Ondaatje comes to the rescue of 'Literary Review'

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The Independent Culture

The philanthropist Christopher Ondaatje has donated millions of pounds to the causes of art, cricket and his former school in Devon. Yesterday two more of the wealthy businessman's personal interests ­ literature and exploration ­ became the latest beneficiaries of his fortune.

He has bought the ailing Literary Review and given £1.5m to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). "I'm thrilled to be able to do it," he said.

His name will go on the refurbished RGS lecture theatre. Last year, an extension of the National Portrait Gallery was named after him in recognition of a £2.75m donation.

In less than a year, since people heard about him as the Gallery donor, Christopher Ondaatje has won the kind of recognition once reserved for his younger brother, Michael, author of The English Patient.

Yet he was a remarkable figure long before he came to public prominence. Mr Ondaatje left his British public school after his father, a Sri Lankan tea plantation owner, drank away the family money.

He became a financier then a publisher in Canada and made a fortune before retiring to Britain to write, explore and practise philanthropy, including a £2m donation to the Labour Party last year.

The fate of the Literary Review, the acclaimed monthly, had been in doubt since the death of Auberon Waugh, its founding father. Naim Atallah, the publisher, wanted to sell to a good home and Mr Ondaatje said he was delighted to step in because he believed his experience in founding and running a publishing house could help.

"I've revered the Literary Review and when I heard it was having a rough time and needed intelligent financing, I met Nancy Sladek, the editor," he said.

Mr Ondaatje paid a "small", unspecified amount for it but would be investing to take it out of the red, he said. He will be joint proprietor with Ms Sladek, who will have complete editorial control and he will offer advice on the business side. "It's a small, very precious gem of a magazine and it should be kept that way," he said.

"But I can use some of the more modern publishing methods to help. The circulation of 12,000 could be easily increased by several thousand, if not tens of thousands."

At the Royal Geographical Society, his £1.5m gift was the biggest private donation in the organisation's 170-year history. Mr Ondaatje, a fellow of the society since 1996 who has followed in the footsteps of explorers including Richard Burton and written several books of travel adventures, said he was excited that his money would help to allow greater public access to the RGS archives.

They include maps, diaries and items such as David Livingstone's 1860 watercolour sketch of Victoria Falls.

Mr Ondaatje said he was very happy to use his money to help those causes. "After hacking my way through the jungles of finance in North America, I came here to do my writing and do my exploration and get back to where I feel I belong ­ in the world of literature," he said.

Despite speculation that he had been promised a peerage by Labour, Mr Ondaatje said there had never been any discussion of honours and he would be surprised if one was offered. "I'm very happy. Making money is a selfish business. This [giving it away] is a more unselfish thing. That's enough."

Ondaatje donations

National Portrait Gallery ­ £2.75m given six years ago.

Labour Party ­ £2m given privately.

Blundell's School, Devon ­ Donations to old schoolover several years.

Royal Society of Portrait Painters ­ £10,000 a year for Ondaatje prize for portraiture.

Royal Ontario Museum in Canada ­ £461,000 to build South Asian Gallery.

Other gifts: Somerset CCC, V&A, Bermuda National Gallery, Dalhousie University, Canada, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, National Ballet School of Canada, Massey University, New Zealand.