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Cutting out the cancer: How I found God inside’

PUBLISHED: 18:19 14 October 2009 | UPDATED: 17:15 25 August 2010

LONDON - JUNE 25:  Newly weds Jonathan Aitken and Elizabeth Harris pose at Saint Mathews church  on June 25, 2003 in London. (Photo By Steve Finn/Getty Images)

LONDON - JUNE 25: Newly weds Jonathan Aitken and Elizabeth Harris pose at Saint Mathews church on June 25, 2003 in London. (Photo By Steve Finn/Getty Images)

2003 Getty Images

THE chanting started in cells next to me, across the wing, then on to other prison blocks. They were saying my name and describing what they were going to do to various orifices of my body the next day. I ve never been so frightened and alone. I knel

The Guardian’s victorious splash following the collapse of Aitken’s libel case against it in 1997

THE chanting started in cells next to me, across the wing, then on to other prison blocks.

"They were saying my name and describing what they were going to do to various orifices of my body the next day.

"I've never been so frightened and alone. I knelt down on the stone floor and started praying."

Former chief secretary to the treasury, Jonathan Aitken, told visitors to Sidcup's New Community Church, Station Road, last Thursday about the second worst experience of his life - his first night at Belmarsh prison after being convicted of perjury and perverting the cause of justice.

Jonathan Aitken speaking at Sidcup’s New Community Church last Thursday

The former MP was sentenced to 18 months in jail at one of the country's toughest prisons in 1999 for lying under oath during a libel case that sensationally collapsed at the High Court.

He was suing a national newspaper over allegations an Arab associate had paid a Paris Ritz Hotel bill against ministerial rules, where the then minister for defence procurement spent time with Saudi businessmen.

The infamous words he used would later haunt him: "If it falls to me to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight."

In court he claimed his wife Elisabeth had paid the bill and persuaded his daughter Victoria, then 14, to also claim she travelled to Paris.

Evidence surfaced prior to her taking the stand, proving the ex-MP had lied and triggering events that would, in his words "blow my whole world to smithereens," and end in prison.

Mr Aitken recalled arriving at the prison: "There was an iron-bar cage reception. Prisoners were pouring in, it was a quite a culture shock.

"One man was so angry he kept charging into the iron bars until his head split open.

"Another was trying to escape, not the best course of action in the middle of a top security prison.

"A gang were arguing amongst themselves: 'You got the script wrong,' they were shouting, blaming each other.

"I was approached by a prison officer, he asked me if anyone apart from my next of kin knew I was in prison. I said yes, about 15 million people.

"He replied: 'Are you suffering from delusions?'"

Shown to his cell, he then experienced the graphic chanting that would set in motion a journey to find God.

"I was so frightened by those expletives that I couldn't even get all the words of the Lord's Prayer out," he said.

The next morning, fearing what was going to happen to him, he recalled: "One of the men who had been chanting the loudest came up to me and said: 'Come and have a cup of rosy [tea], you're one of us now. Hope you slept alright, nothing personal.'"

One aspect of prison life that struck him was how young the offenders were, aged 23 on average, and the level of drug taking.

"The abuse of drugs was extraordinary," he said. "I thought we were among some sort of rocket soup."

He befriended an Irishman, Paddy, whose family he came to learn was facing eviction.

Not being able to read or write he sought advice from the ex-cabinet minister who had 22 years of advising constituents over housing difficulties.

"To show how grateful he was, Paddy said he would let me choose any book I wanted from his library.

He then brandished a cardboard box of pornographic magazines.

"When I declined he went into a massive rage and then stopped, as if he had found the solution: 'Ah, you're into boys then?!' and turned back to his collection, but I politely refused."

The route to God was not a smooth one: "It was a painful process and at times I thought I was losing my marbles.

"But I felt like I was on a journey, like I was being whispered to."

Paddy joined him in prayer and enjoyed it so much, proved to be the "perfect recruitment sergeant."

Soon their prayer group numbered 20, some coming and going but most staying loyal.

He was later transferred to Stanford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, then finally Elmley where he was released after serving seven months of his 18-month sentence.

On his release he says he found out who his true friends were, those who mysteriously vanished from his sphere and those who wandered in: "Dennis Thatcher rang me up from his club and said we had to meet up for lunch."

Nine years after his release on January 7, 2000, Mr Aitken keeps in touch with the prayer group members, and is godfather to one of Paddy's children.

Answering the question of what was his worst day, more appalling than the prospect of violation in prison, he said: "Telling a lie under oath in my libel case. My whole world exploded. I was public enemy number one. "Everything I had done in my life, everything I had tried to achieve was blown to smithereens.


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