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Whether Justy Incarcerated Or Not, Archer Was Needed To Write This Book
on 22 November 2010
Mr. Justice Potts apparently told either Jeffrey Archer or the jury that Archer's trial was "the worst case of perjury" in British legal history. The jury delivered a guilty verdict and the judge similarly pronounced the longest sentence ever for perjury - four years imprisonment. This is where Archer's first prison diary begins, with a long walk to a cell underneath the Court building. It ends 22 days later, during which Archer resides in HMP Belmarsh, a maximum security prison. The diary is subtitled "Hell" and daily grinds, humiliations, prison bureaucracy and fears weigh down on the prison's most famous resident throughout. Humour, although there is a little of it, is in very short supply.
Never, it seems, did the author expect to be convicted and several times throughout the journal Archer decries the evidence on which his trial was based. Beforehand, my prior knowledge of Jeffrey Archer, the man, was restricted to his illustrious writing career. Writing, as he is here, mainly to keep his sanity, his proclamations in this respect are somewhat difficult for readers unfamiliar with 'what actually happened' to comprehend. There is neither account of the trial itself nor anything approaching a statement such as "I'm innocent." Instead there are legal niceties - Archer's co-defendant was acquitted whilst Archer was convicted for "conspiring to pervert the course of justice" (Archer does not understand how he could have conspired with someone to commit a crime if that other person was acquitted); and a fair degree of venom for Mr. Justice Potts and the prosecution's witnesses, one of whom admitted in the witness box to practically robbing Archer blind.
As I suspect is common with all famous prisoners entering the system, Archer finds himself an unhappy passenger on at least three merry-go-rounds - the prison system is determined to treat him like any other prisoner and not to be seen to be awarding him any special favours; the legal system is, or was, both determined to follow through with his prosecution to the bitter end and ensure he was made an example of on sentence; and finally we witness the press interest/intrusion plaguing both his trial and subsequent internment. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for him being banged up in a notorious and dangerous jail, despite the hundreds of good causes he has supported over the years, if he is indeed correct that the evidence against him was doubtful. However, because he does not go into that evidence in much detail, the reader is also slightly alienated. Or at least I was.
Prison Diary 1, summed up in one word, is intriguing. The minutiae of every last action is penned - from the succession of forms that process his arrival - to the rules that regulate almost every aspect of his existence within the walls. Discovering that the warning given to him by another inmate that "Belmarsh has the worst grub in the whole prison system" is accurate, his diet becomes one of lollipops, cereal and UHT milk. And, partly in relation to an altercation in the exercise yard, and partly in relation to a succession of wholly invented 'revelations' about him 'lording it up' in prison by the News of The World, he remains in his cell for a long period of time each day.
He comes across a variety of characters including 'the man (who can get you anything)' Del Boy and a clued-up Irishman Shaun Keene, who educates him on the reality of drug-use within HMP Belmarsh. He forges something of an alliance with a few of them, whilst others are mentioned only once before Archer finishes his recording of the conversation with them with something like "I don't think I will see him again." Particularly memorable passages include his account of a psychotic double-murderer striding over to accompany him on association, and his discovery of the horror of 'listener' Fletch's 'little green book'. In less stress-fuelled moments, Archer teaches a creative writing class, and listens to the odd game of cricket.
As you might expect, the style of writing is a quite radical departure from the Archer fiction books. Prison Diary lifts the lid on exactly what serving a prison sentence involves with no exaggeration and only the odd touch of dramatic licence. The crimes of Archer's cellmates range from the sad (One man conveys that Archer must only repeat the details of his crime as long as he doesn't make the fact he stabbed an Australian multiple times sound in any way violent) to the more troubling (Drug-dealers who tell Archer that they can earn £200,000 per year from the trade and can therefore never settle into a 9-5 job). To help keep track of so many characters, they are often introduced by their Christian name plus a short recap of what they're in for. A short, but effective method.
As Archer's focus shifts on an hourly basis, the reader has to follow suit, allowing to experience just a little of the disorientation which pervades prison life. Then focus returns when one is least expecting it. One of my favourite passages was the Twelve Unit call the author made to his wife whilst feeling low, and its abrupt and critical moment of termination.
Extremely surprisingly, to both Archer and the reader, something about Archer's presence itself apparently brings a sense of calm to his maximum security surroundings. Prisoners, realising he is writing a book, put on a brave face around him, do not swear and ask him for the odd autograph. Officers forget themselves and call him "Sir". Prisoners intentionally applaud when he enters a room, and refer to him as "His Lordship" in jest. If Mr. Justice Potts thought he was condemning Archer to perpetual fear and misery, it seems he was mistaken. There is undoubtedly fear and misery in droves, and Archer experiences his fair share of it, but he brings something to the table that most prisoners do not - celebrity. Without sounding too gushing, even just his presence amongst them has something of an educational effect when they realise that the newspapers report Archer's conditions incorrectly.
Finally, scattered liberally through the text, are a number of observations which Archer makes. On some occasions he even speaks to politicians directly - "Are you listening, Home Secretary?" Alas, although this diary was written some seven years ago, many of these startling obvious observations remain uncorrected. Why, for example, are prisoners on remand (i.e. not yet convicted of an offence) housed with psychotic double-murderers? Why does 'the system' wait until a person is actually convicted then classify him as a B-cat (B dangerous level, from a scale of A (high) to D (low)) prisoner until it works out his 'real' categorisation?
Prison Diary 1 is a book that needed to be written and, however unjust Archer's incarceration may or may not have been, he was exactly the right person to write it. He is not released at the end of this diary, merely transferred to a second prison. The story therefore continues for two more volumes.