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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 22 October, 2002, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
A Prison Diary
Jeffrey Archer

Last among equals, a notorious story-teller finally faces the truth.

Jeffrey Archer's "A Prison Diary"

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)


MARK LAWSON:
Craig Brown, I was looking at reviews of his last novel and the critics said he kept writing the same old book and he needed a new plot. He has found one! What does he do with it?

CRAIG BROWN:
Well, it's not 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich', primarily because he is a bad writer and he has that odd air, which he also has in public life, in those Conservative Party conference speeches, of even when he is sincere, appearing insincere.

You feel dislocation from reality. But I would say it's a brave book, in a way. There's incredible energy in it. It's readable and pacey. It has terrible dialogue, but you feel that he is reporting the basic facts.

For his core audience, a Jeffrey Archer audience wouldn't be aware of prisons, and I think he told me things about prisons, trivial things, like how prison warders don't wear proper ties but clip-on ties for fear of being strangled.

And the fact there were 1500 suicides last year in prisons. All these very important things about the wickedness of the prison system, he has brought to life, to a new audience.

BONNIE GREER:
He does bring facts to his readership, and I take that on board, but it's a very strange book, in that you think this guy never reflects.

You wonder, here he is inside prison, banged up for 16 hours a day. You think there has to be a moment when he thinks about what he has done.

In fact he puts himself like a Martian in the middle of this experience. He gives facts and figures. I am reading it to find out what's going on inside this man. There is no inner life.

MARK LAWSON:
Isn't that because he always led a fantasy life, and whereas it was easier when he was in civilian life to think, "I am really running the country," he is up against reality here and he can't face it?

BONNIE GREER:
What's bizarre is that he has always led a fantasy life, but this is as close to hell as you can imagine anyone like him to be. He can't quite understand why he is there.

TIM LOTT:
I don't think it's about him living a fantasy life. It's a particular psychological make-up that many people have, which is an inability to introspect.

BONNIE GREER:
Don't you find that scary?

TIM LOTT:
I think it's common. I don't think it is psychopathic. A lot of people don't put their world together in that way and he clearly doesn't.

There is an odd thing in the start, where his mother dies the day he goes into prison, and there is just no comment on it. He mentions that it happens, but this surely must be a devastating thing for him.

I was expecting it to be horrendous and it's not. It's not particularly badly written. It's quite a well constructed book.

It's quite hard to trust the honesty of the narrator, but one kind of does in the end believe that it's fairly straightforwardly reported.

MARK LAWSON:
He doesn't accept he has done anything wrong.

CRAIG BROWN:
He never says he is not guilty. He says he was convicted on the word of a known thief. In a way, I think Jeffrey Archer is such a scorned figure and I have scorned him as much as anyone in the past, that if he had actually said all his inner feelings, we would all be saying, "He is so egocentric, he doesn't even notice the other prisoners."

TIM LOTT:
At the beginning he says his lawyer gave him the advice that you should never tell anybody your story and you should never believe any of the stories you are told.

Yet by the end of these diaries, he is recounting the stories in there with the belief that they are absolutely true and a paragon of veracity. You do believe them, but I would imagine old lags are not necessarily that honest.


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