Harrison's passions: from Hare Krishna to gardening

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The Independent Culture

His roles ranged from a Hare Krishna devotee to president of the George Formby Appreciation Society, but even George Harrison might have been surprised to find himself being hailed yesterday as "a glorious freedom fighter".

That was how the High Commissioner for Bangladesh described the former Beatle on being told of the death of the man who, 20 years ago, made the relief of his people's suffering a global cause célèbre.

In 1971, Harrison took to the stage at New York's Madison Square Garden to play his Concert for Bangladesh, which would eventually help raise £10m for refugees from the newborn nation.

The concert, which also featured such luminaries of the era as Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, ended up costing Harrison £1m of his own money and cast the mould for later benefits such as Live Aid.

But, perhaps more than anything, it revealed the other side of the boy from Wavertree who got his first guitar at 11 and went on to eschew the mega-stardom of the world's most famous pop band.

Instead, he built up a panoply of passions, beliefs, hobbies and interests that took him from Hindu spiritualism to Formula One, and from film production to a 30-year devotion to his true love – gardening.

For Gyash Uddin, the Bangladeshi High Commissioner in London, Harrison's efforts for the country amid its violent split from Pakistan in 1971 elevated him beyond the status of a mere musician.

Mr Uddin told The Independent: "George Harrison is considered a hero. He is recognised as one of the freedom fighters of the glorious movement of our independence struggle. His efforts inspired millions of freedom fighters and as such he was one of us. His passing is a great, great loss to Bangladesh. The country will pray for the eternal peace of his soul."

It seemed unlikely that the streets of Dhaka would be filled last night with the mourning masses singing "My Sweet Lord" and holding aloft pictures of the kaftan-clad Liverpudlian popstar.

But the message behind the eulogy was evident: the man who lived with the egotistical in-fighting of Lennon and McCartney, was perhaps the most interesting and worldly Beatle of the lot.

The "beautiful one", who was once told to keep quiet by his Fab Four colleagues during an interview at the height of their fame, was never comfortable with the burdens of mega-stardom.

Even at the age of 23 he declared: "I asked to be successful. I never asked to be famous. I've got more famous than I wanted to be."

It was clear that Harrison had decided that there was more to life than music.

In 1966, he was introduced to Shankar, the legendary sitar player who planted the seed that was to grow into Harrison's fascination with Indian culture and spirituality for the next 35 years. A year later, he and his model wife, Patti Boyd, were meditating regularly and he took his fellow Beatles to spend the summer of 1967 with the Hindu yogi Maharishi Mahesh.

The effects were immediately obvious.

When Brian Epstein, the band's manager, died of a drugs overdose that year, Harrison said: "There is no such thing as death, only in the physical sense. He will return because he was striving for happiness and desired bliss so much."

Although the shine was taken off the Maharishi a year later when the guru made a less than ethereal bid for the affections of actress Mia Farrow, Harrison never lost his interest in mysticism. In 1973, he bought a manor in the Hertfordshire village of Letchmore Heath and gave it to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishna movement. The by-now successful solo performer had become a devotee after meeting the Krishna leader, Shyamasundra Dasa, four years earlier, learning to chant and even releasing a record of its mantras.

Such was Harrison's fervour that he once drove for 23 hours from France to Portugal while chanting, explaining that it made him feel "a bit invincible".

That was not the case, however, when on being confronted two years ago by deranged intruder Michael Abram, Harrison's first instinct was to shout: "Hare Krishna".

Sadly, such admirable sang froid reinforced Abram's delusion that the ex-Beatle was the devil, and the drug addict stabbed him repeatedly.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Harrison showed little fear about standing up for his beliefs. In 1967, he was a signatory to an advert in The Times calling for the legalisation of cannabis, and two years later was fined £250 with Patti for possession of the drug.

The Concert for Bangladesh, which, when conceived with Shankar had been expected to raise £25,000, mustered £150,000 alone from the two New York shows and raised a total of about £10m.

A decision by the British and US governments to insist that taxes were paid on the funds, despite the intercession of a young Conservative MP called Jeffrey Archer, led to an outraged Harrison paying the £1m bill himself.

His efforts in the public eye continued to more recent times in the role of an English eccentric – for example, becoming the honorary president of the George Formby Appreciation Society.

In 1992, he staged a comeback concert on behalf of the Krishna-inspired Natural Law Party, which was campaigning in the general election.

But just as he had shied away from the fame of the Beatles, such appearances in the limelight were the exception rather than the rule.

The post-Beatles Harrison largely confined himself to Friar Park – a Gothic wedding cake of a mansion in Henley-on-Thames which he bought as a near ruin in 1970 for £135,000.

There he was able to devote himself to the 33 acres of gardens, a hobby which friends say became a consuming passion.

Much of his work consisted of restoring the vision of its original owner, Sir Frank Crisp, a Victorian engineer who riddled the grounds with a fantasy world of labyrinths, grottoes and underground rivers.

Harrison added to the complex a 100ft replica of the Matterhorn mountain, constructed from 20,000 tons of Yorkshire stone, and another personal touch – nailing Beatles guitars to a number of trees.

Visitors to the gardens wryly observed how one of the Krishna devotee's favourite features was a lake with stepping stones just beneath the surface to give the impression of its users walking on water.

In Sir Frank, it seems George Harrison – fan of banjo players, aficionado of the spirit and hero of Bangladesh – had finally found his muse.

As a Chinese proverb puts it: "If you wish to be happy for an hour, get intoxicated. If you wish to be happy for three days, get married. If you wish to be happy for eight days, kill your pig and eat it. But if you wish to be happy for ever, become a gardener." Sentiments that the 58-year-old musician would surely have appreciated.