Life after a life sentence: I’m 39 and scared of everyone

Paddy Armstrong of the Guildford Four describes his bewildering experience of ‘freedom’ after 15 years in jail, in an exclusive extract from his new autobiography

 

Paddy Armstrong is one of the so-called “Guildford Four”, wrongly convicted of a 1974 pub bombing in Guildford, Surrey. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent 15 years in jail. Paddy Armstrong was released in 1989 along with Gerard Conlon, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson, after a long campaign culminated in a ruling that the four’s original convictions were “unsafe”. This edited extract from Paddy Armstrong’s new autobiography ‘Life After Life’ describes the period following his release.

We’re tearing through the streets of London. Alastair’s driving and there’s another man in the car with us. Alastair introduces him to me.

“This is a friend of Jim MacKeith.” I nod. “Nice to meet you.”

I can’t remember who Jim MacKeith is. I barely know my own name at the moment. I’m going to stay with this man, MacKeith’s friend, for a couple of days, they explain. Until the press have gone.

Instead of my usual entourage of armed guards, policemen with handcuffs, armoured trucks and sirens, there’s high-powered motorbikes and revving cars following us, taking every corner at breakneck speed so they don’t lose us. There’s cameras flashing whenever they get close enough to the dark glass concealing me from the world and people stopping on the street to stare.

This isn’t really how I imagined freedom.

When I catch a glimpse of myself in the cleanest mirror I’ve seen in years, I stand there for the longest time. Maybe five minutes, maybe an hour, rubbing my jaw and wondering who this old man is

Alastair Logan is my solicitor. He’s driving us around and around. “We need to get rid of them,” he’s saying. “On the next bend we’re going to slow down. And then you’re both going to jump out as I slow down. I’ll keep driving so they don’t realise you’re gone and they’ll keep following me.”

He seems to be saying that we’re both going to jump from the car. Me and this man. While it’s moving. Is he joking? I’m not even free an hour and they’re going to kill me.

I nod. “No problem.” Like I do this every day too.

And now the car is slowing down, just as he said. “Go now, Paddy – quick – jump out before I speed up again. Take care.”

We literally dive from the car. I see the open door and my fellow stuntman is pushing me towards it. Before I know it, I’m in a kitchen with a complete stranger.

One of the Guildford Four leaving court in Guildford during their trial in December 1974. Photograph: Evening Standard via Getty
One of the Guildford Four leaving court in Guildford during their trial in December 1974. Photograph: Evening Standard via Getty

The news

It’s really clean and bright. I feel dirty by comparison in my 15-year-old flares and ill-fitting, borrowed shoes.

“Tea, coffee? Or maybe a beer?” I nod. Beer.

He opens an enormous fridge, the likes of which I’ve never seen in a house, and takes out a bottle. A real beer. When he opens it, the bubbles rush to the surface. I take a gulp and almost splutter in shock. It’s cold and really strong and full of gas. I’d forgotten.

He smiles. I don’t want to continue, but I’m hoping it might take the edge off things. Take it easy, Paddy. No rush.

He’s told me his name several times now – he can obviously see that I’m not taking it in. He’s a director – makes TV ads. “Of course. That’s brilliant. I never thought about who made them.”

Two days ago I was in Gartree Prison, in the workshop, thinking about how I could get the money together to buy some tobacco and maybe some hash, and now I’m here, in a stranger’s kitchen, talking about TV ads.

The woman shows me to the bathroom. When I catch a glimpse of myself in the cleanest mirror I’ve seen in years, I stand there for the longest time. Maybe five minutes, maybe an hour, rubbing my jaw and wondering who this old man is. I splash water on my face and then finger the skin on my cheek and then wash it again furiously, trying to bring some life to my ashen skin and ringed, tired eyes.

When I come out the TV is on. The evening news comes on and I find myself looking at my younger self. The photo they took of me in the police station all those years ago in Guildford. Guildford . . . There’s footage of us leaving the courthouse in cars. Me just a few hours ago.

And then Gerry’s standing outside the Old Bailey, his arms around his sisters, talking to a crowd of people, and builders hanging out of a site just behind them.

“I’ve been in prison 15 years for something I didn’t do – for something I didn’t know anything about. A totally innocent man. I watched my father die in a British prison for something he didn’t do. He is innocent. The Maguires is innocent. Let’s hope the Birmingham Six is next to be freed . . .”

I feel slightly removed from it. Like this isn’t my life he’s describing. I’ll watch it many more times before I can really process it. And then I’ll realise he did us proud. And I know Giuseppe will be up there, watching.

Paddy Armstrong (left) and Gerry Conlon, pictured in Dublin, in 1996. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Paddy Armstrong (left) and Gerry Conlon, pictured in Dublin, in 1996. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

Meeting Mammy

I’m sitting here, in this strange flat, one eye always on the door. And then there are voices nearby. High-pitched sounds, getting closer. There’s a rapping on the door and I jump up automatically. Which way can I run? Suddenly there they are in front of me. Mammy. Eileen. Eileen’s children. Jim, her husband. And Josephine. I’m trying to hug them all without getting too emotional. Keep it together, Paddy.

I look at Josephine properly and pull her onto my knee. My wee sister. I keep looking at her. Finally I speak.

One day she was 16 and now my wee sister is a 30-year-old woman and I just can’t take it in. I want to howl now that I see it for myself – they stole my baby sister and replaced her with this woman.

“Why did you never come to visit me? Why didn’t you come for all those years?”

She can’t look at me. I can just about make out her voice through her tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Keep hugging her. Don’t want to let her go. She’s wriggling.

Tells me later how strange it was. With Daddy and me gone, she’s not used to people hugging her. She looks so big, my wee sister. Feel like my heart is going to break out of my chest.

But something’s not right. She isn’t the girl I remember with young skin and an innocence in her eyes. She must be in her 20s now.

“No, Paddy, you’ve been in 15 years. I turned 30 in August, two months ago.” One day she was 16 and now my wee sister is a 30-year-old woman and I just can’t take it in. I want to howl now that I see it for myself – they stole my baby sister and replaced her with this woman.

Our Eileen is talking now. Her children, now 15 and 13, look a bit bewildered. What do you say to this strange man you’ve never met? I’m smiling at them, saying God knows what. “Lovely to meet you at last” What do you say to nephews you don’t know?

I’ve only ever met them in the visiting room with a screw watching us. Now here we all are outside, and it’s mind-blowing.

After an hour I feel weak and shaky. Not used to this. So many questions, so much to take in. Too many people. All looking at me. Expectantly. It’s too much. My chest is tightening and I feel like I can’t breathe.

Alastair looks at me. Do you need some sleep, Paddy? I nod.

Paddy Armstrong with his wife Caroline and their children John and Sophie
Paddy Armstrong with his wife Caroline and their children John and Sophie

The train

I can do this. Work out the cost of the train. Pay for a ticket. Find the right platform. Cross the road. Avoid getting run over. Find my way about. Alastair nods. If he’s not sure, he doesn’t say anything. He always lets me make my own mistakes. Except getting run over. He’s saved me more than once from walking in front of a car. There’s just so many of them now. And they go so fast.

I’m a 39-year-old man, 40 in a few months, and I’m scared of everyone. Trying to look like I do this all the time. Wait until everyone gets on the train and when I see that it’s not too full, I get on. Find an empty seat. Facing the door. Always face the door, Paddy – nobody can take you by surprise. Hands cover your head if anyone tries anything.

Every time a ticket inspector gets on, I start to shake. Hand him my ticket before he’s even reached me. He’s looking at me curiously and I’m trying to smile.

Look people in the eye, Paddy, don’t look down. People aren’t going to hurt you. We practised all this.

Screaming

That first Saturday night, after everyone has left, we sit in Alastair’s kitchen in Guildford talking. What will happen now? I wonder. Can we get those policemen who hit us?

I certainly hope so, Paddy. I want Dirty Harry to pay for what he did to you.

Dirty Harry. Suddenly I’m back there. In that room. Looking at the pictures on the wall. The window just over there. Five of them towering over me, shouting all at once. Question after question. Just f**king tell the truth. Tell us the truth now or we’ll make you sorry. Just f**king tell us what happened, you murdering bastard . . .

Alastair’s still talking, but I can barely hear him. We have them now.

Everyone knows they lied. That they beat you. Yes, they beat me. They beat me. And kicked me. And spat, and punched. And threatened and mocked. Those f**king bastards.

He’s still talking somewhere in the background. We won’t let them away with this, Paddy. There are laws against it. We have enough evidence to put them away. They’ll try to wriggle out of it, but we’ll do our best. Get justice for you.

What’s money going to do? It won’t give me 15 years back. Won’t stop me from panicking every time I see a police car or running out of a shop because there’s too many people

Dirty Harry is getting closer and closer. Throw him out the window . . . out the window . . . out the window . . . out the window.

The bastards, I say quietly.

Yes, they are, he agrees, they are bastards. And suddenly it’s like someone has peeled off a filter from my eyes. It wasn’t me – it was them. I did nothing wrong. I was made confess. I was intimidated and tortured and forced into confessing. I did nothing wrong whatsoever. I never killed no one, never hurt no one. All I did was get stoned and act the eejit. Suddenly it’s like I’m propelled from my chair and I’m kicking the wall. Screaming at the top of my lungs.

The bastards! The f**king bastards!

I don’t know how long I cry and kick.

Somehow Alastair manages to move me from the kitchen, get me upstairs to my room. Away from his girlfriend’s children. I barely remember it, but now he’s cradling me in his arms. He isn’t trying to stop me or even calm me. Just letting me scream and kick and roar and wail.

The neighbours call the police, Alastair tells me years later. When they come he has to explain it to them and they leave quietly. Nodding. After a couple of hours I’m like one of those wind-up toys that’s slowing down before it stops completely, rooted to the spot, liable to fall over at any moment.

Alastair wraps his arms around my back, supporting my limp and shaky body. Puts me in my bed, pulls the covers over me and turns out the light. I don’t hear him close the door and for the next few days all I can do is sleep, wake, eat and sleep again.

Paddy Armstrong and “my babies, John and Sophie” on their first family holiday in 2004. “Who would have thought this could ever happen? Certainly not me!” he writes in his autobiography
Paddy Armstrong and “my babies, John and Sophie” on their first family holiday in 2004. “Who would have thought this could ever happen? Certainly not me!” he writes in his autobiography

Buying jeans

Alastair gives his girlfriend money and asks her to take me clothes shopping.I pick up a pair of jeans.

How much are they? Fifty pounds, the fella working in the shop says.

Fifty pounds? I’ve never spent fifty pounds on anything in my life. They used to be a fiver.

Have you been living in a time warp or something? he asks, laughing. I laugh along with him. He has no idea.

Everyone keeps asking me about the money and I can understand their curiosity – I’d be wondering too. But what’s money going to do? It won’t give me 15 years back. Won’t stop me from panicking every time I see a police car or running out of a shop because there’s too many people. It won’t prevent me from fearing that people will recognise me, that they’ll think I did kill them people and they’ll hurt me.

I’m not strong. Not physically anyway. But my will is – and there’s no way I’m going back to prison. Fifty men couldn’t have got me into that car.

It won’t stop me from drinking a bottle of vodka a day when I move out of Alastair’s. In fact, it’ll just make me drink more because I can afford to.

Alastair explains it to me. The British government have given us some money. Enough to live on for a while, Paddy, while they do their psychological and medical assessments of the impact of your experiences. Alastair also arranges for us to do controlled interviews and we’ve been paid for them.

But it’s all a bit much to take in. I went into prison with the clothes on my back and about a pound in my pocket and now I have £75,000.

The pub

I’m out with a few mates I’ve met. Fall out of the pub at closing time. Wee bit shaky. Might have had one too many. C’mon, Paddy.

There’s a police car coming towards us. Bright light on the top of the car is blinding. Coming towards us. Put your head down, Paddy. Oh, Jesus, it’s stopping in front of us. Get in, my friends tell me. Come on, Paddy. In.

No! I’m not bloody getting in there. Take your hands off me. Leave me alone, you f**king bastards. I’m not getting in. They’re trying to pull me now. Can’t let them get me in. Can’t go back to prison. Kill myself first. They’ll do me again. I know they want to get me. Plant my feet on the ground. Won’t. F**king. Move. Paddy, c’mon, for f**k’s sake, it’s freezing. We have to go home.

No! I’m not getting into no police car. It’s not a police car, you idiot – it’s a f**king taxi. Look. A taxi.

They slag me about it the next day. F**k, Paddy, we couldn’t move you. You’re bloody stronger than you look, mate. Five of us couldn’t get you into that car.

They’re wrong. I’m not strong. Not physically anyway. But my will is – and there’s no way I’m going back to prison. Fifty men couldn’t have got me into that car.

Back to the prison

I go back to Gartree. Take the train all the way there. I need to see my friends. I call Mick Haynes when I get there. My old friend from the garden party. He takes me out to see his hawks and into his home, like an old friend. Just two men talking over a cup of coffee. So beautifully ordinary. I can’t believe it.

I go back to the prison, as a visitor. Sit on the opposite side of the table this time. They give me a terrible slagging. You’re back, Armstrong. Do you want your old cell? I laugh. Yeah, right. I’m a free man. I get to leave whenever I want. I don’t tell them about the loneliness. How hard it is to fill my days.

How much I miss the routine of prison life. The PO sees me. Oi, Armstrong! You owe me three hundred quid. I know it was you who nicked those cigarettes out of the shop. I don’t know how you did it, but I know it was you. He’s grinning. I’m happy to see him too.

Ronnie and Paddy Hill hug me before we sit down in the visiting room. Tell me all about how the prison went crazy when they heard we’d been released. I miss them so much, but I can’t say that. They’re still locked up in here and would give their right arm to be out. So I chat away and laugh when they tell me about the two-day party I missed after Gerry and me left. I can’t believe I missed my own leaving party. Bloody typical.

And then visiting time is up and I have to go and get the train back to Alastair’s house in Guildford. My new life.

Life After Life: A Guildford Four Memoir, by Paddy Armstrong with Mary-Elaine Tynan, is published by Gill Books

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