Bob Geldof needs no introduction. Nevertheless, Peter Florence is keen to stress that Geldof is ‘part of the reason the Hay Festival exists.’ ‘What Bob showed,’ says the Festival Director, ‘is that you can be politically engaged without being part of the political system.’
Geldof and his band had played a gig at the Pecsa concert hall to open the inaugural Hay Festival in Budapest, and made a short speech before playing ‘Banana Republic’ about the parallels between the very different forms of occupation suffered by Ireland and Hungary. Florence began the discussion by picking up on the idea that the song resonates not only between places but over time. In the 35 years that Geldof has been playing the song, it has taken on new meanings in a huge range of contexts, from the Soviet bloc to Soweto.
But it is back to Ireland that Geldof goes when responding to the question: the collapse of the economy and the betrayal of another generation of Irish young people – leaving the country at a rate of a thousand a week – is what gets him exercised straight away. ‘I see them bringing their genius to the benefit of others – and I hate that.’ Music is also ‘Pavlovian’ for Geldof; ‘it puts you back in the space and place you were when you wrote it.’ Thinking of when he first played Budapest, in 1978 – already that year had been made significant in the opening discussion between John Kampfner and Jung Chang, giving Geldof’s pronouncement an extra layer of resonance – the songwriter remembered how, then, ‘1956 was still very present in your lives’, a reference to the Hungarian Uprising. ‘They weren’t good times.’
They weren’t good times in the UK either. Geldof gets a huge laugh when he says ‘Margaret Thatcher was Johnny Rotten in drag’, but there is a serious point to his searing analysis of punk. He takes issue with Florence’s suggestion that unlike punk and reggae influences on his music, Irish folk is not fuelled by ‘righteous anger’. Geldof gives an articulate credence to his often nonsensical howls onstage, referring to what he calls ‘the greatest lyric of all time’, Little Richard’s ‘a wop bop a doowop a wop bamboo’. ‘Rock’n’roll,’ he explains, ‘is the music of the dispossessed. It comes from the blues, music of a people who’d been dispossessed of everything but their souls.’ In the context of late 1970s Britain, where the Trade Unions were ‘disgracefully refusing to collect rubbish or bury the dead’, rage took the form of the Sex Pistols’ ‘beautiful nihilism’.
With minimal prompting, Geldof – with white-grey hair and rock star shades – gives an impromptu lecture on the cultural history of the period and its influence on his own music. It springs, he claims from the desire of waves of recent immigrants from Ireland and Jamaica to ‘be included’ in the new Britain that was emerging married with styles as diverse as Elvis Costello and Boy George with ‘the spiritual quality of Bob Marley’s beautiful use of patois to express dissent’. Effortlessly, he turns to Irish folk music and how, often, songs that seem romantic – about girls called Kathleen or Roisin – are metaphors for the nation, born out of an era when the Gaelic name for the country, Eire, was banned. ‘So it’s the rebel tradition, the same thing Dylan, and before him Guthrie, picked up on.’
Having said all of that, Geldof – ever the contrarian – doesn’t actually like Irish folk music in its traditional form. He does a twee little impression of a pipe-and-fiddle irish jig, pauses for a nanosecond and then says, as dismissively as possible, ‘Fuck off.’
On Africa, which he is at pains to remind us lies ‘just eight miles from Europe,’ his passion remains undimmed. ‘Psychologically, it’s another planet,’ he says, before reeling off lists of facts and figures – all from the top of his head – that indicate the ‘forgotten continent’ is where all of our futures lie. This is where you will find seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world and 50% of the population under the age of 17. Geldof paints a vivid picture of African cities – ‘Dickensian stews’ where ‘the web has radicalised all previous thinking’. He mocks Western leaders – Sarkozy and Merkel serve as pertinent examples – for their hubris in thinking they hold the levers of a world economy run out of control.
‘The old ideas can’t resolve climate change, the world economy, nuclear terrorism. A hundred years ago, in 1912, nobody understood World War One was coming.’ The implication Geldof makes is that in 2012, we don’t and can’t grasp the potentiality of disasters lying in wait. ‘Science is like magic,’ he concludes. ‘It can’t resolve the human condition, never has. In the new paradigm, we will have to be civilized, compromised and cooperative. The new world is happening where the poor live: that’s the new dynamic.’