There is only one Harrods
- Tiny Rowland: A Rebel Tycoon by Tom Bower
Heinemann, 659 pp, £16.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 434 07339 3
In the early Fifties the Hon. Angus Ogilvy, after National Service in the Scots Guards and three agreeable years at Trinity College, Oxford, approached his father, the 12th Earl of Airlie, with his plan ‘to do something in the City’. The old earl gruffly dismissed the idea with three monosyllables: ‘They’re all crooks.’ The Earl’s warning, which was ignored, seems to come up like a ghost at the feast throughout this remarkable book.
Just as Robert Maxwell was officially declared unfit to run a public company before he was allowed to take over and rob the biggest printing company in the country, so Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland, before he and his company Lonrho were allowed to take over the Observer and Today newspapers, was once denounced by a Tory Prime Minister, Edward Heath, as ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’. Tom Bower has now written books about both men which prove both charges a hundred times over. Maxwell was so infuriated by Bower’s book that he spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to stop it appearing and even commissioned a more favourable biography from his employee, Joe Haines. Rowland, as far as I know, has not yet reached for his lawyers over this book, though it is in my view even more damaging to the ‘revolutionary capitalism’ he pretends to represent than anything Bower wrote about Maxwell.
Rowland’s favourite tactic for expanding his business was not entirely revolutionary. He bought people. Since he was dealing mainly in Africa, most of the people he bought were Africans. The book is full of the perks provided for top African politicians by Lonrho: a palace (and much much more) for Banda, the dictator of Malawi; a hospital for Mrs Sadat, wife of the former Egyptian head of state; an education in England for the son of Samora Machel, President of Mozambique; an account at a Saville Row tailors for President Moi of Kenya; endless favours for former President Kaunda of Zambia and Joshua Nkomo – who, for so long, looked like fulfilling Rowland’s ambition for him to become Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. Nkomo learnt the dangers of this largesse the hard way in 1984. He had criticised the Government of Zimbabwe, to which Rowland was at that time making advances, for massacring his supporters. Nkomo’s outburst was, as far as Tiny was concerned, an intolerable display of free speech. He was suddenly told that the bill at his usual London watering hole, the luxury Howards Hotel, wasn’t being paid any more and had to retire to a dingy bedsit.
In Africa, in the twenty-five years of Rowland’s stewardship, Lonrho paid out millions of pounds in commissions, bribes and inducements. Back home in straight old England, where Lonrho kept its registered office, this was regarded on the whole as ‘acceptable capitalism’. To the not altogether sophisticated minds of City of London experts on African finance, it didn’t seem possible to get anything done in Africa without paying bribes. But Bower’s relentless researches prove that Rowland’s capacity for buying people was no where more generously and effectively applied than in England. Lonrho’s generosity to Tiny Rowland himself, for instance, knew no bounds. Rowland fostered an ‘austere’ image. He avoided the trappings of opulence which so obsessed Robert Maxwell. Visitors to his offices at Cheapside would be lucky to be offered a cup of tea. His austerity, however, did not extend to his salary, his dividends or his share options. Bower reckons Rowland ‘earned’ £100m from Lonrho. That’s not counting little extras like the refurbishing of his home at Hedsor Wharf on the Thames, which Lonrho had bought for him in 1968. The improvements were expected to cost £73,500. When they were finished in 1971, they had cost £323,589. Part of the increase was due to a bridge over a tributary of the river, which cost £40,000. The austere millionaire was so taken by the bridge that he ordered another one.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.