Sarah Sands: All you need is... a damn good lawyer

Yes, Paul McCartney and Heather Mills have a daughter to fight over. But when the super-rich divorce, there is one thing they want custody of more than any other: the money

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I once sat next to a divorce lawyer at a dinner party and sighed piously that I supposed the important thing was the children. "No," he answered sharply. "The important thing is the money." In his experience, children were used as leverage towards greater financial settlements, rather than the other way round. "Even among the very rich?" I asked. "Especially among the very rich," he replied.

Heather Mills McCartney's strategy of warfare appears to be the pre-emptive strike. Part of her shock-and-awe petition prepared with her lawyer, Anthony Julius at Mishcon de Reya, the man who represented the Princess of Wales, appeared in the Daily Mail last week. There is no suggestion that she or her lawyers were responsible for this leak. All that is left of this glamorous marriage is an image of Paul McCartney lying in his own drink-induced vomit and Heather Mills pleading for a bedpan, or an "antique" bedpan, as she calls it with curious refinement. We are all in the gutter, even the stars.

The celebrity divorce, in all its lurid wretchedness, was the popular entertainment of the Edwardian lower middle classes.

This is the historical origin of The Daily Telegraph's page three court case coverage. The newspaper returned with relish to its roots this week with page two and three on the McCartney-Mills divorce case.

The divorce-as-entertainment genre reached its widest audience during the 1920s when the reading public was enthralled by the case of John "Stilts" Russell, heir to the Ampthill title, and his wife Christabel, who claimed to be a virgin, despite the birth of a son. Mrs Russell said that 10 months before her son's birth her husband had inflicted himself on her, only partly achieving penetration.

The jury found her guilty of adultery with an unnamed man but she won her case on appeal. The phrase "Hunnish practices", used to describe the husband's behaviour, entered the popular consciousness, with many of the populace being unclear to this day what such practices entailed.

The upper classes felt that the court case went too far, and the law was altered to allow courts to settle marital matters in private. As Sir Paul McCartney said, dignity is a great thing. I am not sure his dignity will be able to withstand an assault as ferocious as Lady McCartney's, even with Prince Charles's divorce lawyer Fiona Shackleton to fight it off.

In a way, the couple are evenly matched. Paul has the money and the reputation, Heather has the strength of the street fighter. The very qualities that first attracted McCartney to her, Heather's spirit and determination, have rebounded on him. Did he honestly expect that she would go quietly?

For his part, he has been weakened by his economic power. He may be so used to admiration and acquiescence that he was caught off-guard by Heather's apparent guerrilla tactics.

There is a parallel with Princess Diana and Prince Charles, and it isn't just the symmetry of lawyers. While Prince Charles was talking about dignity, Princess Diana went on Panorama and nuked him. He was a heartless adulterer who would never be king. I remember the disbelief among Prince Charles's advisers. She can't do that. Oh, but she just has.

Dignity is a very long-term strategy. You may be vindicated eventually, but in the short term it is hard to tell the difference between dignity and total humiliation.

The low point for Paul McCartney, so far as I was concerned, was Cilla Black's defence of him: "That's not my Pauly, that's not the Pauly I know."

There is also black comedy in the indignation of the repeated assertion from his staff that Sir Paul is "a private person". Privacy is a luxury for the very rich. They can buy privacy through land, transport and a cordon of staff. Heather Mills realised, as Diana did, that it is familiarity that allows ridicule. Before the court papers, Sir Paul McCartney was a legend. Now he is apparently a peevish, bored, pissed old man asking why his supper isn't on the table.

For the moment, Roman Abramovich is an enigmatic, very rich Russian with a football team. If he divorces his wife Irina, who has already paid a visit to Nicholas Mostyn QC, known to friends and victims as "Mr Payout", then who knows what feet of clay will be exposed? Celebrity divorces may be unpleasant for the protagonists but they are a tremendous spectator sport.

No one has died, so we do not feel like rubberneckers, and we take as close an interest as if we were neighbours. The excitement works for each scenario: "But they seemed so happy..." or "I could see from their body language how unhappy they were..."

After sifting through the McCartney court documents I feel that we are all intimate enough to call him Pauly now. However, we should acknowledge that there are limits to our insight. We were not in the room, we cannot properly judge degree and tone.

"The Petitioner returned home staggeringly drunk and slurring his words, demanding his dinner. The Respondent stated that it was on the stove but that she would not be cooking for him again, as he had no respect for her. The Petitioner called her 'a nag' and went to bed." Forgive me for the bathos, but it is not unknown for husbands to return home the worse for wear and hopeful for dinner. His wife's response was also merely a version of the cartoon gag: "Your dinner's in the oven."

Similarly, Lady McCartney complains: "The Respondent was expected to prepare two dinners every night, one for the child of the family and one for the Petitioner." It may not be common among the size-zero classes, but the rest of us have long stuffed our faces with children's food before a second-shift adult supper.

What makes me uneasy about this record of the marriage is its disability theme. Heather Mills's missing limb was once evidence of her strength of character. For heaven's sake, Paul McCartney fell in love with her as he watched her present an award to a child who had lost her legs through meningitis. In Heather's document, her leg assumes an emotional life of its own. It is there to evoke sympathy.

It also brings out a distasteful vein of misogyny among commentators. Both Kelvin MacKenzie and Piers Morgan tell her to stop whining. "She's permanently either 'crawling up' stairs or slithering on her hands and knees on to planes, or trapped wheelchair bound and helpless... Make your mind up, Heather, you're either Stephen Hawking or Superwoman. Which is it to be," wrote Morgan last week.

The internet is full of Heather peg-leg jokes, some of the dirtiest of which MacKenzie has been happy to recycle in his Sun column. "What did Heather say about the divorce? 'I am stumped.'" "What did McCartney's lawyer say about Heather? She won't have a leg to stand on."

Counter-intuitively, I found Heather McCartney's description of the constant pain and difficulty of her limb the most authentic part of the document. Perhaps because I am so troubled by the casualties among our soldiers overseas. In Iraq and Afghanistan, whenever you read of a "serious injury" from a roadside bomb or a suicide bomber, you know that it means a life of frustration and physical and psychological trauma. Heather Mills knew this when she campaigned against landmines.

I have just been reading Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America. The haunting character in the book is Alvin, a young man who went off to fight Hitler and returned without a leg. His cousin described his arrival in the house: "I didn't know how long I could go on concealing that I couldn't bear Alvin because of his missing limb and his empty trouser leg and his awful smell and his wheelchair..."

Perhaps Paul McCartney, like Piers Morgan, took Heather Mills at face value - as a sexy blonde who made light of her injury, and then they felt disappointed and repulsed by the reality of her condition. One minute you have a former glamour model who was rumoured to service Arabs, next thing you have a mutilated, exhausted wife calling for a bedpan. Everyone wants the "better" in marriage, nobody is keen on the "worse''. If a man in his sixties marries a woman in her thirties with a stack of soft-porn photographs on her CV, then he has a reasonable expectation. He may have liked all the courage stuff, but I would guess he was concentrating on her breasts rather than her prosthetic limb when he eyed her up at the Pride of Britain awards. Contextually, one has some sympathy with his complaint about his wife's breast-feeding: "They are my breasts and I don't want a mouthful of milk."

Heather Mills was fighting a saintly first wife, hostile step-children, a husband who needed the care and attention that his advancing years and life achievement demanded. Her year-zero approach to the marriage was not going to work. Neither was her media envy.

It is remarkable just how many of the couple's quarrels were started by Heather Mills complaining about her bad press.

Heather Mills is an impulsive, needy, strong-willed fantasist. She probably needed a kindly psychiatrist, not the ego and eccentricity of a global superstar.

If she couldn't eclipse Paul and his former wife Linda - let us not forget there were three people in this marriage - might she then destroy them in the divorce courts?

The couple's choice of lawyers has become a major sideshow. Fiona Shackleton, the Benenden-educated Establishment girl for McCartney, versus Anthony Julius, the bright City of London boy and Cambridge first, for Heather Mills. I dealt with Julius last year, after I ran a story in a Sunday newspaper about his client, Lily Safra, the widow of a billionaire who died in a fire caused by his nurse in Monaco. I had expected to negotiate with a worldly and persuasive man. I have never spoken to someone who was so aggressive and unpleasant. It made me far less willing to compromise.

It is another characteristic of the celebrity divorce that the protagonists want it both ways. They would like to screw their spouse while appearing generous and high-minded. They also have to maintain, against all contrary evidence, that it is nothing to do with money. Ellen Barkin, the actress who married the balding 63-year-old billionaire Ronald Perelman, stressed in interviews during her marriage that the diamonds meant little to her. True to her word, she flogged most of them following her $20m divorce settlement.

Heather McCartney is reportedly claiming £100m from her husband. Sir Paul McCartney would like to stop at £30m. Who would choose dignity when there is a margin of £70m at stake? This is war.

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