Bobby McAlpine - former head of construction firm reveals all in new autobiography
PUBLISHED: 11:20 11 June 2013 | UPDATED: 11:20 11 June 2013
As head of the family civil engineering firm, Bobby McAlpine worked hard and played hard, as he recounts in his searingly honest autobiography.
When Bobby McAlpine moved from Swettenham Hall to Tilstone Lodge, near Tarporley, in 1985 a friend sent him a letter containing a £10 note. ‘Anyone who moves from a hall to a lodge needs my support,’ wrote the wag.
The joke is all the more apparent when you arrive at Tilstone Lodge, and take the winding drive beside a lake to the 14-bedroom early 19th century house, set in 120 acres, with stables and garages where Bobby points to a tarpaulin beneath which lurks an Aston Martin DB7.
It is, Bobby believes, one of the nicest large houses anywhere in Cheshire, and he and second wife Angela have been very happy there. But, too big for their needs, it is now on the market for £6.5m. The market for large houses in Cheshire is ‘dead as a dodo’, says Bobby.
However, we’re here not to discuss house prices, but a colourful life summed up in One Shot At Life, the autobiography of a man who gave 44 years to the family’s civil engineering firm Sir Alfred McAlpine and Son, starting as an apprentice engineer and finishing as chairman, and a man who indulged twin passions for shooting and horse racing.
Along the way, he went drinking with George Best at the height of his Manchester United fame, played bridge with Lord Lucan (and says Lucan’s friends have always been utterly convinced the peer took his own life in 1974 after the family’s nanny was battered to death) and even provoked a fit of apoplectic rage from Margaret Thatcher.
It was when Mrs Thatcher was still leader of the opposition that Bobby challenged her at a business lunch for being too sympathetic towards striking firemen.
‘She went absolutely cuckoo,’ he recalls. ‘She said: “Are you a frightened man?” and she got up to say it as if she was going to advance across the table. And I said “I’m absolutely terrified, Mrs Thatcher”. The whole place was, of course, exploding, except for her, who didn’t see the joke at all.’
Bobby was brought up in homes with an ‘army of staff’ and went to Harrow, where he recalls ‘house beatings’ of younger boys.
‘I don’t think a lot of people now realise how tough public schools were,’ he reflects. But despite his reservations about fagging and beatings, Bobby has happy memories of school days.
The family had a shoot at Llanarmon – still a source of great pride to him – and he was encouraged to shoot from an early age. At 14, he was given a 20-bore shotgun and allowed out with it unsupervised. It would be the stuff of shock-horror headlines today.
‘I didn’t realise how remarkable it was. I thought everyone did it,’ he muses. ‘I was given the absolute minimum of instruction by father. I tried to shoot pigeons. I was knocked sideways by the recoil.’
As he took greater responsibility in the family business, Bobby reached some stark conclusions about his late father Jimmy, who preceded him as chairman.
Married five times, Jimmy McAlpine was a man who ‘not only had affairs, he absolutely revelled in them’, says his son.
‘Father was what is now known as a control freak. He was tremendously appealing to the outside, and made a much greater effort for people to like him than I ever have. But beneath that benign countenance he was a particularly selfish man.’
A startling example of this came when Bobby was in his 20s and caught several pellets in the face from the next gun on a shoot. His father was more worried about the culprit’s embarrassment than that his son had almost been blinded.
‘He wasn’t the least interested in me. All he wanted was the lunch not to be wrecked,’ says Bobby.
Bobby takes a keen interest in politics, and has pungent views on the failure of every government since John Major’s to invest in major infrastructure projects (on that score, he regards the proposed HS2 high speed rail line as rather pointless). His family firm can count Gatwick Airport and the stretch of M6 from Warrington to Lancaster among its many achievements.
Bobby is president of Chester and Bangor-on-Dee racecourses, and still greatly enjoys racing. He has little patience with the annual controversy over whether the Grand National fences at Aintree are too dangerous.
‘The media campaign against it is absolutely outrageous,’ he harrumphs. ‘No-one talked more sense than Harvey Smith who said we’re breeding a nation of wimps.’