|Publisher:||Blake, John Publishing, Limited|
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Van Hoogstraten Blood & Retribution
By Don Jordan, Mike Walsh
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2004 Don Jordan and Mike Walsh
All rights reserved.
In the mid-1950s the husband of a teacher at a Roman Catholic school in Shoreham-by-Sea developed a fatal cancer. Somehow one of the pupils learned about the illness and took to going to the dying man's house to read to him every night. The pupil was Nicholas van Hoogstraten. It is one of the few favourable anecdotes about Van Hoogstraten, man or boy, that people tell. Van Hoogstraten, or Mr H as his henchmen call him, has spent a lifetime embroidering the evil that he's done. If there is a good side to him he has gone out of his way to bury it.
His reward is a reputation for arrogance, ruthlessness and brutal violence. It is a reputation that for decades intimidated almost everyone who got in his way and helped make him one of the richest men in Britain. That same reputation was almost Nicolas van Hoogstraten's downfall. It was a crucial factor in persuading a jury to convict him of the killing of a business rival. Newspaper headline writers applauded when, in the autumn of 2002, van Hoogstraten was sentenced to ten years in jail and his career seemed to be over.
'On a scale of evil of one to ten, he scores at least eleven', pronounced the Daily Mail. The Evening Standard said that his life had been, 'dedicated to violence, fear, intimidation and hatred.'
Yet there are women who have loved Van Hoogstraten and still do. And there are one or two men who say they, too, love him.
What explains this man who made a vast fortune and in the process went persistently out of his way to make himself hated?
Part of it is that Nicholas van Hoogstraten is an actor and a fantasist. He has been making up things about himself – good and bad – all his life: his family was rich and built the Indian railways; his father was a shipping agent; he made his first fortune from a land deal in the Bahamas; he is a friend of pop stars and prime ministers; he is so dangerous that if you cross him you might find your balls chopped off.
Some of it appears to be utter fabrication, but, like all the best lies, some of it is true.
On 27 February 1945 the Second World War was coming to an end. That morning American tanks smashed across the River Ruhr to come within sight of the ancient Rhineland city of Cologne. That afternoon US Marines recaptured Manila from the Japanese. That night Berlin was blitzed by six hundred RAF Mosquito bombers. And, in the Sussex town of Shoreham-by-Sea, Nicholas van Hoogstraten was born.
The weather in Shoreham was calm and surprisingly warm for the time of year. Temperatures rose above fifty degrees Fahrenheit that day.
At the local Odeon they were showing I Love a Soldier, starring Charlie Chaplin's wife, Paulette Goddard. The Dome was showing I Walked with a Zombie. The Plaza had Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, with Ronald Colman.
On the BBC Home Service it was announced that HRH Princess Elizabeth had mumps.
The local paper, the Worthing Gazette, reported a High Court ruling that 'the omission of Mr before a gentleman's name in a newspaper report is not defamatory'.
Baby's Nicholas's birth was registered on 13 March. He was christened Nicholas Marcel Hoogstraten. He would add the 'van' twenty-two years later. The Hoogstraten family were from old Flemish stock and were wanderers. His grandfather settled in India, where his father Charles Marcel Joseph Hoogstraten was born. As a young man Charles made his home in Paris, working in the wine trade. He arrived in England on the outbreak of the Second World War and found a job in a munitions factory in Bognor. There he met a local girl, Edna Brookes, and married her. Then he joined the British army.
It is unlikely that Charles was there to see Edna give birth to little Nick. At the time he was a trooper with the Royal Armoured Corps, then battling its way through Holland for the final assault on Germany. In the midst of war a private soldier only qualified for compassionate leave to see someone at home being buried, not to see a baby being born.
When he came back from the war, Private Hoogstraten settled the family in Rustington, on the eastern edge of Littlehampton. A mile and a half from the sea, Rustington was described in post-war guidebooks as a 'pretty little village' that maintained a happy balance of old and new. Today it is another featureless suburb characterised by ugly concrete shops and street after street of semi- detached houses with narrow, forty-foot-long back gardens.
In the late 1930s the place had expanded rapidly to take families from Wales and the north of England. They had come south looking for jobs in nearby Southampton and Portsmouth. But with the outbreak of war this stretch of the Sussex coast was thought to be the place where the Germans might invade, and Rustington began to empty. The nightly Luftwaffe blitzing of the two nearby ports hastened the retreat. When the Hoogstratens came looking for a home in Rustington there were plenty to choose from.
The house that Charles and Edna picked was at the end of a cul-de-sac of tiny, pebble-dashed semis called Conbar Avenue. Today, through a collapsed back fence, you can see the window of young Nick's cramped bedroom at the rear of the house.
The bits and bobs about his childhood which Van Hoogstraten has let slip over the years suggest a violent, dominating father absent from home for long periods, a downtrodden, distant mother and an increasingly resentful child.
His father landed a job after the war as a senior wine steward for the Royal Mail shipping line. His ship was the SS Andes, the 'Queen of the South Seas' according to the brochures. She plied the Southampton – Buenos Aires route, which accounts for the long stretches Charles spent away from home. Thanks to the war, he can't have seen much of his son in the first six months of Nick's life, and his job on the Andes meant that he didn't see much more of him later either. The next-door neighbour, Louis Yaxley, believes that Charles's prolonged absences were disastrous for Nick, who eventually began to run out of control.
Nick disliked his father. In a 1998 interview, he said: 'I didn't get on with my father. He always saw me as a rival ...'
He liked his mother Edna even less. 'My mother was not nice to me. I never had any affection.' He viewed her 'as an object that I had inherited, someone to do the work. My father treated her like that and I'm the same.' Almost up to her death he would refer to his mother as a 'whining cow'.
Two other children were born to the Hoogstratens, both girls and younger than Nick. They were called Betty and Rita. Neither of them figures in anything Van Hoogstraten has said publicly about his childhood. But one in particular is close to him and later featured as a director of one of his companies. Neither sister ever talks about him.
Snobbishness, jingoism and Roman Catholicism would seem to have marked the Hoogstraten household and Nick especially.
His mother once told him to walk the long way to school to avoid passing through a council estate. He didn't question the instruction. 'She was right,' he recalled. 'They were dirty kids who smelled bad.' He retained a disdain for the British working classes and would grow to hate Labour Party politicians and the trade unions associated with them.
The British royal family was revered by the Hoogstratens and it still is by Van Hoogstraten. After Princess Diana was killed in Paris in 1997 he confessed himself pleased. The reason, he explained, was the 'damage' that the Princess had done to the monarchy.
The Hoogstratens were all regular attenders of Mass at St Joseph's, the Roman Catholic church in Rustington. Nick, however, would soon throw off Catholicism. 'Religion and politics are used to pervert and control ignorant people,' he says. 'If you've got a brain for yourself you know what's right and wrong.'
His march to fabulous riches began at the age of seven. Other small boys in those pre-computer days played marbles in the playground, Five Stones, Cowboys and Indians and the tag game It. Nick studied postage stamps.
His father gave him his own stamp collection. In the early 1950s postage stamps were a window on the world, with their tiny coloured etchings of palm trees, exotic foreign rulers in turbans or military uniform and unfamiliar currencies. They were today's TV travel programmes. The gift from Charles Hoogstraten sparked in Nick a lifelong interest in philately, foreign parts – and in making money.
At nine years old Nick began buying and selling stamps in the playground. He told later how he traded the best stamps from other boys' collections. By the time he was twelve he was trading with professional dealers. At first his newspaper delivery round provided the capital. He'd make up whole albums of stamps which he lodged on a fifty-fifty, sale-or-return basis with shops in Littlehampton.
He also began dealing by post with the big operators in the stamp business, like the Stanley Gibbons organisation, who advertised in the philatelic journals. They had no idea this new player was barely into his teens. 'They don't realise they are dealing with a twelve-year-old kid. I had a nominee name even then.'
The profits didn't go on sweets or comics. The money was saved. By the time he was thirteen Nick had already amassed 'a few thousand pounds' in a bank account which his mother had opened for him. Soon it would be tens of thousands of pounds. What grated with him, it seems, was that neither parent took his astonishing success seriously enough. 'My mother wouldn't invest in me,' he complained. His father called what he was doing 'playing with stamps'.
He was clearly a very difficult teenager. At school he was a barrack-room lawyer accused by teachers of undermining them. 'I started organising things at school like telling them they didn't have to carry milk crates from the front entrance into the classroom.' It was a Jesuit school partly staffed by nuns. One of them 'tried to whack me with a chair leg once. I grabbed it and hit her and she never tried again.'
Thanks to his money and a tough-guy personality, Nick had his gang at school. He had a regular girl, too, for three years. She was called Yolande. But at heart he was and remained a loner. 'I had no close friends,' he told one journalist.
The Hoogstratens' neighbour Louis Yaxley recalls one incident that points up the loneliness of the teenage Nick. And his self-righteousness. 'It was 5 November time and everybody round here had fireworks and bonfires. We had all gone to bed and suddenly we were woken up. It was about two or three o'clock in the morning, and we heard "bang, bang, bang" outside. I said: "It's that bloody Nicky." I looked out of the window and there he was chucking fireworks about. I came down the stairs in me nightclothes and put me coat on and went outside into the garden. I shouted at him and he looked at me and then got hold of a firework. Then he lit it and he threw it at me.'
Yaxley lost his temper. 'It made me mad. There was a milk bottle out on the step. I picked it up. I'm going to throw it at his head and he just jogs round the corner of the house out of sight. The bottle I threw smashed on the corner of the house.'
Nick didn't reappear that night. Yaxley went back to bed. A few days later he was astonished to get a solicitor's letter. It accused him of assaulting 'my client'. The client was Nicholas Hoogstraten, aged about twelve and still in short trousers. Nothing developed. Yaxley says that young Nick gave him a wide berth after that.
Within the Hoogstraten home Edna was bullied by her son. She didn't tell her friend next door. Appearances had to be kept up. But one windy day Mrs Yaxley got a glimpse of Nick's temper. Edna Hoogstraten was in her back garden hanging up the family washing on the clothes line. She had left the back door open. Inside, Nick was sitting at the kitchen table sorting through his stamps. A gust of wind blew some of the stamps on to the floor. Furious, he slammed the back door and locked it. 'He left his mother out there in the garden. He wouldn't let her in,' Mrs Yaxley told her husband later. All afternoon Edna Hoogstraten was made to stand in the garden by her angry son.
Next Nick took to hitting Edna. 'With my father away I was the man of the house. My mother used to get a clip round the ear from me when she asked for it.' And when his mother complained about him to his father 'he would hit her too'. The sight of his father beating his mother would stay with him for ever. It might help explain his lifelong disdain for women and his own violence.
Soon young Nick began to break the law. In 1957 he seems to have persuaded another boy to break into their school for him and steal a typewriter. It was found in Nick's bedroom. He needed it to correspond with dealers for his stamp business. The theft marked him out as being different from other boys. In the fifties other twelve-year-olds stole sweets for immediate gratification; this one stole with a long-term purpose.
It was Nick's first offence. And, as with the others that were to come, he got someone else to do his dirty work. He got off with a warning.
By now, Nick was developing the characteristics that would mark out his life and career – resentfulness, dislike of authority, contempt for others, a reliance on his own abilities and a knack for manipulating others.
The boy tycoon's stamp business continued to expand. By the time he was fourteen Nick was so full of himself that he took to flouting the school's uniform rules by attending lessons in a three-piece business suit. While his school mates read the Wizard and Eagle, he took the Financial Times. He refused to attend certain classes, insisting on sitting alone in empty classrooms preoccupied with his business.
At fifteen Nick had a stamp collection worth £30,000, but he had a police record too. According to his father, the teenager set up younger lads to steal stamps for him from local stamp shops. Two of them were caught in the act. Nick's role was uncovered and he was given probation. His father decided that he had to do something. In the time-honoured British fashion for dealing with errant sons he took Nick off to sea in the Andes.
Looking back, Van Hoogstraten would talk of his time in 'the navy'. Journalists digging for background facts after he became well known would be told that his father was a purser who got him a job as a steward on his ship. A shipmate remembers his father as deputy head wine waiter and Nick as a bellboy.
'I'm not really sure why I allowed myself to go in the first place,' Van Hoogstraten told the Observer in 1988. 'I suppose it's the difference between being 15 and 16. When you're 15 you do as you're told. When you're 16 you don't ... I suppose my father saw his position being usurped so he got rid of me.'
The Andes was the stuff of a schoolboy's dreams. She was the Royal Mail line's flagship. She had been launched just before the Second World War when she was the last word in speed and luxury. Converted to a troop ship in 1939, she had taken Allied troops to almost every theatre of war and had survived submarine-infested waters totally unscathed. Her final wartime job was to take three thousand Australian and New Zealand airmen home across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal. Most of the population of Southampton seems to have turned out to see them go, Royal Marine bands playing, flags flying, RAF escort squadrons screaming overhead. Black-and-white newsreel cameras captured the scene for every cinema in the country. The cameras were back two months later for the ship's return trip too, because on the way back, via India and the Suez Canal, she had broken the speed record for circumnavigating the world.
In 1947 the Andes was reconverted to a luxury liner for use on the South Atlantic route. On her first stop at Buenos Aires the Argentinian President, Juan Perón, and his glamorous wife, Eva, came on board to a reception. Again the cameras whirred. For the boy from the Conbar Avenue semi the opulence of the ship must have been an eye-opener. She was a floating luxury hotel with swimming pools, mahogany-panelled cocktail lounges, marble statues and cinemas. The saloons glittered with crystal chandeliers. Each cabin had its own en-suite bathroom – a real luxury in those days. She was advertised as being 'a class apart'.
Excerpted from Van Hoogstraten Blood & Retribution by Don Jordan, Mike Walsh. Copyright © 2004 Don Jordan and Mike Walsh. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 BOY TYCOON,
2 KING MOD,
4 BANGED UP,
5 SETTLING ACCOUNTS,
6 THE DREAM PALACE,
7 VAN HOOGSTRATEN'S WOMEN,
8 THE DEAL,
11 BUILDING AN EMPIRE,
12 AT THE COURT OF KING NICK,
14 A THORN IN THE SIDE,
15 VOICE FROM THE GRAVE,
16 THE CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST,
17 THE RECKONING,