'I’ve been lucky all my life,’ Peter Lavery, the former Belfast bus driver who won £10.2 million on May 18 1996, says. ‘I’ve lived in the heart of Belfast, escaped bombs, driven my bus on the Falls Road and seen the bus in front of me get hijacked. But it wasn’t me. That was luck. And that night I won the lottery, 33.5 million people played it. I’m the one who got it. Luck of the draw!’
Lavery, 52, is sitting in front of me, tweed cap on the table. He speaks in a thick working-class Belfast accent, and bangs the table and blows out his cheeks when he wants to make a point.
‘I spent half a million on cars in the first couple of years,’ he says matter-of-factly. Back then, cars (which, 18 years on, don’t fuss him so much) and his mock-Tudor house in Belfast’s upmarket ‘Golden Triangle’, bought six weeks after his win, were his chief blowouts. (The house, 6,500sq ft, is too big for him now, he says.) There were also a few high-end holidays for family and friends. But then what? How does a man from a working-class area in east Belfast, already prone to heavy drinking and who was blathered down the pub when the news of the lottery win came in – ‘I could never drink five pints; it always had to be 15’ – and who left school without any qualifications, barely able to read because of dyslexia, cope with winning £10 million?
Lavery admits that at the beginning the trajectory did not look good for him. For half a year he was teetering on becoming a lottery-winner cliche. ‘I didn’t work for six months and I had worked all my life beforehand,’ he says. After his win he had gone to work for one last shift on the buses before handing in his notice. ‘I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was drinking five days a week. I was going to kill myself. There’s a happy medium. A doctor, who is a friend, said to me, “You’d better get busy.” So I went [to the opposite extreme], where I did too much work and not enough play. But if I put myself into something, I put myself into it. I either do it or I don’t. I work harder today than I did before 1996.’
Lavery made two crucial decisions in that first year: first, he was adamant the money would not change him. As it happens, he hadn’t intended for the world to find out. Instinctively, he would have preferred to keep it a secret. But his long-term girlfriend at the time – he split up from her five years ago, nothing to do with the pressure of the money, he says – let it slip. He sees now that he would have gone mad if he had kept it a secret. ‘I could have disappeared, jumped on a plane and never been seen again. But with a £40,000 car turning up when I’m driving the buses, of course people would have asked, “Where did you get the money?” ’
It was not that he didn’t want to share it. Some lottery winners he has met since at Camelot parties store it all in secret in the bank, saying nothing, buying only a pair of new curtains. ‘I mean, why did they spend the pound [on the ticket] in the first place?’ he says. ‘I’d rather have spent 50 or 60 hours a week driving buses.’
What he did find hard to cope with were the thousands and thousands of letters asking him for help. He still rejects all begging letters. ‘I always say to them, “I am not the answer to your need.” If I gave to you because you needed help with your children’s education, I’d get letters from everybody expecting the same,’ he says. ‘My conscience is clear. It’s the government’s job to feed and educate people. Not mine.’ But he has quietly given away a substantial amount over the years (he forbids me to reveal how much), spread among good causes via the Rita Charles Trust, a cross-community charity he set up, and family.
His mother, Rita, died when he was 16 and his father, Charles, 14 months before the win (‘I’d hand back the money today if I thought it would bring them back. I mean that hand on heart.’). It was his mother, who worked like a Trojan all her life to make sure her children didn’t go without, from whom he learnt the importance of charity; and, in fact, even before the win, Lavery was heavily involved as a volunteer in community projects. ‘No matter how little she had in her purse at the end of the week, she’d always give some to her saint at the church,’ he says. ‘When I donate, I do it as quietly and as privately as possible. I don’t need the world to know that I’m doing good.’
The second decision was that he was going to make the money work for his life, both in terms of growing it and filling him with purpose and opportunity. This, beyond anything else, is what encapsulates the consequences of his good fortune.
The lottery win has not only had obvious material benefits, but it has also allowed him to make something of himself. Obviously there are the cars; the houses (he has another in Donegal, and a handsome property portfolio); the cabinet full of Swarovski crystal jungle creatures, including a gorilla; the home gym and steam room; the multitude of garden ornaments of rabbits chewing carrots, and doe-eyed spaniels; the many, mostly unslept-in, beds in his spare rooms; the en suite bathrooms with their own Jacuzzis and built-in televisions; and the cruises (70 over the years). But as he says of the cars, ‘I’ve had my fun.’ He gives the impression that this sort of pleasure wears a bit thin in the end. The house, although modest for a multimillionaire, is simply too big for him. ‘Money can’t bring you happiness,’ Lavery says. ‘You have to be happy in yourself first. Money can open a lot of doors. Money can solve problems, like the fact that I haven’t had to drive a bus for the last 18 years. Money can give you reassurance, but it doesn’t bring happiness.’
After his win, Lavery discovered that he possessed an Alan Sugar-like business acumen. Today, he has 33 properties rented out across Northern Ireland (all looked after by two of his brothers), various housing sites in development, and the pending opening of his own whiskey distillery, backed by the Northern Ireland executive, in a wing of Belfast’s notorious Crumlin Road jail, which has attracted £35 million of investment. He will not confirm or deny that he has tripled his wealth, but will say that the lucrative whiskey venture ‘is like winning the lottery again’. Directly and indirectly Lavery estimates he employs between 70 and 80 people. He doesn’t have a PA. ‘It’s all in here,’ he says, tapping his temple.
Today, he lives with his girlfriend of three years, Vicky, a 44-year-old nurse (she is asleep post-shift when I arrive at the house) whom he has known ‘a very long time’ and who at some point will give up her job. ‘But she loves her independence.’ They live with their rescue bulldog, Miss Wrinkles, and two cats, and they walk four miles a day, although he admits he works too hard and that Vicky nags him to slow down, which, he says, will happen six or seven years down the line when they’ll move from their big house to Donegal.
Five years ago Lavery was diagnosed as a borderline type-2 diabetic. Saying that, he is never happier than when eating a £4.99 special curry and fried rice from the local Chinese. He would eat Chinese every day if Vicky let him (pre-Vicky, I can imagine he did), but now he can’t. He also likes a good steak, but he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since the diagnosis, an irony given the distillery and also that he has built a proper Irish bar in the back room of his house where he still holds parties for old friends. And it really is a bar, with pumps and mirrors and rows of spirits.
His constant refrain is ‘Not bad for a bus driver on £18,000 a year, eh!’ (puff of the cheeks, bang of the table). Though if there is one area about which he is overly defensive – perhaps with good reason – it is any suggestion that the money might have changed his personality or shaped his relationships. He gets gimlet-eyed when I ask him if being a lottery winner makes forming new relationships difficult. And he is visibly irritated by the expectations we all have of lottery winners and by any assumption that the practicalities of his life are different from those of the rest of us. For instance, when I ask him where he buys his food these days (a silly question but we all like knowing this stuff) he tells me he gets a plane to London to go to Waitrose. After a pause, he barks, ‘Where do you think I f***ing go?’ The answer to this, by the way, is Tesco, ‘Marksies’, Sainsbury’s, Spar – yes, Spar! – and the local butcher for meat.
Once an old bus-driving chum saw him in a low-budget Belfast store and said, ‘I didn’t think you’d shop in somewhere like this!’ Lavery hates this kind of thing. And why should he care? ‘If I had to get up in the morning and think about what everybody is going to think about me, I’d be in a mental institution.’ In fact, he likes nothing more than returning from his many cruises (one booked for the end of this month after a stay in Miami, and there is a holiday in New York booked for February) and experiencing the simple joy of putting a slice of bread in the toaster. If he ever has to wear a suit for a meeting, he whips it off as soon as possible afterwards.
For such a private person he is quite happy to indulge my nosiness, letting me poke around and even look in his wardrobe, which reveals jumpers and 501 jeans, just the same as he always wore on the buses, he says, but more of them. He has a Rolex watch, he admits, but it is broken and he’s not going to get it fixed because he’s disinclined to wear it. He is particularly proud of the Jacuzzis. ‘We have a lot of fun,’ he cackles naughtily.
While there may not have been much Jacuzzi-inspired fun 20 years ago, he says, ‘I haven’t changed my lifestyle. I still do the same things. The person today is still the person I was in 1996. I don’t think winning money should change you. I don’t care what people think. Why would I use a gold mug for a cup of tea? I’m a normal person. I do normal things. Eleven years ago I fell off the roof of this house. Why was I on the roof? Because I was cleaning the gutters. Why would I pay for somebody to do that when I can do it myself?
‘You don’t have to be a lottery winner for people to dislike you,’ he says. ‘You could be anybody who has done well.’