My mother, an 84-year-old, devout Muslim, has a picture on her wall of Bob Geldof, in a crumpled blue shirt, taken when he called to the world to save the starving millions in Ethiopia. Enough bullshit and apathy he said as he kicked awake our collective conscience. It was an audacious, effective crusade, as is his current one to empower Africa. Heroic, no question.
His humiliation by Paula Yates was grievous. She cuckolded him publicly, then turned on him. He behaved impeccably through the divorce, and then with immense decency and love when Yates and her lover died leaving behind their little girl, now Geldof's fourth daughter. For my mother and millions of others, his beatification was complete.
I do not think Geldof is a saint. The sad feud with Yates has affected his judgement and there needs to be much greater public circumspection when he pronounces on marriage, divorce and children. Every mother in conflict with her partner is not a Paula Yates; and fathers in dispute with their partners are not all unselfish Bobs. We in public life need to remember this. What we say about this issue is always profoundly influenced by our own personal experiences. How can it be otherwise?
The problem is that he has tremendous personal power and the credence celebrity brings. When he bestows his favours on a cause, it flies. The intimidating Fathers 4 Justice group have found it much too easy to win friends and influence people because Sir Bob vociferously supports whatever they do. Now he is to tell the nation in a new Channel 4 series, to stay married and that after divorce children must be divided 50-50 between the mother and the father.
Be wary of these fundamentalist commandments. How much time has Geldof spent meeting lone mothers? How come he never engages in robust debates with people involved in family law who don't share his absolutism? What does he say about the horrendous statistics on domestic violence, or the effects of male alcoholism and child abuse within families? Mothers can be drunks and abusers. But it is still overwhelmingly men who create terror and violence within relationships.
Aha, but says Geldof, it is mostly women who ask for divorce. Yes, true. Some for the reasons above; others because they have been abandoned, and increasingly those who simply don't want the marriage they are in, something men have been doing forever. I agree with Geldof that marriage is a serious, and for me a sacrosanct, commitment and that the pursuit of personal happiness at any cost is wrecking family and social bonds. I am appalled that increasing numbers of women so carelessly chuck marriages because they want more excitement elsewhere. And that they then victimise their ex-husbands, deny them access, deprive them of so much. But it is a travesty to claim that this is the only true story on women and divorce.
Even more unjust is the myth that all departed fathers are sweet primroses. I have a pile of letters from mothers telling me how their partners threaten them, offer them no support and use the children to get at them. Often it is the fathers who drop contact and then blame the mothers for being forced into this sacrifice. Some judges are so influenced by the idea of the victim father that many have become manifestly unbalanced in their judgements. I would leave, without a backward glance, a husband who abused or beat me or my children. And I did divorce my ex-husband a year after he walked out on us to shack up with his young lover. I begged him to return for the sake of my young son. To no avail. But who is really responsible for this divorce? The man or the woman? In the early years I stopped my son seeing his father's girlfriend. I was afraid I would lose him too. If I was guilty of manipulating my son, so were they. My ex-husband wanted him to agree that I was unworthy. We could have all behaved better, but in the Geldof world it is only the wife who carries the blame. He thinks paradise will return if women learn once more to cook and care and put themselves last.
His vision is already being tried out in Channel 4's "social experiment" How to be a Perfect Wife. Five women agree to give up their careers and stay at home. They are expected to "take care of their appearance", provide home-cooked meals and give their husbands the final say on everything. The men are expected to become demanding boors. They are even taught how to land efficient blows, which can split slabs of wood. For those nights when the pastry is soggy, I suppose, or she doesn't slip off her knickers fast enough.
When selfishness infects society, everyone suffers. Children from separated families face increased risks of failure and emotional problems. Government ministers are looking to improve outcomes for all when parents split up. Meanwhile a whole new generation of fathers is willingly involved in the joint care of their young ones. Geldof should start a movement which focuses on the rights of children and the responsibilities of parenthood. That is what we need, not a shrill, prejudiced rallying cry which punishes women.Reuse content