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  • Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen by Michael Harrison

    The inspiration for Mr Charming, my account of the life and crimes of a Ponzi-style fraudster, came from an unlikely source: one of his victims. Over the years, a very dear and old acquaintance had often remarked that I really must meet her new best friend: a wonderful German chap by the name of Felix Vossen. He was great company – funny, well-read, emotionally sensitive and highly intelligent. In his spare time, he was a film producer. But his day job was financial trading. He was an investment guru who ran a fund worth £250 million from his offices in London and Zurich. Much of my friend’s money was invested in that fund.

    Felix the film producer: with Charlotte Rampling and his fellow producers from Embargo Films at the premiere of I, Anna at the Berlindale Film Festival in 2012. Vossen claimed he could raise a £10 million fund to help Embargo produce a series of movies. (Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen, Amberley Publishing)

    Imagine then her utter shell-shock and despair – and my own surprise – when he also turned out to be a fake and a compulsive liar. A cheat and a charlatan who had run off, not only with my friend’s money, but also the life savings of scores of other victims. Some £45 million in all.

    In the days and weeks that followed Vossen’s abrupt disappearance, I reflected on my own narrow escape: how often I had been due to meet Felix at various dinner parties and birthday celebrations that he had failed at the last minute to turn up to. And whether I too would have been drawn into his web of deceit by his easy charm and absolute plausibility. Inevitably, I also spoke regularly and at length to my friend and her husband about the case. How were they coping? Had they traced any of the money? Had anyone discovered his whereabouts? What were the police doing?

    Felix in one of his various guises. (Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen, Amberley Publishing)

    And then one day, during a long walk in the country, my friend said: ‘Why don’t you write a book about it? It’s right up your street.’

     

    I didn’t need a second invitation. The name alone, FELIX VOSSEN, conjured up an image of a James Bond villain. Although we had never actually met, I could picture him in my mind’s eye, reclining in a Parker Knoll chair stroking a white cat.

    During a career in financial journalism, I had written about a great many crooks, fraudsters, chancers and psychopaths – a few of whom had also been the CEOs of FTSE100 companies. The story of Felix Vossen was not only a tale of financial skulduggery. It was also about personal betrayal and regulatory failure and the woefulness of banking supervision, even in these modern, sophisticated and inter-connected times.

    In order to tell his story, however, I needed to tell the stories of his victims. And that meant gaining the trust and confidence of a fractious and vulnerable group of individuals for whom trust was at a very low ebb. They had believed in something that had proved too good to be true and been left financially ruined, emotionally bereft, and psychologically-damaged by someone they too had grown to regard as their best friend. Why should they trust an outsider, and a journalist to boot, to recount their experiences in a balanced, sympathetic and non-judgemental way?

    What followed was several months of negotiation to re-assure his victims that although they might feel guilty for the plight that had befallen them, there was only one real villain of the piece: Felix Vossen. Some were happy to co-operate, others declined. Some would only take part with a guarantee of anonymity.

    Cash, false passports, laptops and mobiles seized by Spanish police from Vossne's apartment in Valencia after his chance arrest in February 2016. (Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen, Amberley Publishing)

    A short way into the researching of the book, the dynamic changed dramatically. Felix Vossen had been found. He had been arrested by chance in the Spanish city of Valencia after arousing the suspicion of a passing police motorcycle patrol and extradited to Switzerland, where he was wanted on charges of fraud, money laundering and forgery. Not only would he face justice, but his victims might achieve some form of closure, even if it might take a bit longer to recover their stolen money. To this day, only £100,000 or so of the £45 million he stole has ever been recovered.

    Their best chance of being made financially whole again is to apply pressure to the banks that Vossen deposited their money with and hope that compensation is forthcoming. To succeed, they will probably need to do more than rely on the corporate altruism of those banks or embarrass them into coughing up. Instead, they will need to demonstrate negligence in the way that Vossen was supervised and his accounts were monitored.

    In the spring of 2020, Vossen himself will walk free from prison in Switzerland, where he was eventually tried and convicted. Perhaps he can help.

    Michael Harrison's new book Mr Charming: The Life and Crimes of Felix Vossen is available for purchase now.

  • Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 by Colin Brown

    Elizabeth, 'Lady M', etching by Braun Clement after John Hoppner. (c. National Portrait Gallery, Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    Elizabeth Lamb was sexy, shrewd and presided over a salon for the fashionable Whig set for three decades but in writing her biography I found fresh evidence that Elizabeth Lamb, the Viscountess of Melbourne was as scheming and ruthless as Marquess de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

     She was almost proud of her reputation for intrigue. When she commissioned an artist to do a group portrait of herself and her two closest friends, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Anne Damer, a sculptor, she arranged it so they were portrayed as the three witches in Macbeth, casting spells on those around her. Not that she regarded herself as a wicked witch, but others did, and today she might be regarded as a monster who would do anything for her ambition to rise to the top of Georgian society.

    She lived by a rule that provided a woman had done her duty in producing an heir for her husband, she should be free to have as many lovers as she liked. Before the age of contraception this led to the birth of many illegitimate offspring but such were the different moral codes before the Victorians, a Georgian man invariably accepted his wife’s infidelities and her children as his own. Lady Melbourne had six surviving children but only the first, Peniston, was by her husband, Peniston Lamb. Her second son, William – who later became Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister – was almost certainly sired by George Wyndham, the third earl of Egremont, Elizabeth’s long-term lover who owned Petworth house in Sussex. Her fourth son, George, was widely assumed to be the result of Elizabeth’s brief sexual encounters with the young, plump Prince of Wales when she visited Eton to see Peniston.

    Elizabeth had been born Elizabeth Milbanke in 1751 in the Yorkshire Dales at Halnaby Hall – now only the stables survive – but she managed to rise from being a squire’s daughter to one of the leading ladies of Georgian society. Her marriage to Peniston was a marriage of convenience for both parties. He wanted the respectability of the Milbanke’s. She wanted Peniston’s fortune – he had inherited £1 million from his father, with two country houses, Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, and Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, with a comfortable house in Sackville Street, just off Piccadilly.

    Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire - Elizabeth took a keen interest in agriculture. (Author's collection, Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    She discovered soon after she had married Peniston while she was pregnant with his son that her husband had taken up with a celebrated courtesan called Sophia Baddeley, whose friend humiliated Elizabeth by writing her kiss and tell memoirs which claimed Peniston had promised Sophia lavish sums of money providing she would only have sex with him. Elizabeth had her revenge by having a string of lovers and spending Peniston’s fortune firstly on a splendid London house – now converted into flats called the Albany, still one of the most prestigious addresses in Piccadilly.

    Georgiana came under Lady Melbourne’s spell, which infuriated Georgiana’s mother, Lady Spencer who repeatedly ordered her daughter to break off her friendship with Lady Melbourne, to no avail. It was almost as though Georgiana was afraid of Lady Melbourne and wrote many letters (now in Lamb archive at the British Library) pleading with Lady Melbourne not to be angry with her. Lady Mary Coke complained the Duchess ‘cannot walk into a room; she must come in with a hop and a jump’. I found that was not Elizabeth’s style. Where the Duchess was gushing and gauche, Elizabeth was calculating, scheming, politically shrewd. Her advice was to prove disastrous for her intimate friend Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, (1757-1806), however.

    Georgiana spent years trying to produce an heir for the Duke and when she did, she then took Lady Melbourne’s lead by taking a couple of lovers. However, where Lady Melbourne insisted on absolute secrecy about her affairs, Georgiana fell pregnant to a rising Whig politician, Charles Grey and she was quickly confronted by the Duke who insisted on her having the child in exile in France to limit the scandal – and the potential problems of inheritance. Unlike Lady Melbourne, she was forced to give up the child, a girl, who was brought up in the country by Grey’s parents.

    York House, Whitehall, as it looked when it was exchanged by the Duke of York with the Melbournes. (Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    Elizabeth’s intrigues reached a climax in her middle age when the poet Lord Byron literally stumbled into their lives. The Melbourne’s had done a house swop with the Duke of York and moved from Piccadilly to the Duke’s house in Whitehall, now Dover House, the Scotland Office, jammed between Horse Guards and the Cabinet Office. William Lamb’s wife, Caroline Lamb, was holding dancing parties and had invited the young poet who had burst onto the scene like a pop star with his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage. He had one leg shorter than the other, and tripped on the staircase at Melbourne House. He commented to a friend: ‘It is a bad omen’. He was right. Caroline fell head over heels in love with the dashing poet and for a hot summer in 1812 they became passionate lovers. Caroline’s ‘crime’ in Lady Melbourne’s eyes was not that she had cuckolded her son; it was that she conducted her affair in public. After an earlier affair, she wrote an excoriating letter to her daughter-in-law saying: ‘When one braves the opinion of the World sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it.’

    Lady Caroline Lamb today would be regarded as a wild child, a celebrity starlet, the darling of the gossip columns. Byron tired of Caroline’s attentions – she dressed up as a page to get into his rooms and slashed her wrists at a ball – and tried to drop her. Astonishingly, her mother-in-law set about helping Byron to extricate himself from Caroline’s desperate clutches. And she did so by helping to engineer a marriage between Byron and her niece, Annabella Milbanke. The marriage was a disaster but I found evidence that Lady Melbourne was keen to promote it – even after she discovered that Byron had had an affair with his half-sister, and had a child with her. Byron and Lady Melbourne exchanged rings and letters like lovers. There were claims that she had become Byron’s lover. She was sixty one and he was twenty four. It may seem unlikely but she was such an extraordinary woman, no-one would say it never happened.

    Colin Brown's new book Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 is available for purchase now.

  • Stack Stevens: Cornwall's Rugby Legend by Steve Tomlin

    As the stories emerge of Britain’s medal-winning heroes and heroines returning from the Rio Olympics a common theme has been the self-sacrifice, weary of hours of travel, grinding training routines yet that they still emerged retaining an engaging joy in their chosen sport, modesty and sportsmanship.

    stack-stevens-1 Lineout at Coventry. Alvin Williams jumps for the ball with Stack and Bonzo Johns behind him eager to help (Stack Stevens, Amberley Publishing)

    Forty years ago life was very much tougher still. Rugby Union in England was then a totally amateur sport even at the very highest level and was characterised by public and grammar school young men who were at (or had been to) an Oxbridge college, training in a London medical school or serving as young officers in the Armed Forces. The top clubs carried all the kudos and were generally centred around London and the Midlands with a few outposts like Bristol and Leeds. England teams consisted almost entirely from that somewhat narrow pool of talent.

    Brian ‘Stack’ Stevens left school just after his fifteenth birthday to work seventy hours a week on his father’s farm which was situated in a remote village in the far Southwest tip of the country in West Cornwall just a few miles from Land’s End. His village school had played no real organised sport let alone rugby and he was sixteen before he was introduced to his first game for his local Young Farmers Club.

    stack-stevens-2 Meeting the Queen before England play a President's XV at Twickenham, 1971 (Stack Stevens, Amberley Publishing)

    Cornwall has frequently been described as a ‘hotbed of rugby’ and certainly the local towns and villages always followed the game keenly especially when the Cornwall team took the field in the County Championship and this was the only tiny crack in the door when an England selector might just take some notice. Furthermore, living in the far-flung locality of Penzance in the depths of winter - long before the motorway system had been completed - was a massive challenge just to get the chance of playing at the top level. On many occasions he would hitch a ride through the night to a senior match or a squad training session on a broccoli lorry heading for Covent Garden.

    His story is how he overcame all this, often in the face of a dominant father who wanted him on the farm 24/7 to finally emerge as one of the leading lights of the England team. Moreover, this team was one which defeated South Africa and New Zealand on their own home soil for the very first time in history and indeed he scored one of the tries in the triumph over the All Blacks in their own back yard. He held his place for five years, was called out to New Zealand to join the 1971 British Lions in what is still their only series victory in that rugby-crazy country and then had to refuse a second Lions tour three years later due to his crushing farming commitments.

    stack-stevens-3 Going over for a historic try in Auckland with Ian Hurst (13) and Sid Going (9) unable to do a thing about it (Stack Stevens, Amberley Publishing)

    This book covers all the twists and turns, highs and lows, triumphs and setbacks of a remarkable rugby player which took place in the face of anti-apartheid demonstrations, IRA death threats and a near miss from being involved in a major fatal air crash. Above all this was achieved with an irrepressible sense of fun and enjoyment of the game for its own sake. Thus the book is littered with dozens of hilarious anecdotes from an age in rugby which has probably now gone for ever.

    His courage is now being put to the test even more in recent years by his contracting a debilitating neurological condition which has made normal speech impossible. Hence this book has been written largely through the eyes of his contemporaries many of whom were the very top rugby stars of that era who not only admired him as a rugby player but clearly loved him as a person.

    His was one hell of a journey!

    9781445652917

    Steve Tomlin's new book Stack Stevens; Cornwall's Rugby Legend is available for purchase now.

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