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Boomtown Saint

Is That It? by Bob Geldof (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986)

The reader who finishes this book will be unlikely to echo its title. Surprisingly solid for a showbiz rush-job, Bob Geldof’s autobiography could not be more personal if he had written it himself. From the blurb on the back flap one learns that Mr Geldof was ‘helped’ by Paul Vallely of The Times.

It doesn’t matter. For a journalist, Paul Vallely is unusually literate. He knows that the plural of talisman is talismans. Also he commands a deceptively simple prose style. But the rich fund of memory is surely Geldof’s own, and without too much exaggeration it can be said that the evocation of his Dublin childhood has a specifying force which reminds you that Swift, Joyce and Beckett came from the same city.

The school tuck-shop sold writing materials:

All around the shelves were stacked with the paraphernalia of inscription: copy books, exercise books, graph books, notepads plain, notepads narrow feint, notepads broad feint, notepads broad feint with margin. It smelt of pencil shavings and chocolate.

Geldof never wrote much in any of those notebooks — his main literary achievements at school were forged reports, for which his father beat him. His father also beat him for embezzling his school fees.

Geldof held these punishments against his father, school, city and country. He loathed his Catholic upbringing, and conceived a fine hatred for the Irish priesthood which his later admiration for individual priests in Africa did nothing to alleviate. In the circumstances he was ineducable, and might well have been ineducable in any circumstances. But on this evidence the English language got into him anyway.

‘It was a peaceful border then, with just the odd explosion and a lot of agricultural smuggling.’ If this sentence were to be shuffled so that the odd explosion came last, it would be funnier. Geldof’s sense of humour lacks the calculation to make you laugh. But he has an eye for absurdity. Masturbation was supposed to be evil but he couldn’t stop doing it: he must have been the champion wanker of his epoch. Both on the front flap and on the back of the jacket, under the David Bailey photograph of Geldof with arms spread like a jolly Jesus, parents are warned that they might ‘find parts of this book offensive’. Children might not. The fascination has probably gone out of self-abuse. For Geldof’s generation in Dublin, however, it was still the perilous first step towards ruin. The second step was staved off by a total ban on condoms, which had to be imported clandestinely across the aforementioned border. While still at school, Geldof always carried one, although apparently never the same one for long.

He was precocious in a society where precocity was antisocial. But in retrospect he is smart enough to see, and humble enough not to stress, that the real precocity was in giving up some of his time to helping the Simon Community look after down-and-outs. Plenty of bright, rebellious, style-setting, charismatic young men have swilled and fornicated, but not many of them have had the urge to kiss the wounded.

The young adventurer’s mad lust to get out of Dublin is remembered with a vividness which should get his book so roundly condemned in Ireland that it might have to be imported along the old condom trail. In London he wore flares, ate enough hash to get scared and was horrified by heroin without even trying. Those junkies of the period who are still alive will find his attitude to the drug question either very square or enviably prescient. He sounds like Mr Clean with a contrived dab of dirt on his nose, but he knew hard times in a youth culture gone sour. His band, the Boomtown Rats, was conceived of as a return to authenticity: the name comes from Woody Guthrie.

Geldof talks sense about pop music so it is no wonder the music Press hated him from the start. Cleverly he incorporated criticisms into the band’s publicity. ‘The Boomtown Rats,’ said the posters, ‘have learned a fourth chord.’ But he not only knew that the allegedly rebellious punk bands were hyped all the way, he said so at the top of his voice. He actually said he wanted to get rich, famous and laid. The music journalists wanted all that too but weren’t going to get it, so they were unlikely to forgive someone who was going to get it and wouldn’t pretend indifference. As far as they were concerned, he had zero street cred.

The streets didn’t think the same. The Boomtown Rats boomed. When a pop act becomes successful there are only two kinds of money it can earn — not as much as you might think and more than you can believe. Geldof earned only the first kind, but all his other dreams came true. The ideal woman, Paula Yates, attached herself in the role of groupie. Her progression to the status of Lebensgefährtin is recorded with a candour that one hopes they will not regret. Perhaps such utter openness is the best thing for both of them. If Geldof’s head ever threatened to swell, Paula would be the girl to level it out again. She is a highly trained mickey-taker.

Being such modern young people they had a baby to find out whether they wanted to get married. ‘One Geldof bastard is enough,’ said Melody Maker. ‘Abortion of the year’, said Sounds. No wonder Geldof finds Fleet Street a relief by comparison.

Touring to promote records, Geldof saw the world. He did not fall for China, where he heard stories of what the Cultural Revolution had cost in human suffering. As always, pain got his attention. When the band’s popularity, as pop popularity will, started to fade, he had his own agony to contend with, but it didn’t stop him noticing other people’s. The idea that he started the Live Aid campaign in order to revive the fortunes of the Boomtown Rats is a kite that not even the music Press could get off the ground. Broke then and since, he did it for the starving.

Geldof has no illusions about the regimes under which famine flourishes. He knows that uncontrolled aid can only subsidise their lethal fantasies. He is very worldly, but that is no disqualification from sainthood, which would fit him awkwardly, although better than the knighthood he did not receive. Geldof is nothing like Horatio Bottomley. He is a bit like St Augustine, who (in what the theologians rather unfortunately call his ejaculatory prayer) said ‘Give me chastity, but not yet.’ He is a lot like St Vincent de Paul, who could have had a great career in the Church, but chose to do Christ’s work instead.

(Observer,11 May, 1986)
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Geldof was subsequently rewarded for his efforts with a knighthood, and for his candour with a Press campaign calculated to separate him from his wife. He allowed neither accolade to influence his conduct.