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‘What’s in the box?’ Boy A was already out of his cell and at the table. Boys B, C and D shuffled out too with the unsure glances and exaggerated stretches of newly uncaged dogs. I put the two handling boxes from Reading Museum down on the table carefully. I didn’t want a repeat of the previous week when the sheet of hardboard that covered the pool table almost slid off.
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‘Yeah, what you got this week?’ The Boys were pulling up chairs, rolling needle thin cigarettes whilst nudging, knocking and nipping each other in a good-hearted way. I’d learned it was best to let them get this out of their system before getting down to the workshop proper. They would have been in their cells for several hours by the time I arrived at the Separated Prisoner Unit. Sometimes they would have been in their cells for much longer.
‘What did you ask for?’
They groan. They’re teenagers, they can’t possibly be expected to remember what they’d said the previous week. Their requests and comments from last week’s workshop were fresh in my mind, but a week in the SPU is a week in another climate.

The Boys are here for their own safety. They are considered vulnerable to bullying from local villains settling a score, or else the crime they are accused of is so heinous that they would be fair game in the main population. The SPU is cut off from the warehouse-bulk of HMYOI Reading, a tiny block whose cells date back to when Oscar Wilde walked the treadmill. The Boys are all on remand. Throughout the project some are shipped out, others stay. Only in one session did one Boy stay behind his cell door. The other Boys mocked him gently, they know he’d find it easier out with them than in the cell with just himself. They have quite enough time to be inside their heads. The Boy doesn’t come out. The officers shrug; nobody is forced to join the workshops. Boy C tells me the Boy Behind the Door sobbed all the previous night. The workshops take place in the corridor that is just wide enough to accommodate the pool table and chairs. If the Boys lean back in their chairs they touch their cell doors.

Aside from our afternoon workshops a tutor comes down each morning to give them lessons, or show the occasional film. This project is a big deal for the Boys: It is contact with the outside world, with people who aren’t part of the regime. The officers generally stay out of our way and with remarkable politeness let us get on with our project. This is back in the early noughties. The political conversation is peppered with being ‘tough on the causes of crime,’ and ‘ handing out ASBOs’ but there is also ‘social exclusion’ and the need to take library and museum services to ‘new audiences’.

‘Open the fuckin’ box will you?’
Over the eight weeks I’ve learnt timing. How to let the anticipation build but not to make the Boys feel I had power over them. The handling boxes from Reading Museum are probably the best in the country. The museum officers had taken great pride in showing me how they boxed up artifacts under themes. Most museums just use them for the school curriculum: Victorians, World War Two etc. Reading had a much wider scope: Native Americans, the English Civil War, Natural History, Smoking and hundreds of others. Smoking – I had to bring this one in. Everybody smokes. The officers let me bring in everything except the opium scales.

Faced with a series of objects we would use them to write short pieces.
I was eleven years old when I started smoking. I remember as it was by birthday and I was over the park with my brother and his friend. I was so happy I could smoke properly I went round showing all my brother’s friends and hey were laughing. I like the smell and the taste of it. I felt like an adult.

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The Boys had loved the Natural History boxes: skulls, teeth, and skin.
The snake split slowly down the centre like a clean knife through the single layer. It rubbed itself in itchy ecstasy as it slid slowly free. The snake glittered in the bright sun, moist and beautiful. It slithered away leaving the dead husk behind, a shadow of itself.

Today it is the Egyptians.
‘I can’t believe I’m holding something like this. Thousands of years old. What if I drop it?’ I tell the Boy it’s fine. The museum has plenty. Some of the objects are encased in clear resin but the magic is still there. Boy A’s face is lit up. This is the point when the Boys ask me about particular object. Easy enough with old pub ashtrays but harder when you only have the name of the object: canopic jar. This leads to a wide-ranging discussion of Egyptian death rituals, curses, and rough geography. For several sessions I’d brought in a guest to help the Boys with their creative work. The Boys are generally open to trying to write but don’t like being pushed into things. The most successful sessions are with the poet Brendan Cleary. The Boys love him. Love his Irishness, his slightly dodgy dress sense, and his slipshod manner with everything except words. Brendan could get a poem out of my dog. It is Brendan who gets the Boys to address the object, speak directly to it rather than writing ‘about it’. Speak to it. This simple direction sparks the Boys into action. They create quickly and with great satisfaction. All read out their work. Sometimes the officers come in to listen They always admire the objects and occasionally shout various facts to fill the gaps in my knowledge.

Over a decade later I see that HMYOI Reading, closed since 2013, will be a Year of Culture venue in 2016
It always was.

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The Chase
So you see this animal is totally cool
The African plains her pride does rule
Tiger, I would love to meet ya!
In my eyes you’re a magnificent creature!

The Jackal head jar
Jackal head
you don’t look much like
a Jackal head to me

Jackal head
your ears remind me of a bat
flying through the Africa jungle

Jackal head
your face looks like a baby turtle
crawling up a hazardous beach
to the safety of the Atlantic Ocean

Jackal head
your stripes look like a vicious tiger
stalking a zebra on the African plains

Jackal head
you were the guardian of
some poor bloke’s stomach
As he made his way to he afterlife

Jackal head
what happened to the grisly contents
you once guarded?

Jackal head
Did you perhaps eat them
in a feeding frenzy?
And why were you trusted
with such a precious task
Jackal head?