Can you still remember the lyrics of the first record you bought?
When I was a little boy, I was taken to a musical called Salad Days and probably could recite the lyrics of every single song. When I play the record on my gramophone, I’m transported back. My wife says to me, ‘You were so happy in your childhood. That must explain why you have never left it’.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Prime Minister. I gave it a good shot. I was an MP for a while, until the people spoke. They say you shouldn’t take the election personally [but] you do a bit because you try very hard. One of my small claims to fame is that I introduced the 1994 Marriage Act, legislation that enables people to get married in a civil ceremony. In the early days, people used to send me bits of wedding cake.
What was your worst telling-off for?
I don’t think I was ever punished for anything - I was a bit of a goody goody. I went to a school where the 80-year-old headmaster, Mr Stocks, taught us Latin. He used to send the children a postcard during the summer holidays and one simply said ‘keep that Latin accurate’. That brought me up short! It’s probably why I like things to be accurate, not sloppy. Sixty years later I still have that card, framed.
Train or car?
Train without doubt. You can work, sleep and eat. I was on the train the other day, pressed the button to get into the lavatory and the poor fellow inside tried to press the button to close it, as I did. We therefore got the buttons jammed. You can imagine the consequences. That’s the only downside to trains.
When did you last send a text message?
One minute ago, to my wife. She is my most texted person by a long way. Some years ago, when texting just began, I texted her saying ‘I’ve just laid the au pair’. Of course, I meant to write ‘I’ve just paid the au pair’. Texting can get you into trouble.
What makes your heart sink?
I tend to avoid listening to or watching the news on radio or television. It brings you relentless bad news and I like to be optimistic. The world is a good place. On the whole, your life will be better if you read PG Wodehouse every day instead, in my opinion.
When did you last drink too much?
Never. I gave up drinking to lose weight about 25 years ago and didn’t miss it. Since I stopped, I’ve not fallen asleep in front of the television once. I never used to drink too much, probably because I don’t like the feeling of being out of control. Moderation in all things is a good watchword.
Medicine or alternative medicine?
I believe in experts and professionals – but I’m open to everything. My great, great, great grandfather was a man called Dr Brandreth. He went to America in 1837 and made a major fortune selling Brandreth’s Pills. He was no more than a doctor than you are and these pills were made of vegetable oil. It was probably all hokum but it was a homeopathic remedy and people believed it did them good so maybe it did.
Your hope for the future?
I was on the bus the other day and in the time to go between two stops a young person in front of me used the word ‘like’ more than a hundred times. I get a bit depressed by repetitive use of useless words and by apostrophes in the wrong place. The better you can communicate, the better the world will be. My hope for the future is that people can rediscover the joy and richness of language.
Moment you felt you were finally adult?
I’m still waiting for it! Well, actually, I have three children - a son who is a barrister, a daughter who is a writer and a daughter who is an environmental economist - and this year my son became a QC. Once your children start overtaking you, you ought to feel more grown up. I suppose that [moment] could be it.
Biggest fashion mistake?
I read somewhere that 17% of what people remember is what they hear and 83% is what they see, so in the 1970s and 1980s I used to wear colourful knitwear on television. A man called George Hostler designed them for me, Elton John and Diana Princess of Wales. At one stage I had more than a thousand but I stopped wearing them in 1990 because I became an MP. Do I consider the jumpers a fashion mistake? Yes and no. People used to mock them and knock them and some of them were, of course, a bit ludicrous but now they have a certain retro appeal. The Victoria and Albert Museum have been in touch about having one for their costume collection.
Who or what is your greatest love?
My wife, three children and seven grandchildren. I met my wife 50 years ago on June 6th 1968. I was a student at Oxford University and putting on a pantomime of Cinderella. All these beautiful girls turned up to audition and to one of them I said ‘would you stay behind?’ I offered her a Chinese meal and for one shilling and sixpence we had a special fried rice. Fifty years later, here we are.
Clutterbug or minimalist?
I think I’m minimalist. I only have exactly what I need and I know where everything is. I feel my desk and life is very ordered but my wife will say with all these rooms devoted to hundreds of large boxes of memorabilia that I’m a clutterbug.
If you could unsay one remark in your life which would it be?
I’m very good at not having regrets and therefore I’m very good at forgetting things. If there was a remark, I probably would have wiped it from my memory bank because I’m a great one for looking forward and not looking back. There are things I might like to have said more. My father was a lawyer and my mother was a teacher and they introduced me to my lifelong love of words and language and I don’t think I ever stopped to tell them thank you.
What items do you collect/hoard?
I’ve been collecting teddy bears all my life and when I got to about a thousand, my wife said ‘this is too many’, so they now all live at Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, where the Royal Family would have gone if the Germans had invaded during the Second World War. I thought, if it’s good enough for the Royal Family, it’s good enough for my bears. My very first was called Growler; Jim Henson, who created The Muppets, gave me the original Fozzie bear; and Dame Barbara Cartland left me a teddy. I am a great hoarder. I’ve got an entire room full of boxes of material. My wife assures me that when I die, before she phones the undertakers, she’ll be phoning the skip people!
In the last ten years have you learned a new skill?
I’ve been in a couple of musicals but I was speak-singing, not proper singing, so I’ve had lessons from a brilliant composer called Debbie Wiseman. I’ve also learned to paint with Sarah Butterfield, who’s quite a distinguished artist. We’re painting a series of pieces of cake so when I have my first exhibition, they’ll say ‘what was it like, learning to paint?’ and I’ll say ‘it was a piece of cake’.
Research at Columbia University shows that you grow 700 cells a day in the part of your brain called the hippocampus, which affects memory. You grow as many of those cells in your seventies as you do in your twenties so there’s no excuse for saying ‘I can’t remember things’. Anybody can learn, regardless of age.
Gyles has spent his entire adult life feeling young at heart but can no longer ignore the impact of personal and professional life lessons on growth. The wise head on his shoulders is more mature than he’d possibly like - 75 at the very least.
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