If the weather had been this foul at the time of the last Oxford-Cambridge boat race, I might not have found myself in the middle of the River Thames, or served a six-month prison sentence in HMP Wormwood Scrubs. My plan, then, was to make a protest against inequalities in British society, government cuts, reductions in civil liberties and a culture of elitism. Not all of it, I admit, I had time to articulate in the water. At first, I was charged under the Public Order Act, which meant that the maximum penalty would have been a fine, but after various exhortations — including from a Tory MP, Michael Ellis — I was convicted under the Public Nuisance law and had a spell inside. I emerged a changed man, though not because I’d changed my views. I found out I was going to be a father.
Many convicts will know how odd it is to hear life-changing news from ‘the outside’ over a telephone. My wife rang to tell me she was pregnant — and after three minutes the prison telephone system automatically cut her off. But at least I had something upbeat to speak with my fellow prisoners about. There is warmth, solidarity and support between prisoners. Perhaps my convict heritage — my Australian ‘criminal genes’ — prepared me well for incarceration, but I survived. Most prisoners have a keen sense of humour. Hardly a day went by without a few brilliant swimming jokes at my expense.
As one con to another, I would advise Chris Huhne that he has made a profound mistake requesting to be isolated on a special wing in HMP Wandsworth and asking his fellow millionaire Nick Clegg to get him on agreeable gardening leave in HMP Leyhill, Gloucester. Most prisoners aren’t even evaluated for which category prison they will be relocated to, let alone get moved within the same timeframe. I’ve never met Chris Huhne but it seems to me that his lack of joie de vivre and sense of humour, while perfect for coalition government, will be a real handicap in prison. There, both are essential. I suspect Mr Huhne believes he isn’t like the other prisoners. The law, at least, disagrees. And so would the other prisoners, who can smell elitism a mile away.
When I was arrested, Rod Liddle pointed his finger to the course I studied at the LSE — contemporary urbanism — and suggested that my fellow students ought to be arrested ‘as a sensible preventative measure’. A little harsh, in my opinion, but he is right to criticise what I call the ‘urban industry’, including places like the LSE. They promise so much in terms of improving people’s increasingly urbanised lives and eradicating poverty. And yet they disappoint and contradict. Take, for example, the decision of UCL to demolish a housing estate in order to build a new campus in east London — for the study of social inequality, no doubt!
I have been ‘out’ now for three months and without a tag for seven weeks. But prison remains part of my life. On sunny or windy days, it’s particularly hard not to think of the other guys still inside. The slower pace of a Sunday outside reminds me of the almost complete silence and lack of movement in HMP Wormwood Scrubs on any weekend. You might not even leave your cell, except to collect a meal. I filled the hours by writing a book, which will go on sale in June — my attempt to pay off the money I borrowed for the court costs. It’s not so much a diary as a guide to coping with the reality of prison. My target readership? The way things are going, anyone seeking a career in politics or journalism. At a time when you can be arrested for posting the wrong picture on your Facebook page, protest is a very dangerous line of work in England.
Throughout the week, via lawyers, I have received some elegantly crafted emails from Scotland Yard’s Liaison Gateway Team (‘a small unit of officers dedicated to facilitating peaceful protest’). They ask how they can help me organise a protest at the university boat race this year. Their ‘total policing’ sometimes includes pre-emptive arrests. To add to this bizarreness, two extremely tall policemen darkened my kitchen to hand-deliver a similarly helpful letter in which they ‘strongly recommend you work with us to ensure your protest is a success’. They didn’t elaborate, but I can only assume they’re putting me in touch with the diving squad. Who says there’s never a policeman around when you need one?
Odd as it may sound to some, I don’t have regrets. My aim was to raise questions and provoke debate about the two-tier system shaping Britain, the criminalisation of dissent and the erosion of civil liberties. But I shan’t be at this year’s race, in spite of the Metropolitan Police’s kind offer — I’ll probably have a ramble across the Cotswolds instead.
Listen to Trenton Oldfield debating Douglas Murray on the politics of protesting (at 14:40)
The Queen vs Trenton Oldfield will be published by Myrdle Court Press.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 30 March 2013