Life after Life review: Paddy Armstrong’s painful Guildford Four memoir
This valuable book is a reminder of how damaging it is to jail innocent men
Wrongly convicted: Paddy Armstrong (right) and Paddy Hill at the funeral, in Belfast in 2014, of their fellow Guildford Four member Gerry Conlon. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Life after Life: A Guildford Four Memoir
Paddy Armstrong with Mary-Elaine Tynan
Every reviewer is biased. For 25 years, for the Prison Art Foundation, I taught in several Northern Irish prisons – the most rewarding experience of my life thanks to the hundreds of prisoners I came to know. I also collaborated with Patrick Maguire on his book My Father’s Watch. When he was 13, Patrick, along with members of his family, was accused of having made the bombs used by the IRA to blow up two public houses in Guildford. He hadn’t, they hadn’t, but they were all convicted thanks to forced confessions and state malfeasance. So you can take it that I don’t come to the task of reviewing another memoir by a wrongly convicted Irish ex-prisoner innocently.
In 1974 Paddy Armstrong, the author of Life after Life: A Guildford Four Memoir, was charged with three others with planting the bombs that the Maguires didn’t make – and again, thanks to forced confessions and state malfeasance, he and his coaccused were found guilty of crimes they had not committed and given long life sentences.
In Britain in the 1970s there were many wrongful convictions of innocent Irish and English suspects for offences committed by the IRA, and this miserable saga has generated many books.
The first wave of these were written by journalists, and their focus was on process: how these miscarriages had happened. The key books were Trial and Error: The Maguires, the Guildford Pub Bombings and British Justice, by Robert Kee, from 1986; Error of Judgment: The Truth about the Birmingham Bombings, by Chris Mullin, also from 1986; and Timebomb: Irish Bombers, English Justice and the Guildford Four, by Grant McKee and Ross Franey, from 1988.
These works (and others) helped to secure the release of their subjects, and since then many of those who were wrongfully convicted have published their accounts. At least a dozen books of this kind have been published, and with Life after Life we have another.
Paddy Armstrong was born in 1950 in west Belfast. His family were Catholic. He was raised by his mother and his sisters. As a boy his primary interest was football; in adolescence it was sex, gambling and drink. His personality was compliant. When bullied he would not stand up for himself, at least not initially. He would bottle his rage. Eventually, of course, his fury would pour out, and then his violence would be out of proportion to the offence.
In the early 1970s, unable to hack Belfast and its Troubles – as he says, he didn’t have the personality for them – Armstrong decamped to London. He lived in a succession of squats, fell in love with an English hippy (his coaccused Carole Richardson) and took a lot of drugs. His was a blameless stoner existence.
Then the bombs went off in Guildford, and the Surrey police, desperate to appease a right-wing press baying for “something to be done” – lighted on Armstrong and others and set about fitting them up, using a combination of extreme brutality and low cunning.
And the intimidation was extreme: a week of slapping, punching, stomping, smashing and beating, plus sleeplessness, humiliation, starvation, death threats with firearms, and then some. The police in Guildford went the whole nine yards to get their result.
And Armstrong, given his nature, was incapable of protecting himself against their violence (although why he should have had to protect himself in a police station in a democratic state in the 20th century is worth asking).
He broke, but we all would. Well, I would, I’m sure, if I’d gone through what he did. He confessed to everything because that was the only way he could get the police to leave him alone. He signed on the dotted line, and the inevitable followed: conviction and a 35-year life sentence that, when it was handed down, had the distinction of being the longest minimum recommended sentence under the UK’s Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965.
Prison was hell for Armstrong. He was there for something he hadn’t done. He was tormented by the feeling that he was the agent of his own misfortune. He was vilified by officers who believed his crime entitled them to persecute him. He ran up huge drug and gambling debts (his habitual pleasures were his only solace in jail) and was frequently under threat from wing barons. He suffered despair and depression. He was plagued by suicidal ideation. He voluntarily spent long periods in the punishment block because it was easier to be in isolation than it was to be on the wings.
He was also bullied by prisoners who wanted to make themselves feel better by persecuting someone they thought was weaker than they were. This is a common problem in prison. Armstrong’s tormenter was a black cockney. Because of his nature Armstrong didn’t stand up to the man at first. He internalised his rage. Eventually he exploded. First he tipped a bucket of scalding water mixed with sugar (which adhered to the victim’s skin and so worsened his burns) over the bully’s head, then beat him with an improvised cosh (a sock with batteries in it).
A couple of days after the assault, while making his way through the prison hospital to see his mother, Armstrong glimpsed his victim (as his escort intended) through an open door and was appalled. “The burns are still raw – like crude patches of pink paint on a glossy black surface.”
Reflecting years later on the event, he concluded: “How could someone live through what I had and not be damaged by it? And then I went and damaged someone else. It’s the circle of prison life . . . I hate it, I regret it, I’m ashamed of it. This man didn’t deserve this . . . That’s what prison does to you.”
It would have been easy for Armstrong to have left this out, but he didn’t. He’s not a dissembler, he’s a truth teller, and one loves him for that. But he also didn’t omit this confession (and the many others that accompany it) because together they carry his message: if you send an innocent man to jail you damage him, of course, and then he will damage others in turn. Our press would do well to remember this the next time there’s a terrible terrorist incident, and before they start baying.
At this point some readers are perhaps wondering if we need another trawl through this wretched story. Yes, we do. This book is important, valuable and necessary. But, yes, it is also extremely painful. It will make you squirm and weep.
It does us good, however, to read accounts that remind us that although all states like us to believe that they always act properly, they often don’t.
This book will also reinforce your belief in human decency. Paddy Armstrong would never have been exonerated, nor survived the demons that nearly killed him in the years following his release, were it not for the tireless efforts of his solicitor, Alastair Logan, and his wife, Pat. If they’re still looking for a subject for the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square can I suggest the Logans?
The miscarriages of justice that assailed Britain in the 1970s were underpinned by a right-wing narrative: dangerous Irish Catholics had travelled to Britain, where they attacked the English way of life. It was a narrative that went back at least to the reign of Elizabeth I. In the early 21st century right-wing narratives are once again in play: what Armstrong’s book reminds us is that the best riposte to the right are works of literature, such as his, that honestly and unflinchingly give the facts. If we want to vanquish the hegemony of the right we need to tell stories better than theirs, as this does.
Carlo Gébler teaches creative writing at Trinity College Dublin. His novel The Innocent of Falkland Road will be published in the autumn by New Island