I was born on 4 October 1960 in Southampton. My mother was a Catholic, who went to St Mary’s Ascot, and my grandmother was a Stonor, “One of the oldest Catholic families in the country,” as my mother always reminded me. My father ran the Rank Organization, and owned Comet Electricals. In 1974 Comet went bankrupt so the family fell on hard times. I was brought up in Paddington and I have an older sister who now lives near Fakenham. My parents had a very ugly divorce when I was two, and I sadly lost contact with my father who went to South Africa. But we reunited and became very close in my early 20s, though tragically he died at 59 when I was 29.
From a very early age I was a naughty boy, a real rebel. I was dyslexic, liked fun but not school work! I was expelled from my first school, Faulkner House, which was run by an OG (Old Gregorian – an alumnus of Downside). Among my sins was climbing a fence to steal cakes from the nuns in the convent next door. Then I went to a prep school in Seaford. I failed at everything except being a buzz bomb.
My great-uncle Father Julian Stonor was a monk at Downside, and strings were pulled and I was squeezed in without Common Entrance in 1974. There was a swimming trial on my first day when I set a new school record – the Usain Bolt of Downside. The coach set me up against a young monk called Antony Sutch, a fast swimmer apparently, but I was faster. Charles Fitzgerald-Lombard was bursar and later abbot while I was there. This was the 70s: long hair and rebellion reigned and despite the monks’ best efforts one could slip through the system and “do one’s own thing”, which suited me. Exams were always a real nightmare for me, so I left with just one A level and a handful of low-grade O levels because all my energy went into sports, photography and running the Community Service team (looking after old people).
Eight generations of Scotts had been to Cambridge and it was expected I would go there. They even called me to say how excited they were at this historic event. All they wanted was three passes at A level, which I could not achieve so history was not made. In fact, this suited me well – not to have gone to university. It says you don’t have to go to university to have a rewarding or successful life. My mother had rather smothered me, always saying, “Don’t worry, don’t forget you are dyslexic.” Actually, in the end, being told I would fail made me want to do well even more
I then did an officer training course (Brigade Squad) at Purbright for the Coldstream Guards, I did well in the training but not the exams, which – sadly – I failed. But the amazing time I had in the Army taught me that if you want to do virtually anything, you can. While my friends were at university getting drunk, I was learning about life. There were assault courses and punishing training runs, during which the squad and I broke the Depot’s record.
“You don’t have to have gone to university to be successful”
I left when I was 21. My mother said, “Go into insurance.” But I got that wrong and went into ‘Assurance’, as I didn’t know the difference, and worked on ‘commission only’ at Trident Life Assurance and sometimes got zero pay cheques. I sold pensions to everyone I knew. It took huge determination and persistence and was totally and utterly exhausting. After nearly two years I had learned so much about selling and decided to move on. A friend had been an estate agent, so I thought I could do that! – and remarkably I ended up doing for the next 35 years!
I had met my wife Cathy at her eighteenth birthday party. Her great-aunt Mabel Strickland owned The Times of Malta, and she knew my grandfather, and so my mother met her mother, and that’s how it happened. We were engaged at 20 and married by 22 and Miranda Hart was one of our bridesmaids. My father-in-law did not miss any opportunity to do all he could to put us off as I had no prospects, estate or – I suspect – title, any combination of which would have made it agreeable! We have two children – Alice born 1989, and Rory in 1993. Alice has just got married in Norwich Cathedral.
So my career in property started in 1982 in Wimbledon where today’s £1m house cost a mere £75,000 then. After five years in the business, I agreed to join Lane Fox to launch a brand new London Residential business. In retrospect, I was probably too young and inexperienced, but that’s where Army training and some of the other valuable lessons and the relentless energy of youth came in. So it was that after 20 years we grew into one of the top three upper-end Central London estate agency businesses. I employed 500 people over the years (including many graduates!), and we had offices all over London. I didn’t take any holidays, and sort of redefined workaholism, but we loved the business; doing well for our customers really mattered to us. We never thought about profit, just how they felt about what we did for them.
Lane Fox became an estate agency to be proud of; it was highly thought of and respected. My mantra has always been, “Deliver a service you would wish to receive yourself.” The real litmus test was that the owners of most our competitors ended up using us when selling their own property.
I pursued lots of hobbies at the weekends. I started flying microlights, and flew around the UK, and crossed the English Channel. I like danger and adventure. Why? I have never asked myself that question. When I was 12 I cycled from London to Cambridge and back – it was nuts. I love the unknown; I love the way it feels. I ran the North Cornish Coastal Path as well. We also had a wooden boat that was ideal on the Thames (Dunkirk little ship type) but I got bored with that and to the astonishment of my fellow Thames boaters took it over the Channel and up the Seine to Paris.
The influence of Downside
I would love my faith to be complete and unquestioning, but belief in Our Lord is too important and special to simply accept what we are told without thought and reflection. What I saw in the moneyed world in which I worked in challenged my faith simply by the way some people who professed faith behaved; they were actually utterly selfish. But I had other wonderful clients who would sell a multi-million-pound property only to give the whole lot to the poor and needy. Downside and the monks were fundamental to my value set, and in our business when faced with a complex issue of ethics, my cross-check on my decision was always, “Would the monks approve?”
With such regard for the Benedictine Rule, which applauds denial and abstinence, I often feel uncomfortable about my own possessions, as a new car or large TV simply does not accord with either the Rule or Christian values.
After all, “it is easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle than get to heaven.” My defence of possessions, albeit open to challenge, is that I have employed hundreds, created opportunities and prosperity and happiness for many others, and along the way raised about £1m for charity.
In 2007 Lane Fox was approached by a rival, Strutt & Parker, and we sold out to them, so for nearly ten years I was a partner there. It was the right decision for our business but I still felt like a traitor: it is never easy selling something one loves.
Just three years after the sale, in January 2010 I lost my voice while giving a speech to the team – it went suddenly and completely. Within two weeks it was discovered that I had a huge tumour in my chest the size of a pineapple. I was told it was Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Retrospectively, I see there had been alarm bells. The oncologist said, “We are going to beat this.” I had surgery, and chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and in 2013 I was declared cured. It was wonderful to be told this. They said I was discharged and they would never see me again!
But, unconnected to the Lymphoma, in December 2015 I had a tiny tumour on my head removed. They told me it was nothing, and I felt positive
Eighteen months later I decided to retire aged 55, thinking “This is too good to be true,” and “There’s so much to do”. Sadly it was too good to be true, as a lump on my parotid gland (in the neck) was found, which turned out to be the return of the squamous cell carcinoma. I had radiotherapy at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. That was hell: I lost all my taste and salivary glands. It is very debilitating. I have huge faith in the medical profession who have told me I have an 85 percent chance of a complete cure.
An uncertain future
Staring death in the face has its positives: it makes you love every day, or at least seek to do so! If I live we could have a 35-year retirement, but if I’m unlucky Cathy may have to do that without me, which is pretty hard to think about. Life has plot twists which we can’t predict, so we must just love every day while its ours.