11 MAY 2002, Page 20

Second opinion

AS we all know, mankind's most precious gift is liberty, but when, exactly, is a man free? I recall the days when, as a mere stripling, I had nothing, not a penny to my name, and thought myself imprisoned by poverty. Nowadays, I am weighed down by possessions, which act upon me as a ball and chain; but instead of concluding, as any sane man would, that I should divest myself of them, I go on accumulating them. That glorious freedom, which as a child I thought all adults enjoyed, has so far eluded me.

It certainly isn't true that everyone wants to be free, at least if freedom entails responsibility. Yesterday, for example, I was talking to a prisoner who was explaining why he needed a cell to himself.

'I've never got on with people, doctor. Not since I was a child. They've always taken advantage of me.'

I'm sure it was true. And in prison that would mean no tobacco. For most prisoners, tobacco is the meaning of life: there is no other.

We got to talking. I asked him how long he was serving.

'Four years.'

'Is this going to be your last sentence?' 'I hope not.'

was taken aback. 'You mean you want to come back here?'

'I've only been outside prison one out of the last ten years, doctor.'

'You prefer it here?'

'I do, really.'


'Out there I have to do things for myself. Here everything's done for me.' 'But what about freedom?'

'The last time I was out they put me in a flat on my own. The front door wouldn't shut properly, so when I was sitting in the flat I was worried the burglars would come, and I wished I was back in prison because, once they shut the iron doors behind me, I'm safe.'

'And did the burglars come?'

'Yes, when I was out. They took everything, even the plates and cups. I didn't have nothing left.'

'Still,' I said, trying desperately to think of something to say in favour of liberty.

'And a prostitute who lived next door came round to borrow some money from me. She asked could she have a couple of quid, because she didn't have no money to eat, but I only had a £20 note, so I said I'll lend you £10, bring me back the change.'

'And what happened?'

'She never brought the change. Then I saw her in the street but she ignored me, so I asked her for the £10 but she started to scream that I owed her money, and then her boyfriend arrived and said I'd attacked her and I had to run away, so I never got my money back.'

It was difficult, I confess, to see what freedom could offer him. The part of the city in which he would live is nothing but a prison without walls and without warders; and there's no institution on earth worse than a prison without warders.

Macaulay wrote that 'many politicians . . . are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition that no people ought to be free until they are fit to use their freedom. . . If men are to wait for liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed wait for ever.' But what if they use their liberty to revert to slavery?

Theodore Dalrymple