The chairman is running late. Half an hour. His PA has been popping her head around the door every ten minutes to convey his apologies. The sound of him barking out orders carries through the walls and, alongside me on the squeaky leather sofa in the corridor, I sense the spectral presence of employees past: broken and wretched minions summoned here to squirm a while before finding out if they’re to be sacked. There is a chill in the air and, to the imagination, the cough of a nearby secretary becomes a hollow groan; the tapping of a keyboard mutates into the rattling of a chain.
It must be quite something, being mythologised – even if it is as a foul-tempered bully who could kill rats with his teeth and think nothing of impaling 500 work-shy personnel on pikes before breakfast. For one thing, it must be a hoot watching the way strangers react to you. And it must be so good to know that, thanks to the negative expectations they must harbour, their first impressions of you are bound to be positive.
Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the 66-year-old chairman of English Heritage, certainly revels in this reputation. And when you meet him he does indeed confound your presumptions by being all backslapping heartiness and bonhomie. He is a tall, barrel-chested man with smooth, pink skin that looks freshly scrubbed. There is a manly cleft in his chin and his nose is broken, a constant reminder of the Public Schools’ Boxing Championship final he lost in 1949.
The next thing you notice about him is that he is wearing a watch on each wrist. And with his thick white hair and blustering, distracted manner this eccentricity morphs him momentarily into the hopelessly late but time-obsessed White Rabbit. You are taken further through the looking-glass when Sir Jocelyn ushers you into his office on the fourth floor of an imposing Thirties-style building in Savile Row. There is a wooden dog the size of a pony next to his desk. It is the sort of object which your instincts scream at you to ignore in the hope that it will go away (a reaction psychologists call perceptual defence).
For the first 40 minutes my side of the conversation goes like this: ‘I’d like to start by…’; ‘Yes I see but…’; ‘Wouldn’t it be…’; ‘You say that but surely…’ Sir Jocelyn does not brook interruption – just shouts you down – and when you do manage to lob in a question he sighs impatiently, gulps air, and fidgets until you’ve done asking it. Although his delivery is clipped and plummy, he slurs odd words and, in his eagerness to crack on with the next thought, he doesn’t always finish his sentences. He has no volume control, emphasises words erratically and punctuates his monologues every so often with a friendly, snuffling laugh.
At the moment, he says, his mind is focused on the grand unveiling of the Albert Memorial by the Queen. As he warms to this theme it becomes clear that Sir Jocelyn considers himself to be a living embodiment of the Victorian spirit. He is half-right. He does get on and do things; and he is sentimental. He often catches himself weeping when he listens to military bands. And recently, when he visited a community of immigrants who were living in a formerly derelict Victorian square in Brixton, he felt moved to tears. Thanks to a conservation scheme he had introduced, they had formed a square committee. ‘The civic pride they had. You wouldn’t believe it! Absolutely splendid people. Newly arrived from the Caribbean. They laughed and laughed and laughed. And afterwards they did this tin-drum song about Queen Victoria.’
But the image he is stuck with is that of the free-marketeering, union-bashing, archetypal Thatcherite. While it is true that Margaret Thatcher admired the Victorians for their enterprise and their family values, she had no time for their liberal paternalism. And neither does Sir Jocelyn. Though he says so himself, his career has been all about saving great institutions – Queen magazine, the Evening Standard, the Express, the Royal College of Art and, since 1992, English Heritage – by making them more efficient and commercially viable, for which read clearing them of the dead wood. He knows he has made a lot of enemies doing this, but he says he doesn’t mind. ‘Not at all. I think you have to make enemies. England is in a funny state at the moment; a lot of people who talk a lot and not many who do a lot.’
In order to make English Heritage work, Sir Jocelyn offered voluntary redundancy to 700 members of staff. But being ruthless in the name of efficiency is one thing. Appearing to take pleasure in humiliating people who work for you, or whom you are about to sack, is quite another. According to clause 384, subsection ii, of the Journalist’s Code of Conduct, there are certain stories about Sir Jocelyn’s ferocious temper tantrums which must appear in any article pertaining to his life and times. So let us dispense with them: (1) The time he got so angry with a fashion writer he threw her typewriter out of a fourth-floor window.(2) The time he got so angry he snipped a telephone wire with a pair of scissors in order to cut a caller off. (3) The time he got so angry he sacked a secretary over the Tannoy. (4) The time he got so angry he roared to someone: ‘Get out of this office! And what do you mean by bringing this ghastly little man with you?’ (The ghastly little man was a highly regarded City surveyor who was hunchbacked from having had polio as a child.)
‘Most of the stories that you hear are true,’ Sir Jocelyn says with a shrug. ‘But in a long working life, which is now 40 years, people only remember…’ The sentence is unfinished. ‘I mean, the lady with the typewriter is now dead. So often printed. Very boring. They’re things I can’t escape now because they’re in every cutting. It doesn’t allow one to mature very much. And people do exaggerate. I was once called before the Permanent Secretary because they were worried about morale at English Heritage and Peter Brooke said in my defence, “You don’t know him as well as I do. When he was at the Royal College of Art he once sacked 19 professors in an afternoon. It was wonderful!” Sir Jocelyn gives a wheezy chuckle at the recollection of this. ‘Well, that was an exaggeration. You see it was only 11. And they were all useless.’
It seems a bit rich that Sir Jocelyn, the arch self-publicist who will gladly dress up and act the clown for a photo opportunity, should complain that he is a prisoner of his cuttings, even if he does add, ‘I suppose it hasn’t hurt me. People tend to ring me up to ask me to do things because they know I will get them done.’ He is obviously pretty thrilled with himself and with his belligerent public image. This, after all, is a man who once wrote to a paper to complain that it had libelled him by describing him as charming. Only someone who is sure he can charm if he wants to would joke about that. But it does reveal a curious paradox. On the one hand you have to assume, given his spectacular rudeness, that Sir Jocelyn is someone who genuinely doesn’t care what people think about him. On the other, he cared enough about his image to go around every newspaper library removing any cuttings file about himself (in the days before cuttings could be called up on computer).
‘I’ve never confessed to that before!’ he says with a snorting laugh. ‘Terrible of me, really. But I wanted to be able to start again, otherwise anything you’ve done in the past is constantly repeated.’ It makes you wonder what dark secrets from his past he wanted to erase. Was he worried that people would find out about his two musically gifted brothers, Shakin’ and Cat, the ones he kept locked in the attic at home? More likely he wanted to play down his image as a Sixties dandy and playboy because it undermined his Eighties reputation as a fire-breathing monster who gets things done.
On his 21st birthday he came into his inheritance – £750,000 – left him by his mother, whose family had made its fortune in newspapers, owning the Evening Standard in the Twenties and Picture Post in the Fifties. He immediately bought himself an Aston Martin and wrote it off the same day. On his 25th birthday he bought himself the ailing Queen magazine, and called in his chums Marc Boxer and Tony Snowdon. When bored with that, he says, he sold it off to a man who happened to be sitting at the next table at Claridges.
Vain enough to reinvent himself, then, and reportedly to storm around his office shouting and slamming doors whenever a hostile profile is written about him in a newspaper. That is, whenever a profile is written about him in a newspaper. Yet, whenever there is a new milestone in his career to commemorate, he always agrees to be interviewed about it. It could be that he’s a glutton for punishment or an optimist. Or maybe it’s that all he really cares about is getting attention in whatever form, and by whatever means, including screaming for it petulantly like a baby. The obvious Freudian reading of this is that he craves the attention he never received from his father, the late Major Greville Stewart-Stevens. When his mother, Betty, went into labour with him there were dangerous complications. The child lived but she died a few days later. His father, Jocelyn believes, never got over the death, blaming it on the Roman Catholicism of his wife’s family, and always regarded his son as the murderer of his wife.
As a small child, Jocelyn was sent to live in his own flat, off Baker Street in central London, with his own nanny, priest, cook and maid. He was driven around Hyde Park every day by his own chauffeur in his own Rolls-Royce. His father lived in another house and, when he remarried four years later, Jocelyn went to live with his stepfamily in Scotland. Although his stepsisters claim that Jocelyn exaggerates this rejection, it is clear that the boy never felt close to his father. After Eton, he did his National Service in the Rifle Brigade. Though he won the Sword of Honour, his father declined to come to the passing-out parade.
Sir Jocelyn Stevens does not see a connection with his unorthodox upbringing and the need he feels today to always get his own way. He does not believe he was spoilt. ‘I don’t think so. Not particularly. I don’t think it’s about getting your own way because quite often you win by going someone else’s way. I don’t work alone.’ Given the privileges he was born to, it would have been understandable if Sir Jocelyn had opted for a life of idle luxury. Instead he became a workaholic, regularly putting in 14 hours a day, and in 1979 this took its toll on his marriage of 23 years, to Jane Sheffield, Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret.
He has been with his present partner, Vivien Duffield, for 18 years. With an estimated fortune of £45 million inherited from her father Sir Charles Clore, she is one of the richest women in Britain. And with her own assertive and unembarrassable manner she is said to be more than a match for Sir Jocelyn. When kept waiting in reception for him once when he was managing director of Express Newspapers she sent a message saying if he did not come down immediately she would buy the paper and fire him. The couple divide their time between houses in London, Hampshire, Scotland, Geneva and Gstaad, and are famous for their extravagant parties.
You have to wonder, then, where Sir Jocelyn gets his motivation to carry on working as fanatically as he does. ‘It’s just that I have always been very determined and have always hated losing. Very bad losers, my family.’ He is not sure why this is. ‘One is born that way or not. I don’t think it happens.’ Not nurture then? ‘No. I don’t think so. Although it may have had something to do with being brought up in the War, quite a tough upbringing.’
His account of how he was offered the job of saving English Heritage is telling. He was in Scotland cleaning leaves out of the gutter when Michael Heseltine rang. ‘There was a thunderstorm and I was soaked to the skin and took ages to come to the phone. He asked me what on earth I’d been doing and when I told him I’d been cleaning the gutter because the house was leaking all over he said, ‘Very appropriate to the job I am about to offer you: chairman of English Heritage.’ I said I didn’t know much about English Heritage except that I hated it and he said, ‘Got it!’ They wanted a fox in the chicken coop.’
It is obvious why Michael Heseltine admires Sir Jocelyn. They are both protected by the same armour of the deliberate philistine. In his new history of the Tory Party, Alan Clark describes Heseltine’s aggression and vanity; he also refers to his unpredictability, cunning and low intellect. There are other parallels. Both are self-parodying, single-minded and ruthless in their pursuit of power. Both are electrifying orators. Both love it when they are the victim of satirists or cartoonists. Heseltine tried to buy his Spitting Image puppet. Sir Jocelyn has on his office wall several large cartoons which depict him as a tyrant. All the staff I talked to referred to Stevens as ‘The Chairman,’ presumably at his insistence. Heseltine liked to be called ‘The President’ (of the Board of Trade) instead of the more usual ‘Minister’ (for Trade and Industry).
Above all, both men are as hyperactive as children. You can see Sir Jocelyn getting more and more excited as he talks. He is sitting in an armchair which whizzes around on its rollers as he rocks back and forth. The mental image of one of those toy cars which you wind up by chaffing its back wheels against the carpet is irresistible. Any moment now I fear he may stop rocking and the armchair will scoot off to the other side of the room.
Even on brief acquaintance it is obvious that Sir Jocelyn is a force of nature: that this is why no one has ever dared to stand up to him and why he assumes he will always be forgiven for his obnoxious behaviour. He could never be accused of being a dull conformist and this – along with his vitality and brio – is his saving chracteristic. He seems civil enough to me, jolly in fact; perhaps, dare one say it, even a little charming in his way. But having never witnessed him become incandescent with rage, I have no claim to objectivity. That’s not to say I haven’t heard first-hand accounts of his tantrums, though, including one occasion when he was overheard on a street corner screaming into his mobile phone at his chauffeur who was late in picking him up: ‘You are a worthless fucking worm.’
Mercurial, then; and volatile. And quite the Dominatrix. But it is difficult to gauge whether his bluff manner and irrepressible enthusiasm conceals extreme cleverness or bestial stupidity. Although everyone thinks of Sir Jocelyn as an arch Tory, Tony Blair was happy to see him re-appointed as chairman of English Heritage for another three years, which suggests that Sir Jocelyn has good political instincts. It is clear from listening to him that his passion for conserving England’s heritage is genuine. He believes that a nation which doesn’t care about its past has no future. ‘I am an old-fashioned patriot,’ Sir Jocelyn says. ‘Always been. Love this country. Hugely proud of it.’
The trouble is when I ask him whether he would have been equally committed and enthusiastic if Michael Heseltine had rung and asked him to save a football club instead of English Heritage, he says, ‘Yes. Anything.’ For him it is not the cause that is really important, it is the not losing. He’s competitive; not a good sport. ‘Yes. One is in competition with oneself, in a way. One is not racing against someone else’s monument. It’s inbuilt. I can’t bear people who don’t finish a job. You have to overcome the carpet of bureaucracy in England. If you look at the people who succeed in beating it, it is usually impatient people.’ He means angry people. ‘Well anger, I am afraid, is sometimes the only way to get things done.’
It is comments like this which make you suspect that the anger may sometimes be an act. ‘Well, now it’s mostly controlled,’ Sir Jocelyn admits. ‘It wasn’t before. I was quite proficient in the martial arts and I would get physically angry. Even now if someone rammed into the back of my car I would get out and shout, ‘You fucker!’ at whoever did it. It’s a sudden thing. But I have no instinct to throw my weight around any more. One is helped by one’s growing reputation when one arrives at a new job. When I arrived at the RCA, a lot of resignations were already waiting on my desk. These were professors who hadn’t been working. Turning up and getting paid for nothing. They knew they wouldn’t last. They knew that when I arrived here, too.’ He springs from his chair, marches across the room and peels off a sheet of paper that someone has Sellotaped anonymously to the back of his door. ‘Terribly funny, this,’ he says as he hands it to me. Written in black felt-tip pen are the words: ‘We must create an environment where everyone knows and feels that a failure to fulfil orders means death.’
What seems to worry people most about Sir Jocelyn is that he might be a genuine sadist, that he really does enjoy being a bully. ‘No,’ he says. ‘No pleasure. But I do get annoyed. If one is harsh on people, it certainly isn’t with juniors. Most famous example, I suppose, was when Miss Page, now chief executive of the Dome, was stolen from us by the hapless Stephen Dorrell. I was so angry that he hadn’t bothered to tell me that I stormed round, crashed my way in and said, “Right, that’s it. I work like a bloody dog. I expect to be treated civilly.” Someone should have rung and told me. I was angry because it offended my code of trust. He had made a massive breach. I said, “I’m attacking you for bad manners and I will not sit down again in your company, to remind myself of what a shit you are.” So for a month when everyone was sitting down in meetings I would be standing up. It is eccentric but it had an enormous effect. He knows I don’t fear anybody. I’ve never been frightened of anything.’
To overcome your fears in adversity means you have courage. To have no fears in the first place means you are just or odd. Does Sir Jocelyn acknowledge that there is something a little inhuman about his fearlessness? ‘It does sometimes puzzle me. In the military I was never frightened. Not at all afraid of dying. Maybe something is missing. I’ve never been to a psychiatrist. Never felt the need to. It’s just the way one sees things. It’s just…’
Frenetic people who throw themselves into their work sometimes do so because they dread being left alone with their own thoughts – for fear of discovering that they are the empty vessels who make most noise. Anything that will distract them from contemplating their inner life will do. ‘No, I don’t have a fear of that,’ Sir Jocelyn says, twiddling one arm of his half-rimmed spectacles. ‘I just want to win. I have obsessions. I’m a perfectionist. That is the curse. It means one is permanently unhappy.’
Another curse seems to be that he always feel bored and restless as soon as things start running smoothly. Like a successful wartime prime minister, he feels disconnected and aimless in peacetime. His feeling of permanent unhappiness, though, is a surprising admission. You’d think he might feel just a teeny bit fulfilled from time to time. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be content because there is always something to do. I mean, as exciting.’
All this is not to suggest that his life has been without its black days. As a young man he got into Trinity College, Cambridge, on the strength of his rowing prowess, only to be sent down for bunking off during term time to go skiing – and sending his tutor a postcard from the Swiss Alps saying, ‘Wish you were here.’ He was sacked from the Express in 1981 when he attempted a management buy out. He had four children, two boys and two girls. One of them, Rupert, was disabled with palsy and died at the age of 22 in 1989. When another, Pandora, became a drug addict, Sir Jocelyn broke into her squat, carried her out, checked her into a rehab clinic and then had her dealer hunted down and arrested.
‘Oh, you can’t help but get depressed some times,’ he says blithely. ‘God, I feel low some times. But my first reaction is not to take things personally or give up but to pick myself up and start again.’ But if you are thick-skinned enough to keep bouncing back, does that not make you shallow? Sir Jocelyn pinches the bridge of his nose. ‘I’m not that thick-skinned. One does have bad moments but not very often. One has been very lucky. Come and have a look at this.’ He jumps up again and shows me two giant rectangular photographs of Stonehenge; one shows the site with a road, one with it airbrushed out. ‘See how much better it looks.’
He looks at the watch first on his right hand, then on his left, he really must get on and finish proof reading his report on Stonehenge right now. The nagging question still has to be asked. Why two watches? It turns out this is the first day Sir Jocelyn has worn both. He is trying out an old one, which he doesn’t trust. The only other person he’s ever known to wear two was Lord Mountbatten. Sir Jocelyn was being driven by him one day in his Land Rover when he made the mistake of asking the time as they were approaching a gate. He mimes Lord Mountbatten taking both hands off the steering wheel to check his watches. ‘Crashed right into the bloody thing!’
He roars with laughter, slaps me on the back and sends me tottering unsteadily into the pony-sized wooden dog which I have been trying so desperately to ignore.