12 April 1968: “The country has lost not just Dr King but the King”

Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated forty-five years ago today. Here, Alan Brien reports from a grief-stricken New York.

The only cheerful faces I have seen here since the assassination of Martin Luther King last Thursday have been those of the Negro looters on television. Colour is a great romanticiser of electronic images, painting tragedy as melodrama, tinting actuality with the pastel shades of Hollywood farce. Vietnam has almost vanished from the screens these last few days with its ketchup blood and dry-ice smoke, recalling inappropriate images of John Wayne wading novocaine-faced through the swamps of Iwo Jima. Now the long-distance camera eyes sprout on stalks in the riot areas of America's own cities, and many sequences we watch might almost be from some innocent, whimsical, indulgent, black-face musical of the Forties like Cabin in the Sky. The impulse-shoppers of the slums, celebrating an impromptu, out-of-season Christmas, could be observed queueing in an orderly fashion, like wartime civilians in Britain, outside broken-open shops. The fantasies of the commercials, where goodies rain down from Heaven and gadgets magically furnish empty rooms, were being acted out for real. The kind of easily portable wealth that professional criminals would search out - cash, jewellery, watches, etc - seemed often ignored. One woman staggered under the weight of a monster carton of Kleenex. A man almost danced down the street pushing a cumbrous dressing table with a huge mirror - and waved to the watching millions at home as he went. Another sat among the splintered glass, sparkling like tinsel in the TV spotlights, sensibly trying on a liberated pair of banana-yellow boots for comfort and style.

At first, the police stood by in most places, simply directing the traffic in flood-lit robbery as the exploited expropriated a little of the surplus profit of the exploiters - only to be gently rebuked by the New York Times next day for such un-American priority for people over things. Later, sniping and fire-bombing broke out and the law reasserted its traditional role. In Manhattan, rumour was full of tongues, pandering to that guilty thrill in anticipating the apocalypse which is one of the deep excitements of modern metropolitans. Reports of besieged suburbs, hijacked buses, mutinying schools and marching mobs leapt from lip to lip. The true facts, available instantly on such radio stations as WINS, which broadcast an uninterrupted flow of news around the clock, were barely more credible as the astonishing weekend began.

The curfew in the nation's capital retreated to 4pm on Saturday - earlier than that in Saigon. More regular troops were deployed to protect Washington than Khe Sanh. New York is the only American city I know at all well. I have spent an annual working holiday here every year since 1961. Each time I arrive I feel an intensifying weight of violence in the air which presses down on the visitor like the atmosphere of Venus on an exploring astronaut. The electric crackle of static which arcs from the hand to the doorknob or the lift buzzer - and makes many an unwary tourist imagine his coronary has caught up with him at last - seems to symbolise the bottled aggression stored in these human batteries. In the past, my friends here have vied with each other, whether expatriates or natives, in telling tales of life in the asphalt jungle - mad taxi-drivers who kidnapped passengers to tell them the story of their lives, sadistic vandals terrorising an entire subway carriage for an hour's journey, six-year-old children threatened by knife-carrying nine-year-olds on the fringes of the Park, lessons invaded by drug-addicts, alcoholics and sex perverts. My reaction has been shock and fear and a desire not to believe. Their's has been a rather callous bravado - like sixth-formers putting the wind up a cissy new boy.

Now, this week, I am the one who has always expected this hell to break loose. Looking from the outside across the Atlantic, like many Britons, I have seen the storm cones hoisted for a hurricane. Since the killing of President Kennedy and Malcolm X, it seemed inevitable that more sacrificial victims would follow in time. It is the residents who cannot believe their eyes and ears and implore you to tell them that what is happening is impossible. For once, the old liberal cliché about everybody being guilty for the crime of one psychopath seems, if not true, at least universally believed to be true. There is a widespread desire to canonise Martin Luther King, a great and good man fit to stand alongside Gandhi or Danilo Dolci, into a saint and martyr unrivalled in history. Each man loves the thing he kills and the civil rights leader is rapidly becoming an immortal. His reputation escalates from hour to hour. A Negro leader described him as the noblest human of our century. A rabbi called him the Black Moses. The Pope's comparison of him to Christ crucified seems to almost nobody even a trifle hyperbolic.

It is an awe-inspiring and rather unnerving sight to see the mass media of American opinion-making (what one British journalist unkindly calls “The Bullshit Machine”) firing on all cylinders to a single theme. Dr King's picture is in every shop window, in every paper and magazine, punctuating almost every programme on TV. The US flag, and this is a nation of flag-fliers, is everywhere at half-mast, sometimes upside down (the sign of a nation in distress). Public events which might seem tactlessly light-hearted, such as the Oscar awards, are postponed or cancelled. Radio announcers assure you that you will hear nothing frivolous all day on their channel. The country has lost not just Dr King but the King. These words and images have done more to damp down riot than all the police and troops. Any Negro anywhere is treated by whites as if he were personally a close relative of the murdered man. How long this spontaneous unity in mourning will last, no can tell. But it is an America I have never seen before.

Martin Luther King Jr calls after encountering a white mob in Alabama. Photo: Getty.

Alan Brien (1925 – 2008) was a critic, foreign correspondent and author of “Lenin: a novel”.

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Baby you’re a rich man: the impossible madness of Paul McCartney’s life

“I was on the scrapheap,” the Beatles bassist had thought, aged 27, when the band split up. How wrong he was.

Hard though it is to grasp the full extent of Paul McCartney’s wealth, this book showers you with gentle reminders. He once ordered a pizza to be flown from New York to London by Concorde. He sent a sick puppy on a 280-mile return journey by taxi to a vet in Glasgow, and made the same sort of provision for a duck with a broken leg. “Hundreds” of his cash-filled weekly pay packets were discovered at his house in 1967 but he was already so rich that he hadn’t bothered to open them. He had a yacht turned into a 24-track studio and converted a minesweeper to accommodate the band.

What’s more, he has several Magrittes and a circular bed that used to belong to Groucho Marx. He organised a display involving 25,000 flowers beside the M4 to advertise a Linda McCartney photo exhibition and gave his second wife, Heather Mills, a £360,000 annual allowance (almost £1,000 pocket money a day). If Pete Best, the sacked original Beatles drummer, got “about £8m” for playing on ten tracks on The Beatles Anthology, what sum would the band’s bassist have earned for co-writing most of its output?

But whenever you find yourself envying a life in which you could underwrite a $200,000 heart operation for a friend’s daughter, you remember the grim reality of such fame. McCartney is forced to erect ramparts of privacy to allow him even the ghost of a normal existence. He systematically purchased all of the land around his farm on the Mull of Kintyre, in Scotland, to create a vast, continuous exclusion zone. The wire fences and 65-foot observation tower at his Sussex retreat prompted neighbours to call it “Paulditz”.

His profile is such that he occasionally resorts to riding in vehicles with tinted windows and had to disguise himself in an afro wig to attend a George Harrison concert. Women claiming that he slept with them in the distant past file paternity suits: can you imagine the indignity of being asked to submit blood samples to disprove some pissed event that may or may not have taken place decades ago in a Hamburg Bierkeller?

The repercussions of his celebrity are colourfully examined in this detailed and engaging book, as are the chief figures in his life – his mother and father, his early girlfriends, John Lennon, Brian Epstein and his first two wives – but it is the changing nature of another relationship that makes the most gripping narrative: that of the subject and the author. Tough, fascinated, painstakingly thorough and studiedly unemotional, Philip Norman was always firmly in the Lennon camp, once declaring McCartney’s rival and professional partner to be “three-quarters” of the band. Norman’s bestselling Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation and his superb John Lennon: the Life make this abundantly clear.

But things have changed. The author’s stance has softened. First, McCartney gave his tacit approval for this book – “neither authorising it nor discouraging it” – which allowed Norman access to countless crucial, first-hand accounts. And second, a growing awareness and understanding of McCartney’s predicament both within and beyond the Beatles now allows Norman to excuse various characteristics that he once disliked or considered suspicious.

He accepts that McCartney developed his “double-thumbs-up” demeanour as a valuable public relations shield between the band and the ravenous world: somebody had to “be nice to the endless relays of boring, bombastic local dignitaries, officious police chiefs and dumbstruck, dumb-cluck journalists” and it is entirely to the bassist’s credit that he volunteered.

McCartney’s legendary charm now seems beguiling rather than offensive. It took serious powers of persuasion, Norman points out, to sell millions of copies of the syrupy “Mull of Kintyre” in the teeth of the punk revolution. Who wouldn’t want to be allowed through international borders when you’ve forgotten your passport? Who wouldn’t want to be able to hold the attention of a court of law with just the tiniest modifications of facial expression, after informing a judge that it was your “interest in horticulture” that had led you to possess the marijuana in the first place?

When a Lord of the Rings film project was mooted in 1968, McCartney was tellingly cast as Frodo Baggins, Ringo as Samwise Gamgee, George as Gandalf and Lennon as Gollum. On TV, Paul’s angelic looks made him “seem three-dimensional while the others remained flat”, an irresistible trait that let him conduct love affairs with two other women while officially stepping out with Jane Asher (the reason John and Yoko were initially inseparable, Norman suggests, was that Lennon didn’t dare to leave his new squeeze alone with McCartney, for fear that she might fall under his spell).

There is something attractive, too, about the notion that McCartney ended up being the sole Beatle with a firm grasp on the tiller. While George invited a troop of Hells Angels to hang out at the Apple office (where they harassed the female staff) and John sent spherical packages to meetings with the message “Listen to this balloon”, McCartney had the sixth sense to flag up concerns about employing Allen Klein as their manager, a deal from which they later paid a fortune to escape.

So why alarm bells didn’t ring when he ran into Heather Mills is a mystery that baffles even Philip Norman. At the time, friends advised McCartney (with excruciating irony) that taking up with this doughty campaigner would be like “walking into a minefield”. In selfless support of his new wife, he started to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan “NO LANDMINES!” when they used to scream: “GO VEGGIE!” There is something profoundly sad about the whole episode; it is a tale so unnerving and crammed with agonising incident that Norman devotes 80 pages to it.

Mills convinced the world – and her apparently suggestible new husband – that she was some kind of romantic rebel, who had run away from home as a teenager to work on funfairs, sleep rough in cardboard boxes and steal food from supermarkets. She was soon labelled a “fantasist”, revealed to be a former topless model and accused of pedalling untruths and exaggerations to the extent that Jonathan Ross declared that she was “a f***ing liar” and that he “wouldn’t be surprised if we found out she’s actually got two legs”. With her press profile switching from “Diana” to “Mucca” in a matter of weeks, she sued her exasperated husband for £125m and settled for £16.5m, which speak volumes in itself.

And what of the music? Very little of this book concerns McCartney’s songwriting, which is understandable, as it is the area so comprehensively explored by the great Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn and by Ian MacDonald’s peerless Revolution in the Head – though when Norman describes Lennon’s and McCartney’s harmonies as “like vinegar and virgin olive oil”, you rather wish there was more of it. Instead, he is aiming to produce the most detailed composite picture imaginable and he succeeds effortlessly.

You’re left with a sense that McCartney’s life in the Beatles was impossible madness and that he has been in recovery ever since. “I was on the scrapheap,” he had thought, aged 27, when the band split up. “It was a barrelling, empty feeling that just rolled across my soul.” You’re so sympathetic that you want to forgive him everything.

Well, almost everything. He paid Wings members £70 a week and once deducted £40 for “hire of amplifier”.

Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen is published by Coronet

Paul McCartney: the Biography by Philip Norman is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (864pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism