Tuesday 17 January 2017

Meeting the greatest man in the world

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This is the second of four extracts that I'm posting this week ahead of the publication on Thursday of my memoir.

Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I often sensed a degree of semi-concealed menace when I encountered world leaders. Behind the eyes, there seemed to be an unspoken warning: ‘Don’t forget who I am. Don’t mess with me.’ The trick was to remember the advice supposedly given to a newly elected MP, terrified at the prospect of facing the baying mob on the other side of the House of Commons.

            ‘Imagine them in their pyjamas.’

            And, of course, as a journalist with a job to do, remember what that job is: to ask the questions that need to be asked, and insist, where possible, on a proper answer.

            Even Nelson Mandela conveyed some of that ‘Don’t mess with me’ aura. Yes, he had charm by the bucket-load, but he knew who he was, and what he represented, and he certainly did not like being messed around or kept waiting. Which, unfortunately, was exactly what happened when I flew to Johannesburg in August 2001 to record an hour-long programme with him and his wife, Graça Machel.

            For some reason, it had been decided to record the programme in London rather than in Johannesburg. That meant establishing a satellite link – and satellite links are notoriously unreliable. Mandela’s time was precious – he was already eighty-three years old and in poor health, and for an hour-long programme we had been allocated … one hour.

            He and his wife arrived precisely on time, introductions were made, they sat down, microphones were attached, and: ‘Shall we start?’ ‘Not yet,’ came the voice in my earpiece. ‘We haven’t got the link yet.’

            Believe me, making small talk with the most admired man on the planet is seriously nerve-racking. Fortunately, I had recently met his former comrade-in-arms Denis Goldberg, who had been one of his co-defendants at the Rivonia trial in 1964. (Goldberg was the only white defendant in the trial and had been the first to be released from jail, in 1985.) I was therefore able to tell Mandela a bit about Goldberg’s life in London, where we were near neighbours. 

            He was gracious and understanding, but I knew that the minutes were ticking by, and I dreaded him getting up at the end of our allotted slot, leaving us with an embarrassing hole to fill. When we finally got going, I decided to plough on regardless, blithely ignoring our supposed stop time, until his much-feared personal assistant Zelda la Grange stepped in to make clear that our luck had run out.

            We were still several minutes short, and I never found out how the BBC managed to fill the resulting hole in the schedule. In my experi­ence, there are some questions that it is better not to ask.

            Was I nervous when I met these global titans? Of course I was. Was I intimidated or cowed? No, because I believe that interviewers are automatically equipped with a special suit of protective armour. It is invisible externally, but it exists inside their heads. This special suit enables the interviewer to break all the usual rules of social in­tercourse: you are allowed to ask rude questions, you are allowed to interrupt, and you are allowed to be a major pain in the backside. You are invincible in your suit of armour.

            If I could choose whom to interview, I would always prefer writers and historians over politicians. The writers are usually articulate and have interesting things to say about the world we live in, and the historians are often able to make sense of it all by referring back to what has happened in the past.

            So, for example, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. I interviewed her after she had given a lecture in London about the nov­elist’s craft, which she defined as turning facts into truth, so I thought it would be interesting to contrast the way that novelists tell stories with the way journalists do.

            ‘If you and I were to witness the same event,’ I asked her, ‘and then each of us wrote about it, how would our accounts differ?’ She looked across the studio desk and smiled.

            ‘People would be moved by what I wrote; they would be informed by what you wrote.’

            I still think a lot about that distinction, and I still envy the novelist’s ability to convert facts into truth.

The most dangerous place in the world: if you missed yesterday's extract, click here.

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