Golden balls: West Ham United's co-owner reveals his cunning plan for the Olympic stadium

Brought up in abject poverty by a petty criminal, abused by a relative, written off as a greedy porn baron... David Gold has had to deal with plenty in his life – which means he’s not about to give up on his dream of taking over the Olympic Stadium with his beloved West Ham United.

Robert Chalmers
Friday 17 August 2012 22:42

Twelve years ago, on Radio Five Live, presenter Nicky Campbell challenged David Gold to give a description of his Surrey estate in less than 60 seconds.

"I believe you have your own golf course," Campbell prompted his guest, in an ominously mischievous tone.

"Yes," Gold replied. "I am very proud of it."

"Outdoor Jacuzzi?" the presenter continued.

"I have an indoor Jacuzzi," Gold replied before describing, without irony, the "swimming pool, with the logo of Ann Summers [his jointly owned chain of shops selling lingerie and adult electricals] on the bottom. The greens on my golf course are each named after my various companies." Conversation then turned to David Gold's watch, and its unusually generous allocation of diamonds.

"I must say," Gold told his hosts, "that, all through my life, I have been very sort of, erm… what's the word…"

"Greedy?" volunteered one of Campbell's co- presenters. It was an unusual radio moment, not least for the fact that some of the laughter provoked by this impressively sharp intervention came from the man who had been introduced as "Britain's Mr Erotica". When the hilarity had subsided, though, Gold, rich as he may be, sounded humbled, almost mortified.

"This watch was chosen for me by my girlfriend, Lesley," he explained, quietly. "She has persuaded me to be a bit more flamboyant."

I have kept a copy of that broadcast, I tell Gold, when we meet in one of the reception rooms at his mansion, a recording I originally made because the news that day was dominated by a court decision relating to the Bulger case. I can remember, I tell the West Ham United co-owner, how amusing his appearance had seemed at the time. Listening back to those exchanges now, though, there's something less than generous about the way he was treated that day. Gold is a chronic dyslexic who left school with no qualifications. Outnumbered by university-educated BBC professionals, he sounded apprehensive, even daunted.

"I remember that interview," says the businessman. "At the time I did laugh, but afterwards, when I was going home, I thought that maybe it wasn't a very nice thing to say to me."

"So are you greedy?"

"I don't believe so. I don't think 'greedy' is a fair word. I am guilty of pursuing success. In the main I am at ease with people. In that studio, I didn't really feel comfortable."

David Gold is not a difficult man to mock. We live in an age in which many privileged figures strive to disguise their public-school accents by injecting a hint of estuary English. Gold, on the other hand, grew up in Green Street, opposite West Ham United's stadium and, even today, you can tell that he is at pains to speak as properly as he can; to the point that he will use a word like "whom", where appropriate, and generally maintains a level of grammatical perfection that many of his more formally educated contemporaries have long abandoned.

West Ham, the team Gold has supported for more than six decades, and now jointly owns, stand at a crucial point in their history. Having returned to the Premier League this season, they can contemplate the possibility – should they succeed in their stated ambition to take over the 2012 Olympic Stadium – of rising to join the elite names in English football, playing as they would at a ground holding 60,000 spectators. (The subject of the Olympic Stadium, I was warned by Gold's publicists, is one that I must on no account raise during this interview.)

Some people are born with the name they deserve (Keith Moon and Ed Balls spring to mind). Gold, in the minds of many, is another. The love of bling might be considered a forgivable – even enviable – trait in the young. When you're 75 and a permanent fixture in the Sunday Times Rich List, it's a different matter.

This mid-19th-century mansion, where he lives with fiancée Lesley Manning, 18 years his junior, is imposing, but not untastefully decorated. The interior, give or take the odd china swan and grand piano, is, if anything, understated. The 55 acres of grounds, though, are on a regal scale. His rolling lawns are immaculately kept. From the closest window I can see two spectacular ponds without even trying. I have to admit to an instinctive belief that a man who's a goldfish enthusiast, and has springer spaniels romping around the grounds, can't be all bad.

Gold appears wearing a yellow short-sleeved shirt and black casual trousers. The only elements of his outfit that might be designed to impress are the famous watch, the black patent-leather shoes, and a ruby ring. He wears this last accessory on the little finger of his right hand where, you can't help thinking, it would be most effective in enhancing the effect of an uppercut, should our conversation render one necessary. So why is it that some people accuse Gold (whose business empire, founded as it was on the sale of titillating fiction, has had him described as a "Porn Baron") of ostentation?

"I got a tweet the other day," he replies. "It said, 'Why, in every interview that you do, is your helicopter in the background?' It ended, '#show-off'. I replied: 'When I was a boy, every picture of me had, in the background, an outside toilet and a tin bath.' My helicopter normally sits on the front lawn. I don't leave it there now, because I was affected by that criticism. I didn't read that message and say, 'Piss off. I don't care what you think,' as you could imagine Alan Sugar might do. I do care. I am what I am," says Gold, in a phrase that will recur. "And I want to do the right thing."

Gold's main business collaborators are his brother Ralph, and David Sullivan; men who have also amassed huge fortunes from the marketing of erotica. Investigative journalist Mark Killick's unauthorised biography of Sullivan (creator of, among many other publications, the Sunday Sport) has the title The Sultan of Sleaze. David Gold's introspective tendencies, and sensitivity to criticism, are qualities less conspicuous in the character of Sullivan, who, in 1981, was found guilty of living off immoral earnings (relating to prostitutes operating in saunas). He appealed against his nine-month sentence, and was released – though not pardoned – after having served 71 days in prison.

Prime among the joint ventures of the three businessmen are the Ann Summers chain, and West Ham, whose vice-chairman is Karren Brady. Brady is a long-standing ally of the triumvirate, notably in their previous football adventure at Birmingham City, where she was managing director. The Gold brothers and Sullivan bought that club for £1 in 1993 and sold in 2009. David Sullivan took a profit of £30m; the Gold brothers emerged with £15m each.

David Gold is writing an online autobiography, updated every week or so. The prototype was his published life story, Pure Gold, which appeared as a hardback in 2005.

Pure Gold leaves the reader in little doubt as to the privations he endured as an infant. The prologue includes two paragraphs dealing with his childhood; they are too long to include in full, so I have abridged them as follows.

"Stench of poverty… poor, hungry, cold… awful smell… strength-sapping cold… stench of poverty… stench of poverty… stink… poverty… hunger… biting chill… stomach-cramping hunger… poverty… poverty… despair… dysentery… hunger… poverty… stench of poverty."

At one point in the book, Gold notes that the comforts afforded by his family's house were eclipsed by the facilities in an air-raid shelter that had been excavated in his neighbour's yard. It's a moment that enemies might seize on as being reminiscent of the classic Monty Python parody of romanticised poverty, "The Four Yorkshiremen", in which, to misquote the script slightly, one of the speakers remembers how, "We used to dream of living in a hole in the ground."

The true extent of Gold's suffering as a boy was no laughing matter. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of five, he spent months in Black Notley sanatorium, close to Braintree, Essex.

"My best friend there was Jimmy," he says. "We slept in this dormitory. One night, there's this commotion. Our curtains are hurriedly closed for us. Lights come on. I can hear they're trying to save Jimmy. The lights go out. Next morning, I said to the nurse, 'E's dead, inne?' 'No,' she said, 'Jimmy's gone to heaven. I'll get your porridge. I'll see if I can get you some treacle in it, as a treat.' I remember thinking: my best friend is dead. And I've got treacle."

Deprivation, I suggest to Gold, was not unfamiliar to Britain's urban population in the 1940s. But he, clearly, had it tougher than most. "That was because of my father. [Godfrey, known as Goddy.] He wasn't often around. He was a philanderer and he was often in prison. You had to be destitute to get help. There was this thing called RO. You got tokens that you took to shops. You were given RO boots" – footwear, Gold says, which invited contempt, especially when worn by a boy who was half-Jewish, on his father's side.

He has a younger sister, Marie; his brother Ralph, the middle child, is two years David's junior. The tensions between Godfrey, and their mother Rose, are described in each of the Gold brothers' autobiographies. (Good as Gold, Ralph's story, appeared in 1997.)

A gifted footballer, David was twice invited to sign apprentice forms: first by his beloved West Ham, then Fulham. His father withheld consent, and David trained as a bricklayer.

"What made him refuse? Envy?"

"Possibly. I remember once I was kicking a ball against our shed. My father was reading the paper. He said: 'Why don't you stop showing off?' There was nobody there except him. I was only practising. That sticks in my mind. If I see my daughters excel, I brim with pride."

Godfrey's criticism seems especially vindictive, given that his son had found something he really excelled at. Years later, when his daughter Jacqueline was a child, David's English was still so poor that, in her words, "He used to copy out words from the dictionary, and stick them to the dashboard of his car. He was that keen to better himself."

Gold did not become aware of his dyslexia "until I was 27. You carry around this feeling of, everybody else is clever, and you are a dummy."

David Gold married his first girlfriend, Beryl Hunt. He was 21. He says that he realised he'd made a mistake, even as he left for the honeymoon. The couple separated in 1972. Beryl, who died in 2003, was the mother of his only children: Vanessa (currently MD at Ann Summers ) and Jacqueline, the company's CEO, who was instrumental in building the Summers empire, through her introduction, in 1981, of salacious house parties, where ladies gather to compare notes on products such as PVC underwear, "Rampant Rabbit" vibrators and chocolate penises.

s I talk to Gold, I realise that I had arrived here with certain expectations, not all of which were fulfilled. "Modest" was one adjective I was not expecting to appear in this article, but if you read Ralph's book, you're struck by the number of David's achievements (as a builder, footballer and prize-winning aviator) that are downplayed in, or omitted from, the elder brother's own life story.

Undistinguished as he may have been by orthodox academic standards, Gold quickly demonstrated a flair for business. He was in his early twenties when he opened his first bookshop near Charing Cross, selling general fiction and "adult" titles by authors such as Hank Janson (Stephen Daniel Frances), the most popular British pulp-fiction author of the immediate post-war years.

For some reason, I tell Gold, I've never quite hit it off with the pornographers I've met; even a man with a strong sense of irony, such as Larry Flynt. Some of the publications in Flynt's Hustler stable, I suggest, resemble gynaecological course books.

"Well, Larry Flynt… he has to be disgusting… shocking, I mean. That's his mantra."

Pornographer is a title which, when applied to his own career, Gold contests with some vigour. It would be difficult to overstate the innocuousness of the magazines which got him into trouble in his early years as a publisher. In the interests of research I procured copies of his 1970s magazine New Direction (the stress is on the first syllable); a periodical that, today, would scarcely require elevating to the top shelf. Gold was tried (and acquitted) three times on charges relating to handling indecent material; books which, today, would only be destroyed by purchasers, on the grounds of primness and tedium.

"I watched a programme about Fifty Shades of Grey recently," Gold says. "All of the people involved would have risked prison 50 years ago, including the author."

"I came across a bizarre cutting from The Telegraph, dated September 1972," I tell him. "It complains that, at your company, adult books were stored in the same warehouse as children's annuals. 'The covers of the children's books show teddy bears and bunny rabbits,' the reporter complains. 'The sex books feature naked photographs.' It sounds as if the Telegraph had caught you storing Wensleydale next to raw pork."

"I remember that article. I think there was a fear in the ruling classes that sex would infect young people and turn them into monsters." k

One judge who tried Gold, Lord King Hamilton, was informed, during proceedings, that studies showed that 97 per cent of young men masturbate.

"He removed his glasses," Gold recalls, "raised his hand to his brow, and said, 'Whatever happened to restraint?' I could see the jury thinking: we know the real world. This man doesn't."

"Where would you draw the line now?"

"I think we all know it."

"You mean paedophilia?"

"Yes, and other things that are disgusting. The real problem is deciding at what age children can see certain images."

"You argued for a British Board of Book Censors 40 years ago, didn't you?"

"Yes. They could have made rules and we could have obeyed them. As long as the board didn't include someone like [prominent anti-obscenity crusader] Lord Longford, who was potty. If you don't separate soft and hardcore material, if you embrace it all, like Longford did, the silly sod, everything becomes pornography."

Gold has, he insists, "high moral standards".

Ironically – or, his critics might argue, appropriately – the intimate lives of David Gold and his family have been subject to gruesome turbulence. As a small boy he was molested by his mother's stepbrother, Johnny Cenci. He recalls three instances of serious sexual abuse.

"My mother was loyal to Cenci," he says. "Years later, I was giving her money every week. One day she is in tears. She says, 'I've got no money'. It turned out that she was paying £200 a week to keep Cenci – my abuser – in a nursing home. I couldn't bear her to be upset. Anyhow, he's blind and he's got cancer. I thought, how long can he live? I gave her an extra £10,000 a year. The bastard," Gold laughs, "lived for 11 years."

By the time he was 32, David Gold was prospering as a partner with brother Ralph and father Godfrey in their publishing business. This collaboration ended when Godfrey attempted an illegal manoeuvre that would have given him control of the company. The brothers terminated his involvement. "I never spoke to him again. He died at 92, four years ago."

"Did you go to the funeral?"

"Yes. I hadn't spoken to him for nearly 40 years. I suppose I was there to mourn the father I wish I'd had. My pals all had fantastic dads. Dads who encouraged them. Playing football, say. Where was mine?"

On the day he parted company with his father, Gold drove home early and saw Beryl having sex with his best friend, in the swimming pool. The couple were unaware that they had been observed. There followed a bizarre situation, described by his daughter Jacqueline in her first autobiography, whereby Beryl and her lover occupied the Golds' double bed, while David and the wife of Beryl's lover slept together in the spare room. (After he separated from Beryl, Gold spent 25 years with another girlfriend, Penny.) He met Lesley, the love of his life, at a tapas bar in Purley in 1998 .

Beryl, meanwhile, married her lover, and was awarded custody of Vanessa and Jacqueline. The latter, as the title of her first book (Please Let it Stop) would indicate, endured years of sexual abuse perpetrated by her stepfather.

"Jacqueline says that you only learnt of this when you read her book; she recalls that you said, 'I feel like killing the guy.' Is that correct?"

"Yes. I'd stayed in the family home for several years knowing that my wife was having an affair, for the sake of the children. Should I have stayed longer?"

"You must have had to restrain yourself. I imagine that you'd have known people who, once you discovered what had happened to Jacqueline, could have sorted that situation out for you?"

(In the mid-1960s, Gold met at least one member of the notorious Richardson gang, though there is no suggestion that he was ever connected with them either professionally or socially.)

"However," he replies, "had anything happened to him, the first suspect would have been me. And that is not a good way to resolve things, ever. But when the anger boils, there is definitely a tipping point."

"And her abuser is still alive?"


"How do you deal with that, emotionally, now?"

"If I'm at work, I'm not thinking about it. But talking about it to you now, I feel the anger, the remorse and the desire for revenge on my daughter's behalf."

"And on your own behalf, I imagine."


"Jacqueline fled to your house once, didn't she, and you, unaware of what was happening, drove her back to her mother."

"And had I known, I could have changed everything. Her mother was aware, which is not uncommon, as I have discovered, researching the subject of abuse. It was a tragedy. But hopefully it can inspire other people to believe that you can overcome this sort of trauma."

"Tony Soprano persuaded himself to see a psychoanalyst; did you?"

"I am not a psychoanalyst kind of a man," Gold replies. "I also hate hypnotists. And astrologers. I'll see both Jackie and Vanessa today and hug them, and I will be aware of what a lucky man I am."

Swift generation of wealth has never been a problem for Gold. By 1972, Gold Star Productions had a £1m turnover, 100 people on the payroll and an office in New York. Titles such as Lesbian Love and A Woman's Look at Oral Love were written by Sue Caron. Miss Caron, who matched the prolific output, if not the literary invention, of Charles Dickens, also edited magazines including New Directions and In Depth.

"Am I talking to Sue Caron now?"

Gold laughs. "No. She wasn't me. She was my brother's assistant."

"Somebody told me that [one of the saddest periodicals of all time] Readers' Wives is one of yours."

"No. That is [fellow top-shelf mogul and current owner of Express Newspapers] Richard Desmond."

"What do you think of him?"

"You have to say he is a remarkable success. He was competing with us – I say 'us' because we joined forces with David Sullivan – but at one time there were the Golds, Sullivan, Desmond, and Paul Raymond. We were the four main players in top-shelf magazines."

David Gold's business portfolio expanded to include sex-chat lines, and a company chartering luxury jets, which was sold in 2006. Probably his most felicitous business decision was the purchase of Ann Summers, in 1972. The company – now a vastly successful global brand – had been started by an eccentric bohemian, Michael "Dandy Kim" Caborn-Waterfield. An occasional actor and jockey, Waterfield was the lover of Diana Dors and, it seems likely, Princess Margaret. He ran guns to Cuba during the 1959 revolution, served a prison term in France after stealing £25,000 from the Riviera villa of American film producer Jack Warner and, in 1970, launched Ann Summers "for a laugh". A year later, the company, named after Waterfield's secretary Annice Summers, was heading for bankruptcy.

Dandy Kim is not unrelentingly sympathetic when he talks about his former friend. Gold, however, recalls Waterfield as "an amazing character; a genius who would make incredibly poor financial decisions".

"Like trousering that £25,000."


Some have suggested that he completed an autobiography and was dissuaded from publishing by you."

"He got beaten up. The implication was that I had arranged it. Of course that was not true."

"So what did happen?"

Gold alleges that Dandy Kim spoke to him on the subject of his book, and that he is not sure the manuscript was even completed. Waterfield's testimony on these matters differs radically, but he insisted that he could not be quoted on the record on any matter concerning the Golds, because (he added) legal action is pending.

Gold adds that he believes Waterfield's book would have suggested that "he could destroy the myth that the Ann Summers story revolved only around Jacqueline. But who would care?"

"Exactly. No libellous stories about you, then, involving wild parties?"

"I wish it had been the case. It might make me sound more interesting."

George Orwell," I remind Gold, "once wrote that every regional accent carries its own message, and that the Cockney accent implies meanness with money."

"I think that, in the main, is true."

And, Gold adds, he can understand that West Ham's famously dedicated supporters, Londoners though they themselves mainly are, may mistrust businessmen "coming into the club and talking about loyalty. But this is my manor. I worked on Stratford Market, where the Olympic Stadium sits now. I remember the bomb falling on West Ham football ground and thinking: my God, they're coming after me. West Ham is my passion."

The cost of buying the club, in Gold's words, was "madness. The place was a car crash. The worst set of figures I'd ever seen."

"Still, I guess you made enough money out of Birmingham City."

"Because we got lucky. When we sold Birmingham, we planned to take a rest from football. Then we heard West Ham were in trouble."

"You probably know that I was asked not to talk to you about the Olympic site; but could you just confirm that West Ham are still interested in moving there?"

"Absolutely. Under the right circumstances. I am very hopeful that West Ham will end up at the Olympic Stadium. The reason why that move is so important to us – and I say this on the record – is that, if we're fortunate enough to be awarded the stadium, then the players we currently have, if they are approached by a bigger club, face losing the opportunity to play at the Olympic Stadium."

"Can you fill it?"

"Our research says so."

"The snag at West Ham," I say, "as at huge clubs such as Manchester United or Barcelona, is that tradition requires you to play attractive, attacking football. I belong to a minority which believes that [current manager] Sam Allardyce is capable of achieving that."

"I believe that too."

"What if you get relegated?"

"Well in that case, of course we couldn't fill it. But I believe that, with the Olympic Stadium comes the opportunity for greater success."

"I imagine a lot of taxpayers being pretty hacked off by all this. You'll know that Manchester City [who lease the 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium] are widely derided as the richest council house tenants on the planet. Couldn't you at least buy the stadium?"

"No. We tried to buy it. That was challenged by Tottenham Hotspur, whose model was to pull the stadium down."

s I say goodbye to Gold, I find myself wondering why a person born into poverty who develops a taste for luxurious accessories should be automatically mocked, with all the contempt that the English aristocracy traditionally reserve for "new money".

He is troubled by a recurring nightmare, in which "I arrive at my childhood home in my Bentley – bizarrely because, in the nightmare, I've lost everything. My mum is waiting for me. I take out my tool bag. I drive to the building site and see the face of Ben, the hod carrier, who can't understand why I'm there, especially with my Bentley. I'm wet and cold. It's the same dream every time. You fear slipping back. The fear of losing everything is a driving force."

Is it racist or patronising to note that, when you're socialising with black residents of the Southern states of the US, you quickly notice that, the more impoverished their upbringing, the more likely they are to be immaculately dressed at all times? I tell Gold how, some years ago, I visited an interviewee whose impeccable, slightly garish clothes, like the dazzling perfection of his property's décor, just screamed, to me at least, that he had been raised (as he had) in squalor. If poverty really is a trap, then Gold's diamond watches, dazzling patent-leather shoes and helicopter are, I imagine, simply his proud badges of escape.

I can see from Gold's face that this kind of talk, which might imply that he instinctively follows Zero Mostel's advice, in The Producers ("If you've got it baby, flaunt it! Flaunt it!"), isn't going down especially well.

"I am what I am," he replies. "I can teach myself to stop saying 'an 'ouse'. And learn words by writing them down 50 times, or sticking them to the car dashboard. But there are many things I can't change. I can't change the fact that I was brought up in poverty, by a petty criminal. I can't change the fact I was sexually abused as a boy. I regret that I didn't have a better education. But I do have experience. I do have opinions. And I am," he repeats, "what I am."

His remaining ambitions, aside from avoiding a return to his childhood address, are "for my family and businesses to thrive. For West Ham to be challenging at the top of the Premier League. And to play, and win, in Europe."

He might have added, but doesn't, that he'd quite like to shed the reputation he's acquired, in the minds of some, as an object of derision. But if his other hopes are realised, and he finds himself in the Olympic Stadium one evening, hosting Juventus or Real Madrid, you would have to ask yourself who – as the grammatically punctilious Gold would phrase it – will be sneering at whom.

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