'The Ancestors Are an Immediate & Accessible Reality': Poetic Licence, a Conversation with Sir Bob Geldof-On His New book/TV Series, Geldof in Africa, and Other Matters. "Every Time I Go to Africa, I Feel Renewed-Quite the Opposite to What You Would Expect." Arise Sir Bob!
Hordern, Nick, New African
It took all my courage to approach Sir Bob Geldof, even at a London party. After all, he had once called a notorious Horn of Africa factional leader "a f--k", and on TV too. It had stopped an embarrassed interpreter dead in his tracks. "Go on," said Sir Bob, "translate it."
Here, the setting was slightly different, the elegant British Library Reception Room, where Geldof had just recited Keats to a packed house. It was the novelist Josephine Hart's celebrated Poetry Hour, attended by the great and the good--and me. Alone and palely loitering (like Keats' Belle Dame Sans Merci in one of the poet's best loved verses), I clutched my BBC World Service mike which had travelled all over Africa with me, and headed for the scrum around Sir Bob.
But I was full of trepidation. Might the former Boomtown Rat, known as much for his expletives as for his tireless campaigning for Africa's poor, decide to "make Hordern history"? Would he still be in the Keatsian mood? His passion for the poet was not widely known. What if that was deliberate and he took offence at my plying him with questions on Africa?
I'm 6'2", but he, sylph-like, towered over me. He was also henna-haired. A recent visit to India during the Holi Hindu festival was the cause, where the sub-continent's custom of spraying everyone with coloured water and dried flowers had evidently gone to Sir Bob's head. His familiar once-grey locks were now all shades from pink to purple. His looks caught me off guard. How would he react to a microphone thrust?
"How are you, Sir Bob?" "Fine, thank you," he replied. So far, so good.
"A great night tonight. I thought there were lots of echoes of Keats in your Geldof in Africa." "Wow!" he countered. "That's flattering. I didn't intend to. That's fantastic!"
Sir Bob needn't have been so amazed. He was merely carrying on a tradition. Keats, Byron and Shelley were the equivalent of today's pop stars--the latter coined the phrase, "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world". Like these modern troubadours, they had more contact with the general population and in many cases exercised greater influence than politicians.
The former pop star has been visiting Africa for 20 years. Perhaps the seminal moment for him (like others) was the BBC's Michael Buerk's reportage of 23 October 1984 from Ethiopia, accompanied by sickening images of infants with protruding rib cages, fly-covered eyes, actually expiring before the camera: "Death is all around. A child or an adult dies every 20 minutes. Korern, an insignificant town, has become a place of grief," Buerk intoned.
The worst hasn't blunted Geldof's optimism. "Every time I go to Africa," Sir Bob told me, above the cocktail chatter, "I feel renewed--quite the opposite to what you would expect," he said. "Ay, on the shores of darkness there is light. Here is a budding morrow in midnight." Geldof organised the recording of a fund-raising record, Do they know it's Christmas? He castigated those in authority for standing idly by. "Thou answer'st not; for thou are dead asleep."
Live Aid was watched in 108 countries and raised $100m. Another $1bn was allocated for relief assistance to Ethiopia by governments and NGOs in the West. Twenty years later, in 2004, with the tag, "Make Poverty History", Live 8, broadcast to 140 countries, Africa was catapulted to centre stage in front of two billion people.
For the book/TV series Geldof in Africa, Sir Bob's travels took him through 13 African countries where he was able to contrast first-hand the harsh realities of modern-day existence juxtaposed with the relics of a magnificent past. In this and his former African journeys spanning 20 years, Geldof travelled over regions that saw Man's earliest footprints (3.6 million years old!) at Laetoli in northern Tanzania; he saw the effect of the genocidal behaviour of Sudan's government in Darfur, where only a short distance away, lies the ancient royal city of Meroe, 100 miles north of Khartoum. …