'I've been around a lot of death. . . I've seen too much'
Bob Geldof has had much grief in his life, and his daughter's death comes as he started to relax, says his friend Neil McCormick
Bob Geldof has endured a lot of personal tragedy in his life. It has shaped a view of the world that is at once bleak and compassionate and helped turn him into one of the great charitable activists of our times. It may be small comfort now, facing the greatest loss any adult can comprehend, but Geldof has changed the fates of millions of people in the developing world, and helped save and improve an incomprehensible number of lives.
Geldof cut short a visit to San Francisco last week, where he had been due to give a speech on social justice, flying back to London following the sudden, mysterious death on Monday of his daughter Peaches, aged just 25. A statement of love and grief released by the family contained the imprimatur of Bob, who has employed his eloquence for so many other causes, but was now forced to address his own desperate loss. "She was the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and the most bonkers of all of us. Writing 'was' destroys me afresh. What a beautiful child. How is this possible that we will not see her again? How is that bearable?"
But bearing things is what Geldof has done all his life. It was surely the loss of his mother, suddenly, when he was just seven years old, that most shaped Geldof's character and world view on a primal, instinctive level.
Emotions buried deep then surged terribly forth later on when his wife, Paula Yates, left him in 1995 for a man he considered a friend, rock star Michael Hutchence. The betrayal instigated a tawdry, chain of hostilities. Following the deaths of Yates and Hutchence, Geldof assumed custody of their daughter, Tiger Lily, to raise alongside his own daughters, Fifi, Peaches and Pixie.
During that period, Geldof's hair turned grey and he struggled with deep depression, later emotionally acknowledging that feelings of childhood abandonment had returned with a vengeance when Yates left him. "I've been around a lot of death, in Africa and seen too much dying," he once told me.
"All of that stuff, your mum, when you're a kid, it just happens, you get on with it. I don't remember grief for my mum, or bewilderment, so that surges out with all the Paula stuff. Bereavement, absolutely unbound. It was overwhelming, this amorphous mass of loss and pain."
And now this. His grief-struck words express the pain any parent might feel in such an awful situation. The Geldof family are close, and he is incredibly proud of all his children, of whom Peaches was the most forward.
I encountered Peaches on brief occasions. She seemed smart, lovely and personable, and if she sometimes said or did things that made her appear foolish, it helped to remember how young she was when she first embarked on a public career as a kind of outspoken wild-child media pundit.
Her sudden death has led to all kinds of distasteful and hurtful speculation, initially focusing on drugs and suicide, later embracing theories of bulimia and depression, as if her death could be linked in some macabre, foredoomed way to that of her mother from a heroin overdose, aged 41.
A post-mortem has proved inconclusive – no drugs, injuries or suicide note have been found, and police are treating her death as "non-suspicious but unexplained".
In contrast to all the tawdry speculation, Peaches had described how motherhood had made her "happier than ever" in a bright, touching final column for Mother & Baby magazine, relating how her socialite existence had been changed beyond recognition following marriage to musician Thomas Cohen in 2012, and the births of their sons Astala (23 months) and Phaedra (11 months).
I have got to know Bob Geldof a bit over the years, and am proud to call him a friend. He moves me as a person, with a fierce, cantankerous, articulate honesty and mischievous, belligerent humour that forces you to go toe to toe with him or be blown out of the way. He has both the qualities of a brooding, deep thinker – Geldof is super-smart – and an instinctive activist, who confronts problems by getting up and doing something about them. "I'm a melancholic f***er by disposition," he once admitted to me. "And it's not very difficult to scratch and get at that guy. I have to keep frenetically busy, because boredom is an immediate trigger into a great depressiveness." He's got a smile, though, that when it breaks out, could light up a room.
One of the saddest things about this terrible affair is that Geldof had visibly lightened up in recent years. He dressed in brighter clothes, he approached the world with a sunnier disposition. He seemed to have settled into his relationship with his long-term partner, Jeanne Marine, and his young adult children, and it was almost as if, by the age of 62, a shadow had lifted from his soul.
For a man who has repeatedly declared a deeply atheistic conviction of the essential meaningless of existence, it was funny to hear him espouse the saving grace of love. "Luckily for me, love is the thing. It turns out that all those crappy, corny songs are true! Love is all you need, love is the answer, it's hugely redemptive and powerful, as we all know, except it takes me a long time to get there. Life without love is meaningless. It's absolutely true. It's absolutely f***ing corny, but that's it."
I am reminded of an evening in Rome, in 1999, over dinner in a piazza with Bono, Quincy Jones and members of the Jubilee "Drop The Debt" campaign.Geldof (who, earlier the same day, had cheekily asked John Paul II for a set of rosaries for his dad) launched into a rant about the sheer ridiculousness of religious belief. "When you come out with all that stuff, it makes me laugh," declared Bono, throwing an arm around Geldof's shoulder. "You are so close to God. Closer than most people I know."
I hope enough of that feeling remains to carry Geldof through this terrible time. What he has achieved in his life is extraordinary. There are an untold number of people alive today thanks to all the money raised, charitable projects launched, political bridges crossed and third world debt cancelled that had its origins in Geldof's volatile yet productive mix of anger and empathy, his personal conviction that he could not countenance a world in which people remained apathetic in the face of human suffering.
Everyone who has benefited from his actions is someone's child. Every one of us should be feeling for Geldof and his family today.