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Arise, Sir Bob, all is forgiven

1999 March 12
by Paul Vallely

The British, it is said, are a nation of begrudgers. Nothing breeds resentment in our hearts so much as the success of one of our peers. And nothing gives us sneaky, shameful pleasure more than the stumble of a big figure. Bob Geldof, I suspect, gives the lie to this.

But then the shambling, unkempt character who has just, at last, managed to make himself a multimillionaire with the pounds 5m he will get from the sale of his share of the TV company Planet 24, has always managed to fail quite to fit any of the moulds into which people have attempted to cram him.

He was always too intelligent to be a visceral punk rocker, too reluctant a campaigner to commit his life to the Third World, too undisciplined and free-thinking to be a politician, too undisciplined to run the businesses he launched, too much of a butterfly to finish making the film he scripted when it ran into funding problems, and too raw and restricted musically to make the transition to pop superstar, which is the only thing he would really like to have been. But in all these limitations lie his strengths.

Bob Geldof is the model of the flawed post-modern hero. Like Diana, Princess of Wales, he is a blundering mixture of vulnerability and self-absorption – caught on the tide of change, victim of the ephemerality of pop music and shot through with the pain of a messy divorce.

In the old days the ultimate test of someone’s character was, they said, to ask: “Is this a man you’d be happy to go into the jungle with?” Bob is not the kind of man, on first consideration, that you would want to meet there. I can’t speak at first hand about the jungle, but I have been across the desert with him – from the vast, shifting reaches of the sands around Timbuktu (or Timbuctoo as we called it then) and the arid uplands of the Abyssinian high plateau when, soon after Live Aid smashed all records for international fundraising, we journeyed through the Sahel to decide how and where the Band Aid millions should be spent.

He shambled across Africa, from the west coast to the east, inappropriately dressed and shod, developing headaches from dehydration (he took no hat, and wouldn’t drink enough water) and a septic toe – an injury he made worse by impromptu self-surgery in a filthy hotel in Chad. And yet, for all his incompetence at the practicalities of life in the rough, you could not have hoped for a better person with whom to be enjungled. Everywhere he went he raised the morale of the local people and aid workers and, by his unique combination of ill-tempered impatience and a disarming charm, somehow always got others to do the things he would have been so incapable of doing himself.

It is a measure of the preposterousness of his achievement that a figure who was, in his early career, accorded the unheroic status of pop’s uncouthest loud-mouth was to be dubbed by the nation both a Sir and a saint – after having been borne shoulder-high by no lesser figures than Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend across the Wembley stage before the biggest audience the world had ever seen.

The incongruity was constant. When we arrived at the palace of the head of state in Sudan, the president stepped forward to present the medal and sash of the Order of the Two Niles. But he tried to pin it on me, since I was the only one in the party wearing a suit, albeit one of the tropical variety. He could not believe his eyes when I declined and directed him to the wild-haired, unshaven figure at my side, resplendent in a wrongly buttoned, never-ironed white shirt, torn black jeans, and shoes resembling those worn by tramps in Ealing comedies. Geldof was never quite what people expected. In a world of icons, he was disconcertingly real.

It was this, of course, which was his greatest strength. It was what enabled him, as he put it, “to make compassion hip”. The very quality that earned him notoriety as a loud-mouth was what also enabled him to hold his own against prime minister Thatcher – becoming, on camera, to the delight of the nation, the only person ever to contradict the Iron Lady twice, to her face, in public. And he did so with evident intelligence behind the passion and aggression.

Geldof became just what we ought to expect from a modern saint. By which I don’t mean merely that he gave over to Live Aid more than two years of his life, during which he didn’t earn a penny. Nor that, in that time, he insisted on paying from his rapidly depleting bank account the whopping home phone bill that resulted, refusing even to pay for a cup of coffee out of Band Aid funds. In modern usage, a saint has to be an all-round holy character. But, by the definition of the Church that makes them, a saint is defined by “heroic virtue” – some massive quality which, as time passes, blots out the memory of his or her human frailty and turns the person into a symbol of some overpowering goodness. Perhaps Bob may qualify one day.

But it is key to his character, too, that, where others might have turned themselves into full-time advocates for the Third World after Live Aid, seeking a role with Unicef or some such, Geldof decided that he had done enough. It was someone else’s turn. He wanted to go back to music.

Yet he was shrewd enough – when a publisher friend asked how much he might make from cutting a record – to switch tack. Around a quarter of a million, with a bit of luck, Geldof had responded, only to be told that he could make double that from his autobiography. We sat down to write it, with Geldof talking into my tape-recorder for hour after hour, and with me shaping the resulting conversations into a book.

It was a revealing process, as much for what got left out as for what went in. On the tapes he was ruthlessly frank. He spoke with particular vituperation about his father, whose job as a travelling salesman had forced him to leave Geldof and his two older sisters alone much of the time, after the death of their mother before the boy was 10. But he insisted I should talk to his relatives to check his recall. “Don’t let him be too hard on his father, it will break his dad’s heart,” I was told by his Aunt Fifi, after whom Geldof named his eldest child. “No, he was a bastard, put it all in,” said the angry young man. I ignored him and toned it down. Interestingly, when he read even that, he toned it down further.

He self-censored other sections of my manuscript which he thought might upset his wife, Paula. “Better not put that bit in. Paula might not like that,” he said, of sections which many spouses would have considered innocuous. Throughout the months we were writing, Paula’s peculiar presence hovered. Geldof was infatuatedly in love with her. He found endearing behaviour which his friends found cause for concern. She engaged, in my presence, in wild fantastical role-playing, for weeks on end acting the role of a perfect Fifties mother from Enid Blyton, then becoming a thumb-sucking Take That fan, sitting all day on the sofa, singing along to the band’s videos and refusing to speak.

Her behaviour became increasingly odd in the run-up to her affair with the INXS singer Michael Hutchence, culminating in a divorce petition which contained claims that hurt Bob deeply. He said nothing in public, and maintained that dignified silence even after Hutchence’s suicide and a series of wild statements that were made about the dead man’s final phone call – to Geldof – shortly before he hanged himself in an Australian hotel room. Geldof has not behaved perfectly, but he has behaved as well as most of us could have hoped to in such a messy situation. He keeps trying. He moves on.

Like most of us, however – and unlike many in the ranks of millionaire businessmen he has now joined – he moves existentially from one thing to another without any great plan. Just as he launched the Boomtown Rats in the Seventies because he did not like much of the music he heard on the radio, he launched Planet 24 in 1992 because he didn’t like the laced- up style of most of the TV programmes he was watching. (Though he was canny enough to do so by merging his company, Planet Pictures, with 24 Hour productions, run by Charlie Parsons and Waheed Alli who, between them, combined creative and business acumen to match Geldof’s talent for spinning off ideas he did not have the stamina to carry through.) So now he is talking of launching an Internet holiday company, not out of some shrewd business sense, but simply because he couldn’t find one last year when he wanted to take his kids on holiday to Florida. The secret of his success lies chiefly in his hunch that what he wants, others will want too.

The hunch is not infallible. Doubtless he will also return to the recording studio to make yet another attempt to reinvent himself as a pop musician, in the way his heroes such as Elton John and Phil Collins constantly do. For Bob Geldof, the last thing is never enough. He always keeps asking the question we used for the title of his book: Is That It? It’s a question we all ask, which is why, I suspect, in this age of uncertainty, Geldof remains our stubbled Everyman..

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