Thursday 19 December 2013

Dinner with Mandela

Welcome to the first of my blog posts. I have been boring my friends for years with my 'Did I tell you?' stories. To shut me up, they encouraged me to write a book. After 10 years of scribbling, I now have a manuscript that has been endorsed by people like Brian Eno and Tom Stoppard. It is scheduled to be published in a year's time. The title: Café Slavia 

I'm going to come clean. To launch interest in the book, I'm going to do a Dickens. Mr D published many of his novels in instalments to get a readership. So I'm going to copy the master. "Dinner with Mandela" is an excerpt from one of my chapters. Others will follow over the coming weeks and months. So here goes . . .

The embossed invitation said, 'Mr and Mrs Nicky Oppenheimer request the pleasure of your company at Apsley House on Friday, July 12, 1996, at a dinner to celebrate the work of the Nelson Mandela's Children's Foundation.' The guest speaker—Mandela himself.

There were thirty-six guests. They included the Duke and Duchess of Westminster, Lord and Lady Montagu, Lord and Lady Sainsbury. Bankers Rupert Hambro, Bruno Schroder and Oliver Baring and prisoner-in-waiting, Conrad Black.

I arrived in style with my War Child co-director and our partners in an ancient Volvo. The epauletted valet tried to hide his disgust as he steered the banger away to join the Mercedes, Daimlers and Rollers in the underground parking lot. I noticed that he took off his white gloves to drive.

My wife stepped out of our battered coach wearing a hired gown from Angels, the costumiers. I had borrowed a tie and hoped that no one would see the moths had got to my suit.

War Child had started in my living room only three years before and, though the support of Pavarotti, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Bono and other music celebrities had raised our profile, a regular salary was something myself and my co-director had only recently begun to receive.

The Oppenheimers welcomed us into the glittering chandeliered lobby. After delicate canapés and two flutes of champagne, we were ushered into the dining room designed for the Duke of Wellington.

I had just returned from South Africa as a guest of the Children's Foundation and was supposed to have met Mandela there, but he had been ill and the meeting had been cancelled. Now here he was in the same room as me, much smaller than I had imagined him to be. I am not someone who is star-struck, but here was one of my political icons, his face as recognisable as that of Che Guevara.

Looking around the table at the bejewelled and tuxedoed guests, I realised I had Luciano Pavarotti to thank for this dinner. He'd raised millions to help War Child build a music centre in the bombed-out Bosnian city of Mostar and, as I sat there in my divoré suit, I guessed that my invitation was in the hope that Pavarotti's generosity would extend to the Foundation.

I was talking to Ken Follet's wife when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see Mandela smiling down at me. ‘I am so sorry.’ I started to get up. ‘Stay there. I can talk to you from here.’

The conversation continued, with me awkwardly looking up at him over my shoulder. ‘Very good to meet you, Mr Wilson.’ ‘It’s an honour to meet you, sir.’ ‘No, it’s an honour for me to meet you. I am sorry I was unwell when you were in my country. I hear you are doing great work in Bosnia.’

I was stunned that he knew about me and had been walking around the table, introducing himself to each guest, presumably with everyone as well researched as I had been. ‘Yes, we're going to open a music centre for young people.’ ‘I know. I have heard. You must keep us informed. We need similar projects in Africa. Music is a great healer.’

I told Mandela that I'd been one of the protestors who'd been arrested running onto the rugby pitch at Twickenham in 1969 to stop the Springboks match. 'Thank you,' he said.

When Nelson Mandela died, politicians fell over themselves to claim him as their icon. George W Bush said, 'Mandela was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.' Tony Blair claimed that Mandela 'was one of those people who was absolutely as good as you hoped he would be.' David Cameron said, 'Mandela's dignity and triumph inspired millions'. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said, 'He will be remembered as a moral leader of the first order.'

But, as late as 2008 Mandela was on the US terrorism watch list. He said this of George W Bush: 'a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.' Of Tony Blair he said, 'He is the foreign minister of the United States. He is no longer Prime Minister of Britain.' Did Cameron mention Mandela's 'dignity' when he visited South Africa while Mandela was on Robben Island, there as a guest of a lobby group set up to oppose sanctions on apartheid South Africa? And Netanyahu must have forgotten that Mandela said, 'Palestinians are struggling for freedom, liberation and equality, just like we were struggling for freedom in South Africa.'

As we left Apsley House, I stood on the steps, watching the guests leaving in their limousines. I remembered an old woman I had met in Soweto who’d been the organiser of a day centre for the elderly where they were given meals and encouraged to sing and play musical instruments as a way to lift the huge difficulties in their lives. I recalled what she’d said to me. She described herself as being religious because it was the only way to guarantee the work she did was for the good of the people and not to satisfy her own vanity. 'God is a wall,' she said, 'and I have to throw the ball well to make sure I can catch it when He returns it to me.' I asked her if she received any government funding. 'Goodness, no,' she answered, 'the politicians used to be a bunch of white clowns. Now they have been joined by the black clowns.'

Mandela was no clown. When he tapped me on the shoulder that night, I found myself looking up at a political and moral giant.

1 comment:

  1. That is a fine night indeed. Thank you for sharing your adventures in caring for a petulant world. I have had the honor of working with or befriending some of the most creative, intellectual and humorous people in my life so far. Many of them are still unknown to the public at large, but their influence is all around. Other than being what I consider genius in their own unique ways, they have all been humble.

    It is always a blast of unexpected but refreshing air to be confronted with a genuinely humble and respectful human being. We have all been raised to idolize; putting them above us, calling them heroes. They are made so huge that it seems impossible we could reach high enough to join them and make a difference in the world.

    Sorry, didn't mean to go one a rant. :) It just all touched a cord with me.

    I better finish this thought though.

    All the geniuses I have met have wanted to work with me and create. Sometimes it is as simple as chatting with them once every few years and talking shop. Later on down the road I see elements of my ideas being brought to life in the world. I sincerely hope we can name this new age we find ourselves in as a species, "The Age of Collaboration."

    Thank you again David, I look forward to reading your book.