Monday, July 04, 2005

Home Front by Sarah Johnson (long version)

The heroine of Live8 - for my money - was a lone African woman; I don’t mean the radiant young lady from Ethiopia whose appearance contrasted inspiringly with the pictures of her as a starving child 20 years ago, and who managed to smile bravely while being yanked about the Hyde Park stage by Madonna.

No. My heroine is the lady who toiled all day keeping the ladies’ loos in the underpass at Marble Arch absolutely spotless.

“Do NOT drop toilet paper on the floor” she barked, brandishing her mop at tattooed teenagers, who completely ignored her. Her cubicles were clinically clean, her basins sparkled, her water was hot, her soap dispensers full. At the end of a day spent standing packed into what amounted to the biggest bus queue in the world, this lady’s little underground queendom seemed a blessed haven of hygiene. God bless her.

Every word you read last weekend about the Live8 rock concert in Hyde Park was written, I guarantee, by someone with privileged access to a comfortable part of the arena with champagne bars and easily reached toilets. Naturally, you have to buy the Catholic Herald to find out what life was like for those of us who had genuinely won tickets by text - only two per person, a sort of One Friend Policy resulting in terrible Sophie’s Choice style decisions.

“And why,” asked my 15 year old son, who did not draw the lucky straw, while his 13 year old sister did, “couldn’t they have had fewer winners but given each one 4 tickets?” - thus proving once and for all Descartes' theory that only by staying in bed all day can the brain produce ideas of true genius.

It was indeed a happy and beautifully behaved crowd, but the jolly arm-linking bands of brethren you saw on cameras were all in the front section near the stage. They had been there all night, bonding.

Most of us had not had time to bond. On TV, you never saw us: a mile or more of couples, best friends, mums and daughters, dads and sons, too far from the stage to see anything at all, crammed elbow to elbow but shyly avoiding eye-contact.

Apart from the singing along and waving of arms, the atmosphere was not unlike a Buckingham Palace Garden party (though with fewer black or Asian people): couples clinging to each other in awe, occasionally plucking up courage to say, “aren’t we lucky to be here?” as we fought to keep our little patches of grass uninvaded. Yes, it was a great atmosphere - but my son is right: if we had had four tickets per winner, it would have been better yet.

And isn’t it odd how the best rock music is always so sad? The melancholy, jangling guitars of Coldplay and Keane simply reek of middle class, British adolescence, socks under the bed, wet summer Sundays and disappointing A-level results. Bob Geldof gave us “I don’t like Mondays”, the only song of his anyone remembers, which unfortunately happens to be about a schoolgirl shooting her classmates, though it could also be about one's children's bad A-level results, too.

And Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” must be quite the saddest song ever written, ostensibly about injecting drugs but also with a strong whiff of yet more bad A-level results, though this time, considering the band's distinguished grey hairs, one's grandchildren's.

It suddenly struck me where Christian rock musicians go so dreadfully wrong. They persist in churning out happy songs. Rock fans don’t want upbeat Cliff Richard stuff; they want pain and suffering.

Now, we Catholics are rather good at pain and suffering. There probably isn’t time before World Youth Day, but I think the Pope should immediately commission a rock Mass: and he should insist that it be mostly deeply gloomy, with hope shining down only at the end: imagine the worst A-level results in the world suddenly lit by a ray of light from heaven. It could be a massive hit, if only someone could write it.

Back to me and my daughter, wedged in among the 200,000 at Hyde Park. “Are you having a good time?” we were asked, and films of starving or disease-ridden children would pop up on the giant screens. The man beside me was in tears, as was the girl who had lost both her boyfriend and her mobile phone.

Every time we cheered up, one of the stars would remind us “why we were here“. We only had water to drink, the loos were impossible to reach through the crowd, the stage was effectively invisible. Whenever we got out our sandwiches, the screens would fill with more images of starvation which turned our food to ashes in our mouths.

By half-time a lot of us, especially the women, had sunk to the ground wearily, dreaming of a cuppa. Bob Geldof reminded us that “not numbers, but real people” are dying of preventable poverty. Then came the announcement: “And now on the Live8 stage - Brad Pitt!”

As one woman, every female scrambled to her feet, squealing with renewed energy and waving camera phones at the tiny dot in the distance. Real people have their place, it seems, but only celebrities can refresh the weary. Celebrities, and the lady with the mop under Marble Arch.


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