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Lessons in captivity

05 April 2013

JONATHAN AITKEN says that the former MP Chris Huhne should be OK in jail, as long as he keeps his head down and does not behave "like a tall poppy". Wise advice from a man who speaks from experience.

Mr Aitken, president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and a well-known Christian writer, knows what it is like to enter prison as a privileged celebrity, to endure the strip search and fingerprinting on arrival, and to hear the devastating slam of the cell door. This was the moment when he felt the full force of his own imprisonment, after being found guilty of perjury in 1999.

He resisted the temptation to go on "The Numbers", or Rule 45, where sexual offenders go for their own protection. It's the "nonce wing" in prison slang, and can offer a degree of protection to the frightened middle-classes.

But Mr Aitken - despite a colourful and money-rich life-story - felt it better to "muck in", and feels that Mr Huhne should do the same, with no hint of the tall poppy. He suggests helping prisoners with things such as writing letters, until his early release on parole in about three months.

Mr Huhne has said that his time inside will offer space for him to think about his future. But more helpfully, perhaps, it will give him time away from the intoxicating oxygen of status, and the pretence that often accompanies it.

I remember when I exchanged life as a priest for life as a supermarket worker who spent the day stacking shelves. I particularly recall the shock on the faces of one or two who had known me as a vicar, clearly appalled at this decline. They were unconvinced when I told them that I was happy, and they left with pity in their eyes, and perhaps a little anger that I had allowed things to come to this.

But my overwhelming feeling on the shop floor in those early days was one of relief. No one in the store knew of my previous employment, and, without a clerical collar, I was allowed to be like everyone else. Priests, like politicians, can make a bid to be "one of the people", as I'm sure I did. But a man of the people with a clerical collar round his neck is not quite the same.

On the shop floor, in my supermarket uniform, all status was removed, and amid coleslaw, carrots, and time on the till, I quietly recovered my soul.

The greatest problem with power is that everyone else can become a means to an end - your end. The politician is not holding the baby because he cares, but because he wants your vote. And Mr Huhne has lived in that strange world for a while. So, for him, like me, perhaps it is good sometimes to avoid the ladders, and slip instead down the snake, and come home to no status.

Simon Parke is the author of Pippa's Progress (DLT, 2012).

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