It’s easy to see where Sir Richard Branson gets his energy from – his fabulously feisty mother, Eve. Here she brushes aside a broken hip, only slightly regrets throwing Richard out of her car aged five and plans to be in the mothership when Virgin Galactic launches.
Eve, you’re recovering from not one but two operations to repair a broken hip. How did that happen?
I took a tumble in the middle of the night. It was such bad luck. I was on holiday last August with my family at my son Richard’s home on Necker in the British Virgin Islands. I got up at around 5am and, crossing an outdoor walkway in the dark, I took a purler and tumbled a short distance down a cliff. I broke my left hip in two places, although I didn’t know what the damage was at the time. I just knew it was very painful.
I managed to get upright, but couldn’t move, so I hung on to a fence post for about an hour until a member of staff heard my shrieks. I must have passed out because when I woke up the family was at my bedside.
And you were on a small private island...
A surgeon on a neighbouring island operated and did his best, but after two weeks of hobbling like a pregnant penguin, the wound was producing substances I’d rather not mention. I’d caught a bug – the worst kind – and the pain was getting worse, not better. The annual storms were gathering and they wanted to get me home and into more experienced hands. They took me straight to the hospital from the airport, and once they’d got rid of the virus, the surgeon took out the hip that had been replaced, and put in a new one. The first one was so old-fashioned. It looks like a door-knocker, so I’m going to use it as one.
Was it then a straightforward recovery?
Yes, I was very lucky. The physiotherapist gets you moving a day or so after the operation. As the days go by, you get more adventurous. Soon you’re on only one stick, and they teach you to walk down stairs, accompanied by a symphony of grumps and groans.
I went home after two weeks. At first it was very uncomfortable, but I worked at my physiotherapy every day – I recommend swimming – and I’m pretty much back to normal. I walk unaided and can drive again.
For a very active person, it can’t have been easy being out of action...
I’ve been put back with this hip, but I’m not going to regret it. It happened, and things go wrong for everyone. I suppose if you throw yourself around, it’s the price you pay for leading an active life. You’ve got to keep happy, then you can give happiness. You can’t if you’re not happy yourself. But it was tedious! I’ve never done nothing. You’ve got to be constructive with your time.
But these days I write, which I love, and I read, too. Luckily, I can always lose myself in a really good book that can teach you something – and I don’t mean Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve just been reading about Madame Mao. I’m learning French and, although I’m not good at languages and I’m very slow, I make sure I do half an hour a day. I’m also taking computer lessons, although I really am hopeless.
Have you always been healthy in the past?
Health is, in some respects, a matter of luck, and one of the blessings in my life is that I can still see and hear all right. But I started life as a ballet dancer, and I’ve always made a real effort to be fit. I had a scuba diving lesson the day after the Necker fire in 2011, for instance. I go for a walk most days, and I hope to get back on the golf course. I’m crazy about golf.
I was playing tennis the night before the accident. I used to be quite good. A good loser? I’d rather not lose, naturally, but I never get grumpy. It’s too much effort. I very seldom get upset.
Where did this energy and joie de vivre come from?
It must be in the genes. My mother was advanced for her time, and very adventurous. She won all sorts of sporting awards, kept active and, at 89, became the oldest person to pass an advanced ballroom dancing exam. She made it into the Guinness Book of Records at 90 when she became the oldest person in the world to hit a hole in one at golf. An amazing woman.
My father was sweet and gentle and kind, but Mummy felt very frustrated that she was stuck in the depths of Devon with him. She sent me off to London when I was 14. She pushed me onto a train and, as dancing was my passion, told me to start being a ballet dancer. I had to just do it. Looking back, I’m very grateful she kicked me out of Devon. She realised I would go bonkers with boredom if I was down there, and she didn’t want the two of us going bonkers together.
But a country childhood is supposed to be idyllic, isn’t it?
The trouble was that there wasn’t much to do there. I used to try to make money by selling raspberries. My father looked after some apple trees, so I used to make a few pennies by picking apples for him, too. It was a very dull, unexciting young life. I could have been stuck in the country for the rest of my days, still picking apples. But I’m sure something would have happened – I’d probably have started making my own cider out of the apples.
In London I stayed first as a PG [paying guest] with a family Mummy found that I didn’t know from Adam. After that, I went to a women-only ladies club, because my parents were frightened I’d lose my virginity. My father was a bit stuffy. Did I lose my virginity? I’m not telling you that!
Did you become a ballet dancer?
Yes, and I did various shows. Then the war came, and I joined the Royal Navy. I’m dyslexic like Richard, but they taught me to be a signaller. It was the best time of my life. After the war, I joined ENSA [Entertainments National Service Association] and toured Germany. The troops were so bored they quite liked our ballet, although I couldn’t get up on tiptoe because I was so out of practice. I was an air hostess after that.
I fell in love with my late husband, Ted, at a party. He’d been a dashing cavalry officer, and we soon got married. We had Richard far too soon. I wouldn’t advise anybody to conceive their first baby on the first night of their honeymoon. Everything went wrong: we had no money and Ted had failed his Bar finals and had no job.
How did you cope?
While Ted retook his exams, I started a little business, making things in the back garden, such as tablemats, or coverings for wastepaper baskets. I’d take them off to Harrods and sell them. My first daughter, Lindy, came along quite quickly [Vanessa followed six years later], and I didn’t want to neglect the children, so I had to be inventive.
Richard was hell. He was like quicksilver – all over the place from the start. I worry that children today are spoiled and over-coddled, and yet not given the freedom they need. When Richard was five, he was being very stroppy in the car coming home, and I said, ‘OK, out! You can walk home. You know we live down the valley.’ I suppose it would have been a couple of miles. He didn’t mind. Over the hedge he went, but when we got home, no Richard.
When it started getting dark, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ I honked the car horn, so he might hear that to guide him. Finally, I got a call from the neighbouring farmer, ‘I’ve got a little blue-eyed boy here. Does he belong to you?’ What a relief! I think we both learned something. But he had to be independent.
The first time you’ve had to wait anxiously for Richard, but not the last?
Goodness, no! My heart has been in my mouth so many times, especially when he was going round the world in his silly little balloon. His wife Joan never wanted to go, but he always included us, and we had to go. He’d ditch in the sea, or once he got lost and landed on an ice lake in Newfoundland. We were searching and searching in an old helicopter...
It must have been a nightmare!
Still, when he was found, he popped his nose out and asked for a taxi. He always has a sense of humour. But the only way I could cope with those awful moments when I didn’t know if he was alive or dead would be to write about it. I’d write and write and write, in longhand. That’s what started me. That’s led me on to write my book, and I’m thrilled to have something to leave behind me.
Richard’s had quite a few accidents, and I hope he won’t be doing anything more dangerous now, although he kitesurfed from England to France recently. But he did say it was heavy going. He’s 62, isn’t he? 61? [He’s 62, Ed.]
How do you cope with ageing?
I make sure I have something on the go at all times and don’t worry about myself. If you can’t help yourself, help somebody else. At the moment, I’m busy organising a charity polo match in Morocco in April to raise money for the Eve Branson Foundation, which helps the people of the Atlas Mountains.
And in practical and personal terms?
I had a very healthy upbringing. My mother was conscious of nutrition, and used to study it. We certainly weren’t allowed chips, or anything with fat, or sugary things, so I just don’t want to eat that sort of thing.
Fish is good, or chicken occasionally, but I never had red meat as a child, so it doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t really eat potatoes, either. One slice of wholemeal toast, perhaps, that’s about it. A boiled egg or a banana for breakfast – not much.
It sounds very abstemious?
Well, let’s get our priorities right. I have a whisky at night. Wine is too acid, whereas whisky is pure. At least I say that to myself. It’s my relaxation every night, from six o’clock onwards. Just old Bell’s, cheap and cheerful, and I like it with soda. More than one? Might be two, why not? Might be three...
The other thing is to get a decent haircut, and spend money on your face. Don’t let yourself go. Don’t think you can do without your lipstick. You can’t. I’ve never used moisturiser, but I use make-up every day: foundation, eye shadow, eyeliner. Most important is a decent bra. M&S is fine, but you’ve got to keep your bosom up, not let it sag.
What else is important?
To see the humour in things and to laugh a lot. I try not to have any hate come into my life. It’s terribly important, because hate kills something in you. Love is just the best thing. Just hang on to it. Love everything, even if it’s just pulling curtains open in the morning, looking at the flowers and birds, and genuinely appreciating them.
It must have been a great loss to you when your husband died two years ago?
Of course, but you know it wasn’t awful. Ted died in his sleep at 93, and you cannot feel awful. So many others have to lose their dignity and have terrible pain, whereas he was a dignified old gentleman, and he died peacefully. Naturally I miss him, of course I do. Sometimes when I see a couple holding hands, I get a bit of a lump in my throat.
However, I try not to feel sorry for myself ever, because it’s so easy. Once you do, the rot sets in. You’re lost. I cry over books and things, but I’m very lucky, I have family and wonderful friends. Just a few good friends. Friendship is so important, especially when age gets you down. It’s comforting to know the rest of the world is getting older, too.
Do you worry about death?
Not at all – if I can go like Ted, in my sleep, the ideal way of doing it. How do I think Richard will cope when I do? Funnily enough, he didn’t seem to mind when Ted died. He didn’t come to the funeral, or perhaps he couldn’t cope. Did it upset me? Nothing upsets me.
Do you feel fortunate?
Of course I do. I’ve been so blessed in many ways. I’ve been so lucky to travel so much. I’ve always been curious, so the more you can see in your life the better. And if I’m still around when Richard’s Virgin Galactic takes off with its first paying passengers, I plan to go up in the mothership, which Richard has called Eve, to wave them off. I have no desire to go into space in my nineties, but that should be fun. After all, you’ve only got one life. You should enjoy every waking minute of it. Just enjoy it.
Mum’s the Word: the High Flying Adventures of Eve Branson is published by Authorhouse, £23.99.