. I mean, she’s my daughter and we’re very close but she’s not gonna tell me her most intimate things.” But does she seem happy to you? “Most of the time.”

Amy has been back in London, from her extended Caribbean sojourn, for about three months, working on songs for her new album and living in Barnet, near her mother. Her father says she wants to move back to Camden. Is that a source of debate for you? (He had earlier in our conversation told me that an addict had to be removed from surroundings that trigger their addiction.) “Well, it’s her choice – she’s 26 years old – and it’s her money.” But the thought of it makes you anxious? “What I was saying to you before – and I’m not talking about Amy, because Amy hasn’t taken drugs for a year – is if anybody wants drugs, they could be in Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, and they’d pick up the phone and within an hour, somebody will be there with drugs. So it doesn’t matter where you are.”

This is not the first time that Mitch seems to contradict himself, but the role of a loving parent in dealing with a child – who remains that father’s child, regardless of his or her age – is, perhaps, necessarily contradictory. You want to protect your daughter from herself, and from those who would prey on her vulnerabilities; you want to protect her from the scrutiny of the public and the press. You consider tough love or maybe that she needs more love. Most of all, it seems – certainly in Mitch’s case – that you want to believe that every small, teetering step towards getting your child back from the possibility of extinction might presage the larger step into her being restored to the blithe, healthy spirit she once was. If his own “recovery” – and it’s interesting that he uses that word for himself – involves a measure of blanking out and delusion (another word he uses), then so be it.

There is a poignant moment when Mitch is crooning some of the songs from his new album (Sinatra, but not the standards; Antônio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive; four new songs by Tony “Save Your Kisses for Me” Hiller – “They’re much better than that; more like Cole Porter”) and I ask him whether he has a vocal coach. “I don’t need one,” he says, mock-outraged. “I taught Amy to sing, for God’s sake! She used to stand on the table when she was 2, even younger…and I would sing…” He starts to croon, and I swear there’s a trace of that distinctive, slightly adenoidal Amyness about his voice. “…‘Are the stars out tonight? I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright/ Cause I only have eyes for…’ and she would sing ‘you’ in her little voice. Oh, she was so cute.”

Any parent can imagine the pain of seeing their child go off the rails so spectacularly. How did that dear little girl end up with blood-stained pumps and wild eyes, scoring drugs from a prostitute, fighting with her (now ex) husband, Blake Fielder-Civil? “I can’t remember how I felt,” he says. “Well, I do remember how I felt; I felt terrible. But part of the way I protect myself, and it’s not only me who does this – it happens with all the families of recovering addicts – is that as things progress positively, they kind of draw veils down a little bit. You can’t forget entirely.”

One of the reasons he agreed to participate in My Daughter Amy, Mitch says, is that although Amy was beginning to emerge “from 18 months of hell”, she was still being portrayed as “‘Junkie Amy’ and ‘Wino’ and all the rest of the stuff they do. And yet Amy was starting to get better, remarkably better, and I felt this was a chance to redress the balance and maybe show how she really is. How she is now.”

Back then, he admits that he did succumb to despair, although he never really could bring himself to believe that Amy might die: “People said that I wrote her obituary. Absolute rubbish.” He took to going to bed with his mobile phone, knowing that it could go at three in the morning. “And I’d be waiting for the phone to ring. But it was almost as bad if it didn’t ring. Because if the phone didn’t ring, why didn’t it ring? Is it because something bad has happened? Is it because it’s been a good night? You know, there is a whole raft of emotions. What I found amazing is that if you had told me about this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But you are programmed genetically to protect yourself emotionally and you won’t know that until, God forbid, you are in that situation.

“And delusion is part of the protection. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of families [in therapy groups dealing with addiction], nice middle-class and working-class people, who were normal and didn’t abuse their children, and we have had exactly that conversation – ‘How are you able to cope with this?’ – and part of it is delusion, because how else can you survive? It’s all about very, very small steps forward, the occasional big step backwards, small steps forward… You cling on to little things; little things become massive triumphs.”

I had read that Amy suffered from manic depression but refused to take medication for it. Is that so? “She’s never been diagnosed as a manic depressive. Ever.” Has she ever been thought to be? “Not as far as I know.” Frankly, I would have thought that if there were a possibility that this might be the case, it would have emerged by now. Is there any manic depression in the family? “I’m pretty sure there’s none.” What about addictive behaviour? “Kindly leave my Uncle Alfie out of this, please,” he says crossly. Sorry? “Nah, that’s a line from Hancock… ‘Is there any insanity in your family?’ ‘Please can you leave my Uncle Whatever out of this.’”

What about his own experience of drugs?

“I once took a puff of a marijuana whatever – reefer – and I thought, ‘Why is everyone going mad? This is rubbish.’ I’d rather go and eat a bagel [which he pronounces ‘bygel’, very Yiddishly] or something.” Drink? “I have a glass of wine every now and then.”

I ask how many times Amy has done rehab but, apparently, she really meant it when she sang, “No! No! No!” “Yeah, she’s got a thing about it… I don’t know why, ’cos there’s obviously hundreds of thousands of cases of people going into rehab and having marvellous results,” her dad says.

“She’s had counselling and therapy but she’s got this thing about being able to sort a lot out in her own mind. You could argue that it wouldn’t work for everybody, but at the moment it’s working for her.”

So what’s his explanation for Amy’s descent? “I would say that she couldn’t deal with fame and in her mind, she had image problems, which she shouldn’t have done ’cos she’s lovely, and at the time that she was vulnerable, she met Blake who, in my mind, fed on that vulnerability and, you know, it was, ‘I love you, darling. Here’s some drugs.’” (Blake has admitted that he introduced Amy to crack and heroin.)

Is he totally out of the picture now? “Hope so. It will be a disaster if he’s not out of the picture.” Do you have anything to do with him or his family? “None whatsoever. I think his family saw [us as] a fantastic opportunity.”

Isn’t there talk about a book coming out? “You’re kidding! See what I mean? Now why would anybody be interested in a book that that woman [his mother] is going to write about her son, who is a criminal? He’s a drug addict, he’s a liar. He kicked someone in the head [so hard that the victim’s face had to be reconstructed], he tried to pervert the course of justice and his mother’s going to write a book about him?”

No, I think he was going to write a book (which was to have been a joint effort with his ex); that’s what I read anyway. “He’s gonna write a book? What’s he gonna write a book about?” My life with Amy? My drugs hell? “OK, that’s up to him. We need the money; we’ll be able to sue him. Jesus Christ. I think I have heard something about this before. It’s pathetic. Anyway, I don’t want to get aggravated by it.”

It’s only at the end of the interview that Mitch mentions that for the past two years – precipitated by Amy’s annus (or so) horribilis – he has suffered from panic attacks that have made it impossible for him to drive his cab. “If I heard over the radio that the traffic was gridlocked, it would come on,” he says. Now he’s worried that if he took a passenger, he might have forgotten the best way to go. Anyway, as he admits, he’s no longer reliant on cabbing for an income since he and Janis (Amy’s mum, his ex, who suffers from multiple sclerosis) now run their daughter’s business, which is worth £5 million – half of what it was the previous year. (So, this is what Mitch meant when he said, “We need the money.”)

When we had started talking about Amy’s troubles, he said that, “My own feeling is that Amy was affected by Janis’s and my break-up [when Amy was 9], although my son [Alex] and daughter saw even more of me. In the end, they said, ‘Dad, you really don’t have to come here every day!’ But I couldn’t be without them. I had to see them every day – which was causing Janis problems. But, obviously, when I left home I was guilt-ridden; not because of Janis, but because of the children. Although it was definitely the right thing to do.”

Had you been arguing a lot? “No, you couldn’t argue with Janis. She’s such a lovely, well-centred person.” But unfortunately you had fallen in love with someone else (Jane, who worked with him in a double-glazing business and to whom he has been married ever since)? “Exactly. It happens. But Amy has known Jane since she was 18 months old and she loved her then and she does now. Everyone loves Jane. Janis loves Jane. They all love each other! It’s fantastic!”

He comes from a huge Jewish family – tailors on his mother’s side; barbers and cabbies on his father’s – and was brought up not far from where we are conducting our interview in a film production office in Commercial Street, East London. “We had six people living in a house, including my uncle, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my aunty, and a lodger from the Holocaust who lived upstairs, and everyone was kissing and cuddling you. It was great in those days.

“And when you come from the East End, you do whatever you can to protect your family. When we moved to Southgate in North London, we were the only Jewish family there and they thought Jews had horns in their heads or something. So I was fighting all the time – that’s what you did, when we were kids. I’m not a tough guy or anything like that, but I know how to protect my family.”

When were you last in a fight? “In a fight?! I’m 59 years old! If I had a fight now I’d die. In a fight? About 20 years ago.” He does admit to throwing Pete Doherty out on his ear, when Amy was late for a gig and our Rimbaud wannabe was sprawled on her bed, being creative. When I ask Mitch what he thinks of Pete, his answer is succinct: “He’s an a***hole, but an enormously talented a***hole.” The problem for Mitch is that Pete’s attitude towards drugs is the same as his former son-in-law’s, who once told him: “I don’t want to give up drugs. I like them.”

Nick Cave – a reformed junkie – told me he used to feel much the same way. But he also said, “I think the heroin addict becomes one in order to separate himself from the rest of society. It’s a very masochistic act. For a long time, it served me well, but there did come a point when it became intolerable. When it became clear that it was interfering with things that were ultimately more important to me – like my artistic aspirations.”

Cave was a good deal older than Winehouse when he finally came to that conclusion, and it takes a certain level of maturity to weigh up your priorities in life. Amy has had a number of serious health scares – such as the threat of emphysema – but is she evolved enough to comprehend that her significant talent is worth fighting for, let alone her own health?

It’s worth reminding ourselves of her triumphs before her (hopefully short-lived) fall. Her debut album, Frank, in 2003, was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. With Back to Black, its follow-up in 2006, she became the first British singer to win five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. In 2007, she won the Brit award for best British female artist. She has won the Ivor Novello songwriting award three times.

Her dad loves Frank: “It was a much better time for her. The songs were great, innocent-ish. Back to Black obviously sold three trillion copies or whatever but, of course, to me, I can’t play the album any more because a lot of the songs are about Blake. ‘If my man were fighting’ – I mean how great is this – ‘If my man were fighting/ Some unholy war/ I would be beside him.’ But she’s talking about depression, ’cos he’s not around and whatever, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, I don’t wanna listen to this album much any more.’ It reminds me of a really bad time and part of my recovery is to put that aside.”

He wasn’t best pleased when he first heard What Is It About Men?, with its stinging lyrics: “Understand, once he was a family man/ So surely I would never, ever go through it first hand/ Emulate all the s*** my mother hated.” “I thought, ‘How dare you?’ and when I read it, I thought, ‘You’ve got it bang on.’ ‘All the s*** my mother hated’ – perfect. Absolutely perfect. The way she encapsulated it in a sentence. At least I’m big enough to admit it.”

He’s heard some lines from a new song, Queen of Spades, Amy wrote for her paternal grandmother, Cynthia (teenage sweetheart of the late jazzman, Ronnie Scott), whose death three years ago was thought to have contributed to her granddaughter’s descent: “She was a massive influence on Amy because she brought the kids up when we worked.”

They’ve been talking quite a lot about songwriting recently; perhaps working on his own album is giving Mitch some ideas of his own. “What she does is carry loads of books around with her all the time, and I say to her, ‘What are you doing?’ and she says, ‘I’m just writing’. So when she’s gonna write the album, she does it in a month. She writes little stanzas which she uses and goes back to.

“Actually, you tend to forget… because to me, she’s Amy, my daughter, I tend to forget that she’s actually a genius. And those aren’t my words. She’s got people thinking she’s a genius and it’s not the singing so much as the songs. I say to her, ‘Amy, when you write a song, what do you do first? Do you write the music or do you write the lyrics?’ And she looks at me, like to say, ‘Aw, Dad!’, like I should know! So with Rehab, it’s re-hab – bah, bah. ‘They tried to make me go to re-hab,’” he sings rather unconvincingly, à la Matt Monro, “so she’s explaining to me about beats, but I’m still not quite sure what she does.”

What parts of you do you see in her? (They are remarkably similar physically around the eyes and strong eyebrows.) “She never gives in, ever. She’s resolute and brave and – although, obviously, there is a weakness in her character – nothing can beat her down when she sets her mind on it. And she’s got a great sense of humour. Like me, she’s a great practical joker. I mean, with us it’s like a fine art.”

Mitch is obviously partial, but Lily Allen said something similar: “I know Amy Winehouse well. And she is very different to what people portray her as being. Yes, she does get out of her mind on drugs sometimes, but she is also a very clever, intelligent, witty, funny person who can hold it together. You just don’t see that side.”

What would he wish for his daughter if he could wave a magic wand? “What I would want her to be is as she is – a normal, lovely person with a loving family – and to find a man, or a woman, if she wants…” Oh! Is she…? “No, no, no, no! A person she loves and who loves her and who cherishes her and wants to have children with her. That’s what I hope and I don’t care about her career. Well, I do care about her career, but it’s secondary. In other words, I’d prefer it if she had a normal life being a normal person, but she’s not.”

Finally, what does he think Amy’s new album will be about? Might there be any sunny songs? “I doubt that for one second! Every song Amy writes is like… [He sticks an imaginary knife into his substantial tum and circles around as though he is eviscerating his entrails.] In Yiddish, it’s ‘schlapping your kishkas [your insides] out’. Amy’s a great one for schlapping her kishkas – because every song is, like, heartbreak… sorrow… depression,” he thumps out the words. “She’s never gonna write a song about, ‘You look lovely in the moonlight, my darling, give me a kiss.’ I mean, that’s just never gonna happen, is it?”

* * *

My Daughter Amy is on at 7.30pm on January 8, 2010, on Channel 4, made by Transparent Television. Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant is on livingtv.co.uk every Wednesday

Celebrities, Music

Who wants to be good?

THE TIMES – March 9, 2006
Ginny Dougary

30 years after the birth of punk, Malcolm McLaren reveals that his gran invented it — and taught him the virtues of being bad

In the age of the soundbite, Malcolm McLaren is an anachronism. Ask him a question and he’ll tell you a long and meandering story. The stories are never ordinary since his is a life marked by improbability and melo- drama. There’s a strong whiff of theatricality about the man who spent his childhood sitting at the feet of his grandmother, Rose, while she read Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol to him again and again. As he narrates, he turns into the characters he is describing — adopting their voices and accents: a plodding northern brogue for his ex-partner-in-punk, the fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood; a Warren Mitchell Jewish archetype for his grandmother, wheedling and hectoring, while she gleefully wreaks havoc through her family’s life; a sneery whine for Johnny Rotten.

Something else happens as you get drawn into his atmospheric swirl — the walk-on parts of the likes of Cat Stevens and Paul McCartney in unlikely guises; the discovery of a missing father in the mists of the Romney Marshes; the confusion of tenderness on seeing Joe Corre, McLaren and Westwood’s son, cradling the duo’s newborn granddaughter, Cora . . . You watch the 60-year-old, tweed-suited McLaren, cherubic russet curls now shorn and a shade between chestnut and grey, while the images that he is conjuring flicker cinematically in your mind’s eye, and you can’t help but think what an extraordinary movie his life story would make.
He is currently preoccupied with quite a different film — a fictionalised account of Fast Food Nation, the exposé of America’s fast-food industry. McLaren picked the book up five or six years ago, just before it started to creep up The New York Times’s bestseller list, and became convinced that it should be turned into a big Hollywood film playing in shopping malls all over the US rather than a high-intentioned documentary screened in a few arthouse cinemas.

Consequently the film he is co-producing with fellow Brit Jeremy Thomas — who he worked with years ago on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle — stars Bruce Willis and Kris Kristofferson and is directed by Richard “School of Rock” Linklater. The film-makers are planning to show it at Cannes in May.

For anyone buying into the McLaren mythol- ogy — he has been variously described as “the most evil man on earth” (Johnny Rotten) and “amoral” (by almost everyone else) — it is interesting that the creator of a movement associated with nihilistic anarchy should even concern himself with the conditions of animals, workers, and what goes into our bellies. But then McLaren is full of surprises, not least of which is that with a background like his, he didn’t end up a serial killer.

“Oh, those were the very words of my second major girlfriend, Lauren Hutton [the gorgeous gap-toothed model and actress] in Hollywood,” McLaren beams. “That’s exactly what she said” — presumably just before marching him off to a therapist.

McLaren is here ostensibly to discuss punk’s 30th birthday, and it is fitting that much of our conversation revolves around Rose — Malcolm’s grandmother, who is also the grandmother, it becomes clear, of punk rock itself.

Rose Corre came from a wealthy family of Portuguese-Dutch diamond dealers. She was a thwarted actress with a strongly rebellious streak who filled her home in Highbury, North London, with bohemians and gays.

Agatha Christie was one of her friends and the writer’s housekeeper used to come to stay when Christie went off on her foreign travels. The agony aunt Marjorie Proops was apparently a protégée of Malcolm’s grandmother, who paid for the young Proops to take drawing lessons at Hackney Art College and thereafter found her a job at the Daily Mirror.

All of which sounds rather generous-spirited and fun, but less so when you hear how Corre manipulated her family by keeping them distant or suffocatingly close or paying them to go away. She had married a man, a master tailor, whom she couldn’t stand, refusing to take his surname (Isaacs) and banishing him to a house down the road; she also loathed her daughter, Emily, who lived next door and who hated being a mother, in turn, and left her sons to be brought up by their grandmother: “My mother might as well have been a stranger, or a sort of strange aunt who visited once a week.”

Peter McLaren, the father of Malcolm and his older brother, Stewart, was handed a sum of money by Rose and told to disappear — which he did so effectively that it wasn’t until Malcolm was 45 that he managed to track him down.

With his curls and pale, milky skin, Malcolm was encouraged by his grandmother to dress like a girl and share her bed — not when he was little but around the age of 14. What was that about? “I’ll tell you very simply — it wasn’t anything sinister,” he says. “It was just that she didn’t want me sharing a room with my brother. She didn’t want me to have a relationship with anyone except her.” While Stewart was left to his own devices, staying out all hours, and leaving school at 15 to become a taxi driver, Rose lavished her attention on her younger grandson, moulding him to create mayhem.

“The effect of growing up in a family that never wanted to be a family is that it’s very difficult for you to behave in a normal way,” McLaren says. “To respect elders. To respect any form of authority. I think if you have clear parental figures in your life, you get to know at a very early age who to listen to and who not to listen to and how to behave.

“My grandmother used me to take out her dysfunctional upbringing on the world. She used to say, ‘You know, Malcolm, it’s very difficult to be bad. You’ve got to work at it. But then again . . . who wants to be good?’ That’s a phrase that haunted me from the age of 5 or 6 onwards.

“She was extremely possessive and forbade me to have anything to do with girls from the age of 13 but if I was the worst-behaved person at a friend’s house or causing tremendous problems at school, that was all fine. She would go to the headmistress and say, ‘Boys will be boys. What’s wrong with what he’s doing? If he drives me crazy, I just bash him with my handbag. So I don’t know what your problem is’.” He says this approach led to him being on the verge of being sent to a special-needs school but his grandmother decided to have him home-tutored for several years instead; the better to indoctrinate him in her wayward ways.

When I ask McLaren what he considers his proudest achievement, he says: “The moment when I was able to imitate my grandmother’s imagination. It was what ultimately inspired me to go to art school in the first place and discover a new way of looking at life and then putting it into practice. I would be creating what I thought she would . . .” he thinks. “You see, my grandmother really loved chaos and really loved discomfort.

When she thought everybody was uncomfortable that was always most attractive to her because that was when she thought people really revealed themselves. And I always believed in that aspect.

“What you have to understand is that as much as it seems ridiculous, if it’s all you know — then it’s everything else outside of it which seems ridiculous, which means you’re always going to be a loner.”

What kept him from going completely off the rails, he believes, was finding the wherewithall to use all his hothoused trouble-making to productive ends: “You find ways to make whatever it is causing trouble — which is the thing you constantly got rewarded for — to use it creatively . . . so my idea was to create trouble since that was how I was brought up. I was absolutely born to be a punk rocker. It was inevitable. Blood’s thicker than water, so what can you do? It’s rooted in you, baby, it’s like that’s the tree. You will go to the grave with that. You have to make sense of it, and making sense of that for me was making punk rock.”

The details of his background become more picaresque the longer McLaren talks, and more implausible, if possible. He reminds me of another freckle-faced, fanciful storyteller — Jeanette Winterson; they share the same delight in recounting the strangeness of the worlds they grew up in.

Malcolm’s father, so despised by his reluctant mother-in-law, was nevertheless hidden in Rose Corre’s cellar during the war (in which he didn’t wish to fight), became her driver and helped her to run a black market scam, stealing cars and renting them out. Fagin, after all, was her hero. Was it the money that was important to her? “Partly, but what was more important to her was to have these kind of rogueish lives. She loved it.”

Once Peter McLaren had outlived his usefulness, he was paid off to get lost: “We had never seen a photograph of him, our name had been changed to Edwards (the name of Malcolm’s mother and stepfather’s chain of clothes shops). He was rubbed out of our lives.” It was Lauren Hutton, during McLaren’s stint as court jester-cum-ideas man for Steven Spielberg, who persuaded her maverick boyfriend that it would be worthwhile for him to try to find his father.

First, Malcolm resolved to confront the mother he hadn’t seen for more than 20 years: “I said to my brother, ‘Look, if we can find our father, if he is still alive, maybe we’ll have the last piece of the jigsaw and it will help us to understand everything. Because right now, Stewart, I’m 45 and I think I should know what it is that our mother had a major problem with and then we can understand how we came to be who we were . . . these kids who were not wanted and brought up in the most dysfunctional way’.”

The reunion with the boys and their mother was not a success. It was Christmas in St Albans, at Stewart McLaren’s home, and Malcolm was so terrified at the prospect of seeing his mother that he hid in the bathroom when she arrived: “Ludicrous, I know, but there were obviously psychological problems.” Over dinner, “a sober affair”, the brothers demanded to know who their father was and where he was, saying it was time she told them the truth. But their mother became extremely upset and made up some story about him having gone off to Australia. Later, she followed Malcolm into the kitchen and started to swear at him: “She said I looked the spitting image of my grandmother, who was the most hideous woman who ever lived on the planet, and as it was getting a bit over the edge, I decided to leave.” Three weeks later, the McLarens’ mother — Emily Isaacs (she kept her father’s surname to spite her mother) — died of a heart attack.
The jigsaw was finally completed not long after when Peter McLaren’s wife, Barbara, contacted a newspaper in which Malcolm had said what he wanted more than anything was to be reunited with his father. The brothers were driven by a chauffeur in a limousine provided by CBS, with whom McLaren was signed at the time, to a remote part of Romney Marshes — Miss Havisham-land — where the fog from the ocean rolls in. They met at their father ’s greasy-spoon shack of a café, The Oasis, with its abandoned garage of old petrol pumps from the 1930s and clientele of Hell’s Angels.

Was the meeting emotional? “Of course, you would be, yes. You were curious. You were scared . . . There was this guy with a shotgun and an alsatian, wearing a pair of white Levi jeans, and an emerald-green shirt, with very flaxen-grey hair, small, with an incredibly lined face — a bit like that guy W. H. Auden, and I thought, this is a well-travelled man with a really weather-beaten sailor’s face.” But, as it turned out, Peter McLaren had never left the country and didn’t even own a passport. According to the Home Office, he didn’t exist. He led his sons up a fire escape and into the top floor of the building, where he and his wife lived, and took out a wooden box filled with photographs, one of which was of him and their mother at the age of 16. “She looked very dark and good-looking and deeply Jewish and he was moustachioed and dapper and Errol Flynn-ish,” he says. Stewart was not impressed by their whisky-drinking father and didn’t really want to see him again. Malcolm persisted half-a-dozen times more and met up with his half-brother, Ian, who was a Cambridge professor of para-psychology.

In all Malcolm McLaren’s incredible life, what I am most struck by is how much his own son, Joe Corre (owner with his wife, Serena, of the lingerie shops Agent Provocateur) longs for the warmth of a close-knit family. But McLaren rarely sees Westwood these days, bumping into her only at the occasional fashion show, although her name is the one he mentions when I ask him if he’s ever really loved a woman.

“I find it hard to look at people as people that you are meant to love,” he says. “I think it’s the way our early lives began. My grandmother formed me into someone for whom the world was one you would have to create alone, your own anti-world in which you would really have your own rules so you could never really behave as if you were a parent.

“And I think I have the words ‘willing prey’ stamped on my forehead because if you don’t have strong enough connections to family, you’re always looking for connection. You are very open, and so some people get attached to you very quickly and get very possessive of you because you’re easily possessed. And then you’re also easily able to discard and people get very hurt by that, which is a problem I’ve found during my life. So it’s not that you prostitute yourself, you just don’t quite have that sense of belonging. “You don’t quite have that ability to be loyal to your friends.”

Despite how this sounds, McLaren insists that it’s Westwood who is the cold fish, not him. “Oh no, I’m quite the opposite,” he says. Passionate? “Oh yeah, I’m a cheap date.” All he can remember about Joe when he was born was that he was big and strong. “But Vivienne was astonishing. I thought she looked very beautiful and I thought the kid was adorable,” he recalls.

The 18-year-old father, who had lost his virginity to Westwood (grandmother Rose, whose view was that it was a straightforward case of entrapment, gave Malcolm the money for a termination but Vivienne bought a cashmere twinset from Bond Street instead) was also admonished by the nurse for turning up three days late: “Are you a long-distance lorry driver or something?” He was there in the hospital, however, for his granddaughter’s birth: “And it was kind of extraordinary — Joe coming out full of tears, holding this baby. He’s such a different person and he just adores family. That’s what he adores.”

So will you make an effort for his sake? “I think that is something that I’m beginning to face. It concerns me, probably more than it ever has in my entire life and times, with him and without him, and I’m attempting — I think that’s the best word to use — to try to help, if it’s not too late. You know, Joe’s heading to become 40 any minute now.” Attempting to help what, exactly? “ To make him feel appreciated. Simple as that, really. I don’t think he does for some reason.”

Oh dear, time’s up and Young Kim, McLaren’s assistant and girlfriend, a Yale-educated Korean-American, sends word that they need to catch the Eurostar back to Paris. We’ve barely covered punk, but is there really anything new to say about it? McLaren says the anniversary is a complete marketing ploy, but it’s also presumably a nice little earner for him, so he’s happy to play along.

He’s amusing about this latest celebration being held in a department store, “but then entertainment and shopping have joined to become one culture”, he supposes. “You might as well create a new word, ‘shoppertainment’, since department stores have almost taken on the role of becoming cultural temples. You know, some people will queue up to go to the Tate Modern, some of them will queue to go to the British Museum, but most will simply go shopping.” In our quick romp through the early days of punk, there are a couple of scandalous revelations. Although they were surrounded by drug-taking, neither he nor Vivienne was much interested: “We both experimented with heroin once in an apartment in Grosvenor Square. But we never touched it again.”

He describes John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) as “a bit of a buffoon who was a very good boy trying to be a bad boy”. And tells scurrilous stories about the late Nancy Spungen rolling around with Johnny and the late Sid, “who was definitely a little gay, no question about it”, in the kitchen of the Mayfair hotel suite of a hooker who was turning tricks. How Sid was the real star of the Sex Pistols, “because it’s always the great stars who look vulnerable”, and how Vivienne always thought he should have been the lead singer of the band from when she first spotted Vicious in their World’s End clothes shop, SEX, and how Sid’s lawyer recommended that his client should go jogging, “get a ****ing dog” and a new girlfriend, preferably a librarian . . . none of which McLaren was able to convince Vicious to do. And how Sid was “willing prey”, too, and John Lydon, and how all the creatures in the Sex Pistols were dysfunctional and would never have ended up in that band had they not been: “They didn’t really have anywhere else to go, you see. They needed a Fagin and a mentor.”

But what I like far more are the glimpses of domestic life far away from the fetish wear — Malcolm and Joe being dispatched at night with a torch to pick dandelions on Clapham Common for Vivienne to tranform into coffee as part of the family’s macrobiotic diet: “We all came out with boils on our backs, which made us feel extremely unattractive.” Malcolm and Vivienne, while she was still a schoolteacher, taking the city kids to the country, where he would use his skills as a former Boy Scout to light a fire and cook a sausage or two.

McLaren is feeling older and more vulnerable these days, he says, but also clearer and able to make better decisions. Which is not to suggest that he is becoming a wiser or a better person. Heaven forbid. For if he is sure of anything, it is that he is still very much his grandmother’s grandson: “To this day, I’ve never felt that anything she’s said has been wrong. It is hard to be bad. You do have to work at it. And, yes, she’s right. Who wants to be good? Tony Blair’s good, and he’s horrible.

“Whenever I’ve not listened to authority, I’ve always felt much more attractive as a person and I’ve always felt that the decisions I’ve made may have been hellish or extremely provocative or confrontational, but ultimately they’ve been pretty worthwhile.

“And so, yes, I prefer to be bad.”


The McLaren file

1946 Born in London

1972 Opens Let It Rock store on the Kings Road with Vivienne Westwood, selling 1950s clothes and memorabilia

1974 First hears the New York Dolls. Let It Rock becomes punk shop SEX

1975 Begins managing the Sex Pistols

1976 Sex Pistols signed by EMI

1978 Sex Pistols split up

1979 Restyles Adam and the Ants; forms Bow Wow Wow with 14-year-old singer Annabella Lwin

1980 The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle is released

1983 Releases Duck Rock, a combination of world music and hip-hop Early 1990s Lives in Hollywood, dates model Lauren Hutton and works with Steven Spielberg