Prison to Prayer
By Corrie Bond-French
On Christmas Day, the majority of us will be amongst family and friends, marking another year with festive traditions, gifts under the tree, turkey in the oven and good cheer. This year, 18 years after the doors of Belmarsh prison clanged shut behind him, former politician Jonathan Aitken will spend Christmas Day back in prison, an occasion he fully expects will be a ‘bittersweet experience’.
Poacher turned gamekeeper role reversal idioms abound, but politician turned prisoner turned pie (pie and liquor – vicar, he educates me in the prison rhyming slang he is now fluent in) doesn’t quite do justice to this near-Dickensian story of porridge and ghosts of Christmas past.
A former Tory minister, infamously jailed for his hubristic perjury in 1999, Jonathan was ordained as a deacon in the summer, and now works both as an unpaid prison chaplain, visiting prisoners inside London’s prisons every week, and at St Matthews in Westminster where he delivers sermons and officiates at hatches, matches and dispatches.
We meet in the drawing room at St Matthews, where a clock ticks gently on the mantel and within the sound, until recently, of the chimes of Big Ben. Father Jonathan, as he is now known, still walks the same streets of his former life in power, but has followed a very different path.
As he and his close friend and mentor, St Matthews Vicar Father Philip Chester, warmly try to establish the exact moment they met – plumping for 30 years ago, it is clear that Jonathan’s recent ordination has been a long journey much-welcomed by the congregation and the community in Victoria. But it was not an easy decision.
“I have been for a long time a rather reluctant clergyman, in the sense that, there’s no such thing as qualifying, but I did my studies at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford 18 years ago – I joked that I went to the one place in Britain with more uncomfortable beds and worse food than prison! I spent two very happy years there but I didn’t feel I was right to be an ordained vicar.
“It’s only about 18 months ago that I started to get woken up in the night by a serious murmur saying ‘I want you to be ordained’ and I more or less said politely ‘please God, no, I’m too old, I’m not properly up to it or worthy of it’, but the serious call of God is too strong to resist.
“Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever been more happy or fulfilled in my life as I have been since being ordained. It’s testing but it’s been worthwhile.”
Jonathan concedes that his prison chaplaincy is challenging: “It’s not your tranquil Church of England cucumber sandwiches on the lawn, country vicarage. It is the rough end. I go to Pentonville prison regularly on duty and our day usually starts with overnight reports on who’s tried to commit suicide, who’s self-harmed.
“Having been a prisoner myself I’m very much at home in a prison, I understand how it works, I get on with the officers and get on with the prisoners and it’s a much-needed ministry. I can say I’ve been there and know what it’s like, and then they sit up and take notice.”
Jonathan can still vividly remember his first night in a cell. “That was pretty scary for a strange reason. I got into that cell and my first reaction was, well, it was a tough day, possibly the worst day of my life, but I was expecting it. I’d pleaded completely guilty so it wasn’t a shock, and I hoped now I’d just be able to get my head down and get a good night’s sleep. But in Belmarsh there was something which needless to say I had not encountered and wasn’t expecting, which was doing a ‘quizzy’, which was shouting questions from one to another, they do it every night in Belmarsh, and they’re usually high as kites on drugs and I didn’t know that either.
“Of course I was in the news, every news bulletin was saying ‘Aitken jailed going to Belmarsh’ and suddenly this very raucous, very obscene quizzy started, and the gist of it was ‘do we know that ‘effing ‘effing Aitken is now here in Belmarsh? What are we going to do to him tomorrow, ‘effing ‘effing Aitken?’ And then all kinds of very imaginative, crude suggestions about what they would do to various portions of my anatomy, just to show me what they thought of ‘effing effing Tory cabinet ministers’
“I make light of it now but at the time I was really shocked by the sort of venom and viciousness. Of course I had no idea at all that these guys were high as kites, secondly I didn’t know that of course they didn’t mean it. The next night they went on about an officer or something and what they were going to do to him. It was just, in Belmarsh, a way of letting off steam in the evening. But I was pretty terrified.”
But despite his situation, Jonathan found much to be positive about in prison.
“Of course, I wish that I had not had my tremendous failings of character and morals and not told a lie in the libel case, and I wish I had not gone to prison, but once it had happened, I actually, despite a lot of anguish and agony along the road, I had a pretty good and very interesting journey. I had to go through prison, which was not that tough in the sense that everyone said I’d get beaten up and all that sort of stuff, but not a bit of it. The guys were very friendly.
“I did know how to handle myself because I certainly wasn’t giving myself any airs or graces, not at all, I was just going with the flow of the thing and actually I found there was a lot to like.
“There was masses of humour, I had to learn a completely new language, rhyming slang, I got to know people I would never have got to know when I was at cabinet level, I met some very interesting and very kind people. It wasn’t an adventure I had wanted to have, but once you were on the adventure you couldn’t help but get very interested in it, the prison community, and I always had, which was not fashionable for a prisoner, a lot of time for the officers, who I thought were rather special people. They get rather a lot of bad press but in my view firstly they had one of the most interesting jobs in Britain coping with impossible situations most days.”
It soon became apparent to Jonathan that he could help other prisoners out and be useful.
“I gained a lot,” he says. “Actually if I went back to prison again I don’t think I’d do anything very differently. I was navigating blind at the time, what I did was to be very careful and cautious and to be very polite, and I had a trade which was writing letters and reading letters for the very high percentage of prisoners who can’t write a very good letter, and roughly speaking that percentage in a big London prison is in the order of 25- 30 per cent so the word gets around that a fellow prisoner is quite a decent bloke and he’s writing letters and reading our letters to us.
“I can remember one old lag in Belmarsh saying to me ‘do you realise Jono that with all that letter writing of yours you is having a fantastic impact on the girls of Brixton, they can’t believe the sudden improvement of the love letters!”
“I got to know my fellow prisoners well, got accepted because of that and did a bit of good, so I think if I was going to prison again I’d put a notice up outside my cell saying ‘Jono is willing to write your letters’.
Jonathan still sees friends he made inside, including Noel ‘Razor’ Smith, who now works on the prison newspaper ‘Inside Time.’
Razor and others attended Jonathan’s ordination party this summer: “I was ordained at St Pauls on 30th June and it’s the custom for newly ordained deacons to have little parties, almost immediately after the service…I had this brilliant idea of seeing if one could hire the old bailey which you can, you can hire upstairs, and it’s beautiful I must say.
“Needless to say I didn’t just invite other deacons or friends or family I also invited people from other walks of life, politicians from both sides of the house, Ddiane Abbott came, but I had five people who’d been with me in Belmarsh.”
Jonathan is also happy to mingle with his former political colleagues.
“The last thing I think of myself as is as a politician, but of course you don’t spend 24 years of your life in the Houses of Parliament without enjoying it or without making friendships and learning a few things which are useful later on.
“Life I full of surprises, on the whole. I went thorough a phase that I call defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail, and that’s a pretty good royal flush of crises by any standard.”
“I think I’ve got better at containing my ego, not entirely successfully, I think when you’re something like defence secretary which I was, you go everywhere in an aeroplane you really do think you walk on water, and now I know someone else walks on water.”