How to go to prison without really trying
I was put inside for a curiosity of a reason – for talking to a famous political figure who ought not to be talked to. When I was taken to the police station there was a notice board on the wall on which the crimes of the area were listed under three headings – murder, dacoity, robbery. Mine was the most unclassifiable crime that the local police have ever come across. But I suppose it was a kind of robbery, at base – a theft of their own priceless prestige.
It was only two days before (May 8th) that Sheikh Abdullah, the former Premier of Kashmir, had become once again the exclusive property of the Indian Government, forbidden to all outsiders, and placed in the trembling hands of the Ootacamund police. He was arrested at 3 o’clock that Saturday morning, the moment he set foot on Delhi Airport after returning to India at the end of several months’ tour abroad. No doubt he suspected arrest; but he certainly hoped otherwise. He had written to Mr Lalbahadur Shastri, the Indian Prime Minister, from Jeddah, the week before, to say that he was obeying the Indian Government’s summons to return to provide an opportunity to clear up all the misunderstanding that had arisen during his absence.
It was only in April of the previous year (1964) that he had been released after fourteen years’ imprisonment in Srinagar at the whim of Mr. Nehru. Nehru himself was by origin a Kashmiri – a Kashmiri Brahmin, and thus a member of that tiny 2% or 3% minority of Kashmiris who are Hindu, not Moslem. Throughout his life Nehru had always been intimately affected by factors of caste and origins of birth – what we in the West would call snobbery, but what in India delves much more deeply and is reflected by ancient religious instincts concerning the hierarchy of souls. Nehru was never to marry a secret impulse with his professed Socialism. Kashmir to him was of incalculable significance: it was a refinement of nature and spirit, it was an ancestral refuge – cool, beautiful, northern and not easily accessible.
If ever there was any logic about the geographical partition of India and Pakistan, Kashmir as a Muslim territory should have gone with the latter; but in effect the British fumbled this section of the border, and as the world knows, Pakistan and India fell to war. Only after grim combat was an uneasy cease fire established along an incongruous line which gave the Pakistan most of Ladakh and the wild hills along the northern perimeter of Kashmir, but by which the heart of Kashmir, the exquisite Vale with its floating gardens, carved houseboats and elegant houses remained in the grip of India. As my wife and I had discovered in August 1964 when we were in Kashmir, India held the territory with not less than 80,000 troops.
The visit had followed upon my first meeting with Sheikh Abdullah, “the Lion of Kashmir”, and his former Kashmir Cabinet Minister and for years his companion in prison, Dr. Mirza Afzal Beg. We had met in Delhi, and during our talk Sheikh Abdullah had impressed me with two points which the general public, I feel, had not been aware of: first, that he was not holding out for the unification, of his country, with Pakistan, but rather for a degree of autonomy for Kashmir in which, perhaps, Pakistan and India might share some joint rights; and that secondly, by this means and through the constantly pressing need on both sides (particularly India’s) to solve the Kashmir dispute, he should turn Kashmir from an issue of division and bitterness into a unique opportunity of bringing India and Pakistan together and of healing all those terrible wounds caused by the hacking of one country out of the other in 1947.
As for “Sheikh Sahib” himself (as his friends and followers called him), I seemed to recognise at once a man of spiritual elevation and it went with a personal charm and lightness of touch which has induced in many man-to-man loyalty. Aside from anything he stands for when, a few days later, my wife and I flew to Srinagar, we were at once taken under the care of his friends touched by the same spell, and were brought to dine in his house with the Begum Abdullah, who spoke of his long years of imprisonment with that kind of agonised fortitude that I have met among the wives of political prisoners of fugitives in many parts of the world. Even now that he was free, she knew he was still scarcely hers, but the Cause’s. A year later in the course of our now notorious talk after his re-arrest, he remarked with the utmost resignation that since he had taken on the cause of his people, he could hardly complain at any misfortune for him personally that might stem from it. He belonged to the Cause.
At the time of Nehru’s death, the previous summer of 1964, he had been engaged in talks with Nehru. It seemed that the old leader, seeing death oncoming, had been recollected of the need to do justice by Kashmir at last; for it was to be for him no earthly refuge — Nehru knew he would die in office. After talking with the ailing Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah had been allowed to cross to Pakistan and was in fact in the course of conferring with Ayub Kahn when Nehru died. Probably only Nehru could have turned Kashmir from the divider with Pakistan into catalyst.
But in the first week or two after Nehru’s death, while Lal Bahadur Shastri was forming his new Government, I for one gained the distinct impression that the new leader was bound on fulfilling Panditji’s last desire on Kashmir, even if he did nothing else — that is, achieve a lasting settlement, even at the expense of some measure of Indian self-esteem. Shastri knew that India would have to concede something. Yet it was already clear to me, interviewing in succession most of the leading figures in Delhi politics, how hopelessly vulnerable Shastri would be making himself in such an attempt. There was one issue upon which the far Right in Congress was ready to vie with the far Left: an unyieldingly chauvinistic line on Kashmir. Both groups had already perceived that Shastri’s “softness” on Kashmir was their surest means of embarrassing him and weakening him for their own purposes. They had already been digging pits around Nehru in their speeches around the country, and privily in conversation in the last weeks before his death. And if it might just have been possible for Nehru to have persuaded India to swallow her pride on Kashmir, Shastri would fall long before he had anything to show as achievement.
By the time I next met Sheikh Abdullah in March 1965 any reasonable hope of further negotiation on Kashmir had vanished. At Nehru’s death, the presumption was that Sheikh Abdullah’s sounding-out of Ayub would be followed by a meeting between Indian and Pakistan leaders. No such meeting ever really too place — merely a brief luncheon which Ayub gave for Shastri on the letter’s return from the Cairo Conference of November 1964, when his mind was already heavy with disillusionment at India’s obvious ineffectualness in Afro-Asian councils.
Then Abdullah embarked on his lengthy trip abroad, in which he was to visit several Muslim countries in the Middle East, and Britain. I met him at a luncheon given for him by Moral Rearmament at their Berkeley Square headquarters. We were both non-MRA guests and were seated next to one another. There had just been a new wave of arrests in Srinagar, following the Indian’s Government’s highly protective move to end Kashmir’s sub-status in the Indian union and to clamp it irrevocably as an integral part of the motherland. I found Abdullah despairing of any settlement. He himself had discovered the British Government, as ever, to be refusing to take sides on his inter-Commonwealth dispute, even though Britain and America, outside Indo-Pakistan, alone might have the power to insist upon some kind of settlement: both adversaries were dependent on us trans-Atlantic allies for economic and military survival. After lunch, Abdullah took the assembled guests painstakingly, yet I felt, lifelessly, through the well-known facts of the Kashmir situation and although India’s intransigence inevitably emerged, no sign of bitterness was evident in the speaker.
His tour abroad was already being actively misrepresented by some political and many press elements in India. But it was the following month, April, when he had a private talk with Zhou Enlai in Algiers that the outcry in India became deafening and was joined by the Indian Government itself. To be detached observer, it was clearly a fortuitous encounter, and almost certainly innocent. Abdullah was on a visit to Algiers lasting a few days, when quite unexpectedly, Zhou Enlai, premier of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong, flew from Tirana, Albania, to see Abdullah. (Ben Bella, their Algerian host, was but a few weeks away from his deposition and imprisonment in a coup d’état.) Abdullah never attempted to make any secret of the topic of his conversation with Zhou: it was about the pact just then being concluded between China and Pakistan affecting the northern border of that part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan and abutting on China. What Abdullah wanted to know was whether that pact would be binding upon any future government of Kashmir should the status of Kashmir alter. Zhou’s answer was: “No”. The agreement would be renegotiated. If this exchange had any significance at all, it was only in that Zhou Enlai might be said to be giving his endorsement to the possibility that a unified, and to some degree, autonomous, Kashmir might one day emerge.
That brief encounter in Algiers sparked off in Delhi and throughout the newspaper-reading community of India a fury in which all the fears, hatreds and pride of post-independence India combined. No one, save a handful of courageous political thinkers like Jayakapresh Karayan and certain leaders of the Swatantra Party (which had always stood for realism on Kashmir) was prepared to inspect dispassionately how this talk took place and what its purpose might have been. That clamorous majority, goaded by injured national pride, saw it only as a coming together in one outrageous gesture of public contempt for the feelings of India, all those forces that for years had been conspiring to destroy India: Sheikh Abdullah himself, as the most significant figurehead of the Muslim faith in the Indian union, whom most Indians were convinced was determined only to sell his territory to Pakistan, openly caballing in a none-too-friendly foreign capital with the Prime Minister of China whose armies had raped the northern reaches of India and whose objective for years had been the military humiliation and diplomatic isolation of India throughout the developing world.
Here was Abdullah’s gratitude, they cried, to their beloved Panditji who, in the mercy of his heart, had seen fit to restore to Abdullah his liberty, and whose succeeding government had allowed the Kashmiri to slip abroad squandering India’s precious foreign exchange for the sole objective of working for India’s humiliation. Thus was that brief two-hour consultation presented to the Indian people. In the Lok Sahba, members were shouting that he should be brought back to stand trial for treason.
The cry for revenge upon Abdullah was still loudly ringing when at the very end of that April, Pakistani and Indian armies fell to fighting in the Rann of Kutch in their biggest engagement since the Kashmir war of 1947. The Indians suffered a swift, shaming, reverse, which received widespread publicity throughout the world. I was covering it on the ground, on the Pakistan side, by the start of May, flying over Indian territory just a few feet above the ground in Pakistani helicopters. The political imperative for some kind of retaliation by an increasingly vulnerable Indian Government became ever more pressing. Whisper of Shastri’s personal weakness were growing more and more audible. The Congress party’s hierarchy was becoming outspoken as to how exposed they were.
Sheikh Abdullah had already declared his intention of obeying India’s call to return in the second week of May. Ten days earlier, covering the Rann, I had remarked to a colleague that the return of Sheikh Abdullah would probably just suffice as a face-saver for Shastri’s government. Arresting him on arrival would provide just that necessary act of apparent strength and determination required by the people; it would enrage and snub the Muslim community; and it would probably arouse certain loyalist Kashmiri elements in Srinagar who could be suppressed with a gratifying show of force. I was aware how short-lived would be the value of such a policy; but my forecast was to be precisely borne out.
When Abdullah in fact flew back Delhi in the early hours of that Saturday, it seems he had not informed the Indian authorities of the time of his arrival. Nevertheless, they had found out from certain Indian journalists who had been tipped off by Sheikh Abdullah’s friends in Delhi. They were waiting there for him on the tarmac with a police escort. He was taken at once into custody, together with Mr Mirza Beg, his colleague; and under hastily adjusted Defence of India Regulations he was that day put aboard an aircraft for Bangalore whence he was taken by police car to the hill station of Ootacamund. There he was confined to a bungalow in an area known as Ferndale. According to regulations published that same Saturday, Abdullah and Beg were free to move around Ootacamund, but prospective visitors would first have to obtain the permission of the local collector (regional administrator). The Begum Abdullah was not arrested; she was free to move anywhere in India except to Kashmir, and if she wished , to join her husband in “Ooty” — as the hill station had affectionately been nicknamed generations ago by the British.
That Saturday, I was in Colombo where I had been busy assessing the position of Ceylon’s new government. On the Sunday, I was planning to fly via Madras to Delhi to see how the Shastri regime was weathering the Rann of Kutch settlement. I had already warned my office in London that Abdullah’s unexpected return would probably provide the context in the next move in the endless stand-off with Pakistan.
It was only in the early hours of Sunday morning that I heard of Abdullah’s arrest and it was only when reaching Madras at 10am that Sunday morning that I bought a local paper The Hindu and read that Abdullah and Beg had both been confined to Ooty, in Madras State. Another front page story told of another Indian Government spokesman stressing that Sheikh Abdullah was “not detained” and had the “complete freedom of Ooty”. I was dubious as to this light-touch detention. A day’s detour to visit him, and to ascertain the nature of his relative “freedom” seemed to me an apt, kindly and unobjectionable enterprise. I sent a cable to my office outlining my intentions and indicating that I would probably now reach Delhi on the Monday night or Tuesday. My projected itinerary was to fly out to Coimbatore, some 300 miles, find some kind of motor transport (to get me to Ooty) that night; mop up the Abdullah situation next morning, and continue without delay by road to Bangalore, from where I would take the first available aircraft to Delhi.
I was seventh on the “wait list” to Coimbatore, and got aboard only because a family of four, of which two were numbers five and six on the “wait list”, refused to be split up when there was only room for one extra passenger. On the same aircraft was the Chief Minister of Madras, a tiny figure, white-haired and rather simian in appearance, who was also on his way to Ooty. It occurred to me to ask him for a lift (since I had run short of money) but no opportunity arose. At Coimbatore I therefore took the bus, leaving at 6pm, and found myself in a clutter of luggage, vegetables and mangoes, sitting next to an awestruck Deputy Collector on his way to his first Collectors’ Conference, which was to open the next day at Ooty.
It had been blisteringly hot all day; but as night fell and the bus lumbered up from the plains to 7000 feet we found ourselves quitting the tropics for the tonic air of a Swiss summer’s evening. Ooty was almost asleep when we arrived at 11pm.
It was, as I knew, the height of the holiday season at Ooty, and every government official worth their salt from Madras to Calicut had fled up the hill to Ooty to escape the blazing heat, after the tradition of the departed British. I found a taxi driver, a prince among taxi drivers from his air of authority, named Rajil, who took me in succession to five full hotels and guest houses, beginning at the Savoy and ending at a distinctly modest establishment named Woodlands, which customarily provided shelter for the poorer native traveller who was seldom refused a space but was found space for on anyy available square foot of bedding or couch, or – for the inferior castes – in superior corners of the floor. For me, it was not a question of whether a room was available but whether I myself could find a suitable shaped space anywhere upon a horizontal plane amid the ramified chambers where neither the feet of a recumbent Stacey would be likely to intrude on another’s face nor vice versa.
I regret to say that, inevitably (as I later was to discover) being the only English customer in an otherwise Tamil establishment, my arrival and insistence on a place to repose sent a tremor of subdued hubbub across the whole guest body of Woodlands Hotel. Almost every sleeper shifted a few inches until I found myself alone on a bed in a minute cubicle shared by only one other gentleman named Farouk, who had been identified as a not altogether unsuitable companion in that at one stage of his career he had evidently served in the imperial Indian Navy. With the prospect of a mere three hours of sleep that night, I was more than content.
As requested, Rajil woke me at 7.00 and by 7.20 we were on our way to the house of Sheikh Abdullah’s confinement. Rajil proposed I should first call upon the Collector to tell him of my intent. I had not grasped the paragraph, at the foot of the page of my Hindu, referring to a requirement of the local collector’s permission for any intending visitor to Abdullah; yet to call upon him seemed a courteous procedure. Meanwhile, Rajil had another engagement to fulfil and transferred me to the archaic vehicle of a colleague who drove me up the hill to the pleasant residence of the Collector of Ooty.
I was beginning to take stock of my beautiful surroundings. Ooty lies in the bowl of the Nilgiri Hills which cascade their deep greens of tea plantations and forests on all sides down upon the scattered human settlement which itself is built among ridges and hummocks immediately overlooking the race course that describes the heart of the town. This was a stroke of planning inspiration by some forgotten British administrator of the mid-19th century. There is almost no point of a little town from which the race course is not visible. At the north end, the level floor of the bowl extends far enough to accommodate a small lake where that very afternoon a summer regatta was to take place. The climate provided Englishman and Indian alike the ideal antidote to the blinding heat of the plains beneath.
The Collector’s elegant garden fell away in front of the house to expose a fine view of the lake and further hills. I mounted the steps and rang the bell; and a moment later the door was opened by a Sikh in a long housecoat who was clearly the Collector himself recently roused from sleep.
I introduced myself as a friend of Sheikh Abdullah, Ooty’s brand new detainee. I told of my dining with the Sheikh in his his house in Srinagar and had very recently been with him lunching in London. This was a visit of courtesy and comradeship, no more. I did not reveal my profession. The passport in my pocket described me with calculated concision as “company director and author”, which was not untrue but not the whole truth. I was well dressed and suave. The Collector did not ask my name, and I hastened the interview by saying that I had time to remain in Ooty for no more than an hour or two and might perhaps confine myself to leaving Sheikh Abdullah a note of greetings at his “residence”. The Collector spoke of checking with Delhi by telephone: I knew well that Delhi’s civil service would not yet have clocked on. It was scarcely 7.30 a m. I needed to be on my way before getting a direct prohibition. With neither a nay nor a yea I bid him a contented breakfast and successful conference and slipped away.
I returned to my waiting veteran cabman. Only then did I tell him to take me to “Sheikh Abdullah’s house” which I reckoned he was bound to know of, even if the Sheikh had flown in via Bangalore only the previous day. He was, after all, the hottest political detainee in the country. Our taxi route took us to the western edge of the town where a descending driveway led to a modest Public Works Department villa in a dip from the roadway. At the drive’s entrance a sentry had been posted, whom (with my telling my driver not to pause) I acknowledged with a lofty, quasi-regal, salute. At the front door of the villa another sentry was posted. I paid off the taxi asking him to return in an hour.
I had long learned to avoid catching in the eye of sentries and those in uniform whose function was likely to be to prevent one from proceeding beyond a certain point. My demeanour was that of an official visitor, as if, say, from the UN. I rapped at the door, which was at once opened to me by the companion of the Sheikh arrested alongside him, Mirza Afzal Beg, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, whom I had met in London three weeks earlier. He recognised me at once, with hearty greeting. “Sheikh Sahib is just finishing his bath.”
A moment or two later there emerged behind him the impressively tall figure of Sheikh Abdullah himself, buttoning his dhoti. He too enthusiastically welcomed me with his broadest smile as “my very first visitor. Come and join us for breakfast.” I knew Beg to be right hand man of Sheikh Abdullah, his long-time fellow prisoner fellow prisoner, as President of the Plebiscite Front, when Nehru’s conscience had bitten him at the looming of his death. We settled at a table in the dining annexe of the mean little living room and partook of a poached egg and pitta-bread.
Abdullah was as ever the genial figure of calm authority, entering his sixties. After some twenty minutes our conversation turned to the nature of the Sheikh’s talk with Zhou Enlai in Algiers when a new figure entered the far end of the room from within the house, having evidently just risen and dressed. He was presumably the detainees’ official minder, for he opened with an aggressive Who are you? addressed to me. Up to that point I had bluffed my way with an airy, post-imperial condescension. I now ventured the same technique, responding with a brusque, dismissive I am talking with Mr Beg, as if to disallow our table conversation to be interrupted. The intrusive figure withdrew, and I could hear at once a telephone being dialled. I sensed the game was up.
Indeed, with minutes there arrived at the villa entrance a vanload of uniformed police from Ooty’s all-Tamil community. The posse was headed by hectoring figure of rank, in civilian attire, and evidently their superior, who demanded I step outside. Sheikh Abdullah accompanied us. We were flanked by uniforms.
“What is your name?” I was challenged.
“Why are you calling yourself Mister Peg?”
“I said I was talking to Mr Beg.”
“So you are also Stacey.”
Manifestly I had entered trouble.
“You will come with us.”
Sheikh Abdullah was out there with me. He had already told me that there was no reading matter in the villa. In the conduct of my journalistic life I would carry with me whatever book I might be engaged with at any time, to occupy waiting hours. My literary companion that day happened to be a scholarly classic of its kind, a book of a lecture series by the eminent Cambridge classicist R W Livingstone entitled Greek Ideals and Modern Life. This I passed to the Sheikh as a parting gift, to assuage his literary starvation. The arresting policeman slapped it down into the dust at our feet. I picked it up and now successfully re-presented it to my forbidden host: “This is for you, since you’ve no books.”
I bade farewell to my friend the Sheikh and boarded the van.
Our route to Ooty’s police headquarters was to take us back by way of the rude Woodland hospice where I had spent my brief night, to collect my belongings. The police commander had descended alongside me. He was glowering at the reception book at the entry desk where lodging customers entered their names. All entries were in the script of Tamil-Malayalam, reading right to left, except mine. I had written only my surname, hastily, in capitals, in the small hours of the previous night. The policeman had primitive English.
“Here you are saying you are Staley,” he declared
“No officer. That’s a shallow C which looks like an L.”
“I shall not see. For names you are saying three or four things,” he returned. “Isn’t it?”
I began to perceive the overriding context of my offence … and my dilemma. My offence was to have exposed the flaws in the local police’s evident instruction to isolate the hottest political prisoner in the country whom Delhi, fraudulently, had declared was “free to move around Ootacamund”. They didn’t know what to make of me and were desperate for a pretext for my arrest.
At Ooty’s police headquarters I was deprived of all my belongings including my double-decker passport. I hung about in the forecourt while (as had become evident) a bevy of them excitedly worked away to fabricate a reason for holding me. First, they found in a pocket of a packed pair of trousers seven rupees of Pakistani currency – about six shillings’ worth in English money. They had insufficient English to enquire how I had come by the cash. Indeed, there was none among them who attempted a simple cross-questioning as to my association with ShShaikh Abdullah. I deemed it wisest not to reveal myself as a newspaperman, whose last-but-one assignment, three weeks previously, had been to cover the Pakistan’s relatively successful little war with India across the Rann of Kutch. Such a role as mine would have been incomprehensible to them: to explain would have cast me as an enemy of India. The Pakistani rupees were proof enough of my true role as a Pakistani spy. The notion that my true motive for calling upon Shaikh Abdullah was one of genuine friendship and sympathy, and the preservation of mutual trust, would have been incomprehensible. Yet such was the full measure of it. I never intended to report on my encounter with the Shaikh for next Sunday’s paper.
I confess to an imp in me enjoying their confusion. Yet their very confusion and professional incapacity were to compound my enmeshment. For my passport provided them with subtler proof of falsity. The document in their hands comprised two passports strapped together with official tape, held in place with sealing wax, uniting one in front, containing a five-year American visa unexpired amid a clutter of superseded visas and entry/exit stamps, with its fellow passport still serviceable with spaces for new visas and stamps. Two or three months previously, however, the document had contained a middle passport, making it a three-decker, enough to raise suspicions among border post immigration staff as to this super-itinerant “company director and author. When the validity of the last valid visa in the middle passport expired some three months previously, I was on an assignment in Caracas, Venezuela. I asked the sympathetic British consul, well aware of my high-profile role with the Sunday Times, if he would reduce the three-decker to a two-decker by removing the redundant middle one. What he and I overlooked, however, was the handwritten sentence in the latest passport declaring that this passport supersedes passport number xxx which is hereby attached. It was attached no more.
So I had manifestly forged my passport. It was then, early afternoon, that I was placed under arrest and locked into the police station while they considered what to do next. I requested permission to inform the consul in the British High Commission in Madras of my arrest, I was refused. I produced from my suitcase a philosophical work, in paperback, signed by the author, the current President of India, the philosopher Sarvepelli Radhakrishnan, whom I had interviewed the previous year. This was brushed aside – perhaps as a fake, or (more likely) unintelligible. I was resolved not to expose myself as a newspaperman since my passport said otherwise, and from the start, I had no intention to report on my encounter with Sheikh Abdulla. My motive was to establish the manner of his isolation, but principally to demonstrate to the Sheikh the strength of my personal allegiance to him as the key player in the most volatile region of the Indian scene and to give him courage. I had declared myself a friend of the Sheikh: that I had declared, and that was enough. None of my captors had questioned me as to the nature of my friendship: there was no one present in that Ooty police-station capable of interviewing me. None so attempted; let it stand. I had committed no offence and intended none. I could have communicated with my captors most coherently through a Tamil-speaking member of the British High Commission, but they had denied me the right to make contact with him. The police themselves were intent on finding their own pretext, however fatuous, for having let me slip through hence arrest me. Sonner or later, I presumed, some figure of authority and intelligence would emerge with whom the issue would be resolved in a five-minute discussion. To explain here the role of an internationally roving foreign correspondent, would have been incomprehensible and prolong the absence of a figure or mediator of broader authority.
The imp of curiosity as to how this absurd impasse would shake out still lurked within.
Night fell. I remained the centre of attention. I was stripped of all possessions, including my passport, except the clothes I stood up in and the contents of my pockets. Close upon midnight that Monday, without explanation I was bundled into a Black Maria van with four armed policemen and taken to the residence of what I deduced was a magistrate of the town. The fellow was awoken from sleep to sign the paper. I glimpsed him in the half darkness. My sole exchange was to be informed by him that I was being arraigned under the Defence of India Regulations 1962. These entailed my being held in custody with no specific release date, without charge, trial, or conviction, on suspicion of hostility to the state of India. Since Ootacamund did not boast a prison, I was to be taken down the hill to the major city of Coimbatore in the plains below, to be locked up there. That would in turn require a formal endorsement from Coimbatore’s senior magistrate, whose private address was provide to my police escort.
Off we set on the six-hour drive, in a police pick-up vehicle, with my escort of four police each with a rifle, and our driver. The latter, however, on our reaching the plains, found himself unable to interpret the written directions to Coimbatore’s magistrate’s home. So it fell to me to take over my prospective incarcerator’s whereabouts. This I achieved on our collective behalf as dawn was breaking: the second such judicial figure to be awoken from sleep to endorse with his signature the order from Ootacamund. Armed with the required paperwork, we set off for Coimbatore Central Jail.
This proved to be sited on the edge of the city. It rose like a fortress all on its own set in an expanse of open pastureland. As we approached, in early light, I saw cattle being released for their day’s grazing by the postern gate set into the edifice’s massive double doors. Deceptively pastoral. The prison, I could see, was a mid-nineteenth century penitentiary which I reckoned to have been constructed following the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It appeared pretty vast, and sombre. Its outer walls were some fourteen feet high, with a great arched double door which was never opened except to bring in truckloads of those under the shadow of the law. I was escorted in by the postern gate by two of my guards who, with their fellows, had become my good companions through my role as orienteer.
I was instantly in the hands of the prison’s reception. Here I was issued my prison garb of a grey dhoti, sleeveless smock and flat slippers, and deprived of my pen, watch, comb, toothbrush, razor, and soap. I was asked my religion, and wrote them Church of England. My request for contact with the British consul was brushed aside … or not understood. I had been brushed by a sudden sense as to gravity as to my predicament. Thus reduced, I was led out by a jailer who had no English (as I had no Tamil whatsoever) into the body of the penitentiary. Except for what must be the administrative and reception buildings clustered at the entrance, all was open to the sky. The prison proper was a network of compounds – perhaps a dozen or more – each surrounded by walls as high as those of the perimeter and interwoven by broad open walkways. Each compound was the size of a tennis court’s lined area. Open to the air. Each contained, as I came to observe, two rows of back-to-back cells surrounded by open space for potential recreation. Thus it was a vast honeycomb, woven with walkways.
I was admitted to one such compound.
The double rows of cells were each comprised of a dozen (or so) breezeblock cells on a concrete base and concrete walling, roofed by diagonally pitched corrugated iron which extended some three feet beyond the vertical bars that comprised each cell’s entranceway facing out into the compound, thus to keep direct sunlight off any actual cellspace. Each cell measured some nine feet in depth and six feet of width. A concrete bedspace, thigh-high, like a mortuary slab, provided with a straw palliasse, occupied much of the cell area. The hole in the floor was for urinating and excreting. Alongside was a pail of water. No more.
Within a matter of minutes I was aware that I was alone not only in my row of cells but was the sole occupant of the compound. Not a single warder was in sight or reach of call, or a single prisoner in earshot.
My jailers, persuaded by the sentencing authority to disbelieve my passport, hence presuming not to knew not what my name was, nor my nationality, nor why I was here, nor what action they might take in respect of me. My newspaper would not know which region of India between Madras and Delhi had swallowed me up or silenced me.
With Sundays and Mondays being blank days for a Sunday newspaper, I had told no one of the route of my spontaneous excursion to Ooty. I knew enough of post-imperial India to be aware of the endemic administrative lethargy. No functionary stood to gain by action when inaction got you by. I was entrapped by mutual linguistic incomprehension. I was alone in a cell in a back-to-back pair of rows in a high-walled compound in a higher walled prison, unrecognised, with no named offence, to be held under a law allowing for indefinite incarceration without charge comparable to the wartime statute in Britain against suspected Fascists known as 18B.
The assault of claustrophobia was sudden and unpredictable.
Now, a confession. Since early childhood nightmares were a familiar recurrence. They were almost always claustrophobic. I would yell forth in sleep and awake in terror. I had long wondered about this propensity. When I was six I had been taken to see my first movie. This was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, being screened in a cinema on Edgware Road a hundred yards or so from our house on London’s Norfolk Crescent in Paddington. Just before the film started rolling a few seconds of total darkness had descended on that cavernous chamber. Alarm gripped me. My next childhood nightmare had me abandoned, devoid of any route of escape amid an interminable clutter of seats, utterly alone.
Right now, in my cell, that selfsame demon descended upon me in a different guise, re-summoning another childhood moment. On an ocean shoreline a towering wave was poised to descend upon my head as a small child… such as had once swamped me as a six-year-old on a beach at St Margaret’s Bay in Kent … bowling me over, grinding me into the sand. Suddenly, in jail, I sense the rivets of rationality are about to go, with the brain overtaken by sheer irrational panic. On the instant, it was a matter of life and death: the sole escape from possession by panic was oblivion.
Aware of this propensity in my life hitherto, I had come to inspect the origin of this bizarre propensity, and came to the view that its derivation might be related to the very moment of birth, at a perhaps critically delayed attainment of that first breath on the emergence from the womb. Such analysis, however, did not absolve me. I was vulnerable as potential victim of instant insanity.
Thirty-five years after that postulated moment of a delayed first breath, in my prison cell, I perceive this condition as imminent … and its onset potentially catastrophic: possession by a demon (Pan) disabling the facility of reason, of essential self-command. The threat of such a deprivation was not less than appalling. The heart raced, sweat breaking out, brain in riot, breath coming in gasps, knees turned to water.
Extending the St Margaret’s Bay beach moment, where a moment previously I was in my depth, feet wherewith to stand, I was on the instant in mid-ocean in whelming tempest.
Yet alongside the condition reason is galvanically at work to offset the madness. Within minutes there is that within me forbidding my thoughts to enter any speculation of release, or assessment of rescue, or means of contact with family or newspaper or High Commission. I am to confront my imprisonment in its totality. I am to block awareness of the birds flitting through the space between the eight-foot walls dividing my cell from its neighbours and the diagonal of the corrugated iron roof. I have forbidden myself to look out through the bars to the compound beyond, and with equal resolution, seated on my bed-slab, I have turned to face the inner wall of my cell and that alone.
In that fissured duality of ferocious inwardness I remain all that day and into the following night. The madness too remains present, intact, poised to consume me. Challenged Reason is simultaneously present, cold-shouldering madness. I am host to this grotesque confrontation, in tremulous alarm. When at daybreak my meal of ghee and lentils is brought to me, the fellow finds me lying on the floor beyond my bars doubled up and groaning with invented agony. I have calculated that I am the sole foreign prisoner in the jail, that the Governor of the place would not wish to report that such a rarity had died on his watch. I have also calculated that the prison’s doctor, or medical superintendent, would have enough English to learn that unless I am moved to communal cell I will ensure my own death.
The gambit worked.
By midday I was one of a long snake of fellow prisoners reporting sick, for whatever cause, queuing to see the prison’s doctor at a communal site near the centre of the jail’s rambling complex. We sick were obliged to squat, slotted up against one another, shunting forward on our heels as each patient at the head of the queue was summoned forward for attention. Control of the queue was in the hands of three or four of the prison’s ‘trusties’ – long-term prisoners issued with weapons of authority, lathis – supple sticks some five feet in length – with which to thwack any sick prisoner failing to keep precisely in line. Each of my fellow prisoners, I observed, wore a disk on a chain round the neck carrying the date of their release – including the trusties themselves: the dates, as best I could observe, belonging to the far future. The trusties have evidently secured their privilege roles of authority by their capacity to intimidate their fellows.
The doctor, of my own age, was a figure or recognisable humanity. I could detect in him the alarm my threat induced. I told him calmly I would assuredly carry it out unless I was admitted to communal cell. Next I told him that I required to speak to the prison Governor to learn the reason my imprisonment.
That very afternoon I was indeed brought into the presence of the Governor. Or rather, as far as the doorway to his quite deep, darkened office premises, where my interview of some ninety seconds was conducted at the distance between the doorway of his spacious office, where I was halted, and his desk. I requested that the British consul should be informed, a request again seemingly dismissed, since it elicited no response. Yet by that evening I was in a communal cell, in its own compound, containing some twenty bed spaces on the floor, and some ten inmates.
Claustrophobia was at bay, if not wholly evicted; for it had left me with a spasmodic tic which took the form of a spontaneous opening and shutting of the mouth as if in an attempt to catch a fly.
My new companions were instantly my comrades. With
one exception they were dacoits, their sentences recorded by their date of release on the metal disks around their necks: each a member of professional, usually hereditary robber bands belonging to a community of outlaws dedicated to preying on cross-country travellers in middle India. The sentences mostly ran far into the future: twenty years or more … and my new companions were mostly young men. Here they were to spend the bulk of their lives, given a life expectancy of not beyond fifty years. I had no language to share any of my fellow prisoners … except for a certain Sunderam, nominally a journalist and serving several years for fraud. Sunderam was a godsend: my single cord of communication with my new universe of incarceration.
Sunderam was of short stature and of an age similar to mine. Through him alone could I could reach to my new companions, whether prisoners or jailors. What I could bring him was a chance to rehearse his English, of which he was rightly proud.
I was the only member of the cell block not allowed release during the daylight for movement within the compound. Through Sunderam I became aware of a prison library. To this Sunderam gained access, and finding therein a handful of books in English imported, it appeared, from a defunct British club in
Bangalore, the major city in hill country to the north of Ooty’s Nilgiri massif. From it he extracted a copy of Winston Churchill’s first book, written as young Hussar serving in the Khyber region northwest India entitled The Malakand Field Force. To this he added The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, Lord Dunsany’s The Chronicles of Rodrigues, and Thin Ice, by Barbara Goulden. This last was the worst novel I had yet encountered. I quote: I was doing my exercises without a stitch on when the valet appeared from nowhere. Various passages were underlined. Churchill’s work, published in 1898, had also won attention from an underliner, using a red pencil. Their womenfolk in general have no position but that of animals. They are freely bought and sold and not infrequently bartered for rifles. (The truth is unknown among them.) A previous reader added his comment in the margin: V. bad practice.
The books propped my sanity. Meanwhile so far as I knew the outer world remained in oblivion. I began to reflect on the possibility of escape. It occurred to me that I might attempt to cling to the underbelly of one of the cows entering he prison at nightfall and released at dawn (as I had witnessed), on the pattern of Odysseus’ men escaping from the cave of the blinded Cyclops, Polyphemos. But I was long-shanked and my captors were sighted. Then I was aware of what might be achieved athletically by obtaining a bedsheet, giving it an elaborate knot at one end, soaking the knot in water, and flinging the knotted end over the 14-permieter wall, thus holding the sheet momentarily in place to assist a running vault over the top and out. But I was yet to learn if my compound shared a perimeter wall.
From the prison’s Governor, as the week advanced, there was a menacing silence.
Trusties supervised the compound, each equipped with their weapon of office, their five-foot flexible lathi.
Being an unprecedentedly extraneous figure among my cellmates, I was a focus of watchful respect. I exercised my vestigial command by establishing a regime of good bedspace order, resummoning my own teenage experience as a National Service recruit in the Scots Guards at Surrey’s Caterham barracks. My comrades enjoyed this supervision, competing in precision, except for one who was unhinged and prone to converse argumentatively with himself. My bowel condition was known to the cell’s community since we all shared the single hole in the floor when called to excrete.
This predictable disorder prompted an act of imaginative kindness that all my life shall be remembered. On the Wednesday afternoon, as the sole prisoner obliged to remain in the cell, I was reclining on my palliasse with a book, close up against the bars, when my attention was drawn to a little deputation of three or four fellow inmates approaching me from the other side of the bars. The group was led by Sunderam.
It was evident they had for me a special gift. On my side of the bars I was fully alerted. The gift was wrapped in a white napkin. It was in the context of my digestive disorder. It was carried by Sunderam. As he unfolded a napkin, he addressed me formally.
“We are bringing you this wheat bread, sir, for your perusal and taste.”
It was a crafted presentation, of darling indelibility. Perusal and taste. Someone had raided the Governor’s kitchen for a scrap of essential Englishman’s fare. Bread. My bowels had told my intestinal story. Sunderam had scoured his vocabulary. This was love. Hark me, Sunderam, as I write my soul praises you. Your crime was fraud. God knows, you are redeemed. You had but three more years to serve.
And to my tummy I said Hark. Respond. I could ride this out, whatever was to come … even if the internal vigil could not be relaxed. I disallowed myself any speculation as to release, or contact or reunion with my wife and daughters, indeed of any awareness from beyond the prison walls. I was conscious of the wilful elimination of the awkward and unwanted in autocratic regimes with little accountability, whereby the buck stops nowhere. I knew India’s own outright abuse of constitutional human rights and of the rule of law on the issue of Kashmir, or indeed on Assam or Nagaland. The bland dismissal, thrice repeated, of my right to report my arrest to my country’s consul breached international law. I was alive to the catch-all powers of the formal edict by which I had been imprisoned: the Defence of India Regulations, 1962. I could not know whether if could be as capriciously rescinded as it had been capriciously invoked.
It was late afternoon the following day that my fellow inmates picked up word that I had a visitor.
Minutes later a uniformed jailor from the centre was at hand to escort me to the Visitors’ Block in the reception area. As we passed, by way the warren of internal routes, a tower-like edifice standing alone, my escort indicated what appeared to be an exterior doorway at a third level opening upon thin air. It was from there, he pointed out, that those condemned to death were launched from a plank into space at the end of a hangman’s rope and there left to dangle. Pour encourager les autres.
I entered the Visitors’ Block to wait in an ante-room. My tic had returned: the motion of catching an invisible fly with the mouth. I had no wish for any such telltale evidence of inner frailty. I was shortly admitted to the visitors’ area. This was a cacophonous chamber some sixty feet end to end, divided longwise into two halves by a twelve-foot concrete trench, bounded on the prisoners’ side and the visitors’ side by vertical iron bars. Behind our opposite rack of bars were massed our visitors; behind my rack of bars the prisoners they had come to see. The place was a racket of noise. Interchange took place by shouting across the trenched gap. I was among some thirty of prisoners on our side, with twice as many visitors across the barriered trench.
A figure in suit and tie of unmistakable Englishness stood among the opposite throng. He at once identified himself as Charles Lynch, a cotton-broker resident of Coimbatore, and Britain’s vice-consul in the city. He had one brief message for me, transmitted at a shout, with a warm smile, that the High Commission knew where I was and was working away to secure my release. My family knew. He enjoined patience.
No more was needed. I returned to my cell in sober exhilaration. Our High Commissioner in Delhi was John Freeman, an appointee of Prime Minister Harold Wilson who had won the 1ast General Election (1964) by a tiny margin. It was an election I had fought as the Conservative candidate in North Hammersmith, an unwinnable seat, whereafter I had been swiftly adopted as prospective candidate for Dover, a marginal (given its three coal mines): a seat lost by a few hundred votes by the retiring Tory. To nurse Dover I had already arranged to quit my world-roving role with the Sunday Times for the Evening Standard within a month. My name was pretty well known countrywide in Britain, and naturally by every regular reader of the Sunday Times, whose circulation had risen by half a million to 1.4m in the five years I had served the paper. John Freeman too had been a newspaperman, as editor of the New Statesman, and as the outstanding television interviewer of notable figures in the weekly programme Face to Face in which the camera stayed focused on the face of whomsoever Freeman was talking to, with unfailing penetration. I held Freeman in high esteem.
Back in my cell I had slotted back into mental equilibrium in the now virtual certainty of release and with a profound gratitude for the presence and person of Vice-consul Lynch. Quite early in the next morning but one, the Saturday, the rumour somehow reached our compound that my release was imminent. Within twenty minutes of the network’s tip-off a uniformed jailor had appeared to instruct me to assemble whatever I had and accompany him to the gate. I had already that morning presided over my comradely inspection of the good order of the bedspaces. Now I bade my farewell to my cell-mates and with poignancy shook the hand of Sunderam. I gathered up the books for his return to the prison’s library. At the gate I was restored to the belongings I had arrived with. The notebook. The pencil. The flesh; the blood. The sanity. A uniformed member of the Tamil Nadu state police, with no English, awaited me. I was issued with a statement declaring me as, henceforth, persona non grata in India. I thought: how infantile.
A car was awaiting me and my armed escort to take the two of us to Coimbatore’s airport. My companion with his pistol attempted not a word of communication. He accompanied me in the adjacent seat on our flight to Calicut, in Kerala, an hour’s flight westwards, for a change of flight. Calicut was, I knew, the Kerala port-city where Vasco da Gama had arrived in 1498. From there, leeched onto by the same mute police guard, we shortly boarded a direct flight to Gatwick, where I was met by a bevy of newsmen.
I filed a succinct report of my arrest and imprisonment for the next day’s edition of the Sunday Times, went home to my Sussex home and family, had supper with my wife Caroline, and made love.
The next day I learned what had occurred in the light of my arrest and disappearance. That is a quite other story. Begin a century or more earlier.
It takes a streak of imperial genius to climb to the summit of the Nilgiri massif to choose Ootacamund as the recreational refuge from the unrelenting summers of India’s southern tropics. What came to be the vaunted hill station of Ooty at some 6000 feet drew in the devoted British administrators from the Tamil Nadu plains in the south, at 1350 feet above, sea level, and from the major all-British administrative city of Bangalore to the north, at 3000 feet. Once, I perceived, it had been the caldera of a volcano of Jurassic times. For the human settlement nestled in a circular hollow some half a mile across within a protective rim rising a couple of hundred feet or so. The British eye had spotted the opportunity of a circular race course, inviting competitive sport of joyous familiarity.
Ooty’s racetrack remained the focus to southern post-imperial India’s large community of avid racing punters, and the results at each race meeting required to be reported. The Times of India, a daily of vast circulation, retained the services of a stringer in Ooty to cable or phone his report on every race meeting. Journalistic stringers are rewarded by a retainer plus a further fee for every column inch published. Ooty’s alert stringer picked up word from the town’s police of the arrest of a British spy, of Pakistani involvement, who had been seized in the presence of Shaikh Abdullah of Kashmir in his custodial villa: the notorious political villain of the international scene. A couple of paragraphs accordingly appeared in the Madras edition of the Times. It was spotted by a member of the Deputy (British) High Commission in Madras who made an enquiry as to the identity of their captive. A cat was peeping out of the bag.
Up in Delhi our High Commissioner was John Freeman, a figure I esteemed. He was a left-leaning intellectual and former editor of the New Statesman who had won national fame as the penetrative interviewer of those of current eminence for a weekly television series called Face to Face of subtly elicited self-exposure, by which the camera never left the face of the interviewee. Freeman must have instantly grasped that my true affront to the authorities in Ootacamund had been to have
somehow upstaged the local police and upset their self-esteem by bluffing my way into the presence of the hottest potato on the political scene in their charge. He would be urging my immediate release. Shastri’s government could hardly wish otherwise.
The Dravidian south, however, comprising a fair third of Indian territory and population, was not having it. They relished disputes with Delhi. Tamil Nadu had deemed fit to arrest me and clap me in jail under the Defence of India Regulations, and were not going to row back. Tamil Nadu was in an open-ended stand-off with the Aryan north which dominated Shastri’s ruling Congress Party. Congress had long sought to replace English with Hindi as all-India’s administrative language and medium of governance. The Aryan north spoke Hindi as a first or second language; the Dravidian south did not. Southern India’s tongues were Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and Kannada. “This fellow is our captive,” Tamil Nadu was telling Delhi. “You can’t tell us what to do with him.” At no point since my arrest was I confronted or questioned by anyone with the capability of enquiring as to what my professional role in life might be … until I found myself enmeshed in penal process with its own enmeshing procedures.
That Wednesday in Delhi, my identity and profession revealed, the issue took over the Lok Sabha, the nationally elected lower chamber of India’s parliament. A debate caught fire, and merrily raged for no less than eight hours. Not a whisper of this development had reached my ears in Coimbatore Central Jail. The onus to resolve this embarrassment to Shastri’s authority had fallen upon the Ministry of Home Affairs where (talking of cats) the Permanent Secretary was charged with persuading Tamil Nadu to relent and let me go. That distinguished civil servant’s children had that very week brought into the family home in Delhi a stray tom-kitten, a feral intruder objected to by their father. His children would not give way. Papa named the tom-kitten Tom Stacey. Thus my namesake joined the family, and was soon transferred to their summer home in Simla where it lived, as I later learned, much loved, a long life.
Meanwhile in Westminster questions were being asked in our Parliament by the Conservative opposition’s front bench, in support of the Sunday Times’ best known foreign correspondent and their party’s prospective candidate at Dover. Arthur Bottomley, a heavy-footed ex-trade union heavyweight, was Harold Wilson’s miscast Commonwealth Secretary. He responded that India was holding me – implicitly justifiably – for “giving false names”. The same response to enquirers was echoed, without qualification, by the then editor of the Sunday Times, Dennis Hamilton. Dennis had his abilities, but he was never one to win the trust of his paper’s overseas team out on assignment.
Certain episodes in life’s weave have a way of not ending. Dover was a marginal seat on account of it being the site of three coalmines. The long-serving previous member had lost the seat by a few hundred votes to Labour’s ambitious David Ennals. My role on the Evening Standard, with two or three columns a week to write, allowed me to nurse the seat with energy. My constituency agent needed to ingratiate me with the National Union of Mineworkers, the most assertive – and Marxist – trade union in the land. Within a month of my return a date was fixed for me to descend the deepest mine in the constituency, Betteshanger, to be initiated in the challenging realities of coalmining. Betteshanger was mined to a depth of 2300 feet and reached for a mile or more under the English Channel. I had been down it as a boy (we had family house nearby), but never to the coalface. I knew that any seam at the coalface was mined at a minimum of a mere 18 inches. I knew that as the face advanced the ground above the extracted seam was kept from collapsing upon the miners at the coalface to a distance of several feet by hydraulic supports known as ‘desperate jocks’. A coalface itself could be as long as 150 feet, I seemed to recall … but wrongly so: the start and the finish of any coalface was reached by a gallery capable of carrying the extracted coal to the pithead on trolley cars for raising to the surface.
It was a primitive, intensely collective profession, inherently dangerous, conducive of the degenerative lung disease of pneumoconiosis, from which the husband of our daily cleaner in my family’s Kentish home near Deal immediately after the War suffered from, deafness, and eye disease. As one of the most militant in the country, the NUM branch at Betteshanger had even brought their members out on strike during the War.
I called our family doctor to tell him of my very recent assault of claustrophobia. I requested a supply of a knock-out tranquillising agent – I suggested phenobarbitone – to induce more or less instant calm in the case of onset of the irrationality I have described. With my 6 white pills in my pocket I descended the mine in a mood of confidence. I was indeed to be accompanied to the coalface by a bevy of NUM committeemen: we reached the coalface with half a dozen crawling on their bellies ahead of me and half a dozen behind. The seam we reached was a mere two feet in depth. There I learned that the average length of any mined coalface was not 150 feet but 150 yards. The crawl below a 24-inch roof space for all 13 of us took half an hour. I survived in tranquillity, provided by the presence of the pills in my pocket but not the pills themselves. At no point had I so much as a flutter of anxiety.
Life surges on. I fought the seat in 1966, increased the Conservative vote – the only constituency in the Home Counties to do so – but so also did my opponent, a Harold Wilson protégé named David Ennals, thus losing the seat, to be readopted with acclaim for virtually assured victory at the next election. A year later, summering in our family Hebridean hideaway on the isle of Eigg, and in a moment of inspired clarity, I set aside political ambitions in a Britain of diminished global authority, resolving to re-launch my personal career with my own publishing enterprise, drawing on a decade and a half as a roving correspondent and a parallel role as novelist and writer of remote travel among those living the primal life. My young company won swift success. Partnered by a Milanese printers Mondadori, I had expanded the operation with an educational company, a reprint library, a politically-orientated general list, a skilled team preparing an international direct-mail 20-volume series on the Peoples of the Earth. At our peak in 1973 we were employing some 140. At the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war on October 6th, the satirical magazine Private Eye chose to publish a piece exaggerating our essentially manageable overspend by fourfold. The oil-exporting nations of the Persian Gulf multilaterally on a single day nationalised their oil resources and on the instant doubled the price of oil, then tripled and quadrupled it. The banks called in their loans. Private Eye had brought upon our heads every creditor in the land, as a merry jape, had me dismissing over a hundred loyal staff, selling our family home in Sussex, providing a fortune for our partners and rival publishers with the exploitation of our work in hand … which, moreover, within some 18 months, repaid every creditor a hundred pence in every pound owed.
I mention this turn in my personal affairs since that very next year, 1974, faced with the restoration from scratch my family’s fortunes, with five children and their sculptor mother, I sought to introduce into my personal life a sustained commitment to the manifest ill-fortuned. Given the intensity of my experience of arrest and imprisonment in India, I reckoned I might have a rare asset to bring to the role of prison visitor. I was readily accepted in such a role by the chaplain of H M Prison Wandsworth, which I arranged to visit for two hours every week, attending upon three convicts.
That previous year, during the hospitalisation of my wife and temporary dispersion of the children, our country house had been comprehensively burgled of family treasures by professional county-house thieves Sussex police told me would be based in Brighton, where “40 percent of antique dealers in the town had done time”. My first prisoner visitee at Wandsworth happened follow a profession of robbing country houses in Sussex and neighbouring counties. Here was a test of my earnestness. I passed the test. He and I became firm friends. I made no attempt to ‘reform’ him. My rewards from some of his fellows went deep indeed, even lifelong.
Rebuilding prosperity by my pen and as an entrepreneurial publisher took me to the Middle East. In Kuwait, six years later, in 1980, reflecting late one evening on my current HMP Wandsworth trio of misérables whom I had come to befriend as I sat with them on the grey blankets of their cell beds week by week, the thought struck me of devising a means of electronically monitoring offenders to provide authority sustained surveillance round the clock, in lieu of jail. I was aware of wildlife conservationists were capable of keeping precise racks of male elephants separated from the herd. On my return to London, I reached out for an old friend, Aubrey Baring, familiar with the world of electronics. We drew in a specialist in the field, Carl de Brinker and a former prisoner governor (at Maidstone), Peter Timms, now a Methodist minister. By 1981 we four had the basis of a device that could be worn around the neck of an offender, employing the technology of the fast evolving mobile telephone facility, Meeting in the drawing-room of my London house, settled upon the use of the word ‘tag’ for device we were proposing for its clarity and brevity, and thus it entered the language in Britain for electronic monitoring in a penal context. We submitted our raft design and methodology to the compliant electronics department of Kent University for assessing its theoretic feasibility.
I could now take my proposal to the Home Office, whose Minister was then Willie Whitelaw. I got as far as a Permanent Under-Secretary, Jeremy Trevelyan, who listened to me in mute astonishment for the better part of an hour. At that bizarre encounter, it became clear to me that my colleagues and I required to transform ourselves from a few chaps with a right idea to a pressure group. So I reached out to Charlie Douglas-Home (nephew of the former Prime Minister, Alec), a former journalistic colleague, who was then editing The Times, with outstanding success. I laid out our now advanced scheme for an electronic or curfew tag. He asked me to present this to Times readers in the form of a relatively extensive letter of w few hundred words, in which I could announce the creation of an Offender’s Tag Association.
This I duly did, and the letter came out, under a heading Tags on Lags, on October 16, 1982. It was regarded by the compiler of the forthcoming second collection of batty letters to The Times following the success of the first volume entitled The First Cuckoo seven years previously as sufficiently idiotic to include in The Second Cuckoo 1983).
I had, however, indeed launched the OTA, and through it, coupled with the heading to the Times’ letter, firmly contextualised the word tag in the English language to refer to the device we were proposing penologically.
This we followed early in 1983 with a national press conference in Westminster to spread awareness of the potential of providing electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration for a range of offenders. It was widely covered, and we were widely scorned, above all by those organs and bodies who carried the humanitarian banner: with ruthless derision from the Prison Reform Trust, vilification from the Howard League, the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty), the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), the Police Federation ad even ACOP (Association of Chief `officers of Police.} The line of abuse was often personal, reviling and vindictive. Thereafter I appeared repeatedly on television and radio to face their spokesmen. Our proposal was “Orwellian”. We were accused (by Liberty) of wishing to implant surgically into the brain a device to automatize the offender. The most obsessive hostility was from the spokesman of the probation officers, but the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust were not far behind.
The assault upon us was relentless, and shameful, and shocking. For myself, I learned that high profile activity in the field of caring for the “human rights” of one’s fellow men was less a measure of open-heartedness or even good sense than an as an exercise of fashionable moral one-upmanship.
Meanwhile, the following year a local magistrate in the Colorado city of Boulder asked a local technological wizzkid to come up with a device to monitor at his home the continuous presence of a habitual local offender the beak had tired of cluttering his jail with. We began to share ideas across the Atlantic. We of the OTA found a sympathetic hearing from the Parliamentary All-Party Penal Affairs Group, who I personally kept abreast of developments on both sides of the Atlantic. But here in England, the main jurisdictive region, it was not to be until the appointment of Douglas Hurd as Home Secretary in 1985 that our voice began to be heard in Government.
Douglas was an old school friend and had chosen me to co-edit with him Eton’s weekly journal the Eton College Chronicle and succeed him. Douglas shortly initiated a pilot scheme to test the working of the electronic tag we were now advocating, to be worn round the offender’s ankle, as a home curfew, and instantly alerted authority should the wearer remove it. The pilot scheme was maliciously sabotaged by the liberal press which actually paid – bribed – the first convict guinea-pig to make a mockery of the pilot by non-compliance with the regime it imposed.
We of the Offender’s Tag Association strove to keep the tag in prospect, as it entered the penal system in various countries in Europe, in Australia, South Africa, and extensively in the US, in its home curfew function. I was the customary spokesman on behalf of the tag and its potential in repeated BBC broadcast confrontations with vociferous opponents, outstandingly the National Association of Probation Officers. As GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite technology developed, I would invariably invoke the coming role of the mobility tag by which a tag-wearer could be monitored ‘24/7’, night and day, under precise surveillance of authority and in compliance with whatever regime of movement legal authority might prescribe.
It would take the appointment in 1993 of Michael Howard as Home Secretary to re-pilot the tag, and to introduce it as a home curfew contributing to the tariff of penalties or constraints available to magistrates and judges for certain types of offenders, including juveniles. It rapidly became an indispensable penal tool, allowing in particular for monitored early release.
I meanwhile, for the OTA, continued to campaign internationally for the tag to be given its potentially global potential as an alternative to jail round the clock by the development of a 3-ounce GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite tag pinpointing the exact location of a wearer at virtually every location, round the clock. This rapidly evolving technology has the potential of replacing the penitentiary as the main means of constraining or punishing offenders. Provision and management of an offender on the GPS tag costs one sixth of maintaining the same person in a jail. Recidivism is among the many tens of thousands already tagged in lieu of jail is markedly reduced. With 1.6 million in jail in the US, and some 90,000 in Britain, I venture to prophesy that the mobility tag I conceived in 1980 will progressively replace the penitentiary as the presumed response the all offenders who are deemed willing and capable of living lawfully. That could mean the release of up to one third, in my judgment, of the current penitentiary population among countries where the rule of law is intact.
May the GPS tag be seen as a major advance in the civilising of the world of the future.
Further reading vide: Journal of Offender Monitoring, Civic Research Institute ISN1043-500x Spring-Summer issue 2009 Tom Stacey “Founder” of Electronic Monitoring in the UK by Mike Nellis, Professor Emeritus of Crime and Criminal Justice, University of Strathclyde
Revision date: 8 vi 2021 12195 words