THE KNIFE MEETS THE WHETSTONE
THE KNIFE MEETS THE WHETSTONE
15 Months with Peter Foster
IT HAS been said that Queensland's Gold Coast is the perfect place for an annual nervous breakdown.
The place is a strange amalgam of say, the Costa del Sol and Las Vegas, all strips of sand and garish electric light, of pot-bellied tourists and spectacular cosmetically-altered locals.
In the trendy suburb of Main Beach, for example, there is a 24-hour convenience store on one corner, and a plastic surgeon on the other. Even the local mobile phone transmitter tower has been fashioned into a fake palm tree.
The writer Frank Moorhouse said he visited Surfers Paradise to have his yearly breakdown. He would close the curtains and the view to the beach, and watch religious services on television until his anxieties were expunged. Then he'd fly back to Sydney, a new man.
It was in this landscape that notorious businessman Peter Foster suddenly reemerged in January 2003. He flew into his old home town like a disoriented bird fleeing the European winter, trailing television cameras and suntanned hacks with notebooks.
Exile is a curious thing. Sometimes you are condemned to reenter your own past. And here was Foster, back in his old stomping ground, dressed very much for a catwalk unknown in these parts, the suede shirts and jeans almost suicidal at the height of an Australian summer.
This was, of course, just after the so-called "Cheriegate" scandal. He had been forced to leave behind not only his thongs and shorts, but his lover Carole Caplin.
If it had been anyone but Foster, this may have been a terrifically tragic love story. The couple torn asunder, forced apart by unknown political forces. The anguished phone calls and declarations of fidelity across 10,000kms of ocean.
The locals naturally loved it. Their infamous son had returned. It was here he went to school. Was an entrepreneur before most of his contemporaries were old enough to drive. Ran nightclubs and squired exotic women. Had money to burn. They called him the Kid Tycoon.
In that first week of his exile, he dined at a respectable seafood and steak restaurant in Main Beach called Shuck, occupying daily the same table in the front section of the house, under white winged sail roofing and the shade of poinciana trees.
He never finished a meal uninterrupted. The locals sought his autograph, leaning over the railing of the restaurant with business cards and slips of paper for him to sign. They slapped him on the back and welcomed him home. "Good on you," they said. "We're behind you." A time-honored Australian compliment - namely, that he was sticking it up the "Poms".
I had gone to school with Foster at nearby Aquinas College in Southport in the late 1970s. He was, I recall, intelligent and affable, yet intrinsically shy. That shyness seemed to translate into a sort of world-weariness, way out of synchronicity with his actual age, so he occupied that middle ground amongst his peers. Not overly popular, but not ignored.
It was difficult to ignore him. At about 15 he arrived at class with assorted briefcases that contained watches and shark-tooth and pig-tusk necklaces for sale. It was rumored (and later proven correct) that he leased a string of pinball machines to high-rise apartment buildings in Surfers Paradise. The pocket money of kids his age ended up, well, in his pocket.
So post-Cheriegate, I contacted him and we met. I had seen him once in the 25 years since he had left school during the middle of his second last year to pursue his business interests. It was a brief encounter, by a pool in Fiji, a place where he may have settled for life if he had not dabbled in local politics, and been asked to leave.
Inviting me to luncheon at his favourite table at Shuck, we reminisced about old school colleagues. He is a man attached to his past, and at times sentimentally so, and has an almost photographic memory for times, faces and places.
During that first luncheon I admired his shirt and said so. It was pale blue, long-sleeved, and of quality material and cut. He found the compliment amusing. He said it was one of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's cast offs. An item chosen for Blair by Foster's girlfriend, Carole Caplin, and later rejected by the PM.
I thought he was joking. But he said it was true, poked a foot out the side of the table, and pointed to a foot shod with a very fashionable pair of brown loafers. Also the PM's leftovers.
It seemed bizarre to be enjoying grilled barramundi opposite someone attired in summerwear destined for one of the most powerful men in the world. But nothing about Foster and his entanglement with the British establishment, or indeed his life, proved surprising over the next 15 months. Especially on the Gold Coast, where you could enjoy an annual nervous breakdown one minute, and swim with a dolphin at Sea World the next.
In those early months we met weekly. Sometimes we'd go to Tooley's bar at Main Beach. Ten minutes after ordering a beer, his mobile would ring. "It's Carole," he'd say, raising his eyes. Then he'd be gone. For five minutes. Or two hours. Sometimes in the quiet alley behind the bar. Or you'd see him pacing the street, the phone to his ear.
On some evenings Caplin would ring ten, fifteen, twenty times. He would always politely excuse himself, and return elated, or depressed, or riddled with anxiety. Carole doesn't want me to drink. Carole wants to know who I'm having dinner with. Carole this. Carole that.
On two occasions I had to verify to her on the phone that I was, indeed, a male, and that there were no females present in our party, and that no, Peter had not drunk too much. She phoned from London as if she were living around the corner.
"Women," he'd say, exasperated.
It made for interesting conversation, especially when he was wearing ex-Blair attire. It was peculiar and thrilling to hear him relay Caplin's latest anxieties about herself, about Cherie, about Tony.
In his initial exile, whilst bitter about being booted out of the UK and separated from his beloved, it was Caplin that kept him even of temperament and even hopeful about a future.
He almost seemed to enjoy her incessant calls, inquiring about whether he'd done his washing, or was eating healthily, or was getting enough sleep. The whole bizarre arrangement kept him buoyant. And out of mischief. The more he was pinned to his mobile, and Caplin, and the façade of a relationship with all its minutiae conducted halfway around the world, the less he thought about the Blairs. He often expressed incredulity at how he'd got involved with the whole "nutty" crew, and the thought ended there, with raised hands and the fading of a laugh.
Throughout the year he attempted a fitness regime. He employed a personal trainer and spent agonising hours on the beach shedding his European winter physique. He went for long walks on the sand. Strangers would say gidday and shake his hand. Good to have you back. Good on you, Peter.
Invariably he would end up lunching or dining in the evening at Shuck, or "the office" as he called it. There his favourite table became something of a tiny stage for locals and visiting celebrities, kept open for him by restaurant owner Scott Budgen. The patronage swelled. They waited for Peter Foster.
At another of our fine meals he lamented the timing of his expulsion from the UK. He was set to spend a weekend at Chequers when it all began to go sour. For a boy born in the sugar cane town of Innisfail in Northern Queensland, it must have seemed like arriving at the gates of some Xanadu.
He had experienced a few personal Xanadus before. Extreme wealth in his early twenties and later in his thirties. Private helicopters. Race horses. Mansions.
Yet you get a feeling about him that it's not the personal possessions he craves, but what they give you. They give you power. Or the appearance of power. And he is, self-admittedly, a person with a total addiction to power.
He said this often. He liked it, and he liked being around it. He admitted he made the deal to help Cherie Blair purchase two flats because he wanted to impress Carole Caplin. He wanted to impress the Blairs with his business prowess. But his past intruded, as it has for much of his adult life. We would joke about this past, as if it were a battered and very unfashionable caravan that he towed around with him through life.
And he would vanish from a bar, or a restaurant table, because Carole was on the phone. Once, they hatched a plan for a secret holiday in Tahiti. The negotiations went on for days.
On another occasion she was coming out to Australia. There was great debate about how she could slip into the country unnoticed by the press.
At home, in the borrowed apartment of a friend at first, and later in a resplendent house on a canal at Paradise Waters, he would constantly trawl the internet for news of Caplin and of the Blairs, and often would not sleep all night, as if his body still operated on a London clock.
He had other interests, of course. He remained fascinated with American politics, like his mother Louise Foster-Poletti, and had the latest biographies and works of political analysis air freighted to his door by Amazon.com.
When Louise returned to the Gold Coast also, along with sister Jill and niece Arabella, he did what he has always done as the male in this close-knit, part-Italian family - he set up home for all of them. It was simply what the Foster clan did. They lived together. They moved around the world together.
One day recently, sitting on the back balcony overlooking the canal, Louis told me of her fascinating family history - a colorful melange of migrants and cane fields, business deals and Hollywood starlets - and physically winced at the thought of her son's incarceration over slimming products and fraudulent business practices.
"I introduced him to that tea, when we were in Los Angeles," she said with obvious regret. Again, the tatty caravan.
After a few months of being back in Australia, the calls from Caplin became even more frenzied. At "the office", a woman had recognised Foster's face from the television, and a brief affair ensued. It ended acrimoniously, having been exposed on the front page of a local paper.
There was a confrontation at "the office", when it was revealed the woman was not who she made herself out to be - indeed, that she may have been someone of ill-repute - and the locals ogled. It was real-life soap.
Within hours of the break-up she tried to sell her story to a British tabloid. It was something he seemed wearily familiar with.
For a man of such obvious intelligence, it was fascinating to watch him in the presence of women. They could intoxicate him, and sometimes befuddle him. Such was Caplin's powerful and peculiar hold. They gave him an almost boyish delight, and would animate his whole being. He was completely charming, and made them the centre of the universe. They were, quite simply, more interesting to him than men.
And yet the deception of the Italian model who recognised him on television, who later turned out to be a local stripper of Romanian descent, had completely passed him by. He later watered down the faux pas. "I've been done like a kipper by a stripper," he quipped.
And still Caplin's calls would make him fret and turn to rueful self-examination.
Then, at some point here, the vial cracked.
He would tell of Caplin's obsession with Blair. Of photographs of the PM on her bedroom walls and one, framed, on her bedside table. He said I had to understand that Cherie was, in essence, the smart but daggy kid in the class, someone who had always yearned after the attentions of the attractive and cool girls. Caplin was the groovy girlfriend she could never have when she wasn't the PM's wife.
He spoke of talking to Blair on several occasions - something the PM has denied - and of the chummy relationship he struck up with Cherie Blair.
He recounted peculiar hand gestures of the Prime Minister, and an astounding example of childish language when it came to matters of personal hygiene, either passed onto him by Caplin or on one occasion witnessed first hand. These were great stories over a bottle of wine, and he is a great raconteur.
And he howled with amusement when he read that Caplin had been employed as a lifestyle columnist for a British newspaper, and the slow but steady rise of her own celebrity status.
It was partially a resentment, I gathered, from being shut out of the playpen. He had been deported and cut off swiftly from his life in London and Dublin. Caplin had peppered him with loving calls for months, giving him an illusion of a life still lived. And then it went cold.
At his table in Shuck he began talking about writing his own version of events. He was getting depressed. He had an expensive exercise bike at home in Paradise Waters that he had not even plugged in. He was tired of doing nothing.
One day Daily Mail journalist Richard Shears arrived at the table in "the office". He was affable and interesting and Foster indicated to me in confidence that Shears was writing his biography.
Foster himself had already written extensively about his own life. Firstly, in a huge manuscript penned whilst he was on remand in a Brisbane correctional facility, titled Seduction and Sales: Stratagems of a Conman. I had read it. It was a sales manual filled with nuggets of autobiography. And another - Eat Your Peas, Peter: A Memoir, a slender though nicely written 91-pages of autobiography.
Shears was with Foster, periodically, for months. He even lived with Foster for several weeks as they went through a storage unit full of personal papers, records, photographs and other effluvia from a dramatic life. I never throw anything away, Foster told me. Just in case.
And still he would reemerge at night, for a few glasses of white wine, or a quick meal, to ease the tension of the work. Or you'd see him driving through town in his black Nissan Z convertible.
Sometimes he would ring, and offer his analysis on Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq, or on the Hutton inquiry. He rarely, if ever, mentioned Caplin in the past few months.
One thing that gained more prominence in our weekly conversations, surprisingly, was his growing faith. He regularly attended mass at his local Catholic Church. Sometimes on a daily basis. He said he looked for good second-hand books for me at the church jumble sales.
He permanently wore a cross on a chain around his neck - a gift from a nun during his time incarcerated in Brisbane.
In exile you can also stumble across characters from your past, and there were several occasions that he had to walk across the other side of the Village Green that is the Gold Coast.
As the work on his life drew to a close he quietly expressed concerns about his and his family's safety. Yet he still chose to meet at his very public table at Shuck. And savor the crab lasagne, a specialty of the house.
"What are we doing here?" he often asked.
He missed Europe. Especially Paris. But it seemed to me a much broader malaise. For he is one of those people who is convinced that life is always going on elsewhere. When he arrived at where he thought life was, it had always inexplicably slipped out of town the night before, and was now somewhere else.
He cared enormously about his reputation, and we discussed it often. In a pure sense, he has extraordinary business, managerial and sales abilities. Yet how to apply it now, with the caboose of the reputation always not far behind?
He agonised over this. As if, after turning 40, there was a chance for him to do something "meaningful" with his life. To come out the other side of 40, and start afresh will all the knowledge he had accumulated, and the mistakes he had made. He had spoken with modesty about his acts of philanthropy that have remain unreported. He proved, often, to have a generous nature with no expectations of reciprocated thanks or favour.
As recent as last week, however, he remained depressed by various turns of events, especially the contract over his life story and the uncertainty of it ever surfacing in public.
In a way, the telling of the life seemed to have exhausted him, and yet had become the only thing in his actual life.
When he gave an interview to an Australian newspaper last week about the alleged relationship between Blair and Caplin - a story that detonated around the world - it seemed a natural culmination of the past few months of Foster's life. As if the autobiography he had set in train with Shears had a natural destiny. Having built up such momentum, it was going to crash through any barricades, contractual or otherwise, and be told.
Now that it's out there, he seems more energized. In some strange way, the repercussions, the drama, the accusations and slurs, have given him definition again. Just as he started to fade from view in the heat mirage that is the Gold Coast, all this has brought him back into focus. Certainly for the British public. But more interestingly, for Foster himself.
The knife had again met the whetstone.
"If they find my body in the canal," he told me,"tell them, as a friend, that I was never interested in night snorkeling."
© Matt Condon 2004