Archive for June, 2005

Celebrities, Music

Preacher man

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – June 25 2005
Ginny Dougary

For 20 years, Bob Geldof has raged, hectored and charmed to get what he wants: hope for Africa. but even superheroes have their flaws, as Ginny Dougary discovers in a stormy encounter.

Just how much of a bully do you have to be to pull off something extraordinary? Does it matter if you bruise or upset people along the way and do you even care if you do, when the goal you are striving for is so important? Do you feel outraged to be challenged over issues which you consider to be trivial, unnecessary and possibly obstructive? These are the questions which nagged me after interviewing Sir Bob Geldof.

I had expected him to be a tricky customer but he far exceeded my expectations. His harshest critics, and I am not among them, would find it difficult to claim that Geldof has not been genuinely big-hearted and an effective catalyst in pushing governments in the wealthiest countries to tackle the economic plight of Africa. But even beyond his political and charitable galvanising, I had developed something of a soft spot for him over the decades.

For a man who can be almost comically disarrayed and foul-mouthed, to the extent that his anger sometimes appears out of control, Geldof was a model of dignified restraint when his late wife, Paula Yates, left him for Michael Hutchence. While she was most outspoken about how unhappy her ex-husband had made her, I was unable to find a single criticism of Yates by Geldof, and to this day, as I witnessed, he talks about her only with love and respect and regret. I was also struck by the grace and the immediacy with which he embraced the orphaned Tiger Lily, the daughter of Yates and Hutchence, into his own family.

I approved of his un-rock’n’roll parental firmness; there is an instance of this in his riveting book on Africa, published to coincide with the television series, when he is in the back of a truck in the dark, in a state of bowel-loosening terror, and one of his daughters phones on the mobile to seek permission for a sleepover. All thoughts of an imminent ambush by gun-wielding rebels on some hell-hole of a road are eclipsed by Geldof’s concern that homework has been completed and that said daughter is back home by 11 in the morning, even if it is the weekend.

His appearance has changed dramatically over the years and, again, I rather applaud his lack of vanity. He was a strikingly good-looking youth, as chief Boomtown Rat, in that sexily dishevelled Jagger-Stoppard mould. With Paula, who loved her frocks and once incurred her husband’s wrath for making a public appearance in something too revealing while he was out of the country, Geldof could be seen in three-piece tweeds sporting a strange surrealist-beatnik beard.

But, increasingly, with his drib-drab locks and hanging clothes, his pale glistening face contorted in a rictus of existential pain, he brings to mind a tramp from a Dennis Potter drama; a preacher from an early John Huston film, wide-eyed in the wilderness. He seems a man driven by his destiny, the huge mantle of Africa weighing down his bony shoulders. He talks – and how he can talk – with a lyrical, almost biblical, intensity and he has given himself the power because of the unassailable rightness of his cause to castigate, chide and cast into the darkness, anyone who stands in his way. So pity the poor wretch of an interviewer who has been dispatched to be more than a mere recorder to tape his sermonising zeal.

Why, with this well of good feeling that I had towards him, did I expect Geldof to be tricky? Partly because it has become an ingrained, and rather dominant, strand of his persona that he is grumpy. But also because the sensible-sounding book publicist had warned me, “You know, Bob is a very strong personality.”

There had been niggling criticisms of him in the press but, mostly, from the usual suspects. It became clear during our encounter that it was the disappointment felt by the more unusual suspects – about the lack of specifically African but more generally black faces in his concert line-up in London – that really bothered him. Although he affected not to know – most disingenuously – that it was the lack of blackness per se that disturbed people. These voices clamoured even louder after our interview and, at the time of writing, have clearly forced Geldof to rethink his position.

Something else hovered, a ghost of a thought, in the back of my mind. A young, twentysomething colleague – clear-headed, super-bright and unencumbered by Seventies feminist ideology – felt that there was a strong whiff of misogyny around Geldof. She said this en passant and I didn’t have time to quiz her about it. I was probably a bit uneasy about his campaigning alongside Fathers 4 Justice for aggrieved dads but also felt some sympathy for his view after rereading the articles about his painful custody battles with Yates.

Reviewing his life in the hundreds of cuttings, in the days before we met, I found myself warming to Geldof even more. He seemed gratifyingly co-operative and quite forthcoming about the likely effect on his developing personality, as a small boy left to his own devices after his mother had died and with a travelling salesman father who was often absent for long stretches of time. But as I read on, knowing the dreadful inevitability of what was to come – the utterly senseless, sad deaths of Hutchence and Yates – the research began to feel almost oppressive.

It was not as though I had felt any particular kinship with Paula Yates while she was alive. Although she was peppy and minxy, quick-witted and funny, she was also an absolute pain in her finger-wagging at working mothers mode. (And what were her In Bed with Paula interviews for her husband’s successful TV company if not work?) But even that phase, when she wore her aprons and crinolines and baked apple pies, seemed odd and slightly desperate in hindsight. After the split, she wrote her autobiography in which she described how confined she had begun to feel in her marriage: “Bob is the most controlling person in the world, which he freely and rather proudly admits. He used to tell me, ‘If I can’t exactly control the environment I’m in, I feel like I’m going mad.’” And towards the end, “I felt that I couldn’t do anything in case Bob was cross with me. I was always quite scared of him and hated him to be angry with me.”

What I found really upsetting was a piece for The Sunday Times Magazine’s Life in the Day slot which appeared after her death. Reading it was like being ambushed by her torment and distress, and all the more poignant for her occasional rallying attempts to regain her perky tilt on life.

She talks about her agoraphobia and depression, in between the jokes, and the horror she faces at three in the morning when she lies awake: “thinking ghastly thoughts about death, the transience of beauty and the squandering of talent”. And, so bleak this: “There’s a horrible dark place inside me now where nothing much matters any more.”

Geldof lopes into the room, an editing suite in an office in Soho where he is nipping and tucking the final episodes of his African TV series. I say that we have met once before and he – being polite – says that he recognises my face. When I add that it was a long time ago when he was in the Boomtown Rats, he says in that case he must be mistaken. As a student in the Seventies, I had seen the Rats in some godforsaken place near Swindon. Thinking Geldof was a bit of a love-god, I decided to pass myself off as a rock journalist in order to get backstage… whereupon I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Since the story reflects well on him, I say how patient he was and he counters, faux-darkly – although perhaps it was not all that faux – “Well, that’s certainly changed.”

He sits on the sofa and I take up a position – a bit of a mistake as the interview unravelled – on the floor near his feet. (Seating was a problem, either too cosy or too remote.) That morning’s news is that Bush has announced that the US plans to sign off its African debt and Geldof is “you know, moderately pleased.” The debt deal, on its own, is not enough and he is consumed with the importance of addressing the other two key issues at Gleneagles of doubling aid and trade reform, “which is what the Commission for Africa requires them to do”.

As he explores the financial intricacies of each of the G8 countries, his knowledge is as impressive as the precision of his words – “…so when Brown was trying to push the IFF – the International Finance Facility, which I completely endorse – I think it’s simple, elegant and admirable…” but I’m also, already, daunted by their unstoppable flow. The rules of an interview demand a certain to and fro – if there are to be answers, there must also be questions. It is a dance of sorts, if you like, and I suspect that Geldof wants to pogo on his own.

We know, full well, that having spent a year working with presidents and prime ministers on the Commission for Africa – which, it should be remembered, was his initiative – Geldof must have been quite capable of exercising diplomatic skills. Yet, the image persists of someone who shoots from the hip. It is Geldof, himself, however, as much as anyone else, who is responsible for perpetuating this legend. Here is a typical quote: “Me and Bono are known as the Laurel and Hardy of international politics. He’s the one who’s always saying, ‘That’s another fine mess you’ve got me into.’ He thinks I look for fights, but I don’t.” And, in the same breath – rather contradictorily – “Bono wants to change the world by embracing it. I get angry and want to punch its lights out.”

When I manage to ask him about his own talent for diplomacy, he says: “ You know, I didn’t just sit for a year on the Commission for Africa. I mean, I’ve done this for 20 years… The anger comes from the fact that while you understand everyone’s difficulties as the leaders of sovereign states, the point that you eventually come down to is ‘Well, why not do it anyway? It costs nothing.’ And I do get to that point but I don’t shout and bang and roar and I haven’t been shouting and banging and roaring on television, you know. People are saying, ‘Calm down.’ But I’m calm. I am calm, you know. “Don’t you think that somebody might say, ‘Hold on, there’s this idea you have of the guy. How does he get to be there, if he’s this sort of cartoon figure?’”

It strikes me, more forcibly when I listen to the interview later, that this is the start of a pattern in our encounter. Geldof should know, and surely does, as a major media player himself, that it’s a journalist’s job to put questions to the subject that are being aired in the public arena. But time and time again he shoots the messenger, insistently and perversely ascribing those views to me.

I wonder – and how I wish I hadn’t – what he makes of strange bedfellows such as Janet Street-Porter and Bruce Anderson sneering at a pop-star’s attempts to change the world. Again, I make it quite clear that I don’t go along with that view.

But still, off he went: “I’m not aware of those criticisms because I don’t read it and so your entire agenda is to ask me what a columnist who is paid to be provocative…” It’s not my agenda, and it’s only one question. “You’re using their agenda and you’re another journalist and it’ll appear in a newspaper and all this is froth that consumes you people in journalism and it has no bearing on what is happening. And I’ll tell you what is happening: the political world is shifting en masse towards a resolution of the greatest political fracture in the world and certainly what I believe is the greatest moral sore and not to deal with it corrupts our soul – not that I wouldn’t be ambivalent about the existence of that entity in the first place – but none the less…”

Much more of this, then: “And, so you know, it’s pointless answering what to me what is an inconsequential thing – and it’s Janet who I love. I think she’s completely, you know, turning into one of those great bonkers old women and I love it…”

Like Germaine? “Germaine is just beyond wonderful. I’m mad for her. And I love Bruce Anderson’s writing and Frank Johnson and all those people when they write about me. Obviously I don’t read it because it would just get in the way. I’m aware of it but I just get on with doing my thing.”

I clap my hands with glee at this: the artful magnanimity, as well as the Irish charm and blarney. And it’s fair enough for him, too, to see the criticism – but, surely, not all criticism – as a distraction from his goal. But what interested me is how thin-skinned Geldof is – despite affecting nonchalance or media knowingness – since throughout the rest of the interview it was he, not me, who kept revisiting the issue of how he is perceived.

For a moment, we are all smiles… and then I ask another question. I wonder what prompted his Dunkirk flotilla manoeuvre. A number of people had mentioned this to me as another bonkers idea from Bob but, again, I rather liked the sound of it; it is often the more outlandish activities which prompt people to sit up and pay attention. Geldof feels the only way he wants to answer this is by giving me the whole background from his last visit to Africa, 18 months ago, which led to him approaching Blair to set up the Commission for Africa – drawing together “the greatest economic minds of our time” – right up to the Live 8 concerts and events.

It is fascinating – Blair’s responsiveness to Live Aid all those years ago and Geldof’s cunning plan to exploit the PM’s populist instincts and “kidnap British policy”; the drawing in of writers such as Umberto Eco for “fresh thinking seminars” so that beyond the specialists, you have brilliant minds coming at the problems from different angles; the intense level of intellectual argument, “which I found, to my dismay – since I’m not a big committee guy – hugely stimulating”; how you go about changing the structures of African society – and I understand why Geldof says you need to see his whole game plan in order for him to explain the individual moves. But as the minutes tick by, and tick by, with him brooking no interruptions or slapping me down when I do, I begin to panic.

Look, I say, this is good and I’m happy for you to continue – (after a page-long speech where he’s barely paused for breath) – but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover so will you give me more time? “No, I’ll give you an hour and that’s it.”

He has been getting steadily ruder. I mention a historian I admire who has done some work with Geldof… He’s interesting, isn’t he? “He’s not very.” John Gray (not Men Are from Mars, but the other one), on the other hand, “is a very interesting man. His book is profoundly important. I think it’s one of the first important books of the 21st century. The Africa Commission being the second first important book of the 21st century.”

Another attempt at a question and “Stay with me. Stop hopping all around the place. I’ll just tell you what happened and you keep interrupting.” You’re so controlling, I say.

Fast forward – well, forward, at least – to the concert. Geldof’s lack of enthusiasm for staging a sort of Live Aid revisited has been well-documented. When Richard Curtis and Bono approached him, his first response was “You f****** do it.” “And Bono said, ‘I’m gonna be on tour.’ And I said, ‘That’s very nice. I’d like a bit of that action, you know.’ And Richard said, ‘It’s not the sort of thing I can do.’

“My feeling was ‘What’s the point in a gig? What are we doing it for?’ And also the cost to me was too much: the physical cost, I don’t sleep, I panic, I worry – the potential for failure is enormous. Failure to achieve what we set out to do, which then betrays the people in whose name you do it. That you will create a vast generation of cynics because you mobilise a country and you seek to persuade them that this is the right way forward and in so persuading you cannot let them down. And then the personal failure that it didn’t work. So those things have an emotional toll and it has a personal toll in terms of your time: you can’t be with your family which has a toll on your relationships, and it’s got financial costs, of course. You can’t earn money. So all of that.”

In the end, after a great deal of agonising, Geldof persuaded himself that a concert and allied stunts was the most effective way of ensuring media coverage which if handled correctly – or even incorrectly – would, in turn, be a vehicle for pressurising governments in the relevant countries. “Because once you announce it, you get weeks of you guys talking about people who are on the bill – they’re old, they’re young, they’re not black, they’re not African…”

Controversy, in other words. “It’s not controversy… it’s silly stuff. You get your Bruce Andersons and your Janets going at me and then beyond that you get, ‘Well, what is this about?’”

He lists all the pages of newspaper coverage and, indeed, since we met there hasn’t been a day when Geldof hasn’t been in the news: the black debate raged on; conveniently eclipsed by the Pink Floyd reunion; the eBay ticket sales scandal; the Eden Project concert. He’s thrilled that Lorraine on her pink sofa was asking him about corruption and trade reform in Africa “at eight in the morning! That is seriously significant.” That in Berlin, where he had been the previous day, he spoke to a packed press conference, which was running live on all networks, “and this half-assed Paddy pop singer was being asked in-depth questions about Africa”.

At this point, I spill my cup of hot coffee over me but Geldof doesn’t falter; he just keeps motoring on. How could he bring in the other countries? (He is asking the questions now as well as answering them.) “We’ll make it fun. Instead of ‘Give me your f****** money’ famously, it’s ‘Give me you.’ You know, ‘Come to Britain.’ ‘How are we gonna get there?’”

So here we have arrived, 30 minutes later, with the answer to my Dunkirk question. This was all part of his long walk to justice plan, although it will be a long train or short plane ride to Edinburgh, since four days between the London concert and the G8 summit in Gleneagles is not enough time to go by foot… but no matter. So Geldof has got Air Berlin to put on free flights, and he’s already got his old gigging mate, Sir Richard Branson, to help out with Virgin, and he’s doing a sort of Dunkirk re-enactment led by solo yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur “and it’s a massive national effort”.

And when the G8 leaders fly back to their countries, “their straggling people will be returning home ragged and weary from a triumphant failure but a miserable defeat for their leaders – or a glorious triumph, it’s one or the other. They will be asked by the embedded journalists, ‘Hold on. You got on your jet, you had massive numbers of people willing you to do something for Africa, and you did nothing. You did nothing. You answer for it.’ So there is a political consequence to this one.”

We enjoy a charming but shortlived sunny interlude before the storm breaks. Will Geldof’s own four girls be bunking school to join their father in Edinburgh? “If they’re doing exams, no. They’re not bunking, anyway. I will take them out and write a letter saying I think it’s important that my children participate in the world. I don’t want them bunking. Anyway, I can’t think of anything more educational. It’s the entire curriculum – geography, history, civics, religion.”

I say that my 14-year-old son watched some of the programmes with me the previous night, and since Geldof actually seems interested in his response – “Did he like them? Did he get it?” – I do my maternal duty and ask for an autograph. He scribbles with good grace and, suddenly remembering his manners, offers me his last slither of sashimi.

But all traces of good will evaporate – and it is alarming to be at the receiving end of such a sudden and dramatic mood swing – when I ask the black question. When the London line-up was first announced on May 31 there were no black artists. The Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour was added to the bill, but on the day I interview Geldof, the addition of American rap artist Snoop Dogg and British Ms Dynamite had not yet been announced.

I mention Ms Dynamite and Beyoncé as black women who could have been included: “What are you talking about? Miss Dynamite and Beyoncé are on the bill.” (I have still been unable to find any reference to Beyoncé on any of the line-ups worldwide; the only mentions of Ms Dynamite up to this point were complaints that she wasn’t appearing.)

Oh, I apologise, I must not be up to speed. There have been criticisms by Andy Kershaw and… “Get with the programme. You’re completely under-informed. Kershaw’s thing is about African bands.” I know, but also… “I mean, you are emblematic of the model at the heart of the liberal consensus.”

(Geldof has said: “I see things in black and white; I am not a liberal at all.”)

Don’t bash me up, I say. “Do you not see any difference between black people and African people?” I do, I do, and… “What have Beyoncé and Ms Dynamite got to do with Africa?” Because of the criticisms that Kershaw came up with and… “It was about African bands.” Yes (at last I get a chance to speak) – but there have also been criticisms that there aren’t enough black faces in the line-up.

“Oh, right. I didn’t know that,” he says, literally unbelievably. “If he can name people here who sell millions of records I don’t have a problem. So can you name any? Here. In London?”

If I can think of some, should I ask them to come forward? “No,” he says. “There’s no space now.”

And then, an argument that he must now be aware is increasingly unacceptable to many people: “If there’s a guy who sells – I don’t care if they’re lime green and orange. If they sell ten million albums, I’d beg them to be on the bill…

“If I have a load of African artists – great as they may be – no one’s that interested. Why? How do we know this? Because we know how much their record sales are and we know what sort of gigs they play. And the equal truth is that most Africans listen to Eminem and 50 Cent. And the truth is that if you had a load of African bands on, people would go and make tea or else they’d switch over to Wimbledon. And I can’t afford that.”

Geldof was so very belligerent, even with me asking questions in the most unconfrontational way possible, that I’m glad I didn’t come back at him on this. But, really and truly, it is the most ridiculous and offensive thing he could say. He is assuming that people in their living rooms will care enough about African people, having heard Madonna and Pink Floyd, to put pressure on their governments to affect wide-reaching and necessary change. But when one or a group of Africans come on the stage – captivating, wonderful artists such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, Salif Keita – this same audience will suddenly be so uninterested they will turn off in their masses. In which case, it’s not just the African musicians who should feel patronised and insulted.

But more than this, it cannot be any good – surely – offending the very people in whose name you are acting. Two days after my interview, the Senegalese star Baaba Maal wrote about his disappointment, in admirably measured tones, in The Independent: “I do feel that it is very patronising as an African artist that more of us aren’t involved… If in a concert like Live 8, people don’t give African artists the chance to appear, how are they going to add their voice?…” And, tackling Geldof’s justification head on: “This is not about how many records African artists sell. It should be about the whole package. If African artists aren’t given a chance, how are they going to sell records and take the message back to Africa? Sometimes it seems to be about keeping artists down at a level where some people want them to stay.”

As I write, it has just been announced that there will be a separate event for African musicians – in the wake of so much criticism about the Hyde Park “too Anglo-Saxon” (Damon Albarn) concert – held at the Eden Project in Cornwall. While this strikes me as a sort of rock’n’roll apartheid, the African performer Angelique Kidjo had no problem with it: “Why are we having this controversy?” she asked. “What is important is that we all work together against poverty.”

Still, people will continue to be offended and Geldof’s defensiveness on this issue suggests that he realises his approach may not have necessarily been the best – or, perhaps, he’s too arrogant to concede he could be wrong. He should apologise, but, like a politician, being Bob means never having to say you’re sorry.

We move on to the issue of monitoring precisely where aid money goes, since there is still a widely held perception that it pours into the pockets of corrupt governments and dictators. “That doesn’t happen. That’s the first thing.” Never? Not even 20 years ago? “No, it doesn’t happen.” You can actually trace all the money?

“Now listen… if you come to interview me and you’re from The Times, please read. OK. Please do work. Go to the Charity Commission. All the accounts are there. It is all over the place, precisely what happened. I’ve written a book about it. Other people have written books about it.”

So you’re saying that no money ever gets diverted and misused by dictatorships? “Are you talking about Band Aid money?” I’m just talking about… “Don’t conflate the two! Have some mental rigour and discipline. Honestly.”

Don’t berate me like this.

“Well, don’t you start asking me stupid f****** questions after 20 years. You know, you should have a little bit of sense, you know.”

OK, but my job is to be a conduit to the public and you must know that there is some anxiety about money going to dictators. “There isn’t. There is no perception that Band Aid money went to dictators, no.” Well, I don’t think that people are… [I was going to say, that nuanced about the different accountabilities between charities and government-to-government aid.] “I don’t think you understand the difference between bilateral, multilateral aid flows and individual charities.” I probably don’t, I say. (Not being the charity correspondent of my paper, which I don’t say.) “Well, then you should. If you’re coming from The Times and you want to talk about Africa, the very least you should do is understand that or f*** off.”

OK, I say, and my voice sounds tiny.

At this point I think the interview is over and – frankly – it is a relief. It still bothers me that I felt so trapped by trying to do my job that I didn’t walk out. To have a man towering above you – it didn’t help that I was on the floor – a face implacable with cold rage, is intimidating. To be yelled and sworn at, with such force, felt like having my face kicked in. I don’t think you should ever show another human being so little respect. And I do think Geldof has a real problem with his anger.

Incredibly, his mood switches again and he launches into another three-page lecture, this time about devices to ensure the transparent flow of aid to Africa. When I had said that I thought he himself had declared that a certain amount of money was diverted, he exploded: “I did not say that at all!” Later, I found the quote which had registered in the mountain of information I had mugged up on… it was in an interview Geldof had given the previous month, where he says quite clearly and without any ring-fencing: “I’m not saying there isn’t endemic corruption in Africa. A proportion of aid goes missing.”

But like all good bullies, by this time – bludgeoned by his sustained barrage of verbal blows – he had successfully shaken my confidence. As a colleague put it, later, it was almost as though I had been caught up in a mini-abusive relationship.

Perhaps this explains why, when I do introduce the very human and emotional subject of Paula – in the final, more amicable stage of our interview (we talk about his childhood, his love of poetry and his readings of Keats – we recite the first stanza of Ode to a Nightingale together – and Yeats at the British Library, his Willy Loman dad, his purposeful and engaged 96-year-old aunt, the cuddles and kisses and affection in his family) – I find myself in tears. That is not a particuarly easy thing to write but it seems important to be as honest about my conduct as I am about Geldof’s.

I mention the harrowing piece in The Sunday Times and how sad it was to stare at a soul in such distress. “But she was,” he says simply. He’s unfazed by my evident discomfort and not unkind. “She was a great girl, a fantastic girl and then it all just flipped. If she had got through it, she would have been all right, you know. She would have stablised herself and everyone would have been fine. But I don’t think she could find her way out of the place she’d put herself into and she suddenly realised that this was a cul-de-sac…”

And, in the midst of everything, to find out that your real father was Hughie Green!

“Who I just thought was a wretched person. I mean long before anything we used to laugh about him because he was so emblematic of naff, you know. But that’s – I mean, I just don’t talk about that stuff – but she was great. I mean, she was just great. She was a fantastic girl and, f*** me, we laughed…” He looks hot-eyed now.

“And she was beautiful. But funny with that, you know, she took the piss out of that aspect. We knew each other since we were kids and I didn’t even have a record out but we just went on this mad journey together. And it was good, but then, you know… something happened to her and she just turned.”

Did you ever believe you could stop things spiralling out of control? “Well, it was nothing to do with me at that stage. Much as you would offer and suggest stuff… I mean, you just have to let it play out, you know, whichever way it was going to go. From my point of view, I just had to keep taking care of the kids. But luckily for me there was Jeanne [Marine, a French actress and his girlfriend for almost a decade] another remarkable… I’m so lucky with girls. Not only my children or my sisters but, I mean, having had my mum swiped from me maybe there was some karmic balance.”

I ask him whether he has a lot of friends. “Boyfriends or girlfriends?” Well, men and women friends, you know, both. Yeah, he says he does, and friends from the days when he and Paula were together, and then he adds, quite unprompted, “I prefer the company of men.”

We talk about the differences between the sexes which takes him on to the divorce laws and back to Paula. “I was thrown up against this thing, that my wife didn’t love me any more. And I was bereft beyond belief but I understood that she had to go now because she didn’t love me… and it was like this great joy went out of my life. But I didn’t understand why my children went. What had I done? Why did the supreme joy of my life have to go as well? What had I done that was wrong, you know?”

Which was the start of his journey to try to change the legal system: “Then people say, ‘Oh, he’s against women.’ No, I’m against a law being prejudiced towards women and against men.”

At the end of the interview, we sit and watch one of the African programmes which was still being edited. The most haunting section of his book, for me, is when he writes about the night children of Kitgum. Every evening, for the past eight years, thousands of children walk many miles from their villages in the Acholi province in northern Uganda, so they can sleep safely on the streets of Kitgum. Their parents dispatch them, not knowing if they will see them again, but in the knowledge that if they stay, they risk being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and turned into infant killer soldiers: ten-year-olds forced to kill their own parents.

The worst story was of a group of eight-year-old girls who were captured and told that if they tried to escape, they would be killed. But their bonds are loose and one child leaves. The guards capture her and force her friends to bite her to death. They are told that unless their captors can actually see the little girl’s flesh in their teeth, the same fate will befall them.

I watch these children telling their terrible stories with tears streaming down my cheeks. As Geldof watches himself on the screen he is crying, too. At the end of the sequence, he gets up and says: “So. Now do you see?” We chat a bit about other things and I say, “You know I’m not stupid, don’t you?” “Yes, I do,” he says and bends down to ruffle my hair.

People who achieve extraordinary things – and Geldof is certainly one of them – often have their less palatable sides. We may adore Picasso’s art, for instance, but deplore the way he treated his wives. Geldof himself has always loathed being called Saint Bob and told me: “I’m the least noble person you will ever encounter. It’s just that I can do the stuff, I don’t know why. I never asked for it, but I can do it.”

So let’s leave him, with his sights set on Edinburgh, at his rhapsodic, biblical best. The question, by the way, was how was he going to deal with the more violent anarchists:

“You will have some complete wankers going up but I imagine that with so many of us there, these guys would be just squashed down. But if you look at the great political mass movements – whether it’s Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela – it’s peaceful means in the face of political stubbornness. And it’s such an attractive proposition to be peaceful.

“But, more importantly, to show absolute respect for those in whose name we’re there. The weak, the mute, the powerless, the put-upon, the trodden down, the beaten up. They can’t even crawl, so we’re going to walk there. And the very least you show these people – the very least – is utter respect for their condition.

“So anyone who has the slightest misapprehension as to why they’re there, don’t come. But if you’re coming to celebrate the possibility of what we can achieve on behalf of these people, if you’ve come to celebrate their spirit and, indeed, yours… then come to the party. And if it’s a million people, so be it. If it’s a thousand people, so be it. But we will be,” he pauses. “Yes, we will be a great, peaceful pilgrimage for the poor.”

Actors, Celebrities, Women

All by herself

THE TIMES – June 11, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Despite her frail beauty, Naomi Watts has overcome the pain of her father’s untimely death – and the label ‘Nicole Kidman’s best friend’ – to become a star in her own right.

naomi watts

Naomi Almost-Mega Watts is quite right when she says that she’s not the sort of actress who lights up a room. Admittedly it would take a Day-Glo aura to penetrate the dungeonesque gloom of the Manhattan hotel foyer we meet in, but it does take a while to register that the childlike figure approaching me – fair hair scraped back in a stubby ponytail, pale face with no make-up, jeans, flat silver pumps, baggy bleached-blue cardigan, clutching a takeaway coffee – is a Hollywood star.

Her prettiness is often commented on but what impressed me in the films I’ve seen her in is her grittiness. Even in a schlocky- horror teen movie such as The Ring, the intelligence of her acting makes the viewing more compelling. In genuinely interesting films (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which won her an Oscar nomination), Watts fills the screen with her raw, almost uncomfortable portrayal of despair, anger, bitterness; a palpable willingness to mine whatever it takes from her own life to realise the truth of her character.

There’s courage, too, in the way the actress wills herself to go to places creatively that she finds horrible to visit – masturbating in front of an all-male film crew on Mulholland Drive, for instance – and her apparent indifference to being made to look quite plain sometimes, snot and tears streaming down her face, a strange little bulge forming next to her cheek usually when one of her characters is in extremis.

Certainly in her work of the past five years, all the women Watts has played are either downright edgy or battlers or on the outer margins in some way. In The Ring, she is a single mother and single-minded investigative reporter; in Mulholland Drive, she plays two different women: Betty, a nicey-nicey wannabe starlet who falls for a mysterious woman, and her mirror image of Diane, a not-very-nice love-sick lesbian and ravaged Hollywood failure; in 21 Grams, a reformed junkie who relapses after her husband and two young daughters are run over and killed; in I § Huckabees, a model who rebels against her bimbo straitjacket, trading her bikini for dungarees and a mad Amish bonnet; in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a depressed, adulterous housewife who betrays her best friend in her desperation to remind herself what it is to be alive.

Even as the Fay Wray character in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong – a role which should definitively caterpault Watts into super-stardom status – one feels that she is likely to find a way, against the odds, of investing her part with something surprising and psychological. At 36, Watts is no overnight success. She has been toiling away at the Hollywood coalface for a good decade. Until relatively recently, she was simply (but surely irritatingly) known as Nicole Kidman’s best friend – accompanying her in those tricky post-Cruise months to various Academy-type functions. In photographs, the decorative but diminutive Watts is dwarfed – physically, at least – by Kidman’s towering stature.

Hey, I say, how come Nicole has so little influence in LaLa Land? I mean, surely she could have landed you a good part or two? What kind of sad sack of a mate is she? “You can’t really have that done for you,” she says, so seriously it is rather endearing. “Ultimately you’ve got to drive it yourself. I mean, now I’m lucky enough to be in this great position and some of my friends are struggling, you know, and you know, sure, I can introduce them to people and I have done that – as Nicole has done or did for me – but you can’t just call someone and say, ‘You need to hire this person.’ Ultimately, they have to get it on their own merit.”

Part of the problem was that Watts never seemed to have access to the right people: “A lot of the time I couldn’t get to meet the director; it was more like the assistant of some casting director. [She was commonly rejected for being ‘too intense and stressed-out’ or for being ‘a little too old’; on one occasion, a major Hollywood player actually fell asleep during her audition.] And when you’re up against all those things, how can you shine? How can you show anyone that you have something? You just feel like it’s too big a challenge.

“But, you know, it wasn’t their fault. I don’t blame them. I was unhireable! I’m not someone who can walk into a room and just light it up. It’s not who I am. Lighting up a screen and being good in a scene or a moment is very different to walking in and making people’s heads turn. Really, what I am is an observer.”

Los Angeles is such a soul-shrinking hologram of a place to pick for a home, where no one walks, and the bodies – pool-side – all seem to have been honed at the same gym; so many young, beautiful people chasing after the elusive mirage of one big break. Watts had her own share of rejection and depression and loneliness, weeping in cars, unable to pay her health insurance – which is a truly alarming predicament in the land where opportunity quite often fails to knock – struggling with debts and the prospect of imminent eviction. She once made the mistake of telling a reporter, “I remember driving along Mulholland Drive, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just go over the cliff because I can’t take it any more.’”

“That wasn’t literal. For the record, I am not a suicidal person,” she says, not at all sternly. In fact, with an easy laugh which is something she does often. “But I understand depression and I’ve lived it and I felt really badly when I read that and suddenly it’s everywhere, ‘Naomi contemplating suicide’.” It was always an option, in theory, to return to Australia where she had played a paraplegic in the soap Home and Away, and a schoolgirl in John Duigan’s film Flirting, in which she and Kidman cemented their friendship. (They had originally met at a casting for a film where they were asked to pose in swimsuits.) But, in practice, going back would have meant going backwards and that might have been as frightening as staying put and going nowhere: “Yeah, oh yeah. Because in Australia we’re very, very full of pride and, you know, it was always an option I was trying to avoid.”

In the end, it was David Lynch who rescued Watts in 2001 from her own Hollywood margins by taking a rather inspired, instinctive punt – he picked her on the basis of a snap taken by her photographer brother Ben and a half-hour meeting, never having seen her on screen. Mulholland Drive was initially a TV pilot – along the lines of Twin Peaks – but ABC balked at its dark weirdness and Lynch felt there was enough footage, with an additional story-line, to extend it to a feature-length film. The corporation’s rejection enabled Watts to show her stuff in the more challenging role of Diane.

Lynch was rewarded with best director at Cannes, and Watts, as the lead actress, soaked up the reflected limelight, but – from her point of view – she had certainly had to show more stuff than she had bargained for. We had been talking about Michael Winterbottom – an English director she admires – and the explicit sexual scenes of his most recent film, 9 Songs, when she mentions her Mulholland masturbation scene. Was that awkward? “Er. Yes. In a word. Yes.” Really? (Thinking of Winterbottom’s oral sex and full penetration and how that has shifted acceptable sexual boundaries in a mainstream film.) “I was mortified. Completely mortified.”

Is it because you’re shy? “Well, yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, masturbation is a private matter!” A big laugh. “It really is… for goodness sake! You know, you might share it with one other person but a whole film crew who you’ve spent a good portion with, well, it’s a whole other experience.”

So did you get drunk? “Well, I have done that before with sex scenes, had a little hip flask by me to calm the nerves. But in this one I didn’t. In fact, I had terrible, terrible… my nerves were so bad that I had to keep going to the loo. The thing is that you trust David and you know when he keeps going it’s because he’s looking for something very specific. I found it so humiliating that I kept on crying and he didn’t want that… it wasn’t reaching this particular place of emotion which he was desperately chasing, trying to connect with myself and all the memories I had of this woman and it became quite violent and… vulgar.” You were crying because you couldn’t help yourself? “Yes, it just felt so awful to be sitting with my hands down my pants in front of, you know, a bunch of men. And eventually he built this sort of tent around me and the camera was just peeking through, blocking out the crew.”

Did that help? “Yes, but still I kept crying and I could hear him speaking though his little thing saying, ‘Okay-ee, Neigh-o-meee. Don’t cry-ee. Don’t cry-ee.’ And I was, like [gritted teeth], ‘You try this, you f****** arsehole,’ and then I’d say, ‘David, I can’t, I can’t’ and I was thinking, ‘OK, he’s gonna call “Cut” now because I’m hysterical, you know, I’m bombing here.’ And you’d hear him go, ‘Ok-ayeee. Okayee. That’s right.’ And he just kept rolling and rolling and rolling until eventually I guess I just got it because, I mean, I was so angry.”

The film we are supposed to be talking about is We Don’t Live Here Anymore – a sort of Ice Storm but with sunny spells – directed by Watts’s friend, John Curran, based on stories by Andre Dubus written in the Seventies, adapted by Larry Gross who garnered the top screenwriting award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The New Yorker’s David Denby gave it a rave review, claiming it was “easily the best American movie so far this year”. It’s a low-budget (made in just three weeks) ensemble piece – Watts’s co-stars are Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter (Six Feet Under) Krause – exploring marital breakdown, friendship, betrayal, boredom, infidelity, creative frustration and how do you keep it all together (or not), when you’ve lost your way. The performances are all terrific, particularly as the characters are not all that likeable, but it’s Laura Dern’s which stands out.

I wonder, slightly carefully, whether Watts feels that she was eclipsed by Dern. “Oh definitely, definitely,” she says. As it turns out, it was Watts’s decision to play the less “showy” role, knowing she would arrive on set exhausted from just having completed 21 Grams. “Initially, I wasn’t even going to read the script because I would say – even though I’ve never been married – that reading a script while you’re making another movie is like cheating on your husband. Especially if you know it’s going to be quite good, you imagine yourself doing the film and you play it out in your head and see yourself on the set, and I did end up reading it – because John is my friend and he kept on passionately pursuing it – so, yeah, I am a cheet-ah,” she says, sounding very Aussie.

What really lured her was when Curran offered her the opportunity to be creative producer – a direction Watts is increasingly interested in pursuing. At Sundance this year, she produced as well as starred in a film called Ellie Parker – which revolves around a day in the life of an actress going from one audition to another: “Making the transition in and out of character, getting dressed and changing in your car, dealing with bad news on the way, subjecting yourself to constant judgment… yeah, it’s very much about how I spent my early days in Los Angeles, but you know it’s not just my story,” she says.

Despite Watts’s clear, even gaze and straightforward manner – along with her evident staying power which suggests a degree of dogged self-belief – there are times when her confidence seems to evaporate. She says that she would love to write and even direct, although she’s not sure whether she has the confidence or discipline to do either: “That’s a long way off and I’d probably be way too stressed out. I mean, I can barely make decisions for my day-to-day activities at the moment.” Are you neurotic? “I think I probably am!”

It is her role in 21 Grams that is the most self-revelatory of her work, and one which led her to explore a hitherto – I suspect determinedly so – unexamined part of her life. Watts’s mongrel accent – Australian at the forefront, English lurking not far behind, punctuated by the odd transatlantic slur or upward beat – is a legacy of her upbringing. She was born in England and lived in different parts of the country, for a couple of years on a farm in Wales with her maternal grandparents (“while my mother – whom I wanted to be around – was trying to piece back her life”) and moved to Sydney when she was 14. Her father, Peter Watts, was Pink Floyd’s sound engineer – it is his manic laugh which can be heard at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon. He and Watts’s mother, Myfanwy – known as Miv – divorced when Naomi was four. Three years later, he was found dead, at the age of 30, in a Notting Hill Gate house, of a suspected heroin overdose.

I was struck when I read that Naomi had always assumed that she would not be around beyond her 30th birthday, that Moby – whose father committed suicide at an even younger age – had the same morbid apprehension. I have also observed this among close friends who have had a parent die prematurely.

The back story of Christina, Watts’s character in 21 Grams, is that her mother died when she was a young girl. There is a pivotal scene, to me, in the film when Christina’s father tries to comfort her at the family gathering after the funeral of Christina’s husband and daughters. He tells her that when her mother died, he thought that his life had ended and yet you cope and you endure and you learn how to forge a new way of existing. Christina counters that she knows that she will not be able to survive this tragedy, which makes complete sense knowing her self-annihilating history.

“Oh, I’m so glad you remembered that scene because I really fought to keep it in. Alejandro was going to cut it, and I literally went down on my hands and knees and begged him to keep it in,” Watts says, burning with conviction, even at this remove. “You know, she spent so much time alone and I had been in these rooms full of people [as part of her research, she had spent days in group-therapy grief-support groups], and I had watched how these people grieve and how they hang on to things; they hang on to anger and they blame their existing family members and, you know, years have passed, decades have passed, and yet there are things that stay with them and I just… well, it was important to me. “I always thought that I would die when my father died… that would be when life finished. So I’m reading all these books about kids who have lost their parents, and as I was reading, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that is exactly what I always thought.’ And suddenly I felt validated and not crazy any more.”

She has very few photographs of her father but alerts me to one in which the members of Pink Floyd are standing on a beach somewhere “and being completely hippyish” and her father is there, and so is her mum, who e-mailed it to her, and she’s standing there in her bikini holding Naomi as a baby, with her brother alongside. It must be strange, I think, that your father’s laugh – on a huge, bestselling album – is what you are left with in the long years since he has gone. It gives me a little internal jolt when she replicates the laugh… “You know,” she points out. “It’s not just at the start, it comes in and out of the whole album.” And I have a vision of her listening to the record, often, at different times of her life, chasing the ghost of her father; wondering how much of her is made out of him.

She knows that some people find The Laugh haunting, or a bit frightening, but it isn’t to her. And she likes it, finds it consoling even, when it comes to her unbidden: “I was doing yoga the other day and the guy who was teaching the class just put on the track. And I thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t that bizarre?’” Does it never make her feel sad? “Well, it gets to me. Whatever I’m feeling at the time, I think, it tends to connect with me. I mean, there have been times when I’ve laughed out loud with him and got the joke – whatever that was, but I was right there. And then there have been times when it’s just been incredibly mysterious… like, who is this person? How strange. And I wonder if we would have got on. What would he think of me and what would I think of him and are we the same or are we… you know.”

Does her mother talk about him? “Oh yeah, there are times when she tells great stories about him. He was very hardworking, apparently. And she always says that both my brother and me are very, very focused – like him. Driven but not ruthless. But, you know, yeah, we like to work hard. It’s a survival instinct, I think.”

Anything else? “His sense of humour – we both have that, too; that’s what mum says.”

Watts does not talk about the circumstances in which her father died but, she says, of course: “You want to know why he didn’t stay and why he chose a certain life over us. And you have moments of anger, but then you also have moments of turning him into a hero. And that’s another thing I read about – the missing parent becomes the hero and you end up blaming the existing parent.” No, her mother – to whom Naomi is very close now – was not of the mind-set or money-bracket to suggest counselling: “I didn’t come from a family like that. My mother would hold me and let me cry but it wasn’t like: ‘Let’s get you down to the shrink’s office.’” When her mother saw 21 Grams for the first time, she was unable to speak for a good 40 minutes. Back at the hotel, she told her daughter: “I always thought you were so resilient. I had no idea you were holding so much pain. And I’m proud of you for utilising it in such a meaningful way.” At the time, Watts said: “It was a big thing for my mother to say, and there were a lot of tears.”

Growing up in such a bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, I wondered whether Naomi had reacted against her mother. Or am I making too much of Watts saying that Absolutely Fabulous is one of her favourite series? Did she have her Saffy moments? “Oh yes: ‘Mu-u-um. Please stop embarrassing me!’” she hams obligingly. And then: “I always knew that my life was filled with adventure. That my mum and all her wacky, hippy friends – despite the distinct lack of underwear – were great people and that they were stimulating not only me but everyone.” And then she adds, with distinctly Saffy-like punctiliousness: “You know, when I say that my home was an underwear-free zone, I’m just trying to illustrate the picture.” In most of her recent films, Watts has played the mother of young children and for some years now, she has been talking about her own desire to have a baby; with or without a partner. She says that she doesn’t see anything wrong at all with single parenthood: “Why would I? I’ve seen children from perfect two-parent homes and it doesn’t make them any less neurotic or damaged than… I just think the important thing is for a child to be raised with love.”

She doesn’t really see her stepfather any more – “He was a musician but I don’t think he’s doing that any more. He’s got another family now.” And she seems to like her mother’s partner, Mike Gurney, who runs a popular fish shop in Burnham Market: “All the ladies love him! He’s gorgeous.” Watts has been self-sufficient for so many years – earning her own living since the age of 17 – I wonder, with her career finally taking off, whether she would be prepared to opt out now to start a family of her own. There doesn’t appear to be a man in her life – or not one, at any rate, she is ready to discuss – but she is at pains to point out: “I am quite independent but, you know, I like intimacy, too. It’s not like I have a fort built around me.”
I notice that her eyes gleam when she mentions how much she’d like to work with Johnny Depp and there was, of course, a serious relationship with the Australian film star Heath Ledger, ten years her junior. When I say that I don’t really know much about him, she tells me what a fine actor he is and how many great movies he has coming out this year. “We’re very good friends so there’s nothing controversial,” she laughs. When Watts was subjected to numerous, inevitable questions about the couple’s age difference, she countered, “Well, he’s an old soul.” I ask her whether she would say the same of herself: “Well, yeah,” she grins, “I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times.”

After we say goodbye – Naomi is off to Africa via London to do charitable works – I wander down from Chelsea to Greenwich Village and stop off in the Magnolia Bakery. Sitting down to eat a retro cup cake – in homage to Sex and the City, that’s my excuse – I glance up and am startled to see a laddish magazine cover on the wall, depicting a younger Naomi Watts with smouldering black-shadowed eyes and glossy magenta lips, her finger placed lasciviously in her pouting mouth. It’s a pure David Lynch doppelgänger moment. Yes, I think, this is definitely a few blocks away from the scrubbed-faced woman I’ve just interviewed.