Sunday, 3 August 2014

Denis MacShane... Boo Hoo, Poor Me!

There are times when I really hate to be proved right. This is one of those occasions. Exactly a month ago I posted a piece on this blog about the forthcoming prison memoirs of former Labour minister and MP Denis MacShane, written after he had served just six weeks in the slammer having been sent down for bogus parliamentary expense claims. I expressed surprise that he felt able to produce an entire book based on such a short period as a guest of Her Majesty.

Denis MacShane
I wrote: “... let's hope Mr MacShane's weighty contribution to the ever-expanding shelf of prison memoirs won't be a "poor me" whinge that trivialises one of the most traumatic experiences a person in Britain can live through and simply does disservice to the movement for radical prison reform.” Fat chance. I suppose we should be grateful that at least he didn't publish it under his prison number like Jeffery Archer did with the first volume of his prison diaries. 

This morning I was reading the online version of the Mail on Sunday and chanced upon some extracts from his Prison Diaries (price £20.00). That’ll be two full weeks of average prison wages should any inmate really want to wallow in self-pity with Mr MacShane. Even the fact that the Mail is flogging it at a discount rate through its online bookshop should be a warning to the wise. Of course, I also want to make it clear that I’ve not read the whole book, just the online extracts, so I want to be as fair as I can.

I feel I should declare from the outset that I once had some personal contact with Mr MacShane back in the days when he was a backbencher in opposition and willing to investigate wrongdoing in high places. We managed to get a Parliamentary Question asked with his help and some front-page national newspaper coverage of a fairly serious foreign policy embarrassment for the government of John Major. Mr MacShane seemed to me to be a decent bloke, so this rather negative review of what has been published of his book so far certainly isn’t based on any personal axe I might have to grind. 

HMP Belmarsh
As far as it goes, his description of HMP Belmarsh – one of the UK’s less pleasant nicks – seems about right. I’m lucky in that I’ve never been banged up there, but I know a lot of fellow cons who have. I’m told it’s pretty horrific, although nothing like as bad as Pentonville which is the London prison that male prisoners on appeal stay over at when their cases reach the Court of Appeal.  Mr MacShane at least got a single cell.

I can’t quibble with his description of the filthy state of his first pad (cell). It all bears the hallmarks of truth, right down to the suspected dried blood on the inside of the cell door. Anyway, he was soon off to Brixton.

I remember being placed in an induction cell that was – quite literally – covered with blood from the last inhabitant who had slit both his wrists with a prison-issue razor blade. Everything was covered with barely dried blood spatter, including the floor, the walls, the window bars, the toilet, the sink and the mattress. Despite strict prison rules on the special measures to be adopted for the cleaning up of contaminated areas – blood always being a serious concern owing to the presence of both Hep B and C in the prison population – I was just given an ordinary mop, bucket and a hand-brush to get it sorted out. Not even a pair of disposable gloves. 

Mobile phone photo of Belmarsh cell
Fortunately, when the duty nurse came to do some checks and I showed her the bloody hand-prints on the walls and the thick pools of congealed blood on the floor, she got me and my pad-mate out pretty damn quickly. When I put in a formal written complaint (Comp 1), I did actually get an apology from the deputy governor – the only one I’ve ever received inside. 

What I do find very distasteful in those diary entries I’ve read so far is Mr MacShane’s name-dropping of his fellow prisoners, particularly more notorious ones that readers are likely to recognise. This is a pretty mean and nasty trick to pull, particularly from someone who was inside for just a few weeks and could never have got to know these individuals on a personal level. Presumably it makes this thin volume a bit more saleable in this age of salacious exposés.  Even Lord Archer had the common decency not to identify fellow cons by full name in his own, much more extensive, prison diaries.

Archer's Diary
When I started this blog, I made a conscious decision never to identify any specific fellow cons in my writing. The sole exception would be in those instances where I have been asked by the person concerned to assist them in miscarriage of justice cases and they have given written permission for me to publicise their situation. I regard anything else as purely exploitative behaviour and it’s a real shame that Mr MacShane hasn’t realised this. Perhaps it’s because he’s done so little time in jail – or perhaps because his publisher demanded he name some of the 'bad bastards' he’d met inside.

I suppose I also find it very disappointing that Mr MacShane seems far too preoccupied with his own situation to really look at the impact of incarceration on his fellow cons, many of whom will be living in these conditions for years, perhaps decades. Taken together with his rather distasteful self-justification of his own behaviour over the expenses scandal, the published excerpts of his diary are everything I really hoped they wouldn’t be… self-pitying and full of complaints about the daily privations and humiliations of life in the nick. “Boo hoo, poor me!” It’s something that Jonathan Aitken, another disgraced politician, managed to avoid in his own prison memoirs – which I think are among the better examples of their kind.

In the interests of fairness, I’ll reserve final judgement on Mr MacShane’s slim contribution to the history of prison literature until I’ve had a chance to read the whole thing, which I’ll borrow from the local library, not buy from the Daily Mail’s online bookshop. However, I do get the distinct impression that this is a missed opportunity by someone who was once a member of the UK’s ruling elite to make a meaningful contribution to the current debate about prison and its failure to rehabilitate or reform. Better not to have promised, than to have promised and not delivered.


  1. Have you read Peter Wildeblood's book Against the Law (1955)? He was a homosexual in the days when it was illegal, and served 12 months for 'conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons' in Wormwood Scrubs, which was considerably worse then than it is now. His attitude was pretty cool: he explained that, as he had been to an English public school, the life had no surprises for him. So this is one of the most laid-back of prison diaries, written without self-pity, which makes it all the more horrifying as an account of prisons as they were in the 1950s.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I have read the book - in fact, my copy is in the bookcase opposite my desk as I type this! I think Wildeblood was correct. Anyone who has been to boarding school (or the armed services) has been well prepared for prison. I actually think that prison can be less traumatic and often less violent than school!

    Having been one of the Veterans in Custody reps at two prisons, my experience has also been that ex-service personnel are often better able to cope with the discipline and routine of life inside. Of course, there are exceptions and anyone who is suffering from mental health problems - as some ex-service personnel do - can find incarceration much more of a struggle.

    Another interesting, although much older book, about English prison life was written by another former MP, Jabez Spencer Balfour (published 1907). He was convicted of a massive fraud following the failure of the Liberator Building Society and sentenced to 14 years penal servitude, much of which he served at Portland, Pentonville and Parkhurst. His memoir is fascinating as a record of prison life at the end of the 19th century.

    1. Thank you. Balfour's book, My Prison Life, does sound very interesting indeed, and I have found and ordered a copy.

  3. This book is now available at select branches of Poundland.