The tale of a tiny whopper. Alan Rusbridger is unconvinced by Jonathan Aitken's attempt to smooth over his downfall

Pride and Perjury

Jonathan Aitken <em>HarperCollins, 400pp, £19.99</em>

ISBN 0002740753

Tuning into Paxo's radio show the other day, I heard a male voice I thought I knew. The man was explaining why he couldn't repay his creditors because bankrupts were allowed to earn only £20,000 a year. In the same day's Telegraph, Jonathan Aitken (for it was he) patiently repeated the point to an interviewer: as a bankrupt, he could earn only 20 grand a year.

Well, you learn something new every day, I thought. Later in the week, I passed on my newly acquired knowledge of bankruptcy law to a solicitor. "Absolute tosh," he exclaimed. "A bankrupt is only allowed to keep 20 grand. He can earn as much as he sodding well likes." I confess that I felt slightly crestfallen. This was New Aitken, the man whose Rolex had undergone a religious visitation on the beach at Sandwich Bay. The man who had gone down on his knees with an improbable figure, the sales and marketing director of Sweet'n'Low plc, to pray for my soul. Surely New Aitken was different from Old Aitken? New Aitken was surely above, well, lying?

That was before I had read the book, so I suspended disbelief. Reviews by sympathetic friends dribbled out. They generally adopted the Small Lie theory of Aitken's downfall: a noble man caught out telling a tiny whopper. This is the theory that his tiny whopper was insignificant compared to all the big ones the Guardian had told about him and how he really (apart from the tiny whopper) won the libel case.

A copy of Pride and Perjury eventually arrived. It is an astonishing story, and Aitken tells it well. He has an easy style and a humorous eye for character and detail. A fair part of the book is the story of a religious journey. It seems pointless questioning how sincerely the journey has been undertaken, since that is unknowable, probably even by Aitken himself. For what it is worth, the book feels sincere on this score. More impressive still is the optimism with which Aitken writes about rediscovering his relationship with his children. There are remarkable passages, full of hope and resilience, about the discovery of his "other" daughter, Petrina, and about the transcendental state of mind he attained before the ordeal of prison.

It is the non-spiritual journey that presents more of a difficulty. Partly, this is a question of voice. Is this bit of the story being told by New Aitken or Old Aitken? If New, then one would expect it to be piercingly honest and to be informed by the spirit of reconciliation and understanding that Aitken acquires during his parallel spiritual journey. If Old, then one would be on one's guard for a certain amount of rewriting of history, score-settling and evasions.

The problem is that there is a mixture. Aitken is, for instance, impressively hard on himself over the morality of the lie that eventually sank him. It turns out that he set about covering up this lie in a manner that was utterly ruthless and calculating - right down to checking with a friend, a director of British Airways, whether ticket records were kept for over two years. He was aware of his Achilles heel long before we were. But while admitting to what he describes as his "hang tough" strategy of winning at all costs - employing any means, immoral or fair - he still appears bewildered and bitter that his opponents felt that they had no choice but to play hardball in return.

His honesty about the Ritz lie is not matched by his honesty about the circumstances surrounding it. One small example among many will do. Aitken tells of his dismay at opening the Telegraph on the day he was due to be charged with perjury and finding the headline: "I lied for my country, says Aitken". He rubbishes the story, which he says "was based on an unauthorised leak" of a witness statement from his friend, Said Ayas, and tells of how his "morale fell to a new low as I read and re-read both the headline and the formidable details". He fell to prayer to uplift his spirits. Nobody could guess from that paragraph that Aitken's close friend, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, had taken the story to the Telegraph on Aitken's behalf - and to Ayas's reported fury.The Telegraph let the cat out of the bag by faxing me the story the previous night. In its haste to rush into print, it forgot to delete the legend: "This comes direct from Aitken but cannot be sourced to him."

There seems little point in re-re-visiting the libel battle. His account is partisan, as you would expect. A reader with little knowledge of the case could be forgiven for believing that Aitken was on the point of breasting the winning tape before tripping over on a shoelace. The reality is that, with one exception, nothing the Guardian and Granada ever published (as opposed to pleaded in court in the run-up to the trial) was ever shaken in court or since. Our sole knock-back was the judge's ruling (in the absence of a jury) on the meaning of our story on the arms firm BMARC.

The allegation that Aitken inquired whether girls might be found for his Saudi friends was never "withdrawn" or "destroyed", as his friends persistently allege: there were four witnesses waiting to testify about this when his case collapsed. But the disappointment about the book is the gaping hole at its centre. Those hoping for the mystery of the Ritz weekend to be explained will be disappointed.

We know (though not from this book) that, at the time of the Ritz weekend, Aitken's close friend and former business partner, Ayas, had been busy forming companies to ensure that both he and Prince Mohammed could benefit from huge commissions on arms sales. The money was to be paid into two offshore companies: one controlled by Ayas, the other by Prince Mohammed. We also know that Aitken was - at the same time that these bribes were being arranged - busy negotiating those same arms sales on behalf of HMG. We know that Aitken arranged a secret meeting with Prince Mohammed in Paris, pretending to his colleagues that he was on family business. We know that the Saudis paid his bills in Paris and Geneva, and that he lied and covered up both before the weekend and afterwards. We still don't know how all these pieces of the jigsaw fit together. Aitken insists that they don't: they are stray pieces from different jigsaws. In a curious passage about this episode, which is, after all, the heart of the book, he confines himself to rather lame rhetorical questions about the Guardian's evidence. His "denials" are carefully phrased and strangely muted. His difficulty is that Ayas set out the precise details of what Prince Mohammed and he were up to at the time of the Ritz weekend in a long and detailed affadavit, which Aitken cannot rebut. All the evidence, including the lengths to which he went to cover up his involvement, suggests Aitken is the missing piece of that jigsaw.

However, other mysteries are cleared up. We learn that charges against Ayas for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice were dropped after Aitken managed to persuade MI6 to have a quiet word with the Crown Prosecution Service. His costs were paid by the British taxpayer. This extraordinary intervention was, according to Aitken, "a wise one in the national interest" (and also the result of his prayers). One wonders about the national interest. Ayas is still in dispute with Prince Mohammed over millions of pounds he is alleged to owe him. It is not at all certain that the ruling powers in Saudi Arabia will view favours secretly bestowed on Ayas by the British state with unmitigated delight.

The book is an uplifting read, if only as a story of extraordinary human resilience. But what will Aitken do next? Will it be in the field of human rights or prison reform? Or will he head back, via Wycliffe Hall, to the pursuit of money through means fair or dubious?

Alan Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide