THE DEBORAH ROSS INTERVIEW
Hooray for Henry: The curious world of Henry Conway
There's the scandal involving daddy, Derek Conway MP, misusing public money, but we won't talk about that. Oh no. Not while there are still parties to promote and fashion to discuss... Deborah Ross enters the curious world of Henry Conway
Saturday 05 July 2008
Henry Conway is the older son of the "disgraced" Tory MP Derek Conway, the one who paid his younger son, Freddie, nearly £50,000 from public funds for doing Parliamentary work that he may not actually have done, and now stands accused of doing much the same with Henry. Still, no mind. As Henry is now a brain surgeon as well as our foremost cancer specialist it was, at least, taxpayers' money exceedingly well spent whichever way it pans out. OK, only joshing. Henry, 25, is the one who describes himself as "blond, bouncy and one for the boys" and who, shortly after the scandal broke, arrived at Mahiki, a Mayfair nightclub, in a horse-drawn carriage and dressed as a regency dandy. Actually, thinking this through, do we own that horse-drawn carriage? Did we pay for it? And might we have it back? (Stupid, I know; where would we keep the horses? I can't have them here.)
Anyway, we meet mid-afternoon at the aforementioned Mahiki, where Henry is employed as something called a "party host" and where he is keen on promoting Mahiki's recently launched own-brand rum. "Available from here and from Selfridges," he says as his PR, Penny, hands me a flyer. I think they may be trying to create some kind of Brand Henry here. He certainly loves Mahiki, which he describes as the place to come for a "rum-soaked giggle" although I believe I might take a rain check on that. (Too old, my dears; too old.) But if there is one thing more depressing than a nightclub at night – still too old, my dears; still too old – it's a nightclub during the day when you can see how tired the cushions are and how tacky the tables are. (Rose petals under glass! Even Linda Barker has moved on.) Whatever, I arrive first and then it's Henry, who is blond, is bouncy, obviously has awesome blow-drying skills, and is quite soft-featured in a Simon Le Bon-ish kind of way. "Ohhhhhhhh," he says by way of introduction, "my head hurts soooooooooo much." The previous night he had launched the Mahiki rum here at Mahiki – look how many times I've mentioned Mahiki and that rum already; these people soooooooooo know what they are doing! – and had worn a John Galliano hat built up around a wire cage. Heavy? "Soooooooooo heavy, and now my head really, really hurts!" He is seriously camp, yet I love camp. In a funny kind of way, he may be quite delicious.
Yes, and deliciously committed to fashion, too. My, those outfits, which have included corsets, ruffled cravats and sequinned peacock-feather headdresses. He says he can't remember ever not being interested in dressing up. He adds that when he and Freddie were little, they both had smart matching camel coats and while Freddie had to be wrestled into his there were no such problems with Henry. "I always liked dressing up smartly. I didn't mind putting on formalwear, you know. I was quite happy to look the biz." When, in his late teens, he told his mother he was gay, she was, hardly surprisingly, not very surprised. "She said she'd known from when I was a very, very young age and had discussed it with her girlfriends and my father." Was it all that twirling in your camel coat? "Definitely," he says, laughing. Always a give-away, I say. Were you ribbed at school? "Yes, yes, gosh. There was always a lot of ribbing at school, particularly about the way I would always have my hair completely and utterly perfectly combed. I had a side parting and not a hair would be out of place." He laughs again; he does and will laugh at himself, quite happily and often. I know you'll also think this weird, but there is something almost childlike and innocent about Henry Conway. I do hope he knows what he is doing.
Today, though, today; what is our Henry wearing today? OK, it is skinny jeans from Uniqlo, white shoes by Swear, a knitted waistcoat "modelled on the Albanian traditional waistcoat", a watch by Benson – "vintage watches are great; they last and last and last" – and a red and gold bracelet by Vita that he picked up in LA and has just seen featured on some hot list. "Don't you hate that?" he exclaims. "I so do," I lie. "Now everyone will get one," he says. "It's a worry," I say, because, you know, in for a penny, in for a pound. Later, he warns me off cheap clothes as a false economy. "There is a place for cheap, fast-turn-around fashion but you should always spend money on the basics. And cheap shoes are always a waste of money. As they say: buy cheap, buy twice. Gucci shoes may cost five times as much but they will last." He's not exactly big on shame, our Henry, but I guess if he were he wouldn't be much of a brand.
Anyway, I do wonder what being a "party host" actually means. What does it mean, Henry?
"I promote the clubs, arrange their party nights and am their grand ambassador," he says. The other club he works for, mostly, is the just-launched Whisky Mist, which is tucked away beneath the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, and recently gave its founder members a silver keyring designed by Jade Jagger. Both clubs are favoured by Prince William and Prince Harry and their consorts, Kate and Chelsy, as well as, I'm imagining, the moneyed Hoorays who wear jeans with pink shirts with cufflinks at the weekends. But enough of all that. No need to get sniffy. (And who wouldn't want a silver keyring as designed by Jade Jagger?) Still, if the Conway saga is a tale of social ambition – and, my, how social ambition always loves money – then perhaps Henry is social ambition realised. Derek Conway, after all, grew up on a Newcastle council estate and attended a secondary modern school. Was he, I ask, one of those fathers who would remind you how privileged you are? Henry says he was like that, a bit. "We were certainly aware of the privileges we had as opposed to what he had," he says. "And I do think it's important for children to be aware of that as well." Indeed.
As it stands, I have to nibble around Derek Conway, although not literally, as that would be horrible. What I mean is, I've been told that I have to be cautious in my questioning. Derek Conway was expelled from the Conservative Party (he now sits as the independent MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup) last January when it emerged that Freddie, then an undergraduate at Newcastle University, was paid £50,000 from public funds to work for his father as a political researcher; work for which there was no record. And he now stands accused of having paid Henry £32,717 as a research assistant between 2001 and 2004 while Henry was studying History of Art at the Courtauld Institute. As this complaint is still being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner, it wouldn't make sense for Henry to say a lot at this point (or even give interviews; but I guess being in the "news" makes for maximum branding impact) and as Penny has already said, quite sternly: "This isn't something we can discuss in detail."
Still, I do ask if, prior to the Freddie scandal breaking, Henry had any idea it was coming. "No," he says. "It was completely out of the blue." A shock to the system, then? He – rather smartly, I admit – changes the subject such that we are now talking about the shock of the press coverage. "You have to hope that you can cope with situations thrown at you in the best way you can. I'd worked in the media for a while by that stage so at least I had an inkling of what they'd write. It's a funny one. It did insulate me to not be affected emotionally by what people wrote." OK, were you shocked by the claims made against your father? "Well ... ahh ... hmm ... there was nothing wrong. The report itself ... it was clearly a quiet time for news ... if one reads the report we haven't actually done anything wrong ..." At this point Penny intervenes to say: "As I said we can't really go into it because it's still being discussed."
I switch to safer ground for a bit, and we talk about his childhood. Henry was born in Newcastle, but grew up in Shropshire as his father was the Conservative MP for Shrewsbury at that time. Are you, I ask, political yourself? "Yes and, naturally, I am Conservative in my views," he says. "I do agree with most of what my father holds." He says that, as a child, he did leaflet for him and you do learn a lot, canvassing. Learn things like what, I ask? "Never trust a small dog; they're the worst," he says. We both laugh. And how is your father, I ask? How is he coping? "As a family," says Henry, "it has made us a lot stronger, although we were a very close, tight-knit family before this. Don't forget we went through turbulence in 1997 when my father lost [the Shrewsbury seat] in the general election. That's like being sacked by thousands of people rather than one. Our world has turned upside down once already."
Henry boarded at a prep school in Shropshire from seven and then moved to Harrow at 13, which I say I find bizarre. Why boarding school when there was no tradition? He says that, as it happens, his mother, Colette, had attended boarding school herself and "she knew what benefits it could give you". But it must have been alien to your father, surely? "It was an unusual thing for him to countenance but, weighing up the benefits of it, he was very keen we had the best education we could." (Freddie, who now attends Sandhurst Military Academy, also went to Harrow while their younger sister, Claudia, went to St Mary's in Ascot; social ambition drinks money, like I said.)
He says he enjoyed Harrow: "It's a good school. It teaches you a lot," he explains, as we might have hoped, considering what it may have cost us, "and unlike a lot of other public schools it actively encouraged the arts and as well as sports. I was never a sportsman, although many have made me try." He was once hauled to the headmaster's office for reading a book when he was meant to be fielding at cricket. That said, though, "I was quite good at croquet and was even croquet champion at prep school."
He was flamboyant at school, too – "I did, I admit, own a pair of those Spice Girl platform trainers that my housemaster hated" – but never unpopular. When he came out in his last year, he says, "everyone was very, very nice to me and I realised that I'd made a lot more friends than I thought I had." And your father? "He was fine with it." His interests were art, books and music, so he would help in the school gallery, and the library, plus he sang – he was head chorister – and played the piano. He is mad for choral music. "I absolutely adore the British choral tradition," he says. OK, I say, what's the one piece of music you know you'd have to take on to Desert Island Discs? He thinks it would have to be Handel's Coronation Anthems "because I love them and he was the first composer I really, really fell in love with".
I don't think Henry Conway is, at heart, a ninny. His favourite writers are Oscar Wilde and Kazuo Ishiguro. He is passionate about art and loves, particularly, the Victorian painters Frederic Leighton and Simeon Solomon. After completing his BA at the Courtauld, he then went on to do a masters in architectural history, focusing on 17th- and 18th-century domestic architecture, and he is interesting on domestic architecture generally. We have quite a long discussion about whether Victorian terraces were the Barratt Homes of their day, and whether Barratt Homes will be coveted in, say, 100 years. He insists not. It's not, he says, so much that your average Barratt "lacks architectural integrity" but that "they're just not built to last". My point here, I think, is that Henry Conway could be a serious person, if only he took himself more seriously.
I ask how he got into the "party host" thing. He says: "The art world is a very difficult world to work in, as is architecture. Actually, I wanted to be a writer, but trying to write on those things and earn a living is very difficult. And I was a good events planner as well. I'd done some at university and really enjoyed it and fell into it like that. It's a period of your life, and it is still a period of my life, where you are still working out what you are doing." He then says he is not just a party-host, anyway. "I have two strands to my work life. I have the nightlife but I do also have writing." He cites Knit Couture, the book about knitting that he co-wrote and "which came out last year and is doing well both here and in America".
Anyway, time to go, although not before I've asked: "Out tonight, Henry?" He says: "I'm out every night, because every night is a working night to me." And: "We are going to do some fun stuff for the rum. I think we are even going to do a Mahiki dragon boat race at some point." There is no question that Henry Conway can be and is fun. The only question is: at whose expense? And I'm not sure I just mean ours. At what price, this Henry brand? At what price?
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