Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Happy birthday, Jeffrey

Happy birthday Jeffrey Archer, 80 today! It’s been an eventful, colourful 70 years for the best-selling author and occasional politician, with many ups and downs. Being sent to prison was certainly one of the downs, but he made the best of it, one might gather, by producing three volumes of diaries from the experience. The first volume shows that within a week he was already worrying about his future as a free man and not being able to explain to everyone who recognises him as a perjuror that he hadn’t had a fair trial.

Archer was born in London, on 15 April 1940, but he spent most of his childhood in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. After short spells with the army and police, he worked as a PE teacher, before entering Brasenose College, Oxford, to study education. While there he was successful in athletics, sprinting 100 yards in 9.6 seconds for Great Britain in 1966, and becoming president of the university’s athletics club. During this period, he also earned a reputation for raising money for charity, and met his future wife, Mary, who was studying chemistry.

On leaving Oxford, Archer’s own website explains, he was elected to the Greater London Council, and three years later at the age of 29, he became Member of Parliament for Louth. After five years in the Commons and ‘a promising political career ahead of him’, he invested heavily in a Canadian company called Aquablast, on the advice of the Bank of Boston. The company went into liquidation, and three directors were later sent to jail for fraud. Left with debts of nearly half a million pounds, and on the brink of bankruptcy, he resigned from the House of Commons - and started his writing career.

In 1976, his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, was published, first in the US, but then very quickly in more than a dozen countries. His third novel, Kane and Abel, was a number one best-seller in hardcover and paperback all over the world and, according to Archer’s website, sold over 3.5 million in the UK paperback edition alone. With his fame as a writer and his financial situation much improved he fell into favour with the Conservative Party again, and was appointed deputy chairman by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. Gaffes and a scandal involving a call girl led to his resignation a year later. In 1992, though, he was made a life peer as Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare thanks to prime minister John Major.

The call girl scandal led to a libel case which Archer won, donating the settlement to charity. More than a decade later, though, he was prosecuted for having committed perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in that libel case. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment, and was released in July 2003, having served two years.

Before being charged with libel, Archer had been selected by the Conservative Party as candidate for the London mayoral election of 2000; expulsion from the party followed his stepping down from the mayoral race. Wikipedia notes that during the 1990s and early 2000s, Archer was investigated (but not charged) in connection with allegations of insider trading at Anglia Television, where his wife was a director, and the disappearance of money from Simple Truth, a fundraising campaign run by Archer.

For three months while in prison, Archer kept a diary and this was published by Macmillan in three volumes between 2002 and 2004. Wikipedia has an entry dedicated to these diaries, and Archer’s own website offers a few pages of extracts from each volume, as well as images of his diary manuscripts. The first volume - A Prison Diary by FF8282 - covers the three weeks he spent at HMP Belmarsh, a double A category high-security prison in south London, said to hold some of Britain’s most violent criminals. Here are parts of Archer’s first diary entry (as found on his website).

19 July 2001
12.07 pm
‘You are sentenced to four years.’ Mr Justice Potts stares down from the bench, unable to hide his delight. He orders me to be taken down.

A Securicor man who was sitting beside me while the verdict was read out points towards a door on my left which has not been opened during the seven-week trial. I turn and glance at my wife Mary seated at the back of the court, head bowed, ashen-faced, a son on either side to comfort her.

I’m led downstairs to be met by a court official, and thus I begin an endless process of form-filling. Name? Archer. Age? 61. Weight? 178lbs, I tell him. [. . .]

I am ushered into a room only slightly larger than the cell to find my silk, Nicholas Purnell QC, and his junior, Alex Cameron, awaiting me.

Nick explains that four years means two, and Mr Justice Potts chose a custodial sentence aware that I would be unable to appeal to the Parole Board for early release. Of course they will appeal on my behalf, as they feel Potts has gone way over the top. Gilly Gray QC, an old friend, had warned me the previous evening that as the jury had been out for five days and I had not entered the witness box to defend myself, an appeal might not be received too favourably. Nick adds that in any case, my appeal will not be considered before Christmas, as only short sentences are dealt with quickly.

Nick goes on to tell me that Belmarsh Prison, in Woolwich, will be my first destination.

‘At least it’s a modern jail,’ he comments, although he warns me that his abiding memory of the place was the constant noise, so he feared I wouldn’t sleep for the first few nights. After a couple of weeks, he feels confident I will be transferred to a Category D prison – an open prison – probably Ford or the Isle of Sheppey.

Nick explains that he has to leave me and return to Court No. 7 to make an application for compassionate leave, so that I can attend my mother’s funeral on Saturday. She died on the day the jury retired to consider their verdict, and I am only thankful that she never heard me sentenced.

I thank Nick and Alex for all they have done, and am then escorted back to my cell. The vast iron door is slammed shut. The prison officers don’t have to lock it, only unlock it, as there is no handle on the inside. I sit on the wooden bench, to be reminded that Jim Dexter is inocent, OK! My mind is curiously blank as I try to take in what has happened and what will happen next.

The door is unlocked again - about fifteen minutes later as far as I can judge - and I’m taken to a signing-out room to fill in yet another set of forms. A large burly officer who only grunts takes away my money clip, £120 in cash, my credit card and a fountain pen. He places them in a plastic bag. They are sealed before he asks, ‘Where would you like them sent?’ I give the officer Mary’s name and our home address. After I’ve signed two more forms in triplicate, I’m handcuffed to an overweight woman of around five foot three, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. They are obviously not anticipating any trouble. She is wearing the official uniform of the prison service: a white shirt, black tie, black trousers, black shoes and black socks.

She accompanies me out of the building and on to an elongated white van, not unlike a single-decker bus, except that the windows are blacked out. I am placed in what I could only describe as a cubicle – known to the recidivists as a sweatbox – and although I can see outside, the waiting press cannot see me; in any case, they have no idea which cubicle I’m in. Cameras flash pointlessly in front of each window as we wait to move off. Another long wait, before I hear a prisoner shout, ‘I think Archer’s in this van.’ Eventually the vehicle jerks forward and moves slowly out of the Old Bailey courtyard on the first leg of a long circuitous journey to HMP Belmarsh.

As we travel slowly through the streets of the City, I spot an Evening Standard billboard already in place: ARCHER SENT TO JAIL. It looks as if it was printed some time before the verdict.

I am well acquainted with the journey the van is taking through London, as Mary and I follow the same route home to Cambridge on Friday evenings. Except on this occasion we suddenly turn right off the main road and into a little backstreet, to be greeted by another bevy of pressmen. But like their colleagues at the Old Bailey, all they can get is a photograph of a large white van with ten small black windows. As we draw up to the entrance gate, I see a sign declaring BELMARSH PRISON. Some wag has put a line through the B and replaced it with an H. Not the most propitious of welcomes.

We drive through two high-barred gates that are electronically operated before the van comes to a halt in a courtyard surrounded by a thirty-foot red-brick wall, with razor wire looped along the top. I once read that this is the only top-security prison in Britain from which no one has ever escaped. I look up at the wall and recall that the world record for the pole vault is 20ft 2in. [. . .]

I’m not, as I thought I might be, placed in a hospital ward but in another cell. When the door slams behind me I begin to understand why one might contemplate suicide. The cell measures five paces by three, and this time the brick walls are painted a depressing mauve. In one corner is a single bed with a rock-hard mattress that could well be an army reject. Against the side wall, opposite the bed, is a small square steel table and a steel chair. On the far wall next to the inch-thick iron door is a steel washbasin and an open lavatory that has no lid and no flush. I am determined not to use it. On the wall behind the bed is a window encased with four thick iron bars, painted black, and caked in dirt. No curtains, no curtain rail. Stark, cold and unwelcoming would be a generous description of my temporary residence on the medical wing. No wonder the doctor didn’t return my smile. I am left alone in this bleak abode for over an hour, by which time I’m beginning to experience a profound depression. [. . .]

There is a rap on the cell door, and a steel grille that resembles a large letter box is pulled up to reveal the grinning West Indian.

‘I’m Lester,’ he declares as he pushes through a pillow - rock hard; one pillow case - mauve; followed by one sheet - green; and one blanket - brown. I thank Lester and then take some considerable time making the bed. After all, there’s nothing else to do.

When I’ve completed the task, I sit on the bed and start trying to read The Moon’s a Balloon, but my mind continually wanders. I manage about fifty pages, often stopping to consider the jury’s verdict, and although I feel tired, even exhausted, I can’t begin to think about sleep. The promised phone call has not materialized, so I finally turn off the fluorescent light that shines above the bed, place my head on the rock-hard pillow and despite the agonizing cries of the patients from the cells on either side of me, I eventually fall asleep. An hour later I’m woken again when the fluorescent light is switched back on, the letter box reopens and two different eyes peer in at me – a procedure that is repeated every hour, on the hour - to make sure I haven’t tried to take my own life. The suicide watch.

I eventually fall asleep again, and when I wake just after 4 am, I lie on my back in a straight line, because both my ears are aching after hours on the rock-hard pillow. I think about the verdict, and the fact that it had never crossed my mind even for a moment that the jury could find Francis innocent and me guilty of the same charge. How could we have conspired if one of us didn’t realize a conspiracy was taking place? They also appeared to accept the word of my former secretary, Angie Peppiatt, a woman who stole thousands of pounds from me, while deceiving me and my family for years.

Eventually I turn my mind to the future. Determined not to waste an hour, I decide to write a daily diary of everything I experience while incarcerated.

At 6 am, I rise from my mean bed and rummage around in my plastic bag. Yes, what I need is there, and this time the authorities have not determined that it should be returned to sender. Thank God for a son who had the foresight to include, amongst other necessities, an A4 pad and six felt-tip pens.

Two hours later I have completed the first draft of everything that has happened to me since I was sent to jail.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 15 April 2010.

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