January 6, 2012 10:50 pm

The Diary: Sarah Sands

The deputy editor of the London Evening Standard watches Kim Jong-il’s state funeral from Namibia, a country that North Korea befriended in 1990

I watch the hysteria of Kim Jong-il’s state funeral from Namibia, which thought more kindly of the crazy North Korean dictator than we did in the west. In the capital Windhoek, a big new State House has been built with North Korean labour. Eastern motifs decorate fortress railings around a huge compound while life-sized plastic lions and zebra are dotted about the landscape. It is, in the communist way, intimidating, unlovely and out of character with most of the city.

What might North Korea like in return? Namibia is rich in resources, particularly diamonds, gold and silver. But it is the country’s uranium supplies that seem of most obvious interest. I wrestle with my disapprobation. Namibia is not a rogue state but a delightful and relatively harmonious country, an example to many other African nations. It is especially loved by Malthusians for its low population, 2.5m in a country four times the size of Britain; by tourists for its National Geographic landscapes; and by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who celebrated the birth of their daughter Shiloh there and are proud of having a Namibian passport in the family.

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It is natural that Namibia seeks to protect its own interests and is even-handed in its choice of allies. In Windhoek, there is a road named after Nelson Mandela but also one in honour of Robert Mugabe. North Korea befriended Namibia by supporting its liberating forces against South Africa in 1990. But I swallow hard reading the words of a North Korean delegation to Namibia four years ago, which warned the country against “the big powers that scramble for Africa’s natural resources”.

As the daughter of a British colonial officer in Malawi (then Nyasaland), I am biased but would suggest that British influence in Africa, with its ardent imposition of courts and civil service, was more benign than China’s more hard-headed demands for natural resources. But colonialism is out of favour now and the corporate imperialism of the Chinese more in keeping with the times.

. . .

These days British idealistic endeavour in Namibia is devoted to saving animals. A high point of my trip is a visit to the Okonjima reserve in the Omboroko mountains, home of the AfriCat Foundation. It is both a Hemingway-style lodge and a place for the welfare and preservation of cheetahs. I hear of it through a British investor who has sunk his money into land there, motivated by romance rather than financial return, and who spends time fundraising. One heaven-sent opportunity for publicity arose when Brangelina planned a return visit to Okonjima. But a junior member of staff told the couple the dates were inconvenient and lost out not only on the publicity but also one of the huge charity cheques that Brangelina tend to leave on departure.

. . .

Namibia is not an industrial country and has a great swathe of desert. Despite its boost from uranium, it has 50 per cent unemployment. Some of the German descendants here would like to see a greater work ethic among what they regard as the more lackadaisical populations. In Africa, as in Europe.

An illustration no birds on a rock

One example of German stoicism and entrepreneurialism can be seen in the vast, timbered guano platform constructed just off the shore near Walvis Bay, down the coast from Swakopmund. It was built in 1930 by a German carpenter, Adolf Winter, who noticed that birds naturally collected on a rock beneath.

He reckoned that if he could harvest their excrement, he could sell it for industrial use. He was roundly ridiculed, his credit withdrawn and he became bankrupt, but he persevered and the platform was completed in 1942. By this time, guano was called “white gold” and was in massive demand for, among other things, explosives. Winter became hugely wealthy. These days guano is an essential ingredient for moisturiser, but the supply of it at the platform is diminished because of low fish stocks. No fish, no bird shit, no fortune.

. . .

Martin Amis’s mother, Hilly, once told me in an interview that, much as she admired her son, she wished he would turn out “proper novels” in the manner of William Boyd. Having just finished Boyd’s new novel, Waiting for Sunrise, to be published next month, I see her point. It is about as pleasurable as a book can be. The plot is irresistible; an actor turned intelligence officer searching for a traitor during the first world war. The action is set in London, France and Vienna and there is a psychosexual subplot, with a walk-on part for Sigmund Freud. What more could you ask? Boyd has a lucid, vigorous prose style that never eclipses the action. His main character, Lysander Rief, has the moral ambiguity of Logan Mountstuart, from Boyd’s 2002 novel Any Human Heart.

It is almost 100 years since the start of the first world war yet it has not lost its potency for novelists. William Boyd will be up against a new, contemporary, satirical novel by Martin Amis this year. I am backing Boyd.

. . .

War is a good backdrop for life’s great themes. For most of us, existence is more tetchy. Over Christmas, our vexations were lost keys and leaking pipes. Having comprehensively decorated a house, it is dispiriting to find water cascading through the ceilings, particularly when you can’t find the cause. Lengths of plastic piping have been examined. Rentokil called in. No culprit yet found. Obviously, we tried to hide all this from our guests. Anyway, they had their own tensions. Their departure was delayed by a frenzied search for the car key. Where there is responsibility, there is blame. The polite question, “Didn’t I give it to you, darling?” is a missile aimed at a spouse. Like us, the couple were living on the edge without a spare. We all know we should have one but it is disproportionately expensive to get a second car key cut, and we have made the calculation that we can live without a safety net. It all adds to the drama of lost car key days.

. . .

I have two specific areas of responsibility at the Evening Standard; one is the newspaper's theatre awards, the other is its Olympics coverage. So I am torn by Lord Lloyd-Webber’s concern that the Olympics will threaten theatre-going in London this year. The trouble is our attitude to the Olympics is either evangelical or cynical. Increasingly, I find myself sounding like Miss Trunchbull from Matilda when extolling the glories of physical exercise, although I try to avoid sport myself.

Of course, it is going to be difficult to function normally in London during the Olympics but let’s not be melodramatic about it. We will need to plan our journeys and work round the events. In return, we will have a carnival summer. Lloyd-Webber is an international draw, so I can’t believe there is no extra trade for him out of the estimated 3m visitors to London.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard

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