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What Belmarsh taught me about lockdown A stint in prison showed me that, with preparation, an isolationist journey can be delightful

An inmate at a Dorset prison. Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

An inmate at a Dorset prison. Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images


April 17, 2020   4 mins

Lockdown can be hard. We are not used to being confined and forbidden to socialise. After more than three weeks of it, and with at least three more to come, the strains are showing in us all. But I know that this sort of isolation can offer a way to a new happiness if you are able to prepare, schedule, self-discipline, train, innovate and surrender. The process is challenging before it becomes satisfying. Yet, in time, the discoveries of an isolationist journey can be delightful.

I assert this confidently because my training ground for today’s Covid-19 isolation was a single cell in HMP Belmarsh, 21 years ago.  Those conditions were tougher than they are now.

As I was confined in a far smaller space for 18 hours a day (23 hours a day at weekends) with no modern distractions — no mobile phone, no internet or TV — I had to be resourceful.  Nevertheless, the basic ground rules for surviving isolation are surprisingly similar then as now.

The preparations are all in the mind. Your world has been compulsorily changed. If you resent or rail against the restrictions, your mental health will suffer. The trick is to attempt, no matter how hard it seems, to train your mind to accept confinement calmly, to ask the question: “How can I make the best of it?”

Penal, as opposed to medical isolation, had its own challenges: guilt, the cacophony of prison noise and spartan conditions. Staying emotionally and mentally stable was the name of the game. Yet the Belmarsh pressures did concentrate my mind wonderfully in some challenging directions.

The first priority is to create a schedule and find the self-discipline to stick to it. In prison, I pinned my hour-by-hour timetable on the bars of my cell and rarely deviated. It was no draconian schoolmaster’s regime. My schedule now, as then, was a patchwork quilt of colourful commitments and curiosities.

I was, for example, receiving around 50 letters a day from well-wishers. Remembering that Lord Curzon, while Viceroy of India had dispatched over a hundred letters a day written in his own hand, I somehow tackled my correspondence with punctual diligence and no laptop.

I would also spend two or three hours every day learning Greek. Oxford had offered me a post-prison place to read a degree in Theology. But to pass my prelims, I had to take a paper in Greek, the subject I had lazily skipped at school. I knuckled down to learning it with a single text book, Wenham’s New Testament Greek. To master the 900 word vocab, I would take out little postcards with me on the wing whenever we were allowed out of our cells for meals. My fellow cons used to tease me saying: “C’mon Jono we knows those squiggles on Greek are ‘em codes for your secret Swiss bank accounts!”

I revived a discipline I had learned in school, the ‘Saying Lesson’. This had required every boy to learn by heart and to recite aloud some 20 lines of poetry. Forty years out of the classroom, I discovered that my powers to recall sonnets, soliloquys and limericks were not too rusty. I polished them up and increased my repertoire declaiming the words through the bars of my cell into the sky.

In the loneliness of the night and early morning hours I also stumbled along some rather primitive pathways of prayer. They were perhaps too simplistic and self-centred, yet they nevertheless laid some foundations of spiritual discipline which have continued to this day.

With a little innovation, the motivations of self-improvement and spiritual-exploration kept me going.

It’s the same now. As in Belmarsh, I designate an hour for poetry, usually reading aloud to my wife Elizabeth (her favourites are Wordsworth and Maya Angelou) or occasionally learning verses by heart to improve my fading septuagenarian memory.

And I relish, as I did then, uninterrupted reading. I have embarked on the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, the 870 page volume The Mirror & the Light. Sixteenth century Tudor plottings are particularly fascinating for an ex-politician who has seen half a century’s worth of contemporary betrayals, stabbings and executions (admittedly without the gore!) in and around Westminster.

But it’s not all betrayal and execution. When I have finished my hours with Hilary Mantel I slot in similar encounters with P.G Wodehouse or Nancy Mitford – because they bestow the gift of laughter on their readers.

One major difference between Covid isolation and Belmarsh isolation is that I now have easy access to modern technology. Also I have the companionship of my beloved wife. So loneliness is not the problem it was then.

I also follow Dr Samuel Johnson’s advice: “Sir, a man should keep his friendships in good repair”. And have been touched by the warmth of communications that lockdown has nurtured. I am able, with the help of Zoom and a telephone, to calm fears among my parishioners and laugh at the jokes of my children and godchildren. In isolation, sometimes we find a new closeness.

And I have built, too, on those spiritual foundations laid back in Belmarsh. I conduct the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer from Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. The attendance consists of my wife (the congregation); my wife’s carer Jessie Chawda (a Jesuit trained Church Server) and myself (the Priest). On Sundays we celebrate full Liturgical Eucharist with bell, book, candle and robes. Some of the passersby who look into our ground floor flat seem to think the lunatics have taken over the asylum!

The last of my six verbs “surrender” is the strongest of practical and spiritual lifelines. My Belmarsh training taught me that it is as stupid as it is pointless to get angry or argumentative about the circumstances that cause the isolation. Surrendering to them with ingenuity and innovation opens new horizons.

The ultimate surrender in the present pandemic may mean facing up to the last enemy — death. This has long been an almost unmentionable subject in our secular society but not any longer.

A few days ago, with high fever, breathing difficulties and dreamy excursions in and out of consciousness, I wondered whether, as a 77 year-old asthmatic and ex-TB patient, if T.S Eliot’s “eternal Footman” might be holding my coat.

So I prayed — but in a new way. Instead of the predictably self-centred, “O Lord please save my life!” requests, I offered instead prayers of gratitude for a wonderful rollercoaster ride. And then I offered prayers of surrender: “Lord it is you who decide the hour of our death. I gladly and totally surrender my life to your will.”

In a moment of peace I dreamt I heard a voice saying with a celestial chuckle: “At last – you’ve got the point!”

Soon afterwards I began to recover and have returned to my isolationist timetable with even greater joy. As my favourite Old Testament prophet Isaiah has written:

“I will give you the treasures of darkness
Riches hidden in secret places”.

Discovering the riches and treasures of darkness can be the greatest blessings of self-isolation.


Jonathan Aitken, former journalist, politician, business man and prisoner is now a theologian and author of 18 books.


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Andrew McGee
Andrew McGee
4 years ago

Are we really expected to take thisman seriously. Belmarsh was a ‘delightful experience’ – for a man who was getting 50 letters a day from wellwishers, who had the intellect and the education and the physical resources to study Greek in his cell and elsewhere in the prison. I am prepared to believe that every word of this is true, but isit really of any relevance at all to tge far less privileged and far more typical prison inmate or for that matter the typical less-educated person in Covid lockdown. Sadly, this article comes across as a piece of arrogant and smug self-satisfaction from someone who has no idea how the other half lives. And he is apparenly now a clergyman as well!

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

Well said….JA chose to end up in the Nick….I don’t recall getting a choice about ‘Lockdown UK’….

alan hopkins
alan hopkins
4 years ago

Great article and agree with pretty much you have said here. Life will not go back to what is was, either socially or in the business sense, life has been reset, by nature! People will empower themselves and take more control of their life and hopefully their health! Whilst we can only change those things that are directly in our remit, we can ‘hopefully’ influence governments to act on our behalf for the good of all.Unfortunately, wealth will become even more polarized as more people will buy distantly, a trend we all know too well, but one heightened by these dreadful times. Likes of Bezos will become richer and hold more influence, social networking will become stronger and advertising will move even more in to this medium without doubt, beware the swathe of influencers that will emerge on-line! But, we have to take positives where we can and that for me is realising who really matters in life, family, friends and the heroes on the front line, across multi-sectors! Who really cares anymore about overpaid footballers and certain Youtubers who add nothing at this time, hey I like football but!! So, keep calm, go for a walk, enjoy the tranquility where you can, and think how you will reset your own life once this virus passes. By the way, our body is full of viruses, we have ways of dealing with them, eat healthy, stay fit, take your vitamins, sleep well, try and de-stress (heart goes out to those who are struggling right now) – turn off social media and keep positive. Stay safe one and all and keep the posts coming!

Michael Joseph
Michael Joseph
4 years ago

Great piece

Anjela Kewell
Anjela Kewell
4 years ago

It would be interesting to get Mr Robinson to do a piece too. The difference in time and attitude would be illuminating

Anjela Kewell
Anjela Kewell
4 years ago

It would be interesting to get Mr Robinson to do a piece too. The difference in time and attitude would be illuminating

Anjela Kewell
Anjela Kewell
4 years ago

I suppose I am not allowed to mention NHRN. Shame on you

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago

Thankfully I’ve got lots of books to read during lockdown and I’d hope most readers of Unherd don’t need someone to suggest reading. I don’t read anything religious as that’s beyond pointless, but a bit of Dawkins is worth revisiting!

makedavid
makedavid
4 years ago
Reply to  Joe Smith

Why pointless?

mike otter
mike otter
4 years ago

Does “Oxford” usually offer places to read theology to those leaving prison – any prison – Belmarsh where dangerous ppl are or Sheppey -Elmsley where cat C ppl are? Thought not. This is not the only reason why the article and its author are truly remarkable

chris9
chris9
4 years ago

I can’t say that I am a fan of Jonathan Aitken, but there’s no denying that he has a very touching writing style. Redemption suits him!