My escape from the bus queue - Thu 28th Sep

My escape from the bus queue
28 September 2006

My escape from the bus queue
Janice Turner

Bryan Ferry was once dubbed 'the coolest living Englishman'. So why has he become the new face of M&S?

I arrive 30 minutes early to meet Bryan Ferry and am startled when the door is opened by the sultan of suave himself, dressed as one always imagines him, in formal dark suit and slightly loosened silk tie. Caught off-guard, he tetchily waves me off to wait in a coffee shop on the corner.
When I return his mood has changed to charming solicitude and his clothes to a tweed jacket so creased that it rears up at the back, and a shirt tucked into dated-dad jeans. His urban week-day formality shed for studied country weekend clobber.

It is Friday evening and soon he will leave his West London recording studio for dinner at a favourite Italian restaurant. Later, when the traffic has subsided, he will drive down to his Victorian mansion in East Sussex, set in 30 acres and filled with fine objects, including his noted collection of Bloomsbury art. What will he do when he gets there? “Oh, fiddle about,” he says vaguely. “I have a very nice garden, the orchard is lovely at this time of year and I just kind of wander around looking at it . . .” He drifts off into reverie.

This has been his weekend routine for 30 years, throughout his white-hot 1970s fame as the original yuppie crooner, his tortured, unproductive 1980s, his 20-year marriage, his recent divorce. It is easy to imagine Ferry, with his melancholy air, padding around his grounds (laid out by Sir Clough Williams- Ellis, the architect of Portmeirion), admiring a rare variety of apple, fussing over an ill-pleached lime, feeling content and calm just to be in a place of controlled perfection.

There is nothing remotely rock’n’roll about Bryan Ferry. He looks superb, of course, for 60: the famous cowlick of hair still thick and dark. He is coffee-table cultured, fluent in wine, racing, food, tailoring: the fundaments of fine living. You might take him for an international art dealer or a wealthy banker turned vineyard proprieteur.

And yet this man, dubbed by Peter York “the coolest living Englishman”, is plastered on billboards as the new face of Marks & Spencer men’s Autograph range. So is he wearing anything by M&S today? Ferry looks up and down his country gent duds absent-mindedly. “Er, no . . .” Not even his pants? “Um, no.”

Ill-versed, refreshingly, in word-from-my-sponsor spiel, he says: “M&S brought things round to see if I would wear them. And they are fine, perfectly all right.” So why did he endorse something about which he sounds rather faint-hearted? Ferry smiles and raises a world-weary eyebrow: “Why do you think?”

By rock star standards, Ferry is not minted. Unlike the Stones, he didn’t crack America. In the 1970s, when he had ten hit singles and five hit albums, he never milked his fame by touring incessantly. He had a hiatus in his solo career between 1978 and 1985 when changing managers and toiled over an album called Horoscope for years before finally abandoning it. Mamouna, released in 1994, took 112 musicians five years and reportedly cost Ferry £800,000. He admits being creatively paralysed by his own past success. “You write something and think ‘Was it as good as the thing I did ten, 15 or, dare I say it, 30 years ago?’ ” he says.

Then there are his outgoings: his divorce three years ago from Lucy Helmore, the former model and socialite, and the expensive education of his four sons (including his eldest, Otis the infamous anti-hunt protester, of whom more later). Ferry does not own a house abroad, and has no rock retinue — “I don’t have anyone to carry my bling” — beyond a local woman who comes over at weekends to cook his Sunday roast.

So he probably needs the cash to fund his lifestyle, which includes shooting with the Earl of Arundel, attending Goodwood and, years back, hanging around with Princess Margaret on Mustique. Is he, as is often assumed, a social climber? “I’ve known one or two posh people but there is nothing wrong with that,” he says. Didn’t he marry one? “Hardly!” he exclaims. “Her dad was in the insurance business, he insured racehorses.”

Ferry’s own father, in pleasing parallel, drove plough horses in rural Co Durham, until the Depression, after which he tended to pit ponies. He would come a-courting across the fields, beautifully dressed on a shire horse, to the embarrassment of Ferry’s mother, a townie who felt superior to local yokels. Ferry and his two sisters lived in a house with no inside lavatory and just a tin bath, hung by a nail on the wall.

But, growing up, Ferry always longed for a more glamorous life: “I stood in too many bus queues in the freezing cold and rain. The bingo hall or the working men’s club. I’ve seen all those things; they’re part of my make up,” he says. “You want something different, something better.”

He hungered for beauty and found it in classic Hollywood glamour, the cool of Cary Grant and Fred Astaire, which Ferry imita- ted with his mod Italian suits and Ben Sherman shirts. But mostly he found it in art. Only after taking a fine art degree at the University of Newcastle did Ferry realise that he lacked the passion to become an artist. So he came to London, drifted, taught for a bit — which he hated — and then fell in with musicians and formed Roxy Music.

“It was a great strength to me that I didn’t go straight from school to playing guitar in a band,” he says. “I had a passion outside music.” He has kept in touch with fellow art students, one now a professor at Goldsmiths, and invites them to gigs. “I’ve never really mixed in at all in my life,” he says rather sadly. “I’ve never been part of a gang. So being in a group has always had its ups and downs.”

Certainly he always seemed aloof from the music industry, his unique urbane elegance at odds with first hippy grunge and later punk’s artful ugliness. No wonder he felt more at home on country estates. Clearly his aristo-obsession is part aesthetic, part the relish of a working-class boy allowed into a romantic and privileged world. I ask what he’s reading and he names Jamie Douglas-Home’s Stately Passions, a book about scandals in great houses, such as Cliveden and Sissinghurst. “I like history, you see, I like ritual and tradition.”

He admires his neighbour, the Earl of March, who has opened Goodwood to golf, horse and motor racing: “It’s a shared kind of estate and people can use it. It’s not like ‘keep out’ as some of these estates can be.” It is the aristocrats who have preserved the countryside, he says, preventing nasty, modern construction. Ferry says he is a small-“c” conservative, although his recent appearance at the Tories black & White Ball hints at a big “C” also.

And at once it is clear how he came to produce Otis, the gamekeeper who broke into the House of Commons to protest about anti-hunt legislation. Ferry’s face crinkles with affection and amusement when he describes watching the TV news and recognising the man storming the chamber. “You could just see this small figure and I said, My God, that’s Otis. He has a very distinctive walk. Extraordinary! I was actually quite amazed and impressed that he could stand up for himself. I know it is against the law. But the frustration of all these people, and they’re good people, though,” he adds wearily, “I don’t want to get drawn into it now . . .”

While Ferry himself is a 50-50 mix of urban and rural, Otis, now 23, was clearly a country boy from the moment he was old enough to carry a fishing rod. Ferry put him down for Eton but he wouldn’t even look round the school because it was too near town and ended up at the more remote Marlborough. “It is interesting to see him in his natural habitat,” says Ferry. “Shropshire, where he lives, is the middle of nowhere. And I see my dad in him very much. He was always absorbed, whether he was growing vegetables or whatever. Otis is like that: single-minded.”

Ferry’s second son, Isaac, 21, did go to Eton and has absorbed that school’s famous confidence. “He can get on with anyone. He seems to have an awful lot of friends. Though he didn’t see eye to eye with his housemaster, so he had a pretty horrible time there.” (Isaac was suspended after sending a threatening e-mail to a hunt saboteur). After flirting, like his father, with the idea of becoming an artist, Isaac came to work for Ferry as an assistant producer, currently remixing old Roxy Music classics for a modern audience.

The third son, Tara, 16, is at Bryanston, struggling through his GCSEs — “he’s never been academic” — and keen to become a drummer. Merlin, 15, is at Marlborough and plays guitar. I wonder how Ferry feels to look upon his privileged children. “You try not to spoil them, but it is quite hard when they go to so-called good schools and mix with children who do have everything.”

But he doesn’t envy them: “It is better to build your own life than be handed one on a plate.” He thinks he is tougher for having struggled: “They don’t know a lot of things I’ve known and never will. Which is kind of sad to me. Durham people are as hard as nails.”

And, as children of divorce, they are emotionally poorer: “They don’t really have one home to go to. I had the best upbringing you could possibly have. A tiny house, but it was a home, it wasn’t split in any way. You always knew where your parents were.”

Apart from Otis, who lives alone, the younger three spend half their time with their father. He clearly enjoys their company, is indulgent when they try to blag tickets for festivals, gets heavy only when they are rude: he abhors bad manners. They keep him up to date with music, download tunes on to his iPod: he’s learnt to text but can’t use e-mail, preferring — ever the old aesthete — fine paper and pencils. Modern life annoys him: he moans about the Big Brother state with its speed cameras and parking laws. Is he a grumpy old man? “I was a grumpy young man,” he says. “Nothing’s changed.”

For all his cultivated charm, there is something heavy and lugubrious about Ferry. You can imagine dark silences across the breakfast table. He is fastidious, demands tidiness, likes the table properly set, is for ever striving to perfect the decor of his beautiful house. He finds the creative process ever more tortuous: “It’s hard to find things that you really want to sing about. My songs tend to be quite abstract, to tell the truth.” And as friends have started to die he’s felt compelled to speed up his output, something he’s achieved, in part, by producing albums of cover versions of crooner classics, such as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Yet, for a man who is notoriously vain, he does not seem unduly bothered about ageing. “I have all my own hair and teeth, which helps,” he says, flashing his luminous, leading-man smile. He still drinks — indeed, is hung over from a boozy night out with artists — and works out with a trainer only in 30-minute sessions — “I hate pain” — and you cannot imagine this louche figure sweat-ily pounding a treadmill.

He certainly has no problem attracting the beautiful women he always idolised on his album covers. His girlfriend, Katie Turner, a dancer he plucked from the chorus of the Roxy Music tour, is 26. “She’s a pretty girl. You talk to people on tour, and I must have found her reasonably interesting as we’ve been together five years.”

A 34-year age gap is a record even for Ferry, who was 30 when he dated 18-year-old Jerry Hall (who left him for Mick Jagger) and 36 when he married Lucy Helmore, then 22 (her adultery ended the marriage three years ago). “To some people it would seem weird. But it doesn’t seem weird to me at all. I like to go out. I know lots of people of different ages. I don’t just hang out with people who are 60 years old.”

Could he imagine going out with a woman his own age? Ferry ponders the strange proposition. “As a friend, probably. But not as an item. I dunno, I don’t have any rules.” Then, roaring with laughter, he adds: “The thing is I don’t know any women my own age

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