The Ground beneath My Feet

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1986 I was traveling in Nicaragua, working on the book of reportage that was published six months later as The Jaguar Smile. It was the seventh anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, and the war against the US-backed contra forces was intensifying almost daily. I was accompanied by my interpreter, Margarita, an improbably glamorous and high-spirited blonde with more than a passing resemblance to Jayne Mansfield. Our days were filled with evidence of hardship and struggle: the scarcity of produce in the markets of Managua, the bomb crater on a country road where a school bus had been blown up by a contra mine. One morning, however, Margarita seemed unusually excited.

"Bono's coming!" she cried, bright-eyed as any fan, and then added, without any change in vocal inflection or dulling of ocular glitter, "Tell me: Who is Bono?"

In a way, the question was as vivid a demonstration of her country's beleaguered isolation as anything I heard or saw in the frontline villages, the destitute Atlantic Coast bayous or the quake-ravaged city streets. In July 1986, the release of U2's monster album The Joshua Tree was still eight months away, but they were already, after all, the masters of War. Who was Bono? He was the fellow who sang, "I can't believe the news today, I can't close my eyes and make it go away." And Nicaragua was one of the places where the news had become unbelievable, and you couldn't shut your eyes to it, and so of course he was there.

I didn't meet Bono in Nicaragua, but he did read The Jaguar Smile. Five years later, when I was involved in some difficulties of my own, my friend the composer Michael Berkeley asked if I wanted to go to a U2 Achtung Baby gig, with its hanging psychedelic Trabants. In those days it was hard for me to go most places, but I said yes and was touched by the enthusiasm with which the request was greeted by U2's people. And so there I was at Earl's Court, standing in the shadows, listening.

Backstage, after the show, I was shown into a mobile home full of sandwiches and children. There were no groupies at U2 gigs; just creches. Bono came in and was instantly festooned with daughters. My memory of that first chat is that I wanted to talk about music and he was keen to talk politics--Nicaragua, an upcoming protest against unsafe nuclear waste disposal at Sellafield in northern England, his support for me and my work. We didn't spend long together, but we both enjoyed it. Bono was less taken with Michael Berkeley, however. Years afterward he told me he'd felt condescended to by the classical composer. My own view is that there was a misunderstanding--Michael isn't a condescending man, but a high culture/low culture rift had opened, and that was that.

Two years later, when the giant Zooropa tour arrived at Wembley Stadium, Bono called to ask if I'd like to come out on stage. U2 wanted to make a gesture of solidarity, and this was the biggest one they could think of. When I told my then-14-year-old son about the plan, he said, "Just don't sing, Dad. If you sing, I'll have to kill myself." There was no question of my being allowed to sing--U2 aren't stupid people--but I did go out there and feel, for a moment, what it's like to have 80,000 fans cheering you on. The audience at the average book reading is a little smaller. Girls tend not to climb onto their boyfriends' shoulders during them, and stage-diving is discouraged. Even at the very best book readings, there are only one or two supermodels dancing by the mixing desk. Anton Corbijn took a photograph that day for which he persuaded Bono and me to exchange glasses. There I am looking godlike in Bono's wraparound Fly shades, while he peers benignly over my uncool literary specs. There could be no more graphic expression of the difference between our two worlds.

It was inevitable that both U2 and I would be criticized in Britain in bringing these two worlds together. They have been accused of trying to acquire some borrowed intellectual "cred," and I of course am supposedly star-struck. …