Jeremy Wilson reviews entrepreneur and investor Hilary Devey’s inspirational autobiography.
The summer of 2011 was a dark time. London was burning and a haze of despondency had descended upon the nation. We needed a sign that life was still worth living. Something to lift us from the gloom.
And thus it came: appearing on our screens with a voice like smoked gravel and a wardrobe appropriated from Cruella de Vil, Hilary Devey arrived to restore balance in the world.
“You make my foot itch, mate!” she rasped at one particularly evasive wantrepreneur from her throne on the BBC show Dragons’ Den. And with that waspish swipe, the country was smitten.
So it was with no small amount of feverish excitement that I fell into Hilary’s recently released autobiography, Bold as Brass: My Story. It stood tall amid the slurry of television star autobiographies, and I was certain that if anyone had a story to tell worth listening to, it would be Hilary.
I wasn’t disappointed. Bold as Brass is a ripping yarn, part northern soap opera and part business manual, woven into a classic rags-to-riches tale of tenacious grit.
Hilary’s upbringing is a fascinating story in its own right, as well as serving testament to the extent her later life has been shaped by her early experiences. The backdrop to her early years was sixties Bolton as imagined by Dickens, a bleak setting for a grim childhood complete with rats, a wicked grandmother (“evil Emily”), bailiffs and parents with a spectacular lack of financial acumen.
Hilary was clearly a bright child, more aware of her surroundings then the adults around her gave her credit for, and it is with sharp insight that she recalls her youth.
Typical of her driven personality type is the passage in which Hilary identifies the incident that ignited her determination to better her lot: the moment she was turfed off the sofa in front of their only fire by a visiting adult and on to the freezing lino floor. As the cold seeped into her bones she recalls thinking to herself: “I will never end up like this. I will never let this happen to me.”
If this was her reaction to a cold backside, the harrowing hands that life would shortly be dealing her could only have served to stiffen her resolve.
Hilary’s sharply-formed early memories help make her candid narrative vivid, sometimes uncomfortably so. Her recollection of the day she was lured back to a supposed friend’s house at the age of twelve and repeatedly raped by a stranger is extremely difficult to read.
This incident, combined with the sickeningly callous response of her parents to it, would be enough to sap the appetite for life from most people. Devey’s response was to decide that she would no longer be afraid of anything.
The figure of Hilary’s impulsive father Arthur looms large over her, in life and still now, after his death. While she idolises him and has fashioned her life partly in his image, readers will find it difficult not to loathe the man. Abusive, manipulative and cruel, Arthur is a repulsive character with an ability to squander money matched only by his ability to sweat his assets in business.
Watching her pub landlord father selling pints of “Arthur’s Mild”, a concoction produced in mysterious circumstances in the basement using the contents of the bar slop bucket, sharpened Devey’s eye for maximising profit.
It is disingenuous to describe Arthur’s parenting as tough love, but there is no doubt the childhood he gave Hilary uniquely equipped her for the world of business. By the age of twelve, she was sometimes running a pub she describes as a “den of actual iniquity” on her own while her parents went away.
Opening up, serving, calling last orders, locking up, cashing up, cleaning up and looking after rough northern drinkers was a better education than school for the wheeling and dealing world of haulage she would later come to dominate.
Hilary’s difficult relationship with men is a constant theme throughout the book. Her attitude to misogyny in the workplace has been to give as good as she got and to never take no for an answer. When members of her fledgling haulage network tried to mess her around, she kept them in check by warning them her balls “were just as big as theirs”.
But in her private life, when she drops her tough outward persona and the protection it gives her, the results have been catastrophic. They are frustrating to read. Before a paragraph in which she confesses to making a stupid decision regarding a man, she urges the reader to “try not to throw this book in a corner and scream”.
I read the next paragraph and threw the book across the room.
While not written as business guide, the book offers more food for thought than any of the drivel festering in the business section of Waterstones. Devey had seventeen years of experience in her industry before she decided to “disrupt it”.
She worked on her business plan until she was convinced there wasn’t a chink in it, maximising revenue while minimising cost into every decision she made. She worked twenty hours a day.
And her response to the nice man at HSBC who wouldn’t give her the loan she needed to start her business because he thought she should be at home looking after her child? She sold her house and her car and soldiered on regardless. Failure was not an option, because she would lose everything.
When the likes of Doug Richard can find themselves sitting in a Dragon’s chair, it can be easy to sneer at the emergence of celebrity investor culture. But make no mistake, Devey is the real deal.
And her book is a hymn to fortitude – to remaining unbowed in the clutch of circumstance, even when days are dark and life is cruel. These are characteristics with which Britain once built an empire, virtues that have been too easily dismissed.
And to those who still might dismiss her as an overdressed TV caricature? Hilary says it best. “Sod them. I’ve worked hard for those shoulder pads.”