Jeremy Laurance: The tragic timebomb that took Malcolm McLaren's life

Medical Life

Malcolm McLaren's death affected me more than I expected. I was never a fan of the Sex Pistols, nor a punk rocker, and I only wore safety pins when I lost the buttons on my shirt.

But the image I can't get out of my mind is of the young McLaren, aged twenty-something, full of flair and ambition, smashing through the ceiling of the Sex boutique in the Kings Road he was setting up with Vivienne Westwood. He wanted to create the impression a bomb had hit it. Instead, he released a bomb that hit him.

Life is fragile, we know. You can step off the pavement and be wiped out in a second. A single mistake is all it takes. But this was a case of stepping off a cliff a million miles high – and taking 40 years to hit bottom.

From the moment he swung the sledgehammer, McLaren was doomed. His partner, Young Kim, said it was exposure to asbestos dust in the ceiling of the shop that caused the mesothelioma, cancer of the lining of the lung, that ultimately killed him. More than nine out of 10 cases of mesothelioma are caused by asbestos, so Kim is probably right. It is not like smoking, which takes years of cumulative exposure to do the damage. Even a few lungfuls of asbestos can be fatal. Kim said the shop was "the only place Malcolm ever really spent any serious length of time".

The danger posed by asbestos was not recognised until the late 1970s. Once it became clear how nasty it was it was ripped out of buildings everywhere (probably causing more harm, by releasing lethal fibres into the air, than leaving it in place). The public were advised to throw away old ironing boards – the asbestos stand for the iron at the end could become frayed, releasing fibres – and there were warnings about brands of cat litter made from a clay with similar properties to asbestos.

But all that was too late for McLaren. For him, the die was already cast.

If mesothelioma had killed instantly it would have been headline news. But because it killed slowly, the horror has been missed. In 2008, it caused 2,154 deaths, more than twice as many as, for example, cervical cancer, the disease that killed reality TV star Jade Goody a year ago (there were 957 deaths from cervical cancer in 2008).

The other difference is that the victims of mesothelioma are mostly old, working-class men who spent their lives exposed to the dust in factories and workshops. McLaren, at 64, was a relative youngster.

Deaths from mesothelioma have been rising for decades and are only now peaking – a legacy of our dependence on asbestos 30 years ago. The last press conference I attended on the subject was in 2003. It was, as I reported at the time, a sad affair. There were more experts on the panel – five – than journalists in the audience (three, including me).

If, instead of striking older men, it had struck young women, then that press conference would have been packed – and there would have been many more since.

ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

    £13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

    £18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

    Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power