Feature: Butter is good for you after all

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This feature originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Last week a major study found that the longstanding official advice in this country, which said animal fats were bad for us, was wrong. Since 1983 national recommendations have urged Britons to cap their overall fat intake at 30% of their daily calories and their saturated fat at one tenth. We were told to replace these calories with carbohydrates (and greedily did so), especially starchy foods such as bread, rice and pasta.

You will have noticed that we have not been getting slimmer. Rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes have soared among the past generation. The authors of the recent study said it was “incomprehensible” that these guidelines had been handed to the public, “given the contrary results from a small number of unhealthy men”. But as a result of this advice, sales of butter, cream and cheese plummeted, the dairy industry suffered and the manufacturers of low-fat, butter-effect spreads made enormous profits.

Several other specific government food targets — however well intentioned — contain a modicum of guesswork. “Five-a-day, 14-21 alcohol units a week, 20-30g of saturated fat, 18g of fibre: none of these targets has any precise evidence for them,” Zoë Harcombe, who co-authored last week’s study, has written.

The less salt that we eat in our diet, the harder our kidneys have to work to reabsorb it The less salt that we eat in our diet, the harder our kidneys have to work to reabsorb it

One of the most staunchly held truisms of modern nutrition is that salt is bad for you. “Salt: the facts”, begins a taxpayer-funded website. “Many of us in the UK eat too much salt,” it affirms. “Too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which puts you at increased risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke . . . Cutting down on salt lowers blood pressure.” It adds that we should eat “no more than 6g of salt per day”.

“Why six?” asks Harcombe. “I have no idea and nor does the NHS. Why not seven? Why not five? Why have a target at all?”

The evidence that salt causes high blood pressure is decidedly shaky and has been repeatedly called into doubt. It rests for the most part on a couple of not especially recent or thorough trials. In the 1970s a Long Island scientist induced high blood pressure in rats by feeding them sodium that equated to a human eating 2,500g of salt a day. (Most of us eat around 8.5g of salt a day, or about 1½ teaspoons.)

In 1997 another study was held, ostensibly looking into whether a low-salt diet could control high blood pressure. Its participants followed a diet that not only featured minimal salt, but also contained fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein and whole grains; it was low in saturated fat and, perhaps most crucially, contained little sugar.

Unsurprisingly, rates of high blood pressure in the group were lower than in the general population. But a lack of salt could not be isolated as the reason behind this. More than that, the low-salt group had higher rates of bad cholesterol, leading some researchers to call the results “one-sided”.

Avocados contain about 25g of fat, which led people to shun them in the 1980s. Now they are thought to raise good cholesterol. And have you ever met someone who got fat from avocado?

In contrast, the evidence that salt has a negligible effect on blood pressure — at least in most people — is now considerable. In January an international study, which followed more than 150,000 people across five continents, found that consuming less than 3g of sodium a day — or about 7.5g of salt — was associated with a 27% increase in cardiovascular disease and death. Eating between 3g and 6g of sodium, which is roughly the amount we normally eat, was associated with a lower rate of heart disease, while consuming more than 7g (about 18g of salt, or almost three times the UK average) was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and death.

This study has been buttressed by at least 10 others during the past 30 years, collectively following hundreds of thousands of people. One from 2011, which followed almost 4,000 Europeans for eight years, found that the risk for heart disease was 56% higher in a low-salt group than among those who ate the most salt.

These studies have repeatedly found that low-sodium diets — the same that you are exhorted to follow when you read websites such as “Salt: the facts” — could be more likely to kill you than simply eating the amount of salt that tastes right. We seek out foods that contain salt because without it we die.

“Restricting sodium in the diet to prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease is the greatest con in preventative nutrition and medicine,” says James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist and an associate editor of the British Medical Journal’s online publication Open Heart. “Among people who lower their salt intake, the same percentage who get a reduction in blood pressure also get an increase in it.”

The rise of low-carb diets, including Atkins, led to people rejecting the first food of civilisation. But sourdough bread in particular is full of iron, zinc and magnesium, antioxidants, folic acid and other B vitamins. One study found it was safe for gluten-intolerant people.

He adds: “Low sodium stresses the heart. This increases the risk of atherosclerosis, heart failure and hypertension: the exact conditions that most governments and health institutes are trying to prevent by promoting low-salt intake for everyone.”

DiNicolantonio points out that our brains drive sodium intake: “That is one reason [why], over the past 50 years across diverse populations, consumption has been in a such a narrow range.

“In Britain, sodium intake has only fallen about 10-15% during the past decade. The authorities are shooting for 50% — a figure that would likely induce harm. Restricting sodium is also associated with increased mortality, worsened cognition and gait, increased risk of falling and subsequent fractures and worsened thyroid function — just to name a few.”

Despite decades of instructions exhorting people to cut down on the amount of salt they eat, the actual rates of salt consumption in developed countries are thought to have been relatively stable since the Industrial Revolution. Put simply: people are ignoring the advice not to eat more salt.

In part, this is because about 80% of the salt we eat in Britain comes from processed foods: cereals, frozen ready meals, pies, supermarket pizzas and so on. Barely a fifth is added in cooking or at the table. If salt caused high blood pressure, the past 30 years would have seen a spike in salt consumption. They have not. What we have seen instead is a surge in the consumption of refined carbohydrates and, especially, sugar.

DiNicolantonio points out that telling the food industry to lower the salt in processed foods may mean that people eat more of those foods to get the salt their physiology demands.

“So low-salt policies may lead to increased consumption of processed foods and the added sugars they bring with them,” he says, “which might in turn lead to increased type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular events and chronic metabolic disease.”

Sonia Pombo is a campaign co-ordinator and a graduate in nutrition who works at the Consensus Action on Salt and Health pressure group. She says those studies that fail to show a link between blood pressure and sodium are “limited and methodologically flawed”.

She adds: “It is evident that salt, in the amounts we eat, is a direct toxin that puts up our blood pressure, which is the biggest cause of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure and is the commonest cause of death and disability in the UK.”

Olive oil contains six times the saturated fat of pork, and is less chemically stable than butter and lard, which are therefore better for cooking.

“A ‘direct toxin’?” says DiNicolantonio. “Salt is an essential micronutrient that our body can retain or excrete to maintain the perfect amount. The less sodium we eat, the harder our kidneys have to work to reabsorb it.”

I ask Harcombe whether, after butter and possibly salt, any other foods might be ready for rehabilitation.

“Eggs, certainly,” she says. “The evidence shows that eating cholesterol has no effect on the cholesterol in our own bodies — the American guidelines were just updated to reflect that. And eggs are high in cholesterol because a healthy chicken — or, indeed, a human — needs it to survive. Egg farmers went out of business because of that flawed advice, while cereal manufacturers made huge profits.”

Harcombe also believes that milk, lard and red meat are due to come back into favour. “The media often lump red meat with processed meat as equally likely to cause bowel cancer. The former is one of the most nutritious things on the planet: the latter is probably toxic,” she says.

The message to take from this dispiriting tale will be familiar. It is to eat fresh and wholesome food: vegetables, fruit, whole grains and nuts. Enjoy meat, fish and animal fats as accompaniments rather than as the basis of a dish. Don’t overdo sugar, but remember that food is as much about pleasure and the communion of the species as it is about fuel. Above all else, take the fluctuating diktats of nutritionists and killjoys with the best seasoning of all — a good pinch of salt.

Interview: Anne Glover

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This interview with the EU’s former chief scientific advisor originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Anne Glover wrote her PhD thesis on “the biochemistry and biosynthesis of halobacterial membrane proteins” and has spent eight years in grey rooms discussing scientific matters with policymakers — first in the weird, self-important world of the Scottish parliament and then in the even more peculiar universe of the European Union.

So I’m expecting to meet a desiccated, fully institutionalised technocrat. She turns out to be extremely likeable, with a curious manner best described as patronisingly maternal. I keep saying to her, yes, I do understand the basics, while distractedly thinking about settling in her lap for some gentle pampering.

Her overheated office in the concrete horror of Aberdeen University’s medical school contains a cafetiere for one, folders with “Microbes” scrawled on the spines, reflex-purchase Matisse prints unhung on the wiry carpet and a sad, sour smell.

She looks a bit like a headmistress: Jean Brodie with a junior beehive, expansively rouged cheeks and thinly seductive lipstick, and she speaks with a QC’s fluency in Morningside-ish Scots.

We are here to talk about her leaving her post as the EU’s chief scientific adviser. “I wasn’t sacked,” she insists. “I’ve never been sacked. It makes me angry when people say I was sacked.” While that is technically true, it is also true that a) she left the job before her contract was up for renegotiation and b) her position on genetically modified (GM) crops — which, naturally, follows the scientific consensus — had put her at odds with the new European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and a battalion of sprawling non-governmental organisations, especially Greenpeace.

Until November the 58-year-old Glover was the EU’s most important scientist, advising the former president, Jose Manuel Barroso — “he gave me his personal email address,” she trills — on dengue fever in Madeira, fusion power, ebola, the Large Hadron Collider and “our spaceport in French Guiana”.

Ten days into Juncker’s presidency, after she had repeatedly tried to meet members of his staff, she received an email ordering, as she puts it: “No more travel, no speeches, no commitment, you’re not a scientific adviser any more — do not tweet as such.”

That still smarts, not least because the timing looked suspicious. Some months earlier several influential NGOs had written to Barroso and urged him to scrap her job. Her crime had been to state that all the science shows GM crops are safe for people to eat.

The evidence for this is at least as strong as the evidence for human- influenced climate change. “They can find people who will sign letters saying that GM technology is not safe in the same way there are letters signed by people saying climate change isn’t happening,” says Glover.

“This all rests on a misunderstanding of consensus.”

She clearly despises Greenpeace, which said she was one-sided and partial over GM. When the name of one senior Greenpeace figure comes up, her top lip wrinkles in disgust. “Oh, him,” she grunts.

“They nicknamed me ‘chief lobbyist’ — I don’t know why. I’m a scientist. I don’t offer opinions – but they actually do lobby, and they have a scientific adviser. What goes through his mind? Why is it OK for Greenpeace to have an adviser but not the president of the European Commission?”

I mention Prince Charles, a man untroubled by a scientific education, who has nonetheless claimed that GM represents the biggest environmental disaster “of all time”.

“That’s his philosophy,” says Glover. “It’s not science and his sister has a much more open mind. My real problem is when people want an excuse to oppose something and so claim there is a problem with the evidence. With GM it’s more honest to say: we know the technology is safe but some people simply don’t like it. A closed mind is difficult for scientists to understand.”

What about the argument that the technology enriches huge corporations, which can copyright DNA? “So-called golden rice is biofortified to include vitamin A,” she says “It can save millions of people from deafness and blindness. And it’s in the public domain.”

Years ago, on a midnight swim in the Mediterranean, Glover noticed that the swimming costume of one of her companions was sparkling with bioluminescent bacteria. She mastered the science behind the phenomenon and, in 1999, used it to found a biotechnology company with her husband, Ian George. Remedios used GM bacteria to identify polluted sites. I had been told that she owned a yacht and drove a sports car, but she pooh-poohs the idea that she is rich.

“My shares have been so diluted I don’t think they’re worth anything now,” she says. “I’m not sure I ever made money from that business — I’m an academic really.”

Today she drives a Mini and her boat, her husband tells me over the telephone, is “a plastic tub”. He adds that they have hardly had a family holiday in years because Glover follows the “cult of work”. (Her 28-year-old stepdaughter works worthily in sustainability.)

“Kafkaesque” is Glover’s description of the Brussels machine. Although she is proud of what she achieved there, she seems relieved to be off.

“If I so much as went to Antwerp, between 6 and 12 people had to sign the trip off as ethical,” she says.

“I once took a short-haul flight and because I had an electronic boarding card they couldn’t process the ticket on expenses. I tried to photocopy my iPhone but it didn’t work.”

She also distrusts the lack of transparency in Europe. After a closed interview process for the EU job, she “emerged” as the winner, almost like the Tory leaders of old.

“I was told that when I gave a formal briefing to the president I was not allowed to publish it — I strongly disagreed with that,” she says.

Altogether it sounds as if it was a very lonely three years. Ian, who is 10 years older and retired, would visit her in Brussels but, she says, “I was working all the time, including the evenings, so it wasn’t much fun for him”.

Later this month Glover will take up a fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. “He was a German industrialist and once said that he would rather lose profit than trust. That’s very important for me.”

I ask her whether, after years of telling politicians what to think, she is considering a move into politics.

“Categorically no. Politics is about compromise — and I’m not a compromiser. I say it how it is.”

Indeed she does. And that was her downfall in Europe. By rejecting her, powerful decision makers have lost a crucial, rational voice.

Interview: Kate Phillips

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Originally published in the Sunday Times

Fame has just come to Kate Phillips — but for the wrong reason. Last week the television personality, Tudor pundit and codpiece-obsessed historian Lucy Worsley was reported to have sniffed that Phillips was “too pretty” to play Jane Seymour in the BBC’s expensively brooding production of Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall.

Contemporary portraits of Plain Jane show a prim twentysomething with eyes inches apart, a ski-jump nose and a forehead like an ostrich egg. Phillips, it is fair to say, is spared the same challenges.

She really is beautiful, I think, as she orders a pot of Earl Grey at Aqua Shard, a restaurant on the 31st floor of the London skyscraper. She is waifish, with almost fairy-like, floaty movements, a wide, gawky grin and hair styled in a Gatsbyish marcel wave. She is wearing skinny jeans and a fluffy turtleneck that, she tells me, “my boyfriend picked up from a market in Shoreditch. But most of my clothes are from Asos.”

They met at drama school from which, incredibly, the 25-year-old Phillips graduated only last summer. Straight from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama — alumni include Orlando Bloom and Daniel Craig — to standing opposite Mark Rylance, who is being lauded for his Mandelsonian performance as Thomas Cromwell.

Almost immediately after starting her career, and inadvertently boosted by the too-beautiful-to-play-an-ugly-girl controversy, Phillips is now in huge demand. This week, she will fly to Lithuania to begin filming the BBC’s next vast costume fest, War and Peace.

Your old thesp chums must hate you, I say. “It would be naive to think that none of them felt any envy,” she replies carefully.

This is her first national newspaper interview; she appears to have had zero media training and is all the more genuine and likeable for it.

Phillips is clearly miffed about Worsley’s intervention: it seemed nit-picking and, in an odd, inverted way, unkind.

“All that ‘too pretty’ stuff,” she says, “there’s nothing I can do about it. [Worsley] came to the cathedral where we were filming and made the observation. You’re trying to perform as well as you can in a role and it’s difficult when someone makes those comments.” She pauses, hesitating, then says with a sharp laugh: “I’m trying to think what Claire Foy would say now.”

Foy plays a spunky Anne Boleyn and is “the most extraordinary woman . . . the best person . . . totally authentic, fun, relaxed”. She has become a “mentor” to Phillips, “although she would be mortified if she heard me say that”.

Phillips really is a proto-luvvie. “I was so elated by auditioning for Jane,” she says, “I was brought to tears by the experience.” Everyone she works with is “amazing” or “a genius” or “incredibly supportive” or “warm and joyful” — but acting is a craft of hissing bitchiness plastered with fake smiles and frigid air-kisses. Phillips is smart enough to know not to slag anyone off in public.

If you watched the first episode of Wolf Hall on Wednesday, you might have missed her. She appeared briefly in the final 10 minutes or so along with Damian Lewis as a non-fat Henry VIII. We will see more of her in the coming weeks.

“I was only on for five seconds,” says Phillips, “but it was nail-biting. My brother told me I went red.” They live in Hackney, east London, where he is a tutor and writer; their eldest brother works for a telecoms company.

Appropriately enough, Phillips spent her first nine years in Esher, Surrey, near Hampton Court and the Cardinal Wolseley pub. Her parents divorced when she was six and she was raised by her mother and stepfather, who worked in the wine trade. They moved a lot: Nottingham, Bristol, London.

“I found it hard —always the new girl. Some people are good at making friends immediately. I wasn’t.”

Would it be a stretch to say that was why you became an actor, I ask. “No: I genuinely think it was the reason. It wasn’t cool to push to be in plays when no one knew who you were,
but I felt that I belonged when I was part of that community. I’ve always found it difficult to articulate myself — when I’ve got a script, I’m happy. I feel like I don’t really know who I am at any one time.”

Lots of actors are like that, I say.

“Lots of people are,” she says. They don’t really know themselves.

“I never had a boyfriend at school,” she continues. “Oh God, I can’t tell you this. The first time I was kissed was during a school production of Romeo and Juliet. In front of my drama teacher. I was 16. The boy from the boys’ school kissed me and” — she does an ironic fist pump — “I thought, yeah! I’m a woman now.”

It must be at once thrilling and terrifying to have success, money and fame so close. Amid the fizzing enthusiasm and starstruck humility, I sense in Phillips a great sigh of relief.

Book review: Love and Lies by Clancy Martin

Clancy Martin

Clancy Martin

Originally published in the Sunday Times

Clancy Martin was about nine years old and had just started masturbating when he experienced what he calls his “first explicitly sexual encounter with a parent”. His mother was ironing: her little Freudian brushed past and, he writes, “her buttocks grazed my groin and I got, to my pleasure and horror, an erection”.

This is an essay on lying and its vital ubiquity in love, sex and relationships. But one of the book’s many paradoxes is Martin’s own unflinching search for personal truth. Thrice-married, this Canadian-born professor of philosophy at the ­University of Missouri “shares” with all the uninhibited honesty of a man who has spent many tedious hours sitting in the trust circles of American rehab clinics.

He describes falling in love with his elder brother, his suicide attempts, his alcoholism and cocaine addiction, his adultery, his love for and sexual abuse by his elder stepsister, and he exhaustively examines problems with defecating that afflicted him until university. Thai prostitutes, we learn, are “so much better” than western ones because they kiss you back. His sexual practices with a former girlfriend are recounted in lurid detail.

Love and Lies has no specific genre. Philosophical discussion, self-analysis and autobiography intersect with deft literary criticism. Quoting Baudelaire, Martin says he wrote the book to “behold my body and my heart without disgust”. We are left with the impression of an author grasping, with unusual success, to understand his own feelings.

He begins by seeking to define a lie: trickier than you might think. (Is the lie that turns out to be true still a lie? And what about a half-truth, a truth that hides a lie?) We zoom through the history of lying in western philosophy. Kant thought all lying was wrong: most philosophers saw greater nuance, but none seems to have grasped, as the ­science now shows, that lying to ourselves and others is intrinsic to the human ­condition.

The baby, with no language but a cry, wails for attention, but stops when it ­realises that its parents are not there to hear it. Clever children, Martin says, begin to lie earlier and more often than less intelligent ones. “Deception even thrives at the level of our genomes,” he writes; in human cells, viral fraudsters cheat.

Importantly, our ability to get along with each other depends on fibbing. Politeness is essentially formalised lying: truth, they say, hurts. Love and Lies explains that it is misjudged fantasy to believe that the most honest relationships are necessarily the happiest ones. Telling our children not to lie by recounting the stories of Pinocchio or the boy who cried wolf is doomed: your kids watch you lying every day. Socrates and Keats told us respectively that love and beauty will lead us to the truth, but Martin exposes such glib truisms. Love is more likely to lead to confusion: “From one moment to the next, the lover experiences so many ­different degrees and even kinds of ­certainty, uncertainty, self-awareness and self-doubt [that] speaking about ‘truth’ and ‘transparency’ and ‘honesty’ in love [is] dubious.”

Most of all, in love, we lie to ourselves. By describing his marriages with scrupulous honesty, Martin outlines how the most successful relationships rely on a cognitive dissonance. Although the figure snoring beside us can sometimes repulse and ­infuriate, he or she is also the person we want to spend the rest of our lives with.

This is a strange and hauntingly intelligent book. To read it is to see new and unsettling complexities in our most cherished relationships, as well as to understand a little better the subtle workings of our own deceitful minds.

Interview: Natalie Bennett

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Originally published in the Sunday Times

The leader of what is probably Britain’s fastest-growing political party still stacks shelves at her local supermarket. Natalie Bennett, a pleasantly twitchy and nervous-looking 48-year-old, puts in shifts at a co-operative food shop in Bloomsbury, central London.

“I did two hours there last Sadderday,” she hoots in a New South Wales twang: Bennett left Australia in the mid-1990s and says she became a British citizen “in about 2004”. If she were a bird, she would be a starling — quick-moving and slightly screechy.

This former journalist, who claims to be the only parliamentary candidate who knows how to shear a sheep, has been the leader of the Green party since September 2012.

I suspect that most of the country, in so far as it knows anything about the Greens, believes that the job belongs to Caroline Lucas, the party’s only MP.

Despite the relative invisibility of the party’s members — they blame “the media” (probably with some justification) — the Greens are having a remarkable time in the opinion polls, standing at roughly the same level as the Liberal Democrats. Last week their membership reached almost 45,000: higher than that of the Lib Dems or Ukip.

“Two thousand people joined us just yesterday,” says Bennett as we board the grim, brown 14.00 train from Liverpool Street to Norwich, where she is to take part in a debate at the University of East Anglia.

The Greens seem to perform best on Britain’s edges: their main target seats for May’s general election will be in Brighton, Bristol and Norwich.

The recent membership surge is down to a Niagara of publicity largely generated by the prime minister. Amid jeers from elements in his own party that he was “frit”, David Cameron refused to take part in the leaders’ debates on television unless the Green party was included. Bennett says this is grandstanding: the incumbent Cameron knows that he has more to lose by debating than he has to gain.

“But Cameron can only say that because it’s politically reasonable,” she tells me on the train, still wearing her purple coat, her elbows on the rattling table.

“He couldn’t refuse to do the debates unless the Monster Raving Loony party was joining.”

At any rate, more than a quarter of a million people have signed a petition saying the Greens should be included; a YouGov poll found that 66% of the country agrees.

The debates would showcase the Greens’ platform for the public. If you thought they were a party that existed to tackle climate change, you would be very wrong. In Brighton, where they not only have an MP but also control the council through a minority administration, they have spent their time stumbling through a series of increasingly ludicrous gaffes.

Where to begin? With the sheep that Green councillors had proposed should wander across one of the main roads into Brighton, the better to slow traffic? (“It might have created a more rural atmosphere,” mumbles Bennett.)

One might also mention the compulsory “meat-free Mondays” introduced in council canteens: carnivorism was restored after the hard-hats demanded the return of their bacon butties.

Most ridiculous of all has been the Greens’ chaotic refusal to work together. The party does not have whips. Until recently it even refused to choose a leader — which means that members continually vote against each other and even against themselves.

When Brighton’s bin men went on strike, the leader of the council, the improbably named Jason Kitcat, ordered them back to work. But his deputy Phil McCafferty, a fellow Green, supported the strikers and brought eight other councillors to stand on the picket lines with them while the rubbish piled up.

“Whipping people doesn’t help trust in politics,” says Bennett. “We’re trying to bring in a new, grown-up politics where we have the same aims, just different ways of getting there.”

Is there any international precedent for that, I ask.

“I’ll get back to you on that,” Bennett says.

On a national scale the Greens are adopting Ukip tactics by using “wedge issues” to prise people away from the main parties. These include a wealth tax of up to 2% on people worth more than £3m. (“If a hedge fund manager threatens to go to Switzerland, my response is, ‘Heathrow is that way’,” Bennett cries.)

The party would also halt all private involvement in the NHS, tighten City regulation and use more sticks than carrots to dissuade people from using cars. Parking charges in Brighton have soared.

“Journalists say that renationalising the railways is radical,” she says.

“But more than 70% of the country supports it — even a majority of Tory voters.”

The Greens’ most surprising pledge is a flat stipend of about £85 a week to be paid to every single Briton, from the Duke of Westminster down. Bennett says this would “take away the benefit traps — currently, if you’re on jobseeker’s allowance and someone offers you a couple of days’ work, you can lose your entitlement”.

She believes the measure would lead people to spend “passionate hours writing poetry for a few years”, before they discover that their skills lie elsewhere. And, she says, it would encourage people to refuse to work in call centres.

Bennett is a likeable personality, herding an undisciplined gaggle with few resources. In an unslick and refreshingly human way, she represents a nice antidote to the oily overclass of Westminster.

However, as Tony Blair once nearly said, a leader needs to lead — and I’m not sure she is truly willing to.

How I became an obsessive tidier

With broom. (Francesco Guidicini)

With broom. (Francesco Guidicini)

Originally published in the Sunday Times

There was no foul epiphany, no squelch or stab underfoot that shocked me into doing something about my bedroom. Concerned relatives and sorrowful friends never knew they had to stage an intervention. My mess was my own grubby secret, and I kept it like a miser. I’m only just beginning to understand how, in a comparatively short period, I’ve moved from that sullied existence to near-OCD spotlessness.

Three years ago, week-old socks littered the floor of my bedroom. Old plates strewn with crumbs and smeared with desiccated ketchup festered on the rug. Occasionally, mould bloomed with a greyish patina on tea dregs. Dust had settled on the bookcases so thickly that if I lifted a paperback from the shelf, I had to blow off a grey, hairy cloak. Tidy-ups, rare as they were, led to discouraging coughing fits.

I was renting a room from my godmother, an eternally patient woman who took the generous view that my room was just that. I was working hard, but my life contained one element that seemed a hangover of student days or adolescence. It pitched a squalid tent on the clipped lawn of responsibility. A messy room seemed boyish, almost romantic.

I was never clinically depressed. I kept the kitchen, bathroom and shared spaces tidy. I showered or bathed twice a day, wore neat clothes, got my hair cut and gave no other hint that my room would be anything other than normal. And please don’t get the wrong idea: I could tidy up when I had to. I just rarely had to, so my room occasionally sank into a state that seemed medieval, unlike the semi-laboratory it has become today.

Three things changed. One: I entered a relationship with a man who was tidier than me, and rather more fastidious in his tastes. “Mucky pup,” he said with wary affection when he saw the rumpled jeans and shifting terrain of books and papers that littered the floor. (It was his second visit: I’d cleaned it before the first with pre-emptive embarrassment.) When I saw how he made his bed every morning and put his clothes away at night, I felt at once inspired and humiliated.

The second: I bought a flat. You take care of such precious things as belong to you. And new-builds bring on a paralysing anxiety that they will only deteriorate, that you will wear them out and break whatever came with them. This, I’ve come to realise, can spark a near-psychosis in which you are always striving to return your home to its initial pristine state, like a drug addict chasing a dizzying first high.

The third change I attribute to another, more obscure shift within the brain: a crossing-over from childhood to adulthood. Like it or not, the urge to tidy or to nest marks a sinking into life’s quicksand. I recently turned 31 — definitely no longer young — and as I approached the end of my twenties, I found myself putting away childish things.

Now, the instant I come home, I skitter round the flat, picking up clutter, clearing away washing-up, bundling laundry into the machine. I Google carpet-cleaning tips, experiment with squirty chemicals. Edward, my flatmate, has even given me a nickname: the Bumblebee. On Sunday morning, while he reads the paper and I potter, he will occasionally start making a low, industrious buzzing sound. For Hallowe’en, he bought me a bee costume. But I find a peaceable joy in tidying, or, more specifically, of existing in a tidy place. My parents, who remember the fetid thicket that was my teenage bedroom, are bewildered. My godmother can hardly speak.

Humans clean because they prefer order. Pattern and symmetry are among the most powerful ways our species imparts meaning to the chaos of existence. (And you will have noticed that the more zealous the religiosity of an institution, the stronger its claims to godly cleanliness.) There is surprisingly little research on why teenagers are messier than adults, but a number of studies have shown that creative people tend to be messier than their more literal-minded peers — and, in fact, that untidy rooms can foster the mental leaps that spark artistic inspiration.

I can’t be sure whether the autocratic order of my flat has stifled my own creativity. But there are definitely times when, casting a speck-hunting, searchlight gaze over the counter tops, I catch myself. I realise that a constant urge to tidy is just as selfish as sloppy slobbiness, and for an instant I miss the carefree mess of youth. Then I lift the sponge again.

How to smarten up your act

■ Shun clutter. Ruthlessly bin or give to friends or charity anything you haven’t used in the past year, unless it makes you smile with nostalgia or remembered triumph.

■ Take comfort in the hum and slosh of the washing machine and dishwasher. They save their owners more than they cost.

■ Assign everything its place and make sure that you return it when you’re done.

■ Dust settles, so clean from the top and work downwards — bookshelf, then table, then floor.

■ Never let the cleaning rule you. Your home is not a museum.

■ In the kitchen, tidy as you go. Do not reach for the carrot peeler until the onion skins are in the bin.

■ Fairy liquid is a brilliant stain remover, surface cleaner and all-round wonder product.

■ If all else fails, pay someone to do it for you.

Interview: Joan Collins

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You glimpse what life must be like if you’re Joan Collins when you watch the police open the road for her. I am in a chauffeur-driven Jag with the actress and her silky-suave fifth husband, Percy Gibson. (You remember the story: there are 32 years between them, and when Collins, now 81, was asked whether that worried her, she snorted: “If he dies, he dies.”)

So: in the car, New Year’s Eve last week, 9.40pm and 10 minutes late for a party. Collins does not do late. Her punctuality lies in her proper English upbringing: Francis Holland School, Rada and a well-connected agent father whose clients included Tom Jones and the Beatles. But it also reflects the masochistic constancy of her work: her CV, she tells me in the Jag, is “massive — 60 movies, 1,000 episodes of television, 12 or 14 plays”. Plus 17 books — four of them autobiographies — which, thanks to screen plugs and an exuberant celebrity life papped and played out in gossip columns, have sold well. (Jackie Collins, her sister, has flogged twice as many books as Dan Brown.)

It has been a stressful and somewhat stroppy evening up to that point, and London is gridlocked. By the time we hit a roadblock, the peevish snarl in Collins’s voice is approaching a climax. Now, I am forbidden to say exactly how it happens, but I can report that, for Collins, the policemen click their heels, lift the bollards and wave us on. Thus we speed through Bloomsbury on empty roads, while the cursing muggles honk.

Last week Collins was made a dame in recognition of her charity work. A mutual friend arranged an interview and invited us to the same party. But it all began rather horribly.

She is seething when I first glimpse her, blanking me and striding past in a black lacy outfit with fabulous sleeves like bat’s wings, diamond-and-oyster shell earrings aglister. A mix-up has led the photographer to arrive with a brace of assistants, a large light and other equipment, instead of the “quick picture” Collins has been expecting. So she spends 20 minutes or so shuttered away elsewhere in her Belgravia flat, while Percy flits affably between the entrance hall (where I am camped), the Joan Wing and the photographer in the sitting room. (Huge oil of an eastern European duchess, a collection of 18th-century camel pictures and a fabulous abstract drawing of a reclining woman. “I outbid Madonna on that one,” Collins later purrs.)

She emerges White Witch-frosty, hissing: “I don’t trust any photographers after what happened in Spanish Vogue this summer. Eleven pages — the worst pictures I’ve had in my life.”

But look at her: she could be 30 years younger. The green eyes that snared Beatty, Hopper and Belafonte (to name three of her many early lovers) retain a cruel and mischievous sparkle. The cheekbones are sharp as rapiers, neatly printed with just a few crow’s feet.

She stands: her legs cross, a hand clamps hip. She drops her shoulder and a smile — accusing, bored, scarlet — catches on her face. She growls instructions.

“Go higher. You’re shooting me too low. Higher! Let me see that one. No, I’m not going to move. This is the pose you’re getting.”

It is over before it starts, and we move to the “Green Room” where I sink into a deep and puffy turquoise sofa and begin burbling apologies. Collins begins to glow: everything happens for her and around her. She says things such as “it behooves me”, complains about “hideosities” such as wheelie bins and, my favourite, pronounces “enclaves” with a semi-French accent as “enclahves”.

Dynasty, the extravagantly lapelled soap opera that made her, as Alexis Carrington, the best-paid woman on 1980s telly and saved her from near bankruptcy, is “Dienasty”. She calls that show a “grand guignol”, but also notes that when it became the most popular on American television, “Everyone said it was because of me.”

Percy fixes us G&Ts: spindly ice, no citrus, good thunk of booze.

“Waaaaaaah,” Collins sighs appreciatively. “That’s a gin and tonic.”

Joan Collins in about 1960Joan Collins in about 1960

She is warm and affable on some subjects; flinty and brusque on others. She has a sharp way with language — snapping at me, “I’m a dame, not an oracle”, at one stage — but is also watching carefully what she says. Thus, the proudest moments of her career and her legal victory against her publisher Random House in the 1990s are happily remembered. She had sent them a manuscript they said was “unreadable” and sued her for the $1.2m initial advance. She won and they had to pay her a million dollars on top.

“Being made a dame makes me wanna giggle,” she coos. The accent is a warbling distillation of the Arthur Rank charm school and LA. It could slice crystal. “Dame Joan! — I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. Roger Moore — Sir Roger Moore — texted to say he was jealous. Christopher Biggins, Julian Clary, all my friends and family have sent flowers and emails.”

I mention that day’s reports that Gwyneth Paltrow spends £14,000 a month on her beauty regime.

“I read that,” she says. “I’m not going to say anything against her, but I think it’s ludicrous, ludicrous.”

Collins’s own system involves an occasional facial, moisturising, cleansing, night creams and “masks now and again” (that’s acting, darling). “But I mean all of that [Paltrow’s ‘electronic muscle stimulation’ and ‘oxygen mist treatment’] — who has the time?” How much do you spend a month on make-up, I ask.

“Not much any more, Oliver, because I have my own line.” Good one. And also true — she later hands me a leather-cased iPhone set to Timeless Beauty’s keenly priced website. Collins also hawks spectacles (“eyewear”, sorry), audiobooks she has recited of her sister’s novels, and a range of wigs costing between £30 and £660.

It is all the more remarkable when you remember she has no publicist or stylist. Percy, a charming Peruvian-Scot, seems to do a lot of the gruntwork. They met in 2000, when he was stage-managing a play she was in, and he helped to organise her one-woman show a few years ago.

Collins has said she “shudders” to think how much tax she has paid over the years. But when I ask her if she thinks she pays too much today, she says with knowing charm: “I see your headline now”, drawing out the last word over two or three seconds.

“I wish our taxes would go more on things like improving our schools and the NHS, and not being sent to countries that shouldn’t get it,” she soon admits. “And certainly not to the European Union, which I do not like at all.”

Ukip was a brief flirtation 10 years ago, but “I was never a member. Robert Kilroy-Silk [then a leading figure in the party] asked me to a meeting. It caused a huge fuss and suddenly I was the poster girl.” Are you considering voting for them in May, I ask.

“I’m not going to answer that question — but the answer is no. As you may have gathered, however, I am not a leftie. I don’t want to talk about politics, I always get misquoted.”

Collins regularly writes columns decrying the state of Britain — the national loss of manners, how she “despises” bankers, the rise of fat people (“orca-sized oafs from Planet Girth”), women who use Botox (“eyes like tiny pits in a marshmallow cloud”) and the “grotesques” who go on “squawk shows”. She pines for the political leaders of old: Roosevelt, Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher, whose funeral she attended. How does she feel about England today?

“I love my country when I cross Westminster Bridge or when I see all the other wonderful, traditional things we have. But then I see the litter on the streets and feel sad.”

One of the worst things about the modern world, according to Collins, is what has happened to women. She is aghast at how society treats them. “I’m totally not into porn, but people tell me it’s dark and nasty and demeaning to women nowadays, and that has a lot to do with the rise of rapes. The women have to look like Barbie dolls and be shaved everywhere.”

Joan Collins with her fifth husband and most devoted round-the-clock fan, Percy GibsonJoan Collins with her fifth husband and most devoted round-the-clock fan, Percy Gibson

Hollywood is just as bad: “It’s horrible what the actresses have to do, simulating sex to such an extent that the audience needs to think they’re really doing it. Showing your bottom, even for Michael Douglas, is the norm now.

“My trainer in LA, who works with young actresses, says they have to be like 100lb because producers want the audiences to be teenage boys. Sixteen-year-olds don’t want a buxom woman, they want young-looking girls. So you have to do all this stuff to your face and make yourself look teeny-weeny thin, like a social x-ray.”

Sex on and offscreen is a subject Collins knows about — her memoirs are as sodden with boisterous bonking as her sister’s novels, and no one who has seen the swing scene in The Stud (1978) will forget it. (My favourite Collins anecdote is her dumping of the rich playboy Arthur Loew. Whisking her round a dance floor, he stooped and breathed in her ear: “You’re such a f****** bore.” She rasped back: “And you are a boring f***.”)

Then, 20 minutes after we sit down, Percy is at the door. It is sweet to watch him: he is like a brilliant and non- genuflecting maître d’, taking her arm as she walks down the steps, holding open every door, walking behind her like Prince Philip. He may be her most devoted round-the-clock fan, and after some of her other husbands — including a philanderer, a crook and a rapist — that seems more than fair.

The drive to the party is punctuated by Collins reading aloud further congratulatory emails, dictating messages for Percy to write on her Twitter account and getting first too hot, and then too cold. The easy-listening station Magic FM is demanded and then criticised for being too much in “party mode”.

It is not a big party — we are about 20 people — but she chats to everyone she knows there, while Percy stands attentively nearby, filling her plate from the buffet (reader, she carbed) and gently steering her round the room. We count down with the TV: when Big Ben bongs, Collins hugs her neighbour, raises her champagne glass and joins in Auld Lang Syne.

By way of goodbye (12.10am) she shoots me her proudest pout, jabs a reproachful finger, narrows rainforest eyes and barks: “You be nice.”

Well, she amazes me. She is still working at 81 so that she can maintain the lifestyle she wants, keep homes in London, Los Angeles and St Tropez and pay her grandchildren’s school fees. (“What makes you think I could afford to retire?” she asked another interviewer not long ago.)

She is also brave. To take one example, it was courageous to speak out about how her first husband raped her when she was 17.

She has never accepted defeat. When her career faltered in the 1970s and her third husband, the music mogul Ron Kass, forged her signature and drove her into debt, she carried on with the stoicism of a woman who remembers the Blitz.

Most of all, in Dynasty she portrayed a new kind of female power, later bolstered and boosted by Thatcher. “I think a lot of women became empowered by me,” she says. “They saw in Alexis how to be feminine in a man’s world — to wear lipstick and beautiful clothes and jewels, but still compete in the boardroom.”

Collins continues to wear her fun, bolshie sexuality more stylishly than any other Englishwoman. A grande dame, yes, but also a great dame.

Interview: Ivan Massow

Ivan Massow (Francesco Guidicini)

Ivan Massow with parrot (Francesco Guidicini)

This interview originally appeared in The Sunday Times

Forget the past indiscretions — escorts, drugs, boozing — and the two suicide attempts. The real thing that is likely to harm Ivan Massow’s new bid to become London’s next mayor is his disarming honesty.

He opens up about almost everything, from the time he stopped his father killing himself to the “homophobia” some gay people direct at him, his abusive childhood, what he calls his “chequered background” and his cheery sketchiness on actual policy. (Perhaps we should give him a break there: the election is still 18 months away.)

“I’m not going to be able to pull a Cameron and wow everyone immediately,” he apologises as he lets me into his vast Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury, central London. A semi-circular curtain divides the front door from the World of Interiors kitchen. “Like the Wolseley!” he hoots.

The space is full of hot young builders, assistants, two dogs, an affectionate cat, his 19-year-old boyfriend and a grey parrot called Cleo. “I’m patron of the Skegness parrot sanctuary — please put that in.”

Politicians prefer allies to friends. However, this 47-year-old has had endless celebrity bezzies, including Charles and Camilla, Cher, George Michael, the Crown Prince of Brunei and a one-time boxing partner named Mike Tyson. Joan Collins is his “second mum”: she saved him from alcoholism after wagging her finger at his boozing in St Tropez six years ago.

People like Massow because, as one of his friends says, he does not lie. Though he is not a politician, he has shared a flat with Michael Gove, the chief whip, and the skills minister Nick Boles, advised William Hague when he was party leader, “worked a lot with George Osborne and frequently ran into [David] Cameron — but we were all just kids knocking around like bees in a jar”.

Boris Johnson, a friend for 20 years and London’s current mayor, “texted me to say good stuff, best of luck”, but other senior Tories have stayed quiet as they wait to see who else comes forward.

Is there anything in his past, I ask him, that he’s worried about coming out during this campaign?

“Nearly everything!” he roars. “It’s hard to know where to begin — I’ve had such a busy life.” True.

When he was 12, Massow’s mother had to put him up for adoption after his father turned abusive. “She had friends who were on the game; it was a different world.”

At 23, he started his financial consultancy business from a squat in Kentish Town, north London. This arranged insurance for gay people during the worst days of Aids hysteria, when many faced inflated premiums and, Massow claims, open homophobia from the industry. Soon he was driving a Ferrari and by his thirties he had four Bentleys, several houses, boats and a retinue of staff.

With a bit of nudging, he tells me he is worth just under £40m, although he has had failures. After a business went into receivership in the mid-Noughties, Massow exiled himself to Barcelona, living in a salon next to the royal family’s apartments, drinking, cruising and doing drugs.

But now he says: “I’ve been a good boy for years.” He has been teetotal since 2008, surrounding himself with other non-drinkers, and today lives quite frugally, flying easyJet, wearing M&S shirts and giving away between £25,000 and £100,000 every month to charities, businesses and the people he mentors.

“Money never really drove me. I had the boats and houses and now I realise there was nothing there — it was all a lie.”

Does he stand a chance of becoming mayor? “I’m confident: I’ve got a good team behind me.” But he doesn’t have skeletons in your cupboard: he’s got a mausoleum.

“Michael Gove said to me: ‘You’ve hung your skeletons firmly outside.’ People often claim that politicians are hypocrites: I want to be the one who’s honest, who puts who he is on his Facebook wall.”

Massow admits that he has always been “an uncomfortable fit” with the Conservative party, whose faithful are likely to hate him. He says he coined the phrase “the nasty party” in 2000, having escorted Margaret Thatcher around conference the year before. But standing apart from the Bullingdon crowd could be an asset in not-particularly-Conservative London. “The role is strangely non-party-political,” he says. “You have to be relied on to rebel.”

In any case, I doubt he cares about the shires view: he is pro-London to the point of being against the rest of the country. Announcing his bid last week, he huffed that 20% of the money generated in the capital is spent “subsidising other parts of the UK”, adding that despite this, “provincial resentment towards us grows”.

In full mayoral flow, he cries: “Let’s have a city-state feel to London: its own immigration policy and national insurance numbers, and give the rest of England a feeling of sanctity.”

Massow is probably right that Londoners will forgive him his earlier mistakes. Mavericks have thrived in the job he wants; his opponents should not underestimate him.

Click to read at The Sunday Times

Feature: Working at the Waterside Inn

(Jeremy Young)

Learning to spoon sauce with Diego Masciaga (Jeremy Young)

This feature originally appeared in the Sunday Times

People think they go to restaurants for the food. Barring a few strip-lit chicken shops and E coli kebab dispensaries, they don’t. Restaurants sell hospitality, and that isn’t found in protein, carbs, glasses or linen. It is embodied in service, and the mâitre d’ is the most important body in the room.

Wide-armed and with a massive grin, Diego Masciaga cries, “Of course I remember you!” It can’t possibly be true: I’ve been to the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, only once before, nine years ago. But something in the Italian’s manner makes me almost believe him. The welcome is jovial, bewitching, smooth as butter. His thoughts, of course, are hidden, but he looks genuinely pleased to see me, just as he appears delighted to welcome every customer to this restaurant — from the Queen, who is a regular, down.

Masciaga has been the Waterside’s mâitre d’ for more than 25 years. The job title is a contraction of mâitre d’hôtel, and if it works anywhere, it works here, in this dazzling French restaurant run by the gastronomically exiled Roux brothers, which is the only place outside la patrie to have held three Michelin stars for almost 30 years.

This hotel master has seemingly never tired of pacing the plush, plutocratic rooms, of boning the soles, pouring the draughts of vintage and dispensing cheery anecdotes to the gastrotourists, the entitled rich and, at least once, an undergraduate with a student loan cheque.

Now someone has thought to recognise his talent. A new book by the “writer and business consultant” Chris Parker, The Diego Masciaga Way, breathlessly seeks to dissect the man’s abilities, to establish the meaning of “Service” (always with a deferential capital) and uncover “the meaning of business success”.

The text comes loaded with adulatory homilies from Waterside regulars including Terry Wogan, Michael Parkinson, Clive Woodward, Heston Blumenthal, the former Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Peter Jones and Edward Griffiths, the “deputy master of the royal household”. They’re all happy to pay several hundred quid a go for a couple of hours in Masciaga’s company. I wanted to see some of his magic myself, so I asked him to teach me how to be a mâitre d’.

Onto a blankly starched table a waiter lays down roast duck, assorted sauces, broccoli florets, twirls of potato and teardrop-shaped jellies of red fruit. Masciaga carves the bird with the nimble confidence of a Hollywood surgeon performing a facelift.

“Now we fan the slices on the plate,” he says. “Spoon the sauce here. No, the other hand.” He watches me with a nervous patronage.

“Good, very good.”

I thought I had mastered walking, but Masciaga shows me how to move around the room in the correct fashion — with unhurried lightness and cordial concern.

“Drop your arms a little. Not too stiff!” Rigid, overconcentrating, twitchy from coffee, I lurch along the carpet like a mincing Quasimodo.

Masciaga’s immaculate suit features a strip of pocket square, bright as a line of Tipp-Ex. The whistle is from Marks & Spencer; he could certainly afford something more expensive. But even here some customers can’t afford bespoke and might feel uncomfortable if they see the mâitre d’ is better dressed than they are. For the same reason the staff do not wear expensive watches during service. Your first and only job is to put the guests at ease.

In truth, what Masciaga has is unteachable. Nobody learns a calling to look after people — to submit their life to helping others. Nuns and nurses, like psychopaths and credit traders, are born rather than made.

The work is brutal: 7.30am until after midnight, with your home phone connected to the restaurant’s in case an emergency erupts. In the meeting rooms and corridors, away from the customers, is where Masciaga promotes and sacks his staff, finds them jobs elsewhere in the industry — or, if they’ve crossed him, makes sure they never work in a serious restaurant again. (“There are two Diegos,” he whispers to me, and his face darkens into a mafioso’s scowl.)

Sometimes, he says, a gentleman arrives with his wife for lunch and returns with his mistress in the evening. Other guests — he never calls them customers — arrive in opaque- windowed limousines, skulk upstairs with a lissom entourage, have food and wine carried up to their room and retreat the next day. Masciaga watches everything without seeing, observes but doesn’t judge. His relentlessly cheery exterior masks a grim array of stress-related illnesses: arthritis, psoriasis, a small heart attack a few years ago.

“I don’t show it,” he says. “When guests arrive I’m Diego with no problems, no worries, married for 26 years, happy family man. I’m a good actor.”

I suggest to him that very few people could do his job.

“Yes. I’m nearly 52 and I’ve been doing this for 35 years, day after day. Why? Because I get pleasure from it.”

His empathy is uncanny. “I see people arriving, and I know what type of people they are,” he says. “Maybe it’s a gift I have, to detect them straight away. The couple here for the love night, to make business, to make peace.”

I watch him work the room during a lunch service. There is a deep pleasure in seeing anyone — a musician, a draughtsman — perform a task with consummate ability. What Masciaga has is not charm, exactly: charm implies an arrogance, a smug, sublimated conviction that you are the most interesting person in the room. Rather, his gift is to make other people, anyone, instantly comfortable.

On a table next to me are two women. One had a father, now dead, who loved coming here, and she returns every year to toast him. “I don’t know how you keep going,” she says to Masciaga.

“You know, I am just an ’appy person,” he replies. And then the white lie: “I’m very lucky: I have no stress in my life.”

Any restaurant, even one with food as good as this, depends more on its front of house than on the sweaty bloke at the stove. Masciaga knows this, although in his self-effacing dignity I’m sure he would be too humble to admit it.

Click here to read at the Sunday Times

Interview: Bob Geldof

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This interview originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Bob Geldof — sunken cheeks, bowed shoulders, 63 going on 80 — is explaining how the grief still grabs him. “I don’t have to be alone. I don’t have to see a picture of her. It hits you out of nowhere,” he says.

“It happens all the time — it could happen in the middle of this interview.” He flinches. “And there it is.” A pause. “And there she is.”

The singer has never spoken in a print interview about the death six months ago of his 25-year-old daughter Peaches. The mother of two had variously been a lingerie model, DJ, newspaper columnist and television presenter, although in one of the strange circularities of the universe that she embodied, she was mainly famous because she was a celebrity.

She died a junkie. Peaches, who had spent years on methadone and had made repeated, aborted and expensive attempts to give up drugs, overdosed at her Kent home in April. Eighty syringes, several burnt spoons and more than £500-worth of what the police called “importation quality” heroin were stashed around the house. Her husband, a musician named Thomas Cohen, found her slumped on her bed; their one-year-old son Phaedra had spent up to 17 hours alone in the house with his mother’s body.

Geldof says he blames himself for Peaches’s death. That shows a stricken humility few people would associate with him: with the beautiful, thrusting frontman of the Boomtown Rats, or with the frenzied campaigner who humiliated Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi over his country’s failure to meet its aid commitments.

Bob Geldof and Paula Yates in 1989 with their eldest daughter, Fifi Trixibelle, and Peaches, their second child. Bob Geldof and Paula Yates in 1989 with their eldest daughter, Fifi Trixibelle, and Peaches, their second child. (REX) He never actually said, “Give us your f****** money” during the 1985 Live Aid broadcast, but everyone thinks he did because its vented, righteous anger is viscerally Geldof.

“Do I do humility?” he asks. “I don’t know. But of course I blame myself. I’m a parent and what worse failure is there to preside over than the death of your child? I defy any parent who has been through it not to do the same. If your kid was knocked down in a car accident, you’d say to yourself: if only I’d insisted that they stayed home that night . . .” He trails off.

He seems simply enveloped by sadness, radiates it. The old, bold roar is a croaky murmur. His hair has always been pop star-long but is thatched today in a greasy, beyond-Boris Johnson mop. His fingernails are black and it sounds as if he’s drinking; he tells me he was drunk the night before. I realise with a sympathetic pang that he emits a mild, dank, nostril-clogging whiff of body odour.

I meet him in Dublin, at a sterile convention centre in a redeveloped business district, overlooking the greyish murk of the River Liffey. Half the flats in Spencer Dock are probably still in negative equity: the condominiums and businesses opened here around 2007 when the Celtic big cat mustered more than a mewl.

Geldof spends much of the interview staring out the window, maintaining incantatory monologues and answering his own questions, while his agent and PR fiddle with their BlackBerrys. His staff apparently all call him Sir Bob: he received an honorary knighthood in 1986 after his work on Live Aid.

Tragedy, of course, has always stalked him. His mother died of a brain haemorrhage when he was seven; his father, a travelling salesman, was largely absent. Geldof partly attributes Peaches’s death to elements of the media that, he believes, sealed her fate with prurient predictions that she would end up the same way as her mother, Paula Yates. Stories of Peaches’s boozy indiscretions, the emergence of compromising druggy photographs and rumours of an earlier overdose all probably helped in this assessment.

Yates divorced Geldof in 1996 after starting an affair with the singer Michael Hutchence. His suicide the following year destroyed Yates and the former teetotaller who wrote books on motherhood became, Peaches later said, “a heartbroken shell of a woman”.

In 2000 Yates’s daughter with Hutchence, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, found her mother’s body in bed after a heroin overdose. Peaches was 11 years old.

Geldof, who proposed to the French actress Jeanne Marine soon after Peaches’s death, was born less than 10 miles from where we meet. He has returned to Ireland, which he calls “a fatalistic little country destroyed by the recession and corruption”, to speak at One Young World. This is a high-minded, big-budget annual summit for future politicians and business leaders, to which Geldof has lent his brand of shaggily influential glamour since it was launched four years ago.

His opening speech last Wednesday contained lashings of trademark Geldofian fury. Ebola, he snarled, is worsening because the West does not care about poor Africans; Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, “takes [Vladimir] Putin’s filthy money and is complicit in the invasion of Ukraine”.

Anger has always been Geldof’s default emotion, seasoned by a stroppy cynicism towards politicians and an old-fashioned, paternalistic, sometimes patronising approach to charity. (Witness the absurd question Do They Know It’s Christmas? pondered in his mega-selling jingle. Answer: of course they do — most Ethiopians are Christian.)

Today, even through his pain, he is malevolently furious at the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and various “utterly corrupt financial institutions.

“Bankersare going back into slicing and dicing debt packages. We’ll be back where we were. And the ones who brought about this carnage are still here — none have gone to jail. Why not? Why is there no justice?”

One might mention that Geldof, who is worth £32m as calculated by The Sunday Times Rich List, is himself not averse to a bit of clever financial structuring. Although he has lived in Britain for decades, he maintains Irish citizenship so he can present himself to HM Revenue & Customs as a non-dom, thereby avoiding tax on his considerable foreign earnings. This may or may not sit comfortably with his noisy insistence that governments need to meet their own fiduciary duties.

Regardless, I find his tenacity and resilience astonishing. I tell him many people will be amazed that he made it here at all this year, after everything he has suffered.

“Grief is part of our lives,” he says.

“What else do you do: not keep going? And I’m lucky in that, unlike that guy with problems walking down the street” — he gestures at a blameless pedestrian — “I get to go on a stage as someone else. I know it sounds shit or stupid but I get to be another, and engage in a venting, a catharsis. For two hours the part of you that’s troubled goes to sleep. It’s not suppressed; in fact it’s the opposite. It’s externalised.”

On the lawn outside is a large replica spaceship. Every few years a story emerges that Geldof is about to travel into space. He is convinced it’s really going to happen this time largely, it seems, because someone has given him a flight jacket with an Irish flag Velcroed to its sleeve. Would that make you the first Irishman in space, I ask.

“De forst Oirishman in space, Jaysus — oi tell ye that now!” he yelps in singsong mock Mick.

His young nephew and niece are ushered up to see him. Geldof lifts the little boy and points: “You see my spaceship? That’s it! Remember I gave you a little toy — can you see the ship?”

“I saw that already,” says the kid.

“Look,” says Geldof, “I’m going to sit at the front there — whoosh!”

“Wow!” crows the boy. An astronaut uncle is cooler than a pop star one.

Their encounter is over in a moment but has a wounding poignancy. Geldof, despite his grief-blighted life, is clearly good with children. On the evidence, he was a fine father too. He musn’t blame himself for anything.

Geldof: a life of grief
1951 Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof born in Co Dublin

1976 Geldof meets rock journalist Paula Yates

1983-90 Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Little Pixie Geldof are born

1995 Yates leaves Geldof for Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of INXS

1996 Hutchence and Yates’s child, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, is born

1997 Hutchence hangs himself in a Sydney hotel room

2000 Yates is found dead at home in London after a heroin overdose

2014 Peaches Geldof dies of an accidental heroin overdose

Click here to read at the Sunday Times