"I don't really know what the internal debate was here," said Paul Simon, in the Imagine documentary about the creation – and controversy – of Graceland. He was sitting on a couch with Dali Tambo at the time, a key figure in Artists Against Apartheid, and thus one of Simon's fiercest critics 25 years ago. And the tenses in Simon's remark were a bit worrying. It seemed obvious that he hadn't known back then, or he would have been a bit more careful. But was he really suggesting that he still doesn't know now? It seemed implausible, but as Joe Berlinger's film continued, you got a sense of a man still a little resentful that his innocence hadn't been taken for granted. As Simon himself remembered it, he'd gone to Harry Belafonte for advice before heading off to South Africa, and had then declined to take it. Contact the ANC, Belafonte suggested, they'll smooth the way. But, resistant to the idea that art (or perhaps one particular artist) shouldn't have to apply for permission to bureaucrats, Simon didn't bother.
He told a story about the recording sessions that suggested that his naivety might actually have been ignorance. After one of the groups of African session musicians had failed to deliver the performance he wanted, he remembered, a white engineer had turned to him and said: "You see. They just can't do it." Simon recognised it as a racist statement, but his real epiphany came next day when the guitarist Ray Phiri had suggested a complicated over-dub and Simon hesitated: "I was ready to buy into the racist thing," he said. Phiri put him right with his guitar, which – in an oblique way – made Simon's point for him, that a shared love of music could erase all other differences. When Simon got defensive, he got unconvincing. "Why did they say 'come'?" he said to Dali Tambo, "Do you think that they were all selfish, that they did it for three times union scale?" But his suggestion that he'd been invited sat uneasily alongside the musicians' recollections that they didn't even know who he was.
When he started playing, though – either back then in archive footage of the recording sessions, or now, in rehearsals for the forthcoming tour – you simply see what he presumably saw in his head back then: musicians communicating and something greater emerging than the sum of its parts. It was South African musicians who made Graceland as good as it was and, ultimately, South African musicians who enabled Simon to rise above the criticism and opposition. The support of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Graceland tour made it clear that there was never a real unanimity about the cultural boycott, and that Simon's album might actually bring more attention to the cause. You were left with the odd conclusion that he'd been wrong to go, they'd been wrong to try and stop him and two wrongs had somehow combined to make something very right. And if you had a dry eye when they all sang "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" at the end of the Zimbabwe concert on the tour, you probably should get your tear ducts checked out.
As was also the case if you made it all the way through Bomber Command without blinking fast. This too involved belated reconciliation and redress, honouring men who were shamefully disowned immediately after the war because the powers that be were ashamed of what they'd made them do. Churchill knew that area bombing came as close to a war crime as made no difference and wanted posterity to look elsewhere. But the young men who flew over Germany were anything but war criminals, showing a personal courage that was pretty much unmatched in any service (you were less likely to be killed as an infantry officer in the First World War than you were flying bombers over Germany). They more than deserve their monument.Reuse content