June 1933 - March 2009
DAVID Gaiman is in a playful mood.
Noting my surname, he bellows through the wall to his secretary: "This young man's family once owned half of England, from the northern shires to the outskirts of London".
David Gaiman is also the chair¬man and co-founder of G&G Foods in Imberhorne Way, East Grinstead, the vitamin and health food manufacturer he founded with his wife, Sheila, 40 years ago. Or at least I think he is.
"It's not me you should be interviewing," he says abruptly. "It's my son."
A bell should be ringing somewhere."He's in the New York Times' Bestsellers list. Fantasy. He's flavour of the month, very famous. I've just read a review of his latest book in the Telegraph. It was glowing. He's a genius."
It's touching that David is so nakedly proud of his son.
When we leave his office to find somewhere less formal to conduct the interview, he points out a family portrait on the sideboard and puts a name to every face staring back at me.
In the flesh, David has a swarthy complexion, good skin and a glint in his eye which knocks a decade off his 72 years. He is full of energy, skipping up and down the stairs like a kangaroo. If this is what vitamin E does for you, no wonder it's selling by the container load.
He dresses Americana: Chinos, tan-leather boat shoes, Ralph Lauren shirt with buttoned-down collar, sports jacket. And yet the car, a silver Jaguar V8, is quintessentially English.
Actually, David's father was a Polish Jew who came here from Holland in 1916. He sounds like an honourable, hard-working man who dragged his family out of the slums of East London and by triumph of will ended up running a chain of grocery shops in Portsmouth.
"My father was fearless. He only had 12 days in school, all of his life. 12 days," he says, letting the thought hang.
What would he have made of vitamins and health foods?
"His spectrum was limited by the need to get out of the East End, to make a better life for his family. He just did what every decent chap tries to do and, luckily for me, he succeeded. But the arts or the types of professions that we have today, those things that open windows into the mind, did not exist for him. They were just not part of his world."
Unlike his father, David had a sound education, at Portsmouth Grammar School, where he excelled on the rugby pitch but failed to excel in the classroom - "I was not all that bright".
After leaving school, he joined the Army and became a sergeant before returning to Portsmouth to work for his father in the grocery shop. Taking over the family busi¬ness, however, was not on the cards.
"I hated working for him. I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it on my own. It was something I needed to do but, of course, he was very upset. `And Sons' was already above the door.
"He told me, `You leave with what you came with', and I thought, `Great'."
What of David's three children? Have any, apart from Neil, followed in his footsteps?
"None of my kids are the slightest bit interested in any of this and I am very pleased about that. It is not about building an empire or a memorial to oneself."
But an empire, of sorts, is what he has created.
Forty years after opening a small shop in Railway Approach, East Grinstead, specifically to supply Vitamin E, the family-run business makes more than 100 products and sells to 40 countries worldwide.
Last month, the company - which employs 80 people and has a turnover in excess of £4 million - marked the manufacture of its three billionth capsule. It also makes vitamin capsules on behalf of 20 other brands.
Through G&G, David carried out a lot of humanitarian health work in Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries, teaching doctors natural detoxification methods using vitamins. Some of his early work involved the victims of Chernobyl.
He recalls: "When I first went to Russia, it was like going off the planet. In the airport, there were inset lights in the ceiling but only one in 12 were working and this was the middle of the night.
"And there was this pervasive smell of poor-quality petrol, it was everywhere. The stuff just hung about on the air. Outside, it was just the same - one in every 20 street lamps was lit.
"Because there were no billboards or advertising, you couldn't tell what was what, what was a cafe, what was a shop. It was a very strange experience.
"There were two televisions, both state run. We stayed in the Sports Hotel which had been built for the Olympics and it was falling to pieces. The collapse of the Soviet Union hit the Russians very hard."
David and Sheila moved to East Grinstead in the Sixties when they discovered Scientology, a religious movement rooted in the town advocating self-improvement through psychological and scientific means.
"Scientology has given me a set of tools to work with that I should have been able to find in Judaism. It has given me a real sense of the kind of person I want to be and my place in the community.
"I never wanted to abandon Judaism or stop being a Jew. I still observe Jewish holidays and go to the synagogue at New Year but more for the rightness of it, not for personal salvation.
"I like sitting on the pew where my father once sat. There is some continuity there that I like. It just feels like the right thing to do, quite soothing. I think that's what religion means to a lot of people."
Scientology encourages people to carry out charitable and commu¬nity-based work and David and Sheila have become established sponsors of the local arts scene in East Grinstead.
But he distances himself from being the town benefactor. He sponsors the arts because he wants to see youngsters expressing their talents, rather than "doing graffiti" or "beating up old ladies".
"I don't believe in all that moral b******t. I am not some Victorian philanthropist. I want a nice car and house and all the creature comforts, and I am prepared to pay for the type of world I want to live in.
"I want to see talent. I believe everyone has the potential to be great in some way. We have all thought at three in the morning or four in the afternoon about writing that novel. The tragedy is it doesn't get written."
Was there ever a novel in him, I wonder.
"I remember wanting to be a writer as a kid so I produced this essay about some villager in China who discovered wooden railway lines which proved they had steam engines in the 3rd Century.
"The teacher wrote on it, `The wood would not have survived since the 3rd Century and steam engines had not been invented' or some¬thing like that. I didn't think much of it at the time but now I think, `You silly cow'."
I take my leave, promising to look up Neil Gaiman the next time I am in a bookshop.
By James Lancaster
11/10/05 The Argus
reproduced by kind permission
of the editor