Interview: Gordon Campbell Gray - From the Ritz to the gutter and back

As a luxury hotelier, he loves extravagance and the best things in life, and has even opened a hotel in Beirut, a city he loves. As a committed worker for charity, though,hetravels the world to help alleviate poverty in places like Ethiopia. Jackie McGlone meets an extraordinary Scot, Gordon Campbell Gray

• Gordon Campbell Gray opened a luxury hotel in Beirut despite a Hezbollah uprising. The Scot is also a vice-president of charity Save the Children

GORDON CAMPBELL GRAY was travel-stained and weary in mind, body and spirit after spending several days recently filming in Ethiopia for a Save the Children documentary. He had seen the appalling human suffering that abject poverty brings in its wake and marvelled at the courage and generosity of the people he'd met, and he couldn't wait to get a good night's sleep in the comfort of his Beirut hotel room.

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"It was about 4:45 in the morning and I was so tired and dirty. Yet the first thing I did was pick up one of the three plums arranged on a dish in my room. One of them was hard. I went ballistic," says the Glasgow-born hotelier, whose award-winning properties – One Aldwych in London, Carlisle Bay in Antigua, and his newest, Le Gray in Beirut – are known for their understated luxury and warm welcome. They are the sort of hotels where three perfect pieces of fresh fruit are delivered to every room, every day.

"I can't tell you how furious I was that one of my hotels (Le Gray] was offering a guest an unripe plum," says the immaculately dressed Gray, 59, who is also vice-president of Save the Children and works closely with the Princess Royal, the charity's patron.

"Then I thought, 'What on Earth is happening to me? How could I do that? I'd just returned from seeing people starving in Africa, where we're working on a project relating to child exploitation – we have a similar scheme in India that I'm also involved with – and planning how to help educate the children. Then I realised how weird I was – but also that when you don't care that the plum is too hard, then your hotel is just like everyone else's. It was a ridiculous moment for such an insight, however."

Campbell Gray's extraordinary life has often taken him from the sublime to the ridiculous – or, as he himself says, "from the Ritz to the gutter and back". Quietly, he adds: "It's a big journey from Renfrewshire to Beirut," referring to the 87-room Le Gray, built of yellow stone and which overlooks the city's Garden of Forgiveness, where the archaeological remains are a reminder of Lebanon's rich history.

Speaking now, while relaxing on a taupe-coloured velvet sofa in the lobby of the 105-room One Aldwych – an imposing Edwardian building in Covent Garden, which originally housed the offices of the Morning Post newspaper before becoming a bank where the sniffy manager once refused the youthful Campbell Gray an overdraft – the handsome, silver-haired Scot comes across as a surprising man, full of astonishing contradictions. He's both an arbiter of taste and a committed charity worker.

It's a fact he puts down to being Scottish and he's proud of it. "I think it's pretty good being a Scot," he says in a crisp Kelvinside accent. "Deep down we're plain folk and it's the simple things that I value. Yes, I adore lovely things. I've a nice car, a lovely flat in London and I even own a Cartier watch, but what's important to me is running a business with kindness and with integrity."

A descendant of tobacco barons, he is the eldest of three sons – his brothers, engineer Colin and garden designer Stuart are twins, five years his junior – and he might also have added to that list of business ethics doing good works by stealth, because you have to grill him relentlessly to get him to speak about his profound commitment to Save the Children.

He reveals that the film he shot in Ethiopia will be shown at a fund-raising gala he is hosting for the charity at London's Natural History Museum next Tuesday. "The aim is raise enough money to buy motorbikes for teachers so that they can travel rapidly from one village to another." he says.

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Meanwhile, he's just jetted in from a Leading Hotels of the World ceremony in Venice, where Campbell Gray Hotels were presented with yet another award for their Carlisle Bay Hotel. (His company, of which he is chairman, also manages the 100-year-old Dukes Hotel in St James's, London.)

But why open a new luxury hotel in Beirut of all places?

"I absolutely fell in love with the city. I first went for a weekend in the mid-90s and it was beautiful but such a mess then. You didn't feel safe," he says. "Now, I can't wait to get back: the beauty of the coast, the joie de vivre of the people. I've turned into a party animal. I love it so much. After Beirut, London seems joyless."

The opening of Le Gray was delayed for almost two years after the Israelis started a bombing campaign in 2006, blowing up the airport, highways, bridges, electricity sub-stations – killing about 1,000 people in the process. Then, in the winter of 2008, Hezbollah gunmen took to the streets. At no stage, however, did Campbell Gray ever think of pulling out of the city.

"It didn't even occur to me to put a stop to the hotel, we just bashed on," he insists. "Every week we're asked to open a hotel somewhere, but Beirut is where I wanted to do it. It really is the most exciting and glamorous city on Earth. It's very safe, but with an edge, too. It's the Paris of the Middle East.

"I've filled Le Gray with 500 pieces of contemporary art from all over the world – One Aldwych has a collection of modern British art – so I've just decided to open Gallery Gray in Beirut because everyone wants to buy the work. And we're going to build another two new hotels, as well. Le Gray is very sexy, with a purple glass swimming pool on the roof. It's been open just over a month and we're packed out. It's the best thing I've ever done."

In between overseeing the hotel work and opening, though, Campbell Gray, who is unmarried and childless, made time to travel to Addis Ababa for Save the Children last month. He says that when he visits the world's trouble spots for the charity, he is always reminded of his own, privileged, childhood and how blessed his life has been.

His prosperous, very close Glaswegian family – they had homes in Newlands and Whitecraigs – owned a newspaper wholesalers that was bought out by John Menzies. He was raised in an atmosphere of middle-class comfort and well-mannered gentility. Kilts and tweed were worn to visit grandparents on Sundays. All he ever wanted was to be an architect, but he didn't pass his maths and science exams.

Aged 17, he was taken out for dinner by his parents to a hotel in Loch Lomond. It was the first time he'd been in a hotel since his family spent dreich Scottish summers at their Fife home playing golf and tennis. "I couldn't believe how dreadful the hotel was," he recalls. "The food was worse than home, absolutely hideous, and the decor was awful, but I was enchanted. I kept thinking, 'Imagine if it were better and different, it would be magical.' I knew then that I wanted to work in hotels." But his family declared: "People like us stay at hotels, we do not work in them."

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Determined, two years later he enrolled at the Glasgow Hotel School, but walked out after only a few weeks. "It was worthless," he says. Instead he found jobs at various hotels in Scotland, "doing everything; working in kitchens, on reception, everywhere". In 1971, at the age of 21, he moved to London, where he became purchasing manager for the InterContinental hotel. Life was a party, he had a high-flying career, a fast car and lots of gorgeous girlfriends. "It was fabulous. I'd left the dowdiness of Scotland behind."

Then one evening he switched on his TV and saw a report on a famine in Bangladesh. "I dissolved completely. Floods of tears. The first 22 years of my life had been so civilised. I'd never been confronted by any sort of poverty; it devastated me."

The next morning he called Save the Children, said he was in hotel management and that he wanted to help. They told him they needed someone to take charge of purchasing medicines, food procurement and distribution. That afternoon he resigned from his job. His parents were appalled. "My mother screamed. My father thought I'd gone mad. But it was the purest thing I'd ever done, because I wasn't running away from anything. I wasn't trying to save the world; I genuinely wanted to help."

For four years he lived at the mouth of the Ganges and then in Nicaragua – where he met and married Carolyn, who went on to become London's first commodities broker, and with whom he remains great friends despite their divorce – and Morocco.

On his return to Britain, he opened The Feathers, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, in 1982. Then came One Aldwych ten years ago. It's rumoured to have cost more than 30 million, although Campbell Gray refuses to talk money. "I am never going to say how much Le Gray cost either, but it was substantial," he says. "I was racked by Presbyterian guilt for a while, but now I don't think I need to reproach myself for becoming a luxury hotelier and not still being an aid worker. I've seen life from both sides.

"However, we practise thrift in all our hotels," he says, adding that he's working on bringing the Campbell Gray style and sophistication to Scotland. Two top-secret projects – one involving a castle in Ayrshire, another a stately home – are in the offing and he'll bring his business acumen and canny nature, which stems from the values that imbued his Scottish upbringing, to bear on both.

"The women in my traditional, upper middle-class family were very chic, very travelled. But strict; no waste. If a light was left on in an empty room, everybody screamed. I still do it. I'm always running around switching off lights," he confesses. "I'm such a Scot! I adore extravagance, but I can't stand excess."

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