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