Chris Lewis on incarceration, cricket and the long walk back
July 18, 2020. Series 1. Episode 7
Chris Lewis is the England cricketer who when his fortunes faded turned to drug smuggling. On 8 December 2008 Chris was caught with 3.5 kilos of liquid cocaine hidden in fruit tins as he arrived from St Lucia, convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison. A shocking fall from grace for a man who arrived in the UK from Guyana as a 10-year-old and who achieved his dream playing for England in 30 Test Matches. In this episode Chris talks with a straight bat and without self-pity about his self-inflicted crisis and his journey back to freedom and repentance. This is the first time that Chris and Andy have talked since they last met in prison six years ago.
Chris’ Crisis Cures:
1. Find nature: “Whether it’s going into the park or down to the river I love taking walks. Getting out distracts you from your problems. And distraction often helps me find solutions.”
2. A Course In Miracles by Helen Schucman: “A long read but all about taking control, understanding that you are responsible for what happens in your life, not other people.”
3. Meditation: “I started in prison and try to meditate whenever I can. It’s about finding that place to off load and start again with a fresh mind.”
Chris Lewis – Crazy, My Road To Redemption: https://amzn.to/3RGU8Kx
Chris Lewis was coming towards the end of his six-a-half-years in jail when we met at HMP Hollesley Bay in 2014. We shared a few chats during our time there, but never did he talk with such depth and detail as he does in this podcast. There is no doubt that Chris is a changed man. Chastened by his spectacular mistake and devoid of self-pity. “I blame no-one but myself,” he says repeatedly. In preparing for our conversation I found a YouTube clip of Chris being interviewed at the Oval. He had just joined the Surrey Twenty20 team – at the age of 40. Calm, assured and charming – this was a man who had been given a final chance at glory. But Chris was injured almost immediately and just nine months later was arrested at Gatwick. How Chris calmly explains the chain of events that led to such a catastrophic decision was a compelling feature of our conversation. But more interesting was the journey of self-awareness that Chris has been on since that moment. He now talks to young cricketers about the dangers that lie ahead when sporting success fades. A story of redemption but also a cautionary tale of epic proportions.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
00:00:19.00 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? A new podcast series designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve been trying to put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:02.24 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I’ll be talking to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, but our guests will talk about their experiences honestly, often with humour but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply, these are crisis stories worth sharing.
00:01:30.08 Andy Coulson:
My guest today is former international cricketer Chris Lewis. A man who having arrived from Guyana aged ten, won eighty caps for England as an all-rounder. Chris also achieved great success in the county game playing for Surrey, Nottinghamshire and Leicester where he was also captain. But put Chris Lewis’ name today and that amazing story of sporting success, against the odds, is buried under headlines of a very different type.
00:01:58.12 Andy Coulson:
Not long after Chris’ cricketing career came to an end he made, what he describes, as the worst decision of his life. Short of money he gambled his reputation and his freedom when he chose to smuggle three and a half kilos of liquid cocaine hidden in tins of fruit, into the UK from Saint Lucia. He was caught, arrested, jailed and on remand and in May 2009, sentenced to thirteen years in prison. Chris served six and a half years starting at High Down Prison in Surrey. He ended the custodial sentence at Hollesley Bay open prison in Suffolk, and that’s where we last saw each other, almost six years ago.
00:02:40.15 Andy Coulson:
Since his release Chris has worked hard to forge a positive path, not least with a book that’s brutally honest about his mistakes and his time in prison, the story that has also inspired a play, The Long Walk Back. And he now works with the Professional Cricketers’ Association advising players to avoid the traps that he fell into so dramatically. Chris, it is great to see you, how are you?
00:03:04.13 Chris Lewis:
I’m very well, mate, nice to see you too. And both of us with a smile on our face this time.
00:03:09.17 Andy Coulson:
Indeed, indeed. Obviously we’re here to talk about crisis, but let’s start with that story that is harder to find or read about now. Looking back do you appreciate what an achievement it was to have arrived here as a ten year old boy and to have made it to the top of English cricket?
00:03:30.01 Chris Lewis:
Certainly most of my life I think the answer to that would be no. Most of it I think I was caught up in just trying to get things done and perhaps not always appreciating where I had got to, to be perfectly honest. I think with hindsight, like with so many things, I can look back now and I look back on a large part of that journey with so much pride. As an immigrant coming to the country and setting my sights upon doing the thing that I’d always wanted to do and ultimately getting there and having a level of success. I think everybody in those circumstances should be but I think at the time I was so busy trying to achieve things and trying to achieve that that it wasn’t always, in fact, very rarely did I take time out to actually appreciate that, to be honest.
00:04:30.07 Andy Coulson:
Did it feel against the odds at the time? Or were you always full of confidence?
00:04:37.04 Chris Lewis:
I wouldn’t say I was full of confidence as such but I was always filled with hope. It didn’t really matter what was going on and certainly as a young person I always had my dreams and I always had that hope, I think that was something, I think that was fortunate, that was instilled in me from there. As a young boy, as you’re growing up the expectation was that certainly for your parents and your grandparents, the life they’d experienced was a hard one. So they got you ready and they said this may be a hard journey and there’ll be lots of knocks long the way. The real key is to stay positive, dust yourself off and you’ll get there. And I think, certainly the first part of my life, I used that quite seamlessly and it carried me a tremendous way, in fact all the way to my dreams.
00:05:39.22 Andy Coulson:
You had the support and the help of some brilliant people, family and otherwise, but cricket is an incredibly tough game, physically but also mentally. It’s no coincidence that there are a number of mental health issues within the game. Although it wasn’t a crisis it was a hell of a challenge to compete and to succeed, particularly at that stage in the game. If you were to try, when you look back now and you try and sort of capture the attitude you had, the approach you had, how would you summarise it? Because there’s grit in there, right?
00:06:23.19 Chris Lewis:
So you would call it that, and I think you can call it many things, but how I experienced it, going through that, is that you have a dream and you try to hold onto it. I wasn’t sure, by any means, and in fact most of my career before actually becoming the professional I wasn’t necessarily meant to be the one who would succeed. There were a lot of people who were, at that time, more talented. But it was the thing that I wanted and I remember going outside on Christmas Day, sweeping away the snow and playing cricket.
00:07:02.14 Chris Lewis:
Now, I didn’t necessarily realise the importance of doing those things and that sort of commitment, in fact I wouldn’t even call it commitment at that time, but fortunately that’s what I had. I had a love for the game and I would play pretty much anywhere, any time. But also within that love for the game it was a kind of ‘stand your ground’ attitude. I like that that challenge whether It’s with the ball and you’re trying to bowl fast and somebody is trying hook you out the ground or whether you’ve got the bat in your hand and you’ve got your floppy cap on and somebody’s bowling really, really fast at you and you’re scared. But how I’ve learned the game is that you didn’t show that fear. You gritted your teeth and you kind of get on with it.
00:07:55.00 Andy Coulson:
00:07:55.09 Chris Lewis:
And I think it was those things that stood me in good stead because when I got to different levels of playing cricket and I found that, let’s say, my skill level was wanting I went and practiced. I remember doing slip catching practice for the first time and the ball hit me straight in my chest, it was quite embarrassing and everybody was there watching and they’d done it before. But by the next week I was in the slips.
00:08:30.01 Andy Coulson:
00:08:32.02 Chris Lewis:
Yeah, although I didn’t see it as that, it was just a love of the game and wanting to do well and not wanting to be the guy who dropped the catch or who couldn’t field. And all those things motivated me and pushed me forwards and it all ended up in the place where I eventually became good enough to achieve what I wanted to achieve. But certainly to start with there wasn’t any 100% confidence going ‘I’m going to do this, I’m the greatest cricketer in the world’. It was more ‘I wish I can do this; I really want to do this’ and on the back of that there was that hope that you cold, you weren’t sure but there was hope. And I’ll be honest that alone took me to the doors of Leicester, Ken Higgs saw me and he thought that I had ability and within a short space of time I had the tag of best professional cricketer, in fact, as an eighteen year old. I couldn’t believe it.
00:09:38.22 Andy Coulson:
Which happens, a fair amount now, didn’t happen very often then, right?
00:09:45.17 Chris Lewis:
I mean, I was in a little bubble, I must admit, having just come to the country. I wasn’t really sure what happened in the country and I think to a large extent I think that was a good thing. I was a little bit naive, you could say and just kind of just headed for my dreams. Not that with the expectation that it was definitely going to work but with just that hope that it could.
00:10:15.05 Andy Coulson:
As a player you were a terrifically exciting all-rounder but enigmatic was the other word that was often used to describe you. What was that all about?
00:10:29.03 Chris Lewis:
I don’t know. I’ll give you my take on that. I think over my career there’s been a lot of words used to describe me. I would say a lot of them not necessarily meant to be pleasant. As regards to enigmatic, the way I put my whole experience, certainly going out to play county cricket and playing club county cricket, was really a clash of two cultures. I’d come from the Caribbean and everything I knew from the Caribbean was of course, right. That’s how we did it.
00:11:03.17 Chris Lewis:
And then here I was in England and it wasn’t so right most of the time. And, I must admit, through a large part of my career that created a lot of problems for me, outwardly in people’s perception but also inwardly in that’s how I started to perceive myself eventually. I think in a lot of parts, I would agree that people would have found my behaviour and perhaps even my outlook very difficult to handle. As regards to time keeping that was just one of those things that was poor. It’s got to be hard work for anybody to deal with you if you’re not punctual. So that was something I think I got particularly wrong. What I would say is that there was never any malice in that. My issue was that I always try to get everywhere on time, rather than ten minutes early. So I was late a lot of the time and sometimes, let’s just say, I was trying to fit too much into twenty-four hours.
00:12:27.16 Andy Coulson:
Because some people would look at that and just assume that it was a sort of arrogance. That it was a, ‘listen, of course you’re going to play me, I’m going to bowl up whenever I’m ready to bowl up and you’re going to play me because I’m that good’. You’re saying that absolutely wasn’t what it was about.
00:12:42.24 Chris Lewis:
No, that simply never, never occurred. This was somebody trying to organise himself in a lot of places and organise himself badly, poorly. Occasionally it meant that you went out and perhaps stayed out a little bit too late, had too many drinks. And in fact probably the most famous lateness, certainly involved that, where I went out at night, met some friends, had a late night, set an alarm and then the next morning, the first thing I was aware was the sun coming through and it was a little bit too warm. And I looked at the clock and it was ten o’clock in the morning and I was supposed to be at a test match at nine. Now, of course, there’s nobody else to blame but you for that and eventually you hold your hands up and go, ‘I got that wrong’. But I would say that I was there, it wasn’t there wasn’t any malice in that and I would also suggest that, at the time, that that was perhaps more standard than we have now where professionals are in all forms, very professional.
00:14:01.17 Andy Coulson:
The time keeping, the kind of late arrival that you just mentioned for the test ended your test career, right?
00:14:06.15 Chris Lewis:
Yes it did.
00:14:07.10 Andy Coulson:
So, on the one level you can kind of look at a story like that and chuckle about it, on another it was the start of a chain of events that one might argue, and you’ll tell me whether that’s fair or unfair, but that started a chain of events that ended pretty catastrophically, which obviously we’ll get into in more detail. Before we get there though, your county career obviously, and your one day career, continued for a couple of years, I think I’m right in saying, but your county career continued for quite a while. But you felt presumably, that your international career ended too early? Certainly a lot of people in the cricketing world, a lot of cricketing writers felt that you were too talented not to be playing.
00:15:00.09 Chris Lewis:
I would say 100%. On a personal level, I’d just gone through a crisis beforehand where I’d got seriously injured with a hip injury and that meant that I couldn’t play for a year.
00:15:16.16 Andy Coulson:
When was that, Chris, just so that we understand?
00:15:18.21 Chris Lewis:
That was back in ’95. That was ’95, I was at Notts at the time. At the end of that year I left Notts and I moved to The Oval. Started ’96, got that international space back within the team and I felt at that time I was probably playing, certainly bowling the fastest and the best that I’d done thorough my career. And that summer, I think it was India and Pakistan who came. India, I think I was Man of the Series during the one day internationals and then I think the final part of the summer Pakistan, it was their second test or maybe even their third test at The Oval and I’d had a good summer.
00:16:10.03 Chris Lewis:
I was looking forward to going on tour to the Caribbean that winter. I think I was aware that I’d already been selected and then I turned up late that morning of the test match and really everything changed from there. I remember bowling that morning and looking up at the screen, having already been told that I was in the one day squad, and I looked up at the screen while I was bowling and of course, you automatically look for your name and realising that your name wasn’t there. And the, not the magnitude but just the scope of what was about to happen started to kind of hit.
00:16:55.09 Chris Lewis:
So I was sad but it was again, one of those situations where it was nobody else’s fault. But certainly for me I felt that at that time it was the time where I felt I could perhaps push ahead in my international career. I wasn’t a young man, well I was a young man but I wasn’t twenty-two anymore. And I felt that that experience and playing against, perhaps, younger people who had watched me play would also, I’d be able to use that and use that to my advantage. So on a personal level, and it’s something that I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about, yeah, it was sad. It was sad because I think following on from that there were perhaps little bits where perhaps I could have been selected, the World Cup in England and I think, I don’t think, I know it dawned on me, once I wasn’t selected for the World Cup, that it was over.
00:18:07.05 Andy Coulson:
That that was over, yeah. Did it feel like, after that point then, did it feel like a crisis in your head? Albeit, it’d been a relatively slow-moving one, there wasn’t that single explosive moment, I suppose, in your mind, but did it feel like a crisis?
00:18:30.10 Chris Lewis:
Yes and no. What I would say is that I think throughout my career I felt that I’d had mini crises throughout it. Whether that was people writing in the papers that black players don’t try when they’re playing for England and those sort of things or generally just people having an opinion of you that well, it’s that you’re not a nice person. So I felt that these sort of things had happened consistently throughout my career. And at that point although it was large and it meant the end of my career, I actually thought it was one of those. I didn’t necessarily appreciate, at that point, that this was perhaps the beginning of something a lot deeper and a lot darker, to be honest. I’d always felt myself be that person who bounced back, you know, the optimistic, ‘here I am’. But I’m not happy where I am but it can get better.
00:19:41.00 Andy Coulson:
And this is what I’m interested in, Chris, because thereafter, after the international career ends you have quite a bit of success in the county game but it is up and down. It is that kind of picture that you’ve just painted it think is sort of represented in the facts of the story, if you like, that kind of come in the next six, seven years. I watched, though, an interview of yours that you gave at The Oval in March 2008, so that, as you’ve just described, is behind you, and you use the word bounced back a moment ago, you did bounce back. At the age of forty, I think I’m right in saying, you’re standing at The Oval with a Surrey shirt on and you’re talking about your comeback having been brought back to Surrey to play in their Twenty20 team
00:20:37.06 Andy Coulson:
A remarkable thing in and of itself, but also a remarkable opportunity that speaks to some grit and determination through those years that we’ve just discussed. You look well, composed, you’re smiling, you’re clearly fit. You look like a bloke who’s completely together, right? And grateful for an opportunity that not many players of that age have. Now, nine months later, Chris, nine months, you’re walking through the ‘nothing to declare’ exit at Gatwick with a bag full of liquid cocaine hidden in fruit tins. What happened in your life that took you, so quickly, from The Oval to a prison thirteen miles down the road?
00:21:24.06 Chris Lewis:
Well to be honest, to tell that story I’d have to go back to before The Oval. And the reason for that is that, I would say that, once I finished playing cricket that whole journey and that experience became very different. The years involved from stopping playing, which I think was at thirty-two to coming back at The Oval at forty I would describe as difficult and challenging for a lot of reasons. First and foremost is that once I left cricket, I’m almost sad to say, I was a different person.
00:22:10.03 Chris Lewis:
I was somebody who was upset, I was somebody who was angry at the circumstances of me leaving cricket. I was living in a place where I thought that that was unfair. And fast forward eight years to The Oval and what you see is somebody really, really happy that things were about to change in that moment. All those things you said, the opportunity, the joy of doing something that you love, even the feeling that there was a little bit of unfinished business, the excitement of playing Twenty20 which you’d never played before, which is so exciting. Being at The Oval itself, where I’d enjoyed two years of real happiness in my cricket career, they were all evident in that conversation at The Oval.
00:23:14.10 Chris Lewis:
But the truth, or a deeper truth behind that, is that I was coming off, not particularly a great time. And I was hoping more that coming back to cricket would change all of that. So consequently when, after a couple of games, literally at the beginning of the season, that it was clear that that wasn’t going to happen, I’m injured, I’m not going to play again, all those things and more, just seemed to be on top.
00:23:48.18 Andy Coulson:
You’re told that, are you? Is there a moment when having been injured, because as you say, you did suffer that injury so quickly into the comeback, you’re told, are you? There’s a moment when he doctor says to you, ‘Chris, I’m sorry mate, you’re not going to play again’? Or is it a self-realisation? Tell me about that moment.
00:24:08.04 Chris Lewis:
There wasn’t a moment where the doctor said that. That injury is the original injury from 1995. I know it, I’ve been managing it all that time. It always hurts. It was different, I knew.
00:24:29.01 Andy Coulson:
You knew that was it? You knew that this time you wouldn’t be able to get through it?
00:24:33.02 Chris Lewis:
It wouldn’t, it wasn’t a question of being able to go through it, it wasn’t an injury that got better the next day. It wasn’t the stiffness from just working. And the funny thing about that is that you go forward again to my release from jail and I actually came out and I couldn’t walk.
00:24:56.23 Andy Coulson:
00:24:58.16 Chris Lewis:
Yeah, because things had deteriorated so much. So that’s something since then that I’ve always been working with. When I actually played cricket after twenty-five, it was more a question that hot baths and getting it warm for the activities the next morning but on this occasion I fell hard and it wasn’t just stiffness. I couldn’t put pressure on it and I knew I wouldn’t play anymore cricket that summer. In fact, my thought was at that time that I wouldn’t play cricket at all again.
00:25:39.20 Andy Coulson:
Okay, so that’s a difficult moment for you and I know that there were other difficult moments through that period, as well, that lead to you being in pretty dire financial straits, that sort of rucksack of disappointment that you’re carrying around through those years of your international career. But there’ll be people listening to this Chris, who will be saying that’s very unfortunate, may even have some sympathy for you. But they will also say, you’ve got a choice haven’t you? And you then make a choice that is catastrophic for you but also for the people around you and the people that you care about.
00:26:28.01 Andy Coulson:
Why did you make that choice? When you look back at that moment, because I assume, we don’t need to get into the detail of what led to it but I am interested in… Because there’s a moment when you cross the point of no return and presumably that’s as you’re arriving at the airport, I don’t know, but that choice is still open to you then. Why did you make the choice you made, when you look back on it now?
00:26:59.07 Chris Lewis:
Okay first of all I’d like to say people can say that it is a choice and they’re 100%, 100% right. There are lots of people, in fact, I’m not sure that I know anyone in life who hasn’t faced difficult times. So difficult times is a part of life. And what I would say at my difficult time, I got it so wrong. And I wouldn’t hold up any excuses for that at all. Because I have people in my circle, in my family, who have had difficult times and didn’t resort to the sort of things, of importing drugs, just to be clear. So I make no excuse for that, that was wrong. And it was really, really, how can I put it, poor choosing on my behalf. But I suppose that’s why we’re here. Is to have that discussion, at that moment why did you do that and not what seems more obvious?
00:28:17.07 Andy Coulson:
That’s what I’m interested in.
00:28:20.09 Chris Lewis:
What I would say about that, 100%, is that I got myself into such a bad emotional state and let’s talk about money. Now, what I mean by that is that my relationship or my thoughts about money at that time, I didn’t have any. And emotionally for me, I felt bad for a number of reasons. Not just because of the effect it actually has on your life, because that’s also a clear sort of statement about you. Also because 100%, I was one of the fortunate ones. I was somebody who played cricket for England, who travelled and had loads of opportunity to put myself in a decent financial position.
00:29:21.02 Andy Coulson:
Cricketers aren’t the highest paid sportsmen in the world but I’m sure you were doing pretty well, right?
00:29:27.12 Chris Lewis:
Yeah, we’re not talking cricketers are paid millions and football money in those sort of times. But compared to everybody else you were doing well. I was the one who, I suppose for want of a better phrase, went and partied and did all…
00:29:42.11 Andy Coulson:
The brutal question that someone would ask you, Chris, as I suspect some people would say, you say you didn’t have any money do you actually mean you didn’t have enough money?
00:29:50.04 Chris Lewis:
No, no. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have money for the bus. And that isn’t the end of it because lots of people didn’t have money for the bus. But what I did with it is actually interesting, and this is with hindsight, I took all of those things to heart. I kept al of those things to myself. But also I didn’t actually believe that I was that person who could actually go outside of cricket and make it happen all over again. So there I was emotionally…
00:30:35.08 Andy Coulson:
Derek Pringle, who was your room-mate and a very talented cricketer, he said that you were in your prime. He said that English cricket really hadn’t had an all-round athlete like you, that you could do it all brilliantly. But he said that there were moments off the pitch where he could see that you had this underlying uncertainty. Is that what you’re talking about now, really? When you say that having gone through the journey that we’ve described, post England, post cricket, the comeback had failed, you just had an underlying uncertainty about your ability to get out and make a new life for yourself?
00:31:20.02 Chris Lewis:
Yeah, 100%, I think that’s pretty accurate. The confidence that people saw outside of cricket and outside that circle, once I left that, wasn’t there anymore. And that’s not because it shouldn’t have been, it was more the way that I interpreted my world. And that’s going back to making that decision to import drugs, mentally I was just in the place where the only thing I wanted was just to get rid of that stress, that feeling of not having money. I didn’t want to be a drug smuggler, I just wanted to find some way of having some money in the bank just to have a bit of a break. And of course, lots of people are in that position. What I did was, of course I could have gone and perhaps even signed on, embarrassment, shame and all those things stopped me from doing that. And I found myself listening to conversations that I’d never indulged before in my life.
00:32:42.13 Andy Coulson:
And it’s those conversations lead to the decision. Was there a kind of, ‘what have I done?’ moment before you were caught?
00:32:53.18 Chris Lewis:
It’s funny, and we’re talking honestly, my fear was so acute that all I had my eyes on was that monetary relief. And, in truth, there’s a moment at the airport where I’m stopped. The officer stops me and goes, ‘can I search your bags?’ And while he goes behind to carry out whatever search or whatever tests they do, I’m standing there and I could honestly say that at that point what was blatantly obvious all along to everyone becomes obvious to me for the first time.
00:33:34.19 Andy Coulson:
Were you a risk taker? You are someone who, after all, is prepared to stand on a cricket pitch and face a ball from Curtly Ambrose, I mean you’re…
00:33:45.19 Chris Lewis:
I see what you mean but you know…
00:33:48.10 Andy Coulson:
Were you a risk taker, I’m interested in whether you still are by the way… were you then a risk taker? How loud is that voice in your head?
00:33:54.02 Chris Lewis:
I would… I would say no but most people would say yes.
00:34:03.14 Andy Coulson:
Logic dictates that the answer to that question is yes.
00:34:07.15 Chris Lewis:
No, logic in my head dictates that perhaps some people are a little bit more afraid. And on a different level something can be… facing Curtly Ambrose, as an example, there wasn’t the risk involved in that. Now to somebody who doesn’t play cricket and sees the ball flying that way, there’s a massive risk involved, in fact it’s all risk. Somebody’s shooting bullets at you and you’re standing there. That wasn’t the way I experienced it at all.
00:34:45.04 Andy Coulson:
But you were caught. You spent six months on remand preparing for your trial the following May. You said that you sort of did a deal with yourself that if you were found guilty you considered killing yourself. From a crisis point of view that would have been the limit for you, the breaking point. Thankfully you didn’t. Tell me about that moment. Let’s go back just a step. This is a moment that we’ve both shared, right, the sentencing moment, a genuine moment of crisis. Tell me how you felt at that moment.
00:35:28.12 Chris Lewis:
Listen, I’ve relived that moment a number of times. I’m standing in the box and the judge stands up and he goes ‘thirteen years’. It was just too long. I don’t mean too long. I just meant in my head it was a lifetime. Thirteen years was just a comp-, it could have been twenty-five years, it could have been 100 years, it wouldn’t have made any difference. It was just so long. I remember looking to my brother, my younger brother to the left and just going, ‘take care of mum’. Because yeah, at that moment I would say I had nothing.
00:36:20.15 Andy Coulson:
Your lawyers must have warned you about what sentence to expect. What did they…? What expectations did you have?
00:36:26.22 Chris Lewis:
The general thing is that I was told it would be anywhere from ten years to fifteen years. And it came in at thirteen. But there was just a lot, I didn’t think… my brain couldn’t come up with how I was going to organise myself. Thirteen years just seemed so long and so long in a place that I was appreciating, I wasn’t liking and so forth. But it’s interesting that a lot of the plans were made before I got sentenced. In that if I got sentenced then this is what I might do and then this and the other. But the reality was once I actually got sentenced I got back to the jail, I cried that night; I was sorry for myself. Thirteen years, to me my life was over as far as I saw it. But killing myself wasn’t actually an option. When I found myself in that place of this day of thirteen years the idea of actually going to do it didn’t appeal. It was still distant; I wasn’t that person.
00:38:06.24 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, this is a theme that’s coming out in a lot of the conversations we’re having, Chris. And a lot of these conversations are kind of heading to the same point from very, very different angles. So, no comparisons are being drawn here because you’ve been very clear about the fact that this is self-inflicted. But when you hit that point of crisis, whatever road has taken you there, the common theme here is that that’s when you discover who you really are. That’s, if there’s a… and I imagine at that moment very hard to see any positives whatsoever, but if there is a positive it’s that you have total clarity about your situation but also about yourself. Would you agree with that?
00:39:01.21 Chris Lewis:
I think I agree that those moments can bring the best out of you. I think in my experience, looking back, is that those moments you could go either way. Those moments in your life sometimes in fact you do lie down and play the victim. And then there are other times you go ‘no’. For me, I think this is where my experience in cricket and that confidence started to come back. Where the attitude I used in cricket, I started to see how it applied to just beyond cricket. That level of confidence, that level of hope, even though you’re looking at a situation that seems dark on every side, because you’re looking around and pretty much everything has turned to dust in your life.
00:40:04.16 Andy Coulson:
Okay Chris, let’s talk about prison, a stark but also in many ways a very emotional place. A building full of men whose lives have sort of unravelled to one degree or another, all trying to cope with it in a lot of very different ways. All of them wanting to present a version of themselves, sometimes accurate sometimes not, I’m sure was your experience. What was your prison identity if I can put it that way?
00:40:38.07 Chris Lewis:
I’d like to think the sulky one. I remember going into prison and trying to decide, as you say, how I’m going to play this. Perhaps just coming up with the idea that I was going to be the bloke who didn’t really say much and was not going to be too welcoming and the reason for that is that I didn’t want to have those conversations. I didn’t want to be continuously talking in jail. But I think what you set off to do in jail and how it actually ends up, or what you portray, can be very different things.
00:41:26.20 Chris Lewis:
Emotionally you feel a way and you think you’re holding up very well. But to somebody else’s eyes they can perhaps see that it isn’t all that, that it is hard. And as you know, I’d defy anybody to say that jail is easy. And I know a lot of people put on that bravado but there’s so much going on in jail. There is so much emotional pain that’s being played out all around the place. But really I just set out to really just get my time done, however long that took. And in almost in whatever way I could actually get through.
00:42:20.16 Andy Coulson:
I had a glimpse at something that you had a much longer, harder stare at, but time is strange in prison, isn’t it? You know, it sort of stretches and squeezes. Looking back I can hardly remember most of it now, but at the time the days you know were, you know they were bloody endless. How did you find that aspect because you had such a longer period of time to try and cope with?
00:42:50.02 Chris Lewis:
Well I think that’s a good question. And my answer is that I think at my sentence or pretty soon after I worked out how many days I was going to have to spend in jail. And then of course, that’s not going to be helpful information. And it was endless. And I remember, certainly in the first year, just having Groundhog Day all the time. And as you say, you’ve been in jail a year, but you can only remember two days. With clarity it’s such a strange thing.
00:43:25.06 Andy Coulson:
And to sort of walk through. I mean, you’re surrounded by literal doors of negativity, right? How did you sort of find your way through to the… and what were the positive doors? I mean, I know that you got very fit, your injury obviously aside, but you’re generally very fit. You did a lot of courses; you were a mentor. You kind of look for the positive. How important was that stuff?
00:43:53.10 Chris Lewis:
It was the thing that made a difference. It was the thing that made a difference. Without the positive stuff, and when I say the positive stuff I don’t necessarily mean the courses or anything in particular, I mean how you process your stuff here. There’s lots of stuff going on. You’re in jail, it’s not one of those situations you can actually get away from. You know you can go and have a holiday or you know you can have an hour to… you just couldn’t, I couldn’t get away from it. So that in itself almost forced me to start thinking about my quality of thoughts.
00:44:34.19 Andy Coulson:
You are, Chris, an example, for those who want to make the argument that prison works. You know, you were caught, you were punished, you accepted that punishment and now you’re a reformed, changed man who presumably would do anything in his power never to go back there. But as you know, large numbers of young British men go to prison, come out and then go back again. Recidivism rates are appalling, the number of children of prisoners who themselves end up in prison is another heart breaking feature of the British justice system. You met far more of these young men, these men who come in and out of prison, than I did. What’s your view of where we are on that front?
00:45:20.21 Chris Lewis:
Well, I think first and foremost, I think perhaps just like you, I found it all really, really sad. It was so sad to see the number of young people from a personal point of view. A young, number of young people who I felt had very little hope whether that was in the system or just life as a whole, you know. And that’s the thing that probably struck me more than anything else because through my experience, whether that’s from growing up and becoming a successful cricketer, losing that all and then back being the place now again where you’re optimistic, your state of mind is so important to how you feel emotionally. And I wouldn’t want any human being anywhere to be without hope.
00:46:27.14 Andy Coulson:
When we met at Hollesley Bay you were on ROTL, release on temporary license., where you were able to leave prison during the day and work. You worked in a kitchen, I think, and I know this of course, because on one day, not long after I’d arrived, you came back to prison one evening and knocked on my door. You were there holding a Tupperware box that you handed to me with the words ‘I thought you could do with this’. And I opened the box and inside was the most delicious fried chicken I have ever eaten in my life. It certainly was after three months of prions food. So first of all a very belated thank you, but presumably, Chris, you were the recipient of similar small acts of kindness during your time in prison?
00:47:25.03 Chris Lewis:
I was but listen, Andy, I’ll be honest, I remember when I first went out on ROTL for the first time and I smelled cakes and bread and all those things that I hadn’t tasted naturally for years and years and years and years and I remember what it felt like to taste something that tasted like food. And when I saw you my heart went out to you to be honest. And I wanted to share that experience almost saying, you know what, it can get better, there is hope. And I knew you had all of those things anyway but I just wanted to actually share that. That even within where we were, that we could still be people, we could still be human beings.
00:48:23.13 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, well it was appreciated, metaphorically and actually. Were you able to play cricket in prison?
00:48:36.08 Chris Lewis:
I came across one game of cricket and I wasn’t allowed to play, I had to be the umpire because apparently I was going to ruin the game.
00:48:44.13 Andy Coulson:
Right, which you probably would have done, to be fair.
00:48:47.19 Chris Lewis:
I thought it might have been hard in one way.
00:48:49.20 Andy Coulson:
I suspect it wasn’t of the high-test standard, even with your injury.
00:48:57.08 Chris Lewis:
But it’s funny, I went to the gym quite a bit but I didn’t play, I didn’t play much sports. Again, it’s that same thing, a lot of things reminded me of a life, or being in the place, that was a lot better. And so being in jail it was hard to face a lot of those things. One of those was music. Music, I think throughout my life I’ve listened to music, all different types of music. So they brought back so many different memories. But they brought back memories of good times. So I found that in jail when I listened to those songs it bought back those memories and it was painful.
00:49:53.06 Andy Coulson:
Tell me about life after Hollesley Bay, because of course leaving prison is not the end of the crisis, in fact for a lot of people it can often be the start of another.
00:50:04.17 Chris Lewis:
Very true, it’s an interesting thing in the sense that I spent six and a half years waiting for that day of release. I’m not saying you think about it every day but you think about it a lot. And when that day came the overriding emotion was just relief. And although I hadn’t though beyond it so much, what was very clear was that it was just a new beginning. That perhaps those tight shoes that I’d had on for a long time was coming off. But this was the time where another challenge starts, how you piece it all back together.
00:50:52.17 Andy Coulson:
And there are practical difficulties, right?
00:50:55.24 Chris Lewis:
00:50:56.21 Andy Coulson:
Particularly with a sentence as long as yours because it’s often misunderstood that you’re sentenced to thirteen years, you serve six and a half that that six and a half is the end of it. Far from it, right?
00:51:12.16 Chris Lewis:
No, there’s so much going on potentially afterwards in that you’re on licence. So there are restrictions, of course, imposed. So it’s not like you’re free to come and go as you want and to travel as you want. But also the other thing is that, of course, people have prejudice or preconceived ideas about prison. If you’re a prisoner, or if you’ve been to jail, straight off that bat you’re a bad person. It’s there as you pointed out that if you Google my name that’s the first that comes up would pretty much be the drug offence. So you literally have to carry a lot of those things with you as you go forward.
00:52:04.14 Andy Coulson:
How do you find that now, day to day?
00:52:08.21 Chris Lewis:
That’s a really good question. I’m okay, in fact I think I’m better than okay because I’m back in that place where I’m happy to kick down walls if I need to. And what I mean by that is that, of course people are going to have their opinions and people are going to know, but I’ve put that into a general thing, that’s life. It was the case in cricket but you still press on, yeah? I’m at a stage now where yes, there are difficulties, but it’s not so much the difficulties that I try to focus on. I try to focus simply on where I’m headed.
00:52:53.24 Andy Coulson:
One of those positives of course, is your role with the Professional Cricketers’ Association, where you toured the country talking to young cricketers, telling your story in the hope that they don’t fall into the traps that you fell into so dramatically. That must be rewarding work?
00:53:14.12 Chris Lewis:
Listen, the cricketers, the Professional Cricketers’ Association is something close to my heart and certainly when I came out. And the idea of going and talking in front of all eighteen counties, ex-professionals, wow, that was scary. Emotionally scary just having to stand in front of your peers and people you’d played with and up and coming players and try to explain how you’d had so much and got it so wrong. But it think it’s an important part because I think it’s a real thing in sport. It’s a real thing in life, in the sense that we can all do well and if we’re not aware of everything that actually goes into actually doing well a lot of the times we can make glaring mistakes. So in the end it was an opportunity and in the end I was proud to be in front of them going ‘listen guys, we’ve got and always had such an opportunity here but these are the things potentially to look out for’. ‘As for you in the corner there on your mobile phone, uninterested, that was me thirty years ago’, you know and….
00:54:43.10 Andy Coulson:
Did he put the phone away?
00:54:45.09 Chris Lewis:
Well you know he did. Of course he did!
00:54:48.22 Andy Coulson:
Chris, outstanding, thanks so much for this conversation which I think is full of value for anyone who’s interested to look at crisis through a slightly different lens than perhaps we have in most of, not all, but most of our other conversations and thank you for being so honest. Thank you for being so frank. I’d like to finish though by asking you for your crisis cures. Three things that you lean on in the dark days that are personal to you.
00:55:20.01 Chris Lewis:
Well bearing in mind that we’re going through a world crisis, you might say, with the pandemic and people spending a lot of time in their house, I found it interesting that at the beginning just looking at it and wondering how people would cope with the isolation of not being able to go out and those sort of things.
00:55:46.11 Andy Coulson:
Not our first rodeo, right?
00:55:51.04 Chris Lewis:
Going into nature, whether it’s the park or going down to the river and taking walks. Reading has been a great help because it helps me to focus my mind, sometimes on one particular topic. Sometimes it’s a tendency that your mind can be everywhere.
00:56:18.00 Andy Coulson:
What did you read in prison?
00:56:21.14 Chris Lewis:
A Course in Miracles. It was a really, really long and almost a study book. But it was all about sort of taking, not sort of, it was about taking control that you were more the centre of what was going on in your world than you ever imagined. And it was something that helped me to start to take responsibility for the stuff that was happening in my life rather than putting that all out on other people.
00:56:59.10 Andy Coulson:
Very good. Third?
00:57:05.18 Chris Lewis:
Meditation. For exactly the same reason.
00:57:12.01 Andy Coulson:
00:57:14.00 Chris Lewis:
I would like to think so, sometimes I forget. And like a lot of things it’s the moment where you feel that, I feel that dis-ease that I tend to run back to it and go, okay you need to quieten down and find that nice place again.
00:57:30.09 Andy Coulson:
Chris, thank you very much indeed for talking to me today. It’s fantastic to see you again and fantastic to see you’re looking so well. And good luck with everything going forward.
00:57:42.18 Chris Lewis:
Mate, 100% likewise. Nice to see you, mate.
00:57:46.18 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback, you’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests @crisiswhatcrisis.com. There are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.