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Books

Wandsworth’s white-collar clubmen

Alexander Larman reviews A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins

One advantage of being imprisoned, rightly or wrongly, is that the literate can usually get a book out of it. A variety of writers have created memoirs of time spent incarcerated, from the legendary (Wilde’s De Profundis and Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead) to the less distinguished. It is unlikely that Jeffrey Archer’s 2002 account of his incarceration, A Prison Diary, will be regarded as a great work of penal commentary a century hence. This is somewhat unfair on Lord Archer, as his book about his conviction and imprisonment for perjury has an immediacy and honesty about it that makes it far more readable than much of his fiction.

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins, Atlantic Books, £16.99

This literary sub-genre has a new addition in former documentary filmmaker Chris Atkins’s A Bit Of A Stretch, an account of the nine months that he spent in Wandsworth Prison in 2016 and 2017 after he received a five-year sentence for a complex financial fraud.

The book is clearly intended as a companion piece of sorts to The Secret Barrister’s 2018 bestseller Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, and the pseudonymous lawyer gives a blurb for the cover in which he or she calls Atkins’s memoir “funny, shocking and powerful”. While that book dealt with the chaos of the contemporary legal system, this one looks at the unspeakable ghastliness of what lies ahead once one is convicted.

Atkins, who went to Bromsgrove and Oxford and was nominated for a Bafta for his first documentary film, Taking Liberties (2007), is both forthright and somewhat vague about the crime that led to his incarceration. He was the beneficiary of a dodgy film financing scheme, and was convicted of conspiring to help various bankers defraud a million quid from the taxman, a state of affairs occasioned by the Blair government offering generous tax breaks for loopholes that the unscrupulous could take advantage of.

Although Atkins writes, presumably on his publisher’s advice, “I want to be clear that I did definitely do something wrong,” the suspicion lingers throughout that he considers his incarceration an affront. Still, he was lucky in one regard; he had expected a six-year stretch and had feared eight, so the five he was sentenced to came as
a relief.

As is the way of these things, he encountered one of his former subjects in a holding cell at Southwark Crown Court: Max Clifford, who appeared in his 2009 documentary Starsuckers. Clifford, who was in court to answer more charges of historic sexual assaults, looked like “a geriatric Osama Bin Laden”, but soon brightened when he realised that his former tormentor was now in the same situation as he was.

The only ones who stand a chance of having a reasonable time of it inside are the white middle-class men

Once Atkins was admitted to Wandsworth, a place that he likens to “Castle Greyskull from the He-Man cartoons”, the fun and games begin. “Not for the first time,” he wryly writes, “I reflect how popular culture gives an oddly false impression of life inside.” The administrative chaos and squalor that he found, as well as the endless noise and heavy drug use—the inmates mainly smoke “spice”, a strong and synthetic form of cannabis—make for a challenging welcome.

Still, the documentarian in Atkins saw an opportunity to explore this new milieu. As he notes, “Wandsworth was a cesspit of misery and despair, but I also found it darkly entertaining.”

One prison warden, who he likens to “the cave troll from Lord of the Rings”, informed Atkins early on that “this place is full of slime … there are about fifty people, out of sixteen hundred, I could have a reasonable conversation with. The rest are pond life.” As soon as he is led onto the induction wing, Atkins was confronted by these unfortunate people. He was in the worst place in England—“we call it Beirut,” one screw comments—as he was beset by an appalling cacophony of noise, made up of “yelling, banging, screaming, grunting, begging, barking, threatening, ranting” and the rest. His small and filthy cell boasted an open toilet and a racist cellmate, and the communal shower was ankle-deep in human waste and drugs paraphernalia.

It swiftly dawned on Atkins that, to survive his incarceration in this “dystopian Yellow Brick Road, with flatulent prison officers instead of Munchkins”, he must find his own hustle. The inmates at Wandsworth are “banged up” in their cells for months because of a lack of staff, making a mockery of the alleged opportunities for education and rehabilitation. The only ones who stand a chance of having a reasonable time of it inside are the white middle-class men—the so-called “white-collar club” who get the best jobs and the most comfortable accommodation, to the resentment of the prison’s black and Asian inmates. Atkins reflects that this disparity, which he used to his advantage, was a reflection of life outside.

He had the bad fortune to be in Wandsworth at a time of poorly conceived reorganisation, with the prison hiring a “head of reform” and producing nonsensical initiatives like calling the prisoners “men” rather than inmates and stating, “Stop assuming that prisoners are liabilities and start viewing them as assets.”

There is a rich vein of humour here, not least when he fell in with Martyn, the infectiously cheery former managing director of Deutsche Bank (four and a half years for insider trading), and the whole thing started to resemble a twenty-first century version of Decline and Fall.

Many of Atkins’s anecdotes are hilarious, not least the prisoners practising polytheism in order to be allowed out of their cells to attend the services, and devout Muslims going to AA meetings for the same reason. Exercise opportunities are scarce, and conducted on ethnically segregated and mutually suspicious lines when they are. Atkins writes, “I keep playing the opening bars of West Side Story in my head.”

There is a wealth of gallows humour amongst his fellow inmates. Sharing a cell with a Romanian pornography aficionado, he asked him about his occupation, and his roommate replied:

“I used to work the London Underground.”

“As a driver?”

“No, as a pickpocket.”

It is also a relief for those of us who treasure the memory of Noel Coward’s all-powerful kingpin Mr Bridger from The Italian Job to find that the prison hierarchy still allows the best-connected convicts to lead extremely comfortable lives. One charming drug lord had a flat-screen TV, Sky TV and a George Foreman grill in his cell, and discussed the finer points of Game of Thrones with a warden. At times, the camaraderie and humour seems almost appealing, even in these awful circumstances.

Yet for every grim laugh, there are more moments of frustration or dreadful fear, and the greatest punishment of all for Atkins was being parted from his young son Kit. Family visits and phone calls therefore became all-important, and their absence led to hideous emotional pain. In prison, apparently insignificant things matter enormously: “A small setback will set me off a cliff, and a nugget of good fortune feels like I’ve won the lottery.”

Atkins eventually became a “Listener”, a Samaritan assigned to help suicidal prisoners, and this is where the book’s hitherto enjoyable tone becomes darker. A vast number of men and women inside suffer from severe mental health difficulties, and little or no provision is being offered for their assistance, meaning that the Listeners are often faced with the grim prospect of prisoners self-harming in front of them. This parade of misery coarsened Atkins, a hitherto impeccably right-on North London liberal — “I became fairly uncouth over time” — but he is reminded that “whenever I was sucked into a ‘poor me’ mental whirlpool, simply saying ‘Fuck it, Atkins, you did it’ immediately collapsed the vortex.”

There were occasional unwelcome intrusions from the outside world, including a brief visit from then Secretary of State for Justice Liz Truss (“a lot shorter in real life … nose constantly elevated as if she is visiting a sewage plant”), but eventually Atkins was allowed out to Ford open prison, which he describes as “like the Ritz compared to Wandsworth”, despite or perhaps because of the ready availability of alcohol and drugs. His time there was generally “boring” but uneventful, and then he was released to rebuild his life and publish this memoir.

He is, as he would admit, one of the lucky ones. He has supportive friends, an understanding former partner (the novelist Lottie Moggach), reasonable funds and the ability to rebuild his life. For many, this is never an option. As he writes, “If Wandsworth was a hospital, patients would be discharged with far more diseases than when they arrived.”

Atkins tries a bit of political soapboxing towards the end, offering his own (reasonable and sane) suggestions for much-needed change in the penal system, although his argument is slightly undercut by his denigrating the former prisons minister Rory Stewart, who had many of the same ideas and did his best to implement them, as “eccentric” and “comic relief”.

It feels like an awkwardly tacked-on attempt to find a universal truth in his experiences, but A Bit Of A Stretch is mostly extremely readable and horribly revelatory. It rattles along, avoiding self-indulgent navel-gazing or the temptation to gloat at the relative good fortune that Atkins enjoyed. Most people will finish this book and feel a profound sense of relief that they have not had the misfortune to spend the best part of a year inside this medieval and barbaric system, breathing, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

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