Blood on the Page

HAPPY CHRISTMAS !

I WAS THE EDITOR of the newsletter of the Anglo Albanian Association (‘AAA’), when a writer, Thomas Harding, sent the following email in late 2016:

“… I am researching the life of Allan Chappelow, a former member of Albanian Society and Anglo-Albanian Association. My former books include ‘Hanns and Rudolf’ and ‘The House By The Lake’. I would welcome hearing from anyone who remembers or has stories about Allan Chappelow…”

I had already heard of the two books and seen a little bit of correspondence about Chappelow, which suggested to me that he was a mysterious fellow. He interested me because he had been a member of one of the earliest groups to visit Communist Albania soon after the end of WW2 and he was a participant in the first student tour of the USSR made after Stalin had died.

Thomas Harding published his book, “Blood on the Page” in 2018. The secretary of the AAA and I attended a launch of this publication in Daunt’s bookshop in Hampstead’s South End Green. The book is about Chappelow, and I have only just finished reading it, having purchased a copy only recently.

Chappelow (1919-2006) lived and died at number 9 Downshire Hill, a lovely Georgian house in Hampstead. Sometime in May or June 2006, he was brutally murdered in his home. His rotting body was only discovered many days later after a bank had been investigating some irregularities in his account and had been unable to contact him. Wang Yam, a man of Chinese origin was accused of, and found guilty of, his murder and stealing his identity to carry out fraudulent financial transactions. All of this is detailed in Harding’s un-put-down-able book, which reads like a good thriller. In addition, Harding describes the trial of the man accused of having been the murderer.

The trial of the accused, who now languishes behind bars, was unusual for a murder case. Some of it was held ‘in camera’ for reasons that have never been disclosed and cannot be, without risking contempt of court. Trials are usually held ‘in camera’ either to protect national security interests and/or to protect the identity of witnesses. Chappelow’s was the first ever murder case to have been held ‘in camera’ in the UK. Why this was the case was not revealed in Harding’s wonderful book. It is clear from his text that he was not privy to the reason for the secrecy. As I read the book, I kept wondering what it is that the government wants to keep secret. From the detailed account of the murder and what Harding was able to find out about it and the 86-year-old victim, by then a recluse, I could not detect anything that could have been a threat to national security

One possible reason for the secrecy during the trial is mentioned in an article in “The Observer”, published on the 25th of January 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/25/murder-in-hampstead-did-secret-trial-put-wrong-man-in-jail-allan-chappelow). Here is a relevant extract:

“Before, during and after the trial, the government went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that details of Wang’s links with MI6 would remain secret. Two cabinet ministers told the trial judge that Wang’s entire defence must be heard behind closed doors. A contempt order issued by the judge prevents the media from speculating about the reasons for the secrecy.”

Elsewhere, the article mentioned:

“Between his arrest and the start of the trial, it emerged that Wang had acted as an informant for MI6 in London for a number of years. Wang was well placed to be an informant for Britain’s foreign intelligence agency. He had family links with China’s first communist leaders, he was opposed to repressive measures taken by Beijing, and he was something of a computer expert.”

Chappelow had visited both the USSR and Albania during the height of the so-called Cold War. I first visited Albania in 1984, when the Cold War was still ongoing, and the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha still held the country in his repressive grip. Our group included people who, after the trip, revealed that they were not what they had claimed to be while we were in Albania. For example, a lady who told me during our visit to Albania she was an archaeologist revealed to me later that she was really a journalist. At that time, journalists were forbidden from visiting Albania unless invited by the regime. Chappelow revisited Albania in 1993 after the ending of Communist rule. In his book, Harding quotes a member of the AAA, who was on the trip with him. She remembered that he had said he was a teacher, but she never “got to the bottom of his background”. Most biographical notes about Chappelow refer to him as a photographer and an author, not a teacher. That got me thinking, as did recalling an incident from my 1984 trip.

At least one of my fellow travellers told me that after the trip that he had been approached in Tirana discreetly by one of our Albanian tour guides and some of her colleagues. They invited him to become an agent to provide Albania with information about his country, Australia. Remembering this incident, I wondered whether Chappelow’s murder trial was held behind closed doors because his trips behind the Iron Curtain had either not been purely for reasons of tourism, or possibly while he was there, he had been approached by the local authorities as was the case of my Australian travelling companion.

Returning to Chappelow’s visits behind the Iron Curtain, here is something else I noticed in the Guardian’s article:

“Chappelow was the product of an educated, socialist family, whose liberal-leaning father, a successful decorator and upholsterer, had moved to Denmark rather than be conscripted into military service during the first world war. At the end of hostilities, the family returned to London and bought 9 Downshire Hill. Allan grew up in a politically progressive home; his parents were active members of the Fabian Society. At the onset of the second world war, the bookish Chappelow was faced with the same dilemma as his father, as well as his schoolboy hero, George Bernard Shaw, who had refused to fight in the first world war and was strongly opposed to the second.”

Interesting as speculations about whether Chappelow could have been involved with intelligence work might be, we will probably not find out the real reason for the secrecy for many years to come. In any case, this mysterious episode, centred in and around Hampstead, is a good reason to read Harding’s exciting and intriguing book … and possibly you might come up with your own hypothesis about why Wang’s trial was held ‘in camera’.

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