Eve Branson smiles her brilliant smile when I tell her I’ve been nervous about meeting her, and the more so when I tell her why. I have read that when her son was just four years old she put him out of the car several miles from home to find his own way back. “Well I didn’t want him growing up all namby-pamby,” she smiles.
On his website, Richard Branson says he learnt from his mother never to look back at anything you’ve done with regret. Eve clearly has no cause to regret her formidable method of child rearing.
Eve and Ted Branson are here for the Round the Island race. Ted is a huge gentle bear with the maverick longish hair that you associate with their son. She is tiny and bird-like, still with the beauty that fine bone-structure and good skin bequeath, and with the poise and elegance of a dancer: she used to be with the Ballet Rambert. Thanks to Eve’s seemingly boundless energy, even at 86, she and their Island-based friends, Anthony and Linda Churchill, are in for a strenuous weekend, up at 5.45 for the Cowes Squadron start, the National Trust’s Needles viewpoint, Blackgang, The Rex at Ventnor, then partying at the Royal London Yacht Club until past midnight. A walk is planned for the Sunday: then on the Monday she is flying off to Morocco to do the job her son has given her.
“ I’ve accepted it as normal, having someone extraordinary as a son,” says Eve.
Teenage publishing entrepreneur who founded Virgin Records, the first of the ubiquitous Virgin group businesses, Richard’s sideways approach to business – who can forget TV footage of bearded man in roll-neck jumper surrounded by all the Suits – coupled with his passion for extreme sports and challenges set him apart from most of humanity. Not least because in everything he does, he manages not to be vilified: the public like him.
This is exactly as Eve intended it. She brought Richard and his two sisters up to “perform” – entertain, put people at their ease – for house guests. “Naturally they didn’t want to, but they had to give pleasure to other people,” she says. “They weren’t allowed to be shy – that meant they were thinking of themselves. They had to be outward bound, not inward looking.” She adds, smiling: “That’s worked with Richard. Whenever he comes into a room now, people enjoy his company.”
Eve’s association with the Isle of Wight goes back to the war, when, as a young WREN she spent a year in Yarmouth. Eve’s job was to signal with Aldis lamps from the end of Yarmouth pier. “One night there were an amazing amount of boats going past, and we suddenly realized it must be the invasion. We watched them all go out, and some, not all, limp back.”
“I had a wonderful year on the Isle of Wight. Servicemen arrived daily: it was a captive audience for a young girl!” She loved wearing the bell-bottomed trousers which were “saucy”. “We didn’t do too badly!” she says, enigmatically.
Her first thought when war ended was “how can I see the world now?” The airline industry was in its infancy, and she wangled herself an interview for a job as an air hostess, a glamorous and exotic profession. She smiles wickedly: “Can you speak foreign languages?’, they said. ‘Oh yes!’ I said. ‘And do you have nursing experience?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I said. Of course neither was true!”
It was not the first time Eve danced into a new and exciting world. At the start of the war, too young to join the Forces, she applied to the local airfield to learn to fly gliders, and to teach gliding to young boys. But to get the job she had to pretend to be a boy. “I think the teachers guessed,” she laughs. “It was a little difficult sometimes on cold days in the middle of the field when you needed to spend a penny.”
Her job as air hostess proved a little too exciting for future husband Ted. The crash rate of the aircraft was not inconsiderable. “He said I’d better marry you so you can get out of this dangerous life, with planes crashing around you.”
Not that marriage meant she stopped working. “No, we started Richard on honeymoon, and there was no money in the kitty at all.” Ted was at law school, doing Bar finals, so it was down to Eve to make ends meet. It was a tough time, but she got through it by, among other things, making cushions by cutting up pillows and selling them. “I learnt to survive, and Richard has been brought up in that way. There was no silver spoon in his mouth.”
Another piece of Richard seems to slot into place. He will have drunk his entrepreneurial skills with his mother’s milk.
Richard was not, she says, an easy boy to bring up. At school he wanted to be doing things he shouldn’t be doing. Finally he was allowed to leave school because he wanted to start a magazine. “He and his little friend wrote to famous people listed in Who’s Who, asking for contributions. Some answers came back saying sorry, he died some years ago, but others wrote very lovely articles for his magazine. It was very successful.”
The picture that emerges is not of some jumped-up egotist, but of someone with incredible self-confidence. “Yes, that’s it, you’re so right,” enthuses Eve. “He knew what he wanted to do and just went for it!”
Eve has watched Richard “going for it” ever since. She has seen the launch of every dare-devil stunt and to calm her nerves when he has been in trouble, such as being lost at sea during balloon flights, she writes. “It was the only thing that got me out of myself as a mother,” she says. She is soon to produce a book.
Her energy is unquenchable. When she says Richard has given her a job with one of his charitable ventures I imagine maybe she does a little phone-bashing, sweet-talking money out of wealthy contacts. Her job actually entails travelling to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco teaching crafts to the girls of the villages which surround a hotel Virgin owns. “Richard doesn’t like to feel that Virgin is making money out of the hotel without giving something back to the local villages. So I go and teach the girls to make things, which we sell in the hotel gift shop. I started with three girls and now 40 turn up every day. I’ve got a little craft centre up there in the mountains. I love it, love it!”
The extent of Richard Branson’s charitable work isn’t widely known, but that, of course, is another attribute taken from Eve’s careful molding: to think of other people. Indeed, as you spend time with Eve Branson you realise that far from being frighteningly eccentric as a mother, she ought to be writing the definitive guide to raising kids. When her blue-eyed four-year-old didn’t turn up at home she was frantic like any mother – “I’d be locked up for it today” – but she got what she wanted. “It’s wonderful having a fearless son.”