I don’t want to overstate the similarities between Ghislaine Maxwell and Boris Johnson, but that they exist struck me when our friend Lindsay Nicholson, with whom we spent the New Year holiday in Scotland, asked: “How on earth could she be so stupid as to get caught up in it all? She has an Oxford degree for heaven’s sake!”
Indeed she does, from Balliol, the same college where Johnson got his. But with the father she had, the upbringing, education and lifestyle she had, she also grew up with an enormous sense of entitlement, as did Johnson, and a belief that, provided you have money, connections, charm and a brass neck, you can pretty much get away with anything.
What you might call the Johnson doctrine.
Robert Maxwell came to a very sticky end. So, now, has Ghislaine.
Oh OK, come to think of it, maybe I do want to overstate the similarities between her and Johnson. Certainly, if the punishment is to match the damage he is inflicting on the country, it has to be severe.
Ghislaine Maxwell was central to what was, without doubt, the most bizarre journalistic assignment of my time with the Mirror Group. To this day, I am not entirely sure why our then owner, her father Robert Maxwell, asked me – OK, ordered me – to travel to Paris with the remains of an Argentinian political and military leader, Juan Manuel de Rosas, who had died in Hampshire in 1877.
Like I say … bizarre. And, hold on, it gets weirder.
Maxwell, who had megalomaniac tendencies not uncommon in media owners, seemed to think that the repatriation of the remains to Buenos Aires via Argentina’s ambassador in Paris, a descendant of de Rosas, would lead to the rebuilding of Anglo-Argentinian relations damaged by the Falklands War. He wanted the story of my mission to be on the front page of the Sunday Mirror the next day.
When we talked him out of that, he insisted on a double-page spread. Eventually, we talked him into accepting a single page, deep inside the paper. Readers will surely have been baffled in the extreme by the whole story. I certainly was, and I wrote the damned thing.
But weirder still was that Maxwell had insisted on Ghislaine, then in her twenties, travelling with me. So we collected the remains, hopped on a plane to France, met up with the ambassador at his embassy, handed over our strange shipment, posed for pictures, then I filed my ’story,’ editor Bill Hagerty asking me, not unreasonably, “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?”
With a few hours to kill before the flight home, Ghislaine told me the best lingerie shops in the world are in Paris, and she wanted to visit some of them. So we did.
I remember her holding a purple bra across her (clothed) chest, and asking if I thought it would suit her. Partly because it did, and partly no doubt because she was the boss’s daughter, I said yes.
It was, all in all, a very odd day, but there were plenty of those in the Maxwell era. If you had asked me for an assessment of Ghislaine, based on that day trip, I would have said … fun, flirty, quite clever, obsessed with her dad, and having his affection ahead of her siblings (objective secured – even the yacht on which he met his end was named after her.)
Would I for one second have envisaged that she would end her days in an American jail after being found guilty of grooming and trafficking girls for another rich businessman at the centre of his own universe, namely Jeffrey Epstein? No.
Then again, would I have thought her dad would end up plundering our pensions? Probably not. But he did.
There was a lot of talk in the wake of her conviction that it was in part the administering of justice on Epstein, whose suicide prevented him having to face it himself. But I wonder if it wasn’t also a judgment on Maxwell père.
The crimes were very much hers and Epstein’s. It is in no way to minimise – let alone forgive – them to suggest that Ghislaine is very much one of those children on whom the sins of a parent were perhaps inevitably visited from the day she was born, and he settled on her as the favourite.
So why, I am occasionally asked on social media, was my name in Jeffrey Epstein’s address book? Well, many years after the Paris bones and underwear tour, I was on a flight to New York for a funeral, Ghislaine was coincidentally on the same flight. I had nothing to do on the evening ahead of the funeral, and she suggested I meet up with her and her ’boyfriend’. So I did, at his luxury apartment, the one whose door Prince Andrew has made famous by being snapped at it as he said goodbye to a woman a lot younger than him, or indeed his daughters.
I neither saw nor heard anything to make me think Epstein was a paedophile. That being said, I was quite glad to get out of there. Opulence and ostentatious displays of wealth are not really my thing. Also, I found it a bit odd that Ghislaine, once she had introduced us, disappeared for a couple of hours.
My overriding memory though was Epstein’s Olympic gold medal performance in name-dropping. Whether in politics, business, media or the arts, anyone who was anybody, he would have a story, an anecdote, a recent encounter to relate.
It was the only time I met him, and looking at my entry in his black book, the only number he had for me was the Downing Street switchboard. Which probably means I left him my card, but didn’t add my mobile, as I tended to do if I actually wanted to keep in touch with someone.
I think as black book entries go, it is on the lighter end of the scale. There are others, I imagine, with more to worry about if Ghislaine tries to get her sentence cut in exchange for info provided.
The chants about Johnson at a Leeds United game, (unprintable even in this paper) and at the darts, plus the banners which have started to appear draped from motorway bridges, calling him a liar, are all signs that the country really is tiring of him.
But I wish people – e.g. the one who unveiled a banner on the M25 – would stop portraying him as a clown.
It is a sign of how unfunny he has become that two comic geniuses, Billy Connolly and Ricky Gervais, both got serious over the holiday period.
Connolly said it was time we stopped listening to ’silly posh people’ in general, and Johnson in particular. Gervais asked a brilliant question …
“When are we going to realise that the words ’went to Eton’ are not a qualification for anything, let alone running the country?”
The long drive to the Scottish Highlands was made more bearable by listening to the Reith Lectures, delivered this year by artificial intelligence expert Professor Stuart Russell. I enjoyed listening to an expert on a subject about which I know I ought to know more.
I felt that by the end of the four hours, I did indeed know a lot more, but I’m not sure I understood all that much better where it is heading, let alone how it works.
A cryptic clue to finish … Gilded rot helps flat refurb clean-up (4,5)
Happy New Year.