The seymour tapes, p.1
The Seymour Tapes
Tim Lott was born in Southall, Middlesex, in 1956. He attended Greenford Grammar School and Harlow Technical College, after which he joined the local newspaper. He subsequently worked as a pop music journalist, a publisher and an entrepreneur. In 1983 he attended the London School of Economics as a mature student and achieved a degree in history and politics, after which he worked as a magazine editor and a TV producer before turning to writing. He is author of The Scent of Dried Roses, which was awarded the 1996 J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography; White City Blue, winner of the 1999 Whitbread First Novel Award; Rumours of a Hurricane, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year; and The Love Secrets of Don Juan. All are published by Penguin. He is divorced, has three daughters and lives in north-west London.
The Seymour Tapes
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First published by Viking 2005
Published by Penguin Books 2006
Copyright © Tim Lott, 2005
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Dedicated to the memory of Thomas Haynes
Lorraine Electronics Surveillance, Mayfair; Communications Control Systems Ltd, Mayfair; Patrick Binet-Decamps and Andrew Milton at Le Prince Maurice, Mauritius, for providing a refuge; likewise Christina østrem at Hotel Portixol, Mallorca, and Miguel Angel Prohens, at the Hotel Cuitat Jardi; Dr James LeFanu; Juliet Annan, Amelia Fairney and all at Viking Penguin; David Godwin; Laurence Bowen and Josh Golding for taking the trouble; Rachael Newberry, as ever.
The story of the death of Dr Alex Seymour is – inevitably – more profoundly lodged in the public consciousness than the story of his otherwise unremarkable life. Attention thus far has focused on the circumstances that led to his demise, at the age of fifty-one, in the basement of a run-down house in west London. The issues that seem to shuffle around that basement like questioning mourners – of privacy, voyeurism and sexual compulsion – have been constantly scrutinized since the story emerged, nearly two years ago, of his complex and eventually fatal relationship with Sherry Thomas.
I would be the first to confess that I find it both peculiar and surprising that out of the many first-rate and experienced writers who have commented on this strange, and strangely modern, saga, it is I, never having written a word previously on the case, who was granted access to the much discussed, but hitherto unseen Seymour Tapes.
When I was approached by Samantha Seymour in the autumn of last year and requested to collaborate in writing a book about her family, her husband and Ms Sherry Thomas, I was nonplussed. My only contribution to the world of non-fiction to date was my first book, The Scent of Dried Roses, concerning the suicide of my mother, and a short, briefly controversial article in a literary magazine about the break-up of my marriage at the end of the 1990s. I also write a London newspaper column and occasional travel pieces. All in all, it is little enough qualification to tell the story of a celebrated and, above all, visible act of violence and defilement. Whether that visibility – culminating in the Internet broadcast of the infamous Skin Tape – came about because of theft or bribery, or through Sherry Thomas is not a matter for me to address here. I am not a sleuth, or even an investigative journalist. But after the Skin Tape leaked out, to the distress of the Seymour family, it seemed to Mrs Seymour that the record needed somehow to be ‘set straight’. She chose to approach me to undertake that task – even though my faith in the ability of anyone to set anything straight through any medium is strictly limited. Reality is too crooked.
I assumed, therefore, that Samantha Seymour had made some error. However, when we met at my publisher’s offices in the West End of London, she assured me that this was not so. She told me that after the death of her husband, and the subsequent discovery of the Seymour Tapes, she suffered a complete nervous breakdown. It was shortly after this that an acquaintance gave her a copy of my memoir about my mother, which details not only my mother’s suicide but my own struggle with mental illness. She claimed that it helped her recovery, and that she had admired it sufficiently to seek me out to discuss producing a book about her family and Sherry Thomas.
I tried to explain to her that I had never attempted to tell anyone else’s story, at least not at book length. I had only told my own. But she was insistent: so many lies had been told about Alex, she said – that he was a pervert, a snooper, a weirdo, a control freak – that only a complete explication of the facts would provide an effective correcting focus for these misperceptions. Such a picture would prove that Alex Seymour, although misguided and foolish, had acted only out of a desire to protect the family he loved.
Mrs Seymour has been offered considerable sums of money by representatives of the broadcast media for access to the tapes. She has consistently refused. However, in order to tell her husband’s story to the fullest extent, she offered to grant me access to Alex Seymour’s videotapes of the Seymour household. She said that she could never allow them to be broadcast but that, given the level of public interest and the distortions that followed upon this intense curiosity, it was sensible that they should be viewed, and reported on, by a neutral observer.
She said she wanted to ask me one simple question before she offered me otherwise unqualified access. It was anything but. It was ‘Can you be honest?’
I replied immediately that I could do no more than try and, furthermore, that I was bound to fail. I added that pure honesty might exist wherever Alex had gone, but that it was unlikely to be found on this earth. And, anyway, honesty was not the same as truth, which, unfashionably perhaps, I did believe in – at least as something for a writer to aspire to.
Apparently this was sufficient answer. There and then she offered me access to the tapes and the rights to the book. She told me that after I had made use of the tapes, they would be locked into a vault until her death.
I cannot deny that I was excited by the prospect. From a purely professional point of view it would be
Mrs Seymour agreed. In fact, she revealed to me later, had I not put forward this caveat she would have questioned whether I was the right person for the project. It was her little test, she said – and I had passed. As for the Thomas tapes, which were not in her possession, she felt confident (correctly, as it turned out) that the police would agree to release them to help the family achieve ‘closure’ on the whole traumatic business.
So, we were both reassured. I began to feel increasingly confident that I might have some chance of building up a true picture of Dr Seymour’s story and his peculiar relationship with Sherry Thomas. However, so complex was the nature of the case that I found myself asking for still more material, whose compilation, I knew, might be painful for Mrs Seymour and her family. In short, I asked her if she and her teenage children, Guy and Victoria, would be prepared to allow me to interview them in depth. (Polly, the Seymours’ youngest child, was only six months old at the death of her father so exempt, of course, from this request.)
Several weeks later, she agreed to my request on behalf of herself, but not her children, who, she said, were too young to be exposed to this. I accepted the point, and decided that access to Samantha Seymour alone was sufficient for me to take on the project. But she had another condition, to which, after some negotiation, I acceded: that although I should receive a generous fee for compiling the book and be entitled to all copyright fees from newspaper serializations, all royalties, serial and film rights should go to the newly founded Seymour Privacy Institute (SPI). As she pointed out, the Institute is the first charity of its kind to address one of the most corrosive obsessions of the modern world – suffered not only by individuals but by states, television companies and big business: the addiction to, as the institute’s manifesto puts it, ‘watching, to snooping, to gawking, to prying’, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly. And not only for security, but for pleasure and entertainment, even mockery and humiliation. Mrs Seymour – understandably, perhaps – now believes that tendency to be an insidious, intolerable blight on our national way of life.
The Seymour Institute has one aim: to restore privacy in private and public life. That Mrs Seymour has essentially opened a window into the world of her family and her husband by consenting to, indeed soliciting, this book in no way represents a paradox, as far as she is concerned: she is simply using every tool at her disposal to mitigate some of the damage that invasion of her privacy has occasioned. Since this exercise is carried out with her consent, and indeed the consent of all parties, no privacy issues are involved. On the contrary, it represents reparation of the damage done by other media.
In the end, I signed the contract, with a single caveat on my side: that I should be free to report what I found with neither let nor hindrance from the Seymour family. If they were to trust me, that trust must be absolute. I would allow them to see the finished work and check the facts, but the decision to censor or retain anything that I considered relevant to understanding the story would remain in my hands. To take any other course would be to compromise my integrity as a writer, and since that integrity had led her to approach me in the first place, it would be absurd to undermine it by removing my right to control the final product. I would, of course, listen to the family’s representations, but if most of the profit of the book was to go to the Seymour Institute, I would at least determine its content.
Mrs Seymour agreed – not without reluctance, but she finally accepted my point that any attempt to represent the truth is hardly likely to be taken seriously as long as those with most to lose are given control of the final product. She also accepted that I was writing in good faith, and that public sympathy was likely to be on her side; in practical terms, I could do little damage beyond that which had already been done.
It is a given that every representation of reality, even our own first-hand perception, indicates a point of view. I have tried my best, in this case, to make my reporting of the facts neutral – perhaps, it lately occurs to me, in a subconscious attempt to vie with the camera for the right to represent correctly what we label ‘reality’. Nevertheless, the facts I have selected, the quotes I have used, the sections of the videotapes I have judged irrelevant, dull or too intrusive, all of these factors mean that the version of reality I have constructed is distorted. At times I have allowed myself to be opinionated and critical about the meaning of certain events, and my impressions of the Seymours and Sherry Thomas.
But this does not imply that truth and lies are indistinguishable. Throughout, I have kept in mind as best I can Mrs Seymour’s original remit, those simple words ‘Can you be honest?’ And I can answer sincerely that I have tried, just as I can acknowledge the chastening corollary that I will have failed.
In the final analysis, I can do no more than hope that the failure is honourable, and that the result sheds more light than it casts shadow.
Interview with Samantha Seymour
Mrs Seymour’s appearance is now extremely well known, as a result of the television and press coverage of this case. However, in person she gives a rather different impression from the one-dimensional, tight-lipped, grief-stricken widow she has been most consistently depicted as. On the numerous occasions I spent interviewing her – at my office near London’s Portobello Road, and at the family home in Acton – she was, at different times, warm, polite and generous, as well as occasionally shrewd, defensive and difficult. Now thirty-nine years old, she remains an attractive woman, although her normally round, doll-like face has become thin and drawn with the pressure of her ordeal. She is of medium height and in good shape for a woman who has borne three children. She has straight, chocolate-brown, shoulder-length hair, and favours casual, well-cut high-street clothes, usually in quiet unpatterned materials – black, dark blue, white, taupe.
Although she is highly intelligent – Mrs Seymour holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Birkbeck College, London – she is endearingly vague. She will often put down a mug of coffee then forget where it is. She admits to being clumsy and ‘a bit of a slob’. Although her clothes are always smart and well pressed, whenever we met there seemed to be smear of food or ink on a lapel, her blouse or skirt. However, none of this prevented her pursuing a successful career in public relations with a small London-based consultancy, Jackdaw, although her tendency towards disorganization infuriated her husband, despite what she describes as their otherwise healthy relationship.
Before she answered any question, Mrs Seymour almost always paused to weigh and consider her reply. Undoubtedly she has a tidy mind, which belies her slightly slapdash appearance.
Since the birth of Polly, and then the death of her husband, Mrs Seymour has all but given up her career to concentrate on the founding, promotion and maintenance of the Seymour Institute. She confesses that, prior to her bereavement, late motherhood had diluted her ambition, and that her husband had become more or less the sole breadwinner.
This first interview took place at my office in Notting Hill. She was wearing dark slacks and a white, peasant-style blouse. She was lightly, rather amateurishly made-up, her lipstick smudged round her mouth. She was nervous, sometimes skittish and occasionally awkward, and chain-smoked Silk Cut Ultra. Overall, though, she came across as a woman of formidable confidence and insight.
Can I start by thanking you, on the record as it were, for agreeing to participate in this? I know the prospect must be painful.
We can take it as slowly as you like.
I appreciate that. But, of course, it was I who approached you. In reality, you’re the one who agreed to participate.
It doesn’t feel that way. After all, I have nothing in particular to lose.
That’s true. Although…
Author’s Note: Samantha Seymour pauses here and takes out a cigarette, which she lights with an unsteady hand.
You were about to say something.
Yes. Simply that the more I’ve thought about this whole sad spectacle, the more it seems that no one ever gets out of anything scot-free. Everyone is implicated in everything.
Can you explain?
When I started on this journey – the journey of my bereavement – everything appeared black and white. He was good, she was bad. I was good, he was bad. I was a victim, he was a betrayer. He was a victim, she was the betrayer. It reassures you to make everything stark and clear.
As time goes on, grey seeps into the picture. At that moment most people stop thinking about it. But I haven’t been able to give myself that luxury. I’m still wrestling with it. And the more I wrestle, the greyer it gets. Yet I can’t stop myself.
Hence this book?
Perhaps… Perhaps I hope it will be the final chapter. There is a sense in which these things can bring about a sort of resolution, isn’t there? Didn’t you find that when you wrote The Scent of Dried Roses?
I don’t know. People were always asking, ‘Wasn’t it therapeutic?’ and it’s impossible to say. I wrote it, and then it was published. Some people appreciated it, others didn’t. The question isn’t answerable. If you’re doing this to feel better, I can’t guarantee that you will.