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Living in Spain after surviving 24 years in prison. Here I will be sharing my experiences as a writer and journalist, travelling all over the world interviewing dangerous people in dangerous places.

My Spirit Beast - The End
22 February 2013

The interior of the hut was rudimentary in the extreme. Carefully crafted timbers supported the roof and wall, but the floor was just earth. Various pots and pans stood on make-shift shelves. When asked, Wilder explained that it took him ten months to build the hut. And the log ‘road’? He said it took 25 years!


  We walked back outside with him and, growing close by, he showed us the vine we would be using. He cut a portion off and beat it to a pulp before putting it into a pot of boiling water with other plants he had cut earlier. It was left on the fire to cook. Wilder explained that he prepared the jage which we would be using tonight in the same way yesterday. It was better to let it stand for a day.


  Back outside, Wilder pointed out other plants, telling us which leaf cured which illness and which plant used in conjunction with which bark could cure another. Although he had no formal education, he was an absolute fount of knowledge. He explained that he was from the Huitoto tribe, who have no written records. Knowledge is handed down from father to son over generations. Wilder said that he had been learning now for 46 years, yet there was still much to learn.  


  He went on to explain that the jage ceremony I was about to experience was millennia old and descended from the Incas. He emphasised that it wasn’t himself who was powerful, but God. It was God’s power, passing through Wilder that cured people. 


  He pointed to two small bowls on the floor in front of him. One contained a thick, viscous liquid he said was pure nicotine extract. He dipped his finger in and licked it. The other was dried, powdered coca leaves. He took a pinch and put it in his mouth. According to the lore, both are sacred to God and the Huitotos. They make the hut powerful, attracting divine power down into it, which Wilder then channels. Fortunately for me, the ingesting of either weren’t necessary for the ceremony. I passed on Wilder’s offer.


  It was quite dark now but there was still an hour or so until the ceremony. Wilder went off to prepare. I noticed Dan and Gary standing over by the shaman’s wife. Both were giggling over something. I walked over and saw that the wife was about to cut the dead monkey’s willy off. I suppose it was funny, but not that funny. I guessed they were both off their faces again. I felt like a teacher on a school outing. 


  I called them both over to me. I looked at their now-serious faces and suddenly it was I who felt guilty. “Look fellas”, I said, trying to sound as reasonable as possible, “ I don’t really give a fuck if you get off your faces. But do me one big favour. Keep an eye on me tonight. If I go into one and try to run out of the hut, grab hold of me. I don’t want to run off and get lost in the jungle, okay?”


  I guess the latter image of Norman running loose in the rain-forest was too much for them. Both burst into laughter and couldn’t stop. I knew I was wasting my time and would have to hope for the best. 


  I wandered outside to try to mentally prepare myself. Despite the effects of the jage I wanted to stay focused. This wasn’t just a hedonistic experience, I would try to write a definitive account of it. I was well aware that, with some drugs, you forgot all about the experience once you had come down.


  It was pitch black outside. There was no moon, but even if there had been it’s light wouldn’t have penetrated the canopy of leaves. There were jungle sounds, but the overall impression was one of stillness. I stood, legs apart, eyes closed and face tilted slightly upwards. I felt the power of the forest all around me. I’m not one for melodrama, but I found myself raising my arms towards the heavens. I was sure I felt the power run into me.


  Suddenly, I was aware that I was completely at ease here and feared nothing in the jungle. A small voice whispered that, whatever spirit I am, I’m a powerful one. Another voice warned that perhaps this should concern me.


  The ceremony was about to start. I went inside and Wilder introduced me to Ernesto, a young Colombian guy who was also to take part in drinking the jage. Wilder was wearing a blue tunic-type top and his head was covered by a white cloth. There was a raised, wooden platform in the corner of the hut, which was holy ground. Only the shaman and the celebrants sat on this. Ernesto and I squatted cross-legged opposite Wilder while he prayed over a small urn containing the jage brew.


  Wilder warned us that, when we wanted to go outside to vomit or to use the toilet, we must ask his permission. He emphasised again that this was holy ground. Jorge would then guide us through the darkness. He crawled across and tied a piece of white cloth around Ernesto’s forehead as well as around mine, explaining that this was to protect against evil spirits. Then he summoned each of us in turn to drink the jage.


  The urn was blackened with age, its top encrusted with old, dried jage. The brew itself had an indescribable smell, one that was distinctly unpleasant. Although the taste was foul, there was no residual flavour in the mouth, only a warm feeling at the back of the throat. 


  This was now the holy phase of the ceremony and all light had to be extinguished. Wilder stressed that light was our enemy and would distort the effects of the jage for the worse, He consoled us by saying that we would ‘see’ more in the dark anyway. I reflected that, with no light, there will be nothing for Gary to film. I further reflected that Dan’s little tin would probably get a right hammering. I resigned myself to the fact that I was largely on my own now.


  I sat in the pitch blackness, waiting for the effects of the jage to kick in. A few feet away, but invisible to me, Wilder chanted, sang, talked and whistled a strange, breathy, un-shrill whistle. Time passed, but I had no way of telling how much. I was fully conscious of all that was happening. It occurred to me that sitting in absolute darkness isn’t the most stimulating environment for the mind. I became incredibly bored and realised that it would be a very long night.        


  Suddenly I was aware that the speed of my thought processes had accelerated phenomenally. Ideas zoomed in and out of my mind like bullets. There were some flashes of light, but no colours, and no visions of anything Amazonian.


  My breathing slowed, then slowed again. I guessed that this was the start of the near-death experience. The knowledge did nothing to lessen the horror of the effect. Everything was ultra-real and I was able to think forward to the next step, then the next. I actually began to experience the process of suffocating to death. I couldn’t imagine a more painful, terrifying end. I knew that I had several more hours of this and cursed my self for ever taking the jage.


  I breathed normally again and, all at once, my mind was a computer screen. Schematics of my personal relationships popped up for me to examine. I was super-sensitive to emotion. Marsha and I had been having some problems lately, but the schematic glowed with warmth and light. I could see that she loved me dearly, and I her.

  Another schematic was of an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while. There was warmth in it and I resolved to contact him again. Another schematic was cold and dark. Someone I had considered to be a good friend cared nothing for me. I wouldn’t contact him again.


  Underneath all this, something was gnawing at my consciousness. I focused on it and realised that I wanted to be sick. “Permessos Wilder”, I cried out and heard his mumbled reply. On unsteady legs, I stumbled out into the darkness with Jorge holding my arm. But it was a false alarm.


  Back on holy ground, I was terminally bored. Then I discovered sex. I had been thinking of Marsha and we started to make love. But it was ultra-real and exciting, as if for the first time. A succession of erotic episodes flashed through my mind like ultra-real porno movies. The thinking of it seemed almost as pleasurable as the real thing. Suddenly I remembered being told that the shaman could see what I was seeing. I reflected that I was certainly brightening up the old guy’s life tonight. 


  My bowels intruded. I stumbled through the darkness and rain, into the filthiest toilet I had ever encountered. I squatted over a roughly-hewn wooden toilet bowl and the diarrhoea poured out of me. The sounds, the smells, the whole experience were all ultra-real. I looked up and was reassured that Gary and Dan had both come outside with me. Then I noticed the camera and saw that Gary was filming the sequence. It was hard to look dignified, sitting on the toilet with one’s trousers round one’s ankles, but I was beyond caring.   


  The sex scenes were not so enjoyable now because I was closely monitoring my stomach, which was bubbling audibly. I rushed to the toilet again, pulling my trousers down as I went. In my haste, I crapped all over the back of the seat. Trying to clean up the mess with tissues was probably the worst experience of my life. I guessed that most celebrants did this. The thought that I had been sitting in the shit of hundreds of others did nothing for my composure. 


  Back inside it was just a question of fighting the boredom now. Visual or aural stimulation might have triggered something, but the darkness and silence seemed to deaden even thought. I reflected that jage would never catch on back in London. Sex with your partner might be interesting, but it would have to be in a place with two toilets.


  Finally, after what seemed like an age, Wilder said it was over. He took the cloth from my head and led me to a hammock. I climbed in and he covered it with a mosquito net. I was very comfortable, but my mind was still racing at a thousand miles an hour. I’d have had more chance of falling asleep running up stairs.


  Morning finally arrived and I had counted every second. A cockerel crowed and light filtered through the doorway. When I stood, my legs were still unsteady. As I moved my arms, their outline seemed to lag behind like dark thread. I was tired, I badly needed a shower and I longed for food. 


  I went to wish Wilder ‘goodbye’, but, strangely, his eyes wouldn’t meet mine. He shook my hand and wished me ‘goodbye’, but looked at the floor. I felt too uncomfortable to care and perhaps I was misreading things through the effects of the jage. 


  It did bother me though and it gnawed at me all the way back to the hotel. Previously he had been a man of impeccable manners. What could I have done to upset him? For the more I thought about it the clearer it was that he wouldn‘t look me in the eye.


  A warm shower and clean clothes worked wonders. I felt more like my old self as I joined Dan at the breakfast table. Straight away I asked if Wilder had said anything to him about last night and told him about Wilder not meeting my gaze. Dan looked ill at ease, guilty even, and busied himself with his breakfast.


  My suspicions were fully aroused now. “Oi Dan”, I said chidingly, “you’re supposed to be my mate. If something was said you’re entitled to tell me about it. I’d do it for you.”

  “Norm, I was going to tell you” said Dan , and paused. It couldn’t have been for effect. Taking a deep breath he continued, “Wilder said that it was extremely unusual for you not to vomit. It’s always part of the jage process. Everybody does it.”

  “And?” I questioned. “That can’t be all of it. What’s his explanation?”


  Now it was Dan who couldn’t meet my eyes. He took another deep breath and continued, “Wilder doesn’t know for sure, but he thinks that the evil spirits inside you are so strong that you need to keep what you might vomit inside you just to control them.” You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Dan and I finished our breakfast in complete silence. Later, I reflected that, from a spiritual perspective, it was the worst news I could have heard.


  Back at ‘Front’ though, all was joy and light. For them, the spiritual perspective was something you drank with tonic. They exulted over the photos of me with the anaconda and baby crocodile. They laughed at the ridiculous tapir and it’s long trunk. The photo of my sitting on the toilet brought the house down. They were all to be included in the article. I laughed along with them, but inside I was far from amused. Wilder’s words still haunted me.


The End

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My Spirit Beast - part 2
22 February 2013

For several seconds nothing happened. Then the water seemed to boil as dozens of small, snapping silver fish thrashed about, trying to get the bait. As a reflex action I pulled the hook and bait from the water. Several piranha sailed clear of the water after it. They were only small, but seemed to be all sharp, pointed teeth. I suppressed a shudder as I contemplated what would happen if I fell in. At this point, life in the Amazon looked vicious and deadly. 


  Now it was me who was hooked though. I fished frantically, pulling a fish from the water at every attempt. Soon all the bait was gone and it was getting dark. Time to find the crocodile.  


   Night fell surprisingly quickly on the Amazon. It seemed like, one moment we were fishing in broad daylight, the next it was gloomy and the very next moment darkness was upon us. We climbed back into the boat and pushed out into mid-stream. At the direction of the boatman, Jorge made his way to the prow and pulled back a tarpaulin. Underneath was a large battery similar to the ones in cars. He fiddled about for a couple of seconds and then a powerful beam of light shot out, lighting up the river in front of us.   


  Crouching over the light, Jorge directed it back and forth, first lighting up one bank with its beam, then lighting up the other. In between, the river was revealed to be an unrelievedly black mass.


  The effect was quite surreal. Almost like a picture projected on a screen, the lit up section of the bank revealed every detail. “Won’t that frighten everything away?” I whispered to Dan. 


  “Jorge knows what he’s doing, mate”, he replied. “The idea is that the light paralyses them. It’s a thing with crocodiles. They look into the beam and freeze. You’ll see.”


  Up until this point, it had all been something of a jolly outing. I hadn’t felt that I was in much danger, unless, of course, the canoe sank. Suddenly though, during one sweep across the river, two deep yellow lights lit up about 50 yards in front of us. They weren’t as bright as car headlights, but their deep yellow glow had an intensity that you might find in car sidelights.


  “What the fuck’s that, Dan?” My tone was curious rather than frightened. Dan exchanged words with Jorge, who focused the beam right on the centre of the river. Once again the two yellow lights lit up the darkness.


  Now there was a distinct tone of caution in Dan’s voice. “It’s a crocodile”, he said hoarsely. He paused to exchange a few more words with Jorge. “A big one”, he added, his voice dropping a couple of octaves.


  Under power from the outboard motor, we had been flying along at a good rate of knots. Dan had already warned that traveling on the river at night was dangerous, because of the many, partially submerged logs. These were trees felled by loggers and allowed to float downriver. Dan had cautioned that to hit one of these at speed would be disastrous. The canoe would shatter and we would all be thrown into the water. Previously I had only been concerned about having a few chunks bitten out of me by the piranha. Now I would be breast-stroking with a large crocodile.


  My thought process was disturbed by a shout from Jorge. Quite involuntarily, I jumped. What could it be now? The beam was fixed on the right-hand bank and Jorge was pointing at something. I followed the direction of his finger and saw, right in the middle of the beam, a baby crocodile, frozen into inaction.


  We coasted into the bank. As we neared land, Jorge motioned me towards the front of the canoe. Explaining through Dan, he handed me the light and told me to keep it focused firmly on the baby croc. Whilst it was gazing fixedly into the beam, Jorge would circle around behind it. 


  As much as I tried to focus my attention on the baby croc, a small part of me was asking where its mother was. Surely this was incredibly dangerous. It must be close by and all animals attack when they think their young are threatened. Knowing what the answer would be though, I didn’t bother to ask. 


  Suddenly, out of the darkness, Jorge could be seen in the beam. The baby croc was oblivious to him. He crept up on it and grabbed it just behind the jaws with one hand, whilst holding its hind quarters with the other. Then he held it up to show us. This croc-in-miniature bared its teeth for Gary’s camera. Now it was my turn.


  My thoughts firmly with big, mummy-croc, I gingerly made my way up the bank and into the glare of the beam. I stood and took baby-croc off Jorge. Partially blinded, I did my piece to camera. “Could my spirit beast be that of the crocodile?”  I posed the question, whilst fervently hoping that the answer was ‘no’. After that, the rest of the journey home was something of an anti-climax. 


  The following morning I discovered that there was a make-shift zoo barely half a mile from the hotel. All the animals were kept in wooden-fenced pens or rough pits in the ground. It was a whole lot easier to see them here than it was to chase all over the Amazon on the off-chance of seeing one. And a whole lot safer.  However, there wasn’t much of a selection.


  The crocodiles lay, three-quarters submerged, in the mud of their large pool. They seemed as if they were asleep but, in fact, were ever watchful. As you moved near the fence surrounding the pool you could see their eyes following you. 


  An Indian threw a chicken onto the bank. It fluffed up its feathers and pecked at the ground, oblivious to the danger. Silently, without a ripple to give it away, the crocodile slid in close to the bank. Then, it came out of the water accompanied by a spray of droplets, its jaws snapping on the hapless chicken and it slid back under the surface, all in one swift, smooth movement. There was something inherently evil in this merciless creature. Once again I prayed that it wasn’t my spirit beast.


  In a pen nearby were several tapirs. They seemed to be a cross between a furry pig and an elephant. The size and shape of the body was definitely pig, but the elongated snout belonged to the elephant. It was friendly though and, as I massaged its neck, it closed its eyes in ecstasy. Suddenly it brayed, flinging the snout upwards to reveal long, curved teeth. It looked absolutely ridiculous, like an animal cobbled together out of the parts of several others. It better not be my spirit beast. Rather be a crocodile and feared than a tapir and laughed at.


  In a murky pool lay two anacondas. Because of the mud it was difficult to see how big they were. An Indian keeper in his street clothes reached into the pool and grasped one anaconda around the head and neck. With his other hand supporting its middle he lifted the creature clear of the pool. It was still partially curled up so it was difficult to determine how long it was, but it seemed to be well over nine feet. In places, it was as thick as a man’s leg.


  The Indian beckoned me closer. I didn’t have any phobias about snakes and anyway, the creature looked quite docile. With a swing of his arms, the Indian draped the anaconda around my neck. Whilst still keeping hold of the head, he motioned me to put one hand just below his and my other to hold the body of the snake. More than anything, I was conscious of the green slime from the pool running down my neck.


  Gary filmed away whilst I did my bit to camera. If one had to be an Amazonian animal one could do worse than to be an anaconda, I was thinking. Growing more confident now, I was aware that, although the Indian was out of shot, you would still be able to see his hand, just above mine, holding the snake’s head. I gripped the head tightly and motioned for him to let go.


He shook his head determinedly. I was sure I’d got the hang of this and I motioned for him to let go again. He adamantly refused and, if anything, gripped tighter. 


  Dan was watching the whole episode and shook his head, a rueful smile on his face. “You do make me laugh, Norm”, he said afterwards. “You come over here thinking you can do anything the natives can do. See that Indian. He’s grown up around anacondas. He’s been handling them all his life. He wasn’t just holding its head. He had two fingers pressed against certain muscles in its neck that paralyses it. If he’d let go it would have bit half your head off. Its jaws open incredibly wide and it has very long, sharp fangs. If the bite didn’t kill you, then the poison from its fangs surely would.”


  I took this all in and told myself that perhaps I should slow down a bit. Dan was right, of course, but I so wanted to do a good piece that I was ignoring many of the dangers. Anyway, I consoled myself with the fact that I had done a good piece to camera with the anaconda round my neck.


  That evening we looked through the footage we shot on the day. I smiled with satisfaction when we reach the anaconda sequence, then gaped in amazement. Half-way through, the anaconda disappeared and there I was, stroking the ridiculous tapir. It was the legacy of Dan’s little tin. I had thought that Gary looked a bit off his face during the day’s shooting. Quite obviously, he taped over the anaconda sequence by mistake. 


  He dropped his head as I went into a spontaneous rant. I shouted that we’d come thousands of miles to get that sequence and others like it and we wouldn’t get another chance, so would he kindly shape up and stay straight until we’d finished filming. Dan sat in a corner, quietly, knowing that it was as much his fault for giving Gary the stuff.


  It was now the morning of the day. I woke early and lay there thinking about what I had committed myself to. The dangers from the various Amazonian animals seemed as nothing compared to the upcoming experience with the jage. From my research and from what others had told me I knew just how powerful a potion it was. 


  I had never been much of a drugs person. I had ‘puffed’ cannabis occasionally and, a few times in the mid-seventies, I took LSD. From the latter I got experience of hallucinogenics. But that was something called ‘California Sunshine’ and, as its name implied,  was all warmth and light. Even so, people still had bad ‘trips’ on it. So much so that some had ended up in mental hospitals. For myself, it brought about a major personality change. So I was in no doubt about the effects and dangers of hallucinogens. 


  Jage however, was something else entirely and had another order of magnitude of strength. Again I kept coming back to the fact that I was far from being a normal person. Some of my experiences in life had been pure horror; some of my previous states of mind pure  purgatory. 


  I had been advised not to fight the jage and to go with it passively. But what if the visions of my personal demons sent me crazy? What if I ran screaming into the jungle and got lost? What if the near-death experience was so real that it brought on a heart attack? 


  However, I was nothing if not a realist now. I always assessed a situation and, if it couldn’t be avoided, I dealt with it. It had got me through the 24 years of incarceration. I knew that I was committed to take the jage now. It was far too late to back out. So I put all the fears out of my mind and told myself that I would just have to deal with it.    


  Once I was up and moving I felt much better. Food interacts with the jage, colouring the visions and increasing the vomiting, so it was necessary for me to fast for most of the day. I ate just a light breakfast of scrambled eggs. By the time I took the jage that night, my stomach would be empty.


  Jorge was waiting outside the hotel with a driver and his four-wheel-drive jeep. Once we hit the outskirts of Leticia all the roads disappeared, leaving only rough tracks. The jeep navigated across water-filled holes and around fallen trees. A normal vehicle wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in this terrain.


  We drove for about half an hour then stopped in a clearing at the edge of what seemed to be impenetrable forest. Quite clearly, even the jeep could go no further. The rest of the journey would have to be made on foot. But how? All I could see was thick jungle vegetation surrounded by viscous, muddy swamp.


  Jorge walked to a fallen tree and climbed onto it. Dan followed. I wondered what they were up to, but followed in their footsteps. We all walked along the trunk of this massive fallen tree. To my surprise, at its end was another massive fallen tree. And after that, another. It was a log ‘road’, made out of fallen trees. 


  Walking was very difficult though, the surface of the trees was covered with slime. Dan called out to be careful. The shaman’s wife had fallen and broke both wrists recently and the shaman himself often fell. So saying, Dan skidded on the slippery bark, over-balanced and had to jump into the swamp. He stood there, up to his knees in mud, and we all laughed.


  Then it was my turn. The surface was absolutely treacherous. One foot slipped and I over-balanced. Next minute I too was standing, knee-deep, in the swamp. Although we laughed, I was aware that it was very dangerous. A bad fall could result in broken bones and the Amazonian jungle is no place to break a leg! I focused my full attention on the act of walking. 


  I couldn’t help but remark on how expertly the log ‘road’ had been made. The end of each log virtually touched the start of the next. Yet it would have been impossible to get heavy equipment in here to move the trees once they had fallen. Clearly, they had been cut exactly right so that they had fallen in these positions. I marveled at the skill and knowledge that this must have involved. 


  Half an hour and several falls later, we emerged into a wide clearing. Right in the middle was a large hut made out of trees. It was perfectly circular, each straight, upright tree trunk closely abutting the next. About ten feet above ground level the sloping, conical roof started. It had been thatched with great care. Dan told me that this hut was called a ‘miloca’ and that it served as a meeting place for the local community. 


  The shaman walked out to greet us. Wilder was 46 years old, but was bald and his face  prematurely aged. He looked twenty years older. Life in the jungle must have been hard. He was very friendly though and welcomed us whilst shaking our hands vigourously. 


  He invited us into the hut and introduced us to his wife. She looked up and nodded to us, her hands full with the meal she was preparing. I noticed some unfamiliar vegetables and, nearby, a dead monkey, its fur all blackened and singed. Quite obviously, it was monkey for dinner. I was thankful that I had to fast for the jage ceremony……


part three is on the way...

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My Spirit Beast
22 February 2013

                                 Although I felt that I had brought the Haiti story to a successful conclusion from a journalistic perspective, from a spiritual one it still left many questions unanswered. The fact that Silva Joseph had told me that I was free from evil spirits was neither here nor there. I was sure that he would have told me whatever it took to get the most money off me. And now that my curiosity was well and truly aroused, I found myself casting about for other ways to test my spiritual well-being. 


  The answer came from an unexpected source. Since our Colombian adventures together, Dan and I were now good friends. We regularly e-mailed each other and occasionally talked on the phone. During one of the latter conversations, I mentioned in passing the trip to Haiti and the voudou ceremonies, especially the ‘priests’. 

  “Why don’t you do something on the Colombian shaman?” suggested Dan. “They’re good at driving out spirits. You can drink the local Jage (he pronounced it yah-hey) too. It’s a special potion. I’ve done it.”


  I had heard of the shaman, of course, but mostly in connection with the Red Indians of North America. My research revealed that shamanism is one of the oldest forms of religious consciousness on the planet. In many cultures the shaman has multiple roles, the most important being his mediation between the temporal and spiritual worlds, although he is also important for his healing powers. In his visionary state, under the influence of the powerfully hallucinogenic Jage, many believe him capable of communicating with the spirit world.

  Jage is used extensively throughout Central and South America. Depending on the area and the culture, it can also be called ayahuasca, caapi and yaje. The potion is made by boiling the bark of the Banisteriopsis vine. Because of it’s psychedelic effects it has also been called ‘the vine of the dead’, the visionary vine’ and ‘the vine of souls’.


  Bearing in mind that, if I did the story I could end up drinking the stuff, I was curious to know exactly what was in it. I didn’t doubt for one minute that Dan had taken it, but he virtually ran on cocaine in the same way that a car ran on petrol. It had probably been just one more psychedelic experience to go with all the rest. I was a novice where drugs were concerned. It might have an altogether different effect on me, one that I might have difficulty in recovering from.


  The answers from my research weren’t reassuring. Jage includes other jungle plants as well as the Banisteriopsis vine. On boiling they break down into the powerfully hallucinogenic alkaloids harmine, harmaline, di-tetrahydroharmamine and di-methyltryptamine (DMT). These compounds have effects similar to LSD, mescaline and psilocybin . DMT has been found to occur naturally in mammals, but is usually broken down by the naturally occurring monoamine oxidase (MO). Jage also contains MO inhibitors.


  Not surprisingly, the drinking of Jage has several severe effects, not least of them nausea, vomiting, dizziness and diarrhoea. It also leads to euphoric, aggressive or sexually aroused states. The vomiting and diarrhoea are crucial to the purgative process that drives evil spirits and toxic matter out of the body. There are often visions of creatures and plants, even by Europeans who have never seen such things before. Occasionally, one sees oneself as the spirit form of whatever jungle creature one is. Some experiences can be beautiful, involving panthers, jaguars and birds. Others, involving snakes, lizards and dragons, can be terrifying.


  Quite clearly, any normal person would have to think twice about taking such a potion. And I was a very long way from being a normal person. Despite my proud boast of having turned around my heart and renounced evil in all it’s forms, my character previously had been, at times, savage. What if I took the potion and saw myself as one of the more terrifying creatures? What if I reverted to my former, savage self?


  I accepted that the only damage I could do, deep in the Colombian jungle, would be to Dan and the unfortunate shaman. But the thought of my roaming the rain-forest in some semi-demented state, thinking I was an animal, concentrated my mind wonderfully. As things stood right now, I wasn’t expecting much of an epitaph. In the latter eventuality, even if I were to write it myself, it wasn’t the stuff of great obituaries.


  ‘Front’ went for the story immediately. Although I emphasised that I was going in search of my spirit beast, their main interest seemed to be in this powerfully hallucinogenic sex drug called jage. No doubt their entire readership were regularly drunk, stoned, wrecked and otherwise bombed out on a variety of illegal substances, and aspired to be even more so. The idea of some super-drug that you could get by merely boiling up a bunch of leaves would certainly fire their imagination.


  The production company had been pleased with the footage they had got from the Haiti trip and had, in fact, made it into a short film, with me as the presenter. They also wanted to cover the upcoming Colombian shaman trip. Their intention was to make a five-minute video, incorporating both trips, and take it to one of the TV networks. Once again they funded half the cost of the trip, but this time Gary would be taking photographs for ‘Front’ as well as filming for the production company.


  The production company booked and paid for the tickets. It was only when Gary and I got to the airport that we saw that our Bogota flight stopped in Miami to change planes. Having passed successfully through Miami before, I wasn’t so much concerned about not being allowed in. It was the two-hour window between our plane landing in Miami and the Bogota flight taking off that concerned me. Gary said that I was being alarmist and that two hours was plenty of time to make a connection.


  We landed in Miami right on time. Then we spent forty minutes out on the runway. When we finally got to the docking gate, there was another forty-minute delay before we could disembark. Then there was a delay in getting our baggage off the carousel. With fifteen minutes left before the take off of the Bogota flight, we were racing through the airport, trying to reach the boarding gate in time. 


  We burst through one check-in, with a flight attendant shouting after me that I would have to check my large suitcase into the hold. I ignored her and just made it to the gate. Gary had a small bag and was passed straight through. I was stopped and told in no uncertain terms that my bag was too big for hand luggage and I would have to go back and check it in. This, in effect, condemned me to miss the flight. Realising this, Gary shouted that I should get on the next flight and he would meet me at Bogota airport.  


  I explained at the airline desk what had happened. They apologised and put me on their next flight. This didn’t take off until the following morning though. I spent a very frustrating night in the airport hotel worrying if I would be able to connect up with Gary again. It was his first time in Colombia and Dan wasn’t the most reliable person in the world. I had known all along that I would have a problem in stopping Dan and Gary partying all the time. 

  My worst fears seemed to be realised when I landed at Bogota around noon on the following day. No one was there to meet me. However, just as I was about to get into a taxi and head for a hotel, another taxi pulled up and Dan and Gary jumped out. It was as I had thought. They had hit it off together and gone out on a bender the night before. In the morning they found that the cheap hotel they stayed in wouldn’t take Gary’s credit card. So they were delayed whilst they ran around trying to raise the money. It didn’t portend well for the upcoming trip.

  I did pull Gary aside and cautioned him about getting too off his face whilst we were working. He explained that he liked a bit of coke, but it was so expensive in London he could rarely afford it. He saw it as an opportunity to have a bit of fun on the cheap. He swore that it wouldn’t affect his work.


  Our flight was to Leticia, the southernmost town in all Colombia and the only one on the Amazon. Dan explained that there had been an agreement between the surrounding countries of Brazil and Peru to give Colombia a town on the great river. The result was the long, thin tongue of land that stretched southwards to meet the Amazon, with Leticia at its point.


  Leticia was typical of all Colombian jungle towns, the two-storied shabby buildings separated by dusty, potholed streets. Along these trundled rusting old cars, surrounded by a sea of motorbikes, scooters and cycles, some carrying several passengers.


  It was both hot and humid. The temperature had reached 91 degrees and it rained heavily for several hours at a time. The Hotel Anaconda was the best in town, but, once again in Colombia, ‘best’ is a comparative term. There was no hot water and the air con wheezed consumptively. We were the only guests. The civil war had killed the tourist trade in an area known for its Amazon trips.


  Ironically, the town was very safe, with regular patrols from the nearby army base. Peru was just across the river, which was patrolled by the Peruvian Navy. Brazil was barely two miles down the road. Smuggling is the name of the game here, drugs for the world’s markets out of Colombia and weapons for the indigenous guerillas coming the other way.


  I had already lost a day, so I didn’t want to waste any more time. The following morning Dan introduced us to Jorge, a young guide he knew from a previous trip. We struggled down to the river with our kit and some provisions and climbed into a long canoe powered by an out-board motor. I was fully alert and in work mode now. I knew that the cultural element was going to be supremely important. I needed to see the people, the creatures and the plants, all in their natural environments. Only then would I be able to understand the true import of any visions I might see.


  The Amazon was mighty and magnificent. Only a few hundred yards across at Leticia, it  widened until it was difficult to see either bank At a shout from the boatman I turned and saw dolphins, both blue and pink, dipping in and out of the water. A myriad fantastically-coloured birds swooped and called all around us. Along the bank grew thick vegetation, unbroken by any sign of human habitation. As an experience it was quite breathtaking.

  It started to spot with rain. Moving swiftly, the boatman unrolled a water-proof canopy and headed for the shore. It wasn’t panic, but all his previous movements had been slow and lethargic. I wondered what he was concerned about. I was just about to find out. 


  Suddenly, the heavens opened. Rain, in very large droplets, poured down in such quantity that we couldn’t see a yard ahead. The surface of the river seemed to boil, churned up by the falling rain. Seconds ago the sky had been clear and the sun was shining brightly. Lesson one was that the weather can change very quickly on the Amazon.

  By now though, we were moored in a little tributary. Jorge suggested that it was a good opportunity to eat. We hunkered down in the canoe, eating what the hotel had prepared for us. A wind had sprung up, whipping the thick reeds so that they thrashed against each other. Together with the sound of the rain, the noise was awesome. As the elements warred around us, one could only feel very small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

  As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Once again the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly. Steam rose from the land where the freshly fallen rain had pooled. We set off, out into the main stream again. We had only been traveling for an hour, Monkey Island was still another three hours away. In Amazonian terms, this was only a short distance.


  Dan explained that Monkey Island was a project started by an American 20 years previously. He had built long, wooden dormitories for tourists to stay in whilst observing the thousands of monkeys that inhabit the island. Or that’s what he said his intention was. He disappeared when customs found five tons of cocaine in a shipment of wood he was sending back to the US. The place had lain derelict for many years now, occupied only by an Indian family who scraped a precarious living from the very few tourists who visited.


  I was eager to get close to the monkeys. I had been doing bits to camera with Gary as we traveled, but the birds and the dolphins have all been so far away. As we glided into the bank, the Indian and his whole family were waiting for us. Soon we were standing in a large clearing, but I couldn’t see any monkeys. “Where are the fucking monkeys then, Dan”, I asked petulantly. Dan gave me his ‘long-suffering’ look, he knew me and my impatience quite well now. “In the fucking trees, Norm”, he replied, pointing in the general direction of the surrounding forest.     


  Then I saw them. In fact, the monkeys were the trees. There were so many thousands of them in the branches, that the trees seemed to be the same colour as the monkeys’ fur. The grey army sat watching us to see if we were dangerous to them. As the Indian pulled out bunches of bananas they recognised the signs. They swarmed to the ground and ran towards us. They were all quite tiny, none larger than a domestic cat and most the size of kittens. Some were mothers, with mouse-sized young hanging round their necks.


  Completely fearless now, they swarmed all over us. They were clinging to my clothes, my shoulders and one was sitting on my head. I laughed hysterically, all the while peeling bananas as fast as I could, only to have them snatched from my hands by the tiny manikins. Under the circumstances, it took five attempts for me to do a piece to the camera.


  Dan explained that our next mission was to photograph me with a young crocodile, but for some as yet unexplained reason this could only be done at night. We had several hours to kill. Dan announced that, in the meantime, we would go fishing. I had been fishing only once before in my entire life and I found it to be extremely boring. You sat about for hours with virtually nothing happening. As I articulated these thoughts, Dan gave me another of his ‘long-suffering’ looks. “You’ll see”, he replied cryptically.


  We pulled into another small tributary and climbed out of the canoe and onto the bank. Jorge busied himself breaking off small branches from nearby bushes and a tieing a fishing line and hook to each. We now had four ‘fishing rods’ that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the hands of garden gnomes. It was my turn to have the ‘long-suffering’ look. I turned to Dan, indicating that I was only doing this to humour him. He smiled, but said nothing.


  “What are we fishing for?” I asked laconically, as Jorge fixed a small piece of fish flesh to the hook of my ‘rod’. “Pirahna”, replied Dan deadpan. I pulled my feet back from the water’s edge as I lowered the hook and bait into the water…..


to be continued

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TIGERS - part 4 - the end
15 February 2013

Sitting in my room in the Tissawewa Rest House, I took stock of the situation. Although I had managed to go where no other journalist had been for over two years, I didn’t have much to show for it. ‘Front’ is specifically a visual magazine. I had taken a few photos of road-blocks and bunkers around Anuradhapura, but there was nothing to suggest that I was in the middle of a war zone. I would need some action pictures.

  From a public phone in the center of Anuradhapura I called the mobile number that Mr Kumar had given me. I didn’t recognize the voice that answered. I explained that I had managed to get to Madhu Road, but had been turned back. I emphasised that, for my story to have any impact, I would need some action photos. The voice told me to call back in one hour. 

  I was directed to a small shrine not far from the Tissawewa. As I waited it wasn’t only the intense heat that was making me sweat. I really didn’t think that such a third world country had the technology to intercept every phone call, but, should I be caught meeting with someone who was undoubtedly linked to the Tigers, it could be very serious.

  Eventually, a tuk-tuk pulled up and the driver approached me. He bid me good day and called me Norman. Clearly, this was my contact. I got in and we set off. Over the next hour or so we drove along the highways and byways of Anuradhapura as my loquacious driver regaled me with stories of the armed struggle in the north. 

  I asked about the women’s brigades and he told me of the recent battle for Elephant Pass. He described it as the greatest victory in Tamil history. Elephant Pass was a massive military base for over 20,000 Government troops. Built around a lagoon, the inter-linked satellite bases that protected it were thought to be impregnable. One by one, over a period of six months, key satellite bases had fallen to onslaughts by women suicide squads. Finally, they captured the base that controlled the water supply. The 20,000 troops were now trapped without water. They fled, leaving masses of equipment behind them.

  I suppose it was a tribute to the way the Government managed the news and the international community co-operated with them, that there had been few reports of this in the press. No doubt I should have felt privileged to be one of the first to hear about it first hand. However, my mind was firmly on getting the photos and putting some distance between myself and this driver. Finally, he wished me farewell and handed me a small package. 

  Back in my room I examined the photos. There were twenty of them and they were exactly what I wanted. I had heard that the Tigers had a pretty good propaganda machine of their own. They regularly filmed battle situations. Each photo had been taken in the heat of battle. There was enough blood and dead bodies to satisfy ‘Fronts’ requirements. In the event, they printed several of them prominently on one page.

  The editor expressed his satisfaction with my story, despite the fact that I hadn’t managed to meet with the Tigers. For myself, I was disappointed. Even though no other journalist had managed to get past the Government’s blockade, I still felt that I hadn’t delivered what I had promised. This was reflected in the somewhat childish tirade I concluded the article with. It was pure ‘Front’ though.

  “So next time some scumbag dictator bans the international press in an attempt to cover up his war crimes, he’d better watch out. ‘Front’ just might show up at the front”.


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TIGERS - part 3
11 February 2013

To give credit where it is due, the driver had always been aware of the danger we were in. Throwing the jeep into gear, he quickly reversed in a tight arc, then accelerated away.  The jeep bucked like a wild thing as we raced across the bumpy terrain. I quickly became aware of another danger, that of falling out of the jeep. I clung on like grim death. So intent was I on holding on, I didn’t even look over my shoulder. All I knew was that the elephant was very close behind and, sitting in the rear seats, I would be the first to feel the weight of its trunk.  

  After what seemed an age, the driver slowed. I looked behind and saw that the elephant had stopped a couple of hundred yards away. There would be no further pursuit. Perhaps it was the unexpected adrenalin rush, but, suddenly, I just couldn’t help myself.  I laughed and laughed. So much so that Raja looked at me quite concerned, then managed a weak smile in return. I continued to burst into fits of giggles all the way back to the main gate. As they dropped me off at the Tissawewa they must have thought that I was quite mad.

  Having now established my tourist credentials, I felt that I could venture into nearby  Anuradhapura town and make some enquiries. A tuk-tuk, the local, three-wheeled motorized taxi, dropped me off at the central square. The obvious people to ask were the taxi drivers, gathered around their tuk-tuks. However, taxi drivers in all cultures invariably work hand in hand with the police. I would have to be careful what I said. 

  I stressed the fact that I was interested in the Catholic church at Madhu Road. All the drivers threw up their hands in despair. Muttering darkly about ‘Tigers’, several made imaginary shooting movements with imaginary guns. Clearly, none of them would take me. However, I did manage to elicit the information that a bus went from Anuradhapua to Vavuniya. Another bus would take me from here, along the Mannar Road, to within a few miles of Madhu Road and the Catholic church.

  From my research, I knew that Vavuniya was a large, garrison town and massively out of bounds to anyone who didn’t have a good reason to go there. The next part of the journey would be fraught with risk. All the international aid agencies had accused the Government of human right’s abuses at one time or another. I had read plentiful accounts of Tamil civilians being murdered out of hand. I did have my press card as a last resort, but in a war zone that would be no guarantee of safety. I wouldn’t be the first journalist to be taken round a corner and shot in similar situations. And in this instance, no doubt the Government would blame it on the Tigers.  

  At nine the next morning I was on the bus to Vavuniya. Twenty-seven dusky fellow passengers cast sly, suspicious looks at the only European on board. I thought of Gordon at Khartoum and felt my stiff upper-lip quiver.

  Travelling quite slowly, we slalomed through several road-blocks without stopping. About ten miles from Vavuniya the roadside bunkers started to appear, with armed soldiers posted every hundred yards. There was no turning back now.  

  As befits a garrison town, Vavuniya was absolutely swarming with troops. Hundreds of them, dressed in various uniforms, strolled about in groups. I slipped unobtrusively off the bus and into the nearest café. 

  As soon as I was confident that my arrival hadn’t sparked a hue and cry, I emerged to locate the Madhu Road bus. The central bus station was easy enough to find. I bought a return ticket to Madhu Road and sat in the back of the darkened bus, waiting for its departure.

  Time passed, and more and more people got on the bus. When we left, there were 46 passengers crammed around the 28 seats. I wasn’t complaining, they were good cover for me. I hunkered down and tried to hide myself in the crush. 

  The earth-work forts and bunkers began immediately we left Vavuniya. Spaced every hundred yards along the road, each was manned by scores of heavily-armed soldiers. Suddenly we stopped at the first road-block. 

  The success of any journalistic venture depends a large part on luck, or, in my case perhaps, on stupidity. As every living soul except myself made to get off the bus I remember thinking how curious it was that everyone was going only to the first stop. If I realised it was a road-block, I certainly didn’t realise that one was required to get off and show one’s papers. If I had, then perhaps that would have been the end of it. I sat at the back of the bus, waiting patiently for the journey to continue. 

  Accompanied by the ‘clumping’ sound of heavy boots, two very large military policemen climbed into the bus and made their way to me. I did have the presence of mind to pull out my passport and hold it out towards them. They stopped, took it off me with care, almost reverently, it was clearly a British passport, examined it, then handed it back. No one word had been spoken. Whatever they had assumed, it was enough for them. All the rest of the passengers climbed back onto the bus and we continued our journey. Only this time they were looking at me with a mixture of reverence and fear.

  The view from the bus was one of preparations for war. Tanks stood cheek by jowl with gun emplacements, as jeeps bristling with armed men raced between them. Military-tented villages were dotted here and there. If this wasn’t actually the front line, then we were very close.  

  Three more times we stopped at road-blocks and exactly the same procedure was followed. The fourth pair of military police at least had the initiative to ask me where I was going. “The Catholic church at Madhu Road”, I said confidently, as if I had been going there all my life.

  I alighted at the Madhu Road stop with a growing feeling of euphoria. If this indeed was Madhu Road, then surely it was just a question of nipping into the church, making the brief acquaintance of the priest, then nipping out the back door into the arms of my new friends, the Tigers. In my dreams!

  I had been sitting on the left hand side of the bus and had got off on that side too. As the bus moved off it revealed the other side of the road to me. I took in a great mass of civilians squatted at the side of the road. I noticed the barbed wire boundaries and guessed it must be some kind of transit camp. But transit to where? Surely they weren’t all going to the Catholic church too?

  Then I noticed the soldiers, at about the same instant as they noticed me. Twenty highly excited soldiers, some waving automatic weapons in the air, ran across the road and surrounded me. There was some confusion, what with the fact that they were all trying to speak to me at once, but the burning question was, “What the f--- was I doing here?” This was a highly restricted area and I didn’t have the necessary papers. 

  “How did you get here?”, demanded a young, senior officer.

  “On the bus”, I replied, thinking that it was a very obvious answer.

  “Yes, but how did you get past the checkpoints?”, continued the officer, shouting now.

  “I just showed them my passport”, I said quite calmly and pulled said passport from my pocket and waved it at the officer.

  The officer examined it quickly, then handed it back. Turning to one of the group of soldiers that had surrounded me he said, “Get him out of here before a senior officer sees him and we’re really in trouble. Stop a lorry, anything that’s going back to Vavuniya, and put him on it.” 

  “So how do I get permission to come to this area then?” I shouted over my shoulder as I was led away.

  “There’s an office in Vavuniya”, shouted back the officer. 

  My escort of soldiers stopped a large dumper truck on the other side of the road. The driver and his mate were told to take me straight back to Vavuniya. We set off, but within five minutes we were halted by a stationary line of traffic in front of us. A few minutes passed and we could hear the wailing of sirens getting closer. 

  Suddenly, on the other side of the road, going in the direction we had just been, was a large United Nations convoy. Several armoured personnel carriers were painted in the UN colours and carried the legend ‘UN’. Between them were two buses full of people, also with the ‘UN’ logo. Clearly, this was some kind of UN-supervised personnel exchange between the two sides. I couldn’t help but reflect that if it took the UN and armoured vehicles to cross the cease-fire line, then I had been quite naïve in thinking that I could do it on my own.

  Back in Vavuniya I managed to find the office the officer had told me about. It was full of civil servants processing travel application forms. I managed to get an interview with someone quite senior. He looked at me quizzically when I mentioned that I had just been turned back from Madhu Road and laughed when I asked how I could get permission to go there. He said that it was completely out of the question....

to be continued

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TIGERS - part 2
07 February 2013

  Firmly in ‘work mode’ now, I was soaking up every detail of my environment. As a city, Colombo seemed to be mostly a slum. Ramshackle, two-storied buildings lined the sides of roads full of potholes. All progress, vehicular or otherwise, was hindered by hundreds of cows. They wandered on pavements, in roads and even into shops, as if they owned the place. Which, it turned out, they did. The cow is holy to Hindus, and Sri Lankan Buddhists refuse to kill any living thing, (except the occasional Tamil, that is). Ergo the cows, everywhere!

  Fort railway station was straight out of the films set in the days of the Raj. Old fashioned steam trains puffed and whistled alongside platforms that couldn’t have changed much in fifty years. All that was missing was Sir Ralph Richardson and a detachment of red-jacketed British troops.

  I was already attracting many curious stares and a couple of people actually stopped me and asked if I was English, before welcoming me to the country. I was impressed both by their impeccable manners and their excellent English. However, once again I was concerned about attracting attention. I quickly took my place in the ticket queue.

  I bought a ticket to Anuradhapura, 200 kilometres to the north. This was the site of an ancient city and the temples and ruins were world famous. It wouldn’t be unexpected for a tourist to want to go there, I hoped. There were two surprises. A second class ticket cost me only the equivalent of £1.50 for the 200 kilometres. I reflected that, back in London, £1.50 wouldn’t take me one stop on the Underground.

  When I saw the carriages though, the ticket price made sense. They were dilapidated to the point of being nearly derelict. There was no glass in the windows, no curtains either and the wooden benches were without cushioning and hadn’t been painted for many years. Every carriage was thoroughly overcrowded. Even here though I was given privileged status. Two young men stood up from a bench seat and allowed me to slip inside and sit by the window, before re-seating themselves.

  The six hour journey took me through dusty, tumble-down towns and villages separated by vast expanses of jungle and scrubland. On the train or at any of the stations we passed I didn’t see so much as one European face. Seated in the window, curious faces stared at me from platforms and level crossings. I felt about as undercover as Madonna.

  The further north we went, so the carriage emptied out a bit. After one stop though, a young guy got on and sat next to me. He engaged me in conversation, then showed me his Army identification card. It did wonders for my paranoia.

  Either I was wrong about him however, or Sinhalese agents aren’t up to much. Suddenly a ticket inspector appeared. On inspecting the Army guy’s ticket it turned out that he was traveling in the wrong class and he was unceremoniously ejected from the carriage.

  I arrived at Anuradhapura, my face roasted by the sun and sandblasted by the dust. As I alighted onto the platform, I was nearly rugby-tackled by Raja, the local equivalent of wide-boy, Arthur Daley. Raja professed to be a taxi driver, but hastened to assure me that he was also a tourist guide and could get me whatever I wanted. The wink isn’t part of Sri Lankan culture, but his ‘knowing look’ was international. All the time he repeated, mantra-like, “wonderful people the British, wonderful people the British. I was tired, didn’t want to attract any attention and was longing to sleep. Against my better judgment I got into his taxi.

  The Milano Guest House was a slur on the good name of Milan and had no Italian connection that I could discern. The room for one was barely tolerable, even if the only air conditioning was an ancient rotating fan set in the ceiling. It was the bathroom for five that I had a problem with, especially as the other four were cockroaches. After a brief two-step with a couple of them in the shower, I retired to the bed, silently cursing Raja under my breath.      

  After 24 years of eating prison food, I had thought that I was beyond being upset by a ruined meal. Breakfast at the ‘Milano’ though was a culinary experience too far. I had only asked for chicken and rice, for God’s sake, yet the rice was soggy and stuck together in lumps and the chicken was all skin and innards. I seriously considered punching Raja full in his fat, smiling face when next we met.

  In the event, I resisted the temptation, rationalising that such behaviour would certainly bring me a whole lot of attention, probably from the police. When he arrived to take me sightseeing though, I had paid for my room and was waiting with my bag all packed. I cut through his obsequious, “Good morning sir”, with a steely, “Take me to another hotel immediately.”

  The Tissawewa Rest House was a quaint leftover from the colonial days. Its genteel decay was more than compensated for by scrupulous cleanliness and excellent service. I secreted the copy of ‘Front’ I was carrying beneath some cushions lest it’s contents outrage the servants.

   The large house must have been very beautiful in its day and, even though the white paintwork was peeling, there was still a feeling of sumptuousness about the place. The house stood in it’s own gardens and grounds, which were extensive. Hundreds of small, and not so small, monkeys roamed freely. Most had absolutely no fear of humans. In fact, the one caution I had from the staff was to make sure I closed my windows, otherwise monkeys could enter and steal things.

  In such an idyllic setting it would have been very easy to forget what I had come for and just lounge around for a couple of days and relax. However, I was on a tight schedule. I would want to spend at least a couple of days with the Tigers, should I manage to contact them. That was why it was so frustrating to have to pretend that I was a tourist. I would have to waste good time doing ‘touristy’ things. Ergo Raja.

  Later that day he took me on a tour of the ancient city. The temples were magnificent, their time-worn facades testimony to the architectural excellence of a bygone age. It must have been some kind of holy day, because thousands of pilgrims, wearing only white, sheet-like clothing, swarmed everywhere.

  Outside every temple were rows and rows of sandals which the faithful had removed before entering. Mine were the only pair of shoes. I still hadn’t seen another European since I had left Colombo.

  At the entrance of one temple stood three uniformed soldiers carrying machine guns. Raja informed me that they were guarding a special temple, inside which stood a holy tree. This tree was supposed to be thousands of years old and had been closely linked to one of the original prophets. I felt that this was worth seeing.

  It didn’t look like much, just a gnarled, thin old trunk, bereft of leaves. It was surrounded by a circular railing, through which the faithful reached to touch the tree. Right next to it stood another soldier, also carrying a machine gun. Raja explained that the guard was necessary just in case the Tigers tried to damage the holy tree. I couldn’t help but reflect on the ridiculousness of a situation where people would fight and die over an old tree.

  A couple of hours in the heat and the dust was quite enough for me. I got Raja to take me back to the Tissawewa for a mid-day snooze. Later, he had organized a safari for me. I wanted to establish my tourist credentials as soon as possible, then move on to other, more serious, things.

 The Habarana Wildlife Park was so absolutely massive that I was sure it didn’t have a wall around it and was, in fact, just a part of the countryside. The gate-complex was impressive, with large, barred gates and armed guards in uniform, but I guessed that was for the benefit of the tourists. I signed up for the basic 50 quid tour.

  I have a theory about wildlife and safaris. I feel that any responsible parent would warn the cubs that the upright, two-legged creatures might pull out a camera and take your picture. On the other hand, they also might pull out a gun and shoot you. So, to be on the safe side, whenever you see one, HIDE!   

  For the next two hours, with Raja sitting in the front of the open-topped jeep next to the driver and me in the back, we drove along the bumpy, dusty trails of the wildlife park. Every living thing hid from us. On one occasion, far in the distance, we did see what looked like a water buffalo beside a lake, but when we finally got there the creature had disappeared.

  I was quite unconcerned. I was content to go through the motions of being a tourist and safaris had never appealed to me anyway. But you could tell that Raja was deeply embarrassed. For a start, his incessant chatter had diminished to barely a trickle of half-hearted encouragements that there would be something just around the next corner. By now it was growing dark.

  So far, I had been completely relaxed. It was just a safari and I didn’t consider myself to be in any danger at all. The dangerous bit would come next when I tried to contact the Tigers. Further, I had assumed that, for all his insincerity, Raja knew what he was doing. I was just about to be rudely disabused of that notion.

  Exiting a small forest of trees onto another large plain, we could see, a short distance away, another clump of trees. Amongst these were several elephants. I don’t know if they tried to hide, but, as all the trees were quite small, perhaps they just weren’t successful.

  Seeing his chance to redeem himself in my eyes, Raja ordered the driver to get close to the herd. On the fringes, just outside the tree line, stood a very large elephant that I took to be a male. In fact, it could well have been the bull, for it was much larger than any of the twenty or so others in the herd. 

  At first the elephant ignored us. It continued to pull clumps of grass from the ground with its trunk and stuff them into its mouth. At Raja’s insistence, the driver drew closer. From 200 feet away the animal looked big enough: from 100 feet away it looked enormous. It completely dwarfed us and the jeep we were sitting in.

  By now however, although it was still chewing the last mouthful of grass, it wasn’t intent on pulling any more from the ground. All its attention was on us. Suddenly, it started to paw at the ground with one of its front feet. At the same time, a deep growling sound came from its head, which it was now swinging from side to side.

  Up until this moment, I had been merely a complacent observer of events. However, I was aware that elephants killed many people every year in Africa. It was just beginning to dawn on me that, should the beast charge, we could be in danger.

  I might have read its mind. With a piercing squeal that immediately morphed into a full-throated bellow, it charged. Temporarily, the deafening sound paralysed all movement. I remember mentally remarking to myself how swift it was for such a large animal…....



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05 February 2013

For quite a while I had been intending to do a piece on the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Having spent so long without liberty myself I seemed to have a natural affinity and sympathy for liberation movements. These invariably suffered from a poor press, with the international media usually supporting the status quo. I felt that my piece would serve a good cause, as well as cocking a snook at the powers that be.
  From my research I knew that Sri Lanka was ostensibly a paradise island, the size of Ireland, that lies off the southern tip of India. It’s major selling point in the holiday brochures are the beautiful beaches in the south. Except for the occasional bomb outrage, the average tourist would hardly know that a virtual civil war is raging in the north. 
  This situation, like so many others of its ilk, had been largely created by us. As the former colonial masters when Sri Lanka was Ceylon, we had handed over power after independence to the Sinhalese-dominated civil service. The Sinhalese are Buddhists and make up about 76% of the population. The Hindu, Tamil minority make up about 15% of the population and are heavily concentrated in the north. There was also a much smaller minority of Muslims.
  Needless to say, the Sinhalese who we had handed over to were reluctant to share power with anyone outside their immediate community. The Tamils strived for representation and equal rights, but were rewarded only with Government-inspired race riots during which many Tamils were massacred. This resulted in the Tamils demanding their own state in the north, called Tamil Eelam, and the creation a force committed to fight for it, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tigers for short. This war had been raging, at different intensities, for over 25 years.
  Despite overwhelming international support from countries as diverse as the USA, India, China and Russia, the Sinhalese had never managed to defeat their out-gunned but better motivated enemy. On the contrary, in. fact. Displaying a commitment and fanaticism that the Government couldn’t match, the Tigers had won a string of victories culminating in the near taking of Jaffna, the major city of the north. This would have been a crushing military and political blow to the Government.
 Certainly not unique to third world liberation movements, Tamil women had played a leading role in the fighting. This had arisen out of necessity, as so many of their men-folk had been killed. Ironically, the women’s brigades had won a reputation for being amongst the fiercest fighters. Many of them had formed into suicide squads, throwing themselves in waves against entrenched positions. The Government troops especially feared them.
  I found this to be particularly fascinating, occurring in a Tamil culture that was largely non-violent. I hoped to interview some of the women’s brigades as part of my story. The other interesting facet was that the Tigers had virtually introduced the suicide bomber as a weapon of urban warfare. Again this was deeply ironic, occurring in a largely non-violent culture. 
  I also knew that, unlike in Colombia, the Government denied the Tigers any concessions at all. There was a tight, news blackout on the war, with journalists, even local ones, refused access to the front in the north. Increasingly losing the military war, the Government seemed intent on winning the propaganda war through strict news management and censorship.
  Quite obviously, I felt that didn’t include me. However, I wasn’t so naïve as to think that I could go waltzing into a completely strange country without any help. There were two sides to this dispute, I would need the assistance of one of them.
  As luck would have it, the headquarters of the expatriate Tamil community in England was situated in Eelam House, over in Borough, South East London. A phone call elicited a request for me to put my application in writing. Similar to letters I had written to other liberation movements, I mentioned that I was a freelance journalist and a member of the National Union of Journalists. I pointed out that the magazine I wrote for (‘Front’ in this instance) was a lifestyle magazine with a readership in the hundreds of thousands. Further, that by writing my articles in an ‘adventurous’ fashion, I could reach an audience of young professionals who normally, perhaps, might not read a ‘political’ article. I concluded by saying, “I am aware that this is an important time for the Tamil Eelam movement. I followed with interest the recent assault by the Tigers that nearly caused the fall of Jaffna. I would like to meet with you in the first instance, but I would also like to go to Tiger-held territory north of Jaffna to write my article.”    
  Liberation movements are just as much in the business of propaganda as the Governments they oppose. They need all the publicity they can get, especially if it is sympathetic to their cause. I wasn’t at all surprised when I got a phone call inviting me to a meeting.    
  I duly presented myself at Eelam House, a rather unimposing two-storied, office-block- type building, surrounded by a wire fence. Inside though was altogether more impressive, being done out like a Hindu temple. I was required to remove my shoes and was ushered upstairs to an office. Behind a large desk sat a short, plumpish middle-aged man with a round, pleasant face. He smiled broadly as he stood to shake my hand and introduced himself as Kumar.
  I never determined whether this was his first or second name, so I erred on the side of caution by calling him Mr Kumar. Mr Kumar was politeness personified. He explained that he had been a journalist himself back in Sri Lanka, so he knew something about the profession. He went on to say that the situation in the Tamil-held north was very volatile at the moment and the Government wasn’t allowing any journalists up to the front line. I told him that I knew this, but was determined to find a way through. 
  He fixed me with a long, studied look, as if weighing me up. I recognized the signs and realised that the situation called for openness on my part. I told him that I had recently spent over 24 years in British prisons so I wasn’t a particularly ardent supported of the Government line. My article would be factual and unbiased.
  The smile was once again on Mr Kumar’s face. He wished me well with my trip, but added that to give me the contact details of Tamil activists in the north would put their lives in danger should the details be found on me. However, he did write down an English mobile number for me. He said that I should try to reach a place called Madhu Road in the north. If I got there okay, I should call this number. I left feeling that I had made a very positive contact.
  I didn’t have any problem in pitching the story to ‘Front’. By now, they had every confidence that I would complete every assignment I set out on. This was all very well,  but I was aware that, in magazine journalism, you are only as successful as your last story. It wouldn’t do to take an international flight to Sri Lanka costing several hundred pounds, just to be stopped at customs and sent right back again. Clearly I would have to have a cover story.
  I could always be a tourist, of course, but that would only work if I stayed in the south, where the tourist resorts were. Once I went north, especially if a search revealed my journalist’s card, I would have some explaining to do. 
  I scoured the internet for details about northern Sri Lanka, particularly the area around Madhu Road. I noticed on several maps a small icon right on Madhu Road. When I checked the reference at the side of the map I found it represented a Catholic Church. 
  So that was it, then. In a country full of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, where religious pilgrimage was almost a way of life, I would be a pilgrim. Only a Catholic one. I wouldn’t need the permission of the Pope, and the Rabai didn’t have to be told. However, I did borrow a small cross and some rosary beads off a friend, just in case.
  I landed at the capital, Colombo, and had minor misgivings as I approached customs. I needn’t have worried though. Tourists were so thin on the ground right now that any foreign face was welcome. Further, even though we had been the colonial power, many Sri Lankans still seemed to be involved in a love affair with England and the English.
  Outside, I was surrounded by a baying mob of taxi drivers all vying for my attention. I was trying to be as low profile as possible, so attention was just what I wanted to avoid. I jumped into the nearest taxi and told the driver to take me to the railway station…..
next part coming shortly..

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22 January 2013

....This was both unnecessary and stupid. All it did was to ‘hallmark’ the crime and make it easier for the police to identify him. Very few women took part in the many thousands of armed robberies each year. And from witness statements, and possibly CCTV footage, it would soon emerge that the ‘woman’ was, in fact, a man in drag. Dave might as well have left a calling card.

  Next, the pair robbed a bank of £25,000, with Dave wearing what was to become his trademark black leather miniskirt and carrying a sawn-off shotgun. By now the police must have known who they were looking for.

  A conversation with Dave during this period would have been revealing. Despite being wanted, I don’t doubt that he felt quite fulfilled. He had finally become that which he had so much desired to be, a fully-fledged armed robber.

  It was at this time, flush with money from the robberies and out clubbing most nights, that he met Sue Stephens, a dark-haired, attractive model. It seems that within a very short period of time he was desperately in love with her and, in fact, couldn’t live without her. 

  This came as a considerable surprise to those of us who had known him well in jail. Not because he had fallen in love with a woman, we knew that he was bi-sexual, but rather that he had fallen in love at all. In jail he had been totally in command of all his relationships and, if anything, was quite cold and mercenary regarding them. I took this to be further evidence of the damage all the solitary had done him. It tends to leave one with a deep and enduring feeling of loneliness. 

  No one knows whether Sue reciprocated these feelings, although her subsequent behaviour would suggest that she didn’t. However, she has been reported as saying that she found Dave to be something of a ‘dreamer’.

     The relationship came to an abrupt halt when, late in December, Dave was ambushed and shot by robbery squad detectives. Remanded to Brixton Prison on serious armed robbery charges, it looked like Dave was going away again for a very long time. They hadn’t reckoned with his escaping skills though. Despite being in the top security category, with all the extra security measures that entailed, Dave managed to escape from a cell at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court, where he was appearing on remand. It was Christmas Eve. 

  Any other, half-ways sensible criminal would have headed for parts unknown, but not Dave. He immediately returned to Sue and the pair were inseparable throughout this period while the hunt for him continued. 

  Having had to shoot him to capture him the previous time, you would have thought that the police would now be treating him extremely seriously. Perhaps it was the ‘gay’ label’ that put them off. Certainly the two robbery squad detectives who were checking out an address they had traced thought they weren’t in any danger. As they walked along a corridor towards Dave’s door, they failed to take notice of the tall, attractive-looking woman in a tight black mini-skirt.

  Dave reacted first. Pulling out a small caliber pistol, he shot PC Nicholas Carr in the groin, then ran off. To shoot a policeman is one of the most serious of crimes. It brings retribution in the form of the most intense manhunt possible. I’m sure the symbolism of an Officer being shot in the groin by a transvestite armed robber was not lost on the Met. This powerful imagery no doubt prompted the next incident.

  I didn’t take the brains of Sherlock Holmes for the police to work out that the key to catching Dave Martin was to keep close tabs on Sue Stephens. They put her under constant surveillance. On the evening of January 14th 1983 they were rewarded. A bright yellow mini pulled up outside Sue’s address. There were two men in the front seats, the driver had the familiar long, fair hair.

  Sue and a female friend came out and got in the car with the two men. They all drove off in the direction of the West End, several unmarked police cars shadowing them. Thus, a full-scale operation swung into motion involving dozens of officers, many of them armed. They had shot him before and now he had shot one of them. They didn’t expect Dave to go quietly.

  The traffic heading towards the West End was particularly thick this night. The mini and all the cars involved in the pursuit became entangled in a serious jam near Earls Court. In Pembroke Road everything came to a complete halt. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the Superintendent in charge of the operation ordered that one of his men get out and try and make a positive identification of Martin.

  The plain-clothed officer crept towards the mini, trying to shield himself from view behind other cars. He had been told to be careful. No doubt he was mindful of the fact that the man they were pursuing was particularly dangerous. Probably for that reason, he didn’t get too close. A profile and the long, fair hair was enough for him to call in a positive identification. 

  The Superintendent gave the word and several armed officers ran towards the car. There was no shouted warning and no attempt to arrest. Instead, they fired a volley of shots at close range into the body of the driver. As he slumped in his seat, the passenger beside him jumped out and ran off. Screaming, the two women cowered in the back seat.

  Now the officers closed in on the form of the driver. He had managed to open his car door, but had then lapsed into unconsciousness. He lay, half in and half out of the car, his head nearly touching the road, the long, fair hair discoloured by the streams of blood that coursed through it.

  As the police gathered around the car, guns still at the ready, they surveyed the results of their handiwork. Seven shots had hit the driver in the body. Any fledgling feelings of euphoria were soon dispelled though by a very obvious fact. The driver wasn’t Dave Martin!

  A quick investigation revealed that they had shot an innocent TV producer named Steven Waldorf. That he worked in the media, a group almost as powerful and as privileged as the police, meant that this couldn’t be covered up. The following morning banner headlines screamed out full details of the foul-up. On TV and radio, every bulletin carried a report of the event.

  If Dave Martin had previously been only a very minor character on the underworld scene, that certainly wasn’t the case now. Steven Waldorf was the household name, but in the next breath came that of Dave Martin. The following Sunday, Dave was on the front page of the News of the World. If notoriety had been what he was seeking, he had it in spades.

  Dave was now public enemy number one as far as the police were concerned, and the most wanted man in Britain. Surely, one reasons, nobody but a fool would stay around. Surely, the drumbeat heralding his inexorably approaching doom must have been audible to him.

  Later, I wondered what was going through Dave’s mind at this time, for, of all the things he was, he certainly wasn’t a fool. Perhaps it was a subconscious death wish that drove him at this moment. However, he got straight in touch with Sue Stephens and arranged to meet her in a restaurant at Belsize Park.

  Dave arrived early to look the place over, but it was a trap. Armed police ran from  everywhere. As he fled down into the nearby Belsize Park Underground Station Dave could only have thought that his Sue had betrayed him. 

  He fled ever deeper into the tunnel system, but the police were ready for that. They sealed off both ends of the tunnel. After a couple of hours of negotiations, his situation futile, Dave gave himself up.

  Even with the hindsight of many years, the final acts of the tragedy still seem very strange. Remanded to top security conditions in a special unit in Wormwood Scrubs, Dave embarked on a hunger strike and demanded to see his beloved Sue. For whatever reasons, she didn’t come. Then he took and overdose of medicines he had saved up. Dramatic photos showed him being rushed to hospital by ambulance to have his stomach pumped out. 

  Sharing the same special unit at the Scrubs was Dennis Nilsen, the gay serial killer. Dave then embarked on an amazing relationship with him, which led to the latter declaring that he was in love with Dave and, had he met him outside, he would never had started killing. 

  To those of us who had known him well, this was just further evidence of just how strange Dave’s thinking had become. The ‘chaps’ despised cowardly sex offenders like Nilsen, a man who had lured his innocent and unsuspecting victims to their doom. In the long-term jails, given the opportunity, they would have beaten him senseless. We couldn’t understand why Dave was even speaking to such an individual, let alone befriending him.  

  The actual trial was all too predictable. The judge made much of the fact that Dave had been on an armed robbery where a guard had been shot and that he, personally, had shot a detective. He was described as a ‘very dangerous man’. The sentence was 25 years.

  Who knows what Dave was thinking as the top security convoy dropped him off at Parkhurst. It looked very much like the wheel had turned full circle, except that his time Dave would be located in the ultra top security ‘Special Wing’. In its time, this prison within a prison had housed the Krays, the Great Train Robbers, IRA terrorists and other notorious prisoners. Its normal complement of no more than ten prisoners were watched day and night. Escape from here would be very difficult, if not impossible.

  Despite the fact that all the other prisoners in the ‘Special Wing’ were doing very long sentences too, Dave’s elitist nature soon came to the fore. The prisoners always decided amongst themselves what they wanted to watch on the TV in the association room. Normally, an informal show of hands would suffice. Needless to say, Dave invariably liked to watch something more highbrow. A couple of times he had got up and just turned the TV over to the channel that he wanted to watch.

  On this particular evening the vote had gone against him again. He jumped up to turn the TV over, but this time one of the other prisoners had had enough. He jumped up and physically confronted Dave, who, being no fighter of course, had to back down. He retreated to his cell with the insult of, “You’re only a fucking poof anyway”, ringing in his ears. It was a very public humiliation. As he slammed his door against a world that constantly belittled him because of his sexuality, Dave must have reflected that not even the armed robberies and the 25-year sentence had brought him the respect he so craved.

  All long term prisoners experience moments of despair, times when there seems no hope, and the pain of a meaningless existence becomes too much to bear. Most have contemplated suicide, however briefly. For the vast majority, the moment passes. As miserable as the situation may be at the moment, life is still the only game in town. 

  But not, it seems, for Dave. He made a rope out of a torn sheet, tied one end around the bars of his window and the other around his neck, then stepped off a chair to slowly throttle under his own weight. It couldn’t have been an easy death. My bet would be that, in those last moments, he was thinking of Sue.

  His latter-day arrogance apart, those of us who had known him well were deeply saddened. Whatever he had deserved, he hadn’t deserved that. I walked again in my memories with the soft-spoken, shy, intelligent young man who I had known at Parkhurst all those years ago. I tried to square that image with the strutting poseur who had so briefly blazed a path across the criminal firmament. And failed. I could only conclude that ‘the system’ had moulded him in its own image, then let him loose on the world.

  No doubt there were those amongst the ‘chaps’, myself included, who felt guilty that they had so regularly put him down. For, in the final analysis, the passing of such a bright, strong spirit diminished us all. And we were the weaker for it.


The End

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21 January 2013

Within days he had befriended Peter, a young London guy who was only 21. Although Peter had clean-cut good looks and something of a baby face, he wasn’t at all effeminate and, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, he wasn’t gay. He had an easy-going personality and went out of his way to seek the approval of the ‘chaps’, whom he looked up to with some awe. From a criminal perspective, he was quite silly and his crime had been pure foolishness. He was also very easily led. He was forever getting into trouble with the warders, usually through doing something on someone else’s behalf. Soon, he and Dave were inseparable.

  Long Lartin was so hi-tech security-wise, that virtually everything was alarmed and linked to the central computer. Not only did all the doors lock and unlock electronically, every inspection panel on the walls and ceilings of the landings were fitted with alarms.  I suppose Dave just couldn’t resist it. Within days he had bypassed the alarms and was taking the inspection panels off. Many of these led to ducting, which, whilst not leading outside, did run all over the wing. A favourite pastime of Dave and Peter’s was to get in the ducting that ran above cells that gay couples frequented, and listen to what they were up to.

  To the uninitiated, this might seem hilarious and harmless fun, but to people who were trying to survive in the jail, it was an unnecessary complication. Many people had money, drugs, weapons and other contraband items hidden about the wing. It was like a constant game with the Security Department. There was a degree of ‘live and let live’. Further, the warders didn’t want to unduly antagonize everyone by conducting full-scale searches all the time. Occasionally things were found and they were satisfied with that.

  A serious security breach like removing an inspection panel was another matter entirely. If they discovered something like that it would be a direct challenge to them. You could expect them to close the wing down and search every cell from top to bottom. A lot of people would lose a lot of valuable things. Needless to say, quite a few cons on Dave’s wing weren’t too pleased by what they saw as unnecessary foolishness.

  All of a sudden, I had a lot more to focus my attention on than Dave’s antics. A violent incident on my own wing saw myself and two of my friends remanded to the punishment block as part of an ongoing police investigation. We had been down there about a month when, late one night, Dave was brought down with his friend Peter. They had tried to escape.

  A different code applies to the punishment block than to the main prison. As it is a place where everyone is under considerable stress, old feuds tend to be forgotten and everyone tries to support each other. It was only natural that Dave and I speak again. Several of us had already sent canteen goods over to him.

  Like myself, Dave’s cell window looked out over the punishment block’s small exercise yard. The very next time I was let out on exercise, I went straight over to his window. It wasn’t just idle curiosity. I fully intended to try to escape again myself, even if it wasn’t going to be from Long Lartin. Every bit of information about how the security worked was valuable.

  Although he explained it to me several times, the technical detail of how he bypassed the electronics of his cell door was beyond me. But he had managed to open it himself, without it registering as being open in the central control room. He had already rigged Peter’s door in a similar fashion and went in to join him.

  All the cell bars at Long Lartin were made of manganese steel, specially hardened and supposedly un-cuttable. Dave had taken his record player to pieces, fitted carborundum discs stolen from a workshop to the central spindle and made a very workable circular saw. Over a period of a couple of weeks he had ground away Peter’s bars. At the end of each session he would fill the cuts with a special filler that was also stolen from the workshops and paint it with quick-drying paint. Peter not being a top-security prisoner, his cell bars didn’t get the careful scrutiny that higher security category prisoners got.

  The pair of them were quickly out of the wing, but now the plan really fell apart. The grounds were bright as day, lit from tall light masts. CCTV cameras scanned every square foot. Two 18 feet high fences, separated by about 20 feet, ran around the perimeter. Each fence was festooned with rolls of razor wire hanging half way up and barbed wire at the top. Geo-phonic detectors under the gravel path that ran along the inside of the first fence would pick up the sound of their feet. Trembler bells fitted to every panel would alert the control room if they touched the fence. In the circumstances, the rope and hook they had between them was grossly inadequate.   

  In reality, they stood no chance at all of getting away. It was just Dave doing what he enjoyed to do. Namely, bypassing as many security measures as he could and winding the security department up in the process. That, and adding to the growing legend that was beginning to be attached to his name. 

  A further and rather unexpected development was that Peter suddenly realised that he had been used. They wouldn’t let Dave and he out on exercise together for security reasons, so the first time Peter was let out into the small yard he went straight over to Dave’s window. I don’t know what he expected, but his reception wasn’t at all to his liking. Suddenly he began screaming abuse at Dave, punching at his windows and throwing small stones from the yard at him. Several warders had to drag him back inside.

  To those of us who knew the score, it was all so very obvious. Although Peter had never been known to be gay before, quite clearly a lot more had been going on than just a joint escape attempt. Equally clearly, Dave had used this relationship to inveigle Peter into escaping. He had never shown an interest in escaping before and was doing a comparatively short sentence. The fact that he was in a low security category and his cell wouldn’t be subjected to rigourous searches had clearly been another factor too.

  Shortly afterwards I was moved out to another prison, to await trial for the violent incident. I never saw Dave Martin again. But, from time to time, I did hear about his exploits. At Gartree he joined together with a Midlands guy who, although in a high security category, was generally regarded as a complete fool and definitely not one of the ‘chaps’. Despite Dave’s now confirmed expertise in escaping, the deadly combination of his homosexuality and a desire to attract attention, made the vast majority of serious people avoid him.

  Once again, Dave and his accomplice had got out of their cells and away from the wing. They then broke into the workshop compound. Here they managed to get into a workshop and proceeded to try to weld together a ladder with which to scale the fences. For some reason they couldn’t make the ladder. The workshop civilians had the surprise of their lives when they entered the workshop in the morning and saw Dave and the Midlander sitting there, drinking their umpteenth cup of tea.

  For a period of several years, nothing was heard of Dave. Prison Governors have almost unlimited powers regarding the prisoners under their control. The Rule 43 mentioned earlier has two sections, 43a and 43b. Under the former the prisoner can request to be held in the punishment block, away from a tormentor, for his own protection. Under the latter, the Governor can hold any prisoner in the punishment block, for an unlimited period, if he considers him to be a threat to the ‘good order and discipline’ of the prison. This is very much a catch-all term for what is, in effect, indefinite solitary confinement. The only appeal is to the Visiting Magistrates once a month, but as they are invariably only the ‘rubber stamp’ of the Governor, the prisoner can expect little relief here.

  Not being able to curb his rebellious spirit and frightened now of his escape skills, Governors resorted to holding Dave in their punishment blocks under Rule 43b. They regularly moved him from jail to jail too. Solitary confinement as a fixed term is hard enough to bear, but at least you can count the days off knowing it will come to an end. The unlimited nature of solitary under 43b is particularly onerous. You just can’t see the end of what is an intolerable existence. 

  This then is the man they released directly on to the streets when he finally came to the end of his sentence in the summer of 1982. Small wonder that his parents are on record as saying that their son came home a changed man, full of hatred and bitterness.

  None of us in the jail heard anything further about him, but then we didn’t expect to. Criminally speaking, he wouldn’t have moved amongst our friends and acquaintances. If attention-seeking gays are beyond the pale in prison, then they are even more so outside, especially where the serious business of crime is involved.

  At first he got a job as a security guard. From a criminal perspective, paying regard to his particular skills, this seemed a sensible course of action. Through his job he could identify worthwhile targets, then come back and bypass the security guarding them. This was his general intention, but only as a means to an end. Whilst still in uniform, he burgled some of the shops he was being paid to protect, and stole jewellery and guns. 

  The key was the guns, because for Dave to achieve what he wanted most, to be regarded as one of the ‘chaps’, he had to be an armed robber. Again, in purely criminal terms, this was much akin to a skilled surgeon wanting to work as a butcher. But the macho image of the ‘chaps’ was largely formed around armed robbery.

  Dave would still have had a problem finding anyone to ‘work’ with him though. Certainly none of the ‘chaps’ would have. Especially when he announced his intention to carry out the robbery dressed as a woman. He was already a liability. As an untried and untested robber, no one could say what he would do in an emergency. The last thing any professional robber wants to do is to shoot someone unnecessarily. In this regard, Dave was highly unpredictable. Further, should it come to a physical struggle, as it so easily could, the skinny Dave would be easily overpowered. 

  However, late in 1982, Dave robbed a security van with an accomplice, who shot and wounded a guard. Dave was dressed as a woman…..


to be continued

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20 January 2013

Dave was first placed on ‘B’ wing, where Alan, a friend of ours lived. Alan was ten years into a very long life sentence and very much one of the ‘chaps’. That he regularly dabbled in relationships with young, effeminate prisoners was tolerated precisely because of his status. It seems that he took one look at Dave and it was love at first sight.
  The feeling was definitely not reciprocated. Dave clearly saw himself as a ‘chap’ in his own right now, albeit a gay one. To be a possession of another of the ‘chaps’ wasn’t attractive to him at all. Alan was persistent, but not threatening. Dave was adamant. The wing staff could see a situation developing and moved Dave onto ‘C’ wing, where Terry and I lived. 
  There was no ill feeling between Dave and I over the Parkhurst affair. In fact we were quite pleased to see each other. For me, I would welcome the opportunity to have someone intelligent to talk to occasionally. For Dave, no doubt he would welcome the added status it would give him, vis a vis the other prisoners on the wing, to be seen to be on good terms with me. Such was the life he was forced to live.
  Although straight himself, Terry was quite open-minded about gays. Like most other aspects of prison life, he refused to take it seriously and made a joke of it. Neither of us was about to take Dave into our lives and become close friends, and the feeling was mutual. He knew, as did we, that he would soon befriend a young and effeminate gay prisoner and become inseparable. That was the way he did his time. That and planning his next escape.
  With regard to escaping, Terry was a few years into his sentence and could see the end of it. He wasn’t interested. For myself, there were a number of factors. Firstly, Long Lartin’s over the top security seemed quite impregnable. I didn’t see the point of making an attempt just to get caught. I resolved to wait a while until I was transferred to another jail. As an ‘A-man’ I could expect to be moved every two years. 
  My second reason was that, in the first six years of my sentence, I had done two of them in solitary. I realised the damage it had done me, both to my mental and physical state. I was in for the long haul. It would do me no harm to have a couple of easy years at Long Lartin while I gathered my strength for my next, determined escape attempt at another jail.  
  As expected, Dave soon befriended Eddie, a young and slightly effeminate gay prisoner. He had been the sometime companion of several of the ‘chaps’ and was quite sought after, but, if not actually being mercenary, knew how to take advantage of a situation. He was putty in Dave’s hands though and soon the pair were inseparable.
  On every wing, the ‘chaps’ had formed themselves into ‘food-boats’. They would club together and buy food from the canteen and cook it themselves. The culinary standards were quite high and many of the meals very attractive. It made a welcome break from the dull fare of prison food. 
  I was the only ‘cook’ on our ‘firm’. Terry was always willing to do his share, but the results were inevitably dire. Consequently, I ended up doing most of the cooking. Together with all his other skills, Dave was an exceptional cook. It was Terry who thought of it first. He suggested that we allow Dave and Eddie to join us in a ‘food-boat’. Both jumped at the chance. If nothing else it meant that, as friends/acquaintances of ours, they would be safe from the many predators on the wing.
  At first everything worked out very well. With Dave, Eddie and myself all doing our bit, while seriously discouraging Terry from doing anything at all, we turned out some excellent meals. Our ‘food-boat’ was the envy of the jail.
  For all meals, even prison-prepared ones, the four of us would congregate in my cell. There, perched on chairs, the bed and the locker, we would eat and discuss the rumours of the day. With our different outlooks on life it was both funny and stimulating.
  In conversations, I had noticed a marked change in Dave. Gone was the shy, understated personality of Parkhurst and in its place was something altogether more harsh and destructive. There was a clear and underlying arrogance, which caused him to constantly belittle others. All this was done in private though, lest it get back to the subject and incur his wrath. Over and above everything else, Dave thought himself to be something very special. It all had an underlying bitterness that I was sure was a result of the solitary confinement. I had experienced similar feelings myself after long periods, but fortunately they had always abated. 
  Sometimes he would make outrageous statements. If talking about bank robbery he would say something like, “What you have got to do is walk in and shoot some old lady dead. Then everyone else will do exactly as they are told.”  This was ridiculous for a whole raft of reasons. Apart from any other considerations, by making the crime that much more serious, the police would look for you all the harder. Then, of course, the ‘chaps’ were just as sensitive to the feelings of little old ladies as anyone else, and sometimes more so. 
  Or, as a means of diverting the police away from the scene of a proposed armed robbery, Dave advocated exploding a bomb on a bus several streets away. When you reminded him that there were innocent people on the bus he would reply by saying that there were twelve innocent people on the jury that convicted him. 
  As an experienced bank robber himself, Terry might well have been expected to get annoyed. His easy-going character though took it all as a joke. “What does he know”, he would say to me afterwards. “He’s never robbed a bank in his life and he aint likely to.” We both realized that it was just talk and that Dave didn’t really mean it. I took it to be  another symptom of all the solitary he had so recently done. 
  Occasionally he referred to his sexuality, albeit obliquely. A favourite boast was that he had probably been with more beautiful women than most of the ‘chaps’. Once he said that he got a lot of pleasure out of walking on to a new wing, picking out the most attractive and effeminate little ‘raver’ that many of the ‘chaps’ were after, and stealing him from right under their noses.
  One day though, he managed to go right over the top with Terry. In many ways, Eddie was quite a sad case. Orphaned at an early age, he and his brothers and sisters had been moved through a series of orphanages. It was here that he had been sexually abused. One of the few highpoints of his prison existence was when he received a letter from one of his brothers or sisters.
  This day, Terry, Eddie and myself were sitting in my cell eating our meals. Dave was still to arrive. Eddie was perched on the corner of the bed, reading a letter he had just received. Suddenly, Dave breezed into the cell. Seeing Eddie and the letter he blurted out, “Oh, got a letter then? What is it?  Good news, like your mother’s died or something?”
  There was a stunned silence, followed by a ‘crash’ as Terry dropped his tray to the floor and jumped up. At first I thought he was about to punch Dave and the latter cowered back, but Terry was too much of a nice guy for that. Uncharacteristically raging though, he shouted, “I’ve had enough of this cunt”, and stormed out of the cell.
  Like myself, Terry had an aged mother. He was very close to her and when all one’s other friends had forgotten to keep in contact, it was always the old mums who stayed the course.
  I immediately accepted that this was the end of our ‘food-boat’ with Dave and Eddie. By now Dave was sitting quite crestfallen in the corner with his meal. I asked Eddie to leave for a moment whilst I spoke with Dave. I wasn’t angry, more, sad that the prison experience could turn people against each other.
  “Dave”, I said in a reasonable tone, “what the fucks the matter with you? You weren’t like this at Parkhurst. Why are you so bitter?” Dave sat there silently, saying nothing. “Why”, I continued, “are you always trying to sound so tough and vicious. We both know that’s not what you’re really like.” Still he sat there quietly.
  Now I was starting to lose my temper. “You’re only doing a ten, Dave. Why don’t you just settle down and you’ll be out in a few years. Then you ought to find some secure building, a bank or a manufacturing jewelers, find a way in and steal a million pounds, all non-violently. You’ve got the talent to do that.”
  “I wouldn’t want to get my money like that”, said Dave grudgingly. 
  “Who cares how you get your money, along as it’s not completely out of order. I’d steal a handbag if it had a million pounds in it”, I retorted. “You know your trouble”, I was angry now. “You wont be satisfied until you get your name of the front page of the News of the World.”
  “I suppose I wont”, retorted Dave in return.
  “Yeah, well then you could be in the position I’m in, doing an endless sentence, and you just might find you can’t handle it.” It could have been a prophecy.
  After that, Terry and I carried on eating together and Dave stayed with Eddie. Shortly afterwards, Eddie was released. It was just the opportunity that one of the wing predators was waiting for. 
  Ray was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous men in the system and had spent several years in mental hospitals. Originally from Liverpool, his twisted nature caused even the other scouses to give him a wide berth. Very powerfully built, in many ways he was like a need personified. If he wanted something he just took it, never mind the rights and wrongs of the situation.  
  When we first saw Dave fraternising with him, we knew he had made a mistake. For Dave there was undoubtedly the added status that the friendship would give him on the wing. He could indulge his increasingly prima donna ways and make disparaging remarks about others. But we knew that the piper would have to be paid. Ray was a confirmed prison homosexual. He had taken advantage of many weaker than himself. There was only one reason why he would befriend Dave and that was to fuck him. 
  We knew it had all gone very wrong when Dave popped up in the TV room. He had always been absolutely scathing and dismissive of the ‘mugs’ and ‘morons’ who spent their association time watching TV. And he wasn’t just in watching the occasional program, he went in as soon as the cells were unlocked for association and stayed until it was time for lock-up again. The reason was obvious. He was relatively safe in the TV room. There were scores of other prisoners, and two warders sat just outside the door. Ray wouldn’t attack him in the TV room.
  Although I was by no means an avid observer of Dave’s life, this little drama was being played out right in front of me. I realized his dilemma. He couldn’t go to the warders and complain, because that would make him a ‘grass’ and none of the ‘chaps’ would ever speak to him again. He could hardly fight Ray either, because he wasn’t big enough or vicious enough. In similar circumstances, a weaker man might have asked to be put on Rule 43, protection. Under this rule, prisoners who are being intimidated by other prisoners can ask to be put in the punishment block. It wasn’t much of an option for anyone. Call it ‘protection’ if you will, but it was still solitary confinement. And anyway, no decent, honourable, proud con would ever do such a thing.
  A couple of weeks passed and Dave was suddenly moved onto another wing. I still saw him about the prison and we acknowledged each other, even if we didn’t stop and speak. Terry and I did hear reports about him from a couple of the ‘chaps’ who lived on Dave’s new wing though. He was up to his old tricks….
To be continued..

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