George Harrison's widow, Olivia, is still in mourning for her husband, three years after his death. She tells Jan Moir how she remembers him
Olivia Harrison is not wearing her wedding ring today, which is unusual. Three years after the death of her husband, George, the quiet Beatle, she still likes to put it on every single morning. She likes to feel close to him.
"I wear mine here," she says, wiggling her left index finger. "And George wore his on his right middle finger. But I couldn't get to it today because I put it somewhere special and I forgot where I left it." At her throat, she is wearing an aum som necklace, a Hindu symbol that represents the complete whole, the "primordial vibration", apparently. Touching it lightly, Olivia explains that it means everything; the energy that sustains, creates and ultimately destroys us. It glints prettily against her olive skin.
Like her husband, Olivia Harrison has a deeply spiritual nature, most strongly influenced by the religions of the East. She believes in reincarnation, among other things, and all of it has proved a comfort during the dark times that followed Harrison's initial cancer diagnosis in 1997. She was at his side when he had treatment in Switzerland, New York and, finally, Los Angeles, where he died in 2001. Two years earlier, she saved his life when an intruder broke into their riverside mansion near Henley-on-Thames and stabbed George several times before she managed to knock him out.
Yet once the throat cancer had moved into his lungs and brain, not even brave Olivia, who loved him so much, could save her husband for a second time. She and their son, Dhani, who was born in 1978, the year his parents married, were at his bedside when George died. It was as peaceful and beautiful as it could possibly be, for that was what Harrison had meticulously planned.
"George aspired to leave his body in a conscious manner and that was a goal of his life, you know. That is the whole point of meditation, the whole point of spiritual practice," says Olivia. "He used to say: 'You can't just remember God at the end of your life.' The thing that you remember most in your life is what you are going to remember when you die and he said to me: 'I don't want to be thinking, did I put the cat out?' " Following a self-enforced period of solitude after his death, Olivia is now feeling more positive, not least because she still feels a deep connection with her husband.
"I am still having a relationship with him, but it is just not a physical relationship any more. And the sooner one comes to terms with that, the easier it is, rather than feeling George has gone and he is never coming back." Does she communicate with him? "I don't really want to get into all that. That's a dodgy question to answer because people might think… I don't know if you have ever had anybody go who you have loved? Well, you do feel in communication with them because you feel so deeply in your heart that if you say a prayer, it goes straight to them."
Olivia says that, towards the end, when he knew he was dying, her husband would comfort her by saying: "Olivia, you'll be fine, you'll be fine." And is she?
"Fine is OK, but it is not really good enough, is it? But George was right, I am fine and I am OK, although I will miss him until my dying day. But he walked his road and now I have to walk mine."
Today, this road leads to a smart, white house in a Knightsbridge square, where Olivia works at keeping the memory of her husband alive. She has become a kind of self-appointed curator of the George Harrison industry, dealing with the steady demand for books and DVDs and re-releases of his music, including a new project with Apple, the Beatles' record label, to reissue George's Bangladesh concerts. It's not that she needs the money – George left £99 million in his will – it's just that she needs to be involved.
Although the tastefully furnished room is certainly more of an office than a shrine, it does, at first, seem anomalous for the still-grieving Olivia to choose to work in an environment where George is all around. Dozens of copies of his autobiography line the glass bookshelves, a sheaf of glossy George photographs spills across her desk and a platoon of George awards march along the mantelpiece, while George music is played at every opportunity. Then, Dhani, the very image of his dark-eyed, handsome father, wanders in to say hello. All things must pass, but is this mourning period going to take longer than most? Not at all, says Olivia. It's quite the opposite.
Olivia and son Dhani, the very image of his handsome father
"Oh, no. It helps. It helps a lot. There is no way of going around grief, I think it's better to just go right through it. In fact, I probably torture myself a bit because I love listening to his voice, I love watching our home movies, I love listening to his music and reading about him. For half of my life, I heard his voice every day, so to not hear it is very strange."
On the table in front of us is a copy of the extraordinary, £275 book Concert for George, which will be published next month to commemorate the commemorative concert – keep up, please – that was held for George at the Albert Hall in 2002. Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Ravi Shankar and Michael Palin were just a few of the friends who took part in the all-star line-up, held exactly one year after Harrison had died.
Clapton hopes that they will all do it again sometime, but Olivia has no plans. In the meantime, a DVD is available of the concert and the luxurious book, a collection of photographs and memorabilia, plus essays by Paul Theroux, among others, is bound with orange linen which Olivia flew to Rome to choose. It is also available in a £495 luxury edition – who, I wonder, is going to buy such a thing?
"Collectors and fans," she says. "Fans of George and fans of people who were at the concert. It is a real collector's item. The concert was a moment in time, but this is a tangible tribute."
Taking a seat in a leather club chair, she pops on a pair of glasses as we flick through the book. There's Clapton in his chunky woolly, Palin as a lumberjack, hundreds crammed backstage. George had a lot of friends, says his widow, but he sometimes didn't appreciate quite how affectionately he was regarded. "Sometimes, he would say, 'Oh, there is a lot of love out there.' Other times, he would just be in his world and not really know what was going on."
Although George had a reputation as a taciturn loner, all his associates would tell you, she claims, that he was never really like that. "He was so generous and open, so much more patient with people than me. He took everybody along with him, like a driftnet fisherman. If we were going on holiday, everybody would come. If we were having dinner, everybody was welcome. He was Pisces, so he swam in a school."
The second Mrs Harrison - George was previously married to Patti Boyd - is credited with providing a calming influence on the musician's life.
"Well, I just gave him a good chance to have a nice home life and a son. If he said I calmed him down, then I probably did calm him down. I used to tell him to cheer down, not cheer up."
Today, Olivia is in business mode, wearing a "boring" pair of striped trousers and a simple sweater. "A nondescript outfit," she says, helpfully. She has shiny, dark hair, an attractive, intelligent face and her manner is warm and down to earth. A gentle American accent is all that is left of the Californian upbringing that found her, aged 23, working as a secretary for George Harrison's record label in Los Angeles.
Her grandparents had emigrated there from Mexico, and grew corn in their front garden. Like Harrison, whose father was a bus driver, she came from a working class family; her mother was a seamstress; her father, a dry-cleaner.
She is dismissive of a claim made in Behind Sad Eyes, a recent, unofficial biography of Harrison by Marc Shapiro, that when George first met Olivia at a party in 1974, he had her "checked out" by investigators before they began dating. Supposedly, this was because he was still burnt by Patti Boyd leaving him to have an affair with, and later marry, his friend Eric Clapton.
"Oh, that's funny! That is so far from the truth, and so unlike anything George would ever do. He did say to his friend, 'Go check her out'. He didn't mean to investigate me, if that is what the writer is implying. He was flirting!" Throughout their 23-year marriage, the Harrisons lived a low-key life, never seeking publicity except when canvassing for good causes – including her Romanian Angel Appeal, a charity which helped orphaned children – and they lived quietly at home in more modest circumstances than have been reported.
"Yeah! I keep reading that we live in a mansion with 120 rooms. How could anyone possibly have 120 rooms? And someone once said to me, is it true that you have tunnels that run down to the river? No, I don't. But it is bizarre."
In 1999, the Harrisons' home hit the headlines when a mentally disturbed intruder broke in during the early hours and, in the ensuing struggle, stabbed Harrison about 10 times before Olivia beat him unconscious with a poker and a lamp.
"It was pretty scary. I remember everything about it, every millisecond. I was terrified, but it is one of those things that you just do in a heightened state of awareness so that you can never really forget any of it. It was a freaky thing." Has she ever wondered, or worried, why the Beatles seem to attract so many bad people?
"Well, we attract a lot of nice people too. Judge not the many by the few. And it's not just the Beatles. Look at Steven Spielberg, look at poor Jill Dando. In the end, we can say that the Beatles attracted more good than they did bad."
Olivia Harrison is now travelling along her own long and winding road, but it is not a journey she feels she is making alone. Still taking comfort in her husband's voice, she says that her favourite George Harrison song is Run of the Mill, with a lyric that asks: how high will you leap? That is what she asks herself now, although she knows that her husband is still with her, "in some incarnation or another" and that her happy marriage endures.
"I don't know if anyone really knows the secret of such a long marriage like ours, but we both had a bigger goal of attaining a spiritual success and I think that could be it. When you have a bigger goal in life, it makes everything else a little bit easier."
Concert for George, edited by Olivia Harrison and Brian Roylance, is published by Genesis Publications on February 26. For further information, tel: 01483 540970, or see www.genesis-publications.com.
All royalties will be donated to the Material World Charitable Foundation, a wide-ranging charity established by George Harrison in 1973