On the 10th day, the poet in Aitken breaks free

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The Independent Online
IN 1898, after two years in Reading jail, Oscar Wilde wrote: "I never saw a man who looked/With such a wistful eye/Upon that little tent of blue/Which prisoners call the sky," in his "Ballad of Reading Gaol".

After only 10 days in Belmarsh prison in south London, Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced former Cabinet minister, managed: "The guard dogs bark, the barbed wire glints/As russet dawn unveils each day/To towers of steel and walls of flint."

Aitken, who is serving 18 months for perjury, nevertheless had the confidence to name his literary effort "A Ballad from Belmarsh Gaol". Despite the assumption of cynics that the poem, which contains the lines "Four bars what say you? Do I hear the call of Matthew?" might be the beginnings of a campaign to secure an early release through insanity, Aitken has beensnapped up by the right-wing Spectator.

The magazine has been largely supportive of Aitken since he lost his libel case against Granada Television and The Guardian. It published the poem on its front page.

"I think of it as an interesting scoop rather than a work of literature," Frank Johnson, The Spectator's editor, said yesterday. "Still, having said that I think it is rather better than Andrew Motion's effort and it scans and rhymes like proper poetry."

Indeed the poem does. It also includes the line "Father, who did run with outstretched arms to greet from dead a wayward but returning son," which would seem to indicate that Aitken considers himself now forgiven in the eyes of God.

The Spectator heard that Aitken had written the poem last week and contacted him through an intermediary. It received the hand-written poem on Tuesday and rushed it into print.

"The choice of title was his," said Mr Johnson. "I'm sure that he named it `from Belmarsh' rather than `of Belmarsh' because he did not want to try to suggest that it's as good as Wilde's. He's not the megalomaniac that people say he is, you know."

Mr Johnson believes that Aitken has received fair treatment from the justice system, but has a number of columnists, including Paul Johnson and Bruce Anderson, who have portrayed Aitken as kind of prisoner of conscience.

The Spectator is quick to emphasise that it did not pay Aitken for his literary effort.

The Poetry Society in London said yesterday that many people in extreme situations turn to poetry for comfort. However, the Society could not find a spokesman willing to judge whether the mental torture in this case was suffered more by the writer than those who read the poem.