Celebrities, Politicians

Al Gore – he’s hot

The Times – July 6 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Once derided as a wooden politician, Al Gore is the man of the moment. On the eve of his series of ‘save the planet’ Live Earth rock concerts, Ginny Dougary finds him warm, witty, passionate and attractive

Al Gore
Photo: Brett Wilson

The Goracle – also known in Washington these days as “Al Gore: rock star” – clears his throat and starts singing the lines from a Bob Dylan song quietly and unselfconsciously: “ ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ . . . it’s a lovely lyric. He’s written so many great ones . . . like ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’.” The former Vice-President of the United States may be joining the likes of Madonna and the Pussy-cat Dolls on stage at Wembley’s Live Earth concert tomorrow but his vocalising – as far as I know – will be restricted to challenging each and every member of the audience to make a pledge right now to do his or her bit to save the planet.

The rock-star epithet – awarded by The Washington Post – is partly a reference to his involvement in the Live Earth concerts: a massive event spanning seven continents and involving 150 acts, with a global reach of two billion people. But it’s also an acknowledgment of Al Gore’s new charisma (not a word that would ever have been applied to him when he was in mainstream politics), where his name – as a leading, Oscar-winning environmental campaigner – is now a big draw and standing ovations are the norm.

Why, he even looks a bit like a rock star, all in black from his sharply tailored jacket, nipping in his barrel chest, to his cowboy boots: a far cry from the bland Ivy League uniform of chinos and loafers.

The singing came after one of several concerted attempts on my part to establish the definitive response to the question that we all want answered: will Al Gore run for the presidency in 2008? Last week’s poll, conducted in the key state of New Hampshire, showed that Democrats would prefer Gore to any of the declared contenders (Hillary Clinton, the forerunner, would be forced into second place by 6 percentage points) even though he has yet to enter the race.

If you really want to make the crucial difference to affect climate change, isn’t it imperative that you run for the presidency? “Hmmm.” Because even if you don’t care to, and you like your life more now than you did before . . . “Hmmm.” For every person you reach with these concerts and your slideshow lectures and film ( An Inconvenient Truth), the one individual who really has the power to make dramatic changes is the President of the United States … “Hmmm.” And now is your time! And anyway, didn’t you make a sort of promise to your father on his deathbed that you would “always do right”? “Hahahaha.”

This is a hollow, slightly embarrassed, laugh but as the interview progresses the laughter becomes increasingly genuine, until by the end of our brief encounter any trace of the old “wooden” Gore has been replaced by an appealing combination of cool, wry humour and bursts of passion.

Much has been made of the Goracle’s increased heft – and not just politically – in these so-called “wilderness years”, but while he may be fleshier (much continues to be made of the loss of his movie-star jawline), he also radiates the sense of being comfortable in his skin, and that is undeniably attractive.

“It’s a fair point that no position in the world has as much potential for bringing about change as that of President of the US. But I ran for president twice, and [‘eee-arnd’, he says with a southern twang] I have now launched a different kind of campaign” – his delivery slow and measured – “aimed at raising awareness and giving knowledge of the solutions to the climate crisis all round the world. While it’s true that I haven’t ruled out the possibility of running at some point in the future, the reason I don’t expect to is that I’ve fallen out of love with politics.”

What an arresting phrase, spoken with all the disenchantment of a disappointed lover – “fallen out of love with politics”, from a man who was groomed from birth by his Democrat senator father, Al Sr, for the highest office in the land. He knows that there is still anger, and not just among the Democrats, that he didn’t somehow fight harder to prevent the final outcome of that messy election in 2000 which resulted in the Bush Administration, the non-signing of the Kyoto treaty and the war in Iraq.

“I’ve seen the limitations of politics when public opinion will not support the kind of dramatic change that’s really necessary,” Gore continues. “I’ve seen that at first hand. And focusing on changing public opinion at the grassroots level feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

For someone who is pushing 60 you’re talking very much like a young person, if I may say so. We are always hearing that the young are disaffected with the main political parties but are much more likely to respond to single issues – do you agree?

After his mini-warble, Gore says: “I feel,” (it is striking how often he uses “feel” rather than “think”) that this climate crisis is far and away the most serious challenge we’ve ever faced, and it’s a challenge first and foremost to the moral imagination. We have never in the past confronted anything like this; never had this radically new relationship to the planet.

“We’ve quadrupled population in less than 100 years. We’re using routinely technologies that are a thousandfold more powerful than those our grandparents had available to them, and we’re now the bull in the china shop. And becoming conscious of what we’re doing worldwide about how to stop putting all this global-warming pollution into the air is really the most urgent challenge we have to face.”

I watched An Inconvenient Truth with my family the evening before meeting Gore, and was struck by what an impact it made on us all, regardless of our generation. It’s a film that forces viewers, whatever their experiences, to join the dots together.

As Gore says, while we watch diagrams of the edges of continent after continent submerged in water – the sure result of all this catastrophic melting – it is hard not to shift straight from denial to despair. But optimism is crucial, and not misplaced: “We have everything we need [to tackle this] save political will,” he says, “and in America political will is a renewable energy.”

Gore was a lone voice in American politics to speak out against the Iraq invasion, which he opposed from the outset (Hillary Clinton voted for the war in the Senate, although she now says that she was misled by the Bush Administration). “There’s no longer any dispute about the fact that the Iraq war was a horrible mistake,” he says.

Unlike, famously, Bush or Clinton, Gore has first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war because he volunteered for Vietnam out of a sense of duty, despite his public opposition to it. He didn’t serve his full two years but saw and recorded enough as a military reporter to feel the need to enrol in divinity school for a year on his return: “It was a way of – ahhh – searching in an organised way for answers to some of the questions that I confronted when I faced what seemed to a young man to be a moral dilemma about going to Vietnam. But in any case,” he clears his throat again, “I’ve always been a person of faith.”

He calls himself a Christian but he also meditates in times of stress: “I don’t often talk about this,” he says hesitantly, “but I believe in a very personal definition of what I think the Creator of the Universe is – that God is a moving force in the world – but I don’t think everything is predetermined in any way, and I think that what we do matters and the choices we make matter, and I think it’s up to us to try our best to make better choices.”

He sees no signs of Bush making better choices, but surely we can’t afford to dismiss the possibility that he might. “Well, it’s true and I have to admit to you – however – that I have recently begun to fear that I am – ah – losing my objectivity where Bush is concerned.” This is said with an hilarious deadpan expression. “Yaiiirs, and Cheney, too, I must say.” But on the positive side: “Congress has already acted. I have gone to Capitol Hill and testified before the House and the Senate, and they are now moving. So we can have some new laws even before Bush leaves office.”

Can I draw an analogy between you and Gordon Brown? “Of course,” Gore says in his amiable way: he might just be the politest person I’ve ever interviewed. “You mean, Number Twos who become Number One?” he asks mock-archly. Oh, are you hinting . . . “Well, he made it and I didn’t.” There’s still time. “Hahahahaha, yes, I’m a young man – 59 is the new 49!”

The point I want to make is that with both Brown and Gore (when he was in office) there is an unhelpful schism between their private (witty, charming, relaxed) and public (dour: Brown; wooden: Gore) selves. Does Gore agree? “I used to be described that way but I haven’t been in a long time,” he says. “I think that people see [Brown] very differently now that he is Prime Minister.” Even so soon? “Yes, I do. I think you’ve seen an almost instant change in the way that people perceive him. Perhaps it’s influenced by his excellent handling of this terror threat, but there is some evidence that he is experiencing a surge in the polls. Part of that comes from people seeing him as Prime Minister and not as Number Two. I think that does colour people’s perceptions.”

Do you think it’s true that you seem far more engaged and passionate as an environmental campaigner than when you were running for President? “The perceptions of candidates are affected by the lens that we all use when we look at candidates – and when one is not a candidate there is a different lens,” he says. “But it’s true as well. Even though I was inspired when I was holding political office to address the climate crisis [he has campaigned on this issue for 30 years], there is a kind of luxury in being able to focus single-mindedly on one issue out of the entire panoply, and the opportunity to focus on it intensely might not be as possible for someone holding office.”

Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, made an arresting comparison between Gore and Clinton’s respective personalities: “In private Gore is what Clinton is like in public. And in public he’s like Clinton in private. When he’s not in front of a microphone, Gore is witty, urbane, informal, empathetic and often subtle, displaying attributes that Clinton reserves for the stage.”

It may sound cheeky, but do you think that Clinton is so charismatic that your lustre was eclipsed by his? “Hmmm, hmmm – well, I never saw it that way. I thought we were an excellent team. I think he’s uncommonly talented as a politician, much as Tony Blair was uncommonly talented, and I think that both Gordon Brown and I have a different set of talents – and someone who is Number Two and in waiting, if you will, is inevitably seen in a different way.”

America, soon to be overtaken by China, is the largest source of global-warming pollution in the world. What will it take to make Americans wake up and believe that global warming is real before it’s too late?

“Well, Sir Winston Churchill said – I’m sure you know the quote – ‘The American people generally do the right thing . . . after first exhausting every available alternative’. And I think we have exhausted the alternatives and we’re now just about ready to do the right thing on climate.”

Lest we feel smug about “those dumb Americans” – and in answer to Bob Geldof’s complaint that tomorrow’s event is just another enormous pop concert and “we’re all f*****g concious of global warming” – it turns out that we’re not as smart as we think we are. Gore points out: “Did you see this morning’s major new MORI poll which shows that in the UK, 56 per cent of the people are notaware that there is a scientific concensus that global warming is caused by human actitivities?” We know from the smoking ban that the unthinkable can become the thinkable overnight. But: “The first establishment of the national consensus on smoking was in 1964,” Gore points out, “and it’s taken that long to convince enough people, one by one, of the need for the new laws on smoking. But we don’t have 40 years left to make enough changes on this issue one by one – so that’s the reason for these mass events like Live Earth worldwide, to speed up that process.

“There’s an old African proverb that says ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together’. We have to go far – quickly. And this is just the beginning of a three-year massive campaign.”

Gore doesn’t like to call himself an eco-warrior (“it sounds a bit hubristic and militaristic, doesn’t it?”) but he is gathering forces – Al’s army – in his battle to save the planet. He has already trained 1,300 people to give his slide show, attended by 200 people at an event in Cambridge University (including, rather surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson). Then there’s Australia, and India at the end of the year, China next, and Africa – “whatever it takes to persuade enough people to reach that critical mass, that’s what we have to do. So let’s get on with it, that’s my feeling.”

Our time is almost up. I have one final question. Gore has said that he has learnt a lot in the past six years. “Having been through some of the experiences I’ve been through, I can confirm the old cliché that we often learn the most from [a little, rueful laugh] the most painful experiences.”

Could you be more specific? “It’s hard to be. But letting go of . . . Kris Kristofferson wrote a line that Janis Joplin sang: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose . . .’” Yes, I think I see. So do you feel free now? “Yes,” Al Gore says. “I do.”

General

Taking coffee with the Reverend Billy

THE TIMES – October 25 2005
Ginny Dougary

The Reverend Billy of the Stop Shopping Church leads our correspondent on a campaign against the multinationals.

There’s a man in a cream polyester suit and dog collar causing a bit of a rumpus in Oxford Circus. “Brothers and sisters,” clap clap, he goes with his pale outstretched hands. “This is the SHOPOCALYPSE! Stop your shopping NOW! You are BOMBING Bahgdad with your shopping! It is YOU who are responsible for the SWEAT in the sweatshops! For this — Huh, yuh, yuh, huh (wild eyes rolling) — THIS is the SHOPOCALYPSE, brothers and sisters.” The youthful tourists stopped in the doorway of the large shop — one of the many retail chains proliferating worldwide — are grinning and taking photos of this happening with their mobile phones. Security guards appear; the police, who have other reasons to be around, mutter into their walkie-talkies. Reverend Billy, founder of the Stop Shopping Church, sweat dripping off his face, exhausted by the raging torrent of his words, backs off.

We have spent an unusual day together. It started in a relatively low-key manner when I attempted to interview William Claire Talen, the fake Reverend’s real name, assisted by his wife, Savitri D, in a private members’ club frequented by the media. We had been corresponding with one another for several months via e-mail and telephone. I had read his entertaining book — What Should I Do if Reverend Billy is in My Store? — heard the CD of his choir, and seen the DVD. We had reached an agreement that for the purposes of the interview itself, he would attempt to be plain old Bill rather than his Southern fire and brimstone preacher-man persona. But the Rev — like the ventriloquist’s dummy who wants to show who’s really in charge here — keeps threatening to take over.

I want, in my boring journalist’s way, to pin down this mesmerising fellow in detail, biographical data, facts, provenance. What was it, precisely, that led this particular forty-something New York actor, writer and political activist to transform himself into a pastiche evangelical, with a church and a choir and disciples. In other words, I want to blow his cover.

In one of our conversations, Bill had mentioned that about half of his 40-strong gospel singers were in recovery from the trauma of being the offspring of ministers or preachers. Was he one of them? Well, yes . . . but, actually, no. His father was a banker who loaned money to farmers so that they could buy seed and tractors, and — for reasons that are not forthcoming — was always being sacked, which meant that the Talens were forever picking up and moving on from place to place in the mid-West.

He says his parents were Dutch Calvinists — and so I assume did not employ the florid rhetoric of the evangelical Bible-bashers that Bill has appropriated for his act. Were they strict and abiding about their religion? “No, they were a-bidding,” he laughs. “In the sense that they said, ‘I bid you do this and I bid you do that.” Were Mr and Mrs Talen consumed with the idea of sin? “The only sin IS consumption, ” he says lightning fast.

When he was around the age of 6 or 7 — the sort of age when a child may wander away from his parents and climb up a tree in the back garden to gaze at the stars in the night’s sky and lose himself in the inexplicable wonderment of it all — the young Bill’s imagination was terrorised by his Dutch Calvinist instructors. “I was told that a very old man will decide whether I will go to H eaven or to Hell for eternity when I die, “ he recalls. “And I might die at any moment. And I never got a description of Heaven but I got a HELLUVA description of HELL! ‘You will be standing in a lake of fire and you will be burning forever.’ And I asked, ‘You mean like putting my hand in the stove and hurting my hand but I can’t take my hand off?’

“They said, ‘No, you can never take your hand off. It continues and continues and you don’t get to die and you stand there for an eternity in utter pain and shame’.” Well, that’s lovely. “And this is such an extreme nightmare to tell a child at that age that it fries out your circuits. It makes you a consumer of that imperial God. You don’t DARE have an imagination. You don’t dare go back out to those stars and say: ‘What is this?’ That is tyrannical,” he says. “But somehow I did get back to that place — to that tree in the back yard.”

Bill’s escape from the lake of fire into the tree of life was via the well trod route of teenage rebellion: “The civil rights movement and the protests against Vietnam brought me out back into the stars.” He started hitch-hiking away from home to go to Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead concerts and on one occasion ended up in jail when his parents put out a missing persons alert: “And I’ve been going to jail ever since! ” The teenage years were followed by years of hitchhiking between the East and West coasts of America. He once spent ten months in Hollywood, where he sought out likeminded counter-culture figures such as Harry Dean Stanton and Spalding Gray. But the endless round of auditions was dispiriting, “finding myself in lobbies with 40 other Kurt Russell lookalikes all up for the same armoured car driver part doing a fart joke in Beverly Hills Cop I”. Still, the rejections were good fodder for his own monolgues which he acted out back in New York City.

The volume of Bill’s speech has been steadily rising and I am moved — brothers and sisters — to ask him whether he always talks so loud. This is a mistake since he now starts to yell at the top of his voice, “AMEN! ALLELUIA! PRAISE BE!” and then walks over to the window, opens it and preaches to the passers-by below: “SAVE YOUR SOULS, CHILDREN! SAVE YOUR SOULS! AND YOU, SIR! KEEP YOUR CREDIT CARD OUT OF YOUR WALLET. AMEN!” “Come back, Billy,” Savitri says quietly. No more coffee for you, dear, I think to myself.

Ah, coffee. We will return to that vexed theme later. Reverend Billy’s Church of Stop Shopping is part of a broader church which encompasses the concerns of writers such as Naomi “No Logo” Klein, film-maker Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock, Kurt Vonnegut, John Pilger, the McLibel Two and all the thousands of anti-global capitalisation protesters around the world.

Billy started out preaching on his own in Times Square, targeting Disney as public enemy No 1. But through his theatre friends and contacts, and because of the peculiarly American nexus between right-wing politics and religious fundamentalism, he hit upon the subversive notion of creating a ministry of his own to mimic the tools of what he considers to be the opposition.

Savitri explains why these sorts of actions are the new theatre. “We don’t think that theatre is changing the world any more,” she says. Apart from the very occasional new work, such as Angels in America, and the annual Arthur Miller revival, “where are the political plays today?” she asks. Even if the subject is political, there’s a feeling that the theatre experience itself has now become such a sponsored corporate event that it dilutes or even taints what you see. “So we ‘politicised fools’,” Billy says, “are trying to perform in the contested spaces between the private and the public domains.” The couple talk about the Madison Avenue advertising culture and how the marketing gurus are now looking to the right-wing, apocalyptic “Christ’s Cowboys” of the South for tips on how to run their campaigns. “For many years the advertising industry resisted the televangelists because they were considered to be insufferable lowbrow hicks,” Billy says. “But now, with George Bush, we’re beginning to see the ‘Hickification’ of Uptown New York. And together they’re going to take over the world.” Who are you talking about when you say “they”? Billy: “Starbucks.” Savitri: “ Marketing in general. Corporations. Celebrity and pop culture. Politicians. All of them are wondering what it is these Christians are doing which is getting them all this power.”

McDonald’s, The Gap, Nike, Wal-Mart . . . I have read or seen exposés of their work practices, but Starbucks? What’s so wrong with them? “Shall I take this one?” Bill asks Savitri, who nods. “We feel that Starbucks is the villain because it epitomises the neo-liberal lie. They have managed to persuade us that they are a green company — even though they are 98 per cent not fair trade. And they have mediocre coffee and mismatching furniture so they look a bit beatniky — and a few avant-garde grace notes — but it is really a manipulation in appropriating the idea of rebellion. It’s FAKE bohemianism and, more importantly, it’s not a fair trade company even though they use it as an advertising thing.”

The spokeswoman from the Fair Trade Foundation in Britain was unable to supply me with the percentage of Starbucks coffee in this country which is Fair Trade certified (less than 2 per cent worldwide according to Starbucks’s 2004 annual report), but says it was one of the first high-street coffee chains in this country to offer any Fair Trade coffee at all. And Starbucks themselves say it is their goal to pay premium prices for all their coffee.

When we come to do our “action” in the Oxford Street area, there seems to be a Starbucks on every street corner. Billy and Savitri have agreed to show me what it is they do that so alarms the Starbucks bosses. In California, for instance, a restraining order has been placed on William Claire Talen banning him from coming within 750 feet of the edge of any Starbucks property.

Saivtri: “They use violent boyfriend language so that Billy was accused of ‘stalking’ the so-called ‘victim’, Starbucks. They use laws which were designed to protect women to keep Billy away.” Billy: “I am enjoined by the Superior Court of Los Angeles from stalking, disturbing, annoying or in any way sexually . . .” No, not sexually? “Oh YES! Sexually abusing . . .Oh yes, oh yes.” But in what way have you sexually abused Starbucks? “I put my hand on the cash register,” Billy says. He now refers to it as “the genitals of the giant”. “And, listen,” Savitri says, “the very same day that he got this injunction there was a woman in Los Angeles killed because she couldn’t get a restraining order on her boyfriend who had been beating her for months!”

In the first Starbucks we visit, it is Billy and I who will be performing “Sponsored Love”. I have agreed that he can touch me in the interests of veracity. We sit down and he starts: “Oh Ginny, Ginny, I love you so much. I want you to take off from The Times and elope with me. I adore you Ginny!” He is gazing into my eyes and stroking my arm and it is like being serenaded by a crooning Elvis when he does his talking bit. But my over-riding sensation is exquisite English embarassment. And it’s about to get worse: “Ginny, GINNY, we’ll be in our cottage on the Isle of Wight and spend our lives together, (voice gaining urgent momentum and — oh no — he is down on his knees!) I LOVEYOUILOVEYOU — brought to you by . . . Nike Sportswear. I love you, brought to you by . . . The Gap. I love you, brought to you by McDonald’s. I’m Lovin’ it, McDonald’s Now with new salads! — since McLibel and Morgan Spurlock.”

Round the corner and we’re in another Starbucks. This action is rather more effective, since it involves a real couple — Billy and Savitri — playing themselves and having a big marital tiff. In the course of the “argument” Billy berates his wife for her addiction to frothy lattes which are being sold on the backs of impoverished workers in Guatemela, they storm out of the shop, she is apparently in tears, they embrace, and one of the girls behind the counter says: “Oh look, they’re making up. bless.” But the stunt didn’t fool everyone. Two men, who did not wish to be identified, thought it was a set-up mainly because Billy was so preposterously over-the-top that he must be an English actor’s idea of an American. A woman who is there with her student daughter, however, thought Billy was so excitable he must be drunk. Both of them were aware that Starbucks had been criticised for not being an exclusively Fair Trade coffee supplier but had gone there because it was convenient and there were no alternatives. Billy and Savtiri would like us to boycott Starbucks, but that’s not going to happen.

Starbucks has become the McDonald’s of the middle classes; it’s quick, easy, and it’s everywhere. But the congregation of the Stop Shopping Church is also on the move. As the Reverend told me when I moaned about how embarrased I felt doing my “action”: “The ocean’s rising, Sister Ginny, it’s crashing through the windows, so STOP BEING POLITE!”

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.”