Do you know how to work the washing machine, Sir Paul? Can I have a discount, Stella? Will you adopt me, Mary? Deborah Ross meets Macca and his girls to celebrate Linda’s legacy – and leaves wishing she could be one of the family
MAY 6, 2017 (Robert Wilson/The Times).- So, off to meet Stella McCartney (fashion designer), Mary McCartney (photographer and food writer) and their father, Sir Paul McCartney, who was once in some band or other, back in the day. (It may come to me.) I had previously been asked: did I wish to meet Stella and Mary and also Sir Paul, who was in some band or other, back in the day? I said, “Yes,” and, “You bet,” and, “Is Stella generous with discount cards if you suck up enough?”
So I was committed, prior to realising the proposed encounter had “poisoned” and “chalice” written all over it, as it would be strictly about the 25th anniversary of the Linda McCartney frozen food range, and Linda’s legacy in this regard, with any other subject being verboten. Also, it would be brief. (Forty-two minutes, as it turns out.) But I was determined to look on the bright side, as in: is Stella generous with discount cards if you suck up really, really quickly?
Armed with “Talking Points for Deborah Ross”, as helpfully provided by the PR people involved – “Paul, Stella and Mary continue to be heavily involved in the day-to-day activity of the brand …” – I make my way to the appointed venue, a house in Soho in London that belongs, I believe, to a friend of Mary’s. It is wonderfully stylish inside, all mid-century modern, but it is tiny, and when I arrive there is barely space to take a breath. The photographer and the photographer’s assistants are still knocking about. The Linda McCartney Foods PR is here, as is Paul’s press person. There are various factotums doing this and that and putting a lunch together. I ascend the stairs – out of the way, top-flight journalist with Talking Points coming through! – to find Paul on the top landing. He isn’t doing that thumbs-up thing – he is sometimes known as Paul “thumbs aloft” McCartney – but does have open arms and is saying, “Hello, Deborah,” which is nice, and superfriendly, and does makes me wish that, in return, I could think of that band. (It may yet come to me. Do you know it?)
They are a striking-looking family. Mary, 47, is darkly pretty. Stella, 45, is 82 per cent eyes. (And also pretty. I’m not playing favourites here.) Meanwhile, Paul, 74, has brown hair and looks fresh as a daisy in a crisp, white shirt and a deep navy suit, both by Stella McCartney. “It’s my new menswear,” says Stella. “He’s my male model.” They are all wearing Stella McCartney because, as Paul says, “We had our instructions.” I say to Stella that I apologise in advance should I happen to call her “Stelvis”, because I’ve a niece called Stella, who has always been known as “Stelvis”. “Why?” she asks. I don’t know. It’s a bit funny, I suppose. “Right.” Sometimes she’s also known as “Stelton John”, I could have said, but instead I opt for: “And are you still heavily involved in the day-to-day activity of the brand?” They confirm that they are. (I think I pulled that back, and still have, “Does the brand have exciting consumer-facing events planned for National Vegetarian Week?” up my sleeve.)
Some would say vegetarian food has evolved since Linda McCartney founded her frozen ready-meal brand, that it has moved on from textured vegetable protein and meat facsimiles, but I don’t know. If your household is non-meat and you come in late and tired, or your kids truck up with friends, what are you going to want to do? Whip some McCartney “burgers” out of the freezer or embark on an Ottolenghi featuring 72 ingredients, several of which you’ve never heard of? (Some of those recipes “run to five pages”, confirms Mary.) It remains the bestselling frozen-food range of its kind – sit on that, Quorn! – and I have to say that, when I cooked a load at home, to see what it was like, the “sausage rolls” went down brilliantly well. “People can’t tell the difference,” says Mary. “I think they are amazing. The meat in sausage rolls is so overprocessed. Is it really meat? Or just eyeballs?”
As it happens, I found a copy of Linda McCartney’s first vegetarian cookbook – Home Cooking, published in 1989 – knocking about my house. I know I have used it down the years, particularly the recipe for beetroot with dill and sour cream. “That’s Mum’s Russian-Jewish heritage coming in,” says Mary.
“Borscht,” says Paul, gnomically.
“Borscht didn’t even exist in this country at that time,” says Mary. “Or quiche. We didn’t have quiche in Britain in that day and age.”
“It depended what class you were from,” says Paul. “3A or 3B.”
“This idea,” says Mary, “that Mum took things people weren’t eating in this country and had the courage to write a book and be ridiculed.”
“It was for one reason,” says Paul. “She loved, loved, loved animals. People would see something a bit creepy, like a frog or something, and they’d go, ‘Ewww,’ and Linda would always say, ‘Its mummy loves it.’ ”
“And you can’t argue with that,” says Stella.
I put it to them that Linda was truly a pioneer, no question, but I am not convinced by the recipe for spaghetti omelette. “My kids love it,” says Stella. On the other hand, it could work, I add, really, really quickly.
Home Cooking was, in fact, Bloomsbury’s bestselling book until Harry Potter came along. But finding a publisher was not easy initially. Linda wrote it with food author Peter Cox, and as he is quoted as saying, in Philip Norman’s biography of Paul, “I went to see one woman who was supposedly a legend in the industry, and who always wore white gloves to the office. She told me a vegetarian cookbook couldn’t possibly sell unless it had some chicken in it.”
“That,” says Paul, “was the climate of the time. There wasn’t vegetarian food. There was one restaurant, Cranks, which Yehudi Menuhin was something to do with, and I always thought that was kind of funny, that he called it Cranks. It was kind of self-deprecating and I liked that.” Was it good? “I never went there as I wasn’t vegetarian then.” I guess we’ll never know.
I say the other thing Peter Cox said is that, throughout the writing process, he kept a copy of Jane Asher’s bestselling book on cakes to hand, so that whenever Linda’s attention flagged, as it was wont to do, he’d take it out and start flicking through it with great interest, and that brought her back into the room. Paul laughs and claps, while Stella says, “That is very funny … Would bring her back into the room!”
We then flick through Linda’s book while I comment on the dated photography, which makes everything look so … dingily brown. The “macaroni turkey” – a substitute for a Christmas turkey, sculpted from macaroni – looks especially worrying. “You had to make it because you couldn’t get a vegetarian turkey at Christmas,” says Paul. “It was great,” says Stella. I can now see it could be great, I say, really, really quickly.
And do you remember Linda writing it? “She would have Peter Cox round,” says Paul, “and quite often I’d be in the kitchen, because I was just there, and she’d cook something.” And then photograph it in brown? “And then she’d photograph it in brown.”
“Mum,” says Stella, “was instinctive in the way she cooked, and Peter had to stop her.”
“He’d say,” continues Paul, “ ‘Just before you put that in, let me measure it.’ ”
“I remember,” says Mary, “making a stew and thinking, ‘This tastes rubbish,’ and I phoned Mum and the extra thing was celery.” “Celery is critical,” adds Stella. “She would start all her soups with celery,” says Paul. “Mum and celery, it’s true,” concludes Stella.
Linda – who died of breast cancer in 1998 – was, indeed, ridiculed for her vegetarianism, as all the McCartneys have been. Oh no, here they come, the bloody McCartneys, banging on about not killing cows, and now fish, too. “At the end of the day, what people are forgetting to talk about is fish,” says Stella. “We need to be aware that fish is a stealth industry,” says Mary.
But they’ve proved themselves menschen, have kept at it, haven’t caved on their principles, or gone away quietly. “Almost a third of land is used for livestock production,” Stella might say. “Ninety-five per cent of soya is grown for farm animals,” Paul might add. “The reality of the conversation is that it has to become political,” Mary might further add.
But more and more people have come round to their way of thinking, which must be satisfying. “When I was a child and we said we were vegetarian it was a case of, ‘Why don’t you kill animals to eat them?’ I was the outsider, and you did meet a lot of aggression and anger. But now the landscape is changing,” says Mary. I ask if they’ve seen Simon Amstell’s Carnage, which puts the best case against meat-eating ever. Not yet, they say. You should, I say. They will, they promise. I can’t believe I had to alert you to it, I say. How have you all managed without me for so long? “I’m all for shadowing you and just absorbing,” says Mary. I’m busy, but might be able to fit you in for an afternoon, as a favour. “Thanks,” she says.
I am quite interested in Paul’s food memories. As a working-class boy from Liverpool, when did you first encounter an avocado, say? “I was in Soho,” he remembers, “and we went to a restaurant with George Martin. We were all slightly mystified by the menu and I thought, ‘I can do this,’ so I ordered an avocado pear for dessert, because I’m thinking pear melba, or maybe it’s going to be like stewed pears, and this sniffy Italian waiter said, ‘That is not a dessert, sir.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know that. Just kidding you.’ I was about 21.”
“And your dad,” says Stella, “brought you back bananas, didn’t he? Because he worked in the cotton trade.”
“It was after the war,” says Paul, “when nobody had had bananas, and he brought some back and said, ‘Look! Bananas!’ We’d never seen them or tried them or anything, and we didn’t like them. He was annoyed.”
And was your mum a good cook? “Yeah, in the traditional way. I ate what everyone else ate growing up. There was no variation. You knew that if you went to a friend’s house it would be the same as at your house. Just like us, they would have mandarin oranges from a tin with Carnation milk. That was very well accepted.”
After you left home and before Linda, would you have cooked? “I lost my mother when I was 14, so there was my dad, my brother and me. My dad would drop into the Cavern where we were playing at lunchtime and he’d say, ‘Here’s tonight’s meal, son,’ and he’d leave me a few chops. I’d get home before him so I’d grill the chops and do mashed potato.”
“It’s always his job, the mash,” says Stella.
Are you competent in other domestic areas, Paul? Could you work a washing machine? “No, I can’t.”
“But,” says Stella, “you can hand-wash in a sink with soap.”
“When we were on tour you did do your socks, because they would get a bit smelly,” confirms Paul. “So before you’d go to bed you’d give them a good rub in the hotel sink, with the little soap, then rinse them out and hang them on the radiator.” I think he is referring back to when he was in that band, whatever it was.
They do miss Linda dreadfully. We meet just before Mother’s Day, and I think they wouldn’t have been willing to say how much they still miss her if I hadn’t mentioned it’s a hard time to get through when you’ve lost your mother, as I have, and there’s all this stuff in the shops. They do it because, much as I’ve been joking around, they are, clearly, kindly people. “You definitely notice it,” says Mary. “I also notice mums and daughters walking down the street and you know they are having a lunch or a shop and are having that little moment.”
“At the end of the day,” says Stella, “for a fraction of a second, I think I can’t believe Mum hasn’t called me today.”
“You did that recently?” asks Paul. “That’s normally the first year, when that happens a lot.
“A friend has just lost her husband and I was saying to her, ‘You think he’s going to walk in the door, don’t you?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ ”
“You’re going to get me going,” says Stella.
“But look at Mum’s achievements,” counters Mary. “They are so relevant. The balls she had. I am so proud she left a legacy and that she is in each and every one of us.”
Stella adds that she gets it in the neck “for not using fur or leather in my career”, but she doesn’t care. Is grateful to her mother, in fact, “for giving me the spectacles that have allowed me to have a point of view”.
The PRs are madly trying to wind us up now so, as she’s mentioned her fashion range, I decide I’m just going to have to come out with it straight, so I do: can I get a discount? “Yes,” she says, adding, almost with a wink, “and Stelvis.” We’ve bonded. I’ve arrived.
Typically, I then push my luck. I could be up for adoption, I say to them all. I would make a good McCartney. I would bring my own celery. And I’d bring your Jewish quotient zooming back up. “My wife [Nancy Shevell] is Jewish,” says Paul. Decent cook? “No, bless her. When we married she was intimidated by Linda’s reputation, so she said, ‘I’m a lousy cook.’”
“She’s a very good orderer,” says Stella. “She is a very good orderer,” confirms Paul.
They’re half out the door, but time for one last question. Paul, were you in some band or other, back in the day? “Yes. The Quarrymen.” Were you any good? “Damned good. Great little band.” Never heard of them. Sorry.
Deborah Ross has since given up meat
Photos: Robert Wilson
Shoot credits Stella McCartney: Make-up Jane Bradley, hair Lewis Pallett