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The Fifty Word Breakfast

April 26, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison


There are many uses for creative writing in prison. It can calm, it can improve letters home, it can focus thoughts, and give confidence. Often writing students feel they need drama and conflict on the very first page, and that is useful for short stories and novels, but in other kinds of writing we have the freedom to look at the everyday, the normal, the humdrum – turn it over and see what lies beneath. Too much of life is dismissed as unworthy of attention when it could be savoured and fully lived. There are tensions: do we really want to live every minute of a day at work, or a day in prison?… but the alternative is to give away that time; allow it to be drained by daytime TV. Time killed is time not lived. Writing offers a way of reclaiming that time: re-experiencing, filtering, to make it one’s own.

The Fifty Word Breakfast came from a recent prison workshop where I asked the men about their days. “Get up. Have Breakfast. Wait for the door to be unlocked.”
I asked for words to describe breakfast. As the words were offered up the world they described also came in to view. There were three possible breakfasts: rice krispies, cornflakes, or weetabix (no porridge). Weetabix was the least popular but as it rarely appeared it wasn’t too much of problem. The rice krispies “settle down with a sigh” rather than any snap, crackle or pop. The older men tell me how they buy dried fruit or a banana from the canteen to make the breakfast more palatable. They even swap recipes! The youngers say the biggest question is not what you will eat but when. Whether you will be so hungry in the night you will have to eat your breakfast before morning.

We try it in 100 words exactly. That way we select each word carefully, weigh up the choice, take cuts we would not otherwise have made.

Tomorrow it will be rice krispies. Not the ones you remember from when you were a kid. No snap-crackle-pop in these buggars. Pouring on the milk – UHT – which doesn’t even pour right. When it lands there is a little hiss like a punctured tyre. I can only hear this on the days when the cell is quiet. When no one is shouting, farting or moaning. I hold my plastic spoon, drop in the krispies into my plastic bowl, wait until the noise dims and then tip in the milk and wait for that slow hiss. And another day will begin.


It’s the same when we discuss the walk in the yard. It’s full of the minutiae of prison life. Everyone, inside or outside of prison, tends to take their way of living for granted. It’s just how things are. A writer’s eye picks put the details that will make a reader see it anew. Make it foreground not background.
“Walking around the gobbers. Not talking to anyone. Trying to keep your eyes on the ground to avoid the gobs, but also avoiding eye contact with other prisoners.”
“Always anti clockwise. We don’t know why but you can’t go the other way.”
“To the officers it’s like walking dogs. They’ll call us back in if there’s the slightest drop of rain. I’ve only felt rain once in four months.”
“I try to keep my head up. I don’t want to walk with my head down but that makes it harder to avoid the gobs.”
“I count the laps. I try to make each lap a bit different. Each time I go a slightly different route. It’s the only time I feel free. The only time I can think.”

For some of the men letters home are vital. They discuss what it is permissible to write about. How likely it is that other people will see their words, and how much they can reveal.

‘I’ve got two mattresses now and my sleep has much improved.’ I wrote that in my letter to the wife. I tell her only the good things. I tell her my cleaning job gets me out and about. Gives me more canteen money. I tell her that Joe has made an air conditioning from a fan and a wet towel. She’s not to worry about me in this heat wave. All positive. I don’t tell her that in each hour between the clock striking I’ve gone out of my life a thousand times, changed it, and none of those changes land me back here – where a torch is shone in my face, where the distressed and the pissed-off kick at the doors.

“ It’s like being married, the relationship with your pad mate, your cellie.”
“You have to see if he’s a reader, or a telly head. Will you watch the same things together? Can you agree at what time the TV goes off?”
“There’s so little privacy. Using the toilet, it’s only fair to warn them when to light a joss stick.”
“We drape a sheet over the light to dim it. As it gets dark you can’t see the walls. Gets all snug, and you forget where you are.”

Read Write Imagine III

April 26, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison, Reading, young people


As a teenager, watching bands in the local pub was a big influence on my musical taste. With no internet, and only the music press and the top 40, it was hard to expand your knowledge of the music you liked. The bands at The Bay Horse mainly played cover versions but it was only after the third version of Freebird that I got the idea. Covers were, and often are, derided as lesser than an original song. Less authentic, but secretly I love a good cover. It gives us familiarity, whilst still allowing the artist license to rework elements of the song. It seemed a good place to start for a writing workshop. Take something that already existed, that people could put their own stamp on. It would be faster and hopefully less intimidating than a blank page.

Cannongate have their reworked myths but I wanted something more in common knowledge. Shorter. Where you could still hear the original bones underneath.

Fairy stories are perfect for this. They’re familiar to most, not considered ‘literature’, and flexible enough to allow the writer to bend and twist the story whilst still keeping a flavour of the original. To keep the idea tight I decided that these modern reworkings had to be exactly 150 words long. The Grimm150, as it became known, proved an excellent way for writers to learn the value of editing and rewriting.
The idea was tested first in HMYOI Brinsford

Once upon a time in a city called Birmingham there lived two children and their names were Hansel and Gretel. One murky afternoon Hansel was playing on his phone while Gretel danced around her room, when all of a sudden, their mum comes storming in and started to smash up the bedroom, even the house. The children know she is drunk again. While this was happening their dad was working. The dad is working for a zoo. Hours had passed and Hansel and Gretel’s dad had just finished work. He looked at his watch and the watch said 6pm so he could not be bothered to go home. He decided to head for a bar then a brothel. The children were getting scared when the dad bursts in and says to them “We don’t love you anymore. You can’t live here anymore. “ The dad kicks them into the street.
Funded by a Clarrisa Luard Award donated to The Reading Agency by Julian Barnes, I ran 10 workshops in 10 Young Offender Institutes.

Of course, many of the young men never had fairy stories read to them. If they knew them at all it was from Disney DVDs, but they quickly improvised with characters from Toy Story and of course Winnie the Pooh. Two lads did a fabulous performance of a washed up Winnie and Tigger on a park bench. Others created their own totally original stories:

Once upon a time in a city called London there was a small place called Longate. There lived a family who was not very well known to the community because they were new to Longate. They never came out of their house and even if they did, it was as if no one ever saw them. It was like they were invisible, and this made the family very angry. It didn’t feel fair for everyone to act as if they weren’t there. One night they decided to kill everyone in Longate. All those who acted as if they were invisible. They left their house and went out into Longate. They killed everyone and then dragged the bodies into the dark woods. In the woods they turned everyone into werewolves, just like they were. Now all the people they’d killed would live again, and nobody would feel left out again.


The ten workshops produced some great material and, judging by the thanks I got at the end of each workshop, many enjoyed the experience. This would often be as much about group dynamics as the material produced. Some were proud they had produced something, particularly those who had never written anything before. Others loved sense of play and performance in riffing on a well-known story: Goldilocks and the Three Drug Dealers, Little Red in the Hood etc. Some would give the story of their crime, and some would go into a kind of trance and work furiously. Checking and counting their words out loud, uncaring and unknowing of any one else in the room, as they tried to land the story that had ignited in their head.

I need her, I must keep her. Nobody must have her.
I do this not to hurt her but to protect her.
She is my sleeping beauty.

I see how he looked at her, as if to give the impression he
Was her prince Charming, as if his kiss could rescue her but
He just wants to take her from me.
She needs me. I am her father, and she is my sleeping beauty.

She is so peaceful, so still, a thing of absolute beauty. This is
Why I must keep her, she must not be exposed to the cruel way of men. She is too pure, too innocent. She is my sleeping beauty.

If only she knew my reasons why, I know she would understand. He is not right for her. He only wants to take her away but no one can have her. She is my sleeping beauty.

Ginge HMYOI Glen Parva