Lines better left under lock and key
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 25 June 1999
Yet the comparison seems to have gone to Prisoner Aitken's head. His archaic and glutinous rhymes from HMP Belmarsh pay tribute to Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol" while missing the entire point of Wilde's great cry of anger and compassion. Wilde served two years without remission of the harshest hard labour that a vindictive late-Victorian judge, shocked by his homosexual life, could impose.
He served it on a man in poor health - with a courage and dignity that made an unforgettable impact on Governor, warders and inmates alike. Only then, on his release and flight to France in 1898, did he voice his hard wisdom that "all men kill the thing they love".
Prematurely, Aitken seeks to present a few days in jug as a sort of spiritual growth-spurt that drags the sinner back to God. Yet his metre is stilted and dull; his diction musty and genteel ("gentle zephyrs", "whispered cadences", "cantors chanting the refrain"). It reads like a bad poem of the 1890s. Wilde, in contrast, is modern, simple, fierce: "I know not whether Laws be right/ Or whether Laws be wrong;/ All that we know who lie in jail/ Is that the wall is strong;/ And that each day is like a year,/ A year whose days are long". Aitken tries to sound "poetic"; Wilde writes poetry.
And, crucially, Aitken is still blathering on about his precious personal relationship with the Almighty. Wilde learned to care for, and to identify with, the most despised of his fellow convicts. He deals not in abstract, pious waffle but in concrete compassion for other prisoners; in particular, for the condemned young soldier, "C T W", whose execution for a crime of passion prompted the Ballad.
Aitken should learn how to turn all this new-found sensitivity on some teenage crack-dealer or sink estate-bred petty gangster, and to express his empathy in words that belong to our time rather than to a half-remembered hymn-book. Then he might just begin to be worthy to invoke the shade of Oscar Wilde. For the moment, he can only manage arrogant, platitudinous and self-deceiving kitsch.
An extract from A Ballad from Belmarsh Gaol
Judge not, speak not, nor verdict give
For life's strange road has paths unseen
High peaks unmapped, strong years to live Unleashed from fear, from sin made clean
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