Sigrid Rausing is one of the wealthiest women in Britain. Quite how wealthy, she declines to say. ‘I’m not telling you,’ she says firmly when you ask – knowing even as you do that she will find the question tiresome, presumptuous and, though she is much too polite to say so, vulgar. Rausing is a philanthropist, a human rights activist, and the owner of the publishing house Granta and its literary magazine of the same name. As the benefactor of one of Britain’s largest private charitable trusts she is responsible for the dispensation of some £22 million a year.
There are two things that everybody knows about the Rausing family. One is that most of us have in some small way contributed to the considerable Rausing fortune. Sigrid’s grandfather Ruben was a food-packaging manufacturer who in the 1950s developed the Tetra Pak, the watertight cardboard container for storing milk and fruit juice that is to be found in virtually every refrigerator in the land. Ruben’s sons, Gad and Hans – Sigrid’s father – inherited the business, turning Tetra Pak into the largest food-packaging company in the world.
The second thing is that the family fortune has provided no immunity to tragedy. In July 2012 Sigrid’s younger brother, Hans Kristian, was arrested on suspicion of possessing Class A drugs. Searching his home in Belgravia, London, police found the decomposing body of his wife, Eva, in an upstairs room where it had lain for two months, behind a locked door, after Eva had died of a heart attack. The couple, it transpired, had fought a long and failing battle against drug addiction.
The chequered mosaic of the Rausing family provides an easy template for speculation about the mixed blessings of extreme wealth. But what Sigrid Rausing is concerned with right now is the slush pile in the offices of Granta – the mound of unsolicited manuscripts that arrive at publishers, and which is usually left to minions to deal with.
Last year Granta found itself embroiled in a tempestuous period – described by one employee as ‘a total shit storm’ – that resulted in the number of staff being cut by a third and Rausing emerging as not only the publisher of the magazine but also its editor. In her new role she has been methodically ploughing through the slush pile. ‘I’m very committed to the idea of Granta publishing unknown writers alongside known writers,’ she says. ‘And so I feel it’s necessary to read every piece. It is a reflection of my feelings about people’s access to the cultural institutions that people could reach us.’
Rausing gives interviews rarely. Serious-minded, with the quiet, earnest demeanour of the academic that she once imagined she would become, there is nothing the least bit frivolous about her. Nor is there anything in the least ostentatious. There is no trace of make-up on her pleasant, smiling face. Her brown, resolutely unstyled hair is being allowed to go naturally grey.
Rausing is 52. Her husband is Eric Abraham, a South African-born film producer who is best known for producing the Academy Award-winning Kolya, which won Best Foreign Language Film in 1996, whom she married in 2003. She has a teenage son by a previous marriage, to Dennis Hotz, a South African publisher and art dealer.
Rausing has three homes. There is Aubrey House in London, a spectacularly beautiful Georgian mansion, tucked away behind a high wall in Holland Park, which she bought in 1998 for a reported £20 million, and which is said to have the second largest private garden in London after Buckingham Palace. ‘Well, so they say, but who knows really? I don’t know if it has ever been measured.’ She loves the garden, but as to gardening, ‘I can’t bend down. I have a back problem.’
There is a farm in Sussex, which she regards as the proper family home, and where she spends much of her time, walking her three dogs. ‘I love to walk. I need to walk.’ Her sister, Lisbet, who is also a noted philanthropist, lives nearby; as does their father, Hans, who is now 88, and lives on an estate described by its architect as ‘a palace’, and who, according to an article in Tatler, gets his hair cut at the local barber and has been known to ask for the OAP discount.
Sigrid Rausing also owns a 40,000-acre estate in the Monadhliath mountains in the Scottish Highlands, from where she waged a long but unsuccessful battle against the plans of her neighbour the Bahamas-based multi-millionaire Sir Jack Hayward to install 33 wind turbines on his Dunmaglass estate. What she prefers to call ‘wind power stations’ in ‘wild areas’ are a particular bête noire of Rausing’s. ‘It’s a form of industrialisation,’ she says, ‘but because it’s supposed to be “green” people describe it as something other than what it is. I like things to be described as what they are. If we are content with industrialising the Highlands and the wild landscapes of Britain, then let’s have wind farms – but we must be aware it means widening narrow roads, it means pylons everywhere, and it means an uncertain power supply as well. So I am not sure that, cradle-to-grave, that form of energy is particularly “green” if you take everything into account.’ This short peroration – softly spoken, understated but at the same time unequivocal – seems typical of Rausing.
We are talking at the offices of Granta, a row of converted shopfronts in west London. There are shiny wooden floorboards, glass walls, chic, ergonomic leather chairs. Rausing first entered the world of publishing in 2005 when along with her husband she founded a small publisher, Portobello Books (at the same time, Abraham founded his own film production company, Portobello Films). Later that year Rausing acquired Granta Books, and the literary journal Granta, from Rea Hederman, who also owned the New York Review of Books. Under Rausing’s tenure, and the direction of its publishing executive Philip Gwyn Jones, Granta Books went from strength to strength: last year the company won the Man Booker Prize for the first time with The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, and also the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize and now the Bailey’s), also for the first time, with AM Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. All in all more than a dozen books were shortlisted for different prizes. At the same time Granta, the magazine, consolidated its reputation, largely established in the 1980s by the editor Bill Buford, as the pre-eminent platform for literary writing and as an important arbiter of contemporary fiction through its 10-yearly list of the best of young British novelists.
This serene progress was rudely interrupted last year by a massive upheaval that resulted in the departure of Gwyn Jones and John Freeman, the American editor of the magazine, along with a number of other staff – an exodus that saw the number of the Granta team reduced from 34 to 24, and led to speculation in literary circles about whether Rausing was losing the plot.
Rausing smoothes over the event. The changes, she says, were prompted by her decision to restructure sales in the book division, making two people redundant, which resulted in ‘a much bigger wave of “correction” in the Jonathan Franzen sense’, with people leaving. At the same time, costs on the magazine, which has a circulation of 30-50,000 around the world, were ‘spiralling out of control’ (she declines to say by how much).
Following the departures, Rausing took over full executive control of the company, becoming the publisher of Granta Books and the acting editor of the magazine (a position she has formalised). So was this really a question all along, I ask, of Rausing being Roman Abramovich but wanting to be José Mourinho? She looks baffled. The chairman wanting to pick and manage the team…
‘Well, it is much more involving, more interesting, and more fun to be the editor of the magazine than to be the publisher,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t know that.’
Rausing grew up in the quiet university town of Lund. By Swedish standards, her life was an opulent one. ‘There were a handful of wealthy families in Sweden and we were one of them,’ she says. ‘Wealth is socially distorting – as, of course, is poverty. It’s hard to see that when you grow up with it – what seems normal to you is not necessarily normal to other people. I wouldn’t say I felt guilty – there was no poverty as such in Sweden – but I certainly felt different.’
Her parents, she says, were ‘completely uninterested’ in money. Her father was passionately interested in technology, and was himself an inventor; her mother was an academic who taught medieval German at the university in Lund. ‘So money was never the focus for us.’
In 1982 her father moved his family to Britain to avoid Sweden’s punitive tax rate. His brother, Gad, and his family also acquired a home in Britain. By 1993 the two brothers were heading the Sunday Times rich list as Britain’s wealthiest men. Two years later Hans sold his share of the business to his elder brother for £4.9 billion. Gad died in 2000.
Sigrid had first come to England in 1980, to attend St Clare’s, a sixth-form college in Oxford. She went on to study history at the University of York, and, with a view to becoming an anthropologist, took a PhD at University College London. To complete her anthropological fieldwork, in 1993 Rausing spent a year living on a collective farm in a remote area of Estonia, studying the effect of Soviet rule and its aftermath. Her thesis, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, was published by Oxford University Press in 2004. She has now written a book on her experiences, Everything Is Wonderful. (There is no suggestion of vanity publishing: the book is being published by Grove Atlantic, not Granta.)
Rausing’s interest in Estonia had initially been spiked by hearing stories of the large number of Estonian Swedes who had fled to Sweden when Estonia was occupied by Germany in 1941; those who remained behind were widely tainted as ‘Nazis’ – a taint that was in turn eclipsed when Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944, presaging the long, harsh Soviet rule of the country that finally came to an end in 1991, when Estonia regained its independence.
Arriving at the former Lenin Collective Farm – a ‘broken, dirt-poor community where people were leaving every week on rickety Soviet lorries for some new future somewhere else’ – Rausing took a room in a house with a drunken landlord and his long-suffering wife and set about gathering data and writing long reports: ‘Sanity and Representativeness’, ‘Silence and Distance’ and ‘Transience and the Extraordinary Variety of Breakfasts’.
In the book she depicts a place where food is scarce, the heating never works, and where large swaths of the population are determinedly drinking themselves to death. Smiling at strangers is greeted with a stony indifference; when Rausing starts asking questions about life under the Soviets some people immediately suspect that she is a spy.
Everything Is Wonderful is an intriguing portrait of a society in transition – once the westernmost part of the Eastern bloc, now the easternmost part of the Western one – where people are struggling to forget the immediate past while seizing on symbols of what is thought to constitute a new ‘normal’ – which is to say Western – life: washing powder that costs two days’ wages, Michael Jackson records and, bizarrely, the opening of a topless car wash in Tallinn (Rausing did not actually visit this). ‘They’d lived through the stagnating years of the Soviet Union, with a functioning, if impoverished, welfare system, with doctors and nurses, a nursery for the children, a free collective dining room – but all of that had gone,’ Rausing says. ‘So the harshness I saw that year was new for them as well – and much harsher because they had no sense of how long it might take them to come out of that. They really could not have predicted how quickly that process would happen, how well Estonia was to do, and how soon.’ (The country now stands 33rd in the United Nations Human Development Index; the UK ranks 26th.)
Everything Is Wonderful is a book that, in many ways, says as much about Sigrid Rausing as it does about Estonia: a less hardy and more materialistic soul might have thrown in the towel long before her year’s stay was over. ‘I was there out of my own free will, but sometimes it felt like a sentence,’ she writes, noting the daily round of her stay in the village with a lugubrious attention to detail. ‘I went home, depressed, to read Freud’s ‘Dora’ case study… The next day it rained steadily and I stayed inside.’ And, ‘There was cabbage soup for lunch.’
But the quality of the writing, and her ability to find beauty in the bleak landscape, and a quiet stoicism in the struggle of the villagers to make sense of their changing lives, invests the book with the haunting, poetic quality of a Bergman film. There is something about melancholia, I suggest, that she finds particularly appealing. ‘Well, I am Swedish… Swedes like melancholy. The landscape and some of the older people I met were very marked by the war and the Soviet oppression. It was a very poignant experience for me.’
Rausing had had first-hand experience of the hypocrisies of the Soviet system. In the 1970s Russia attempted to copy the Tetra Pak manufacturing process. Hans Rausing travelled to Moscow, not to demand royalties but to arrange for a team of his own engineers to improve the Russian design free of charge. ‘He intensely disliked Soviet communism but he loved Russia and had a real affinity with the Russians.’ Rausing went with him. ‘It was a strange, corrupt, bizarre society, and very upsetting to see: the endless poverty, the queues, the harshness the people had to endure. And my father and I were feted with 15-course, vodka-fuelled dinners. It felt very unethical to me, even though I was only 16.’
It was her time in Estonia, she says, that focused her interest on philanthropy, and in particular on the cause of human rights. She had noticed the stark contrast between Estonian Swedes who had left the country as children, returning to visit, and their relations who had stayed behind. The Swedes were taller; they had their own teeth. The ones who had stayed behind were stiff and bent, with gaping holes in their mouths, ‘raised,’ as she writes, ‘on poor food, on caution and mistrust… their bodies marked by “bad governance”, that seemingly abstract concept, just as “good governance” was written on the bodies of the Swedes.’
‘Human rights is a very difficult and complicated idea to communicate,’ Rausing says, ‘and not least in Britain; and I think seeing that made me understand much more clearly than I had understood before the relationship between bad governance and poverty. The people on the collective farm in Estonia were poor because they had lived under the Soviet machine; one knew that already, of course, but I understood it in a much more real and vivid way.’
In 1995, following the sale of her family’s share in Tetra Pak, Rausing ploughed £60 million of her inheritance into a charitable trust which she established in the name of her grandparents Ruben and Elisabeth. She added a further £50 million in 2001, and two years later the trust took her name. Over the years, the Sigrid Rausing Trust has given away some £209 million. Last year alone it dispensed £22.5 million. It now supports about 200 organisations around the world, across a variety of human rights causes, including the treatment and rehabilitation of torture victims in Uganda; LGBT rights in Moldova; sex-trafficked women in Albania; slum dwellers in Kenya; and a group combating violence against women, predominantly in the Muslim community, in Southall, London.
‘The reason I’m so interested in human rights is because I think they are the best principles we have for insuring an independent judiciary, the rule of law and a liberal market economy,’ Rausing says. ‘The implementation of the Human Rights Act by immigration judges has meant that the media in Britain has been able to frame the narrative around the idea of “stop this human rights madness”. But I believe if you have signed to a convention you should abide by it. The arguments about Britain versus the EU are almost exactly the same as the arguments about Scotland versus Britain. “Why should they be able to tell us what to do?” And I’m rather for Britain, in the same way that I’m rather for the EU.’
Rausing says she is a firm believer in the maxim ‘with great wealth comes great responsibility’. ‘I feel that very strongly. I didn’t earn it. And I don’t particularly feel that I “own” the money, because I’m the beneficiary of it. I’m the guardian of it. It’s not like owning a book. It’s an existential condition; it’s as real as you make it. And you make it real by taking it out and spending it. So in a sense the more I give away the wealthier I become.’ She pauses. ‘Wealth brings power, too, which is perhaps particularly distorting for women, at least in Britain – we don’t quite know what to make of powerful women here. Mocking their shoes – Guardian irony – is always an option.’
Rausing, one notices, is wearing a pair of sensible leather shoes, along with a fine wool sweater and a nice pair of grey flannel slacks. When I ask where she bought them, she looks momentarily thrown.
‘Oh God, I don’t actually know.’
Do you like to be noticed?
She laughs. ‘No.’
Are you extravagant?
‘I don’t think I am.’
With great wealth too – or so the less wealthy would like to believe – comes great problems. The tragedy surrounding her brother afforded Rausing a sharp personal perspective on the question of addiction as an illness that money can neither prevent nor cure. ‘When addicts are either very rich, or very poor, money – or the lack of it – is seen as somehow causative,’ she says. ‘But I don’t think for a moment it had anything to do with my brother. There are narratives that have grown up that just get repeated again and again, and they’re partly about wealth, and partly about an idea of my father being a tyrannical or overbearing presence – but you know, none of that is true.’
Hans became addicted to drugs shortly after leaving university, during a gap-year expedition, when with a group of friends he travelled through the Soviet Union and China before ending up in India. ‘He certainly wasn’t a hippie,’ Rausing says. ‘He was genuinely interested in exploring different cultures. But then they ended up in Goa on the beach, and on that beach they met some Italian girls, and the Italian girls gave them some heroin to smoke, and that was it. I think at various points he could have stopped it – but he didn’t. So the reality is that from that moment he was an addict.’
Thus began an interminable cycle of rehabs and relapses. ‘It was a theme of my 20s,’ she says. Undergoing treatment in an addiction clinic in America, he met another recovering addict, Eva Kemeny; they married in 1992. After many years, during which they were free of drugs, had four children, and donated millions of pounds to charities concerned with drug awareness and treatment, the couple relapsed. In the months leading up to Eva’s death, they had secluded themselves in their home, resisting any attempts by their family to intervene.
‘If you take large amounts of narcotic drugs you are no longer capable of feeling,’ Rausing says. ‘It’s rather like leprosy, where you lose the feeling in your limbs. If you’re a drug addict you bump yourself against other people all the time, and you hurt their feelings, because you have no inkling how destructive your actions are, and how people around you are screaming, overcome with anxiety and sadness, and mourning. You think of them as people who are annoyingly trying to take control of your life and stopping you taking drugs.
‘Every interaction with family carries within it the potential for an intervention – and we did many interventions, and each one was intensely threatening to Hans and Eva. So therefore they entirely isolated themselves. It was a folie à deux.’
While his wealth may not have contributed to his addiction, Rausing acknowledges that the ‘shadow existence’ Hans and Eva were able to lead, with a house and staff, would not have been possible without it. ‘I think without that he would either have died of neglect or an overdose – or he would have been arrested and sent to prison.’
Hans pleaded guilty to delaying the burial of the body and received a 10-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. He emerged last year, apparently fit and well, and almost unrecognisable from the gaunt and haunted figure at the time of his arrest. Last month he announced his engagement to Julia Delves Broughton, a senior director at Christie’s auction house, and the younger sister of the fashion stylist Isabella Blow, who took her own life seven years ago. In all the years of struggle and heartache that the family had been through, had Rausing ever dared to hope that there would be such a happy outcome?
‘I had no hope,’ she says simply. ‘I don’t think any of us did. But we are delighted. It’s very moving to see Hans and Julia together.’ Rausing pauses. We have been talking for almost two hours. As an author, publisher and editor, other matters are crowding her mind. She has said enough.
Everything Is Wonderful (Grove Atlantic, £15.99) is available for £13.99 plus £1.35 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844-871 1514; books.telegraph.co.uk)