Saints and Sinners. December 2013.

Dear Rowley,

Saddened as I was by the death of Nelson Mandela I must admit to being faintly bewildered by the BBC going into full Court Mourning with one correspondent on Radio 4 going as far as to liken Mr Mandela to Jesus Christ. To my knowledge, Mr Mandela did preach forgiveness and did serve as a bridge over the troubled waters that is South African politics. However, it must have broken the man’s heart to see his successors exercise power like the darkest, most venal despots of his continent. Zuma in particular is clearly a monster: a corrupt, polygamous rapist who denied his countrymen and women HIV drugs and builds palaces while his people starve.

Perhaps the British politicians queuing-up to fly over to South Africa for Mr Mandela’s funeral might pause for thought to consider that Zuma will in effect be their host. One wonders whether Nick Clegg ever even met Mr Mandela. The political hand-wringers’ presence is hubris rather than homage to a great man. There was a rather unfortunate photo opportunity with Zuma and Winnie Mandela at a prayer service for the late great. That lady – who will presumably be leading mourners including Prince Charles and Presidents Clinton, Obama, Carter and Bush – has rather a lot of blood on her hands.

I find it terribly hazardous to beatify any human being. You will, for example, still find aged Argentineans who believe Eva Peron the Spiritual Leader of the Nation was a saint. Her State Funeral in 1952 made that of Diana, Princess of Wales look modest and restrained in comparison. It is extraordinary that Evita was only thirty-three when she died. As First Lady of Argentina, Eva was the scourge of the oligarchs; redistributing their wealth to her beloved descamisados (shirtless ones). In her name, hospitals and model villages were built, alms were distributed to the poor and Pesos were doled-out like confetti to adoring crowds.

However, it appears that a large proportion of the wealth annexed by Evita and her husband Colonel Peron was siphoned-off to Swiss bank accounts and the auctioning off of her clothing and jewels in 1955 when Peron fell from power showed that Evita’s appetite for Dior, Balmain and Hartnell gowns and jewels commissioned from Van Cleef & Arpels was insatiable. I recall interviewing the legendary magazine editor Fleur Cowles many moons ago for the FT. Miss Cowles had spent a month in Eva’s company to write a cover story for her husband’s magazine¬†Look. In Miss Cowles’s words, ‘Eva Peron was the most evil woman I ever had the misfortune to encounter’.

I am not likening the Peron regime with Mr Mandela in any way over and above that Mrs Mandela was as power hungry and dangerous as Eva Peron. To millions these women were saints. But in both cases political opponents were made to disappear. I have a fascination with Evita because I think she was messianic in her belief of Peron’s cause. Watch film footage of her on the balcony of the Casa Rosada and you see the sheer power-crazed charisma of a woman addressing her people. Little wonder that General Franco admired her style, sincerity and delivery.

Eva has Andrew Lloyd Webber to thank for her immortality and infamy outside Argentina. The musical Evita and the subsequent Madonna film (her best) does I think give a rounded picture of the angelic and demonic sides of Eva Peron’s complex character. One wonders whether, given time, Nigella Lawson could be the subject of a stage musical. Her recent history has, let’s face it, been verging on the operatic. Born to privilege, windowed as a young woman, married to the reclusive diabolo Charles Saatchi, divorced following a very public marriage breakdown then alone in the dock answering grave charges about her private life: it’s all there, no?

I’ve never been a fan of Nigella’s ‘spank me with a spatula and pour clotted cream up my Janet Reger teddy you naughty, naughty boy’ school of cookery programme presentation. But one mustn’t begrudge a girl her right to earn a living. Neither did I think it fair that Mr Saatchi’s leaked emails fingered her as a habitual cocaine user too high as a kite to realise her Italian home helps were bleeding the joint account dry. But the immortal words ‘I didn’t have a drug problem, I had a life problem’ will probably go down as the ‘let them eat cake’ of the 21st century.

Though the media-ocracy queued-up to defend Nigella’s honour, I don’t think there’s an ocean of sympathy for a domestic goddess who can’t function without a flotilla of staff and who thinks nothing of giving the help an open cheque book. Nigella’s appearance in court – artfully ashen after an hour or two in hair and make-up – was supposed to be lip-trembling but brave in the spirit of Joan of Arc. The performance came across more like a woman starring in her own reality TV show.

Not that Mr Saatchi earned any points from the Notting Hill columnist sisterhood by physically abusing his wife outside Scott’s on Mount Street then returning to the scene of his crime with a new avaricious skeleton; laughing, chaffing and smoking endless cigarettes looking carefree for the paparazzi. Mr Saatchi is insulated by wealth and a distinct disregard for how he is viewed outside his charmed circle. Nigella I would suspect needs the oxygen of publicity and could quite happily sacrifice the love of one man for the adoration of millions of viewers.