Taste in physical beauty evidently changes over time. Oscar Wilde rhapsodized about his lover Lord Alfred Douglas’s “slim gilt soul”, cried out for “those red rose-leaf lips of yours” and said he was “gold-haired like an angel”. Yet in photographs Bosie rather resembles Stan Laurel or Alec Guinness in a character role. It is the brilliance of this biography to view Bosie’s “tragic life” through a comic prism — he was in Douglas Murray’s words such a “terrible, partially deranged, infuriating person”, the only possible attitude left is laughter.
Bosie’s family, who held the title of the Marquess of Queensberry, for a start, were cartoonish in their grotesquerie. The Douglases were mad, and flying into “fits of rage, gibbering and snarling” was an inherited trait. Cannibalism (one ancestor in 1707 impaled a cook’s boy on a spit and roasted him), dramatic shooting accidents, suicides, explosions and mountaineering mishaps beset the clan. Incest was not unknown. Bosie’s uncle was “deeply attached to his twin sister” and was heartbroken when she married Sir Alexander Beaumont Churchill Dixie, known as Sir ABCD. He drank himself into a deep depression. One of Bosie’s aunts kept a pet jaguar, obtained in Patagonia, which annoyed Queen Victoria by killing deer in Windsor Great Park.
Oscar Wilde rhapsodized about Lord Alfred Douglas’s “red rose-leaf lips.” Yet in photographs Bosie rather resembles Stan Laurel or Alec Guinness in a character role.
Bosie’s father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, despite a mystifying “genital malformation”, was fanatical about the hunting field, spending no time with his wife or children. It was Bosie’s mother who mollycoddled Lord Alfred, born in 1870. It is she who may be blamed for spoiling him, for coining his nickname and for ensuring that, as Murray puts it, he “remained at heart a little boy until his death” — a malignant Peter Pan whose chief mode of communication was the tantrum.
Bosie survived Winchester College, where homosexual activity was rampant, by making good use of his “sensual lips” and fluttering his “bright blue eyes”. In 1889 he proceeded to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he did no work and failed to graduate, despite, Murray says, “setting himself up as the most renowned homosexual in the university”. Competition would have been stiff.
Call of the Wilde
In 1891 he met Wilde, aged 37 at the time, in Chelsea. Wilde was large, bloated and coarse-featured; one society hostess referred to him as “the great white caterpillar”. It took six months before Bosie gave in to his advances. As Bosie later said: “I did with him and allowed him to do just what was done among boys at Winchester and Oxford.”
Despite his being aimless and impulsive, Bosie nevertheless had ambitions to be a poet, and these Wilde encouraged, becoming his patron in effect and allowing the young sonneteer to believe that he was the equal of Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley. In fact, Bosie’s verses, although Murray seems fond of them, are truly ghastly. They are too fruity and bejeweled and archly poetical — sonnets are full of archaic diction such as methought, aught and com’st. The lines are freely sprinkled with thees and thous. It’s all moonbeams and swooning (“Ah! cruel world and drear!”) and a cover for erotic adventure.
A malignant Peter Pan whose chief mode of communication was the tantrum.
Wilde’s wife, Constance, indeed, thought the men’s attachment was rooted in their common love of the arts, but Bosie’s father wasn’t as credulous. The marquess, wise to an approaching scandal, saw something “loathsome and disgusting” — he used these words in a letter to his son — in their mincing about holding lilies. Father and son engaged in a war by letter and telegram, each questioning the other’s sanity and morality. “You impertinent young jackanapes … I will give you the thrashing you deserve,” one paternal epistle reads.
In 1895 Queensberry left a calling card for Wilde at the Albemarle Club on which he had scribbled the taunting and ill-spelled phrase “posing somdomite”. Wilde foolishly began legal proceedings, assuring his barrister, Edward Clarke, that the accusation was “absolutely false and groundless”. The first trial, with the marquess in the dock, began on April 3, 1895 at the Old Bailey. After three days, such was the mucky evidence gathered by the defense, the action was withdrawn. “When I saw Mr Wilde,” Clarke said, “I told him that it was almost impossible in view of all the circumstances to induce a jury to convict of a criminal offence a father who was endeavouring to save his son from what he believed to be an evil companionship.”
As this all suggested the truth of Queensberry’s libel, Wilde was arrested and tried for homosexuality — or “the love that dare not speak its name”, as Bosie called it in one of his poems. The jury was unable to reach a verdict, so there was a retrial three weeks later. This time Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Bosie was desperate to go into the witness box, but the lawyers wouldn’t permit this because he’d only have incriminated himself and made everything worse.
It remains astounding that Bosie was not arrested or punished for his own “gross indecency” with 14-year-old rent boys, but what comes across powerfully here is the way Wilde was simply the battleground, or pretext, as “father and son waged continual war on each other”. They carried loaded guns, issued old-fashioned curses and wished “a speedy death and eternal damnation” on each other. Nevertheless, when Queensberry died in 1900 he left Bosie $19,800 (more than $2.5 million today), which he lost within 18 months at the racecourse at Chantilly.
In 1895 Queensberry left a calling card for Wilde at the Albemarle Club on which he had scribbled the taunting and ill-spelled phrase “posing somdomite.”
Once Wilde had been sentenced, Bosie fled to the Continent, where he remained for three and a half years. “The imprisonment of Oscar Wilde is a shame and an outrage to civilisation,” he declared from a safe distance. That changed when he heard about the contents of De Profundis, where Wilde, from his cell, reflected at length on the nature of their tortuous relationship and on Bosie’s capacity for hate. It was published in 1905, five years after Wilde’s death. Now Bosie decided he wanted to break from his past and he henceforward would lie about his relationship with Wilde, denying any improprieties.
In 1911 Bosie converted to Catholicism and became vehemently moralistic. Paradoxically, the person he started to resemble was his own bigoted father as he started threatening to horsewhip Wilde’s old friends, like Robbie Ross, for being sodomites. As Murray discloses, Bosie now “felt anger, bitterness and hatred” about every aspect of Wilde, whom he declared was “the greatest force of evil that has appeared in Europe” since the Reformation. “He was the agent of the devil in every possible way.”
As a crusader, “quarrelsome snob” and a man who earned himself a reputation for vindictiveness, Bosie had at last found his niche as a vexatious litigant. Whenever his name was mentioned in print in connection with Wilde, or if anyone impugned his poems, people would receive a letter saying: “I call upon you to withdraw and apologise or send me the name of your solicitors.”
In 1911 Bosie converted to Catholicism and became vehemently moralistic. Paradoxically, the person he started to resemble was his own bigoted father.
Bosie was permanently in court, his existence a flurry of writs. “He picked senseless quarrels,” Murray says. He met his match with Winston Churchill, however. Somewhere along the line Bosie had become editor of a magazine where he baited the Jews as “the leprous spawn of Israel”. As part of his antisemitic campaign, he said that “with the help of high-profile Jews” Churchill had conspired to murder Lord Kitchener by planting a bomb on his yacht.
For that criminal libel, Bosie was taken to Wormwood Scrubs in 1923, where he sewed mail bags for six months. Murray says in prison Bosie finally learned “charity and humility”, but I doubt it. Everything had always gone farcically wrong and continued to do so. In 1902, for example, he had married Olive Custance, who had lesbian leanings. Now she left him, taking the furniture with her. Letters that used to begin “My darling little girl” were addressed instead to “You miserable woman”. They nevertheless had a son, Raymond, who was “highly strung” and married a greengrocer’s daughter before ending up in an asylum receiving electric shocks.
Bosie, a bankrupt still living off an allowance from his mother and no longer renowned for his “sugar lips”, spent his last years “a podgy, alcoholic blob” (according to one visitor), residing in a basement flat in Hove, where he had visits from Donald Sinden and John Betjeman, the latter a connoisseur of eccentric Victoriana.
Bosie was first published in 2000 — Murray, now better known as a conservative commentator, wrote it in his gap year before going up to Oxford — and has been reissued for the 150th anniversary of Douglas’s birth. It is a superb biography, calling out for film treatment, full of perception and compassion. Bosie, who died in 1945 and lies in an unvisited grave in Crawley, West Sussex, was always furious that he would “go down to posterity as an appendage of the Wilde affair”, but, honestly, what else did he expect? —Roger Lewis
There has been no shortage of recent books chronicling the explosion of global financial crime that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kleptopia is an unusual addition to the genre. Although a meticulously reported piece of investigative journalism, it is written in the style of a fast-paced thriller. The action shifts from Kazakhstan to Moscow to London and New York, via Congo and Zimbabwe. The cast includes Russian mafia bosses, Kazakh oligarchs, African dictators, British lawyers and even a dodgy American property developer called Donald Trump. It is a page-turner that lifts the lid on the murky world in which power is turned into money and money into power.
Tom Burgis, a Financial Times reporter, unravels three interlocking stories. The first is, in Burgis’s telling, the squalid history of the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), a Kazakhstan-based mining company controlled by three billionaires that was briefly listed on the London Stock Exchange. The second is the Kazakh government’s pursuit of Mukhtar Ablyazov, the one-time billionaire founder of BTA Bank who fled the country in 2009 rather than hand control of it to the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Finally there is Nigel Wilkins, a stubbornly principled compliance officer in the London office of BSI, a Swiss private bank, who tried to alert regulators to its role in hiding dirty money.
Not Just Borat
Kleptopia is at its best when telling the story of ENRC, a business that on this evidence should not have been allowed anywhere near the London Stock Exchange. Indeed the stock exchange had to bend its rules to let it in, not least because its three owners, known as “the trio”, were at the time under investigation for money laundering in Belgium in a case that was ultimately settled without any finding or admission of guilt.
Shortly after its 2007 listing a whistleblower alleged fraud at one of its Kazakh mines, triggering a formal internal investigation by London lawyers. They found evidence that pointed to vast sums being siphoned off from the Kazakh operations, and uncovered even more disturbing evidence of possible fraud at mines it owned in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
When the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) launched a formal criminal investigation in 2013 the trio took the company private again, buying back the listed shares for about half their initial value as rumors of fraud engulfed the company. Yet the SFO’s attempts to uncover the trail of cash have been hampered by the deaths of key witnesses. The SFO’s lead investigator asked to be dropped from the case after falling seriously ill, convinced that he had been poisoned. Seven years after the SFO opened its investigation, no one has been charged. Meanwhile, ENRC has launched its own claim against the SFO, alleging it had colluded in a plot against the trio.
Although a meticulously reported piece of investigative journalism, it is written in the style of a fast-paced thriller lifting the lid on the murky world in which power is turned into money and money into power.
The tale of the Kazakh government’s pursuit of Ablyazov is less convincing, not least because Ablyazov is hardly a sympathetic character. In Burgis’s telling he is a political refugee, forced to flee a corrupt dictatorship that has subsequently pursued him through the British courts with accusations of embezzlement. Yet the British courts have consistently ruled against Ablyazov and he subsequently fled Britain in 2012 after being handed a 22-month prison sentence for contempt of court.
Nonetheless, Burgis shows the extraordinary lengths to which Nazarbayev was prepared to go to bring Ablyazov back to Kazakhstan. In 2013 his wife and daughter were allegedly kidnapped in Rome with the help of the Italian police. Burgis’s account of a massacre of Kazakh protesters in 2011 also leaves you in little doubt what fate lay ahead for Ablyazov had his extradition not been blocked by a French court.
What links these stories is the evidence that emerges from the files obtained by Wilkins. These appear to show who really controlled the fortunes hidden in anonymous front companies registered in exotic locations that BSI specialized in setting up for its customers. Inevitably many of those customers turned out to have links to Nazarbayev and the trio. BSI was finally closed down by Swiss regulators in 2017, after being caught in numerous scandals. Yet not only did the British authorities apparently sit on Wilkins’s evidence for the best part of a decade, when he reminded them of it years later after he had taken a job at the Financial Conduct Authority, his new bosses sacked him.
The cast includes Kazakh oligarchs, African dictators, British lawyers and even a dodgy American property developer called Donald Trump.
Sadly, Burgis doesn’t get to the bottom of why Wilkins’s information was never acted on. Nor do we get a satisfactory explanation as to why the SFO has yet to reach a decision on prosecution in the ENRC case, or why so much global financial crime appears to take place in London.
But the book does provide some clues. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the real villains are the ranks of City professionals who make their living laundering the kleptocrats’ money and reputations. The Kazakh government, for example, spent $500 million on advisers, lawyers and PR people for its pursuit of Ablyazov.
Britain’s bureaucrats are no match for this kind of firepower. At best, they suffered from what Burgis calls a “presumption of legitimacy”, a naive belief that since legitimacy resides in nation states, whatever a nation state wants must be legitimate. At worst, regulators turned a blind eye as the profits from the London launderette sluiced through the City and filled the Treasury’s coffers.
More recently British governments have started to fight back with unexplained-wealth orders, Magnitsky powers and a new National Crime Agency. Yet it is hard when reading this gripping account of events not to conclude that it is already too late. Kleptopia is not a faraway republic in Central Asia; it is all around us. —Simon Nixon