Lewes holds some difficult memories for Ivan Massow, the hugely successful and effortlessly glamorous businessman who was set to become Conservative Mayor of London and who has just defected to the Liberal Democrats.
Growing up in the Sussex town, he was estranged from his policeman father troubled by the idea of a gay son. Meanwhile, his mother was extremely poor and became friends (innocently) with a couple of prostitutes, which alarmed social services. So Ivan was taken into care and faced multiple adoptions.
But rather than becoming another grim statistic in the Guardian Society pages, he moved to London and before long could be found in the Financial Times and even Tatler’s society pages, Champagne flute in hand. He became the (controversial) chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and made a reported £40 million, primarily by selling financial services to gay men. Soon he was best friends with Joan Collins, all over the media, flying in private jets and hiring entire floors of hotels.
Trouble, though, was never far behind. A partner committed suicide, prompting work for the Samaritans. His business collapsed and was later re-born. In 2008 Collins told him he had a drink problem so he became teetotal. After a tilt at becoming Mayor of London, he now focuses entirely on charitable work. A painfully revealing TV show recently saw him and his brother (free spirit or drop out, depending on your generosity) swap lives, with harsh home truths delivered by both sides. Oh, and he has a one-year-old son with a woman who was in a lesbian relationship at conception, and he has now moved back to his home town of Lewes.
I’m exhausted just detailing it, never mind living a life which has not quite reached its 50th year. “And I have never been happier,” he puffs at the stables, having been out riding since 4am.
His journey from childhood to maturity has also been quite a punishing ride. “My mother had one or two unfortunate relationships, I don’t want to make too much of it now,” he says. “I was undiagnosed dyslexic [he left school with just an “O” Level in metal work]. We were poor. There is a real life sense of triumphing over that.”
So finding contentment in adulthood has helped him return to his past, including his home town. “The previous generation wouldn’t have moved 10 miles away, but my generation decided other places were more glamorous and interesting,” says Massow. “But I think we are slightly pre-programmed to go back to where we came from. I really began to long for the country, and rode with blood hounds, which is the humane form of hunting. For a while I lived in theVale of Somerset and loved the high hedgerows, but I missed Sussex.”
Surprisingly for such a countryman he has chosen the heart of Lewes, albeit in a former manor house. “I’m in Lewes itself, which is a strange decision for me. I would prefer somewhere with fields, drive and a stable block, and I’d be checking the fencing and hedges and my land,” he says, poking gentle fun at his aristocratic tastes and twirls.
His Lewes roots were deep. His grandfather had been Mayor, defecting from the Conservatives to become an independent (“defecting must be in the genes”). “I was in the field today with the Henleys, Fields, Days, old Sussex families, and I just feel very, very at home.” Although he divides his days betwixt Lewes and his large town house in London’s Bloomsbury, he is clearly proud of his Lewes home, Southover Old House on the High Street. “It was once Southover Manor but then they built a bigger one next door.
“It’s got a Georgian front and back, in fact the back is grander, proper Georgian. But it dates from the 15th century, and we found covered up Tudor inglenooks; it’s a lovely house.”
The pile might be historic but his domestic arrangements have a decidedly contemporary edge. So as well as mama, he has also installed Mila, who was in a lesbian relationship when he met her and with whom he had Theo (if you must have the gory detail, conception was achieved first time via a kit, and although theirs is now a firm partnership, it is platonic).
I venture that it is unconventional for rural Britain, reputed to prefer life conducted in straight lines, preferably behind privet hedges. How has been his reception? “People have been really cool, actually,” he shrugs. “I was nervous. But people are all offering to help and sort things out.
“People in the countryside are more open-minded than they are given credit for. There are people who have been involved in all sorts of really rough stuff. Attempted murder charges and all sorts. I’ve never been to prison! Just a bit of unconventionality is pretty mild in comparison.” Blimey, who have you been mixing with in Sussex, Ivan?
“I just find everyone great. I still live in London a lot of the time, but I would come home to Lewes after every meeting if I could. My life is deeply rural. Lots of farmers are liberal at heart, just in conventional, tweedy packaging.”
So he has not faced homophobia? “You can choose to get upset or decide it’s a bit of fun. There are often people who are not politically correct, but if you don’t get upset, you later discover they are immensely humane and understanding.” As so often with Massow, an interesting take.
How has he taken to fatherhood? “I love it. I do share Theo with Mila and she is not my partner.” So, without being too indelicate, how does that work? “She has her own set up, own kitchen and drawing room with interconnecting doors so he can come and go, and she can have privacy; I love it.” Massow was in a relationship with a (much younger) man but currently has no known attachments.
Your correspondent visited the Mayfair flat he shared with Michael Gove, the would-be Prime Minister, and their set was quite racy; Evelyn Waugh might even have said “fast”. It is hard to picture Massow in a world of Fisher-Price and Mothercare.
“Theo is a very quiet baby,” he offers. Yes Ivan, but nappies: have they been tackled, or do they remain – as all good politicians learn to say – an aspiration? “I haven’t done that,” he concedes. “I’m really quite a Victorian father. As a gay parent there is real pressure to be a modern dad. Gay fathers love getting involved and get all gooey. But I have spoken to my straight male friends and they confirm my response is correct. They don’t want their arms elbow deep in poo either. One said ‘I never saw my son until he was two,’ and a barrister called Rupert came up and said he never got on with his children until they were 12. I found that very reassuring,” he laughs.
“Mila is an inspiring mother. I wouldn’t get much of a look in if I wanted it. There are constant baby parties. It’s like an extended nursery. Luckily I have my own half of the house.” I point out it worked for many years for Helena Bonham Carter and husband Tim Burton. “Yes, I know them, it worked really well.”
And then he says something interesting. “Mine is a bit like an arranged marriage. Traditionally marriages were arrangements, with the wife having her quarters. It may seem odd for a man who has championed gay rights to now be championing arranged marriages. So it may seem very unconventional, but it is more traditional than it might seem.”
Here we have Massow in the raw: radical and traditional, all in one. The man who took on the City establishment to give gay men the insurance denied them during the aids terror, and the man who was briefly made the designated walker for Margaret Thatcher; the man who has ridden on the racier side of town who also rides with hounds.
Has having a son brought him closer to his father? “Absolutely,” he says hesitantly. “I should explain that two of my three fathers recently died. I wasn’t particularly close. But my birth father is the one who survived. He is quite proud of me. He was a policeman. Gay sex was illegal the year I was born. He was arresting men in public toilets, because it was still going on when I was an adult.” His father rang him some years ago to tell him he was planning to commit suicide; Massow took him on a walking holiday in the Alps and talked him out of it.
“I am the happiest I have ever been. Every day I feel it, and being home in Sussex is a massive part of that.” But surely he is not ready to retire?
“I have never been as ambitious as you would think. As long as I have enough money for an easyJet flight I have no need for a private jet. I don’t enjoy those people. I don’t want to be the person others look at through a window of a Bentley and think ‘w*nker’.”
So what does he want now? “If I could be an MP or contribute in some way to public life I would be happy.” He quit the Tories, disgusted they yanked us out of Europe, and by joining the Liberal Democrats feels he is re-connecting with his liberal-core.
He gives a lot of money away and he says: “I am not going to work for money again.
“I’ve a friend who is number one on the Sunday Times Rich List. He works constantly. I joke at him ‘why are you doing this?’ but he can’t help it. He is in property and it takes a massive amount of organising.”
In contrast, Massow is more likely to grow exhausted these days from exercise in the saddle (no, not in the bedroom, stop being filthy). “When I moved down I installed Netflix in every room. But I never watch it. If I come in after a day in the field I just fall asleep in front of the TV.” He has also enjoyed re-connecting with old Lewes friends. “I met up with Patrick last week. It’s so easy with Facebook. Even mum recognises people in the street she knew from that time.”
His greatest challenge is caring for mother – who he mentions constantly, and she is indeed the constant in his life – undergoing chemo. “It has a bad reputation. She Googled it, and thought it often leads to death. She ran away to Glastonbury for three days without food, and tried to commit suicide. She wouldn’t tell me where she was.” A second parent considering suicide: despite the money, it’s a tough gig being Massow. “Odd though it is to say, she is enjoying it, or at least, it has a beauty of its own. Her hair has started to fall out, but later than expected. She hasn’t felt lethargic. Now she wants to choose life. It’s wonderful.”
Like, it seems, all of Massow’s second Sussex life.
Ivan Massow made millions, became the toast of London, then became an alcoholic. Now he has become a father, starred in the TV show Rich Brother Poor Brother and moved back to Lewes – and slayed his demons