Let’s Do Lunch with Maurice Saatchi

MAURICE SAATCHI still sets a place at the table for his wife, Irish writer Josephine Hart, who died three years ago. Here, ANNE HARRIS meets the Iraqi-British politician for afternoon tea …

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When people hear that Lord Saatchi sets a place at the table for his beloved Josephine Hart, who died three years ago, they conclude he’s bonkers. He knows this and is not bothered in the slightest.

As befits a person very certain of his own sanity. And a person who respects the arabesques of his own grief. “Queen Victoria did it for Prince Albert for 42 years,” he says. Besides, there is method in the madness of his grief.

We don’t do lunch. We have a minimalist afternoon tea in the offices of M&C Saatchi in Golden Square in Soho on the eve of the British General Election. Golden Square, golden day and a bereaved man in whom the shades of a golden boy are still visible.

The time and place turned out to be fitting. For a long time the Saatchi brothers had an almost mythic relationship with the Tories and elections: their Mad Men style launched Margaret Thatcher. “We’re working flat out for a Tory victory,” Saatchi says.

This time it’s personal too. Hanging on the outcome is his Medical Innovation Bill, a kind of matzevah for Josephine. The other side of that monument is her great poetry project. He eschews the Earl Grey in favour of an uncompromising double espresso.

“You are, of course, familiar with all the books on grief?” he smiles. “And on Kubler Ross’s five stages – shock, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Well, here are my stages. I stole the idea from Harold Pinter’s Apart From That. It’s a conversation between me and people who loved Josephine. 

First year.  ‘How are you Maurice?’

‘Terrible.’

‘Oh. I’m so sorry.’

Year Two: ‘How are you?’

‘Terrible.’

‘Still?’

Year Three: ‘How are you?’

‘Terrible.’

‘Why?’

“The clock starts at Year Two,” he says. “They want you to move on. I’m still in the shock stage.” It’s clear Saatchi’s stage doesn’t fit any category and he doesn’t do magical thinking. “I talk to her, of course. But she doesn’t answer. I might tell her “this wicked person is trying to do me down”. And then sometime later, the solution pops into my head and I know it would have been her advice.”

Hardly surprising since her death and her life are his life now. They had been together over 30 years. She called him M – which hints at an intimate language that excluded the rest of the world.

They fell in love at Haymarket Publishing, before she went on to become a best-selling author and he went off on the Saatchi & Saatchi adventure with his brother Charles. Her novel Damage gave literature an opening line as iconic as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive”.

She knew her subject well, having lost all her siblings in a freak sequence of illness and accident at home in Mullingar.

Heartbreak was no stranger to Hart and grief was a part of their life’s conversation. “Josephine always said you don’t ever get over it.” These early losses, apart from giving her an “ambivalent attitude to Ireland”, led to her final project –  proselytising for poetry.

“Josephine’s view was that poetry was more likely to have its life-saving effect if it was read aloud, not by the poet, but by great actors. That’s how her poetry hour at the British Library came about.” Pretty soon great actors were vying to read. Integral to the evening was Hart’s opening oration. Books and CDs followed.

“She dedicated the books ‘To the mysterious art of the actor,’” says Maurice, and having seen Damien Lewis and Helen McCrory read the TS Eliot hour, it’s clear to me she hit on a stunning mutuality of interest.

The readings not only excavated the poems and their meaning but also reminded us why actors are called artists. And they showed their gratitude. “The actors decided to continue it,” says Maurice. “And marvellous people stepped in to be Josephine. David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Yentob did her orations.”

For Josephine, however, the Library had its limitations. “She decided that the app was the way for everybody to see and hear great actors read great poetry.” So naturally Maurice – a technical novice, I suspect – is working flat out on the app and other poetry projects, including the Heart of Ireland Poetry Festival in Mullingar in July. “I’ve been to Mullingar every year for the last three years. It’s my birthday treat.”

Here, once more, he confounds the grief trajectory. For many bereaved people, visits to shared places can be too painful to contemplate. But Maurice Saatchi is rewriting the books. Death and life, pain and purpose – these are the bipolar points of the bereaved, to which he has now added science and art.

His Medical Innovation Bill addresses the fact that treatment of certain cancers, like lung or ovarian cancer, from which Josephine died, hasn’t changed much in 40 years. “The reason is that doctors can be sued for negligence if they deviate from ‘standard procedure.’

The payouts are staggering. We want to relieve doctors of the fear of litigation. The Bill has split the medical profession. Those who don’t like it think there’s no need. Or there is a genuine worry about crooks and quacks.” Passed at the House of Lords, which, he emphasises, comprises some of the great academic, legal and medical minds of Britain, it was voted down by the Liberal Democrats in the Commons.

The Tory victory is good news for Maurice. Now he starts pushing that heavy rock again. In memory of Josephine. Until he succeeds. Because bereaved people are dangerous; they haven’t much to lose. 

Illustration by Lauren O’Neill

Anne Harris

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our November issue, out Thursday November 5.

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