It’s a glorious, golden autumn day in west London and, after admiring the hedge-funded homes and beautiful babies in Bugaboos on a stroll along Notting Hill’s side streets, I arrive early for lunch with the publisher and philanthropist Sigrid Rausing. This is her neighbourhood – she has a house in nearby Holland Park with a garden that is reported to be the second biggest private garden in the capital, after the Queen’s – and her offices are near here, too.
Rausing, a 47-year-old Swede, inherited a fortune from milk cartons. Her grandfather co-developed the famous triangle-topped Tetra Pak container in the 1940s. In 1995 her father sold his 50 per cent share of the business and is worth $10bn, according to Forbes magazine. But she is no idle heiress. She initially wanted to be an academic and gained a PhD in anthropology from University College London. Since 1995 she has run her own charitable trust giving away some £20m ($33m) a year in grants to international human rights projects.
In 2005 she branched out, moving into the publishing industry. With her second husband, the film producer Eric Abraham, she launched Portobello Books, an imprint split equally between fiction in translation, new fiction and what she describes as “activist non-fiction” – mostly memoirs and investigative journalism. Shortly after she bought the celebrated British literary magazine Granta, a glossy journal of “new writing”.
Sitting at a window table inside Clarke’s restaurant on Kensington Church Street, I idly watch the street and spot an attractive woman, hand in hand with a man, trying to cross the busy road. They make a dash for it, laughing. “Here she comes,” says the maître d’ gazing out with me from the almost-empty restaurant. Rausing kisses her husband goodbye and breezes inside, where she is greeted as a regular.
She’s in a crisp white shirt, worn loose over jeans, her face ageless, with no hint of make-up (which could, of course, simply mean it is very expensive or expertly applied make-up). Her jewellery is discreet – a simple silver and blue necklace and a slim wedding ring. I am transfixed by her translucent ordinariness.
“I quite like big lunches, is that all right?” she asks as we settle down with menus. That’s perfect. But there are several choices on the lunch menu. I had thought Sally Clarke’s restaurant was famous for being a no-choice affair. “Oh, I think they still do that but at lunchtime they give you more choice,” Rausing explains. “I quite like the idea of salt marsh lamb and beefburger. That is sort of an insane dish that would look quite good on the page, don’t you think?”
We had originally been planning to have lunch earlier this year but, at the end of May, Rausing was thrown from her horse as she galloped towards her Sussex farmhouse. She suffered concussion (she remembers nothing about the accident itself) and fractured her eye socket. I ask if she is completely recovered. “It is very hard to tell …I had a lot of amnesia. And a little bit of aphasia, which is that thing where you lose very common words. A bit of that, not that much. You can’t judge the neurological damage …but I feel well.”
We break off as the maître d’ arrives to takes our order. Rausing, who owns a 40,000 acre estate near Aviemore in the Highlands, aptly picks grouse for a starter, followed by haddock. I go for stuffed risotto balls and corn-fed chicken.
Two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc arrive, and around us the small restaurant is getting noisier as its well-heeled older lunch crowd arrives. Rausing speaks softly in perfect but slightly accented English. She came to England from southern Sweden in 1980 to attend sixth form college in Oxford. A couple of years later her parents Hans and Marit moved here permanently to escape Sweden’s punitive tax rates.
How does Rausing describe her identity now? “I still think of myself very much as ethnically Swedish but in the sense that the older I get the more Swedish I feel because you go back from middle age onwards on a journey back to origins. So I think I will never not feel Swedish. But on the other hand I feel much more at home here and rather more at home in the English language.” She thinks about taking British citizenship. “I never feel you can really get the depth of a culture if you aren’t a citizen, there is a slight artificiality that creeps in. You can’t vote, you know.”
The restaurant’s owner, Sally Clarke, appears in an apron with our starters and the two greet each other warmly. “Our children used to go to the same school,” Rausing explains afterwards. Her grouse sits on top of “soft Parmesan polenta”, which looks like porridge though she pronounces it delicious, while I concentrate on the tricky task of cutting into cheese-filled risotto balls.
Rausing’s philanthropic outlook developed in earnest in 1993 when, for her doctorate in anthropology, she spent a year living on a collective farm in a remote part of Estonia. “I loved it. It was lonely but I have been much lonelier at other times in my life. And I also felt extremely safe, and if you feel so safe it is almost the opposite of feeling lonely. It is a very gentle culture.”
While there she set up what is now called the Sigrid Rausing Trust. “I think the reason for that, when I look back upon it, was that I lived in really deep, deep poverty. People there died of things like blood poisoning and alcoholism. And I was moved by that, and decided to do it.”
The trust focuses on promoting international human rights, and Rausing checks all the applications that come in, an indication of how hands-on she is in all areas. (Later, she sends me an e-mail detailing a draft bill in Uganda that would make a person convicted of “the offence of homosexuality” liable to life imprisonment. Rausing, who has a long history of funding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, has moved quickly to fund groups who are opposing the bill).
Rausing won a prestigious Beacon Fellowship award in 2005 in recognition of her philanthropic work but, although well-known in philanthropy and human rights circles, she was rarely in the wider public eye until she launched Portobello and bought Granta, also in 2005. What made her take that leap?
“We were very inspired by a friend of ours in Italy, Domenico Procacci, who is a producer like Eric, but he had started a publishing company. And he was talking about it, and I think we thought, ‘We could do that’ and we could make a wonderful fit with Eric’s work. [Abraham’s Portobello Pictures, established in 1987, is now run alongside the publishing company]. And I’d always been a compulsive reader, I read all the time [Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, US crime writer Rex Stout, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene are among her favourites]. My son Daniel was getting older and I thought, well, I can do this!”
So she did. And, just months later she owned not just a new publishing company but an established literary brand name. “In the summer of 2005 Rea Hederman [owner of the New York Review of Books and at the time Granta] came to see us and asked if we were interested in buying Granta. So we thought about it for a long long time, over the summer into the autumn. And we finally decided to do it, simply because I have read Granta all my adult life and loved it so much.” Granta magazine was an old title, revived in 1979, which became a must-read among Anglo-American literary types under longtime editor Bill Buford. It pioneered the now-prevalent genre of literary non-fiction, which takes reporting and memoir on to a new, and lyrical, level.
Saving the magazine was, in itself, a philanthropic act because it has never been a bestseller. “It is true that Granta magazine has never been commercial, and always kept its original remit of publishing exceptional new writing, fiction and reportage,” she says. “Granta books, on the other hand, did play with the idea of commerciality for a while, and a degree of separation developed between the magazine and the books, which was a disadvantage to both. Now we will not publish any books that could not potentially be extracted in the magazine. We use the magazine as a yardstick for our books.”
She feels strongly about trying to achieve success without recourse to “what sells” as a criterion for decision-making across her publishing business. “We are no longer going to look at what sells as a sort of argument, because it seemed to me that we were in danger of losing our inventiveness about what we wanted to do.”
Of course, Rausing can afford to make such commercially tricky decisions but feels so strongly about the principle that she hands me a copy of an article she wrote for a trade magazine, Bookbrunch, earlier this year. In it she writes that her decision to cut the commercialism “led to a certain amount of (perhaps justified) media grumbling that we could afford to be dilettantish and romantic and so on, ignoring the bottom line”. However, though she seems prepared to see things from the critics’ point of view, she counters that: “Risk-avoidance is the real risk.” (She later tells me the current, Chicago-themed issue of Granta has gone on to sell 11,000 on US newsstands alone, twice the normal US newsstand sales, and “out-sold Dan Brown in Chicago bookstores, which was quite a feat”).
But putting out great magazines and books, commercial or otherwise, is nearly impossible without a talented, settled, staff. Granta’s new editor John Freeman, appointed last month, is the magazine’s fourth in her time. (Two members of staff who left recently did so of their own accord, she says.)
Rausing says that a degree of staff restructuring after the arrival of new editors is a “normal course of events”. However, she’s robust in her defence of past decisions to let some staff go, and goes further: “It did make me wonder about British labour laws. It is incomprehensible to me how small companies can ever afford to let people go, unless there are major transgressions, which there so rarely are. If people are just not very good at their jobs, or make repeated mistakes, you are open to the threat of tribunals.
“I have three friends in the human rights world who were threatened with tribunal after letting staff who were not up to the job go – two on the grounds of racism and one on the grounds of mental health. My friends believe passionately in equal opportunities, in equality, in human rights – as I do. Two of them settled, on the grounds that the reputational risks to their organisations were too great. There’s got to be another way.”
We’ve polished off the main courses and the waiters offer dessert menus. “I think I might just have coffee,” says Rausing and orders a single espresso. I ask for a cappuccino, and while we wait, we chat about her schedule, which sounds exhausting. She has a long commute to London from her main home in Sussex most days. Does she manage to switch off at weekends, I ask? “No, never. I kind of want to be a bit more Zen, because I am always on and I think that’s not altogether good.”
How much of that does she think is her character, and how much because of her background, growing up as part of a family involved in running a global business?
“I can’t answer that question,” she begins, “but I often wonder what kind of person I would have been if my father became the doctor he wanted to be. My grandfather said, ‘That’s absolutely fine, we’ll sell the company’, which was very small then …But, if he had done that, which he chose not to do in the end, my life obviously would have been very different.”
We part warmly. Rausing has been a great lunch companion, but I know she has worked hard to make me feel comfortable. She strides off back to the office. Effortless charm is both the privilege and the emotional shield of the super-rich, I think, as I wait for the bus home.
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts
124 Kensington Church Street
London W8 4BH
Slow-cooked grouse with red wine and herbs, soft Parmesan polenta and toasted cobnuts £9.00
Courgette and Scottish girolle risotto balls with goat cheese, Greek cress, crème fraîche £8.50
Cornish haddock fillet roasted with sauce of tomato, red onion and basil; hand-cut chips £17.00
Corn-fed chicken wrapped and roasted with San Daniele ham, garlic butter, roasted Surrey root vegetables £17.00
Glass of house white wine x 2 £10.00
Bottle sparkling water £3.50
Single espresso £3.00
Total (including service) £80.44
Tetra Paks and other everyday breakthroughs
The Tetra Pak drinks carton is the piece of disruptive technology that delivers a shot of fruit juice to breakfasters across the developed world, writes Jonathan Guthrie . It has supplanted glass bottles because it is lighter, cheaper to transport and less fragile.
Swedish packaging entrepreneur Ruben Rausing (grandfather of Sigrid) invented his first carton, the triangle-sided Tetra Classic in the 1940s. This made clever use of geometry and the density of liquids to provide strength. However, the Classic had a penchant for spraying users, triggering claims for dry-cleaning bills.
The boxy Tetra Brik solved the problem. A small flap of cardboard atop the container converts into a spout. Subsequent tweaks have included the incorporation of plastic pourers.
The Nokia 2110, created in 1994, is a chunky plastic milestone in the mobile phone’s transition from executive status symbol to affordable commonplace. Designed by former jazz drummer Frank Nuovo, the 2110 softened the angles and straight lines then typical of mobile phones. This 2110 boasted such new features as SMS messaging, hinting at the plethora of bells and whistles to come.
Nuovo’s genius was to transform an item of functional technology into a desirable consumer item. The stubby 2110 could survive being dropped from windows or be used to hammer in nails. Less admirably, it unleashed the robotic version of “Grand Valse”, otherwise known as the Nokia ringtone, on an unsuspecting world. The tune’s eventual ubiquity has made it unbearable for many.
The paper clip
The paper clip is an item so humble and widely used that it colloquially denotes triviality. A junior bureaucrat’s job, for example, may consist of “counting paper clips”. Before the paper clip was invented, he would instead have tallied the fiddly ribbons or pins used to hold documents together.
The familiar double oval paper clip was invented by Britain’s Gem Manufacturing Company in 1890. Its ease of use meant that it swiftly caught on. Its simplicity also lent itself to mass production, in a process pioneered by American William Middlebrook.
The light bullb
Paradoxically the light bulb that symbolises the eureka moment “was not concocted in a blink”, according to Paola Antonelli in her book Humble Masterpieces. “To the contrary, it took the patient work of an army of scientists and inventors.” But the driven American inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison enjoys the greatest acclaim for making the light bulb an everyday reality.
Edison developed a carbon filament within a glass bulb that by 1880 could burn for 1,200 hours. This spelled the end for dangerous, low-powered gas lighting, even though traditionalists mourned its passing.
Jonathan Guthrie is the FT’s enterprise editor
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