Observer Magazine, March 1992

Observer Magazine
March 1992

Tom Stacey once found himself locked up in jail in India, and the experience marked him for life. Not physically – he was only jugged, as he put it, for a few weeks under the Defence Regulations when he was a foreign correspondent – but in his attitudes. Knowing what it felt like when a steel door banged shut behind him and the man with the key to his cell had power over his whole life concentrated his mind. ‘I thought, this is something I know more about than anybody in penal reform. You can’t simulate it, you can’t invent. You can visit prisons until you are blue in the face but you can’t know what it’s like unless you have experienced it.’

He has been a prison visitor himself for the past 17 years and in 1981 had the idea of an electronic tracking tag by which some criminals are not sent to prison but live outside under computer-controlled surveillance. On the face of it, prison reform seems an unlikely byway for a traveller, a journalist once regularly sent to the world’s hot spots, a publisher and a novelist, whose seventh novel, Decline, has just appeared. For him, writing is a periodic move out of the rough and tumble of life, an interval to allow some sort of art, as he put it, to make an attempt at order.

He is tall and fit-looking, with a quick smile, though halting in speech. The words come in eloquent little bursts of well-bred English, the embodiment of the archetypal Englishman backing off from verbal emotion. At Eton, he edited the school weekly with Douglas Hurd, and was a solo chorister, a musical interest that later led him to become choirmaster of a Sussex church while at the same time being a roving correspondent for the Daily Express. ‘Mind you, it was no great choir,’ he says. Today he keeps what he calls a habit of church ‘and the soul moves in and out.’

He is married to Caroline Stacey, the sculptor, and they have lived for the past 21 years in an early eighteenth-century, 30-roomed house in London once occupied by Muzio Clementi, the Italian-born pianist, composer and performer who is known as the father of the piano. The house was Felix Mendelssohn’s London haunt in the 1830s. After Clementi it was bought by William Horsley, who wrote the music for the hymn There Is a Green Hill Far Away. Horsley’s son was a noted brain surgeon. ‘What is now our dining room was the operating theatre, ‘Tom Stacey says, ‘and many a medical drama was played out there.’

We were in the adjoining sitting room, and both doors and ceiling height demonstrated a house built when people, in general, must have been shorter than they are today. Against the background of a Ziegler carpet made in Baghdad in the last century, the furniture is an eclectic mixture of old and new. The low round table in the foreground was made by Caroline Stacey. ‘She wanted something sturdy and the right height and size to dump things on. She has become interested in rocks in the last six months and has just started bringing half the beach into the house.’ Caroline Stacey usually works in clay for bronze and the piece in the centre of the table is called ‘Compressed Figure’. On the card-table on the right is, another bronze, a cellist, but she switched to marble for the faintly Ethiopian bust on the left. Behind it is an early nineteenth-century French mirror, and, just in front, a Victorian wool skeining table.

The figure with child is the work of Georg Ehrlich, a Viennese sculptor who taught Caroline Stacey as a girl. Ehrlich also drew the girl’s head that can be seen below the landscape on the far wall. The landscape is the work of Vince Tutton, an artist working in Cornwall, who also teaches Caroline Stacey. The large picture above the sofa is a nude by Mandy Fontaine. ‘lt’s drawn with wonderful economy and I look at it every day. ‘The screen is in the nature of a conversation piece, painted eight years ago by Tom Stacey’s son-in-law, Hugh Dunford Wood. The Staceys have five grown-up children, four daughters and a son. ‘All the complex moments of tenderness and resistance are there,’ he observes.

Tom Stacey has dedicated his novel, Decline, a father-son story, to his son, Sam, 24, and to his own father, who died four years ago. ‘The book is a commentary on the state of upper-class life, about England and the spirit of man.’ There are slivers of autobiography. ‘You take a tiny identifiable characteristic of a person to start with but within three pages that character is completely autonomous.’ Tom’s great-great-grandfather, Thomas Brassey, the Victorian railway and bridge building contractor, is the prototype for one character in the novel, while the Stacey window in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, given by his great-grandfather and great-uncle, who was a don there, is precisely as described.

He plotted and wrote the book at a tremendous pace, ‘a great whoosh’ and, in 1988, in the middle of writing, the first experiments in electronic tagging took place. Despite criticisms – on one side that it did not work and on the other that it had sinister Orwellian overtones – he is convinced that tagging has great potential. ‘A house-arrest tag is useful in some cases. A tracking tag can be applied to a much wider range of people. We are confident that the tracking tag will come and constitute a major penal reform. It’s ridiculous to shut many of these people up in jail. Most of them come in half-destroyed and you just finish them off.’

He moved into publishing in the early 1970s because he felt it gave him greater control over the rough and tumble of life, but in the beginning it was rougher than he expected. ‘It’s quite ferocious stuff setting up one’s own publishing company on a few bob. I know what the inside of a receiver’s warehouse is like.’ That company crashed but today he specialises in publishing books concerned with the Middle East and keeps a small list of high-quality Islamic publications. Another sortie into the rough and tumble was politics. He fought and lost two Parliamentary elections, the last at Dover, where he was readopted, but decided to quit. ‘I found when I was in politics that I wanted to talk about things that there’s no room for in politics. My wife told me I was only going into politics in order to resign, so I’m glad I didn’t pursue it, though I have a very lively political instinct.’ His politics are liberal traditionalist, a very erratic Conservative. ‘I feel I was meant to be erratic. My whole pattern of life is the slightly ignominious one of coming in and out of disorder.’