Jools in the crown

MAKING a date with Jools Holland is akin to getting an appointment with his friend Prince Charles. Indeed, for all I know it may be simpler to meet the Prince of Wales than it is to find yourself in the same room on the same day at the same time as the joanna-basher from south London.

But here we are at his publisher's offices in the Strand - in a small meeting room rather than the palatial suite that might be more befitting for "Crown Jools", as the tabloids have dubbed him. For this 49-year-old former punk, who was once sacked for using the F-word on television, now works for the Prince's Trust and supports the heir to the throne's fundraising for country churches.

Of course, the one-time member of Squeeze, now a band leader and television presenter, probably knows nothing of all the hassle it has taken to get us together. The seemingly endless list of changed dates is partly due to the fact that Holland is publishing his autobiography and a new album almost simultaneously - and he's embarking on a UK-wide tour next month.

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His chatty yet curiously guarded autobiography is called Barefaced Lies and Boogie-Woogie Boasts, in which, being a gent, he does not say a bad word about anybody. "I'm not into badmouthing people," he says. "I don't do malice. As my nan used to say, 'If you haven't got anything good to say, don't bother saying it'."

Such discretion probably explains why his 12th studio album is called Best of Friends and why he remains chums with so many legendary performers. The new album features the pianist and pals such as Sting, KT Tunstall and Eric Clapton, as well as Lulu, who will join him for a couple of gigs on his 31-date tour, though not in Scotland. His concerts here will take place shortly before Holland - who has effortlessly taken on the Hogmanay mantle of the late Andy Stewart - celebrates his 14th Hootenanny on New Year's Eve.

Meanwhile, his popular BBC2 show, Later... with Jools Holland, is now, unbelievably, in its 15th year and 29th series, thanks to his ability to lure any rock or jazz celebrity you care to mention into the studio to play and then jam with fellow guests.

But then the Deptford-born Holland, who grew up in an impoverished working-class family in Greenwich then married into the Scottish aristocracy, knows everybody who is anybody.

"We didn't want to rush into anything," he says laconically of his marriage, after a 16-year courtship, to the sculptor Christabel McEwen in August, 2005. His wife is the youngest daughter of Astor heiress Romana von Hofmannsthal and the late Scottish folk singer and acclaimed artist Rory McEwen. A scion of the grand Catholic clan of the McEwens of Marchmont, in Berwickshire, and Bardrochat, in Ayrshire, renowned for their creativity, fabulous parties and glamorous friends, Rory would often duet with Princess Margaret, while Terence Stamp listened as Ravi Shankar taught George Harrison to play the sitar. Rory killed himself in 1982, at the age of 50. He was suffering from a massive brain tumour and threw himself in front of an oncoming train at South Kensington tube station.

Christabel is, says Holland, the love of his life. Among their 800 wedding guests was their 16-year-old daughter Mabel. Both also have children from previous relationships, while Holland's daughter Rosie, 23, sings with his band. The guest list also included Ringo Starr and Stephen Fry; even the McCartneys - Paul and Heather were still together - helicoptered in. The Prince of Wales couldn't make it, although he did invite the Hollands to his own wedding earlier that year and they were also at Camilla's 60th birthday party at Highgrove.

Which is fitting, since Holland is the Deputy Lieutenant of Kent (DL of K) and these days he even lives in a castle, near Rochester, in Kent. "It's not a castle as such," he says modestly. "There's this bit of old wall and the house adjoins it, so it's hardly lord of the manor stuff, although as DL of K, I definitely do my bit to promote the county and the people who live there; marvellous people whose achievements are often unsung, like the person who's run a drop-in centre for decades, say."

These are ordinary people who sometimes do extraordinary things - rather like his own family, who ensured he inhabited a boyhood world of comfort and security that, he says, was akin to appearing in a pre-war Ealing comedy. Although he was born in 1958, his recollections of a cosy childhood are suffused with memories of playing in war-damaged buildings - "like those children in 1940s films, who wear big shorts and find a Luger in the rubble, or a hiding Luftwaffe pilot".

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In his family's history there are many professions, ranging from those who were labourers and hawkers to managers, greengrocers and salesmen. He is proudest, though, of the cloth-cap aspect of his ancestry, writing evocatively of a peripatetic childhood split between his grandparents' Victorian values and his youthful parents - Derek and June - who were "quite bohemian".

"My mother was serving risotto when no-one else had ever heard of it; that's how avant-garde we were," he says. His dad, who had many jobs until he went into marketing, loved books and was reading him Greek myths and taking him to see Laurence Olivier in Henry V when he was only four. The first song he remembers hearing was Careless Love, a blues piece based on an old Scottish folk song, sung by his mother.

His brothers, twins Richard and Christopher, were born in 1966, by which time the eight-year-old Holland was chain-smoking Players No 6, although his mother was never cross with him. He reckons he inherited his optimistic nature from her. "I've a certain cheerfulness and positive thinking that I know I get from my mum. She was once knocked off a motorbike and, as she was up in the air, she was thinking, 'This is good. I might get the day off work tomorrow.'"

Up to the age of 14, the family was quite poor. They once went without electricity for a year and his father would sometimes hide from the rent collector. But then there were times when there was money for vintage claret and cigars.

Derek Holland - "an existentialist Christian who is never boring" - was once sentenced to 15 months in jail for stealing some jewellery belonging to Christabel. "The judge could not have known the sentence he handed out would help my father consolidate his good-humoured faith nor realise that he would also be sentencing my father to a lifetime of people reading about the incident when reading about me," Holland writes in his memoir.

Today, he says: "Most people serve their sentence and 20 years later it's forgotten about - now that 20 years have passed since the scales of justice fell, I hope we can put it all behind us." His father, he adds, is "a model of wisdom, forgiveness and humility".

Once it emerged that young Jools, always the centre of attention in the family because of his tendency to show off, could play music by ear and copy anything he heard, even the most complex boogie-woogie riffs, his father would always find enough money to bring home abstract jazz records for his son to listen to.

In the book - and in person - Holland comes across as a latterday Artful Dodger, for ever ducking and diving and indulging in Boys' Own adventures, although even as a schoolboy he had a talent for cultivating friends in high places. The then Poet Laureate's son, Daniel Day Lewis - "one of the greatest actors the cinema has ever known" - went to the same junior school, Sherrington, in Greenwich. And Holland recalls being chauffeured around in Cecil Day Lewis's car, "a lovely air-force-blue Mercedes-Benz 220".

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"His father was one of those who thought that mixing with my type would somehow better their children and, of course, he was right," he grins.

It was Holland's bus driver Uncle David, who had an R&B band, who first taught him to play St Louis Blues on the piano. "It was so exciting, I was mesmerised," he says. "It had this physical effect on me. I don't know why I reacted like that. It was then, and still is, a beautiful mystery."

Expelled from school at 15, he was already playing in bands around the London pub scene. "I refuse to use the world 'expelled'," he says with some irony. "I was asked not to come back, following an incident with a teacher's car." He and some friends tried to bounce it out of the way because a coin had rolled beneath it. "I was so big-headed then I thought I knew it all anyway."

Rock stardom came when he was 20 - "all big mouth, leather jacket, long greasy hair and dirty fingernails" - with Squeeze and their two big hits, Up the Junction and Cool for Cats. Eventually, though, he left to form his own band. He prefers being in charge, he says, "a sort of benign dictatorship. In Squeeze, I wasn't the dictator".

The new band fizzled out but he hosted a documentary about the Police recording a new album at George Martin's studios in Monsterrat, which led to him being asked to co-host the rock music show The Tube, with Paula Yates.

He already knew Yates because she had photographed him in a pair of his grandfather's big, old pants for her book Rock Stars in Their Underpants. He recalls her telling him: "You like all the old dead blues people and I like the sexy young boys. You've got the cred and I've got the sex. So between us, we've got it covered."

On the day I meet Holland it is exactly seven years since Yates died of a heroin overdose. He still misses her. "Is it the anniversary? That's so sad. I've kept going back in my mind's eye, wondering if there was anything I could have done. I had found it quite stressful seeing her with Michael [Hutchence]. They were quite wild.

"There was a dark side to him and she was drinking, which changed her personality. Some people can consume all sorts of things - I've dabbled myself, but not any more, although I did go a bit mad on cocaine years ago only briefly - and it doesn't seem to change their personality. If everyone in the music business did the amount of drink and drugs they're alleged to do no music would ever get made. But drink did change Paula's personality. She wasn't herself - not the sharp, amusing, lively and attentive, doting mother I'd known."

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Around the time Hutchence died, Holland went to see her and he says she was in a mess. "She wasn't looking after herself. I was concerned for the children, too, and although it's not for me to presume things, I think that it was a terrible worry for Bob, and I think he did brilliantly." He invited Paula to come and stay with him and Christabel, even offering her their garden shed. "You're going to dump me in a shed at the end of the garden? You f***er. Thanks a lot - after all I've been through," she said. To which Holland responded: "No, it's really nice there - I've got a model railway and everything."

She did come to stay. Once he got out an old movie for them to watch together, Wuthering Heights, which he hadn't realised was all about obsessive love leading to madness and death. She couldn't believe it: "This is in the worst possible taste!" she exclaimed. But they had a laugh. She seemed to be improving and getting herself back together, then came the shocking news of her death.

"It was so sad what happened to her. We all sang her favourite songs at her funeral - Bono, Kevin Godley and Nick Cave. It was a shame she wasn't there because she would have enjoyed it. I'm sure she would have liked it even more if we had recorded the service and turned it into a Tribute to Paula record. We should have done that. It would have been a winner."

For his next big project, Holland wants to revive the reputation of a man he never met - his late father-in-law. Rory McEwen hosted Hullabaloo, one of the first ever popular music shows on television, which coincidentally had many similarities with Later... "It had a house band, with Long John Baldrey, and guests such as the Spinners, Sonny Boy Williamson and Fitzroy Coleman."

McEwen would play the guitar with his brother Eck in between introducing the acts; he once turned down the Rolling Stones because he thought they weren't good enough. Holland wants to get the shows reissued on DVD. Recently, Holland and Christabel had dinner with Paul Simon, who remembered Hullabaloo. "They both agreed that it was the first music show on television to feature non-mainstream music and that its great strength was that Rory could both introduce and play with the guests. At this, Christabel said, 'That's odd, I think I've married my dad'. Paul Simon shrugged in a very New York Jewish way and said, 'You wouldn't be the first girl to do that.'

As for me," says Holland, "I was dead chuffed. It's the nicest compliment my ravishing wife has ever paid me."

• Barefaced Lies & Boogie-Woogie Boasts: The Autobiography, by Jools Holland is published by Michael Joseph, priced 18.99. Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra play the Clyde Auditorium, 7, 8 December, tel: 08700 600 100, visit