Out of the Blue into the Black
ALI HEWSON is the first time presenter of Black Wind White Land, a documentary on the devastation which has blighted Bylorus since the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. Interview: Joe Jackson.
Joe Jackson, 20 Oct 1993
One can safely assume that there aren't many people who hook into a Bono interview because he happens to be the husband of Ali Hewson. However, Ali knows that the opposite is probably true. Likewise, in relation to her involvement in Black Wind, White Land, the Dreamchaser documentary on the after-effects of Chernobyl, which was screened on RTE this week and will soon be seen on at least 35 television stations world-wide.
Sitting in a hotel in Bray, with her daughter Eve, on an October Saturday morning, she matter-of-factly accepts that Bono's status as her husband will undoubtedly inspire a high level of public interest in her private life - maybe even moreso than her first hand experience of lives destroyed and families fractured by that accident at Chernobyl seven years ago. Yet when she sighs and says "it's all part of the territory" one suspects she's also secretly reflecting the difficulties involved in being married to one of the world's biggest rock stars. Is she?
"That's a difficult question to answer", she says, laughing. "For example, no matter how much Dreamchaser wanted me to present this documentary, not because I'm Bono's wife but because they feel I'm right for it, it's still a complication wrapped up in all of this. But I really don't mind that. I know people will respond in a voyeuristic way to the programme but I'd hope things move beyond that level after the first five minutes.
"In that sense, being 'Bono's wife' can be used to do something good. In terms of interviews, I try, as far as possible, not to go into that aspect of my life. But I realise that is virtually impossible. And while I may not like being seen simply as Bono's wife, it does enable me to get out there and do something like this documentary, in the sense that I don't have the ties in terms of time and finance that could have kept someone else from doing it."
Ali accepts that many people will also probably argue that she
got the job of presenting Black Wind . . ., because Bono is her husband. That argument is fairly annihilated by her obvious gifts as a presenter, which include a sense of quiet compassion that draws forth the best from the people she talks with - particularly children - and her ability to melt into landscape, if one can appropriately use such a phrase in this context. She blushes at the suggestion, countering the praise with a quote from one reviewer who claimed that the documentary is hugely effective - until Ali speaks.
"There were seven of us on the Dreamchaser team and it was pretty tense at times and we fought a lot in terms of how each of us felt the documentary should go," she recalls. "It was shot on film, rather than video, so we didn't see what we were getting until we came back to Ireland. But the point of being there was to make the programme, so I really do believe if I hadn't seemed right for the job of presenting, I wouldn't have been doing it. And the other side to all this, is that because I was presenting the programme there probably is more interest being shown in it than might otherwise be the case."
On the other hand, Ali knows very well that there also are certain newspapers which would rather give over acres of space to gossip about her and her husband, than even touch the issues explored in Black Wind . . .
"I understand that this, too, is all part of the territory but it's really a shame if people just read that kind of stuff and don't read, say, interviews like this, because then they couldn't possibly have a balanced view."
"Both kinds of stories are part of what we are," she adds, "though some obviously are made up by certain people, whatever their motives. As a reader, you've got to try figure out where a journalist may be coming from, and why, to get between the lines and find the real truth behind a story. It's strange for me, doing interviews at the moment. For years Bono has gone through all this and I'd say, in terms of reviews or whatever, 'don't read all that stuff'. He'd tell me, 'I've got to, to have a balanced idea of what people think'. Now I'm in the same position. But our marriage is strong enough to withstand the gossip.
"What I think is more cruel is when these writers pick on couples that have broken up, who are really vulnerable. And I just wonder if journalists like that sleep well at night. I really don't know how they can get out of their beds and go into work and feel they're doing a worthwhile job."
And yet it's not just gossip columnists who can violate privacy and be cruel - inadvertently or otherwise. While preparing my own Bono interview for Hot Press earlier this year I did have to pause and wonder how Ali Hewson would react to hearing her husband say that he sometimes gets so hooked into the 'hit' from a 50,000 strong audience, while touring, that part of him doesn't want to come home. Or to admitting that anyone who needs 50,000 people a night to tell them they're okay is obviously lacking something in terms of ego.
"This is going to sound terrible, but I never got around to reading that interview!" says Ali, smiling impishly. "But I do totally agree with what Bono is saying there. People think he must have a huge ego but someone else said, probably more accurately, 'I don't know how his ego survives, operating on those levels'. But, yes, the other side of it is that he does often expect us to suddenly take the place of 50,000 adoring fans! I often have to say 'I am not 50,000 people, right?' Particularly when he jumps up on the table at nine in the evening after coming back from a tour and says 'where's the audience'!"
Ali may be laughing but isn't there also a darker side to this, where Bono does find it immensely difficult to deal with the comedown after a tour, when he has to change from Macphisto back into Ali's husband, and the father of Jordan and Eve?
"Of course there is," she says. "Because he definitely is at such a pitch when he's on tour - like an athlete in training - that his mind and body is totally geared to going on stage, at a particular time every night. He also has 160 people on tour around him, who are all working towards the same goal, so it's very hard for him to go straight from that to being back at home. But , children do bring you back to reality because they have to be fed every day, and watered, or are just there saying 'daddy, I want to do this', or whatever. So he has to deal with that pretty quickly.
"In a very minor way, having been in Chernobyl for three weeks working with seven people towards our own specific goal, when I came home I really understood what happens to Bono after a tour. It is an out-of-body experience you have in those settings and it takes quite a while to readapt. I've always known how it was for Bono, because he told me, but maybe I wasn't always as sympathetic as I can be now. And the point is that I was only away for three weeks, he could be away for two years, touring."
Ali has revealed that often, after Bono does come home from touring she has to get out those metaphorical band aids for the man. But what about herself? Doesn't she have similar needs and find it equally difficult to readapt to these changes?
"Absolutely. When he's away I build up my own life and then when he comes back I wake up and ask, 'what are you doing in my house?'" she says, laughing. "In fact, he often tells me he feels like a piece of litter that I'm trying to clean up, to get things back to how they were when he was away! But, seriously, yes, it is difficult for all of us to readapt to these changes. He had a break from the tour, when they started doing Zooropa, but that was like six months in the studio, which sometimes is even harder for us to deal with.
"When Bono is away and working we know we're not going to see him and we get the phone calls and it's understood what's happening. But when he's home, and in the studio fourteen hours a day, in a way he's still not there with us. Like, I'm getting up to bring the kids to school and he's just getting in. That's even harder, because you know he's there and yet you can't really reach him."
So does all this mean that Ali Hewson often is forced to become father and mother to Jordan and Eve, a family unit complete unto herself?
"Yes and, actually, that is as hard as it is for any single parent. But then the difference is that if something goes completely wrong I can just phone Bono and find, again, that he's probably one of the best 'psychologists' I know! He knows me really well and in terms of analysing whatever I say - no matter how garbled it may be - he really gets it right and always comes through for me. So, in that sense, he too is applying the band aid. That's how it works for us.
"When he's garbled and broken I help put him back together and he does the same for me. That's why the relationship works as well as it does."
This belief in the concept of a family, allied to her love for
her own children, if not all children, is a key factor in terms of Ali Hewson's involvement in the documentary Black Heat, White Land. She has admitted that becoming a mother made her more aware than ever before, of the potentially devastating dangers of nuclear radiation, a realisation that led her to protest against Sellafield, and which similarly influenced U2. Now, her abiding memory of the after-effects of Chernobyl is how the disaster destroyed the lives of children.
"They're all ill, weak, with bad diets and immune systems that are breaking down because of what is known as Chernobyl Aids. They also see their parents devastated by the fact that the children are ill. They see their fathers, who were once farmers, now trying to become builders in high rise apartments, their grandparents forced to move away, and their families broken up, often because of death. So there's no sense of innocence there and that was the most startling thing I encountered. And it's an image that still haunts me."
Ali suggests that, for her, these firsthand experiences were necessary in order to turn the horrors of Chernobyl from a vague abstraction into tangible fact. Yet does she fear that, as with the response of many people to comparable horrors in Warrington, Belfast or wherever, in time the lessons of this memory may fade?
"No," she asserts, emphatically. "Not for me. I think that when you internalise certain images they stay with you for life. And the good thing about the documentary is that it is a filmed record of us being out there. It can't go away. So either way, I'm not likely to forget what I saw, and experienced."
Some of the most disturbing images in Black Wind . . . are those that feature children born with genetic deformities. Equally chilling are statistics which suggest that, since the disaster at Chernobyl, it is now three times more likely that children will be born in this condition. Thyroid complaints among infants also has increased by 800% and leukaemia and cases of new-born cancer have doubled.
"I was there during the filming of all those children at that Care Centre and it is a place I want to do more work for," Ali says. "There are 70 children there, but there are no facts and figures that relate directly to that, so all the doctor could say was 'I can't tell you that these children are a result of Chernobyl, because there are deformed children in every society. All I will say is that the figures have increased by three times the amount since Chernobyl.'
"But we didn't want to focus too much on those physical deformities because, psychologically and economically, similar problems have come about there, as a result of Chernobyl. Besides, the real extent of physical deformities will not be known until the children who were children at the time of the disaster start to give birth, because it's their ovaries, and testicles, that have really been affected."
The economic problems facing the people are savagely highlighted at one point during the documentary when a woman reveals that, having been relocated following the disaster, she is expected to live on roughly a $5 State allowance per month. How did Ali respond to that?
"I could relate to it, of course," she says. "I didn't come from a poor background but then neither do I come from a wealthy background. My father struggled really hard and although I always had what I wanted, I really don't find it very difficult to identify with the pain of people who are impoverished. I've been to Ethiopia, where, from a material point of view, people have nothing at all yet linking those people to the people I met in Belarus, was the faith they had to hold onto, a spirit of defiance. I also could relate to that."
Ali admits that when she compared the plight of that woman living on a $5 a month allowance, to her own privileged base she was beset by moral doubts.
"That point struck me with the same force in Ethiopia and Bono and I struggle with this all the time," she says. "I know that people are bound to say, sarcastically, 'Oh, that we all had the same problems'. But it is a moral dilemma that both Bono and I try to work out in our own way."
Not surprisingly, Ali Hewson's experience at Chernobyl has brought to the fore her awareness of the dangers of Sellafield and Thorp.
"One of the reasons I went out to Chernobyl was because I'd listened to all the alarmist theories and had been told what could happen if there was an accident at Sellafield, and told what is happening as a result of the legal amount of waste currently being discharged," she elaborates.
"But I wanted to see what actually did happen at Chernobyl. No real reports had come back to us, over here. The disaster happened seven years ago so people seem to have forgotten about it. It wasn't an issue any more. But one thing I did learn from going out there is it will be forty years before, medically, we begin to really see what happened to people as a result of Chernobyl.
"I wanted to see if things are as bad as I'd heard. They are," she adds. "And when Thorp opens it's going to be even worse here than it already is. And I really don't understand how the world's worst nuclear accident could happen seven years ago and yet the place isn't crawling with scientists trying to figure out what the negative effects of long-term low-level dosages of radiation are.
"Anyone who lives 600 kilometres around a nuclear installation should be concerned. If it happened at Chernobyl, it can happen anywhere. And the point is that the fallout from the Chernobyl explosion was carried on the wind, with 70% landing on Belarus. That's exactly what could happen in relation to Ireland if there was an explosion in Sellafield. Apart from that, there are emissions every day. So if we're being asked to live with low-level dosages of radiation, why aren't we being told its effects, why must we take the risks?"
Surely the simple answer to that question is the profit motive.
"Of course it is," says Ali. "But the people of Ireland aren't going to benefit from Sellafield. The only 'benefit' we get is higher levels of radiation than we would ever get were the plant not there. There are people being born with Down's Syndrome and higher numbers of cases of leukaemia on the east coast of Ireland but the research is not being done into this. No one is saying 'yes, we accept that this woman's leukaemia is a result of low-level radiation dosages from Sellafield.' There is one Irish doctor, a wonderful woman, Dr. Patrica Sheehan, and she's the one trying to correlate all the information on Down's Syndrome, but they're just not interested."
One of the most infuriating aspects of Black Wind . . . is the way in which it highlights the blind faith the people showed in their politicians, who basically lied to them about the explosion and needlessly condemned many to death. Aren't there figures which show that of the 60,000 people involved in the clean-up operation, for example, 13,000 are now dead and a further 7,000 have been disabled? So why does Ali pull back from pointing the finger at politicians, and suggesting that they should be lobbied on the subject of Sellafield, etc.
"Although I agree that people should lobby their politicians and make their position known to the government, the one thing I love about Greenpeace is that they cut out that middle area and get right to the heart of the problem," she says. "And I think that once you start to deal with politicians you get in to the area of compromise, of trading-off, of people saying 'you look after Northern Ireland and we won't mention Sellafield', for example. Politicians are important in this fight but only if they do their job right in this context, which many don't. So I've told people that I'm not going to get involved in politics at that level because I don't want to get into that area of compromise."
Mightn't better results be achieved if, for example, a band like U2 threatened to withhold part of their taxes until the Government acts more decisively on the matter?
"And they might end up in prison!" she says, smiling. "But I certainly agree in theory with what you're saying. And if there is someone out there with a good idea in terms of how we all can act to make the government move on the matter, then I'm sure people will listen. Maybe we should chain ourselves to the Dail.
"Certainly something drastic must be done and whatever it is, I'll be there with them. Because I really believe that putting children at the kind of risk they're putting them at, on a daily basis, by opening Thorp, and continuing Sellafield as it is, is complete madness. More than that it's murder. And I can't think of one politician who is being as publicly supportive as they should be. That's why I lack faith in them and don't involve myself at that level."
So, is Black Heat . . . a one-off or was Ali revealing something of her future plans when she earlier said she'd like to do something else for the children with Chernobyl Aids?
"When I said that I meant I'd like to do something more private," she explains. "Those children are kept in that hospital until they are four but then, because the State only gives a certain level of financial support, they're put in Romanian asylums, along with adults, where they remain. I want to help that hospital to try to extend its services until those children are, say, 18 - though many won't live that long. But this documentary probably was a one-off thing. I don't think I'll be getting involved in making another documentary unless it's 'Living With Bono: Black Feet, White Flag'! (laughs)
"Certainly not presenting, though I might do research or work in some way behind the camera. Mostly because, though I believe the set-up worked well in this situation, I can imagine someone else, on seeing 'Bono's wife to do another documentary in another place of disaster', saying, 'Oh, not her again'. It could lead to the kind of criticism we spoke about earlier, in terms of wealthy women who are seen as 'do-gooders.' And, because of that it could damage projects.
"I have very strong, personal feelings about the issues I get involved in, and if I felt that people could overcome that potential prejudice, see me as more than that, I'd like to get involved in something else. But what's most important is that I must feel that I could carry the project, above and beyond being 'Bono's wife'."
And what if, at some point later in her life she suddenly feels a need to define herself in a new context, as women often do after their children leave home?
"Definitely," she says, laughing. "If I felt I was in the right position, at the right point in time, I'd go for something like this. And the point is that presenting a documentary like Black Wind, White Land was not something I planned. It just happened. And it has turned out really well. But right now I'm certainly not driven by any desire to define myself outside the life I'm living. I'm very clear about who I am, very strong in relation to who I am.
"And though I may not really like it, I don't have any huge problem thinking, 'I hope people don't see me as just Bono's wife and nothing else!' I have really good friends, a great family and people close to me who know who I am and accept me, as me! So does Bono. We're definitely two individuals, but we are together at the same time. We are - One! (laughs)."
So Ali Hewson isn't one of those stereotypical, complacent, rock 'n' roll wives happy to remain in the background while her husband does whatever he damn well chooses?
"You've interviewed Bono," she says smiling. " You've had an insight into him and you must know he couldn't be with someone he doesn't respect, as is often the case with those rock 'n' roll marriages you're referring to. And I am the same. The one thing we have for each other is total respect. As a result of that we are still together.
"We've known each other since we were kids and we've been through a lot of stuff at this stage.
"Part of it is that we know how to give each other space. In all these ways, it is a good relationship and that's why it has survived. It's certainly not a stereotypical rock 'n' roll marriage."