WRITER FRANK MOORHOUSE has said that Queensland's Gold Coast is the perfect destination for an annual nervous breakdown. The place is an abrasive amalgam of Kings Cross and the Costa del Sol, strips of powdered sand and garish light, pot-bellied tourists and cosmetically altered locals. Here, skin can harden like leather.
It's a place where tough southern cops come to retire, only to find the criminals of their past have also settled in the neighbourhood to see out their lives in the sunshine. I recently bumped into a senior officer of my acquaintance who once commanded one of western Sydney's toughest precincts. Just retired, he had bought a house on the Isle of Capri, and a boat, and was already in coast apparel – patterned shirt and loafers. On a stroll through Surfers Paradise one evening with his wife, he had seen two gangsters who had haunted his career. They, too, were in bright shirts and slip-ons. He merely shook his head, speechless.
If a landscape could be psychologically diagnosed, then the Gold Coast would be bipolar. Happy families and drug dealers. Picnics and knifings. It's a spotted tie worn with a striped shirt. In the trendy suburb of Main Beach, for example, there is a 24-hour convenience store on one corner of exclusive Tedder Avenue and a plastic surgeon on the other. Here, some years ago, as the city's young A-list wined and dined, a man streaked through the restaurant strip with a knife wound to the neck, the victim of a drug deal gone wrong. It gave the patrons something to talk about over their wagyu. Even the local mobile phone transmitter tower has been fashioned into a fake palm tree. All of it, a hall of mirrors.
It was here that notorious Australian businessman Peter Foster suddenly re-emerged in January 2003. He flew into his old home town like a disoriented bird fleeing the European winter, trailing television cameras and tabloid journalists. I remember the media scrum on the television news – Foster pushing his way out of the Coolangatta terminal and into the sunlight, encased by reporters and dozens of prickly microphone booms, as if swallowed by an anteater.
He was, of course, global news. He had returned home as a consequence of the so-called "Cheriegate" scandal. He was lover to the equally notorious Carole Caplin, who in turn was best friend and "lifestyle" adviser to Cherie Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister.
Foster had assisted in the purchase of some real estate for the Blairs. He had, by all reports, secured them an astonishing bargain. And that was that. Until the press smoked out his involvement and his past, yet again, engulfed his present. He was the Bai Lin slimming tea fraudster, the "conman", the cad. He had been jailed on three continents. How could he have gotten so close to Downing Street?
He was refused re-entry to Britain when the scandal broke and moved to Ireland. Then it was suggested he leave Ireland, too. So he came home, leaving Caplin and the Blairs and the grubby dust storm of Cheriegate behind.
If it had been anyone but Foster this may have been a tragic love story. The couple torn asunder, forced apart by dark political forces. The anguished phone calls and declarations of fidelity across 16,000 kilometres of land and ocean. The emotionally buoyant text messages.
On the Gold Coast, the locals loved it. This infamous son, in a place that bred them like thoroughbreds, had returned. It was here he was brought up and went to school, became an entrepreneur before most of his contemporaries were old enough to drive. Ran nightclubs and squired exotic women. He had money to burn. They called him the Kid Tycoon.
In that first week of his exile, he dined at a fashionable seafood-and-steak restaurant in Main Beach called Shuck, occupying daily the same table in the front section of the house, under white winged-sail roofing and the shade of poinciana trees. He rarely finished a meal uninterrupted. The locals sought his autograph, leaning over the railing of the restaurant with business cards and slips of paper for him to sign. They had their photographs taken with him. They slapped him on the back and welcomed him home. "Good on you," they said. "We're behind you." A time-honoured Australian compliment for anyone who was sticking it up the "Poms".
You could see, in those early weeks, the press photographers with cannon-sized lenses snapping him from side alleys and passing cars. His morning trip to the newsagent was reported. If he bought a pie from the local bakery, the type was recorded by the press, as was its relationship to his diet and girth. Peter Foster had settled back home after almost 10 years, and he was a celebrity.
I HAD GONE to school with Foster at nearby Aquinas College in Southport in the late 1970s. It was a Catholic school presided over by the Christian Brothers. An all-boys college, it was the sort of school that virtually emptied at lunchtimes, with surfers of all ages pedalling frantically to the beach, their boards in tow, for a handful of waves between classes. In the afternoons, half the boys' uniforms were damp with seawater.
Foster was, I recall, intelligent and affable, yet shy. That shyness seemed to translate into a sort of world-weariness, way out of synchronicity with his actual age, so he occupied that middle ground among his peers, not overly popular, but not ignored. He was, even then, something of an enigma. He was different, yet it was impossible, then, to ascertain the true source of that difference.
It was difficult to ignore him. At about 15 he arrived at class with briefcases that contained watches and shark-tooth and pig-tusk necklaces for sale. It was rumoured (and later proven correct) that he leased a string of pinball machines to high-rise apartment buildings in Surfers Paradise. The pocket money of kids his age ended up, well, in his pocket.
While he was never completely aloof, there was a feeling that part of him was somewhere else – in a more exciting place. So it was not surprising that by senior year, he was not among our ranks. He had simply moved on.
In a very short time we started reading about him in the local press. He suddenly emerged, fully formed, as the world's youngest boxing promoter. As we poured over maths and physics and the history of the 20th century, he was pictured in dapper suits surrounded by beautiful women and famous fighters. He took champagne and judged beauty contests. The schoolboys he'd left behind could merely ogle.
I did not see him for 23 years. In Fiji in 2001 to cover the election there for a newspaper, I overheard two staff in the Sheraton Denarau talking about a Peter Foster who'd been in the bar the evening before. I asked them about him. He lived only a few hundred metres away, in the Sheraton villas. I made an in-house call and within half an hour we were sharing a beer by the pool.
He struck me, then, as some sort of exotic exile. I had vaguely kept track of his exploits over the years – the Bai Lin tea scandal, the affair with model Samantha Fox in London, the trading offences and extraditions and custodial remands and court appearances. He took me to say hello to his mother, Louise, with whom he shared the villa. We talked of the past, and books, and Peter's plans to establish a writers' retreat on one of the neighbouring islands. He was writing his memoir.
He may have settled in Fiji for life, if he hadn't become involved in the impending election. He was a great supporter of former deputy prime minister Dr Tupeni Baba – the "Nelson Mandela of the South Pacific" as Foster described him – and had put money into his campaign. Then the local press established the connection. And Foster's past was regurgitated. And he was asked, not so politely, to leave Fiji forever.
SO, POST-CHERIEGATE ON his return to the Gold Coast, I contacted him. Inviting me to luncheon at his favourite table at Shuck, he and I reminisced about old school colleagues. He is a man attached to his past, at times sentimentally so, and has an almost photographic memory for times, faces and places. His recall of teachers and students and assorted incidents left me astonished.
During that first luncheon I admired his shirt and said so. It was pale blue, long-sleeved, and of quality material and cut. He found the compliment amusing. He said it was one of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's cast-offs. An item chosen for Blair by Foster's girlfriend, Carole Caplin, and later rejected by the PM.
I thought he was joking. But he said it was true, poked a foot out the side of the table, and displayed half of a beautiful pair of brown loafers. Also the PM's leftovers. They were very nice, and very expensive, items of clothing. That he was sitting opposite me, wearing clothes meant for one of the most powerful men in the world, left me as agape as the schoolboy I was all those years ago.
Sitting in that little restaurant at Main Beach, he regaled me with stories about "Tony", as he called him, and amusing details about the Prime Minister and his wife. And other stories – of celebrities, and travel, and business dealings – that constituted his peripatetic life. He is a brilliant raconteur, with innumerable tales at his disposal. He always seemed to be on the fringe of exciting things.
In those early months we met weekly. Sometimes we'd go to Tooley's bar at Main Beach. Ten minutes after ordering a beer, his mobile would ring. "It's Carole," he'd say. Then he'd be gone. For five minutes. Or an hour. Sometimes in the quiet alley behind the bar. Or you'd see him pacing the street, the phone to his ear.
On some evenings Caplin would ring 10, 15, 20 times. He would always politely excuse himself, and return elated, or depressed, or riddled with anxiety. Carole doesn't want me to drink. Carole wants to know whom I'm having dinner with. Carole this. Carole that.
On two occasions I had to verify to her on the phone that I was, indeed, a male, and that there were no females present in our party, and that no, Peter had not drunk too much. She phoned from London as if she were living around the corner. "Women," he'd say, exasperated.
It made for interesting conversation; it was both peculiar and thrilling to hear him relay Caplin's latest anxieties about herself, about Cherie, about Tony.
In his initial exile, while bitter about being booted out of the United Kingdom and separated from his beloved, it was Caplin who kept him even of temperament and even hopeful about a future with the constant contact. He seemed to grudgingly enjoy her incessant calls, inquiring about whether he'd done his washing, or was eating healthily, or was getting enough sleep. The whole bizarre arrangement kept him afloat. And out of mischief. The more he was pinned to his mobile, and Caplin, and the façade of a relationship with all its minutiae conducted halfway around the world, the less he thought about the Blairs, and being banished from his life "over there". He often expressed incredulity at how he'd got involved with the whole "nutty" crew, and the thought ended there, with raised hands and the fading of a laugh.
Throughout the year he attempted a fitness regime. He employed a personal trainer and spent agonising hours on the beach shedding his European winter physique. He went for long walks on the sand. Strangers would say "G'day" and shake his hand. "Good to have you back. Good on you, Peter."
Invariably he would end up lunching or dining in the evening at Shuck, or "the office" as he called it. There his favourite table became something of a tiny stage for locals and visiting celebrities, kept permanently reserved for him by restaurant owner Scott Budgen. The patronage swelled. They waited for Peter Foster.
AT ANOTHER OF our fine meals, he lamented the timing of his expulsion from the UK. He was set to spend a weekend at Chequers when it all began to go sour with the real estate deals. For a boy born in the sugarcane town of Innisfail in North Queensland, it must have seemed like arriving at the gates of Xanadu.
He had experienced a few personal Xanadus before. Extreme wealth in his early 20s and later in his 30s. Private helicopters. Racehorses. Mansions. Yet I never got the feeling that he craved possessions, or even worried about money. On innumerable occasions the bill was paid before you reached for your wallet. It didn't matter if it was one person at the table or 20. He was happy to make people happy.
But we did, on occasion, talk about power. He is fascinated by power, and the powerful. He loved reading biographies of powerful present and historical figures, and books on American politics. He told me how he once chartered a helicopter for a flight of only a few minutes when he went to make a business deal. It was the appearance of the helicopter, and Foster emerging from it, that convinced the people involved to go with the deal. The whole constructed scenario had given him the appearance of power.
He liked power, and he liked being around it. He admitted he made the deal to help Cherie Blair buy two flats because he wanted to impress Carole Caplin. He wanted to show the Blairs his business prowess. But his past intruded, as it always has. We would joke about this past, as if it were a battered and unfashionable caravan that he towed around with him through life. And again he would vanish from a bar, or a restaurant table, because Carole was on the phone.
Once, they hatched a plan for a secret holiday in Tahiti. The negotiations went on for days. But the press intrusion was considered too risky. On another occasion she was coming out to Australia. There was great debate about how she could slip into the country unnoticed by the media.
At home, in the borrowed apartment of a friend at first, and later in a resplendent house on a canal at Paradise Waters, he would constantly trawl the internet for news of Caplin and of the Blairs, and often would not sleep all night, as if his body still operated on a London clock.
When his mother, Louise, returned to the Gold Coast, along with sister Jill and niece Arabella, he did what he has always done as the male in this close-knit, part-Italian family – he set up home for all of them. It was simply what the Foster clan did. They lived together. They moved around the world together.
He often told me that he was proud to be called a "Mummy's boy". He said he owed everything to her, emotionally and professionally. As a salesperson, he said she was the best "closer" he had ever encountered.
In his book, under the chapter "Lifestyle", he wrote: "Cherish your Mum. Pick up the telephone and give your Mum a call, for no reason but to say hello. Better yet, take her out for dinner. Don't wait for the obligatory annual Mother's Day when you drag the poor old dear out to a restaurant she doesn't want to go to, to digest a meal she doesn't want to eat. You only have one Mum, so cherish her. And that goes for your Dad as well."
One day recently, sitting on the Foster back balcony at Paradise Waters, overlooking the canal, Louise told me of her fascinating family history – a colourful mélange of migrants and cane fields, business deals and Hollywood starlets. During a holiday on Hayman Island when she was a young woman, she met her husband-to-be, and Foster's father, Clarrie. He was the island's assistant manager and she fell in love with his voice. "I heard this beautiful, cultured voice saying 'Good evening' over the microphone one night, and that was it," she told me. "It was wonderful. It was all so glamorous. And here I was, a kid from the cane fields."
They later managed Brampton Island and built a house there for radio and television celebrities Bob and Dolly Dyer. They chaperoned famous guests like Katharine Hepburn. Louise told me she had a wonderful time receiving telegrams from Spencer Tracy and passing them on to his clandestine lover, Hepburn.
We talked of Peter. When she became a pioneer real estate agent on the Gold Coast in the 1960s, she recalled setting up a mobile sales office under a beach umbrella on vacant lots of land behind the suburb of Ashmore. While she waited for customers, Peter played happily in the street. She physically winced at the thought of her son's incarceration over slimming products and fraudulent business practices. "I introduced him to that tea when we were in Los Angeles," she said with obvious regret. Again, the tatty caravan.
AFTER A FEW months of being back in Australia, the calls from Caplin became even more frenzied. At "the office", an attractive young woman had recognised Foster's face from the television, and a brief affair ensued. It ended acrimoniously, exposed on the front page of a local paper. I remember when they first met, and having drinks with them at the nearby Fisherman's Wharf on a warm Sunday afternoon. Foster was, of course, recognised by the sizeable crowd. Eyes followed him and whispers echoed.
A photographer approached him that day and asked for a picture of the happy couple, but permission was denied. He was still ostensibly tied to Caplin. Any picture here would be on the front page of the London tabloids the next morning. The photographer left. Later, a drunk at the wharf decided, for a laugh, to throw Foster over the railing and into the Broadwater. A scuffle followed. The drunk was removed. I left that night wondering how he could cope with this life of celebrity, cope with an attack so hand in hand with adulation. A life where anything could come at you.
Somehow the photographer had managed a picture of Foster and his new love. It was local front-page news the next morning and later made its way, as expected, into the London papers. In the picture is the back of my head, just as the back of my head had featured in other clandestine shots of Foster taken over luncheon at Shuck. Friends called me to ask: "Is that the back of your head in the paper today?"
A week or so later there was a confrontation between Foster and the young woman in "the office". The press had done some digging and men had come forward, claiming they knew the true identity of Foster's new love interest. She was not an Italian model at all, but a well-known Brisbane stripper. Within hours of the break-up she tried to sell her story to a British tabloid. It was something Foster seemed wearily familiar with.
For a man of such obvious intelligence, it was fascinating to watch him in the presence of women. They could intoxicate him and sometimes befuddle him. Such was Caplin's powerful and peculiar hold. They gave him an almost boyish delight and would animate his whole being. He was completely charming and made them the centre of the universe. They were, quite simply, more interesting to him than men.
And yet the deception of the Italian model who recognised him on television and turned out to be a local stripper of Romanian descent, had completely passed him by. He later watered down the faux pas. "I've been done like a kipper by a stripper," he quipped.
On another occasion, a British journalist simply appeared one afternoon in the back bar at Shuck. After some pleasant conversation she said she was in town to file a story on the recently deceased motorcycle champion Barry Sheene. She said she had to go to Melbourne the next day. She was bored. Would Peter mind having drinks or a dinner later? She joined a group of his friends. She made no fuss of Foster. He was his usual polite self and bought her drinks. Later, she thanked him for his company, and asked if she could get a photograph taken with him. They won't believe back home that I had a fun night out with Peter Foster, she said. As the photograph was about to be taken, Foster impulsively picked her up in his arms. There was laughter all around. The woman went back to her hotel.
The following Sunday in Britain, a story was published in one of the tabloids. My night on the tiles with the sleazy Peter Foster and his "gorilla" friends. Foster says it's over with Caplin. Foster says this and that. The lengthy feature was accompanied by a photograph of the reporter being held in Foster's arms.
Again, more concerned calls from Caplin. He spent hours mollifying her. He'd been set up. He made complaints to the editor of that Sunday paper and the British Press Council. But nothing came of it. Then, at some point, the vial showed signs of cracking.
HE WOULD TELL of Caplin's obsession with Blair. Of photographs of the PM on her bedroom walls and one, framed, on her bedside table. He said I had to understand that Cherie was, in essence, the smart but daggy kid in the class, someone who had always yearned after the attentions of the attractive and cool girls. Caplin was the groovy girlfriend she could never have when she wasn't the PM's wife. He spoke of talking to Blair on several occasions – something the PM has denied – and of the chummy relationship he struck up with Cherie Blair. He recounted peculiar hand gestures of the Prime Minister, and an astounding example of childish language when it came to matters of personal hygiene, either passed onto him by Caplin or, on one occasion, witnessed first-hand.
And he howled with amusement when he read that Caplin had been employed as a lifestyle columnist for a British newspaper, and watched the slow but steady rise of her celebrity status.
Caplin was suddenly appearing in fashion shoots in Sunday magazines in London. There was talk of her building a fitness and lifestyle empire. She was publishing a regular column telling people how to live healthily and with style. With the distraction of Foster out of the way, her celebrity seemed to be exponentially expanding. She was being snapped by the paparazzi in her own right as a singular, famous figure.
His incredulity at this was partially resentment, I gathered, from being shut out of the playpen. He had been deported and cut off from his life in London and Dublin. Caplin had peppered him with loving calls for months, giving him an illusion of a life still lived. And then it went cold.
At his table in Shuck he began talking about writing his own version of events. He was getting depressed. He had an expensive exercise bike at home in Paradise Waters that he had not even plugged in. He was tired of doing nothing.
One day, British Daily Mail journalist Richard Shears arrived at the table in "the office". He was affable and interesting and Foster indicated to me in confidence that Shears was writing his biography. Foster himself had already written extensively about his own life. Firstly, in a huge manuscript penned while he was on remand in a Brisbane correctional facility, titled "Seduction and Sales: Stratagems of a Conman". I had read it. It was a sales manual filled with nuggets of autobiography. And another, "Eat Your Peas, Peter: A Memoir", a slender though nicely written 91 pages of reminiscence.
Shears was with Foster, periodically, for months. He even lived with Foster for several weeks as they went through a storage unit full of personal papers, records, photographs and other effluvia from a dramatic life. "I never throw anything away," Foster told me. Just in case.
And still he would re-emerge at night, for a few glasses of white wine, or a quick meal, to ease the tension of the work. Or you'd see him driving through town in his black Nissan Z convertible. Sometimes he would ring and offer his analysis on Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq, or on the Hutton inquiry. He rarely, if ever, mentioned Caplin anymore.
One thing that gained more prominence in our weekly conversations, surprisingly, was his growing faith. He regularly attended mass at his local Catholic Church, sometimes on a daily basis. He said he looked for good second-hand books for me at the church jumble sales. He permanently wore a cross on a chain around his neck – a gift from a nun during his time incarcerated in Brisbane.
The danger of home exile is you can stumble across characters from your past, and there were several occasions when he had to walk across the other side of the Village Green that is the Gold Coast. He often hinted, without detail, that there were people who might like to see him dead. He had worked undercover for the Federal Police, he said. Time does not always heal.
As the work on his life drew to a close he quietly expressed concerns about his and his family's safety. Yet he still chose to meet at his very public table at Shuck. And savour the crab lasagne, a specialty of the house.
"What are we doing here?" he often asked.
He missed Europe. Especially Paris. But it seemed to me a much broader malaise. For he is one of those people who is convinced that life is always going on elsewhere. When he arrived at where he thought life was, it had always inexplicably slipped out of town the night before.
He cared enormously about his reputation and we discussed it often. He was tired of being called "conman Peter Foster" in the papers. Conman may as well have been his first name, the way they used it. He had made several approaches to the Australian Press Council to have this rectified, for it to be deemed defamatory, but without luck.
In a pure sense, he has extraordinary business, managerial and sales abilities. In the time we got to know each other, I had no doubt that if his life had been without misdemeanour, he would have been a hugely successful businessman, or whatever he chose. He also possesses uncanny narrative abilities and is an excellent writer. Yet how to apply it now, with the caboose of the reputation always not far behind?
He agonised over this. As if, after turning 40, there was a chance for him to do something "meaningful" with his life – to come out the other side of that four-decade milestone and start afresh with all the knowledge he had accumulated and the mistakes he had made. He had spoken with modesty about his acts of philanthropy that have remained unreported. He proved, often, to have a generous nature with no expectations of reciprocated thanks or favour.
As the months passed it became clear the life story he had sold to the Daily Mail might never be published. There were internal ructions at the paper, silent politics, and atrocities growing in Iraq. Enthusiasm for the story seemed to fade. He was bemused and angered by this. He slipped fragments of his story and titbits of gossip to rival London papers to reignite the Mail's interest. Nothing seemed to work.
The telling of the life seemed to have exhausted him, had become the only thing in his life. When he gave an interview to an Australian newspaper in late March 2004 about the alleged relationship between Blair and Caplin – a story that detonated around the world – it seemed a natural culmination of the previous few months of Foster's life. As if the biography he had set in train with the Daily Mail had a natural destiny. Having built up such momentum, it was going to crash through any barricades, contractual or otherwise, and be told. He claimed his biography contained a "weapon of mass destruction" for the Blair Government.
When the story implying that Caplin and Blair were more intimate than previously thought tore through the UK, Foster was instantly energised. Newspapers and television crews were begging for interviews. British reporters were set to fly out to meet him to flesh out these extraordinary allegations.
Foster told me privately that he had serious misgivings about Caplin and her relationship with Blair. He said he was convinced they'd always been having an affair, even while Foster was in London. Yet I didn't feel his stories were the product of a jealous imagination. Jealousy didn't seem a part of his repertoire.
Without such a motive, though, the whole scenario reverted to a puzzle. Or a complicated game of chess, where the pieces were no longer knights and castles and pawns, but accusations and denials. Where newspapers and television became the playing boards. Where check mate never meant the end of the match, but some sort of indefinable victory, barely acknowledged before the board was set up again and the whole illogical thing repeated.
It was a game, I thought, that required serious stamina and personal resilience, and it was played on so many levels that to simply hear it, let alone live it, became dizzying and ultimately exhausting. It dulled the senses.
Yet the repercussions, the drama, the accusations and slurs, gave him definition again. Just as he had started to fade from view in the heat mirage that is the Gold Coast, the renewed controversy brought him back into focus – certainly for the British public. But more interestingly, for Foster himself. He repeated the story of Caplin being in love with Blair for a Vanity Fair profile on Caplin. He carefully studied how the British press covered the new allegations. He rang me repeatedly for my opinion on how the situation was unfolding. Which direction could be taken? How could the story be kept alive? He would delightedly inform me that he was in this publication and that. Had I seen the coverage? No matter that some of it was shockingly disparaging. He found much of the negative reporting humorous. He was in the news and exciting chaos rained down.
He became sharp and focused and enervated. The knife had again met the whetstone.
IN THE FALLOUT from the new round of controversy, Foster was approached by ABC interviewer Andrew Denton's Enough Rope to appear on the show. Foster deliberated. It would be his first television interrogation before a live audience in 16 years. He agreed to appear if I could come as a sort of "minder" and "buddy", which I did.
"I agonised over doing this," he told me on the plane to Sydney. "I bailed out twice last week. But I'm staggered by the perceptions people have of me, especially where I live, on the Gold Coast. I have to defend myself. Let people judge me on the evidence – the facts – not on 15-second television sound bites. Those who cared about me the most begged me not to do this. There were great concerns. They think I'll be a punching bag for this articulate and clever interviewer. But I see him as a great conman as well. He has phoned me several times and instilled confidence in me. He's sold me his product. He's agreed to play the interview with a straight bat. We'll see."
We arrived in Sydney to be met by a BMW limousine and were taken to the Sebel Pier One hotel, just beneath the southern end of the Harbour Bridge. Foster suggested a walk and lunch, and we dined at nearby Doyle's at The Rocks. It was Foster's first time in Sydney in 10 years.
"There's something to be said for a big city," he said, looking over at the Opera House. "I miss big cities. The Gold Coast, it's starting to feel claustrophobic."
He took several good luck calls on his mobile phone and by 5pm we were again inside the same BMW limo. He was wearing his "fat suit", he said, the only one that fitted him comfortably since his "sedentary" time on the Gold Coast. He wore a blue tie and a diamond tiepin.
At ABC headquarters in Ultimo he was ushered into the Green Room area, a well-furnished and comfortable nest of common rooms and dressing-rooms. There was a handwritten card – PETER FOSTER – on his dressing-room door. Several producers asked if we needed drinks of any description, or a meal. Twice Denton rushed past the open door. Then Foster disappeared to the make-up room.
In the studio, the warm-up comedian threw Minties into the crowd in an effort to whip up enthusiasm. Like children, people clambered for the tossed sweets. Then Denton was on stage and Foster was introduced, and the taped interview proceeded for more than two hours. It was colourful, riddled with wit from both camps, and strangely compelling. It only began to wobble out of shape when Denton went into detail about Foster's past.
Perhaps because of the hot lights, Denton's tenacity, or the fact that two hours of questioning had transpired, the interview ended with disputes over Foster's criminal record, and dates and times. Indeed, Denton quoted from a criminal history emailed by Foster himself to Enough Rope. He had sent several additional documents. Foster was erudite and witty and fast on his feet – until he was ambushed by his own material. The question remained – why had he gone to such lengths to provide Enough Rope with so much documentary material about himself? It reminded me of the old adage – never pull a knife on an intruder, lest it be taken and used against you.
DENTON HAD ASKED him if he was addicted to notoriety. Foster denied the suggestion. Foster was shaken after the encounter. On the way out of the studio he was undecided on how the whole thing went. He felt he had been "stitched up" again. They had done everything to woo him, he said, and spat him out once they had what they wanted.
On the flight home he was more objective about the interview. After some silent pondering he conceded that he may have inadvertently made an error correcting Denton on one of the points about his past. He said he would email Denton and admit the error, and thank him for the interview. He told me it was good manners. "I just want to win some respect," he said. "I don't run and hide. I've made mistakes and now I want to get on with my life. You wouldn't think it was too much to ask."
In the week that followed Foster changed tack again. He felt he had been unfairly treated. He felt the whole sad affair had not only denied him a right of reply to the constant attacks on his reputation but had made things worse. He repeatedly recalled a suggestion Denton made during the taping, that one of Foster's tricks was to tip a waitress an inordinate amount of money in front of his friends, then when the friends left the restaurant, ask for the tip back. Foster was clearly dismayed at the suggestion, said he had never heard that story and that it was entirely untrue.
It was this that seemed to particularly linger with Foster. This suggestion of cheapness. It was an insult to his manners and social graces. To his generosity and largesse. It was a slur on how he conducted his public life. A flurry of emails was sent to the show's executive producer. Litigation was threatened. On the Enough Rope website, the transcript of Foster's interview with Denton became unavailable for "legal" reasons.
In the weeks that followed he expressed a desire, again, to move countries. He could achieve nothing here, he said. It was the past. The old caravan he could not disengage from his present. The controversy that raged in late March and culminated in the Denton interview, faded away. Other things were occupying the front pages. He felt flat again. Life was elsewhere. He was biding his time. No, wasting it. It was as if he was staring into a mirror in a mirrored room and saw his reflection arc endlessly into infinity.
Foster had learned very early the benefits of associating with celebrity, in work and in your social life. As he wrote in his manuscript, "Seduction and Sales": "I am a firm believer in the power of personalities promoting your product. In many ways, I was a pioneer in this field, certainly no one in the diet health industry has been associated with as many celebrities as my companies."
In the course of the journey, he had become a celebrity. But as he has freely admitted, for the wrong reasons. He tasted the life and liked it, and took it. But, to his frustration, he cannot shake the reasons that shaped his celebrity. Again, as he noted presciently in his manuscript: "It is a very glamorous idea and rather exciting to contemplate aligning yourself with someone famous. Your mind can run away from you and you may start thinking, 'Won't our competition be jealous, won't my neighbours be impressed, I can't wait to have my photograph taken with them'... But beware, whilst it is a gold mine, it is littered with potential death traps. Tread very carefully... and keep your eyes open."
Much later, I recalled something he said in the Coolangatta terminal when we returned from the Denton adventure. He checked the date on his watch, turned to me and commented: "Did you know that it's 14 months to the day that I returned to this place? The airport was full of cameras when I got off the plane."
But as we left the airport there were no camera flashes to mark the anniversary. No flash from the knife blade. Nothing.