A year into this pandemic Bob Geldof, like many of us, claims to be suffering from a bit of brain fog, although there was no sign of it as he engaged in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion with author, academic and former UK secretary of state for international development Rory Stewart.
“Like everybody else it started off novel and nice,” Geldof said at the live online event on Thursday evening, part of the Winter Series from Borris House Festival of Writing & Ideas.
“Nice because it was such an extraordinary spring in Britain and then an even more beautiful summer. I’ve never lived in the spring, I’ve lived through springs … but having to be in that season ... it was seriously beautiful.
“Now I am just so fed up and I am brain dead and it’s like nothing happens in my head. Just this vast void, this lacuna of time, a lost year and in the space of that year … we brought out a record, a film, a book, singles and all of them were swept aside in the Covid rush.
“We brought out the last Boomtown Rats album the day before the lockdown was declared. We’re booked in for the festivals but I’m worried they won’t be Covid-compliant … I’m worried that the government [in Britain] is being confusing with the instructions.”
When asked by Stewart, currently a senior fellow lecturing in Yale University, whether he'd been vaccinated Geldof said: "Of course I've been vaccinated." They went on to cover a wide variety of subjects including the pandemic, international aid, climate change, economics, rock 'n' roll, Boris Johnson and Brexit.
The pair discussed early influences. While Stewart was entranced by Rudyard Kipling as a boy, Geldof’s heroes growing up in a south Dublin suburb were musical ones. “The big lodestar were pop people … They seemed to posit to a small boy at that time with nothing else going for himself, a different universe of possibility [that] the world was not this one that you had, that it was not immutable and it could change.”
“Upon seeing the Rolling Stones it wasn’t Mick or Keith; it was them, that insolence, that not needing to even acknowledge another authority … What rock ’n’ roll was suggesting from the get-go was true, and it still strikes me as being true. I came of age at the perfect time.”
The musician and activist behind Band Aid also spoke about his business interests in Ethiopia, which include a winery that Stewart described as a "private sector-led development programme … to generate jobs and incomes".
"Ethiopians are big wine drinkers," Geldof explained adding that with U2 frontman Bono he had raised an equity fund of 200 million dollars to invest in companies in Africa. Geldof laughed, revealing that the winery was aptly called Awash, after a local river in Addis Ababa.
“When Ethiopia began to sell off state industries, one of those industries was this winery … It’s doing really well. We employ about 500 people. Across Africa we employ 10,000 people but that immediately affects the lives of 150,000 people with a stable life or regular income.”
Doing business in Africa, he said, was “extremely difficult”. The private equity firm he set up exclusively to make investments in African business is called 8 Miles “which is the shortest distance between the richest continent in the world and the poorest. In that baleful gap is all our future potential hope. We will do business because there’s 1.4 billion people will be the population of Africa by 2030.”
Closer to home Stewart and Geldof discussed British prime minister Boris Johnson. “How many times has Boris Johnson lied to you?” Geldof asked Stewart, a staunch remainer who left the Conservative Party over his stance on Brexit.
“He’s done some lovely ones,” Stewart said. “He is such an amazing liar. I am fascinated by him because he is incredibly charming about it.”
The pair discussed Johnson’s popularity – he is doing well in polls despite widespread criticism of his handling of the pandemic. “He’s a naughty little boy,” said Geldof. “All this Beano, gosh, cripes, like f**k off. I don’t buy it for a second, the man is an inveterate liar.”
“Why do you think so many people are attracted to that?” asked Stewart.
"I'll tell you why Rory, and this is really odd. I've lived in England for most of my life … I owe practically everything to this country. They are a fascinating people, the English. They are really odd and essentially they are anarchic. That's the real character trait I think … Under the tight rein they are going f**king berserk."
“They’ve never understood Ireland … one of the most revealing things about Brexit is that they are completely confounded that they must deal with a sovereign nation and their government. You can see that confusion.”
“The lack of understanding of Ireland is extraordinary,” agreed Stewart.
Towards the end of their conversation Geldof indulged in a light slagging of “safe spaces” in academic institutions such as the one where Stewart now works. “Safe spaces? There are no safe spaces. It’s called life” said Geldof.
Earlier, he spoke movingly about his fractured relationship with his father growing up. “Did I love him? Not in those days. I was afraid of him … I feel so bad about it now.”
He added that in later years “we came to completely understand each other, and I grew to love him very much, which I am really happy about.”