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Risk and the devil that drives

For years he remained a mysterious figure, alluded to in the novel The English Patient simply as "older brother". Yet with a new literary prize, knighthood, and the unveiling of a major philanthropic foundation, millionaire writer and explorer Sir Christopher Ondaatje is now stepping firmly into the limelight, says Nick Ryan.


It is a warm, wet summer’s day when we meet. The grey sky hems in the pollution and noise of the London traffic below. But here, inside the ornately-furnished apartment of the man nicknamed "The English Patron", lies another world.

The sound of jazz floats down a corridor. Oil paintings, marble busts, Persian carpets and objets d’arts line the walls. A maid wanders past. The smell, feel of the place, with its mahogany furniture and colonial antiques, speaks of old money. Yet this is no aristocratic refuge.

For Christopher Ondaatje, 69, its owner, is nothing if not a self-made man. Someone who had it all, then lost it, before building up a billion-dollar business empire. Not content with that, in his spare time he became an Olympic sportsman, photographer and international art collector, then gave it all up to pursue a life of writing, exploration and philanthropy. Not your average aristocrat, indeed.

"I wanted to set myself free," explains the tall, dapper figure. In the flesh, Ondaatje is lean, his silver hair smoothed back onto his skull, his accent clipped, a curious blend of the post-colonial and trans-Atlantic. "I was in North America, hacking my way through the jungles of finance. I’d sold my soul to the devil – ‘the devil that drives’, as my hero, the explorer Sir Richard Burton, once said – when I probably should have been hacking through other jungles, doing some other thing. My fear then was dying with ‘financier’ written on my gravestone." He pauses, to pour out coffee from a silver pot. "I was lucky enough to be able to
chuck it in."

Now the newly-knighted "Sir" Christopher, the elder brother of novelist Michael Ondaatje, has hit national attention. Last month he was knighted for "services to charity and the community" - causing a certain amount of (media-led) controversy, and prompting a Downing Street statement, following a £2 million donation to the Labour Party – and more recently he’s been busy establishing himself as one of the UK’s leading philanthropists.

In 2000 Ondaatje paid out nearly £3 million to London’s National Portrait Gallery, to help build its new "Ondaatje Wing". A year later, he donated
£1.5 million to the Royal Geographical Society, for a lecture theatre ("The Ondaatje Theatre") and archive. He’s also given a hefty £1.2 million to his old school, Blundell’s, in Devon; over $1.25 million to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; a further $1 million for a new ["The Christopher Ondaatje"] South Asian gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum; and £100,000 to the Tate Britain, to save a Van Dyck painting for the nation.

Furthermore, he supports dozens of charities (for the blind, for battered women, and many more) to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds each year, and sponsors an annual award at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. As if that were not enough, Ondaatje mentions he’s created a new charity, The Ondaatje English Foundation, backed with £15 million of his own money. Its aim will be to encourage projects leading to "the development of learning and international understanding."

And to cap it all, as co-owner of the famous Literary Review magazine he’s now the sponsor of a brand new literary prize, the annual £10,000 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. This is for "a book of the highest literary merit - fiction or non fiction - that evokes the spirit of a place".

All of which might lead one to ask: why?

"The philanthropy’s not a drive" he says, almost casually, as we fetch up in his study. The place is packed, wall-to-ceiling, with a collection of first-edition, leather-bound books. "In fact, philanthropy is a responsibility," he admits, sighing. "I understand more than most people that it’s one thing to make money. If you just make money and don’t do anything with it to help other people, it’s a wasted life. I want to give something back." He pauses, flipping open a journal from one of his numerous foreign expeditions, showing me the photos within. (Apart from philanthropy, he’s also an accomplished explorer). "It’s easy enough to write a cheque. But it’s more difficult to get involved, to make sure something works, such as with the National Portrait Gallery [on a £16 million expansion] or the Royal Geographical Society "Unlocking the Archives" project [which will cost £12 million]. My financial contribution is relatively small, but it’s much more important from an involvement status." He doesn’t like simply writing a cheque, he says: being"involved", having a say, is clearly more important.

I ask him about his donation to Labour. Ondaatje was a lifelong Conservative. It raised many eyebrows, coming as it did before the last general election. What was philanthropic about that? His eyes flash in answer – locking onto mine, intense – and I feel some of the force of will that has clearly driven him over the past seven decades.

"Oh, come on! You’re not still going on about
that, are you?" The question appears rhetorical. "It was ridiculous. It wasn’t a big deal, a big decision in my mind. The Conservative Party had come to the end of its tether. They were in disarray, divided on Europe, and they didn’t have a leader I thought
was qualified to lead this country. Now Blair was the right person at the right time, he still is, and I backed him." The tone is final.

Once, during a past meeting, I’d witnessed similar intensity. Deep in the bowels of London’s Traveller’s Club, he’d railed against what he called "spiteful journalism", after a tabloid newspaper printed allegations about his private life, and a supposed-rivarly with his brother. He’d dismissed this with an exasperated wave of his hand. "He’s all right. He’s a very close friend of mine, an unbelievable writer. You know, why don’t they just leave him alone?" he stumbled. "There’s no rivalry about it. I’m not a rival of his in the literary world, any more than he’s a rival of mine in the philanthropic world."

He says the two have forged a close bond, and describes bringing him over from their native Ceylon [Sri Lanka] first to England, then later Canada, when Michael was in his teens.

"So what kind of person is he?" I ask.

"He’s a nice guy," replies Ondaatje, clearing his throat in the warm, constant air of the apartment. "But I think he’s more laid-back, more literary than me. The literary world is his all-consuming passion. He’s a poet, really. He’s earned his success; he worked hard for it. I don’t think my brother wanted to do anything else [but write]. And despite my success in finance, I felt that way too. I always have."

The elder Ondaatje had been sent to England at the age of 12, for private schooling. Raised in a plantation-owning family of Dutch burghers, his father Mervyn succumbed to drink. When the post-colonial crash came after Ceylon’s independence, the family fortune was lost. Ondaatje had to leave his beloved Blundell’s school, and go to work in the City. His mother by that time had joined him, too. A former dancer, she was reduced to running a boarding house. His father would die without ever seeing his son again. This loss indeed, the lack of a father figure - clearly seems a driving force in his life. (In his writings, he constantly refers to "the ghost of my father").

Offered a post in a bank back in Colombo, Ondaatje explains his decision to head "East, not West", and emigrated to Canada. His aim, he says, was "to rebuild the family’s fortunes".

"And I roughed it," he adds, moving into an impassioned account of the past. "I roughed it like any other early pioneer - where you can make mistakes, pick yourself up and start over again. And I hacked my way through Canada, until I got onto Bay Street [the financial heart] in about 1965. And then by about 1970 I had learned everything I could about North American finance, and I’d got myself into a position of power where I could start my own firm and then after that," he pauses, as if stating the obvious, "everything I touched turned to gold." His businesses, a publishing company and an institutional brokerage, went on to control over $1.2 billion of assets. "I sold them all, right after the 1987 crash," he recalls. "I had reached where I thought I wanted to get to and I was back where I really wanted to be in the world. So at that point, right, there’s this poor guy from Ceylon who goes to Canada penniless, relatively successful, what are you going to do with your life?"

He packed it all in, heading out on a safari with his wife, Valda (someone"who understand the devils in me") in 1988. "We chased this wretched leopard, and I got a book out of it! [Leopard In The Afternoon]. I realised that’s what I wanted to do. It wasn’t a big deal, a very simple choice. So I chose this life. Achieving, exploring, living the life of my heroes, writing about my heroes, to do the things I really wanted to do in life" – he stutters, almost caught up in his own excitement – "in whatever time was left to me."

By this time, he’d already represented Canada at bobsledding, in the Olympic Games in 1964; had built one of the world’s largest South Asian art collections; and had written and financed the publication of the first of his best-selling books, The Prime Ministers of Canada: 1867-1967 (it sold 600,000 copies).

Language and writing seem close to the heart of this former financier. Notwithstanding his brother’s achievements, Ondaatje is an accomplished
biographer himself, an expert on the explorers of the Victorian age (he recreated their journeys in his best-selling book, Journey to the Source of the Nile). He has also written a biography of Hemingway, and his time in Africa, which will be published this autumn.

As our conversation turns towards Hemingway, how he "strove to live the ideal", and Ondaatje’s attempts to piece together the role of Africa in his
life, I ask if he considers himself a natural writer. "No," he says, decisively. "My brother is a natural writer. I have to work like hell at it. I don’t use all the facets of the English language like Shakespeare does. I have a much more natural bent for finance. It takes me all kinds of sacrifices to write."

There is an unnerving intensity to his words. He talks of "becoming" his characters, how he "lives his hero" as he traces their footsteps. He did so in his travels through the Congo, during his attempts to follow the famous Nile explorers of the Victorian age. His hero is the adventurer Sir Richard Burton, who had worked as a spy for the Empire in India; stole into Mecca in disguise; and translated the Kama Sutra into English. He is someone Ondaatje has admitted to "being obsessed about, 99.9 percent of the time" throughout his life. "When I got into writing the Burton book [a biography, Sindh Revisited], I was Burton," he says.

It’s clear he is attracted to strong male figures, people striving against adversity to prove themselves. I wonder, aloud, if there was the same attraction to Hemingway?

"Not Hemingway at all. He was always third person. I could never be Hemingway. I both love him and abhor him." He coughs. "I understand his love for Africa. I’ve felt it. I’ve tasted it. I’ve touched it. But I’m not him. In Burton’s case, I was him. I could think him. In Hemingway’s case, I was always looking in from the outside."

For Ondaatje, life has to have an essence of risk. As he explains: "I have to go to the end of the line and fall over the edge. You have to pick up the pieces and put them together. For me, it’s the essence of risk," he emphasises the last word, "that makes a thing work. I can only get the life out of a place if danger is involved."

Does his mortality drive him? "Probably, probably. But I’m lucky," the philanthropist adds. "I gave everything up: finance, adulation, power, business, all that, because I wanted to do this other thing. I wanted to write, I wanted to explore. It’s a wonderfully satisfying world. It’s completely different. Nothing to do with money. But it hasn’t stopped. Tomorrow is tomorrow. And there are all kinds of other things I want to do."

This story was commissioned for The Scotsman© 2006. Woolf in Ceylon and The Power of Paper are Christopher Ondaatje's latest works.

For more information about Christopher Ondaatje, read 'The Devil Drives' and 'The Other Ondaatje'.



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‘I understand more than most people that it’s one thing to make money. If you just make money and don’t do anything
with it to help other people, it’s a wasted life’