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Wednesday, February 6, 2008Such A Long Journey " From Writer To Murder"
For years, Charles Hills was a figure in London literary circles. He was a magazine editor who dreamed of publishing glory but had difficulty escaping a troubled life. But what drove him to the brink of murder? His friend, Granta editor Jason Cowley, traces the story of Hills's mental and spiritual decline, from gifted youth to Oxford student and finally to his cell in Belmarsh prison.
"One afternoon in August last year, Oxford-educated writer Charles Hills, a former editor of the journal PEN, stood in the dock at the Old Bailey and pleaded guilty to two counts of soliciting to murder his late mother's former boyfriend, Flávio Rosa. Rosa, a Portuguese gardener and handyman who is, like Hills, in his early fifties, had befriended Maria José Hills towards the end of her life in Portugal. In spite of an age difference of almost 30 years, he became the lover of the long-time-divorced elderly woman and, eventually, her live-in partner at the villa she owned on the Algarve. It was there that Hills schemed to have Rosa murdered 'by any method possible'.
Dressed in a jacket, a faded sweatshirt and dark trousers recently bought for him by a friend, and wearing plastic-framed spectacles, Hills lowered his head slightly as he was sentenced to seven years in prison. It was the end of a disastrous period for him, during which, among many other troubles, he had attempted to kill himself and spent several weeks in a secure ward at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in Camberwell, south London. On his release from the Maudsley, still depressed and confused, he'd asked a neighbour on the Clapham estate where he lived how he could find a hitman. The neighbour put him in touch with an intermediary who, in turn, introduced him to two contract killers.
Their first meeting took place at night, in a parked car close to Wandsworth Road station. Hills told them exactly what he wanted, who Rosa was and where the hated man lived. This was his second attempt to engage a hitman; a year earlier, he had given a drifter on his estate £2,500 in cash to murder Rosa. Instead of travelling to Portugal, the drifter had squandered the money on alcohol and then disappeared. Now, Hills was prepared to pay as much as £15,000 to have the job done not by an unreliable amateur, but a professional assassin.
'Charles talked about wanting to have Rosa murdered,' one of his friends told me. 'I tried to talk him out of it, out of his obsession. He said he'd been negotiating with hitmen, but I didn't know whether to believe him. He'd had psychotic episodes in the past. He could be unstable.'
Early on the morning of 16 December 2006, Hills was startled from sleep by the sharp crack of splintering wood: the front door of his book-cluttered flat was being demolished. The police had arrived to arrest him. As it turned out, the hitmen with whom he had been negotiating were nothing of the kind; they were undercover police officers and had recorded and secretly filmed their meetings with Hills.
Charles Hills is a friend of mine, and I received news of his sentence in an email from his closest friend, Mark Casserley. He pleaded guilty after the original charge of conspiracy to murder was reduced to the lesser soliciting to murder. I was told he was resigned to his fate and prepared to accept his punishment. So disordered and disturbed had his life become that I wondered whether prison might not even be the best place for him, a place of discipline where he could perhaps begin to recover a sense of himself and of moral purpose.
I first met Hills in 1997, at a party held by the editor of Prospect magazine, David Goodhart. Hills was of the party but apart from it, a small, dishevelled figure standing in a corner. Towards the end of the evening, he approached and introduced himself. He had a high, plaintive voice and stuttered slightly. I responded to his courtesy and charm and obvious intelligence, while being a little repelled by his appearance: the shabby suit, the shuffling, awkward manner. He told me that he wrote fiction as well as essays and reviews under the name CAR Hills.
'I think I read something by you recently,' I told him, 'an essay on Pessoa. It was excellent.' Hills seemed delighted, inordinately so, and spent the rest of the evening shadowing me as I moved around the room. It was the beginning of an odd friendship. Later, I asked Goodhart about Hills. 'Oh, he's a bit of a literary saddy,' he said, 'but he writes well.' It would be a few years before I realised just quite how sad being Charles Hills could be.
He was born in Archway, north London, on 21 August 1955; the only child of an English father, Arthur Hills, who worked as a company secretary, and a Portuguese mother. He was a young boy when the family moved to Crawley in Sussex. Charles was still at school when his father left his mother for another woman, after which they had little contact. Arthur disapproved of his son, of his homosexuality, eccentricity and literary ambition. When, shortly before his death in 2004, Charles contacted his father seeking reconciliation, he was rejected. Arthur wrote to him to say that he 'should stay within his rotten little life and not bother him again'.
Hills attended a local comprehensive, where he was an outstanding pupil, achieving three A-levels at grade A and, unusually for someone from his background and school, winning a place at Hertford College, Oxford, in 1973. 'There were only six A grades in my entire year at school, a huge and mediocre comprehensive, and I got three of them,' Hills told me with evident pride when I went to visit him shortly before Christmas at Belmarsh jail in south east London. 'I really was very clever.'
He read geography at Oxford - 'a terrible mistake,' he says now, chuckling, 'the start of my decline'. He felt apart at Hertford, socially ill at ease and sought the company of fellow gay students. His Oxford years passed in a haze of indolence and failed promise: the urgent rhythms of life, both at university and beyond, seemed to him always to be elsewhere, tantalisingly out of reach. He had no idea what he wanted to do once he graduated, beyond nurturing a vague, romantic attachment to the idea of being a writer and so, without enthusiasm, he did postgraduate research in history at Sussex University and then back at Oxford. And he took more A-levels, in Latin and Greek.
Throughout his twenties, he continued to read as much as he could, worked on his various languages, played the piano and began, slowly, hesitantly, to write: stories and strange, self-revealing essays. 'My great influences were [the painter and novelist] Denton Welch and Somerset Maugham,' he told me. 'I was very influenced by Maugham when he wrote of his three aims for writing: lucidity, simplicity, euphony.'
But Hills could not live by his writing alone and supported himself through teaching at various grammers; by working in a second-hand bookshop off London's Charing Cross Road, on a trade journal for the electrical goods industry and, for a period in the early Nineties, as an editor at the BBC Monitoring Service, from where he was sacked in 1994 for telling 'my line manager to fuck off'.
By the time I met him, he was unemployed, mired in poverty, living on benefits and making what extra money he could as editor of PEN News and from the scraps of journalism he was having published in small magazines. His was an unsettling, shambolic, twilight existence. He inhabited a peculiar literary demimonde, mixing with struggling, mostly unpublished or disappointed writers, a world of shabby clothing, intellectual striving, snobbery, drunkenness and, above all, of poverty.
I pitied him, but also believed in his talent and wanted to encourage him. I occasionally bought him lunch but, sitting opposite him at a table, I felt as if I was staring into a mirror which revealed the kind of life that could have been mine had I dropped out in my twenties to pursue the writing life. What sustained him? I wondered. Why did he keep on trying to find a publisher for his fiction? How did he cope with all the rejection, with the continuous hustling for work, for the next poorly paid review, the next commission? The answer, I guess, is that he, too, believed in his talent. 'I really am an excellent writer,' he told me whenever we met.
He would sometimes send me a postcard commenting on something I'd written, or one of his stories or novels. I liked his fiction; there were always passages of interest, he had a distinct sense of place and was adept at juxtaposing tenderness and brutality. Others encouraged him as well, notably literary agent Caroline Dawnay, whose authors include Nick Hornby and Alain de Botton. She wanted Hills to write a memoir, to be called The Man Who Took A-Levels, but it was fiction he was determined to publish.
In the late Nineties, I was working as literary editor of the New Statesman and Hills would sometimes turn up at our offices in Victoria, usually on Thursday morning, the early part of which he would have idled away at a WH Smith on Victoria Station's concourse. There, he flicked through the latest editions of the weekly news magazines and cultural reviews he could never afford to buy. When he came to the office, he was invariably looking for books to review and, very occasionally, I commissioned something by him.
Learning from Maugham, Hills has a graceful, limpid style and a fine ear for cadence, for the internal music of a sentence and paragraph. I especially admired his Prospect essays, in which he wrote of his lonely wanderings in and around the blighted, rundown estates of Clapham and Peckham, and the encounters he had there. He transformed his particular part of south London into a place of shadows and loss, of restless questing and melancholy longing, achieving a peculiar kind of urban pastoral. It was as if CAR Hills were yet another of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, but living and dying not in Lisbon, but on an inner-London estate. 'See life from a distance,' wrote Pessoa's Ricardo Reis and this was something that Hills understood, as he loitered always on the margins, shut out and knocking at the door of the literary club that remained firmly closed to him.
In the early summer of 2000, Maria Hills came to visit her son in London. She had some news for him that would distract him from his writing and set in progress the events that would lead ultimately to his incarceration. She told her son that she had altered her will to give Flávio Rosa a usufruct on her house in the Algarve. This would allow him under Portuguese law to live in the house for the rest of his life, even though Hills would ultimately inherit it. 'The house was his mother's principal asset and he was looking forward to owning and then selling it,' says Mark Casserley. 'I remember he rang me from a cafe to tell me this, on the day he first heard of it, and said he was too angry to speak.'
It was apparent to everyone who met and knew Maria that she was unwell and suffering from Alzheimer's. 'She was often confused and forgetful,' says her niece Maria Streeter, who lives in England. 'She kept asking where she was, where she was going.'
Hills believed that Rosa had manipulated his mother into altering her will, that he was exploiting an aged and vulnerable woman. With his mother's condition deteriorating, he moved to Portugal, staying at a second property owned by her, a flat in Lisbon. For the next two years, until her death in a nursing home at the age of 79 in September 2002, he moved between Lisbon and London, beginning an action in the Portuguese courts to have Maria's amended will declared invalid and Rosa expelled from the house. He thought of little but his hatred of Rosa. He resigned the editorship of PEN News, he sold his piano and even ceased to fret about finding a publisher for his work.
Read Full Text at:http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,,2251387,00.html
Just a reminder........
Why Parents Have Gray Hair
A father passing by his son's bedroom was astonished to see the bed nicely made up and everything neat and tidy.
Then he saw an envelope propped up prominently on the pillow. It was addressed, "Dad". With the worst premonition, he opened the envelope and read the letter with trembling hands:
It is with great regret and sorrow that I'm writing you. I had to elope with my new girlfriend because I wanted to avoid a scene with you and Mom.
I've been finding real passion with Joan and she is so nice. I knew you would not approve of her because of all her piercings, tattoos, her tight motorcycle clothes and because she is so much older than I am but it's not only the passion, Dad, she's pregnant.
Joan says that we are going to be very happy. She owns a trailer in the woods and has a stack of firewood, enough for the whole winter. We share a dream of having many more children.
Joan has opened my eyes to the fact that marijuana doesn't really hurt anyone. We'll be growing it and trading it with the other people in the commune for all the cocaine and ecstasy we want.
In the meantime, we'll pray that science will find a cure for AIDS so Joan can get better; she sure deserves it!
Don't worry Dad, I'm 15 years old now and I know how to take care of myself. Someday, I'm sure we'll be back to visit so you can get to know your grandchildren.
Your son, Chad
P.S. Dad, none of the above is true. I'm over at Tommy's house. I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life than the report card that's in my desk drawer.
I love you! Call when it is safe for me to come home!