When the news came through that Michael Jackson had died, I simply did not believe it — even though I have been warning for years that the appalling crises that rocked his life were causing him unimaginable stress.
He was a gentle, vulnerable man, who shied away from every confrontation and was prey to a succession of bullies and manipulators who cared nothing for the man or his music, only for his millions. It was inevitable that he would be driven into debt: as a businessman, he was unable to tell the dolphins from the sharks.
Then I channel the cash wherever I see the need: to my local hospital, for instance, or to the playscheme for disabled children in Bristol which is attended by a teenage autistic boy whom Hanna and I have known since he was born.
When my friend Drew McAdam, a brilliant Scottish mentalist and mindreader, told me he was cycling to Paris to raise money for desperately poor villages in Zambia, I was delighted to put my Foundation down for a £1000 donation.
And I wasn’t expecting what happened next — but one of the best things about life is the way that some decisions, which are often made spontaneously, have cosmic resonances.
Drew had been talked into the ride by a guy called Jay Tailor and Jay phoned me to say thanks for the backing. “It costs us one pound to keep a lamp burning for a year in a tent,” he said. “So you’ve just lit a thousand lamps. That’s like creating a city.”
I told him that next time he was in my neighbourhood, he could drop by and I’d load up his car with cut-glass crystal — he could sell it to raise more funds.
About ten years ago, I designed a range of bowls, decanters and vases in gorgeous crystal for Harrods. The sets were decorated with a bent spoon motif, they had convex bases that sat in elegant crystal stands, and they sold for £400.
What I liked best about the glass was the stunning colours I had achieved — a lustrous cobalt blue that seemed to suck in light and refract it in a billion sparkles, and a luminous red, as well as whites and greens. The hues came from ink powder which I bought from a Polish workshop in a farflung village — the dry dyes were stored in ancient jars dating back three hundred years.
The certificates I designed to go with the glassware are written on papyrus that was made in Alexandria.
When I find a charity that captures my imagination, I like to donate a few sets of these crystals. The thought of Jay’s lamps burning on the Zambian savannah really set my mind alight, and I told him to come over as soon as he could.
But when his car rolled up to our gates the next day, nothing had prepared me for meeting his passenger — Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia, and an icon in the war against apartheid.
Kenneth was one of Nelson Mandela’s most staunch allies, and after he became Zambia’s leader in 1964 he constantly urged Britain and the US to take a stronger stance against the racist regime in South Africa.
He stepped down from power in 1991, and now, aged 85, he is an indefatigable worker to generate support for Zambia’s schools in underprivileged communities.
“It’s hard work, but I cannot allow myself to tire,” he told me. “A generation of Zambian children is relying on us to give them a good education. This is the generation that will build up my country and make it stronger after I am gone. So, you see, I cannot afford to rest yet.”
I asked him if he wanted to take that message to eight million people, and we strolled into the radio studio in my conservatory. Every week I broadcast from here on the Doug Stephan show, one of America’s biggest coast-to-coast programmes — by a great synchronicity, Kenneth had arrived just in time for me to tell Doug he was going to feature an unscheduled interview with one of the great figures of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Doug has the astonishing breadth of knowledge that all great broadcasters acquire through decades of asking smart questions and listening hard to the answers. He launched into an impromptu presidential interview without even pausing.
Kenneth told listeners that their unwanted clothes could make a major difference to families in rural Africa, where the winter nights can be bitterly cold. Because it is in the southern hemisphere, it’s winter there now.
So while we were talking, Hanna collected all my late mother’s clothes. In the four years since she died, I had not been able to bring myself to give them away, though we did get as far as packing them up during this year’s great Spring clean.
When Jay drove away with his presidential companion, the boot of his people mover was crammed with bags of clothes… including about four dozen pairs of my trousers.
“You’ve only got one pair of legs,” she told me. “Other peo
ple need these more.” How could I argue with that?
Kenneth Kaunda is a man of great charm who seems to shimmer with positive energy. He immediately struck me as a caring, open personality, power
ful but humble and down-to-earth.
He has been a vegetarian since 1954, so it was easy to give him lunch. I haven’t eaten meat since the Seventies, so of course I love meeting octogenarian veggies who look 20 years younger than their age.
After our radio broadcast, Kenneth sat down at my baby grand in the hall, and revealed himself to be a talented pianist. One song he played, a traditional African melody called Shenu Washita Shandi, was so beautiful that it will always stay in my mind.
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