Magazine article The Spectator

LIFE - Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

LIFE - Low Life

Article excerpt

I thought I'd never see the day when Sharon would be content to spend a quiet hour with me looking at my holiday snaps on the laptop. Alcoholic nymphomaniacs, I suppose, must mellow over time like everybody else. Her interest was unflagging, even when we came to 50 pictures of the same three elephants enjoying themselves in the Shire river in Malawi. And when we got on to the ones I took of Madonna at a tree-planting ceremony near Lilongwe, she was avid. I'd completely forgotten I'd watched Madonna plant a tree last October, so I enjoyed seeing them as well.

The snaps had come about like this. I was waiting at Zomba bus station, Blantyrebound, and reading the famous old Blantyre newspaper the Daily Times (formerly the Nyasaland Times and before that the Central African Planter). A piece on page two said that Madonna was coming to Lilongwe to plant a moringa tree to celebrate the start of construction work on a prestigious girls' academy, to which she was contributing £11 million. The event would be covered by local media only, it said. So in Blantyre I went to the offices of the Daily Times and said to the hacks I would love to see Madonna plant this moringa tree, unfortunately local media only were invited. And the hacks in the newsroom laughed and said no problem, come with us.

Three days later, beside the road from Lilongwe out to the airport, I paid the cab driver and walked down a slope to where a crowd was awaiting her arrival. A vast area of bush had been stripped from the hillside, exposing a smooth hard clay surface. Roughly in the middle of this bareness was a marquee packed with locals sheltering from the midday sun. Facing the marquee, a flower banked dais had been prepared for Madonna and her entourage, which had yet to arrive.

About 500 schoolchildren with no shade were lined up on the far side. On the near side a dozen local hacks and photographers stood behind a single strand of twine. The pre-dug hole for the young moringa tree was right in front of the press line, not six feet away. The lads from the Daily Times greeted me like one of their own.

Finally, she came. A fleet of new 4x4s swept on to the bare earth and out she stepped with Lourdes, her eldest. They were ushered up the dais stairs and sat down. …

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