From campaigning for Winston Churchill to singing with Gracie Fields to setting up newspapers to months in a high security jail, THEO PANAYIDES meets a former financier who has led a ‘busy life’
My first introduction to Elizabeth Forsyth is a headline from The Independent, dated March 23, 1996: ‘Nadir aide is jailed over stolen £400,000’. (‘Polly Peck scandal: Former financier Elizabeth Forsyth faces years in prison as her disgraced employer languishes in hiding’ reads the sub-head.) My second introduction comes a day later, when I listen to her read out her life story as a guest speaker at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Nicosia. My third comes three days after that, when I drive to the north and meet her at a restaurant called Ezic Premier overlooking Kyrenia, down the road from her home in the village of Karmi. Each of those meetings makes her seem increasingly affable, though admittedly starting from a newspaper piece about her criminal conviction – albeit a conviction that was later overturned on appeal – sets a pretty low bar.
She is affable, if also a bit formidable. She’s 83, soft-spoken, slightly frail when in motion – she’s due to have a hip operation, “but I’m putting it off,” she says lightly, “because of my social life” – but with very alert brown eyes and beautiful manners. “Can you hear me all right? Are you bored?” she asks more than once while recounting her life at St. Paul’s; “Are you all right for time?” she asks more than once while talking to me at Ezic. She’s solicitous and, for want of a better word, aristocratic. “I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” she admits.
Her maiden name is McAlpine, a famous name in the UK construction sector – though her dad was Thomas Somerville McAlpine, an accountant who also published books with titles like The Process of Management and The Basic Arts of Budgeting. He was “the most inspirational person I’ve ever known in my life,” Elizabeth says in her talk, a formative influence on the way her life unfolded. Father never talked down to her, “wanted me to be interested in the business world”, explained the details of what he did at work (except during the war, when what he did was top-secret) – but it was also Father who secretly forbade her first great love from coming round anymore, because he was Roman Catholic, and it was Father who put a stop to teenage Elizabeth’s singing career. “I had a good voice, and he promoted my singing, and I had an Italian teacher. But once I was on the stage I had too many telephone calls from – fellow artists,” she recalls delicately. “And he didn’t like that.”
She was indeed a singer for a while, and a good one. At 16, she sang alongside Gracie Fields and Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli at the Royal Command Performance of 1952 (the first one attended by the other Elizabeth, Queen Liz II). She wears her accomplishments lightly – but she’s done a lot, she could tell some stories. She’s founded newspapers (Kibris and what’s now Cyprus Today), and was once the leading breeder of Arab horses in the UK. In the 80s, when she worked for Asil Nadir – the Turkish Cypriot CEO of Polly Peck, who was charged with fraud after the company collapsed and lived as a fugitive in the north for 17 years – she also “brought British beef back to Britain”, importing Aberdeen Angus cattle from Canada to Nadir’s estate in the Midlands. “I’ve had such a busy life,” she laughs at one point, sipping cappuccino at the Ezic Premier, “I’ve forgotten half of it.”
What’s she like, though? What kind of person? What are her values? Devout, certainly. Conservative, both small-c and capital-C. She was active in the Young Conservatives – “Everything had been arranged for me to join them” – and canvassed for Winston Churchill in his final campaign for Prime Minister. (Years earlier, as a child, she’d once been tasked to deliver some eggs to a gentleman who turned out to be Mr Churchill.) I’m a bit surprised that she, a woman, managed to have such a prominent career – mostly merchant banking, with stints at Hill Samuel, First National Bank of Chicago and Citibank – at a time when most women stayed home and raised children, but I shouldn’t be surprised. “It’s who you know, really,” she admits disarmingly.
Her father was engaged in some very hush-hush work during the war (he was also “quite an important Freemason”). He knew Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the turbo-jet engine, “and he asked Mr Whittle what opportunities there were for his daughter. He said he had a relative at the Ford motor company in Dagenham, the head of the export division, and he suggested I go there. So I didn’t go for an interview – I was just placed, if you know what I mean”. She’s led a charmed life, at least professionally; she never applied for a job and didn’t get it – partly because she always came recommended. She was part of the post-war elite, in a Britain that doesn’t exist anymore.
There were only three women in the export division of the Ford motor company, surrounded by some 200 men; the other two were secretaries, and Elizabeth’s job – at that stage – wasn’t much better. (“The male staff wanted to have a female opinion on the upholstery of the Ford Anglia,” she notes in her talk, to general chuckles.) Nonetheless, she was comfortable with men; she worked “in a man’s world” from the age of 21, and never had a problem. “I never tried to dress like them,” she explains. “You’ve got to try and remain feminine. And you’re not a threat, you must never be a threat to men. Let them have their ideas, let them talk, and at the end of it say: ‘Have you thought about this? Don’t you think that’s a good idea?’. And that works.”
That kind of thinking is very unfashionable in the UK these days, I note.
“Yes…” she agrees thoughtfully. “I think women have gone beyond themselves, in many ways. I think they think they’re extremely important!” Elizabeth laughs. “And they really don’t get the best out of life. They should take one step back – they can still get where they want to go, but there’s a way of doing it”. Talk of women leads to talk of women MPs – and she goes on a brief tangent, chastising Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats for her “stupid” remarks on Prince Andrew. Like I said, conservative.
Maybe so; yet the flipside is a hardy fortitude, almost a horror of showing weakness. She’s from the generation where you respected authority, didn’t think you were ‘extremely important’ – and, by extension, took life as it came, trying to make the best of it. “It’s that determination the Scots have, I’m afraid,” she laughs when I put this to her; “And the McAlpine clan was a warrior clan.” Elizabeth has the genes to prove it: her mother’s in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest paraglider, having taken to the skies at the age of 104! It was Mum who brought them to Cyprus in 2004 (though Elizabeth had been coming here, through her association with Asil Nadir, since the 80s); she was starting to lose her sight, and arranged to live with her daughter and Elizabeth’s partner Michael. She died in 2013, aged 106 – Michael, too, has passed away – but meanwhile Elizabeth has been joined in Karmi by her daughter Fiona, who runs a pub called the Crows Nest. The McAlpine genes rumble on: she shows me a video of her two-year-old great-grandson, the little boy staying calm in a situation (a practical joke) that would surely have most toddlers howling in frustration. “He’s a little toughie!” she says, significantly.
Elizabeth Forsyth is the kind of person one would never expect to end up in prison – a pillar of the Establishment, ‘One of Us’ personified – yet also the kind who, once in prison, might be well equipped to tough it out. “I keep my cool,” she says simply. “I think the worst thing you can ever do is lose your temper”. Losing your cool, in business or anywhere, means losing your self-respect – and then “people see your weaknesses”.
How did the other prisoners treat her?
“I was treated with respect. And I did actually tell them off. You know, I was older than them – and they used to jump the queue at mealtimes, and I said: ‘When you get out of here and you go to Tesco’s, you’re not going to be allowed to do that’.” Elizabeth laughs: “The ones who were worried about it were the prison wardens, because they thought [the others] were going to attack me. But they never did.”
She spent 10 months in prison, first the notorious Holloway Prison in London – in her talk, she describes her first night in the cell: “There was a very ancient iron bed, a dirty torn mattress, a wooden chair and table, a wash basin and a loo. It had not been cleaned. Two cockroaches were walking across the floor” – then Cookham Wood in Kent, in a cell whose previous occupant had been mass murderer Myra Hindley. The judge had sentenced her to five years for handling £400,000 in stolen money, a sentence that drew gasps (she says) when it was announced. “He was vicious, that judge, because he’d been Asil Nadir’s judge and he had an axe to grind, if you like. He didn’t see me, he saw Asil Nadir… Nobody expected me to be convicted. It was a shock for everybody.”
Elizabeth had never worked for Polly Peck; she ran South Audley Management, looking after Nadir’s personal (not corporate) interests – and the trust arrangements had been set up by Citibank, “that’s why I knew everything was squeaky-clean”. She’s always claimed – and indeed, the appeal court agreed – that she was completely innocent. “It was all a great conspiracy,” she tells me, in her soft-spoken way. “They had no evidence against Asil Nadir, and they wanted me to spill the beans.
“There’s something else you should know: they put a spy into my prison,” she adds – and my eyebrows shoot up but apparently it’s true, the spy’s name was Olivia Frank, she’s a transgender woman and she’s now written a book (The Mossad Spy) detailing her involvement in various dark ops, including the Nadir case; “They spent a lot of time working this out, the authorities.” Elizabeth is herself writing a book, her second one (the first was in 1996, a relatively dry corporate history called Who Killed Polly Peck? The Corporate Assassination of Asil Nadir), trying to set the record straight after all these years.
There have been two great crises in the life of Elizabeth Forsyth: her time in prison and the death, years before, of her baby son Ian (whose name was later transferred to another son, now Fiona’s younger brother). The baby was born premature and died a week later – “I was given him to hold, and never saw him again” – a tragedy that was even more injurious than her Polly Peck humiliation, especially in destabilising her marriage. Have these things been traumatic? Yes and no, she replies carefully. “I think you’re a better person if you suffer, and then recover from it. You then understand how other people feel.” I recall her mention of the fellow prisoners she met and sometimes mentored, poor people who’d endured “awful childhoods”. It’d be wrong to say that prison was a humbling experience for Elizabeth (there’s no indication she was ever an arrogant person), but it must’ve been eye-opening – and, in a way, enriching – after a lifetime of privilege.
She’s aristocratic, even here, in the Ezic Premier; there’s a kind of benevolent grandness about her. She believes employers should “look after” their staff, like those old Victorian benefactors who built houses for them (she herself always got involved, asking after employees’ personal lives and trying to “help them with their troubles”). She calls, like a kindly auntie, on Greek and Turkish Cypriots to settle their differences and “sort the matter out”. Like the other Elizabeth, Queen Liz II, she radiates grandmotherly authority – and, like Liz, she seems indefatigable, dodgy hip or not. “I’m always interested in things, I like to be busy. There’s nothing worse than sitting doing nothing!” Not much chance of that, anyway.