"FOUR BARS," wrote Jonathan Aitken from HMP Belmarsh last week, "what say you?" This was not a speculation on the range of leisure facilities awaiting him at Spring Hill, the open prison to which he will shortly be transferred (though the Jacobean mansion that houses it does make it look very much like a country club). No, he was addressing the window in his present cell, and wondering whether it might be trying to tell him something. Mr Aitken was writing poetry. His Ballad from Belmarsh Gaol was published in the Spectator. The critics' response was as gleeful as it was merciless. Writing in London's Evening Standard, David Sexton said the ballad was "steeped in ill-judged, half-remembered and misunderstood allusions to the classics". Mr Aitken might have been better advised to aim lower and use as his model that most public school and sporting of all poems - Vitai Lampada by Sir Henry Newbolt. Perhaps:
There's a restless hush in the cell tonight -
Ten to six, and no chance of gin -
A lumpy bed, and a shade-less light,
Twelve hours banged up, not a joint to skin.
And it's not for the sake of a published quote,
Or the selfish hope of a poet's fame,
But an old friend's hand on his shoulder smote:
"Write on! Chin up! It's just a game!"
On reflection, though, perhaps they should have thrown away the pen when they locked up Jonathan Aitken.