The Sweetest Thing

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Kathy Sheridan, The Irish Times

Here's a teaser for the resident malcontent. Guess what kind of car Ali Hewson drives? Well obviously something so wickedly hip, so stratospherically beyond the reach of dull plods like ourselves that it's just embarrassing. So what is it? OK. It's a Volkswagon Golf. 1991. Diesel. And, eh... it's white.

"I've always driven Golfs; this one runs really well," Hewson explains brightly. Well, sure, but... "I know there are people who see their car as an extention of themselves; they need a car that says a lot about them. But I don't need a car to confirm my personality. I think this one says a lot about me.

Still, some people just don't get Ali Hewson. Her arrival at a recent premiere is aid of the Chernobyl Children's Project was described by one paper as "true Hollywood style", because "she sneaked in after the lights had gone down and the film had started".

Wrong, twice. One, she was settled into her cinema seat well before everyone else because she had been photographed there. And two, Hewson is no more "Hollywood style" than your most self-effacing neighbour.

She arrives into the Clarence enveloped in a great black comfort blanket of a coat, minimally made-up, under-eye shadows induced by an all-night stint with the baby, so quietly spoken that the resulting tape is virtually inaudible. The one give-away sign of her status as the very famous wife of a very famous rock star is that she can abandon the Golf outside and hand the keys to reception.

She goes back to order tea while explaining why (well, money's no object) she hasn't hired a night nanny for the youngest Hewson, now 14 months old. "We have a nanny coming in five days a week. But the night shifts are mine. I've always believed that they need a parent there if they wake in the night. With the two girls it worked beautifully, but this little blighter has other notions."

The little blighter may be suffering from residual colic, she thinks, but she can't mention his name without a misty grin. She talks of the girls (now nine and 11) with a similar expression, about their foibles and wisecracks, their different temperaments, how their father's occupation affects their lives.

She could be any mother discussing the problems of keeping three children sane and healthy - until one considers the double-decker tour bus that slowly trundles past their gates at 3 p.m. every day, its occupants craning to see in; the fans on eternal vigil outside; the crowds that mob the family in parts of Europe and the US.

But Hewson has somehow managed to hold on to her roots, to the need to make a lasting contribution, to being plain nice. Hardly an obvious candidate for typical rock star spouse? She thiks about this: "Maybe the fact that I'm not a typical rock star wife is more a reflection on Bono than on me."

They started dating when they were 15 and 16 at Mount Temple school in north Dublin. Later she worked in motor insurance ("glamorous, eh?") and with her father in his electrical business, before hitting the road with Bono and marrying him at 21.

What she really wanted to be was a nurse. "That's still my biggest regret. I wanted that personal contact with people, the one-to-one, the medical expertise. I still do." Even at 26, Hewson was still thinking about it. "But Bono's life had taken off in one direction and I realised that if I went into nursing, I was going to have to live-in for four very intensive years. It would have been too much on the relationship."

The next best thing was a social science degree, centered on politics and sociology. "I wanted to do something that would give me an understanding of social policy and help me effect change in that area, something that was akin to nursing." Her first baby's arrival two weeks before her finals didn't break her stride. She got her degree and set her sights on a masters in moral and political ethics.

Pause for a laugh: "And then I had another baby." For all that, she still talks of nursing as her lost vocation. In many way, that probably sums up Ali Hewson.

A few years ago, while unpacking gallons of bottled water and Marks & Spencer pasta sauce in a grimy apartment in Belarus, Hewson reflected on the irony that the two people she is most identified with - her husband and her great friend Adi Roche, the former presidential candidate - both thrive on public contact, on the roar of the crowd. "One on either side of me." she laughs. "Do you think there's a pattern there?"

It isn't a rueful laugh; the supporting role is one that fits her comfortably. "That's definitely how I would see myself. I wouldn't stand up and make passionate speeches but I have an ability to be supporitve and it seems to work. I've no desire to be a star. I see how hard it is, how cruel it is; how to be in that place you have to expose yourself, and how relentlessly cruel that can be to a person. What Adi had to deal with as a person when the presidential campaign here was all over was huge, and terribly hard."

So why take on causes like the CCP that she knows will expose her? "Well, if it means the project has gained some degree of awareness, then I think, why not?"

Why not? Well, watching Hewson huddle behind a curtain at Dublin's Point Depot, during the supermodel-studded charity fashion shows she and her priceless contacts book helped organise, smiling beside Adi at fundraisers, eating contaminated food in the high-rise Minsk apartment of a destitute family, cradling a cruelly deformed child for hours in a foul-smelling orphanage, the same question recurs: Couldn't she simply write the occasional fat cheque and hang on to her privacy and considerable comfort?

The notion horrifies her.

"Oh I couldn't do that, I really couldn't. I couldn't be that removed. I was always going to end up doing something. I suppose I'd prefer to be wandering up and down some hospital ward handing out medicine, feeling that I was contributing, but I don't have the experience, I don't have the training. I always wanted to be hands-on; it's about showing solidarity, about physically being with the people in some way, spending time with them - almost the same as you'd do as a nurse. And whatever comfort that brings them, then that's what it's about for me. It's the way I operate."

But doing it Hewson's way has meant raising her head above the parapet, emerging from the private cocoon she prizes so highly.

Was she fearful when approached by Roche to present Black Wind, White Land, the 1993 Chernobyl documentary? "Oh yes. Very fearful. As our lives have becme more and more public, I have become more and more private. It honestly wasn't until I got out to Belarus and saw the children that I realised I wouldn't be able to go home and just forget it. And I have to say that as a person I've benefited probably far more that anybody else from that experience. I often think that you get a lot more from giving than you do from receiving; many people don't realise that.

"I certainly learnt a lot, value-wise, from seeing those children. And when I went to Ethiopia with Bono in 1985 at the height of the famine, I certainly didn't expect to come home enriched by that experience. But I really was. The children out there had nothing, nothing, yet they seemed to be really alive spiritually.

For me, the culture shock was in coming home, back to supermarkets full of food and children who seemed spoiled, who had everything, and yet were so starved of spirituality and any understanding of what life was about. Those people... maybe it's because they had come so close to death, but their eyes seemed so alive"

That "culture shock" has shaped the rearing of Hewson's own children. "I had great fears for them. But through the project, they've met a lot of the Chernobyl children. They can clearly see that many of them don't have two arms of two eyes but they appreciate that they're still full human beings, and it's taught then to appreciate what they themselves have physically. So they do have that awareness.

"It's not perfect, of course. Our children are like any other; they see something, they want it. But they also travel and see things that maybe other kids wouldn't, which I think gives them more of a sense of the world as a bigger place."

The challenge of keeping the Chernobyl cause alive is a daunting one, ranged alongside so many others, cooler, newer, more heart-rendingly at their peak. "Fundraising can be very, very difficult when you're working around a 14-year-old disaster that everyone thinks is well and truly over - or certainly not as it's peak. But the truth is that we have not seen Chernobyl's peak yet. Those who were children in 1986 are having their own children now; it it believed that only in the next 10 years will we see the worst effects."

But there are plans at least to close down the entire Chernobyl complex? "Yes, they're supposed to be closing it down. The problem is what they're going to do with it. They poured so much concrete on top of it that it's sinking into the ground and once it hits the water table, it will poison all the rivers. They just don't know what to do. Adi's famous saying is that the next Chernobyl will be Chernobyl."

The other reason Hewson became involved in anti-nuclear campaigning was to ensure that such a disaster could never recur. Clearly, she believes that we have become rather blase.

"Belarus, like Ireland, had no nuclear power plants within it's borders. People have to grasp this: that if there's a foul-up in Sellafield and the wind blows in the "wrong" direction, that's the end of Drogheda, Dundalk, Dublin. They're gone. Nothing. Plutonium-239 has a half life of 24,400 years." After seven years of campaigning, one might expect something practiced in Hewson's tone. There isn't. Her trips to Belarus keep her sharp and focused. It is partly why she is no pushover when it comes to other charity work and is emphatically not driven by "guilt" or the need for applause.

"When I became involved, I felt that I was in a situation where I could be doing what so many other people wanted to be able to do but couldn't because of time or financial restictions. At the time, I was lucky enough to have neither. But people do make assumptions; there's a sense of 'how could you say no?'. But you know how much you can give. If you spread yourself too thinly, you just end up frustrated and those who end up most frustrated are the very people who need the help"

Hewson has taken on a new cause: a Children's Museum for Ireland. "It's the other end of the scale. From the children in Chernobyl who have nothing, not even clean air, to here, where our children have all that but need the next step, which is to realise their own potential.

"I had been to a few museums in America with the children and saw that they could be such educational, interactive, fun places for children and parents to spend the day together and explore all aspects od science, information and technology. A small museum in Dallas, for example, had a huge set of teeth in the middle of the room which you could lift out of it's gums; in others you could play with soundwaves or step into a bubble and even tackle issues like recycling or racism.

"But it's also about the whole family having a good day together. You can bring a child to a playground but you can't get on the climbing frame with him. Anyway, we don't even have proper playgrounds here. When you look at how children are welcomed and included in France or Europe generally..." she trails off in exasperation. "I suppose it will happen here eventually but it's all so slow. We tap into the French health system a bit because we spend time there and it's just amazing - no queue for the A&E room and never more than 200 francs in a bill for an X-ray or something.

"Come to think of it, where does all the money go from the Lotto? I'm all up for the arts or hurling or whatever, but a decent standard of health and education should be any goverment's priority. Why can't we look after old people properly, give them really good, well-paid nursing care in comfortable, well-renovated homes? Why can't we build a children's hospital wing that is generously staffed and equipped?"

Hewson comes from what she calls a "very ordinary background". Her questioning nature was probably inherited from her father, a man she describes as "self-educated, strong, liberated, forward-looking, world-conscious, argumentative, constantly questioning". He and her mother ("still beautiful, always baking, never stops") have retired to the south-east and are big into DIY work around the house; his birthday gift to her mother this year was a cement mixer.

She and Bono, she acknowledges, have "a very nice life, but it's also a very fast life. It's very demanding on both us and on the children. Every day is full, between the children's routine and his plans changing every couple of minutes. I'm forced into the children's routine, which is great for our normality as a family. He's now on a promotional tour involving 10 or 11 transatlantic flights in eight weeks."

They survive as a couple, she says, because they never take each other for granted. "You can't, you're not allowed to take each other for granted. Sure, it can lead to a lot of frustration, but it really does make you stronger. We're very committed to each other, to the children, to the relationship. And anyways, he's been home for a good while now - about two years - working on the new album, and that's great."

At home, Hewson says, they try to find time to read; stuff of a serious bent by all accounts, with Bono "speed-reading" his way through volumes on philosophy and economics (reports suggest he recently reduced the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to tears with his advocacy of the reduction of Third World debt); her own most recent reading has included How the Irish Saved Civilisation and The Gifts of the Jews, both by Thomas Cahill.

Despite the publicity suggesting that their home (with the waves lapping beyond the hedge, the wonderful pool, the exquisitely simple, stone-built guest lodge) is airport central for a slew of supermodels and the likes of Salman Rushdie, Hewson says that most of their friends are not famous. "But the famous ones you tend to have something in common with to begine with. It's not like you go out looking for famous friends. There's no training for being famous - unless you're royalty - and that creates a bond, I think, because you're all trying to cope with the same bizarre situations that you've been catapulted into.

"The people we're drawn to are of similar mind, trying to hold on to all the things they valued in the past, differentiating between their famous personas and their real personalities. That can be very hard if you come from a difficult family background."

Why? "Most famous people are insecure," Hewson says. "After all, what gives then their drive and ambition and even heightens their talent is the desire to be recognised as a real person. But then the irony is that what the fans see is not the real person; what they see is a kind of icon, and if the stars themselves end up confusing the two, that can't be healthy. And you have to have something else. I see it in people. You get to a place where you have everything and realise how empty it is. The unhappy ones tend to be those who have no causes."

But all that dosh surely makes a difference? "Money has huge advantages, but it does bring responsibilities with it. It is not the answer. It can give great freedom - if you need to get away, you can just go. You can afford things others struggle for. If you have a friend of family member in trouble, you're able to help. But it can cause more problems. People who win the Lotto come to understand that. When it's new, people around you can feel very threatened; it can separate you from your friends and your family.

"And minding it is a huge responsibility. You always have people trying to take advantage. The attitude is 'think of a number and multiply it by tow, sure they'll never notice'. You get that a lot. That side is nasty because you feel you can never trust anybody."

Of course, Hewson knows this will elicit damn-all sympathy. "The thing people hate more that anything is anyone who has money going on about how tough it is. You certainly won't get away with that in Ireland and they're right not to let you get away with it. But I think money and fame are very complicated.

"For us, becoming famous, we realised you have to have the money because you couldn't protect yourselves from fans. It's a strange thing. For example, you have to travel business class because Bono wouldn't get a minute's peace otherwise. You do have to protect your privacy - and that takes cash."

Then again, there is that new apartment in Manhattan: "Now there's an upside," Hewson agrees happily. "I've grown to love New York." And there is that villa in the south of France (co-owned with The Edge). "We spend about six weeks there in the summer because we can," she says with a chortle. "It's very easy down there because the French just don't care."

So Ali Hewson's not denying the good times. But her desire to do good - when she could easily defend doing nothing - is utterly convincing. "The whole point of your life, I think, is to give some chance to even one person. I don't want to end my life feeling I've only looked after myself, that everything I did was to protect myself. I want when I die to believe that I've achieved what I was supposed to achieve - that is, to help other people in whatever way I could."

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on November 4, 2000 9:51 AM.

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