Terence Blacker: A great novelist factionalises his jail years

'The blockbuster unfolded, with as many twists and turns as Birmingham's famous Spaghetti Junction'
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The Independent Online

Prisoner number FF8282 sat before the small, square pine desk in his cell at North Sea Camp open prison. It was early morning, a time when the nick's most famous inmate liked to get to work on his latest novel. Like his hero Anthony Trollope, the prisoner – "Lordy", the North Camp lags used to call him, among other things – liked to spend a few moments in contemplation before setting to work.

Then he would snap on his stop-watch and write 500 words every 15 minutes, working on until he completed the daily 3,000 words which he allotted himself with the discipline that had made him a world-famous author.

"Famous." Lordy laughed wryly. His sense of humour was one of his most attractive features, he had been told, but sometimes it was hard – very hard – to keep smiling. For here, what he called "the good things in life" – a peerage, celebrated friends, vintage Krug, the adoration of millions of simple, ordinary people – counted for nothing. He was a prisoner – locked up, incarcerated, bereft of freedom. All he had right now was the work on his latest blockbuster In the Lap of the Gods.

"Stuff that for a game of soldiers," Lordy rasped mutinously, lapsing momentarily into the rough prison argot of his fellow inmates. The new book was good – maybe even great. Advance-wise, his people would be talking telephone numbers but at the end of the day it was about something much, much more important. It was about clearing his name.

Thoughtfully, Lordy flicked through the pages he had written. It was what he called "faction", the cunning mix of truth and fiction that had served him so well throughout his life. He had taken the "facts" of the case, a prisoner caught up in a nightmarish maelstrom of legal misunderstanding, and added the brilliant, original fictional touches that had made him the world's greatest storyteller.

Lordy shuddered involuntarily. The early chapters of his novel had told how the prisoner, whom he had called "Jeff", had been persecuted in the hell-hole they called Belmarsh high-security prison. They mocked his accent. They dubbed him "Doxy" because his lady friends, some of the world's most gorgeous women, had happened to be peroxide blondes. But then something really brilliant had happened. He had introduced the jail-hardened criminals to the joy of literature by circulating his novels, and literally redeemed the whole prison. His working title for the book had been The Belmarsh Redemption.

Then, with one of those changes of pace that had once made Nobel Laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul opine, "I wish I could write stunning page-turners like that bloke", the tone of the next section changed. When the governor of the prison, jealous of Jeff's popularity, puts him into solitary confinement, he befriends a little robin redbreast and soon becomes the legend known as "the Birdman of Belmarsh".

So the blockbuster unfolded, with as many twists and turns as Birmingham's famous Spaghetti Junction. In one chapter, a hilarious comic tone enters the novel when Jeff, now an experienced lag, is involved in a series of rib-tickling japes and scrapes with Mr McNigh, a stiff-necked Scottish prison officer. Then Jeff agrees to go into a woman's prison and, after a few catfights involving a notorious gang of Australian lesbians, successfully runs a fund-raising auction for the celebrated Toc H charity.

Slowly reality began to dawn. Lordy smiled ruefully. There was one fact that could not be changed. He was in prison, while outside, his friends, the cream of their generations – Gyles Brandreth, Sir Brian Mawhinney, Norman Fowler, Lynda Lee-Potter – would be celebrating the season in freedom. Obviously it wouldn't be same without him, but in what he called "the dark night of the soul", he sometimes wondered whether they remembered him out there.

"Ah well, onwards and upwards." Gamely, Lordy chirruped the mantra that, in one way or another, summed up the most exciting adventures in his life. It was time to pen the next chapter of In the Lap of the Gods. In this one, Jeff would form an escape committee among the prisoners and start tunnelling to freedom under a wooden horse in prison gym.

Briskly, Lordy pressed the knob on his stopwatch and began to write.