'Josephine has been with me for 33 years, for the last two of them, she's been dead'
Writer Josephine Hart died from cancer two years ago. Her husband Maurice Saatchi still remains as devoted to his wife as ever
Published 13/10/2013 | 05:00
IN a revealing and moving interview, Maurice Saatchi – brother of Charles – spoke about the love of his life, Irish writer Josephine Hart and how he has breakfast at her tomb nearly every day. Having told interviewer George Lee about his family's roots in Iraq, and how they moved to London when he was 11 months old, he then talked about the early days of Saatchi and Saatchi, and its quick growth – which he put down to "genius, brilliance, one or the other". They also spoke about advertising and politics, and the "intellectual battles" of election campaigns, before moving on to Mrs Thatcher at which point our transcript begins.
George Lee: I wonder, was politics important in the growth of the business? Because you're clearly interested yourself, as you say, in the intellectual arguments around politics and you had some connection with Michael Heseltine from a very young age after leaving college. Was that connection important in the direction that your business took?
Maurice Saatchi: Very. And, of course, we've recently had the funeral of Margaret Thatcher and there's no doubt at all that she played a crucial part in the history of the company because when the time came to try and expand the company in America she had given us, in America certainly, the ultimate calling card, which was "Mrs Thatcher's Favourite Advertising Company", which opened every door and so, as I told her directly many times, I think it's true to say that she made us.
GL: One of the other big things which you're well known for at this stage Lord Saatchi is your love affair with your wife, actually Josephine Hart, an Irish woman from Mullingar. Tell us a bit about that. Was it love at first sight?
MS: Well, Josephine Hart and I have been together now for 33 years, for the first 31 of them she was alive for the last two of them she was dead, but it makes no difference, we are together, she is me, I am her, we are one.
GL: That's a terribly strong relationship, Lord Saatchi. You met her through work?
MS: Yes. Her life was undoubtedly completely composed in Mullingar in that three of Josephine's siblings – two brothers and a sister – all died when she was a girl, by either illness or accident and this most certainly was the formative basis of her writing and all her interest in poetry.
GL: She wrote one book called Damage and you encouraged her in that.
MS: Yes, I did. Damage was her first book – she had written 10,000 words and she had then put it in a drawer and didn't think much of it, and yes, I did. I ruthlessly said at a dinner with Britain's leading literary agent – who we knew well – a line which all literary agents must dread coming from the husband or the partner of the author: "Well my wife has written 10,000 words, would you like to read them?" To which Ed Victor said, "Yes sure", so she sent them to him very reluctantly and she was furious with me for doing that, because I hadn't sought her permission to do it. Anyway, she sent them to him, he read the 10,000 words and he said they were marvellous and he told her to carry on and finish the book. Which she did and sold a million copies. It was her first book, it was made into a film by Louis Mal starring Jeremy Irons and it was a remarkable start to her career.
GL: What happened to her?
MS: She had a tummy ache . . . do you want to know this story? It's not an attractive story.
MS: She had a tummy ache and we were due to go for Christmas to our house in the country, but she had a tummy ache for a few days and I very, very foolishly said: "Well why don't you go and see the doctor in case the surgeries in Sussex aren't around over Christmas – it could be a good thing to get antibiotics or whatever". Anyway, she went. At 10.30, she rang me I was in the office and said that the doctor had examined her tummy and he said to her that he wanted her to go and have a scan. She said she would and she'd go after Christmas. He said: "No, I'd like you to go now." She went to Harley Street, she saw somebody else who said he wanted her to have the scan right away, she had the scan and most of the day had now passed, and at 5.30 we were due to be given the results of the scan. We arrived promptly at 5.30 and we left at 5.32. Well, they finished Josephine Hart with three words. "Malignant, Advanced, Inoperable".
GL: And it took its course.
MS: Yeah, a year and a bit. Cancer must be the most emotive word in the English language, the most fearsome word, and I assure, you richly deserved. Cancer is relentless, remorseless, merciless. Its treatment is medieval, degrading and ineffective.
The reason this whole calamitous story is that I've introduced a whole Bill in the House of Lords called 'The Medical Innovation Bill'. It's supposed to try to encourage more bold scientific innovation by releasing doctors. It's particularly aimed at cancer but it also deals with all other complex diseases ... I suppose, fatal diseases.
It's designed to affect a situation [in] which right now all cancer deaths are wasted lives. I don't mean by that the sentimental sense which is "What a pity the person didn't have a chance to fulfil their . . ." as people say. I don't mean that at all. I mean their wasted lives in the sense of pure science. In that the deceased only receive the standard procedure, so science does not advance by one centimetre as a result of Josephine Hart's death, or the death of any other cancer victim.
This is because the law requires doctors. . . for their own protection in terms of litigation against them being sued for medical negligence – the only safe course for a doctor is to stick to the well-worn path of the standard procedure. If the doctor deviates from the standard procedure and anything goes wrong and there is a trial the doctor will likely be found guilty of medical negligence, and so the object of the bill is to try and substitute for the standard practice the best practice, and try and do that in a safe way which protects patients and protects doctors but at the same time allows scientific innovation to take place.
We don't want reckless experimentation which puts patients' lives at risk, we don't want patients being treated like mice, but on the other hand we do want bold scientific innovation, otherwise the cancer survival rates are going to stay as dismal as they are for the next 100 years.
GL: Well, with a bit of luck you'll make some achievement in relation to that. Obviously it's very clear from what you're saying, Lord Saatchi, about grief. That you really, really feel the loss two years on but yet you still feel that Josephine Hart is with you as you described earlier.
MS: Yes, so in effect, I've turned into a woman because that is my aim. I am trying to make sure her poetry hour continues as it did – and I'm very, very happy to carry on with that work in my capacity as Josephine Hart.
GL: I have read stories, I presume they're true, about you visiting her tomb at breakfast time,
MS: Yes, I do do that.
GL: To have breakfast at her tomb?
MS: Yes, I do – it's our tomb actually, it's a temple in a wood and under the temple which we built together, because she knew what was happening, obviously, is a lead-lined room in which she is there and I will be.
She always liked the expression "Hang on Mabel, I'm coming". So that's what I'm doing.
GL: Did you discuss the fact when you say, she knew she was going to die and you were building the tomb together, did you discuss the fact that you would come there and have breakfast.
GL: You feel compelled?
MS: Because I didn't know I would. Well, I can assure you it's not a duty, it's not a duty at all.
It's a most important pleasure, and I'm in London now, but I was there this morning and the only time this doesn't happen is when I'm in London which is not so much these days. . . I'm happier there than here.
GL: So you live your life as if Josephine is right beside you really?
MS: Well, in a way that your listeners will probably consider completely mad. I lay out all Josephine Hart's plates and knives and forks and glasses at all meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And I did think about that myself, that this is really bordering on madness, but then I read that Queen Victoria kept the utensils for Prince Albert being laid out for every meal for 42 years – so I don't think I'm as crazy as that. And she liked to say about Prince Albert that because he wasn't there that he had momentarily stepped out of the room.
GL: Well your new campaign that you're involved with, 'Books are my Bag', Josephine is tied up in that really as well, as your inspiration.
MS: Yes, undoubtedly, because Josephine wrote: "Without reading, life would have been less comprehensible, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable." And she said that reading TS Elliot for the first time was "a physical shock", and she said having come to England when she was 20 from Mullingar, as she put it, "that for a girl with no sense of direction, reading was a route map through life".
She was thinking in particular about poetry because she was taught by the nuns of the St Louis Convent in Carrickmacross what she called a literary, hierarchical system of Orwellian precision – novels good, plays better, poetry best.
GL: And the whole point of the campaign is to get people to shop in local bookshops rather than go online, keep the book shops open because that keeps people's connections with reading, am I right?
MS: Yes, completely. To put it in two parts, let's say the first part is, "why read a book at all?".
So as I was just saying in Josephine Hart's mind, "reading is lifesaving" in the way that I describe and certainly in her life it was the formative thing towards her great happiness in life, despite the calamities that struck her in her childhood.
So then the next question is, "okay, I agree I have to read, but why do I have to go to a bookshop to buy a book. I can go elsewhere."
Well there are some compelling reasons worth considering.
There is one thing that cannot happen online, which does happen in a bookshop – I think you call it serendipity – which is a human being doesn't necessarily know what it wants so it's not as easy as just saying, "well I'm only interested in roses so I'm going to the rose section and then I'm going to buy a book on climbing roses" because the human mind wanders all over the place and serendipity happens in a bookshop in a way that it can't happen anywhere else.
I'll give you an example, the other day I was in a very nice bookshop and for no reason at all – because I'm not interested in this subject – I was looking at the military history section and I happened to see a book on Napoleon's Greatest Victories, next to it there was something about Nelson's naval strategy and in between the two, I had no interest in either of them, in between the two unbelievably was a book on the history of the music hall – an illustrated history of the music hall – and because John Major is a dear man and he had just published a book on the history of the music hall because his father was in the music hall, I bought him this book and he didn't have it and he was thrilled with it, I was thrilled to give it to him and there you are.
That's serendipity, which can only happen in a bookshop because people don't know what they necessarily want it's just going to happen; that's one of the things about being a human being, isn't it?
GL: Well, now you're a man who's done an awful lot of thinking about issues in life and you've had great experiences with the people you have met and the challenges that you have been fighting for or trying to promote from time to time, looking back.
I don't know if it's a good time to look back – you're not ready to look back – is there a message that you'd give people about life and experiences, the ones that you've had and what you've learned.
MS: Again, I have to turn to Josephine Hart. We could try Robert Browning, "Love is all, death is nought"
GL: Lord Saatchi, thank you very much.
MS: Thank you.
This interview was First broadcast on 'The Business with George Lee' on RTE Radio 1, two weeks ago.