I meet Eve Branson, redoubtable pensioner, author and philanthropist, a few days before her 90th birthday. What, I wonder, would she like her billionaire son Richard to give her as a present?
She looks a touch startled, as if she has never given the matter the slightest thought, and that the notion of anyone presenting her with a gift would be trivial and wholly unnecessary. “Well,” she says, after several seconds of furrowing her brow. “One always wants another wireless.”
Despite having raised one of the most successful business magnates of recent times (Richard, the founder of the Virgin Group is the eldest of her three children and her only son), Eve doesn’t expect a great deal for herself. “We were very, very poor when Richard was a child,” she explains. “We had to try and make money every way we could. It doesn’t do you any harm to know what it’s like to struggle.”
Her husband, Ted, had failed his bar exams, leaving his young family without a steady income for much of the 1950s. With three children to look after, Eve took matters into her own hands at their home in Shamley Green, Surrey.
“I started a little factory in the back garden and made things like table mats or coverings for wastepaper baskets,” she says. “And I used to go off and sell them to Harrods.”
She is very much of the generation that simply got on and did things, refusing to complain or wallow in self-pity. The idea of an extravagant birthday present still seems profoundly indulgent, all these years later, and those early experiences of going out to make a living have left her with an entrepreneurial spirit and a firm belief in the value of female economic empowerment.
To this end, she has been running the Eve Branson Foundation in Morocco for the past 16 years, helping local women in the villages of the Atlas Mountains to set up sustainable enterprises making craft items for sale. In an area of high illiteracy and impoverishment, where most girls leave school at the age of 13 to work in family smallholdings, the Foundation offers a chance to learn the skills necessary for economic independence.
“I’m completely in love with Morocco,” says Eve, who flies there whenever she can find the excuse. “And these women, they’ve never really had the chance to make their own money. Up to the time I took them on, they had nothing – not even transport, they couldn’t get anywhere.”
Eve was inspired to start her charity in 1998 when accompanying her son to Morocco on his world-record-beating attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon. While she was there, she stumbled across a glorious kasbah in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, a 45-minute drive south of Marrakech. She persuaded Richard to buy it.
“He said: ‘All right, but on one condition: you have to look after all the villages around it,’ and I said: ‘All right, I will.’”
She began with one village, teaching three girls to knit – “One pearl, one plain” – and bit by bit, the word spread. Now there are three villages under the Foundation’s remit, with around 40 women in each supporting both themselves and the local community. In one village, profits from the women’s enterprise were used for digging a well and providing the inhabitants with clean drinking water for the first time.
The work of the Foundation is the subject of a new short documentary, Eve’s Girls, directed by filmmaker Georgie Weedon, which follows Eve around as she gamely scrabbles up pathways to mountain-top villages without so much as a walking stick. The cameras also trail her as she embarks on the logistical challenge of organising a charity polo match in Morocco to raise funds. Why polo, I ask?
She replies, eyes gleaming: “I do think they’re awfully attractive, those polo players, so I thought: ‘Right, let’s get them to play.’”
We meet when she is back in England, in the civilised environs of the Hurlingham Club in southwest London. She has been a member for years and everyone from the security guard to the waiter knows her by name.
She sits, straight-backed in a lemon-yellow jacket, on a wicker sofa in the conservatory. Her lipstick is freshly applied. Her blonde-white hair is cropped and blow-dried and offsets a deep, conkerish tan. She is incredibly striking: the planes of her cheekbones as sharp as her cut-glass accent.
A feeling of Downton-esque calm pervades. There is a game of croquet taking place on one of the manicured lawns. A fountain tinkles lightly in the background. On the stroke of midday, Eve orders a chilled bottle of rosé because that’s the kind of thing you can do if you’re 90 and don’t give much of a damn.
In truth, she credits her longevity and continued gusto to a daily dose of Bell’s whisky and “always having something constructive to do”. As well as her charity work, she is an author and has written a memoir and a series of children’s books. But she doesn’t like to make a fuss about her own achievements. Which is why, until now, the only thing most of us knew about Eve Branson is that she was saved from a fire on Necker, her son’s private Caribbean island, by the Hollywood actor Kate Winslet.
Eve rolls her eyes when I bring it up. Three years have passed since her son’s holiday home was engulfed in flames and burnt to the ground. Eve had gone there to recuperate after the death of her husband in March 2011 and, at the time, media reports made much of Winslet’s heroism.
“Oh no! I’m sick of this story,” she says, laughing. “It was the hurricane of hurricanes and we were on fire and we would have all been burnt alive if it wasn’t for my grandsons. It was four or five in the morning and they went around getting everyone out of bed. I remember saying: ‘I’d better put my mac on’ because I wanted to cover up and Jack [her grandson] saying: ‘No, not right now.’
“Anyway, I’d just about got outside and the rain was pouring down and I didn’t have my contact lenses in, but I was making my way out and Kate and her two children were behind me. Then she just sort of picked me up and took me down four steps and that was it. I’m sorry, I can’t make a story out of it.” So she wasn’t, in fact, saved by Kate Winslet at all?
“I suppose I might have been a bit slow for her,” Eve says, diplomatically.
It is difficult to imagine Eve Branson allowing anyone to save her from anything. She is zestier than an unwaxed citrus fruit and has a get-on-and-do-it attitude that makes her hilariously formidable company.
Her father worked in finance and moved the family to Devon when she was young. Her mother (who, at 90, became the oldest person in the world to hit a hole-in-one at golf) hated living in the sticks and packed Eve off to London at the age of 14 to train as a ballet dancer. As a child, she was never much good at school and couldn’t spell – it was only later that she was diagnosed with dyslexia, a condition she shares with her son. Typically, Eve refused to see it as a disadvantage: “I got away with an awful lot by being cheeky. I just really enjoyed my life. Being dyslexic, you can see very clearly. So with the Foundation, I could see I would make money out of polo. I hear Richard is like me. We would be hopeless over figures, but we can see the bigger thing.”
She was 19 when the Second World War broke out. Determined to do her bit, she says she disguised herself as a boy and took herself off to the RAF cadets to train as a glider pilot – brave, considering the medical examinations these things usually entail. When she was found out (“I think I called myself John or something stupid like that. I think they knew pretty early on”), Eve joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service as a Wren. “Those lovely bell-bottomed trousers…” she says, letting the thought trail.
She was posted to the Isle of Wight. Despite the rationing and the ever-present danger, she ended up having a whale of a time. With her good looks and ballerina’s poise, I can imagine her being a hit with all the navy men. Was she naughty?
Eve tilts her head. “Just a little bit.”
After the war, she briefly became an air hostess (“We were always crashing… everybody was being sick”) before meeting her future husband at a party where she proffered him a plate of sausages. He proposed while she was riding in his motorcycle sidecar and she gave up work to marry him in 1949. Richard was born the following year. His two sisters, Vanessa and Lindy, followed.
As a child, Richard was, Eve remembers, “Very naughty, like quicksilver. One tried to keep up with him and it was pretty hard. He was a tricky one to raise. There was something there, you felt he was a bit special so you couldn’t be too cross with him. It’s important to give a child like that his head – within limitations.”
Eve was encouraging but firm. Once, when he was “being stroppy” in the car at the age of five, she pulled over at the side of the road and left him there to make his own way home. But from the start, just like his mother, he had an entrepreneurial streak: “He was very conscious that the family had very little money and he was always starting to do things.”
One year, he grew Christmas trees for sale: “But we had to look after them and then the rabbits ate them.” When he was 15, he tried breeding budgerigars, but the birds kept multiplying when he went off to boarding school and, in the end, Eve got tired of looking after them and so, “I opened all the doors and let them go free.”
At 17, he left school with one A-level to launch a magazine for students and start selling pop records. He called his company Virgin. Was his mother shocked by the name?
“Darling, with Richard, we weren’t surprised at anything.”
Looking at her eldest child now, a business pioneer with a £3bn fortune, whose face is instantly recognisable around the world, she admits she finds it surreal. “It’s most odd. Last night, I was here and someone came up and said: ‘Mrs Branson, your son’s on television,’ and there he was in the royal box at Wimbledon! He’ll always be my baby.”
Is she proud of him? “No,” she says crisply. “I don’t think proud’s the word. I think I’ve expected it of him always. But I never hear a bad word about him, which is pretty amazing. He’s really nice to everybody.”
His next project is Virgin Galactic, which aims to provide spaceflights for tourists. He has named the mothership, from which the spacecraft will ultimately launch, Eve. The idea is that, when the time comes, “I will press the knob [to release them],” says Eve, delightedly. “I hope in the right way.” She fully intends to rocket into space herself. Does she know when that might be? “I think it’s the end of the year.” A pause. “It’s always ‘the end of the year’.”
For the time being, she’s busy with her Foundation, learning French and writing a children’s book. She has a half-formed plan to go on a canal holiday for a piece of travel journalism. Not forgetting her 11 grandchildren. She even has a great-grandson now, called Bear. And there are plans to turn her memoir, Mum’s the Word, into a film.
I can see her on the big screen. There’s more than a touch of Katharine Hepburn about her. Eve looks shocked.
“She’s dead isn’t she?”
Yes, I say. She wouldn’t be able to take on the role. Perhaps Cate Blanchett would be good? Branson considers this for a moment.
“She’s not dead is she?” No – still very much alive. As is the mighty Eve Branson herself.
To watch Eve’s Girls: The Story of the Eve Branson Foundation,
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010