The Hunter Davies Interview: Happy is the soldier of fortune: On the Monopoly board of Life, the Duke of Westminster owns the dark blue squares. But what he really likes is his Territorial Army regiment

Hunter Davies
Monday 06 July 1992 23:02

ONE HAS to feel sorry for the Duke of Westminster. Britain's richest man, inheritor of all that stuff, owner of all those prime places - very sad, really, for anyone born with so much silver on his spoon. How can he have the normal incentives to work, or understand the satisfaction of humble achievement?

But today he is positively glowing with happiness, what a good time he's having, how can one not take pleasure in his pleasure? The regular snorts give it away. 'Absolutely,' he says, in reply to the most banal observation, followed by his own version of a hearty laugh. Hard to convey that strange sound from one so young- looking, but Harry Enfield gets near it with his Mr Nice-but-Dim. The Duke of Westminster is terribly nice, everyone says so, but he's not dim. Look what a great job he's done with the Grosvenor Estates.

Two months ago he was made commanding officer of his Territorial Army regiment, the Queen's Own Yeomanry. Hence his smart uniform - surprisingly smart, considering he's only had an hour's sleep the night before and has been up since four, looking after his soldiers, or his boys, as he calls them, all of them engaged in some complicated weekend manoeuvres in the grounds of his Abbeystead estate in Lancashire.

He can talk TA talk for ever, as he does love it so, but we'll begin with another reason for his present state of unbounded happiness. He is going to be a father again. Some time in October. Look out for announcements.

When you are a duke, the world tends to follow your offspring. The story so far is that his wife, Natalia, whom he married in 1978, gave birth almost at once to a daughter, Tamara, followed by another, Edwina, now aged 12 and 11. Then nothing for nine years. 'With the first two, it was bang bang. Very extraordinary. There was nothing wrong with either of us, so we thought that's it, God has said stop. We counted our blessings, felt jolly lucky to have two healthy daughters.'

Then last year, bingo, they were blessed again. A boy, now aged 17 months, called Hugh, born at 3.30 in the afternoon. 'I know the time because Prime Minister's Question Time was on the gogglebox. Major and Kinnock were having a go at each other.' You were watching TV rather than the birth of your son and heir? Tut tut.

'There happened to be a set up on the wall in my wife's bedroom at St Mary's, Paddington. Oh yes, I was there, absolutely, because she wanted me to be there, but I'm not good at seeing my wife in pain. My perception was that she was in pain, but we can't understand women's pain, can we? So while the baby was being born, I had half an eye on the old box.'

Drinks all round of course - and usually he won't drink till six - for the arrival of his son. 'My prime concern was not the succession. It was that he was OK. I am involved in a lot of caring organisations, and visit lots of hospitals, so I know what can happen in this world.'

However, without a son, the dukedom would have died out. Sad, but not tragic, he says. The girls would have inherited the family firm, and probably managed fine. The wealth has survived so far, right back to William the Conqueror, when one of the duke's ancestors was given Chester. In 1677 the family had another lucky stroke when Sir Thomas Grosvenor married 12-year-old Mary Davies (no relation, curses) who brought as her dowry a farm, later called Mayfair. Today, they own Claridges, the Connaught Hotel, the US Embassy and all Belgrave Square. On the Monopoly board of Life, the Grosvenors have the dark blue bits. Then there's their main estate, Eaton Hall, where they live, in Cheshire, plus estates in Lancashire, Scotland and overseas. They employ 700 people and must be worth, give or take a few noughts, pounds 2bn.

So another child is a happy event in a family firm. The more the better, sons or otherwise, in the hope that one of them at least will be up to the strain of being born a millionaire. Oh come on, it must be tough. You didn't know till you were 15 you were going to inherit, when your father came into the title unexpectedly - your baby son will know all along.

'You're right, absolutely. I do feel sorry for Hugh. He will be under enormous pressure. He's a lucky boy to be given all the material things in life, but he'll need to be robust mentally to survive. There are many pitfalls, when one inherits such an enormous amount of money, especially in adolescence.'

We know you are an admirable figure today, especially in that splendid uniform, and we know what wonderful work you do for charities, patron of 150, going to 200 functions a year, but, er, along the way, did you ever succumb? Drink, wild women, that sort of thing? Those dark shadows under your eyes. Too much TV as a kiddo, or something we don't talk about?

'I get the bags under my eyes from my mother's side of the family. Never worried me, my looks. I have no vanity. But I did have the normal adolescent pressures. I drank the normal amount, for an adolescent, but I never took drugs, though they were widely available when I was in London. There was a time at school I dearly wanted to give two fingers to it all, but my rebellion mainly took the form of idleness. I hated the public school system.

'As for women, I didn't get married till I was 27 - but, no I don't remember any particularly wild ones. The worst thing I did was crash cars. I had an appalling series of high- speed crashes. I hit a brick wall at 90 in a Fiat 125 which fell apart like a pack of cards. My father said if I was going to crash cars, I had to get a bloody car that would stand up. I got a Triumph, and proceeded to drive that into a bridge in Rutland. It fell apart like a piece of cake. Another time I found myself upside down, examining a quarry.'

His two O-levels were not in Art and Woodwork, as has been alleged, but Eng. Lang. and History. They were, he says, born out of his dislike of the public school system. He is determined that none of his children, boys or girls, will go to boarding schools. His two daughters went to their local village school in Cheshire and are now at a day school. 'Yes, it's private, I admit that, but it is mixed and I wouldn't call it very posh. I came across it when they asked me to give away the prizes. I thought I'd never seen such happy children. The parents are from all backgrounds. Tamara has just been staying with a school friend in Birkenhead and now does a smashing Scouse accent.'

Hugh will also go to the village school, but after that, they haven't decided. Perhaps the comprehensive? 'Why not? All we've done is not put him down for any public school. I do prefer day schools and mixed education. It does seem bizarre that when we're going to spend our life with a woman, in those vital adolescent years we are kept apart from them.

'I want my children at home. I like to have tea with them in the evening. It's abrograting one's responsibility as a parent sending them away in those important years, handing them over to people one doesn't know, and if one knew them, one probably wouldn't like them anyway. I want them living at home so I can teach them responsibility and manners. In the end, a happy child will learn well, whether at a public school or a comprehensive. An unhappy child will not learn anywhere. I was unhappy at school, so that's partly why I have these views. I only hope when Hugh is seven or 11, I won't turn out to be a hypocrite. My wife and I agree on this. She also disliked her boarding school.'

He also hopes, when they are older, that he will allow them to do their own thing. Unlike his own father. He well remembers the day he came home from school and said, horror of horrors, he wanted to be a professional footballer. 'I played for the school first XI and was pretty good, a strong centre forward, able to kick with both feet. I was spotted by George Cohen, the ex-England player, and he wanted me to have trials at Fulham. My father said certainly not. Firstly, he didn't like all the kissing they did when they scored, and second, he preferred the oval ball. So he wouldn't sign the forms.' Do you really think you'd encourage Hugh as a footballer, should he ask? 'Hmm. Jolly hard. It is such a short career.

'My main object will be to teach him self- discipline and a sense of duty. He's been born with the longest silver spoon anyone can have, but he can't go through life sucking on it. He has to put back what he has been given. He has to see himself as a caretaker, keeping the estates in good shape in his lifetime. It took me 10 years just to understand what I had inherited. It hasn't been easy. A lot of it was in bad shape. This is the third recession in the property market I have lived through, but I like to think we are surviving it well.

'London is always a problem. I know people accuse us of being grasping landlords, but when did you hear landlords not described as grasping? I would call us tough but fair. We happen to own some of the most beautiful parts of London, seen by millions, so it has to look good. That costs money. I've noticed it's always the richest tenants who moan most. I don't like London anyway. I don't like the traffic or the pace of life. It's all snatch and grab. I'm happiest in the country.'

But wouldn't you have been happier with no inherited properties to worry about, starting on your own, from scratch? 'Given the choice, I would rather not have been born wealthy, but I never think of giving it up. I can't sell. It doesn't belong to me. I hate being ripped off by people trying to take advantage of me. I always pay cash for things like a car, and try to get a good discount. I hate lights being left on. Last night I went round switching all the lights off.'

So that's why you were in bed late. Must have taken for ever, with a house this size. Har har, he said, though actually it was because of this complicated TA exercise. Yes, yes, I said, we'll come to that soon. Hold on. Do you consider you have any luxuries?

'My Mercedes sports, my Jaguar, my Land-Rover Discovery, my own plane, which of course I do use to get me to all my charity engagements. And I do smoke a lot. How many? Perhaps 40 a day. What a lie.

'It has been hard to explain my situation. People have no perception. They think my life is a piece of cake. My boys make jokes all the time. 'Remember me in your will', they say after a weekend training. They ask me why I'm sleeping out in the freezing cold instead of swanning off to the Bahamas. They see me tucking into a fried egg butty, my greasy fingers all over the white bread, and they don't understand. They can't grasp the notion of my duty, or understand why I'm in the TA. I feel no guilt at all about my wealth, but it is hard to explain.

'People have this notion of the idle rich. Pro rata, there are no more idle people among the aristocracy than among ordinary people. Joe Bloggs can just as easily fritter his life away as any duke. I'd rather be Joe Bloggs, personally. The tabloids don't see any excitement in him frittering his life away, but they love it when it's a lord. I am fortunate. I have nothing to hide. My life is open and honest. I am the happiest I've ever been. I know where I am and where I'm going.'

Oh, becoming philosophical, are we? No, Territorial. OK, Duke, give it to us. 'My life is exciting because I have been given a very important role. We are an Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment with a Rapid Reaction Force Role. I have 690 soldiers and 50 officers under my command. As CO, I know exactly what we will have to achieve in the next two years.

'The Army is totally in my blood. I would have become a regular soldier if my father had not fallen ill when he did and I had to help with the estate. It could not have been left rudderless. It was a difficult decision.

'I started in the TA as a trooper 20 years ago and I've worked my way up. I'm most comfortable in uniform - and most comfortable with soldiers. If I hadn't made the grade, I wouldn't be the CO. There are no passengers in the Army. I've had to fight hard for this job, so it now gives me intense satisfaction.

'Yes, it does mean I lose out on home life. I miss my wife and the children. At present, I'm giving 130 to 150 days a year to the TA. My wife is not all that pleased, but she sees how important it is to me. So she puts up with it. In the TA, I started as equal, with no advantages. I've done it all on my own. That's why it matters so much. That's why I'm so happy.'

(Photograph omitted)

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