William Sinclair – a picaresque life reviewed

in Reviews

In an attempt to reconstruct the life of William Sinclair, Pissed-off Toff finds himself producing a full-length monograph.

Towards the end of last year I received a telephone call from a friend in Rome whom I had not seen for some time.

“It’s about William,” she said; and I knew, instinctively, that this was bad news. At the age of 48 our mutual friend William Sinclair had climbed to the top of one of the tall piers of the Chain Bridge in Budapest, and had then been swallowed up by the swirling waters of the Danube far below. He had, it seemed, been chasing after a Ukrainian girl, and had spent the weekend on a drink-and-drug-fuelled bender. Shortly before the end he was heard to shout “I can do it!” It was all very sad … and mysterious, too, because was this suicide? Or what? Only later did I find out.

In due course a full requiem mass in Latin was held in the Brompton Oratory. It was an event which brought together a kaleidoscopic variety of people, ranging from Nicholas Coleridge, Chairman of Condé Nast Britain and also of the Victoria & Albert Museum, to a former dominatrix of Jamaican origin with whom Sinclair had fathered a son who was now a male model. Whereas it had taken me just half an hour to walk to the church, a contingent had come from Italy, and one person had travelled all the way from Brazil to be there.

At the reception afterwards, the champagne flowed for hours, as did the anecdotes of the exploits that characterised Sinclair’s life. The common theme seemed to be that like some ne’er-do-well charmer from the pages of Evelyn Waugh (Basil Seal, perhaps), he would materialise from nowhere, a winning smile on his face. Momentous events would ensue, after which he would disappear as suddenly and unexpectedly as he had appeared.

There were two periods in my life when our paths crossed. As for the rest, I have only partial accounts and anecdotal scraps, gleaned here and there and not always reliable. What follows, therefore, is a portrait in mosaic form, the tesserae arranged unevenly but not entirely inaccurately. It is also, perhaps, an attempt to make sense of a life which was nothing if not picaresque.

* * * * *

William Sinclair was born in 1971, the only son of the Hon. Angus Sinclair, himself the youngest son of the 1st Viscount Thurso. After a childhood in Norfolk, he followed his father and grandfather to Eton, where he was from the start a gregarious figure, popular with the other boys, and – during the holidays – even more popular with the girls, for whom his charm and remarkable good looks made him irresistably attractive. He was just thirteen when he discovered sex in the arms of an aristocratic admirer who, a rapid consultation of Debretts reveals, was a good twenty years his senior.

Back at Eton, ‘Sincs’ (as he was known) revelled in pranks and practical jokes. With some pride, he recounted one of these to me, many years later. His bachelor housemaster had a collection of watercolours on which he doted and to which he made regular and judicious additions. One day, when the ‘private side’ was unoccupied, Sinclair and a friend slipped into the housemaster’s study, removed all the watercolours, and hid them. Then they went back out through the green baize door and waited on the boys’ side for the poor man to return. He almost had a heart-attack. “We could hear him whimpering and wailing,” said Sinclair. “It was terribly funny.”

In his gap year he went on a motorbike tour of Rajasthan with his best friend from school. His luggage contained Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, which remained unopened throughout their travels. The Indian adventure over, he went to Bristol University to study theology, and from Bristol he used to go to Oxford to see his various friends in the fast set there. 

From this period one anecdote stands out. At the end of a rowdy Oxford evening, a friend of his – I’d imagine a member of the Bullingdon – was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Not wishing this friend to spend the night locked up alone, Sinclair asked the policeman to take him in, too. “I’m sorry, Sir, but there’s no grounds for that,” said the copper. “So what would be grounds?” asked Sinclair. “Well Sir, if you was to swear at me and abuse me, that would be grounds.” Sinclair did so with vigour and enthusiasm, and was duly arrested.

Bristol turned out to be a false start, and Sinclair soon dropped out to do a cookery course, believing that he had found his métier. But it was not to be, and at various stages in the early 1990s we see him working as a sales assistant at Harrods, as an estate agent, and as a male model for Versace.

Tall, broad-shouldered, dark-haired and with a libido to match, he was more attractive than ever to women; indeed, at a house-party in the country some time around this period, he bedded all four of the unmarried girls, one by one, over the course of the weekend; whereas in London, he frequented a demi-monde where the coke was as plentiful as the booze. Yes, he had the constitution of an ox, but what with the wild partying and the lack of any sort of direction, do we for the first time hear alarm bells ringing?

Enter, now, one of the most fateful characters of Sinclair’s life. One evening in 1992, while having dinner with a group of friends in a restaurant in Chelsea, he attracted the attention of a woman eight years his senior called Natalie Rowe. She was a dominatrix known to her clients as Mistress Pain, and she also ran an escort agency called Black Beauties. On the spot, she fell head over heels for Sinclair and engineered a conversation. Later that night, they met up in a nightclub, and later still they did a few lines of coke and had sex that left Rowe even more smitten than before.

Not long after, Sinclair moved in with her, and she soon became pregnant. This required a celebration. Enter, bearing flowers, George Osborne, subsequently Chancellor of the Exchequer, but then an unknown freelance journalist. Over ten years afterwards, in 2005, that evening came back to haunt him when a photograph, taken by Sinclair, emerged of a decidedly luscious Natalie Rowe with one arm round the shoulder of a 22-year-old Osborne, still looking like a schoolboy. On the table in front of them a line of white powder was clearly visible.

The photograph could hardly have been more compromising, and a sceptical public was left to choose between Osborne’s assertion that no cocaine had found its way up his youthful nose that evening, and Natalie Rowe’s assertion that it most certainly had. In a final twist to the story, Osborne was conspicuous by his absence from the requiem mass for his old friend; a mass celebrated only a short walk from his Kensington office at The Evening Standard.

In 1994, Sinclair’s son Nicholas was born, and although this and a job in a boutique hotel might have provided an anchor, he was now increasingly addicted to drugs. Not only that, but by then the coke had escalated to crack, making his behaviour more and more erratic; and five months after the birth of their child, Rowe threw him out.

The details of his life now become opaque, but it seems likely that he entered a period of sofa-surfing. Always in urgent need of money, he went through with a sham marriage to a Yugoslav girl at the end of 1994. This netted him £1,000, which was immediately spent on drugs. At some stage a friend gave him a job in a coffee bar in the City, but that came to an end when he pocketed the day’s takings and, again, spent the cash on crack. Now homeless and with his reputation severely compromised, he ended up staying with his friend CB, who, it seems, more or less became his minder. Sinclair was a trying guest, and CB’s generosity and good nature were thoroughly tested over a long period. “He came for one night,” he told me, “and stayed for seven years. It was quite a relief when he left for Rome.”

It was there that I met him, in 2002. I had been living in Italy for a good number of years, my life had become almost entirely Italian, and I often craved English company, so when a friend told me that another Old Etonian had turned up in Rome and had rented a room from her, but that she had told him to leave because of his general unreliability, I was on the lookout for him. And when, at a party one evening, I saw, at the other end of the room, a tall, self-confident figure who had English public school written all over him, I knew I had found my man.

Having been thrown out by my friend, Sinclair had soon got together with a successful young lawyer called Raffaella B, whom he had met in a bar, and he was now living with her in an oak-beamed apartment in the old Monti district in the centre of Rome. He was, I think, as glad to meet me as I was to meet him, and we immediately became friends. He was immensely good company, great fun and a witty and uninhibited conversationalist, happy to voice thoughts that others would hesitate to express. It was also clear that he was short of money, and that he felt that as the nephew of the 2nd Viscount Thurso, this was not the way things should be. “It’s such a nuisance,” he said one evening. “You’re brought up with all these grand ideas about how you should live and what’s expected of you. It all involves having a great deal of money. But what if you don’t have it?”

On a more spiritual level, Sinclair was proud, he told me, of being directly descended from Jesus Christ. This was a reference to a theory that has to do with the Crusades and the perpetuation of the Blood Line of Our Saviour through Mary Magdalene, and according to which the name of Sinclair is derived from sang clair, meaning ‘pure blood’.

A rather more probable explanation of the name is that the family came from Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in Normandy … whence a certain William St Clair crossed the Channel to fight beside the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, whilst a later member of the family was granted extensive lands in Scotland.

Regarding the details of his life before Rome, Sinclair said little, and I did not probe. He once said something about having run a coffee bar, and the impression given was of a long-term business partnership that had soured; not of hands in the till. But there was no mention of a child back in London, still less of drug addiction. He did, however, make the lesser admission that he had had problems with drink and was trying to get back on the straight and narrow.

One evening, he asked me whether he sometimes swayed as he walked. “Since you ask, William, yes you do, a little,” I answered. What I did not realise at the time was that this must have been a result of long-term drug-taking; nor did I realise, at the time, that he must surely have come to Rome to get away from London and to attempt a fresh start.

Physically, however, he was evidently as tough as nails, and it was clear that he took great pride in his nordic good looks, which he played up to by having his hair cut very short in military style. Indeed, put him in the right uniform and he would have been all too well-cast as an SS officer. And when he presented himself in a well-cut dinner jacket for a party thrown by a Danish heiress who had turned up in Rome, his Viking and Norman ancestry were plain to see. 

At some stage his lawyer girlfriend Raffaella became pregnant, and it looked as though Sinclair was settling down nicely, with a wide group of friends, many of them well-connected. Then, the summer after we met, his mother came out on a visit. This occasioned an early-morning call to me. Sinclair had somehow acquired a red open-topped BMW, and wanted me to drive him and his mother out to the Etruscan village of Calgata, north of Rome. Perhaps he didn’t have a driving licence. In any case, he needed my help. “I’m begging you,” he said.

So I cancelled my plans for the day and went round to the flat in Monti, from which Sinclair emerged with a tall woman stylishly dressed in flowing muslin. Her manner was very much that of the grande dame … indeed, she had, I knew, been born a Percy and so was related to the dukes of Northumberland. (Only later did I learn that in earlier days she had had quite a crush on my own father.)

It was immediately apparent that Sinclair was on best behaviour and eager to please her. The outing was a success, and he later confessed to me that he was terrified that she would disinherit him, as she from time to time threatened to do. The mother was, therefore, on a visit of inspection, and it was vital that Sinclair should demonstrate that he was successfully building a new life.

For the next few months this did seem to be the case. There was talk of taking up journalism, and even of writing a novel which Will Self had apparently offered to help get published. He also deliberated at length over whether to buy a parrot … mainly because he fancied the idea of walking round Rome with the exotic creature perched on his shoulder.

And as always, he enjoyed nothing more than a good laugh. In Rome, he had one other English friend, who was training for the priesthood and whom he saw frequently. When they were out and about in crowded areas – standing at a bar, for example – Sinclair, ever the prankster, would stretch out an arm and pinch the bum of the nearest pretty girl. Wheeling round in outrage, she would find herself staring into the innocent face of a man in a dog-collar.

Then something unaccountably changed, and repeated attempts to get in touch with him failed. Annoyed and also puzzled by this lack of constancy in a friend whose presence in this foreign city I much valued, and still unaware of his drug problem, which had presumably resurfaced, I gave up trying. As it turned out, I never saw him again in Rome, and we now return to piecing together scraps of information gathered here and there.

In due course his daughter was born, but not much later his relationship with Raffaella B, whom he never married, came to an end; partly, it seems, because of the public and frankly humiliating nature of his infidelities. Around this time, we see him going on retreats with the Trappist nuns at the convent in Vitorchiano, outside Rome, no doubt in search of meaning. We also see him spending a year in Cologne as a salesman for a tarmac company. At some stage I heard that he had joined a rapid response unit in the British Navy … perhaps, again, in order to make another fresh start, this time in a disciplined environment; and later, I was told that he had indeed joined the Navy, at the very latest permissible age for a new recruit.

That lasted, it seems, for about two years, and during this time we see him turning up at a fancy dress party somewhere in the west of England. “That’s a very smart costume you’re wearing, William,” commented a friend. “It’s not a costume,” came the reply. “It’s my uniform.”

* * * * *

The second of the two periods in which he featured in my life was in late 2011, when I bumped into him on the Fulham Road. By now his mother had died, and far from having been disinherited, Sinclair had his own place in London and invited me out to lunch. In due course I turned up at a flat overlooking Clapham Common, and he gave me a tour of his new home. This involved going into the main bedroom where, in the large double bed, there was an exceptionally alluring girl with a generous expanse of coffee-coloured flesh exposed to view. From the brief exchange between the two of them as Sinclair handed her some cash before he and I went out for lunch, it seemed that she was his cleaning girl … with supplementary duties in other areas.

“You know, I can’t believe it,” he said, as we sat down to eat. “For the first time in my life, no-one can kick me out.” Much later, but not from him, I learnt further details of his recently enhanced status. Realising that any cash he could get his hands on would soon be dissipated, his mother had sensibly left everything in trust, and had instructed the trustees to give Sinclair a regular allowance, but never to give him control of the property or the capital. However, this had not prevented him from selling off many of the better objects that he now had at his disposal. 

It was clear, at lunch, that he was thrilled with his new circumstances, and also with his cleaner-mistress. Even more than usual, sex was on his mind, nor was he reticent with regard to the more intimate attributes of his new girl. This led to my introduction to the most lewd limerick I have ever come across. I had just acquired a horribly expensive gold pen, and like a child with a new toy, I was eager to show it off. Sinclair tried it out on a scrap of paper, which I kept. Readers of refined sensibilities are advised to skip the lines which follow … but this is what he wrote, chortling with glee.

A lewd limerick …

The transcript reads thus:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Whose prick was so long he could suck it.
He said with a grin,
Licking cum from his chin:
“If my ear were a cunt, I could fuck it!”

As if this demotic ode did not offer enough entertainment, Sinclair then decided to pretend to some pretty girls sitting nearby that he was Hannibal Lector, eater of human flesh. This was not a brief imitation, but a sustained and entirely credible performance; and as the act proceeded, one saw wary amusement turn into alarm, and alarm into something approaching terror.

A month or so later, he came to a pre-Christmas lunch party that my girlfriend and I gave in London. She happened to be a cousin of his. “It feels like being with family,” he said; and it crossed my mind that despite the show and the swagger, he was a lonely figure. The meal continued till the evening, when someone suggested that we should all go to the Chelsea Arts Club. Over lunch, Sinclair had taken a fancy to another guest. Now, at the club, she was sitting some distance away from him, on the same bench. In an acrobatic move of lightening speed, he reached out and grabbed her, yanked her bodily through the air, and kissed her firmly on the mouth. It was an impressive act.

By now he was on a roll, and trouble loomed. Sure enough, and quite without warning, he suddenly stood up, snapped his heels to attention in the most vigorous Nazi style, and started singing the Hitler youth song, in German, at full blast and with total conviction. The room fell silent; looks of horror and outrage appeared on the faces of most of those present, whilst others sniggered uneasily; then there were angry calls for him to be stopped; but no-one was strong enough to do anything about it. Soon he piped down of his own accord. But enough was enough, and aware, even in his well-oiled state, that the fun was over, Sinclair lurched out of the club and into the winter darkness. That was the last time I ever saw him.

* * * * *

The rest briefly. My attempts to get in touch with him over the following months failed, and at some stage his London flat was let out to students. True to form, Sinclair had disappeared. But he made occasional visits to Rome to see his daughter, and on one of these visits he met an older Italian woman from Trento, and moved in with her. In this northern Italian town, he apparently organised language courses and translated film scripts. He also became a newsreader on the English-language programme of a local TV company.

I once came across a YouTube clip – no longer available – of one of his bulletins. It is pure comedy. Impeccably turned out in a dark blue jacket and a crisp white shirt, Sinclair introduces himself in the style of a practised seducer. He then announces the headlines in a way they have surely never been announced before. “The main news stories today,” he starts off, “are … [pause] … um …” … and Trento being a town where nothing ever happens, it is mainly cat-stuck-up-tree stuff. Then, at the end, he bids the viewers good-night with a saucy wink. No wonder he became something of a local celebrity.

His story now ends, with him on top of a pier of the Chain Bridge in Budapest, shouting “I can do it!”

But do what? At the requiem mass in London, I found out the answer. According to his old friend CB, Sinclair liked diving into rivers. And according to a Slovakian friend of his who heard an eye-witness account of what happened, he did not jump off the Chain Bridge, as reported. He dived, head first, launching himself off the parapet and as far out into the air as he could. In other words, this was an insane circus act that cost him his life. And yet, and yet … as a third friend said, “with William it was never going to end well.”

* * * * *

What, then, does one make of this picaresque, almost random life? 

It is clear that Sinclair had no place in a computerised world of diligent office-workers. He belonged, in spirit, to an earlier, more virile and buccaneering age. If, say, he had been born a thousand years previously, and if he had set sail across the northern seas in a clinker-built dragonship with a band of brave-hearted Viking brothers, would he not have been one of the most fearsome warriors of the times, rewarded with honour and riches? 

And in our own bureaucratic and technological age, might not his fearlessness and physical strength have marked him out for the SAS or the Royal Marines? He tried that, however, with the Royal Navy, and nothing came of it. Perhaps in the end he was just too wild, too fickle, too reckless.

At any rate, it is not for achievements in any conventional field of endeavour that he will be remembered. Rather, it will be for his human qualities. Friend, father, lover, charmer, seducer, jester, rogue, womaniser, hedonist … he was all these things and much else besides. But perhaps most of all, he was a life-giver.


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