The Last Great Escape

Looking through files in the National Archive at Kew, I’ve discovered that the last person to escape from the Tower of London wasn’t a Jesuit priest, a Scottish king or a treasonous royal physician. It was an RAF second lieutenant awaiting court martial in 1919 for passing dud cheques to the Café Royal.

Victor Napier was a South African who joined the Royal Flying Corps as a second lieutenant in 1917. In March 1919, aged twenty-one, he was tried before a General Court Martial on two charges: of closing a bank account without providing for some post-dated cheques made out to the Café Royal, and of escaping from the Tower of London on 14th February 1919.

Despite taking place on Valentine’s Day, Napier’s escape had little romance – or indeed drama – to it. He put on a visitor’s coat and strolled past his guards who failed to recognize him. Later that night he strolled back into the Tower and was re-imprisoned.

At the court martial, Napier was found guilty of passing the dud cheques, and pleaded guilty to escaping from the Tower. He was sentenced to be dismissed from the RAF. But ten days later, the Judge Advocate General refused to confirm the Café Royal conviction, finding that “the evidence did not justify the finding”. Only the guilty plea for escaping from the Tower now stood, and so Napier’s sentence was commuted to ‘a severe reprimand’.

What wouldn’t a few of the Tower’s better known prisoners have given for that sentence? Guy Fawkes was tortured for two days, before being hanged, drawn and quartered. Anne Askew, a Protestant martyr, was burned at the stake. No one even knows what happened to the sons of Edward IV. But Victor Napier, the Tower of London’s last ever escapee, walked away with a reprimand. I wonder whether he dined off that story for the rest of his life…?

Everybody’s Friend

According to a recent Evening Standard article, Debenhams has launched an Ossie Clark Revival Collection ‘with a mission to resurrect the legendary designer’s statement prints and fluid cuts’. Ossie Clark was the totemic designer of the 60s, a man who dressed rock stars and royalty, but when I came across him in 1996, his heyday was past and his resurrection was still years away.

I was a young barrister defending him on a charge of assaulting a police officer. The case, which was heard at Marylebone Magistrates Court, revolved around a display of petulance following a car accident. Clark had shoved the other driver, who turned out to be a plain clothes policeman. It was a fuss about nothing – but because the ‘assault’ was on a police officer, Ossie Clark looked to be going to prison.

At the time, Clark was very clearly down on his luck, living on benefits on a run-down estate. He was polite with me, but quiet and downcast, and accompanied at court by a much younger, very attentive male Brazilian lover. I took Clark’s instructions, and the hearing came to a close with a guilty plea. The case was adjourned for three weeks. I knew that Clark had been a clothes designer – only because he told me so – but I had no idea that he was the pre-eminent designer of his generation, friend to the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, friend to everybody. I only found that out back in chambers when somebody told me about him over a coffee.

I hadn’t thought about my brief, insignificant brush with Clark for many years, until I read of his ‘comeback’ in the Standard. When I did, I remembered my impression of him as a sad, resigned man, barely trying to resist his fall. Where, I remembered wondering, had his friends gone? Why was he not working anymore? I couldn’t quite understand how a man considered a genius was now penniless and almost alone. But at least his lover was looking after him. Thank goodness for Diego.

Three weeks after I represented him, Clark’s case came back before a stipendiary magistrate. I was in another court that day doing something else. Young barristers could be (and perhaps still are) almost interchangeable. So a plea in mitigation was made by the very able Janet Weeks. Sentence was passed and Clark was rightly spared prison. And shortly afterwards he was stabbed to death by the boyfriend. Diego, it turned out, was capable of more than kindness.

My memory tells me that Clark’s murder took place so soon after after the sentencing that had he been imprisoned he wouldn’t have been killed. I’m not really sure that’s right. It’s possible he died a while later and I’m conflating events to magnify my role. But my timing problem isn’t the real one. The real problem is that the “mission to resurrect” Ossie Clark comes several decades too late. Which probably illustrates the fickleness of fashion. And, in this case, of friendship too.