Author Archives: audreymw

Wait till robots are sexier than women

 WILL.I.AM The music star and entrepreneur loves technology but he worries about its effect on our manners and whether robots will leave humans looking second rate

21 July 2013
News Review
The Sunday Times slinks into the suite of a London hotel in a cloud of grey. He’s wearing his “summer outfit” — leather baseball cap, charcoal jacket, dark T-shirt, shades and capri pants, which he calls his ballroom pants. “Not ballroom like I’m going to the dance. Ballroom like I need some ball room,” he grins.

The 38-year-old American is a cultural phenomenon. Not content to bask in the success he’s enjoyed as the leader of the pop group the Black Eyed Peas, he’s also a producer, entrepreneur, fashion designer, philanthropist, solo artist and judge on the BBC musical talent show The Voice.

Over the past two years he has cemented his fame in Britain by flashing his enigmatic smile while carrying the Olympic torch on one of the first legs, jiggling on stage at the Queen’s jubilee concert and swivelling his chair on The Voice. Last weekend he added pop voltage to London’s Wireless festival.

But unlike many celebrities who strike out into new territories with mixed results, is the real deal. In geek circles he’s highly rated as a tech visionary and businessman.

He has the credentials — a creative adviser to the computer chip maker Intel, he has also set up a hardware business, Last year it built a camera accessory for the iPhone. Now it’s working on a motorbike helmet “that’s also your dashboard, connected to the internet and with a camera on it”.

And this month has been given the nerd stamp of approval: he is “cocurating” (no, me neither) the new issue of the tech bible Wired and sharing his “network” — a bizarre cluster of musos, inventors and innovators, including a former drug dealer from London who is now the boss of a successful start-up.

In person he’s a mix of ranter and visionary, speaking in expletive-laced monologues.

Despite his passion for technology, he has reservations about the “abrasive” behaviour it has spawned, but maybe that’s just because he’s a star. This vignette is typical.

“There’s a bit of rudeness to culture, if you were to compare it to yesterday. Like a celebrity or someone who’s famous could be sitting here in the middle of a conversation and somebody will just walk up and interrupt you as if there’s nothing wrong with it. When did chivalry and respect get thrown out the window? Is privacy now gone?” he wonders.

Then, answering his own question, he continues: “Not for ever. It’s just redefining words based on new gadgets that disrupt how we did things yesterday. This redefinition of privacy is gonna come; it’s around the corner.”

He also discusses the vile comments people post online. “The Sixties were unique. Music was about something; content was about something. Peace and love, new technology. Right now we have similar technology, even advanced, but there’s so much hate. It’s like comment, comment.

It’s like the harshest thing you could say,” he shakes his head.

“Come on my YouTube page, it’s like the evilest stuff. Like if you compare 2013 to 1960, what are we doing? It’s hard to see just how evil people are. Is it by nature or conditioning?” crackles with energy. It was this drive and impatience that spirited him from the streets of Boyle Heights, a ghetto in Los Angeles, to global fame. Born William Adams, he was raised by his schoolteacher mother along with two brothers and a sister (his mother went on to adopt two more children). He never knew his father.

Neighbourhood gang shootings and violence did not crush his dreams to make music and perform. As a 12-year-old schoolboy he met the future Black Eyed Peas member Allan Pineda — aka — and in 1995 the pair formed the group with the rapper Taboo (the singer Fergie joined in 2002). They released a string of hits including Where Is the Love? and I Gotta Feeling.

He’s now worth £50m — and can’t wait to give some of it away. His foundation, launched in 2009, includes home, which helps American families in financial trouble to hang on to their houses, and scholarship, which gives deprived young people an education. “They don’t have to worry about paying me back,” he jokes.

So far, nearly $1m has been invested through both programmes, and he’s putting his hand in his pocket to help British kids as well. Last year he donated £500,000 to the Prince’s Trust.

So what are his futuristic predictions? Web 1.0, the early stage of the internet’s evolution, he explains, was all about AOL and Yahoo!, and web 2.0, the current stage, is defined byGoogle, internet searches, Facebook and social media. Web 3.0, he reckons, will be all about increased interactivity with our gadgets.

“You’re going to talk to your phone in a way that right now you don’t talk to your phone. In the future you’re going to talk to it and it’s going to have the ability to talk back,” he smiles. “Siri [the iPhone’s voice control function] is just the beginning. You’re going to communicate with your device like ‘I am hungry’ and it’s going to order.”

When we meet, the case of Trayvon Martin, the African-American 17-year-old shot by a neighbourhood watch man as he took a shortcut home from the shops, is in everyone’s minds. What is his take on the racial cauldron the incident has stirred up? “Racial tension exists but it isn’t like it was yesterday. It’s mild but it’s still there. I think the African-American or the community of African descent isn’t together as it should be in the world.

“For example, in the world we don’t profit from the things we create. So jazz was invented in African-American communities, but the jazz musician that profited the most wasn’t African-American. They didn’t run those businesses or record companies that profited from jazz. Same with blues; same with rock’n’roll. I think we have this amnesia state, where the things that we create we don’t own.”

Switching to the world of technology, he gets a bit out of his comfort zone, talking about the mineral coltan, which is used in the manufacture of mobile phones. “It’s really responsible for how we communicate in the world — every phone needs some type of coltan rock. It’s in the Congo, naturally, but the Congolese don’t own the industry that is responsible for coltan.”

While his behavioural and technological insights may have been overshadowed by the music, his sexuality has not. Although he had a long-term relationship with a woman in his twenties and is rumoured to have had flings with Cheryl Cole and Nicole Scherzinger, the internet is awash with speculation that he is gay or asexual. I ask him what he makes of it all.

“Intellectual orientation is the most important conversation. Popular culture, editorial, government, they probably don’t want you to have that conversation,” he says.

“That’s the reason why we’re not talking about intellectual orientation but sexual orientation. Sexual orientation ties to consumption.

They’re going to sell you anything and use sex to sell it.” He says the things that are good for us are “just not sexy enough”.

He thinks people should see things through the lens of education rather than sex. “Do you want to have sex with a man or a woman? Well, who do you want to be educated by?” If the focus ever flips from sex to intellect, the ability to filter “the abundance of information in the world” would be “tomorrow’s sexy”.

Just as I think he’s deftly sidestepped the real question, he gives a straight answer. “I like women, and from a sexual standpoint I only like women.”

Then his mind zips off again and we’re onto implants and artificial limbs. Women are getting “breast implants, booty implants, lipo” and it’s all for sex, but at some point people will use robotics to enhance themselves.

“What if somebody says, ‘You know what, I don’t want these legs any more. I’m gonna get those robotic ones so I can jump over cars. I don’t want these arms; I wanna be able to crush things’? I don’t care how many frickin’ weights you’re gonna lift, you ain’t gonna pick up no bus,” he says, bobbing about in his chair. “Now that may sound like some sci-fi stuff but that’s actually real right now.”

He highlights the discrepancy of someone such as Oscar Pistorius being judged to have had an unfair advantage in the Olympics because of his artificial legs while “fake boobs and fake lips” on women competing in beauty pageants are blindly accepted. “Because it’s sex, we wash that off, but — wait a second — her things aren’t natural,” he says in mock surprise.

“What happens when they make androids sexier than women? I’m not saying that I’m going to prefer that but …” He laughs uproariously, saying he’s hopeless at romance.

“I’m a joke. I like joking with people that I’m fond of. So a romantic night is a laughing night. Never do I gaze into someone’s eyes — I would freaking chuckle my eyes off if someone was looking at me in a sensual way, like at dinner. I’d probably just start laughing, like, ‘Are you serious?'” He rolls his eyes.

The burning question in the mind of his fans is what is happening to the Black Eyed Peas. “We’re not broken up. It hasn’t gone away”, but “we gotta think about why we resurface”, he says, adding that he and Leah McFall, his protégée from the second series of The Voice, are busy working on her album. He’s sanguine about the fact that she was runner-up. “Just because you won a record deal doesn’t mean you have a career,” he shrugs.

He thinks the secret to a pop singer’s success is the “creative tank”, the “architects” behind them. “The whole show is television, and then you have people’s careers — that is multimedia. It’s radio, it’s print, it’s apps, it’s licensing, it’s touring.”

He says the key is to infiltrate people’s consciousness in an inoffensive way. “It’s noisy in the world. You want to disrupt the noise but you don’t want to disturb people.”

Is he, like his fellow judge Jessie J, going to leave The Voice? “I wasn’t thinking about the third season because I want to focus on getting the right songs now. These people’s careers are on the line,” he says, evasively.

But won’t he be sorry to lose Jessie J? It seems so. “Right now I’m thinking about leaving,” he admits. If he does, we won’t have heard the last of

The August issue of Wired is on sale now

Living with my mother-in-law, the honour-killing matriarch

For six years Sarbjit Kaur Athwal was in fear, knowing her sister-in-law had been murdered. She tells Audrey Ward how she found the courage to alert police
23 June 2013

The Sunday Times

One seemingly normal Friday afternoon, Sarbjit Kaur Athwal was summoned by her husband to a meeting. When she walked into the living room of the Sikh family’s west London home, her mother-in-law was already settled on the sofa.

“It’s too much. I can’t handle it — people are talking,” Bachan Kaur Athwal hissed. “We have to get rid of her.” She was referring to Surjit, Sarbjit’s sister-in-law.

Sarbjit immediately grasped the significance of her words. Appalled, she listened as her husband, Hardave, made a lacklustre attempt at changing his mother’s mind, but Bachan, a widow, slapped his arguments away with a deft flick of the hand. “It’s decided.”

Within weeks of that meeting, Surjit — a vivacious mother of two — was dead, her body carried away by the Ravi river in northwest India.

Sitting in the lounge of her bright new Surrey home, Sarbjit has not only escaped her former life but has also become the first person from within a murderer’s family to appear as a key witness in open court in an honour killing trial.

Her testimony at the Old Bailey in 2007 led to the conviction of Bachan and her son Sukhdave for the killing of Surjit, his wife, and to a new focus on combating honour crimes — far too often covered up by misplaced family loyalties. Surjit’s children, who had stayed with their murderer father for nine years, went to live with an aunt.

Sarbjit’s brown eyes, framed by jet black hair, grow animated as she talks about the book she has written about her fight for justice. Like Surjit, Sarbjit had gone to live with the Athwal family after marrying one of Bachan’s sons, and the two women had grown close. “She was really sweet. She made me feel welcome.

We did the cooking together and looked after the house.”

The women found their motherin-law controlling. She would accompany Sarbjit and Hardave on dinner dates, and once Sarbjit got a job, Bachan insisted that her salary go towards the cost of having her under the roof. “There was no freedom. If I wanted to go out and buy something I had to ask my husband.”

After she voiced her frustration to Surjit, her sister-in-law gave her some steely advice. “If you want to live in this family, then you’ve got to toughen up a bit.”

While Sarbjit was a docile, obedient wife, Surjit was searching for her own identity. “She wanted to go out and explore; she wanted a bit more from life,” Sarbjit says. Surjit got a job as a customs officer at Heathrow and began to socialise with her colleagues.

Her husband and motherin-law disapproved.

Bachan raged when Surjit went out in make-up and western clothes rather than traditional Sikh dress. She was horrified that her daughterin-law drank alcohol and cut her hair. “She would vent her anger at her son, who would then shout at Surjit,” Sarbjit recalls.

Surjit grew more and more unhappy in her marriage and Sarbjit, through the walls of her bedroom, would hear her and her husband shouting at each other. Sukhdave became physically abusive and although Surjit left a few times, the family always lured her back home. With no sign of Surjit conforming and a divorce imminent, Bachan grew ever more desperate to stop her daughter-in-law “bringing shame on the family”. And so she hatched her plan to take Surjit to India.

When Bachan proposed the idea of Surjit as her chaperone for an Indian wedding in 1998, Sarbjit willed her sister-in-law to refuse. Yet Surjit was swayed by her mother-in-law’s promise of a shopping spree and celebration for her newly born son on her return.

Sarbjit wanted to warn Surjit but Bachan never left the two women alone. “I was scared. I was threatened and told to keep quiet but I was hoping I could do something. I didn’t get a chance to speak to her. Even the day she left I was hoping that I could have time with her. I went to the door and waited for her to come out but Bachan Kaur spotted me and told me to go inside.” She pauses for a few moments, before adding quietly: “There was nothing I could do. I was helpless.”

That morning she had plucked up the courage to leave the house and call Crimestoppers from a public payphone. She was petrified someone would spot her and tell her family. “I told them everything without revealing my name. ‘This is what they are going to do. Please can you do something.’ But nothing happened.”

Over the next few days Sarbjit waited anxiously for news and repeatedly asked her husband about Surjit. “Don’t talk about it; keep quiet,” was his standard refrain. Two weeks later her mother-in-law returned from India alone. “She came into our house, she sat on the sofa and she looked at me. ‘What’s happened?’ I asked. I knew what was coming. She got quite emotional and said, ‘It’s all done now. It’s all done. Surjit is gone.’ ” Bachan revealed that Surjit had been picked up by her brother and another man, who, once on a quiet stretch of road, had drugged and strangled her before discarding her body in the river.

Sarbjit, who has four children, clears her throat before continuing. “My heart sank. I thought, ‘I’m sitting opposite a woman who has just killed someone.'” Bachan reminded her not to mention the murder to anyone. The implication was obvious to Sarbjit: “This is what I’m capable of; this is what I’ve done to my other daughter-in-law. Just be careful.”

Sarbjit felt compelled to report the murder, despite the risks. She wrote an anonymous letter describing all the details and dropped it into her local police station. Yet again the police failed to act.

Six years passed, and Sarbjit, still under her mother-in-law’s control, felt increasingly distraught about the murder and weighed down by the stress and fear of what her family might do to her. She developed a stomach ulcer that almost killed her. “The pressure had been building up — it was just too much,” Sarbjit says. “I thought constantly of suicide, hesitating only because of my children.”

After a stint in hospital in 2004 she asked her parents to take her to their home so she could recuperate. She finally unburdened herself to her father and he called the police. “I was really scared, as the police had let me down.”

Yet with Sarbjit’s courageous testimony the police felt they had sufficient evidence to prosecute Bachan and Sukhdave. That evening a newspaper reported a breakthrough in the case and Sarbjit was terrified that her in-laws would link her to the breakthrough. “My husband was saying, ‘Please, if you’ve said anything, let me know.’ I think by then he knew what I had done.”

Before the trial in 2007 she faced great intimidation from her husband and other members of the Sikh community — but she held firm. The day of her testimony was incredibly difficult: “As soon as I entered the court I saw Bachan Kaur and Sukhdave right in front of me. My knees went weak and I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to give evidence but I can’t do it.’ ” She asked for a screen but the judge refused. The police reminded her of the importance of getting justice for Surjit and she conquered her nerves.

Days later the jury returned their verdict. The pair were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Six years on, Sarbjit still receives threats from the Sikh community. She and Hardave are divorced. But she has taken inspiration from the police officers who helped her and for a time she worked as a police community support officer.

She is proud of her work and her children, who are thriving. “For the record, should any of them ask for an arranged marriage, they definitely will not be getting one.”

Shamed, by Sarbjit Kaur Athwal, is published by Virgin

The little house of horrors

How did this aristocratic French family lose their chateau in Bordeaux… and end up in an Oxford semi, where they were tortured and terrorised by a sadistic con man? By Audrey Ward. Photographs: Tom Pilston

2 June 2013
The Sunday Times

Robert Pouget needed a cook. The kitchen of his business, Oxford Fine Foods, was one man down, and with his restaurant, cafe and four busy shops to supply, he had to fill the post quickly. When Christine de Védrines limped into her interview with her twentysomething son, Pouget was hardly buoyed by confidence. She was small, fragilelooking, and the first thing she told him was that she’d never worked before. There’s no way this woman is going to be able to run one of my kitchens, thought Pouget. But he took a chance on her anyway because, “like me, she was French and from a good bourgeois family”.

Once installed as manager in the kitchen, she took him by surprise. “She turned out to be very good, she got everybody motivated and working hard,” Pouget told me between gulps of coffee, in a quiet bar next to his deli in Oxford. He found her charming and over the next year they became friends. Yet as Pouget got to know Christine, he had a sense there was more to her background than she was letting on. Christine, 62, had received a good education, her husband had been a doctor in Bordeaux and was from the aristocratic “de Védrines” family, yet here she was working in his kitchen, while her husband shovelled dirt for the Oxford Garden Company.

“What on earth happened to your money?” Pouget blurted out one day. She told him that the family had sold their chateau and houses in Bordeaux, and that several of their millions had disappeared. “That really alarmed me,” he says. But when he pressed her for more details, Christine clammed up. “I kept saying to her, ‘I don’t understand. Where is your money? It can’t just disappear.’ But she wouldn’t answer. She seemed very vulnerable, and I had a vague suspicion that she was being ripped off, but I wasn’t sure by whom.”

Finally, almost a year later, and worn out by his persistence, Christine told him to search the internet for the “recluses of Monflanquin”. Pouget discovered the term had been coined by the French media for the de Védrines clan — a family of 11 who had retreated into their chateau in Monflanquin, in the south of France. He read of how they had cut contact with all who knew them, and sold their assets. The reports speculated that the family was part of a sect or victims of mental manipulation.

The next day he confronted Christine and got her to explain the full horror of what had happened to her family. They had fallen prey to a skilled con artist who had subjected her to extreme emotional and physical abuse and defrauded them out of their fortune. More shocking still was that the brainwashing and torment was still going on. As Christine told her story, Pouget realised she was being held in Oxford against her will. She said she had been tortured and deprived of food and sleep. One of her sons had been taken away, imprisoned in an empty office and forced to wash from a toilet bowl. In fact, the only reason she was allowed out to work as his cook was because Thierry Tilly — the man who she said had taken control of her family for a decade — had demanded she bring him more money.

During the 10 years the de Védrines spent under his influence, they sold their ancestral home and liquidated more than $4.5m (£3.6m) to give to him.

Last November Tilly was convicted of arbitrary detention, using violence against vulnerable people and abusing those weakened by “psychological subjection”. He appealed his sentence on the bizarre grounds that his “patron”, Jacques Gonzalez (with whom most of the family had no direct contact), had masterminded the whole affair. This week, on June 4, the court will give its verdict on his appeal.

Pouget was instrumental in breaking Tilly’s sinister hold over the family and helping Christine to escape. Yet even today, he struggles to comprehend how such a prestigious and well-educated family allowed themselves to be manipulated by a man who claimed to be helping them. “When Christine first told me what happened, I thought it was a joke. How could she and her husband — a doctor — be brainwashed like this? All I can think is, they are old gentry, they don’t understand the modern world, the profit motive. They were living with a different moral code and had been brought up a certain way. When a man came along and told them they were under threat, they felt worried and scared.”

I meet Christine in a shabby hotel in the centre of Bordeaux. She is an elegant, articulate lady, with neatly coiffed hair. Like Pouget, I find it hard to imagine how she fell for Tilly’s scam. She begins her story by telling me it was her husband’s sister, Ghislaine, who introduced Tilly to the rest of the de Védrines family 12 years ago. Ghislaine had hired the bespectacled 35-year-old a year earlier as an administrator to provide cleaning and IT services in her secretarial school.

Over three years the pair had grown close and Tilly realised that Ghislaine’s family had a fortune. “That caught his attention,” says Christine. At the time the de Védrines family were involved in a legal dispute: the owners of a property purchased from the family were threatening to sue them. Ghislaine introduced the rest of the family to Tilly and suggested they seek his advice, as he had studied law and was well connected. Tilly recommended them a lawyer and the dispute was resolved.

It was around this time Tilly began spinning an alternative story. He told Ghislaine that his job at the school was just a cover — that he was, in fact, a secret agent with connections to Nato and 200 men under his command. He even said he had once been received at the Elysée Palace by the former French president François Mitterrand. Ghislaine had no reason to disbelieve him. She was impressed, not just by his story, but also by his detailed knowledge of the de Védrines’ 300-year noble history. He also claimed to be distantly connected to the family via his ancestors. Ghislaine shared this information with her family, who also accepted it at face value. Tilly weaved his way further into their circle of confidence.

I asked Christine to describe her impression of Tilly at this time. “He wasn’t very tall. He had clear eyes. He was always dressed in navy blue, sometimes in a suit. In a way he had this choirboy look. He would inspire trust.”

Then one day, Tilly announced he had grave news. Through his undercover work he had learnt that the de Védrines were in imminent danger from an international plot by Freemasons and Jews to acquire their wealth. “He said the family was under threat,” said Christine. “He said we should pay attention to our investments, our stock portfolio, because nothing was safe.” Tilly assured the family he could offer physical and financial protection. His surveillance team could watch them day and night, and he recommended that they liquidate their properties and assets so he could safeguard everything on their behalf.

“He said there were people who wanted to take [our assets] from us, so it was necessary to put everything in a secure place. At the beginning I was against it, but little by little I let myself be persuaded,” says Christine.

The fact that there were Freemasons in a branch of the de Védrines family made the claims seem plausible. “It was very well played,” adds Christine’s brother-in-law, Philippe, who also fell under Tilly’s spell at the beginning. “Many times I asked myself, why believe? But at the same time, why not? We all had a blind, unwavering faith in Tilly.”

The family began to live in fear that their phones were being tapped and they were being watched by Freemasons. Tilly stoked their paranoia. “He told us if we didn’t do what he said, we’d be in serious trouble, our children could be at risk,” says Christine. He gave them new mobile phones and computers and told them he would need to know their whereabouts at all times. The whole family — including the widowed matriarch, Guillemette, her three children, Ghislaine, Philippe and Charles-Henri, and their partners and children — began to spend all their time in their turreted castle.

After some time Tilly instructed the family to move to Philippe’s home, north of Monflanquin. On occasion Tilly would call and tell them not to go outside, that his team had received intelligence about an external threat. For days at a time they would live in darkness with the shutters closed. They believed him when he told them the reporters seen wielding cameras outside their home were enemies in disguise, rather than hacks trying to get a new angle on the story of the “recluses of Monflanquin”.

With his dominance established, Tilly relocated to Oxford with his own family, on the orders of his mysterious boss, Jacques Gonzalez, to set up a British branch of the Blue Light Foundation — a sham organisation moonlighting as a humanitarian charity. He left the de Védrines behind in France, but would call them up to 40 times a day, demanding details of their activities. Ghislaine would write daily reports and send these to Tilly, but the family did little other than watch TV, garden and go grocery shopping. “We didn’t even think of leaving,” says Philippe. “Quite the opposite. We’d close the doors, reject the outside world.” Between 2005 and 2006, Tilly persuaded nine members of the family to travel to Oxford for what Christine thought would be three days, but turned into three years. He told them they could resolve the issue of access to their finances once in Oxford, but there was always a new delay. He rented pebble-dashed properties on the Cornwallis Road to house them while they waited. “He was still nice to us, was happy to see us, we ate our meals with him,” says Christine. Meanwhile, Philippe and his girlfriend — whom Tilly had accused of being in league with the Freemasons (the first of many rifts he would create within the family) — decided to stay in Philippe’s home, and Tilly’s influence over the pair waned.

After a year in Oxford, Tilly’s lies took on a whole new, fantastical dimension. Christine remembers him cornering her one day.

“Christine, we need to work,” he said. Then he told her how she was “the chosen one” and that she held a key to the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. Legend had it that in the 1400s, members of the medieval order, who were being persecuted by King Philip, hid their treasure in an unknown location.

When Christine said she didn’t understand what he was asking her to do, Tilly explained that a bank account number had been passed down from generation to generation in her family and she must retrieve it from her memory via a process called a “transmission”. “He got really angry when I told him I didn’t believe it,” she said.

Although she was sure the story was untrue, she couldn’t bring herself to revolt in case it meant alienating herself from the rest of the family in Oxford, who now trusted Tilly completely. “He first raised the idea of ‘a transmission’ in 2006, after six years of brainwashing. Even though I understood there was no such thing, I knew that by saying it I’d turn my entire family against me. We were like puppets,” Christine says bitterly. Instead, Christine invented a random bank account number, which she hoped would pacify Tilly’s demands.

In October 2006 Tilly sent her and her eldest son, Guillaume, to Brussels, where they were instructed to take the false account number to 15 banks and ask for the treasure that Tilly assured them was left in the de Védrines family name. Of course, nobody could make sense of what she was looking for. “I must admit that that was the first time I thought about suicide,” she says softly.

Christine’s nightmare worsened when she returned to Oxford empty-handed. Tilly erupted in a rage. He ordered her into the living room, forced her to sit on a stool and keep her hands on the table. She wasn’t to get up until he said so. He left her there for 15 days. “At the beginning I was given tea to drink and biscuits to eat. Then Tilly said I no longer had the right to go to the toilet, so I stopped drinking.” She was forced to urinate in front of her family and her son Amaury had to clean up after her. “Tilly reduced me to the state of an animal,” she says.

During the night-time, a different form of punishment was meted out. Ghislaine and Charles-Henri were ordered to prevent her from sleeping by pinching her as she sat on a stool. Tilly regularly left, then returned to the room shouting threats. At one point he told her she would never see her children again. Then he became violent. “He hit me on my back. It was horrible, barbaric,” she said.

The abusive treatment came to an end just as the family agreed, on Tilly’s insistence, to put their chateau up for sale. Afterwards Christine was sent to her room, where she remained with the door locked from November that year until the following spring. Tilly wanted her out of the way until the castle was sold. Food was brought to her twice a day. “After being confined for so long in one room, I couldn’t walk any more. I had to learn how to walk again,” she says.

Christine wasn’t the only one to suffer such cruel treatment. Tilly accused Amaury of having paedophiliac tendencies and moved him to an empty office in London’s Regent Street. “He played with him, making him believe things that weren’t true,” says Christine. From July 2004 until April 2005 Amaury slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of the office. Having been told to choose between eating and bathing, he opted for the former and washed with water from the toilet bowl. Then in January 2008, Tilly ordered Christine out of the house to get a job so she could bring in more money. It was shortly after this that she hobbled into Pouget’s office looking for work.

Pouget believes it was a meeting between himself and Tilly a year later that helped Christine to admit what was happening to her family. “[Christine’s husband] Charles-Henri knew I was planning to expand my business and he thought Tilly could help me, given his great financial contacts,” he says. “Several times he said, ‘You must meet Mr Tilly,’ he wants to meet you.” Pouget had no idea who the “influential” Tilly was or why Charles-Henri held him in such high esteem, but he agreed to meet him. When Pouget first clapped eyes on Tilly, he was unimpressed. “In walks this little man in a shiny suit, nylon quick dry shirt, a cheap tie and cheap shoes. He waffled away about all the money available ‘to French aristocrats like myself’. Instantly, I smelt a rat.”

Afterwards, when Christine inquired how the meeting had gone, Pouget didn’t mince his words. “This man’s a crook,” he told her. Christine did a double take. Later that day she told him to search online for the recluses of Monflanquin, and the following day she broke down and told him everything.

Once Christine finished her account, Pouget asked if she still had her passport. She did. “Thank God she’d hidden it. She’d taken that little precaution, which is interesting,” says Pouget. The pair tracked down the phone number of Christine’s sister, who lived in Paris, and a cousin and female friend who lived in Bordeaux. They were overjoyed to hear her voice after several years. She said to them: “The scales have fallen off my eyes. I know now what’s happening. I have to escape.”

The three women said they would fetch Christine from London the next week and accompany her back to France. Pouget told her to carry on as normal that weekend, and to carefully retrieve her passport from her bedroom. His driver would whisk her away to London as soon as she arrived to work the next Tuesday. “I was concerned that they might get wind of it, that they [Tilly and her family] might be watching her or something,” Pouget says. “I thought it was potentially dangerous. I didn’t want her getting bumped off.”

Christine made it safely to France, where she filed a complaint against Tilly and made contact with her brother-in-law Philippe and his girlfriend, who had also started questioning Tilly’s motives. “I knew if I wanted to get my family back, he had to be behind bars,” Christine says. She gave a statement to the police about her physical and mental torture. With the help of Scotland Yard, the Cornwallis Road property Tilly lived in was wiretapped.

During their years under Tilly’s control, most of the family had heard him speak of Jacques Gonzalez, his “patron” or boss, but only a few of them had met him. Gonzalez, a short, grey-haired man in his sixties, was head of the Blue Light Foundation. In the end it was the daily phone conversations between Tilly and Gonzalez that enabled the police to arrest Tilly in Zurich nine months later and implicate his accomplice. When Gonzalez was arrested, police found $86,000 in his car and discovered that between 2004 and 2008 he bought four cars with the de Védrines’ money. It transpired that Gonzalez had been in daily contact with Tilly while the family lived in Oxford, often telling him to stop making mistakes in his work concerning the de Védrines and insisting he “put them under pressure” to release their money. Some wondered whether the manipulator had himself been manipulated.

Christine returned to Oxford in November to visit the rest of her family, who were still unaware that Tilly had been arrested. She was accompanied by Philippe and a team of experts, including their lawyer, a psychoanalyst and a criminologist. They embarked on an exit counselling session and retrieved one of Christine’s children, Guillaume. “When the criminologist told my son that Tilly had been arrested, I saw a ton falling from his shoulders,” says Christine. A month later the rest of the family was retrieved.

Last September the family gathered in court for Tilly’s trial, all except Guillemette, who died in 2010. Tilly’s lawyer argued that the de Védrines had acted willingly and he accused Gonzalez of manipulating Tilly, but the court sentenced Tilly to eight years in prison. Gonzalez was jailed for four years for complicity and deception, but has since been released due to health complications. He lives in Paris, where he wears a security tag.

Tilly is an enigma, but a few facts are known. He was born in March 1964 in Bois-Columbes, west of Paris, and is a law-school dropout and failed businessman with a conviction for fraud. Tests revealed him to be highly intelligent with an excellent memory. He was described in court as a “fine psychologist and first-class manipulator”. His father attended the trial to refute some of his son’s boasts: Tilly Sr was never a diver and his son’s mother was no skating champion. In fact, his father is a retired army driver and his mother was a midwife.

The court-appointed psychiatrist tried to shed light on how Tilly brainwashed the de Védrines. He said Tilly used classic techniques, such as creating paranoia within the group and isolating the members from each other. He claimed that people who undergo the sort of brainwashing practised by Tilly suffer a form of suspension of critical intelligence. Philippe supports this view. “People’s intelligence is not affected but it ‘lies fallow’,” Philippe told me, quoting the psychiatrist. “That’s exactly it. As soon as you get out of it, the whole mind comes back. Like a curtain has dropped.”

Christine struggles to explain how she was duped. “We’re educated people, so you’d think we’d have been prepared to face what happened, but it turns out we weren’t. You might think I was naive, but I wasn’t armed against lying. I wonder how I could have been so stupid.”

She thinks the hierarchical structure of the family was also a factor. “The fact there were so many of us in the family didn’t help us in the end, because when my mother-in-law [Guillemette], who was a sort of leader, and Ghislaine, a strong character, fell under his spell, they dragged everyone in.”

More than three years have passed since the family were freed from Tilly’s control, and some are still receiving psychiatric treatment. Christine and her husband, Charles-Henri, live in a council estate in Bordeaux and he has returned to work as an obstetrician.

“Charles-Henri, the children and I are very close again,” says Christine, who has written a book about her ordeal, Nous n’étions pas armés [We Were Not Armed], which was published last week. Philippe and his girlfriend divide their time between the French towns of Rouen and Monflanquin, where his house is. Meanwhile, Ghislaine has remarried her husband, whom she divorced at Tilly’s insistence. The grandchildren, like their parents, have been scarred by the experience.

So what now of Tilly? This week he will find out if his appeal has been successful. Meanwhile, his incarceration doesn’t seem to have stopped him from doing what he does best. Since his arrest, Christine has heard that he has had to be transferred from cell to cell because of the influence he is wielding over the other prisoners. A visitor to the prison told the family she had met one of Tilly’s inmates.

“The inmate told her, ‘We have this poor guy in here,'” says Christine tartly. “Tilly has told the others he has no money, that he was ruined by some bad people. He’s got them feeling sorry for him so they become generous, they buy him goods in prison. A fund was set up in his name.”

Catch a tiger by the tail

After a spectacular boom and bust, the Irish market may have bottomed out — and British buyers are now looking for bargains, says Audrey Ward

12 May 2013
The Sunday Times

James Masterson didn’t grow up wanting to be a farmer; it was the world of finance he was heading for. But having bought a whopping 75-acre property near Kilkenny, in the southeast of Ireland, for only €750,000 (£630,000), the Kent-based banker is thinking of a drastic career change. Initially, Masterson saw the site, with its four-bedroom farmhouse and collection of barns, as somewhere to put his spare cash, because he was “absolutely paranoid that the world was falling apart”. But that was last year, and now that he’s become an expert on drainage and fertiliser, he’s obsessing over organic orchards and honey bees.

“My Irish wife, Aoife, and her family keep telling me I couldn’t be a farmer, I couldn’t hack it, which is really annoying,” says Masterson, 40, but that hasn’t stopped him planning a permanent move to the farm. “Ultimately, we’ll move to Ireland and our two kids will attend a local school. In the meantime, we’ve spent every single holiday there.”

Masterson says he is one of a number discovering the extraordinary bargains to be found across the Irish Sea. “Even my British colleagues working in our Irish office have started buying. One of them bought a property in Waterford with a 17% yield.”

The latest research from Knight Frank estate agency reveals that Ireland was the fifthmost-searched country on its global website by those from Britain over the past year, with people looking at the likes of west Cork, Kerry, Waterford and Dublin for second homes. “Some are looking to move here for tax reasons, and they will want to be close to an airport, so anywhere in Cork close to the Waterford border, Dublin, Meath and Kildare is of interest,” says Roseanne DeVere-Hunt, divisional director at Knight Frank. “The price bracket they are looking in ranges from €1m to €5m.”

Increased interest from British buyers is also reflected in findings from the currency broker World First, which saw an 84% spike in clients looking to convert cash in order to buy property in Ireland over the past 12 months, compared with the same period a year before.

“Britons are investing while prices are low, and they’re hoping to see a return on their investment in the years to come,” says Elisabeth Dobson, head of private clients at World First. “This suggests that, after a long period in the doldrums, Ireland could be making a comeback.”

The country’s housing market has certainly suffered more than most eurozone nations. A recent report by the Irish property website revealed that prices for a one-bedroom flat in south Co Dublin are down 62% from their 2007 peak, while in some parts of the west, such as Co Mayo, they’re down almost 72%. Meanwhile, the price of a detached home has fallen more than 40% in Dublin. Yet many believe that property prices have bottomed out in the capital, if not the rest of the country. “Everyone’s in agreement that this is about as close to the bottom as you can get,” says Robert Hoban, director of auctions at Allsop Space.

Allsop Space, in which the UK property auctioneer Allsop has a half stake, has benefited from interest from Britain, selling €8.26m of property to Britishbased buyers since its first auction in 2011. Hoban says that, along with value for money, other factors influencing British buyers include the fact that “Ireland is the only other Englishspeaking country onsp NORTHERN in Europe, Irish property law is very similar to British law, and, of course, Ireland is easy to get to”. Among those to be seduced by the Emerald are Jon Cruddas, Miliband’s policy chief, and his wife, the Labour peer Baroness Healy.

Dublin A seduce Isle a Ed M Labo Earlier this year, they added to their property portfolio when they purchased a fourbedroom holiday cottage overlooking the Atlantic on the island of Achill, Co Mayo, proper pur bedroom overlookin one of Ireland’s most popular holiday destinations.

Michael Simcock, an investment manager from London, can also understand the draw of water — he has snapped up a country pad in Co Galway. “It’s very close to the River Shannon and there are some beautiful lakes nearby, so there’s great fishing,” he says.

Simcock, 44, snaffled the detached Georgian residence in the picturesque village of Eyrecourt for the knockdown price of €285,000 — when it first went on the market two years ago, it was priced at €1.15m. “I invest in property abroad, mainly in America, but I’d been thinking about Europe as an opportunity for a while.” He said he was tempted by “the progress Ireland has made economically, relative to the other, more challenged countries in Europe”, and plans to holiday there with his wife when not letting it out to holidaymakers.

If you prefer golf to fishing, there’s a three-bedroom midterrace house located in the plush grounds of the Faithlegg House Hotel and Golf Club in Co Waterford. The 800 sq ft property has a reserve of only €95,000 (00 353 1 678 9748,

Alternatively, high rollers can splash out on Clonmeen House, in Co Cork, for a cool €1m.

Located in the peaceful Blackwater Valley, it looks out onto verdant countryside and boasts its own lake (00 353 25 31023, Michael Daniels, who is marketing the property through his eponymous agency, says: “Compared with when people were considering buying four years ago, the change in value and what they can get now has been dramatic.”

Agents say value for money has been the main driver for the renewed interest in the country, and Britons are looking at farming areas such as Stradbally, in Co Laois; Kinsale, in Co Cork; and Kenmare, in Co Kerry. “The area they are searching in depends on their connection to Ireland,” says DeVere-Hunt. “If they have relatives in a particular area, they will want to live close to them. A lot are looking for farmland and the good life — they want to do organic farming and are getting chickens and sheep.” Schools are also an important factor. “It is so much cheaper to educate your children here than in the UK, so proximity to good schools is also encouraging people to move here.” One of the other big draws for foreign investors is the chance to bag their very own castle. “Thanks to the current economic Continued on page 22

Continued from page 21 climate, there are more on offer at present than I have seen for some years,” says Helen Cassidy, an auctioneer.

“People’s circumstances have changed; those who thought they’d have their castle for life are now — for personal or financial reasons — playing the market to see what they can get for it.” Among those for sale is Grantstown Castle, in Co Tipperary, which comes with three surrounding cottages — yours for €535,000 (00 353 94 954 6868, premierproperties It needs a bit of TLC and another €250,000 to make it habitable, though.

There’s also Ballindooley Castle, in Co Galway, which dates back to the 15th century. Only a short drive from Galway city, it stands in half an acre of land. It is on the market for €695,000 and is already kitted out with furniture and fittings, right down to cutlery, all of which are included in the guide price.

If it’s the celebrity factor you want, head to Dublin, where Sherry Fitzgerald, an affiliate of Christie’s, is selling a restored Victorian residence in Killiney, not far from where Bono and a host of other stars live. The 4,800 sq ft property is for sale at €3.375m and offers a heady mix of double-fronted bay windows, ornate ceiling coving and reclaimed floorboards. Set among 1.3 acres, it has a coachhouse that has been divided into a self-contained studio and a two-bedroom flat (00 353 1 275 1000,

Be warned, though: you’ll be competing for this type of property with the Irish expat community, says Rosie Mulvaney, a negotiator at Sherry Fitzgerald. “They have made their money abroad, and are now back to capitalise on it.”

There is also the fluctuating exchange rate to contend with. In early January, you could get about €1.23 to the pound, but by the end of the first quarter, sterling had dropped by almost 5%, to €1.19. The incoming residential property tax is also worth bearing in mind: from July 1, a charge will be levied on the market value of all residential properties; it will also apply to those living abroad. The amount charged will depend on which band your property falls into.

British investors hunting for rental opportunities should target flats in the heart of Dublin, in particular those with sitting tenants. “If you buy a city-centre property in London, you might get a yield of up to 5%, whereas you can get yields of up to 10% here,” Hoban says.

Allsop Space’s next auction will feature a two-bedroom flat on Wolfe Tone Street, at a reserve price of €85,000. It’s less than two kilometres away from the city centre’s main shopping district, Grafton Street, and should achieve rental income of €9,600 a year (00 353 1 678 9748,

If you want to plump for a more salubrious part of town, look no further than the prestigious Dublin 4 postcode, where a ground-floor, three-bedroom flat in Burleigh Court recently sold for €440,000. That’s a hefty reduction on the €950,000 one buyer paid for a small two-bedroom flat in the same 40-unit complex at the height of the property boom.

You could expect to let it out for €1,800 a month (00 353 1 660 3587,

Irishtown, once home to the actor Colin Farrell, is also worth a look. It’s a 15-minute walk from Grand Canal Dock, home to the European headquarters of Google and Facebook. On offer at €190,000 is a two-bedroom flat with a patio in the Bottleworks (00 353 1 660 3587,

When, though, can investors expect some price appreciation? The outlook for the rest of 2013 is relatively optimistic as the Irish economy focuses on recovery. Geraldine Bergin, of Bergins estate agency, doesn’t doubt that property prices will recover soon. “As an estate agent, our business was decimated, but things are picking up. My attitude is that the Wall Street crash didn’t last, the Famine didn’t last, so this is not going to last.”

A year off for a child’s birth; two days for its death

Within five days of their son drowning, Lucy Herd’s partner had to be back at work. She tells Audrey Ward of her fight for parents’ right to bereavement leave

7 April 2013
The Sunday Times

Lucy Herd’s son, Jack, was known to everyone as her “limpet” because he was permanently attached to her side. When she walked the dogs or did the gardening, he was there. If she was invited out for dinner with friends, the sandy-haired boy with the mischievous smile would go too. Often the pair could be found at a farm near their home in Cumbria, watching the tractors driving by, the cows being milked or the lambs being born.

But one warm August afternoon Lucy got distracted and Jack left her side. “I think that’s what makes it so hard. I’m quite a paranoid mum. I always watched him. Well, I didn’t that day,” she says, her eyes filling up.

Jack was almost two years old when he drowned in the garden pond. A tall boy for his age, he managed to open the back door of their home and climb a 4½ft wall. “I was on the phone to my mother when he wandered off from me and went on an adventure which killed him,” she says.

Lucy, 38, recalls ending the phone conversation after a few minutes to look for Jack. She called his name but got no answer. Panic rising, she went outside and instantly spotted his blue lumberjack shirt in the pond.

“I remember screaming when I found him. I had to jump in to get him out,” she says. Her elder son, Joshua, who was 13 at the time, came running outside and called the ambulance. “In the hospital the doctors were all working on him and I was rubbing his bare feet, saying, ‘Jack, fight!’ ” Speaking of his feet brings more memories washing over her. “I’d worry that he was getting too hot in the back of the car. I’d open the window a little and he would throw his socks out. We had many a pair thrown out of the car window,” she says as she rummages in her bag for Jack’s blue and red sock, which she carries with her all the time.

After the doctors told Lucy there was nothing they could do, she held Jack’s hand and stroked his hair for hours, but it was a further day and a half before her partner could make it home. An engineer, he was working offshore in the Middle East when he learnt of his son’s death. When he finally arrived on the Sunday, Lucy was distraught to learn he would be returning to the Middle East on the Wednesday. ” ‘What do you mean you can’t be here?’ I asked him. ‘I have to go back,’ he told me.” He was entitled to just three days’ paid leave.

Once Jack’s father left, Lucy felt abandoned. “I really was on my own. I felt lonely and bewildered. I was in shock and I lived in a bubble. I remember feeling angry at the world and at Jack’s dad.” She spent her days in Jack’s bedroom, holding his blanket and teddies. “His smell was my comfort,” she says.

The absence of her close friends and family also hurt Lucy in those grief-sodden days. Her brother, sisters and mother travelled from Berkshire to comfort her, but they were all obliged to return to work shortly afterwards. “For the first few days I had everybody, and then they weren’t there.”

Her mother’s departure was particularly painful. “I remember running down the road after her and begging her not to leave. She stopped the car and sat me down and then we went for a drive.” She reassured Lucy that she would be back as soon as she could.

Now, almost three years on from Jack’s death, Lucy is spearheading a campaign to get statutory bereavement leave for parents who lose a child. At present there is no legal requirement for employers to provide paid leave to those in mourning, and the duration and pay arrangements depend on the employee’s contract. Government guidelines suggest “one or two days”, but many parents need more time, including those who have already used up their bereavement entitlement or holiday leave.

Given that parents are paid maternity and paternity leave, Lucy feels the situation is unfair. “You have the time to celebrate the birth of a child,” she says. After a death some parents take sick leave, but she doesn’t think this should happen. “That’s wrong — you’re not ill. Grief and illness are two very different things.”

David Cameron took two weeks off when his six-year-old son Ivan died, but Lucy suggests leave of up to four weeks. She has discussed her proposal with her local MP and has set up an e-petition on the government website. So far she has close to 7,000 signatures, but she needs 100,000 before the issue will be considered for debate in the House of Commons.

Lucy’s reasons for seeking the policy change don’t just stem from her experience in the days after Jack’s death. Six months after the funeral, her eight-year relationship with Jack’s father ended. “We didn’t have the time to grieve together,” she says.

Although she is quick to admit that their relationship was in difficulties before Jack’s death, she has met couples whose experience with a callous employer fractured their relationships. She does not want others to suffer because of a lack of time spent grieving together.

Lucy still has traumatic flashbacks. “I’m there again, with him face down. The pain is indescribable. You don’t move on, you carry on,” she says. Counselling has helped, as has the fact that she is now living close to her family in Berkshire. Having once worked in IT, she is now a full-time mother to Josh and her daughter Elle, 12.

“Do I sit there and dwell and think, ‘What if?’ Sometimes I do; but I have two other children and they keep me going,” she says.

She’s determined to see the bereavement campaign through. “My heart was wrenched out of my body the day my son died. There will always be that pain inside me, but I’m trying to build a bit of a light around that pain.”

Thanks a billion: Iceland salutes its English hero

 The lawyer whose court victory has spared Iceland repaying Britain for its banking bailout tells Audrey Ward why taxpayers should not be enraged

10 February 2013
The Sunday Times

Tim Ward QC knew something strange was going on when an Icelandic newspaper compared his rugged good looks to those of Colin Farrell and Justin Timberlake.

“I think it was done on the basis that we all have beards and glasses,” he says, eyes twinkling.

Even odder was the fact that he was being held in higher esteem than the two celebrities.

What extraordinary feat had sparked this Englishman’s unlikely popularity? Amazingly, it was a legal victory in Luxembourg.

Euphoria ensued two weeks ago, when a European court decided that Icelanders would not have to repay Britain and Holland billions of euros after their governments had bailed out British and Dutch nationals with savings in Icesave, the collapsed online Icelandic bank, during the 2008 financial crisis.

Ossur Skarpheoinsson, the portly foreign affairs minister, engulfed Ward in a bear hug and the country’s 320,000-strong population thronged into the bars to celebrate.

“It’s something that everybody has an opinion on. Even a farmer in the most remote corner in rural Iceland will have a view about the case,” says Ward. He was used to clients back-slapping him but the reaction was exceptional: “I’ve never had anything like it in my career before.”

It wasn’t just the president and government ministers who expressed gratitude. When Ward returned to his hotel after a blizzard of publicity, the manager gave him a bottle of champagne and a thank-you note.

The following day he had a sense of being recognised on the streets and his suspicions were confirmed at Reykjavik airport where the passport controller, having read his name, handed back his passport and said in a slightly teasing manner: “Ah, the famous one I see!” Once he was on board the plane the stewardess produced a copy of the Reykjavik newspaper while remarking to other passengers: “I’m sure he wants to see this.” There, on the front page, was the picture of Ward being swallowed up in Skarpheoinsson’s bear hug.

Back in 2008 it would have seemed unlikely that Icelanders would take an Englishman to their hearts after Britain had invoked anti-terrorism laws to try to seize the UK assets of the parent company of Icesave.

After Ward’s victory, all seemed forgotten and he quietly enjoyed his new-found fame: “It was totally novel for me, obviously, but my face had been everywhere and I was conspicuous, an English barrister in Iceland.”

Britain spent £3.5bn on the bailout and had hoped to recoup £2.35bn under European financial compensation rules but the court came down against it. And thanks to Ward’s legal ninja moves, the British taxpayer can expect to be a further £100m out of pocket as there is no hope of pursuing Iceland for interest on the bailout.

The emails Ward has received in the wake of the case sum up the views of a nation: “Within an hour of the judgment coming out I had about six emails from friends complaining that their taxes were going to go up as a result.”

Nonetheless, he is unrepentant about the role he has played and bats away any suggestions of a possible tax hike because of him: “I am a professional advocate. It was my job to fight as hard as I could for them [the Icelanders] and I hope very much that they got the result they wanted, just as I would in any other case.”

He says there is nothing for British taxpayers to worry about. Ultimately we will get our money back: “The estate of Landsbanki is still being wound up and still paying dividends. It will pay out the full amount to the priority creditors, including the UK government.”

Is Ward planning to relocate to Iceland and milk his hero status? Not for now, although he is heading back in August with his family. He doesn’t think he will meet so many dignitaries but there should be a few other perks: “I’ve been told that if I tell the car rental company that I worked on the Icesave case, I might get a discount.”

Lawyer had hitmen kill him – and framed the president


10 February 2013

The Sunday Times

A LAWYER named Rodrigo Rosenberg, who had been educated at Cambridge and Harvard, was gunned down one Sunday morning in May 2009 while he was cycling along a quiet street in Guatemala City. He could easily have become just another statistic among his 6,498 fellow citizens who were murdered that year.

In a country where six in 10 murders are carried out by hired assassins, there was nothing unusual about Rosenberg’s death. Five bullets from a 9mm pistol killed him instantly. But Rosenberg had known he was going to be murdered and spoke from beyond the grave to name the killer.

In an 18-minute video handed out by a friend at his funeral, Rosenberg, 48, who had four children from two failed marriages, said his investigation into the murder of one of his clients, a businessman, had made him fear for his life.

“The reason I am dead when you see this is simply because I was the lawyer of Khalil Musa,” he said in the recording.

He went on to accuse Guatemala’s then president of being behind Musa’s murder, concluding: “Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, if you are watching this message it’s because I’ve been murdered by President Colom.”

Rosenberg claimed Musa had been killed because his appointment (later withdrawn) to the board of the state-owned Banrural bank would have led him to expose a money-laundering scam allegedly linked to the president.

One of the bullets that struck Musa as he waited in his car at a red traffic light had passed through his body and killed his daughter Marjorie, a married mother of two. This was a devastating blow to Rosenberg. He and Marjorie had been having a secret affair. Text messages between them suggested they were in love and would have married. He referred to her as “my Marjorie de Rosenberg” and to himself as “your prince for ever”.

The video-taped allegations against the president soon provoked a political crisis in Guatemala. Were they true or could the strange sequence of events be explained by Rosenberg’s grief at Marjorie’s death? Justin Webster, a British film-maker who investigated the case for a documentary, I Will Be Murdered, described Rosenberg as “a tortured soul” who had grown up amid a civil war between the state and leftist rebels. “He was on the brink of a new life and then his lover was murdered,” Webster said.

Demonstrations prompted by his video swept the country and Colom’s government came close to collapse. It had to call in Carlos Castresana, a Spanish prosecutor and judge, who was put in charge of the investigation by a crime-busting agency sponsored by the United Nations. “An investigation is broken into two parts,” said Castresana. “The investigation of the crime scene and that of the victim’s social circle.”

At the scene of the murder Castresana noticed something odd about Rosenberg’s bike. It had fallen forward while Rosenberg had fallen backward, suggesting he had not been riding it when he was killed.

Then Castresana looked at images caught on security cameras. These showed that a black Mazda with tinted windows had been following Rosenberg. Castresana identified the owner of the car as William Santos. From mobile phone records he deduced that Santos had been in the area on the day of the killing. His phone was tapped and his conversations led Castresana to nine other men, all suspected of involvement in the hit. After their arrests they revealed that they had been hired by Jose and Francisco Paiz, brothers related to Rosenberg by marriage.

Castresana’s team also traced a phone used to make death threats to Rosenberg to the shop where it had been bought and the signature of Rosenberg’s driver was on the payment slip. The driver was caught on CCTV in a second shop buying another phone that had come to Castresana’s attention.

Having gathered the evidence, Castresana was ready to reveal all at a press conference. “I felt it could be the end of my career because I was sure no one would believe me,” he said.

In a televised address on January 12, 2010, Castresana made his astounding disclosure.

“Who planned the act? We have to conclude that it was Rodrigo Rosenberg himself. Nobody else but him is responsible for his own death.” He explained that Rosenberg had paid $40,000 (£25,000) to the Paiz brothers, who had hired a gang of killers to commit the crime. It was Rosenberg who had instructed his driver to purchase the two mobile phones. He had used one to communicate with the killers and the other to send death threats to his own phone. On the day of his murder he sat down on a verge and waited to be killed. “He was desperate. He wanted to die. He had lost the woman he loved,” said Castresana.

He added that Rosenberg had sincerely but mistakenly believed the president was responsible for Musa’s death.

“He had no evidence at all.

He had spent a month looking desperately for evidence but he didn’t find anything. [The president was] probably involved in corruption but this was not the reason Marjorie was killed. I think he hoped to bring the government down and believed he would succeed.”

The truth seemed stranger than fiction. Claudia Mendez, a Guatemalan journalist, recalled her reaction: “It was unbelievable to hear that someone could arrange their own death, having left a message blaming someone else, and for that someone else to be the president.

It was shock after shock.”

Four years later the country has a new president and Castresana has returned to Spain. The Paiz brothers are in prison awaiting trial and although the killers of Musa and his daughter were caught, there is still uncertainty over who had ordered the hit.

At the spot where Rosenberg died, a plaque erected in his honour shortly after his death lies cracked on the grass, a broken tribute to a fallen hero.

Storyville: I Will Be Murdered will be on BBC4 on February 25

My castle has a nice wing to it

Crom Castle is home to the earls of Erne and the setting for the BBC’s latest PG Wodehouse adaptation — but the aristocratic owners have opened up a wing for let, writes Audrey Ward

13 January 2013
Home; The Sunday Times

In August 2011, John Crichton, Viscount Erne, was on his summer holiday at Crom Castle, his family home in Co Fermanagh, when he received an unexpected visit. A television locations director, scouting for a country pile in Northern Ireland that could be used to film Blandings, a new six-part BBC comedy series based on stories by P G Wodehouse, proposed Crom, seat of the earls of Erne for more than 350 years.

Crichton was delighted. The 41-yearold needed only to consider the estate’s eye-watering bills, and to see how Highclere Castle in Berkshire, England, has benefited from its starring role in ITV’s Downton Abbey, to be convinced of the commercial merits of allowing his home to be transformed into Blandings Castle.

He offered the west wing, which his father, Henry, the present Lord Erne, made over to him in 2003. Shooting began last March, although it was mainly in the south wing, his parents’ home.

“I pay huge tribute to my parents because for two months they had 60 cast and crew members in their house and they had two rooms to live in: their bedroom and their kitchen,” says Crichton, who worked as an estate agent in London for 20 years before setting up a property-search business there.

Once an aspiring actor, Crichton returned to Fermanagh from his home in Chelsea for the shoot, and made tea and coffee for the crew and cast. He also managed to bag a role as a footman in a scene with Jennifer Saunders, who plays Lady Constance in the series. “I can blame Dad for this one. He said to the director, ‘You had better watch my son — he’ll be in front of that camera before you know it,’ and next thing I knew I had a part.”

Set in 1929 in the fictional Blandings Castle, the series stars Timothy Spall as Lord Emsworth, who struggles to keep his dysfunctional family in order. Saunders plays the lord’s sister, Connie, while Jack Farthing is his unlucky-inlove son Freddie, and Mark Williams takes the role of Beach, the family’s loyal and long-suffering butler.

The Victorian conservatory which leads off the west wing features in some scenes, as does the west wing’s Buff Room with its four-poster bed. The other five bedrooms were used as waiting areas and dressing rooms, while the continuity checking was done in the hallway.

David Walliams, who makes a guest appearance in two episodes, fell so much in love with the bedroom that was allocated as his dressing room that he insisted on sleeping there during his time in Fermanagh. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast and crew took up residence in the estate cottages and nearby hotels.

Allowing his “semi-detached castle”, as he calls it, to be used as a television location isn’t the first time Crichton has Continued on page 10

Continued from page 9 found a commercial venture for the property. When he took over the running of the west wing almost 10 years ago, he offered weekly and weekend lets to help make it pay its way. Noel Johnston, his manager, now oversees the business while Crichton splits his time between London and Fermanagh.

“Our first let was in 2004. We had the ITN news correspondent John Irvine and his wife, Libby. From then on we grew and grew,” says Crichton.

The castle was designed by Edward Blore, an English architect who was also responsible for sections of Buckingham Palace. The six-bedroom west wing sleeps 12 and is available to let all year round at a cost of £2,500 ($3,000) for a weekend or £5,500 for a week, self-catering.

“It’s very much a home rather than a guesthouse. The guests don’t feel they’re going to bump into somebody else,” says Crichton.

There are three double bedrooms and three twin rooms. All have en-suite bathrooms. The rooms are decorated in a period style and have been given names. The Rose Room, for instance, is decorated with matching red and yellow rose print wallpaper and curtains.

“You don’t want to wake up with a hangover in this room,” says Crichton.

The elegant drawing room has a fireplace and double doors that open on to the terrace, which gives access to Lough Erne. The cosy dining room has a fireplace and oil-fired Aga. Guests are also able to use the estate’s parklands, which have been managed by the National Trust since 1987. The 2,000-acre estate contains islands, cottages — which can also be rented — and the ruins of Old Crom Castle, as well as ancient woodland, which is home to a small herd of fallow deer reintroduced by Crichton’s father, the sixth earl of Erne, in the 1970s.

In summer months guests may encounter National Trust visitors in the grounds, but the castle and the land surrounding it, including the tennis court, are reserved for the private use of the family and guests.

Crichton is full of praise for the work of the trust: “As a family we couldn’t have afforded to keep the estate on. There were 22 cottages which all had to be looked after. It was hard to make the estate pay and we did try, but it never really worked. The National Trust deemed it important to take it on and [it] looks after it fantastically. Our only problem is to keep the house going.”

The cost of renovations and repairs to the property, which dates back to the 1830s, have caused him a few sleepless nights over the years. Ten years ago, the wing was in poor condition and had leaking roofs. Crichton embarked on a modernisation project. He fixed the roofs, restored the bedrooms and replaced the boiler and heating.

Two years ago, disaster struck. The castle suffered serious storm damage during the big freeze. Burst pipes caused leaks in all the bedrooms and the insurers had to be called. “Luckily all the leaks happened in the middle of the rooms, so we didn’t have to replace the wallpaper, but it was so depressing as we had got the place into such a good state.”

The past couple of years have been tough, given the spiralling cost of maintaining the estate. “It amazes me, the amount of money it takes to keep one wing with six bedrooms going; the amount needed to get our turnover on wages, electricity, the website and licences. You open a bill for the oil and it reads £1,500 for a fill-up — and that’s just for my wing. It makes the mind boggle. A lot of people think, ‘Oh you’re so lucky, living in a big house,’ but it’s a lot of hard work and worry.”

Crichton, who has four older sisters, doesn’t dwell long on such adversities and instead recalls his idyllic childhood. “My sisters and I would go off on the boats, water-ski, go cycling and swimming in the lough, have pirate parties and play cops and robbers in the woods.”

They also swam in the pool that was once in the Victorian conservatory.

“People don’t come to Fermanagh to swim,” says Crichton matter-of-factly. When he and his sisters weren’t rollicking about outside or swimming, they spent their time in the west wing, which was used as the nursery, and in the evenings they would join their parents in the south wing.

Lettings and shoots aside, Crichton has another money-spinning venture on the go. In an average year, he takes bookings for between 15 and 20 weddings from local couples and those from further afield, such as America, Abu Dhabi and New Zealand.

The idea of hosting weddings in the west wing’s conservatory came when Lord Crichton, a page of honour to the Queen and her late father, George VI, in the early 1950s, was inspired by David and Victoria Beckham’s wedding at Luttrellstown Castle in Dublin and Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills’s wedding at Castle Leslie, Co Monaghan.

“We happen to be one of the last large houses that are private and not open to the public,” says Crichton. “Originally, we didn’t want to do weddings as they can be very intrusive, but they’ve been our saving grace.”

He is determined to keep the castle in a fit state to pass on to the next generation. He hopes to marry one day and have children who will experience the Swallows and Amazons-style childhood he enjoyed.

For now he has no plans to base himself in Crom full time. “This castle has got various phases to it. Phase one is now, when I’m looking after one bit of the castle. Phase two is when my parents might, sadly, not be around and I will take control of the whole place. I see the potential to keep it commercial and to use the other wing. At the moment my parallel life seems to be the best way.”

Blandings starts on BBC1 tonight at 6.30pm; NOT FOR KEEPS Be king or queen of your own castle for a week or a weekend with these holiday rentals Co Tipperary Lisheen Castle in Thurles was restored from a ruin over five years and has been turned into luxury accommodation. It sleeps up to 14 people and can be rented at a high-season cost of $5,380 for a week. The castle, set in the Munster Hills, is two hours’ drive from Dublin. It is available for weekend rentals, apart from during the peak season, for $2,200. Co Galway Up to 14 people can spend the night in the seven double bedrooms at Cloghan Castle in Kilchreest, near Loughrea. The drawing room has a large open fireplace and there is a barbecue area on the battlements and a tennis court in the grounds. The weekly high-season rate is $8,000 and the weekend rate is $5,700. Co Mayo Surrounded by 16 acres of pasture land, Turin Castle in Kilmaine sleeps up to 12 people. The bedrooms all have en-suite bathrooms. It is furnished with antique pieces and includes a baronial hall. There is a large patio and barbecue area, as well as a meadow garden. The castle costs $2,800 a week and $1,600 for a weekend to rent in the high season.

A brush with life in exile

During the Second World War, German and Austrian artists fleeing to Britain were held in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. A show at Tate Britain reveals how they created a cultural haven behind barbed wire. By Audrey Ward

23 December 2012
The Sunday Times Magazine

The Sunday Times Magazine 12.2.2012 Seventy years ago, on a speck of land in the middle of the Irish Sea, Freddy Godshaw, a Jewish teenager from Hanover, befriended a circus impresario and lion-tamer known as Neunzer. Godshaw, now 89, remembers him as a fascinating character. “He had been to Africa to catch the animals before actually training them. He always carried a little lasso and, for a party trick, he used to pick flowers with the lasso.”

The two men were German refugees who, in July 1940, met behind barbed wire in Hutchinson Camp, one of several camps on the Isle of Man. By then, France had fallen to Germany and the British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Growing suspicious of the Austrian and German nationals living in the country, the British government had called for almost 27,000 of these “enemy aliens” to be interned. “Collar the lot,” declared the prime minister, Winston Churchill. It appeared that Godshaw, who had escaped to Britain five weeks before the start of the war, and his German friend had swapped one form of restriction for another.

The interns were crammed, 30 men per building, into Edwardian terraced houses on a hill behind the promenade in Douglas, the barbed wire doubling as their washing line. In his new home, Neunzer wanted to dispel the gloom created by the blue-tinted windows and orange light bulbs, which had been painted to prevent bright light being seen from the air.

Using a razor blade, he scraped a series of animal drawings out of the paint so that from his window emerged elegant giraffes, plodding camels, widemouthed hippos and elephants’ bottoms. His fellow internees followed suit and Godshaw vividly remembers more windows appearing around the camp, “with images of landscapes, flowers and erotic female figures”.

It soon became clear that this camp was very different to any other. Within days of Godshaw’s arrival, the grassy lawn of Hutchinson Square was teeming with German and Austrian intellectuals, scientists, musicians, Oxford and Cambridge professors, authors and artists, all of whom had been thrown together on this remote island by pure chance.

As magnificent as Neunzer’s circus animals were, his artistic endeavours paled when compared with those of the other accomplished — and in some cases internationally renowned — artists who had arrived. The Viennese sculptors Siegfried Charoux and Georg Ehrlich were cast alongside the likes of the Germanborn painter and writer Fred Uhlman and Erich Kahn, an expressionist.

“They were refugees because their work, Jewish origins and/or their political beliefs had put them at odds with the Nazi regime.

Hitler condemned modern art as ‘degenerate’ and ridiculed it,” according to Yvonne Cresswell, curator of social history at the Manx National Heritage organisation.

However, it was Kurt Schwitters, one of more than 300 artists who came to Britain between 1933 and 1945 to escape the Nazis, who would become the main star of the camp. “Not only was he a famous artist, but he wrote poetry and was a marvellous raconteur,” says Godshaw. With his tendency to sleep under his bed and his love of intermittently barking like a dog, he raised the spirits of his fellow internees.

Schwitters, who is perhaps most renowned for his collages, or Merz pictures (a term he invented that referred to the making of new works out of old fragments), had fled Germany to Norway. When Hitler invaded he caught the last fishing boat out of Scandinavia, surviving a torpedo attack before arriving in Scotland. He was then taken to the Isle of Man to join nearly 1,200 other German and Austrian refugees.

Artistic materials on the island were scarce, but this didn’t stop Schwitters and his fellow internees from making the best of what they could find. They dismantled a piano, tore up linoleum from floors, collected stamps, toilet paper and other debris. Hellmuth Weissenborn, who would Weissenborn , go on to work as a printer after his release from the camp, mixed margarine with graphite from pencils to create an ink for printing. He also used a washing mangle as a press, while Kahn sketched on the back of cigarette packets.

Schwitters also pilfered from the half-empty breakfast bowls of his fellow internees for the sake of his art. In his memoirs, Uhlman recalls the day in October 1940 when he went to Schwitters’s makeshift attic studio to have his portrait painted: “The room stank. A musty, sour, indescribable stink that came from three dada sculptures, which he had created from porridge. The porridge had developed mildew and the statues were covered with greenish hair and blueish excrements of an unknown type of bacteria.”

Schwitters’s porridge sculptures didn’t stand the test of time. Thankfully, many of his other works created before, during and after his internment years did survive.

This winter, an exhibition at Tate Britain in London will bring these works, which have inspired the likes of Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley, into the spotlight. Entitled Schwitters in Britain, the exhibition will cover a 30-year period and include about 20 of the 200 works created by the artist while on the Isle of Man.

Schwitters worked on landscape drawings, paintings and portraits of his friends and fellow internees, some of which he sold to his sitters for £5 each (the equivalent of about £250 today). Godshaw, who himself was drawn by Schwitters days before he left the camp, recalls the speed at which he worked. All these years later, the pencil sketch is one of his most prized possessions.

Much of Schwitters’s art is easily identified as belonging to a specific period. “You can trace where Schwitters was by looking at his works and what he used in them,” says Dr Jenny Powell, assistant curator of modern British art at Tate Britain. “In the internment camp, you can see letters that say ‘censored’ in the collages.” One of his abstract collages from this time features half a ping-pong ball. Powell imagines the internees playing with the ball on the lawn, then Schwitters stealing it to use in his work.

The exhibition will also display a select few pieces from an album containing the works of 18 other artists who were interned with Schwitters. They deserve the attention, given that they too helped to create one of Europe’s most extraordinary and influential cultural scenes.

The album was a gift from the internees to the camp’s commandant, Captain HO Daniel, and it has been loaned to Tate Britain by Daniel’s son, Peter. It includes landscape oil paintings, cartoons poking fun at Daniel, and paintings of half-naked dancing ladies. Schwitters’s contribution — a small, abstract oval picture — and Hermann Fechenbach’s lithograph, which depicts two internees in a barn, caged in by the barbed wire, will be shown.

The abundance of artistic activity in the camp was in no small part due to Daniel’s support. He provided the internees with materials such as paint, oils, watercolours and paper. Peter Daniel, a sprightly, bearded man in his eighties, was 16 when he arrived at the camp with his parents. “Without my father, there would be nothing here,” he says, pointing to the album of art. He recalls his father turning one of the buildings ina ISLAND OF CREATIVITY Previous pages, clockwise from left: Hermann Fechenbach’s lithograph Internment; Fred Uhlman’s pen-andwatercolour drawing Douglas IOM; The Pied-Piper of Hamlen (sic); linocut by Paul Henning with watercolour wash. This page, bottom right: the camp newspaper. Bottom left: the cover of an album presented to the commandant, Captain HO Daniel (right), illustrated by Hellmuth Weissenborn. Schwitters (above) contributed an untitled watercolour (left) to the album. Far right: a cartoon of Capt Daniel

Hutchinson Square into a studio where the artists could work. “He made it possible for the internees to continue with their art,” he says proudly.

During the internment, Klaus Hinrichsen was another champion of the artists. Having fled to Britain during the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution, he spent 11 months in Hutchinson Camp. He helped to found what became known as Hutchinson University. Each evening, lectures were held in subjects such as philosophy and theology. “We had 52 professors in that camp,” says Godshaw.

As head of the cultural department, Hinrichsen curated two art exhibitions. One took place in September 1940. The second show, held two months later, featured work by Schwitters and the sculptor Ernst Müller-Blensdorf, whose relief panels were carved on mahogany salvaged from a piano. The artists were turning their attention to making money at this point and the camp’s newspaper stated that “this time” they were offering their works for sale.

The comedian and author David Baddiel has written a novel, The Secret Purposes, about life on the Isle of Man during internment. “A really extraordinary thing about the whole process was that most of the people who got out of Germany were fairly eminent,” he says. “The easiest way to get out of Germany was if you had supporters in Britain, who could apply to people in Germany who were professors and artists and important musicians. As a result, on the Isle of Man, you had six or seven Nobel prizewinners and the Amadeus Quartet. Left to their own devices they set up a university, held opera recitals and, within a week, it’s Vienna on the Isle of Man.”

Baddiel’s book was inspired by his grandfather Ernst, who spent 18 months on the island. Ernst’s letters from the camp have been translated from German into English and relay how he went to the lectures, attended the music recitals and met lots of interesting characters. “One of the things he said about it, which was kind of unusual, was that it was great.” However, Baddiel is unwilling to give the impression that the internees’ lives were bliss. “I don’t want to make it too much of a cakewalk. My grandfather lost everything in Germany. After the war, he became clinically depressed. I wouldn’t blame that on the internment, but just the trauma in general. A lot of his friends in Germany were murdered. He ended his life as a porter, working in Cambridge colleges. He was devastated.”

Although it was a difficult time for many, Godshaw claims that Schwitters — and some of the others — didn’t bother to apply for release when the time came. “He was comfortable there. He could paint all day without having to worry about money or other such things. He also had a captive audience for all his poetry recitals and stories.”

Within three months of his arrival on the island, Godshaw and the other internees were encouraged to apply to be released, as the immediate threat of an invasion had passed. He was one of the first to be allowed to leave, and his friend Neunzer was given permission to return to his wife, who was struggling to manage the lions by herself.

Soon afterwards, Schwitters wrote a letter to his wife, Helma. “I am now the last artist here, all the others are free. But all things are equal. If I stay here, then I have plenty to occupy myself. If I am released, then I will enjoy freedom… You carry your own joy with you wherever you go.”

He was finally released on November 21, 1941 and, after a spell in London, he moved to the Lake District, where he died seven years later. Hutchinson Camp, having originally held Austrian and German internees, later went on to hold military prisoners of war before closing in 1944.

Looking back on those four months in captivity, Godshaw has fond memories.

“It was no hardship for youngsters like me. I can only say that they were probably the most interesting months of my life.”

It was also a prolific time for the artists. Despite a letter from Schwitters and 15 of his fellow artists to the New Statesman and Nation in August 1940, declaring, “Art cannot live behind barbed wire”, they were proved wrong. Amazingly, with the help of Daniel and through the artists’ own ingenuity, their art not only lived but thrived n Schwitters in Britain is at Tate Britain, London SW1, January 30-May 12, 2013

The top novelist sold to the triads as a sex slave

Lee Weeks tells Audrey Ward how her shocking past in Hong Kong and escape to Britain inform her thrillers

16 December 2012
The Sunday Times

Lee Weeks has had a strange journey to the top of the bestseller lists. Now 54, the thriller writer is a divorced mother of two living a sedate life in Exeter. Apart from the odd glass of chardonnay, she claims to have only one other vice. “I hang around for a bit of passive smoke wherever I find it,” says the ex-smoker.

It was not always like that. In the summer of 1982 she was 23 and working in a Hong Kong nightclub when a friend offered her a drug that she said would help her stay slim. Weeks thought it was speed, which the locals smoked, and which she believed was fairly innocuous, but it was heroin.

She soon became addicted and ended up in the hands of a triad criminal gang, who were planning to traffick her as a sex slave.

It all seems a world away from the hotel in Bristol where she sits down to tell her story. She has a sun-kissed glow and there are no signs of the junkie she once was. She laughs easily and talks quickly.

Her days are now spent on writing, and in the evenings she works out at the gym. Once a month she goes dancing at Mama Stones, a nightclub owned by the mother of the singer Joss Stone.

As a child, Weeks moved around a lot with her policeman father, which caused her problems at school. Other children bullied her and she says she had a breakdown at 14 that wasn’t diagnosed. Aged 17, she took off and travelled around Europe and Asia.

Eventually, she fetched up in the Hong Kong club and met a businesswoman called Teresa. They were soon spending all their time together. Only later did Weeks realise Teresa was not what she seemed.

Once Teresa had got her hooked on heroin, she persuaded Weeks to move to a house in a remote fishing village on the Chinese border. The pretext was that they would be able to save a lot of money.

Instead, Weeks’s life spiralled out of control.

“I was lying in a room, cut off from civilisation, incapable of functioning,” she recalls. “There were spiders crawling up the walls, lizards everywhere. I couldn’t eat anything; I was vomiting all the time. I was looking at my pupils — were they dilated? Was it time to fix again?” Day and night, triad loan sharks would arrive and engage in heated conversations with Teresa. It turned out that she had stood as guarantor for a friend who had borrowed from them. When he fled to Japan without repaying the money, she was saddled with the debt.

As the hellish days crawled by, it dawned on Weeks that her “friend” was controlling her. “Every time I said I was going into town she said she’d order me a taxi, but the taxi never came. Other times she’d say, ‘I don’t think you should go out. There’s something happening in the village — there’s not a nice atmosphere.’ “I realised I had to get away from Teresa.”

That was easier to think than to do. She was dependent on drugs and in a village where nobody spoke English and there was no public transport.

She had broken off contact with her parents months earlier and nobody knew where she was. “I could see death was on the cards and I was worried that no one would find my body. I became obsessed with the fact that I had lived for nothing.”

Weeks started planning her escape. Teresa rarely left her alone, but when she finally went out one day, Weeks seized her chance. She still had the card of the taxi driver who had driven the two girls to the village six months before. She phoned him and although he had poor English, he recognised her voice.

“I didn’t think he would come, but I packed a bag and waited. I was in a blind panic and terrified that Teresa would come back.”

After an hour the taxi driver appeared and drove her to a hotel in Wan Chai, on the northern shore of Hong Kong Island.

She was not in the clear yet.

Teresa tracked her down and turned up at the hotel. She had been so badly beaten by the triads that she couldn’t walk and the hotel porter had to carry her up to Weeks’s bedroom. Teresa pleaded with her to return but she refused to go back.

With the help of a government methadone programme she kicked drugs and began an affair with a Chinese lawyer. He made inquiries and found out about the life that Teresa and the gangsters had planned for her.

“It was through him that I discovered I was triad-owned and that Teresa had sold me as part of that debt.” She had been keeping Weeks compliant until they were ready to send her to Taiwan to have sex with strangers.

Weeks was horrified and returned home to Cornwall as quickly as possible. There, she married and divorced a college friend before starting to write.

It was something that she had wanted to do since she was 17 and, if her recall of her past seems remarkably detailed, there is a reason for it: all the time she was travelling, she kept notes, even in Hong Kong.

Given her narrow escape from the sex trafficking industry, it is no surprise that many of her books are set in this murky area. Her latest novel, Dead of Winter, delves back into that world.

“I know the other side of life, the seedy and dangerous side,” she says. “And I know how it feels to be trapped by another person.”

It is a popular theme. Her five books have sold almost a million copies and been favourably compared to the novels of Martina Cole.

For her research she has travelled to the Philippines and returned to Hong Kong. “The places I saw were like a Disney World for sex. The pimps were British, Australian and American and on either side of the streets were the sex workers.”

She shudders at the thought of what could have been.

Dead of Winter is published in paperback by Simon and Schuster at £6.99

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