Bed and board Howard's way

Interview Deborah Ross talks to HOWARD HODGSON

Howard Hodgson - the man who, in spite of a Lesley Judd meets Kenny Dalglish hairdo, managed to make undertaking quite a bit sexy - was booted out as chief executive of Ronson last week. Actually, he resigned.

But if he hadn't resigned, he would have been booted out, so it amounts to much the same thing. And, yes, he is jolly cross. Not so much with what happened, but more with the coverage.

As the tabloids had it, Mr Hodgson was asked to stand down because Christine Pickles, the company's corporate development manager, had become his mistress and the other directors did not take kindly to this swashbuckling juxtaposition of boardroom and bedroom. Miss Pickles, it was reported, was even promoted to finance director at one point.

Mr Hodgson very much wishes this story had not gone about. "It's just not true," he cries. Plus it's been very hard on Christine. "The idea that this girl got on in the world by getting her leg over ... is just so unfair."

Yes, Christine is his lover. She has been since 1994, since he first joined the company. But he never let it interfere with the running of the business, even abstained when her promotions were voted upon. He says he was asked to resign because, even though he had taken Ronson from a dwindling lighter firm to one which offered "a whole range of male grooming products", the profits were not being realised quickly enough. He was sad to go, he says, but isn't bitter. The non-executive directors who wanted to get shot of him are all very old bankers. "I'll still be going about being brilliant when they're in their boxes," he says.

And it's not as if he exactly needed the job, is it? Or, as he puts it, he made so much money when he sold his funeral empire that even if he never worked again he could still live very nicely and leave "at least pounds 1.5m to each of my children".

What Howard effectively did was take over his family's ailing funeral firm in 1975 and build it into the biggest quoted firm of undertakers in the country. By 1990, Howard Hodgson plc had a capital value of pounds 100m, employed 2,000 people and did 68,000 funerals a year, which meant Howard was burying one in 10 of the nation's dead. He sold his share to a French company in 1991 because, quite frankly, the offer was too good to refuse. He made pounds 7m. He thought he would retire and write books. He did write one book, How To Become Dead Rich, but did not enjoy himself. "I hated it. I'm a team player."

The book was not a roaring success in sales terms. He has a garage full of them. ("If you want a rare Hodgson book, get one that isn't signed.") A copy sits between us on the coffee table. Howard points at it and says: "If you look in the index, you'll actually find more references to Margaret Hilda Thatcher than there are to Howard Hodgson!" Yes, he is very much a classic product of the Thatcher age of enterprise and, yes, he misses her horribly. The current lot, he says, are "a pathetic shower". He is much amused by attempts to promote William Hague as the dashing, sexy leadership candidate. "I've a better chance at pulling than him," he says. "And, at 47, I'm 11 years older."

Howard and Christine live in Poole, Dorset, in a big modern job behind one of those Beverly Hills-style electric gate thingies. It is Christine, who also stood down from Ronson last week, who lets you in. She is 32 and very pretty and utterly devoted to Howard. She seems to live mostly in the kitchen, for some reason. Howard refers to her either as "my current girlfriend" or "GFP". "Get us a coffee, GFP," he bellows from the sitting room. GFP? "Greasy Fat Pig." How charming. "It's an endearment," he stresses. Will they ever marry? Hang on, he says, he isn't divorced from his wife yet. Does Christine want to marry? "Of course. She's from Lancashire."

Inside, the house is all thick carpets and ruched curtains and latticed radiator covers and antiques which may be the real thing but don't look it amid all the rest. The overall effect is very Barratt's meets Fads via the reproduction furniture department at John Lewis. I do not get to go upstairs, but guess there's a Jacuzzi, frilly skirts around the dressing tables and, in the master bedroom, those white fitted wardrobes which Page Three girls always seem to hanker after. I think they go by the name of Schreiber.

Think upmarket Schreiber and I reckon you are there.

However, what you notice most are the silver-framed photographs, which are everywhere. There are lots of Howard's children (Howard, 22; Jamieson, 14; Davinia; 7), but there are many more of Howard, and you get the full pictorial tour. "This is me as a baby, me as a child, me on my boat, me meeting Richard Branson..." Howard is quite deliciously vain, and the only person I've ever met who drops his own name in conversation. The staff at Ronson, he says, have been faxing him constantly to say: "The building is not the same without Howard Hodgson!" Should anyone ever make a film about his life, he confesses he would like Sean Bean to star because "he looks quite like me and is strong". I do not suggest Kenny Dalglish or Lesley Judd as more suitable alternatives. His heartbreak would, I fear, be too much to bear. (Howard, it's really time for the hairdo to go, I later tell him. "But it's so me," he cries in reply.)

Howard comes from Birmingham, from a line of local funeral directors, Hodgson & Son of Hockley, founded in 1850. His father, Paul, was the fourth Hodgson in charge. The business did very well up until his father.

Howard loved his father very much. "He was very handsome, very charismatic. He looked like Errol Flynn and drank like him. He liked the good life - Aston Martins and fast women and slow horses. He was a good funeral director but a useless businessman. He would say: 'I've just met this marvellous chap. We're going to go into business together.' And I would have to say: 'Father, hasn't it ever occurred to you that the chaps you meet in private drinking clubs in the middle of the afternoon might not be great successes?' "

His mother, Sheila, was often irritated by her husband's lack of competence. "Let Howard do it. He is much better at such things," she would often say to him, while Howard went "no, no, no" inside. He hated to see his father belittled. His mother is still alive and still as tough as anything. "She makes Margaret Thatcher look like a gay liberation worker for lesbians in Lambeth. If I'm invited for lunch and I'm not prompt she will say: 'Howard. I don't care who you are. Lunch in this house is at 1pm and I'll thank you to remember that.' "

Howard was educated privately in England, and then, from 14, in Switzerland because he suffered from asthma and it was thought the air would do him good. He remembers his parents taking him to Switzerland, walking him half-way to his school then leaving him at a bend in the road. You go on, they said, while we turn back. "I was very British about it," he remembers.

"I kissed my mother on her cheek. I shook my father's hand. I started to walk, but something made me look back just as my father was looking back. My mother was still walking purposefully on. Anyway, I ran back, jumped in my father's arms and burst into tears. My father had always been wonderful to me, especially as a young man. When I had the asthma it was my father who stayed up all night, wiping away the vomit and everything. When he died (in 1985) I wept and wept and wept, not only with love, but also with regret. In my silly, English way I had never told him how much I loved him."

Howard first joined the family firm pretty much direct from school. But, initially, he didn't stay long because he fell out with his father when his father divorced his mother for someone else, then tried to hang on to her money. Howard took his mother's side. His father was appalled. And sacked him. Howard went off, became a very successful insurance salesman, and married a Frenchwoman, Marianne, the mother of his children.

The first time he introduced Marianne to his mother, his mother warned her: "You have to get used to the Hodgson men. They marry ladies but fuck tarts."

Well, it makes a change from, "Where would you like your wedding list, Selfridge's or Peter Jones?"

Anyway, Howard was doing very nicely for himself when, in 1975, his father came to tell him the business was in trouble - on the brink of receivership, in fact - what should he do? Howard's answer was to buy it off him for pounds 14,000 and then go on to build up a great chain of funeral firms.

In a sentence, he did this by endlessly acquiring, asset-stripping, keeping any local family names but centralising control, and introducing schemes such as the wonderfully-named Destiny with Dignity whereby people could pre-pay for their own funerals.

Although he grew up immersed in the culture of death - one Christmas, he got a cowboy fort made out of coffin off-cuts - he was not prepared when, in 1983, one of his children died. No parent ever is. "When I was a young guy and I had to do a child's funeral, I thought, what am I going to say to these people? How will they ever live again?" Widows were a different matter. He had a set patter for them. He would say: "I know today has been a difficult day. You were married for how many years? 48. And you have 11 children plus how many grandchildren? 72. And here they are all around you.

"Sometimes, I take ladies home and they have no one ..." This always cheered the widows up no end. But when it came to children, "I always handled it very badly."

His son Charles, who would now be 18 had he lived, drowned when, aged three, he wandered unnoticed into a swimming pool during a family holiday in Thailand. Howard says Marianne coped much better than he did because she howled and let all her grief out, whereas he couldn't. "I would go to work, come home, then sit and stare at the walls in some kind of frozen state. I didn't cry until two years later when I was in the bath and suddenly burst into tears. Marianne came rushing in to ask what was wrong.

"I'm crying for Charlie," I said.

He was most helped, he says, by a crematorium organist, as unlikely as that sounds. "This guy would play 'Light My Fire' or 'He Aint Heavy, He's My Brother' as the coffin was going in. But he'd disguise the tunes in such a way only I knew he was doing it. I used to say to him afterwards 'You little shit. The family are asking what the lovely music was.' " Anyway, this bloke wrote some tunes to which Howard set lyrics.

He wrote mostly about Charles, and found it immensely therapeutic. He has a tape of the songs somewhere. He says he did not commit "any acts of impropriety" until 14 years into his marriage, when he started appearing in colour supplements and winning titles such as Businessman of the Decade and he became the rock star of undertaking and it all went to his head rather. City PR girls threw themselves at him. He was flattered. He could not resist.

He left Marianne in 1992 for one of these PR girls. No, he couldn't have just had a discreet dalliance with her. City girls, he complains, don't go in for casual sex any more. He blames feminism. "The biggest enemy to women has been feminism. Feminism told girls to go out and be like boys and earn and have sports cars. Men find this threatening and don't want to marry them. There's now this whole plethora of girls wandering around the City, desperate to get married. They don't want casual relationships. They want committed ones." His main grumble with feminism, I reckon, is that it put an end to the quick shag.

You know, after meeting Mr Hodgson I go away bothered, and remain bothered for some days. This isn't because he is horrid in any way. It's because he reminds me of someone and I cannot put my finger on it. Then, mid-aisle in Tesco, it suddenly comes to me. He reminds me of this budgie my grandmother used to have called Joey.

Joey was a darling thing but all he ever wanted to do was sit on his little swing and peck at his reflection in the mirror all day. Whenever you opened the door of his cage to give him a fly-about, he would always give you a look that said: "Excuse me. I'm having a very nice time admiring myself in here. Please shut my door and go away." And I reckon Howard is rather like this too. The business was his mirror. Then it was girls.

Now, I'm not saying Mr Hodgson isn't clever. Or isn't likeable in his swashbuckling, old-fashioned, Thatcherite way. (Yes, when his son died, he did think "Why me, and not one of those silly girls in the Daily Mail who seem to drop nine babies a week?") Certainly, he is more entertaining than Joey ever was. And he offers better claret and is cleaner in going about his toilet. But, like Joey, he never tires of kissing his own reflection.

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