What struck me first was how small she was. That famous untamed mane of hair, not to mention her outspoken views and public persona, had led me to think of Anita Roddick as a tall, even Amazonian presence - yet the woman walking to meet me was only just over five feet, with a tiny, bird-like frame. And I hadn’t expected her kindness.
I’d driven down to her house, in West Sussex, from London on a hot, muggy day, with a friend, my small daughter and dog in tow - they were to drop me off and meet up later. But the dog slipped out of the car and began barking at a huge bronze sculpture of a man at the top of the drive. Clearly amused, Anita insisted we all stay, poured cool drinks for everyone (including the dog) and whispered to my three-year-old: “Do you like toys? I’ve got a great big box of toys that my grandchildren like to play with.”
Only when the toy chest had been located did our interview begin.
I’d heard Roddick could be prickly with reporters - after selling The Body Shop to L’Oreal for £652 million, last year, she was accused of betraying all she had stood for. But, instead, she seemed chatty and relaxed, leading me through the cavernous house and the 12-acre grounds. Bought in 1999, gutted and restructured on a spectacular scale, it is just a few miles from Littlehampton, where she was born and set up the first Body Shop in 1976 with a £4,000 bank loan secured by a friend. There was no obvious sign of the debilitating hepatitis C, contracted from a post-natal blood transfusion but diagnosed 35 years later - her celebrated energy seemed undiminished as we toured the garden. After her death, her daughter, Sam, compared her to “a hurricane, a tornado - a weather system that reached every horizon and every corner of the world”, and remembering how her conversation swooped from politics to education to the meditative benefits of weeding, it seems an apt analogy.
Roddick’s mother had died, at 94, only days before, and we discussed her wake: “It was always her wish to be sent into orbit to music, so somehow I’m going to get her ashes incorporated into fireworks. It will be an amazing party. She’d love it.” I imagined Roddick as a feisty nonagenarian herself, trundling up to Number 10 in a wheelchair to protest against nuclear weapons, or hanging out with the elders of rainforest tribes.
In spite of the public attacks on her integrity, Roddick was clearly enjoying the post-business phase of her life: indeed, the house and garden were planned around it.
“I’d told the designer to make my previous garden look and feel like a 40-year-old woman - ripe and vital, in full glorious bloom but just about to drop,” she told me.
“Because that was me then, raising children, being creative, incredibly busy. But when we moved here, nine years ago, my life had changed. The children had grown up and gone, my work was taking a different direction. This time I wanted a peaceful, open place where we could host the family, our friends, have parties, ceremonies, big business meetings.”
There had already been many parties, including her daughter’s wedding, in a big barn constructed for the purpose, with organic champagne from her husband’s vineyard.
“We get 1,500 bottles a year, and as all the endless regulations mean we can’t sell it, we drink it ourselves and give it away - believe me, it goes extremely fast.”
As we walked, we encountered sculptures, from huge, expensive bronzes to smaller pieces by local artists. Some reminded Roddick of stories from her life. A crowd of life-size figures emerging from the trees conjured up the silent party that greeted her off the plane when she went to Nigeria in support of the Ogoni people against Shell, while teepee-like shapes brought back visits to Native Americans. There was also a hilarious tale about her attempt, aged 49, to try for a “rainforest baby” in the middle of the Amazon. “A medicine man fed me special herbs and placed leaves on my womb and the women of the tribe led me out to sit alone in a river for hours and hours drinking a tea made from the bark of a tree,” she said. Nothing came of it, but she said she enjoyed the experience: “What struck me as I sat there was all the millions and millions of different shades of green all around me - in the trees, in the water, in the plants, everywhere. I’ve never forgotten it.” She had not travelled so much lately, although she shot rapids in the Yukon, a month before she died.
Back inside the house, she had been busy archiving, and took me down to the basement, which is lined with photographs of her, smiling, wild-haired, trying out beauty products with indigenous women around the world. Stacks of the many books published through her new company, Anita Roddick Publications, were piled high on makeshift shelves.
‘Though I’ve stepped down from the business side of things, the campaigning work is stronger than ever, via the books and my website, where I post a new dispatch each week,” she said.
“I’m always looking out for grassroots leaders doing remarkable things and seeking to give them the support they need. The Body Shop was an amazing network for spreading the word but, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become even more radical and passionate. I need a broader, freer space than the corporate umbrella could provide. I’m keen on helping causes such as the Angola Three [former members of the Black Panthers imprisoned in the US] who are maybe too controversial for conventional campaigns. I’m into more creative solutions now, definitely a lot less confrontational than I was.”
I did sense, though, that Roddick missed her more public profile. She jumped at my suggestion that she should write a newspaper column (”Really? You really think so? Oh I’d love that!”) and, when asked what her ideal job would be, replied: “Minister for Public Spaces - I’d give every town its Day of Delight. There’d be pianos in the squares, music and dancing, and mad, unexpected sculptures everywhere.”
My impression was of a woman full of life and ideas and plans for the future - and her energy was infectious.
“The most exciting time is now!” she declared, as we prepared to leave. And it was easy to believe that, of ourselves as well as her, as we sped down the drive. It is lined with chestnut trees - some ancient, some planted when Roddick moved in.
Typically impatient, she tried to stop the designer planting small trees: “I’ll be dead before they’re fully grown!” He persuaded her that they would grow quickly. What a great sadness that she will never see that happen.