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“Crazy but Brilliant-Crazy” – Penned Up festival at HMP Erlestoke

June 7, 2017 | Posted in: prison

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Mr Gee is in my car. Maggie’s got the Addiction Team, and I’m dealing science fiction futures with Adam Roberts, though I’m not sure in which room, and still find it unbelievable that our event is full. Who would have thought there would be so many sci-fi fans banged up at HMP Erlestoke? Through the prison gates, and I draw keys. It’s Penned Up’s second week, and the staff smile and wave me through. They’re smiling but somewhere Security is puzzling over tomorrow’s “intent to visit”. Geese Theatre is sending a man with ‘a suitcase of masks and a ball’. Someone is bound to ask me what kind of ball.

Tomorrow will be a bit of a panic anyhow, as we are running four events: three simultaneously. Two of these are with rock solid performers, Ilya (graphic novels) and Dreda Say Michell (crime novels) – both of whom were part of our very first Penned Up at HMP Lewes in 2015, so they know what to expect. But it’s still stretching us to be in three places at once. Three people with keys, three people with registers, three people to keep the panic button in sight. Lewes had been kept simple because the prison couldn’t cope with multiple events, Erlestoke has been much more receptive so we are pushing to see what can be achieved.

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All prisons are different. In Lewes the prisoners and townsfolk can eyeball each other across the street.

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Erlestoke is set back from a country lane, tucked away in gardens, behind razor wire. Lewes is a Cat B local with a high turnover – “churn” in prison jargon. Erlestoke is a Cat C with 50% lifers and IPPs (Imprisonment for Public Protection), a more stable population. We shuffle on. Nobody walks quickly in prison. You adapt to the pace, no point in speeding to be first at the next gate. But that’s not life. This is what takes the newly released by surprise. Life comes at you fast. Life doesn’t wait for you to open doors.

Another gate and we are walking through the neat gardens towards the education block. After almost twenty years of prison projects I have finally been persuaded to carry keys. I was reluctant not just because it means a half day staring at slides warning of the multiple ways in which prisoners will try to corrupt you, but because it is far easier to follow someone else around. Now I have to learn the route, remember the rooms, decide whether someone has permission to go through a gate, all by myself. I don’t think I’ve had an unbroken night’s sleep since the festival began. Festivals, or good ones anyway, are a bit bonkers. Rather than calculate and Gradgrind-cost every event, you pour in talent-excitement- inspiration until the vessel overflows. Instead of offering the minimum, a good festival is designed so you can’t have it all. However much you run around you will miss something. You can gorge yourself but still know there was something you missed. You will still want more. Penned Up has twenty events crammed into its two weeks. “It’s crazy but brilliant-crazy”, a tutor tells me.

Still, despite the 4am wakings worrying about authors’ pen names, IDs, equipment, permissions, who to collect at the station, who to deliver back, I don’t have Mark’s worries. As well as putting the festival together with me he is staging a performance of David Mamet’s Duck Variations with a group of the men – but his group keeps shrinking. As soon as they agree they disappear, lines aren’t learnt, yet there is great confidence. “Ah don’t worry Mark; it’ll be all right on the day”. That day being Thursday, and today is Tuesday. I pass Mark in the yard muttering about glue, newspaper, and promises. I bet Mark sleeps even less than I do.

I drop Mr Gee at Education for his poetry workshop. Education loves the visitors. The wall is lined with photographs of them presenting certificates to the learners, and it’s been great to see so many tutors attend the events with their students. . Week Two, and already the opening with Erwin James feels a month ago. There is a sparking of interest around the place. After the months of preparation I’m recognised by most of the men hanging around corridors.
“Who you brought today?”
“Read the programme.” I know every prisoner has had a programme under their door because I know the poor bastard who did the job. But still they would rather trust their choice of event to a chance encounter minutes before the start.
‘Are they famous?”

I was that guitar player, Erwin James tweets before I collect him from the station. He’s excited because the prison band The Discarded is playing a short set after his opening speech. Erwin is a great speaker. Not just because he has the heft that comes from serving a life sentence, but also because he found a better version of himself during his time in prison. All of this means the men will listen to him, but staff are uneasy about someone convicted of murder receiving lots of attention. It brings them up hard on the anvil of rehabilitation, the stated aim of prisons such as Erlestoke, but how much rehabilitation can they take?

In the car on the way to the prison Erwin asks, “Are there any boundaries? How do you want me to play it?” I’d seen Erwin speak at literary festivals, to prison librarians, and to a packed gym at HMP Grendon.
“No boundaries,” I said. “It’s not about that.” And after the event I can see the staff who had been troubled now see it has been worth it. That it had got under everybody’s skin, and brought excitement and possibility fizzing into the room. Despite a tight window to get Erwin back for his train he insists on staying to hear the band. “I want to hear them,” and I can see he is excited. Penned Up isn’t the usual gig. Most of the time prison makes you feel small. The walls are tall, the numbers huge, the rules unclear and unspoken. Best be a mouse running through the cracks unnoticed. Now though, with Penned Up, it feels good to stand up proud, to be part of something that can fill the emptiness, however briefly.

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After Erwin, the band play a great set, and their magic moment comes in week two with Billy Bragg. The Discarded have sweated for this moment. Bragg is at Erlestoke because they invited him. The audience love to hear him speak with disarming honestly about his need to get on stage, his craving for his time up there, and then the band swing into The Price I Pay, the song they have chosen to perform with him. We watch Billy fumble for his glasses to check the tabs on the song he wrote almost thirty years ago, and the audience applaud the honesty of the human behind the star. “Nobody comes to my gigs to hear me sing,” he says.

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Behind the scenes, of course, there have been months of preparation, poring over spreadsheets, registers, organising movements so it all runs smooth. There is an assumption in prison that most things will fall away, never get beyond the planning stage. So the men on the committee are doubly proud to have both made it happen, and to know it is of high quality.

At the end of the festival there is time to reflect. Like all festivals, Penned Up is largely remembered in moments when something is shared: the men found Adam Robert’s discussion of 1984 and Brave New World fascinating. We all loved the visit from Robert Richards from Glastonbury festival. And then there was dear Charlie Mortimer in the library who started telling how he collected his Dad’s letters for Dear Lupin but then stopped reading from notes and looked up at the audience to say that he had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, when it was a death sentence. After a respectful silence, one of the men asked Charlie how it had felt to be told you were going to die. Charlie answered with honestly and openness – and the questioner nodded and said that’s how he had felt receiving his own life sentence.

When Kit de Waal spoke about her experiences of adopting children, a man sitting at the front, facing her, whispered so low that I think he intended only her to hear, that his own children were in care. It wasn’t an opening to discussion; more that he needed to voice that part of his story. “You’ve got to write your stories. There are not enough voices,” Kit told the audience.

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The performance of Duck Variations did indeed take place and received enthusiastic applause. Festivals disrupt the norm; allow conversations to take place that could never find mouths or ears otherwise. They fill a space that you weren’t quite aware of before and leave you with more questions than answers. And all that is to the good.

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Feed the space

August 13, 2016 | Posted in: prison

Martina Cole at HMYOI Deerbolt

Martina Cole at HMYOI Deerbolt


Apart from illegal items, there are also prohibited items, which are not allowed into the prison. These include:

Items which may aid an escape, e.g. wire or abrasive materials.

‘It must be easy putting on events in a prison. Captive audience and all that.’
I’ve heard that a lot over the years. The other common assumption is that prisoners are so bored they’ll lap up any author who’s sent their way. They are bored but they want to work, go to classes, the gym, phone their families, take a shower, and eat. The prison regime is inflexible and you have to fit into it.

Famous? Not so famous? Authors are generally only well known to readers. Lots of prisoners are not readers. Your average literary festival author won’t warrant a second row of chairs in the prison library. What you need is someone who is famous outside the book-world, and/or has a fabulous backstory of his or her own. Generally I don’t take recommendations from publishers; ideally I ask people whom I’ve already seen at events, or who come with personal recommendations.

Mobile phones Laptops (unless authorised by the Security Manager)
Alcohol

library at HMP Thameside

library at HMP Thameside

Where? Most times it’s the prison library but they vary hugely in size. Some can hold 60, others you’re struggling for double figures. Two of the best prison events I’ve ever done were held in gyms: Martina Cole in HMP New Hall (women’s prison), and Erwin James at HMP Grendon. I worried a lot about these. Gyms don’t have great acoustics, we had no mics and both authors are softly spoken. In the end it didn’t matter. The gyms were crammed, which stopped the echoes, and both speakers had such resonance with their audience that people literally held their breath to hear. No coughs, no shuffles, just a warm expectation. At the end of Martina’s event there was a standing ovation. Literally. Honestly, I’ve never seen that for an author. Sure people will clap, will clap hard, even cheer, but to have the entire audience rise to its feet was amazing.

Chewing gum Glue / Blue tack Aerosols Metal Cutleries
Tin openers Any tools including scissors and nail files
Pornographic materials.

Erwin James at HMP Grendon

Erwin James at HMP Grendon


Prison is an intense environment, everything is stripped bare and laid open so people working/living there create ways of building distance and covering themselves. It’s the place where you realize that the nice middleclass thriller writer, whose books the prisoners love, can’t in the flesh fill the space. HMP Grendon is unusual as nobody is told who the speaker will be until they arrive at the gym. Prisoners apply to go six weeks before, and then need to be vetted. I think they now trust there will be a good speaker waiting for them. The audience’s response took even Erwin by surprise. “Prisoners lowering their defences, opening up to each other, sharing with each other, encouraging each other. You don’t normally get that in prison, where prisoners are actually lifting each other up, usually they’re pushing each other down.”

Pirate CDs/ CD rewrites and DVDs. Any Pyrotechnics

Make sure as many people in the prison know about your event. Get the governor there which means less chance of a last minute cancellation. Even a Martina Cole event will be cancelled if there is a shutdown.

Sometimes you take a chance with a writer because you think they can make a connection: Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy, and The Wonder Box. I figured an event would work but only if Roman could make people have a discussion rather than just sit and listen. And that’s what he did. More importantly he listened, and when leaving the event one prisoner said, ‘That’s the first intelligent conversation I’ve had in the two years I’ve been here.’

Pen knives
PDA’s with mobile facilities
Data sticks
Bluetooth ear pieces.
Perfume/Aftershave with the exception of ATAR which is permitted to Muslim prisoners and Staff.

Robert Muchamore is easily the most popular author amongst the juveniles (15-17 year olds). At the event his fans sat in the front row and the first question was: ‘How come you know so much about drugs?’

There is a different etiquette at prison events, for instance no pretence that money isn’t part of the writing deal. Writers are often asked how much they earn.

Andy McNab at HMP Pentonville

Andy McNab at HMP Pentonville

I’ve loved events with a wide variety of writers: Scroobius Pip, Dreda Say Mitchell, Bali Rai, Kimberley Chambers, and Noel Smith. All were prepared to open up beyond what they had written in their books

‘I didn’t think an author would be like that. She wasn’t that different from us. It makes you think you have choices:’ Teenage prisoner at HMYOI Feltham, after visit from Dreda Say Mitchell

At the Andy McNab event at HMP Pentonville the questions were not just about his life but his views on the politics of the Middle East.

A phone call asking if I could organise a prison event for Russell Brand took me by surprise. He wants to do a prison? I could imagine the sneers from some prison mangers. Do me a favour. What would the Daily Mail make of this? More likely they would leave me waiting for weeks with no answer until Brand had got bored and moved onto something else. I wanted him in a prison. I was no fan but I knew he would pull people into reading, into thinking and talking. I was lucky that Neil Barclay works in the library at HMP Thameside and within 20 minutes it was agreed Brand would visit. Neil has gone onto have a whole procession of authors and celebrities visit with more signed photos on his wall than most West End agencies.

Brand was late but for once the regime was going to bend. Never has it been so easy to get into a prison. I walked with Brand as he swayed limply across courtyards, down corridors, giving autographs on autopilot with a smile that barely held. “I don’t really know why the fuck I’m here,” he whispered to me as we entered the library. At this point I was worried he wouldn’t step up for the audience and I was going to be standing in front of 100 prisoners and staff in painful silence. The multi faith centre is rammed. We’ve let Khalid the library orderly do the introductions, and the prisoners are shouting him down, jeering and whistling in what I hope is mainly good humour.

Brand and I go in and sit down at the front. We have one mic between us. I start the interview but when Brand takes hold of the mic he is transformed.
It’s not quite Johnny Cash at San Quentin but he is electrifying. The first question comes from a prisoner who sees a dead relative in his mirror. The room quietens. Brand answers the man with hope, condolence and respect then, with perfect timing, moves onto the next question. From the moment he picked up the mic until the last question the audience are with him, and the only problem is getting back out through the autograph-hunting mob. It takes several burly guards to hold back the crush and usher us out. The whole prison feels truly alive. For one moment all the armour has dropped, and something is shared. We get to the exit and Brand is sulking because his phone is in the locker and his manager, who has the key, is still inside the prison.

A year later I’m with Martina Cole at HMP Pentonville. One of the prisoners waves and I go over. We shake hands and he introduces himself as Luke, who had been at the Brand event at Thameside. He grins in appreciation. ‘Yeah. He came in a celebrity and left a legend.’

Cameras (unless authorised by the Security Manager for specific events)

This list is not exhaustive and the searching officer has the power to confiscate any items that may present any threat to security

Excavation

July 3, 2016 | Posted in: literacy, museums, prison, young people

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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?

I Saw This Book and Thought of You

May 2, 2016 | Posted in: prison, Reading

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I’m often asked what is my favourite book is but the question always throws me. My mind goes blank: what book is in my bag? What did I say last time? But it’s a perfectly logical question to ask the guy spouting off about how people should read and read more. Let’s cut to the quick and see what he likes. But favourite books are wrapped in so much of your life, it’s hard to let them stand on their words alone. Favourite books are where your read-life and your lived-life merge. Favourite books can be the ones that change you, comfort you, shock you, enlighten you, or fill your need for a story.

Being allowed by the lovely people at Give A Book to ramble on about potential favourites, made me realise why I tend to shy away from the question – that it’s just about me and, while I’m happy to talk about ME until the cows come home, reading for me is also about connecting with other people. First with the author, your thoughts swimming together, and then with others. Readers don’t have to like the same books, but it is a special moment when you meet someone who shares with you a love of a particular book or author.
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It can happen in the oddest places, and this isn’t the same as someone clocking what you’re reading and feeling they can give you their take on it. As a despatch rider, I was once sitting in the protean-wasteland of the Docklands, where new streets and buildings would appear each week. Another biker stopped, nodded at the cover of the book I was reading, The Anarchist Reader. I was immediately recruited into the anarcho –syndicalist DIWU (Despatch Industries Workers Union), given a key-ring with the apology that the DIWU had disbanded several weeks earlier.
So, no, not that kind of exchange. Nor the kind of prescribed list that publishers or prizes offer.
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I have felt that connection twice recently, both times in prison libraries, both about the books of John Connolly. I’ve been reading and rereading Connolly’s Charlie Parker series (do also read his stand alone novels, particularly the magnificent The Book of Lost Things). Initially a serial killer vs. detective narrative, the Parker books have since evolved its supernatural elements, becoming a grand mythology akin to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic whilst losing none of its heart.
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The first time was in the stacks of the prison library. I go into the stacks whenever I can, to look at what’s in stock and also to see what other people are interested in. There are some voracious readers in prison. This was a male prison and some of the men clearly thought I was there to offer “good reading choices”. The prisoner in the stacks was working through the Lee Child spines. I saw him slide by the Connollys and mentioned he might like them. Read them all. he said. And he had even the brand new collection of short stories. But we stood there talking over the latest Charlie Parker – connected. Equal for that moment and happy to share that space.

The second time was in a privately-run women’s prison. Privately-run prisons tend to have a smaller choice of books: they can’t refresh through the public library system. In this women’s prison, the prisoner has already chosen five of her six books when she asked me which other I would add. I saw she had a John Connolly in the pile and immediately we were like old friends chatting away about the series.
‘Five minutes left,’ the librarian called.
There weren’t any more Connollys. We were dancing round the stacks chatting about what else we’d read whilst promising the librarian we would be ready soon.
‘Three minutes,’ the librarian sang out, smiling at our search.
No early Clive Barker, Aickman too rare, and James Lee Burke too much on the crime side. Triumphantly I pounced on Peter Straub’s The Throat.
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Okay, she should probably read Koko first but The Throat is an amazing novel and has the same strands of crime, thriller, and supernatural as Charlie Parker. We rushed the library counter together, laughing for no other reason than it’s good not to be alone.

No crime here

March 2, 2016 | Posted in: Banned Books, literacy, prison

“Why haven’t you got it?” The female prisoner is genuinely puzzled. A book she’d read in her previous prison’s library isn’t allowed in her present prison. “ But,” she points to her friend, “she wants to read it.” The librarian is helpless. Basically, at this particular prison the governor has decided there will be no true crime titles in the library.

my daddy was a bankrobber
but he never hurt nobody
he just loved to live that way
and he loved to steal your money

50 years after the publication of In Cold Blood the true crime genre remains popular both inside and outside prison. Yes, it has its clichés, any UK top ten will feature at least one Kray-related book, but it is a very broad genre, often sneered at and snubbed in the way crime fiction was in its pulp days. Recently there has been an upsurge of interest with the success of the Serial podcast and Netflix’s Making of a Murderer – neither available to prisoners. We, the public, have always loved a crime narrative from Dick Turpin to the Great Train Robbers, or the Hatton Garden’s Diamond Wheezers. And we’ve generally paid very little heed to the victims. We remember the murderers, the robbers, the violent and their stories even/especially if they end tragically, but their victims rarely get the same acknowledgement.

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True crime books are so in demand that librarians often keep the most popular titles behind the counter and get the prisoners to sign for one-week loans. Like many things to do with the prison system there is no obvious logic to why one prison allows true crime and another forbids it. There are reasons for banning particular books. One prison officer told me, “We can’t have books about some of the people we hold in here. The first thing they do when they get here is check if they’re in any of the books.”

Noel ‘Razor’ Smith’s top three true crime books
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Often the true crime section is what appeals to the non-reader in prison. It offers a view on the world that resonates with the prisoner, which is one of the things we search for as readers: to find our lives represented. It’s a gratifying and electrifying experience to know you are not alone.

‘It wasn’t until I read autobiographies during my incarceration by two infamous criminals – one of whom turned into a writer and academic, John McVicar and another who became a writer and renowned sculptor, Jimmy Boyle that I then felt it was acceptable to become a student.’ David Honeywell

The writer Erwin James, himself an exlifer, has spoken about the desire to change that most, if not all, prisoners feel, and self-help is the other massively popular section of the prison library.

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Does it matter if prisoners spend their sentences reading up on past crimes? Reading books that show crime can be exciting during and between the violence, broken families, and prison sentences. Crime fiction, on the other hand, gives the same excitement and thrills but also comforts. It fills the gaps that pepper true crime narratives where people drift in and out of the story. In crime fiction there is always resolution. Some true crime titles just drift away towards the end, as the writer runs out of things to say, or their life gets boring. Bruce Reynold’s Autobiography of a Thief is brilliant up to the Great Train Robbery but then quickly loses momentum.

The best true crime speaks to more than just that time and place. Governors might protest that there is not enough repentance: the criminals are not humbled, not broken enough, but for their readers that is exactly the point.

One governor I spoke to seemed unhappy about any book that showed the joy/pleasure of crime rather than the suffering that came afterwards. This reminded me of the futile Just Say No anti-heroin campaign. It didn’t work because it was so one-sided. It was books such as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or Melvyn Burgess’ Junk that truly hit the mark because they showed the whole heroin-world: the pleasure, the degradation, the subtleties, the lies, and allowed readers to judge for themselves.

so we came to jazz it up
we never loved a shovel
break your back to earn your pay
an’ don’t forget to grovel

Bankrobber – The Clash

Angry Young Men

January 26, 2016 | Posted in: Uncategorized

I read Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for the first time over the holidays. I felt familiar with the story even though I’d never read the book. That picture of Tom Courtney flashed into my mind every time it was mentioned. Like Kes it was unusual, distinctive, belonging to an era when defiance could be discussed in secondary schools. We all knew Kes; it was the book with the boy raising two fingers to all on its cover. That was enough to make it well known if not well read.
Kes
In TLLDR it was the voice that leapt out – fierce but not desperate, someone who had sized up the world and found it wanting.

‘You see, by sending me to Borstal they’ve shown me the knife, and from now on I know something I didn’t know before: that it’s war between me and them.’

Immediately before TLLDR I’d read Tony Parker’s brilliant study of life-criminal. ‘Bob’, The Courage of his Convictions. Written three years or four years after LLDR Bob compliments Sillitoe on the ‘truth’ of his fictional criminal. The narrators in both books follow the path of Approved Schools, Borstals, jail, and even conclude on the same mythical hope of ‘one last job.’ All the way through, neither narrator can be diverted from their lines. There is never any real hope of change, of another world.
Courage of his convictions
I can’t remember a time when I ever wanted to be a farmer but, as a kid, I did enjoy helping out and feeling useful. I would be up and out to feed the animals every morning before school. The farm was my entire world and we knew very few people who were not in that life. On those early mornings my dad would sometimes point out a fox running home across the flat dark fields. There was no real animosity towards the fox even when it took our chickens. Like with the weather, it was up to you to protect yourself. Dad wouldn’t even allow the local hunt to cross his land – an act of defiance against what he saw as showy and pointless. The fox could only be seen in a particular field where there was a long unobstructed view. Then you could glimpse its russet shape zigzagging for the safety of the trees. I didn’t see a fox close up until I lived in a city and they were tearing up my bin bags.

Once when I was looking out for the fox I saw a line of figures in white t-shirts and shorts racing across the same field. “Bad Boy’s school,” Dad told me. Never any more explanation than that, but it made sense to me, that there was a school where you were sent when you’d been so bad that even the slipper wasn’t enough. At that time I felt the worlds of the fox, and that of the Bad Boys, were totally separate from mine.

There must always have been fear of different worlds meeting. My Dad can remember the local public school visiting his village school during the war, a token gesture that they were all in it together. My dad remembers his own father not allowing him to make the reciprocal visit: “Thought it might turn my head.”

So the worlds stay separate, each in its own orbit. I was about ten at this time and reading Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. I loved this book so much I took it out twice from the mobile library. Even after all these years I can immediately spot the cover of the edition that I read.
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Tunnel in the Sky is a less vicious Lord of the Flies. Teenagers stranded on a planet fight for survival, but it was the close of the novel when the main character Rod refuses to return home after rescue that truly startled me. That was the first time a book really surprised me. He’d chosen a different world, refused to accept returning home where he would be safe but would lose his status.

Without books we stay in our own worlds. I read an awful lot of science fiction in the 70s & 80s. Some good, some dreadful, all of it fuelling a desire to get away. To Leave It All Behind. A desire for the new and the strange, far away from familiar fields.

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Reading Headlines

September 27, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people

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Let’s get every child reading widely and well

Another year, another literacy drive. The Daily Telegraph article rather contradicts its message of ‘widely and well’ by giving a list of 50 books that all children should have read by the time they are 16. An inevitably bizarre list offers little to teenagers except The Hunger Games. What fuels these periodic drives to improve literacy in the UK is the need to be seen to be doing something. The more visible the better, and if you can hitch yourself to some celebrity wattage even better.

There have already been two National Years of Reading (1998 & 2008); there is the annual World Book Day, the Read On Get On campaign, and at least a dozen other national and local schemes. It is a cause that no one can argue with. Literacy is going to make a difference in someone’s life, a love of reading does make a difference, and yet there is something that makes my skin crawl when politicians leap on this particular bandwagon – isn’t it their job to put in place the institutions that enable a culture of literacy to thrive in the first place?

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Between the two NYOR there was BiblioBraz in Moscow. First Ladies Cherie Blair, Lyudmila Putin, and Laura Bush all attended to showcase their support. The result was world-famous UK children’s authors reading to a room packed with bodyguards, PAs, hangers on, and a couple of rows of children.

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Russia has produced a great body of literature, and enjoyed a high literacy rate. In fact at the time of BiblioBraz (2005) the government was trying to persuade fewer young people to go to university (it used to be 80% of young people went to university).

And yet, that high literacy rate and all those university graduates didn’t always give the expected results.

‘Students were notorious for their lack of interest in how to solve intellectual problems – they only cared what the answer was’
Just before the present UK literacy drive we had another headline. The Observer:
‘Fathers not reading enough to their children, says Book Trust
’ ‘Alarming’ new research says 50% more mothers read to children than fathers, and one in five students leaves primary school with poor reading skills.

At least they put quote marks around ‘alarming’. I’m all for reading more with your kids, but it doesn’t really help to throw around statistics that on closer examination show something else. The headline figures only apply to children below the age of one. After that the figures, though still unbalanced, are hardly headline worthy. At age three it’s71% 62% for mothers and fathers respectively. At five years 75% 65%, still a significant gap but enough to point the finger? Digging a little deeper we find that the actually question fathers were asked was ‘Do you take the lead in reading to your children?’ Not, Do you read with your children.

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Lift your head from the relentless succession of crises, run along the timeline, and those children who enjoyed the first National Year of Reading are now adults. Whisper it. One in six people struggles to read.

A crisis? Or a result of a culture that perpetuates inequality? Finland has a more equal society by most estimates (though by no means a utopia), and regularly tops the world charts for literacy. Is it that the Finnish language is so much easier, that the teachers get so much more training, the long dark nights, or a culture that enforces and promotes equality? Discuss.

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The successive governments who support one drive or another have also cut adult education; have reduced prison education to 4-week courses. I had an interest in children’s reading and education even before becoming a parent but it’s adult education that pricks my skin. I left school with one O level in English (grade C). I recently went through my old school books and was struck by how appalling my writing was at secondary school. Essay after essay riddled with spelling mistakes, and yet there were no comments by teachers. The thing about being an adult learner is you remember your learning. You remember your tutor at Poly asking why you couldn’t use commas, why you persisted in misspelling ‘challenge’. You remember reading and rereading novels, copying out paragraph after paragraph to drive in the punctuation habits and rules into your thick head. You remember being content reading a tabloid, and it being sneered at by both students and tutors. And you remember the first time you stumbled across a book that articulated your experience of education, and you remember the first time, the very first time, you nailed your thoughts to the page and they stuck. And then what went before no longer mattered.

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A matter of choice

September 6, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison, Reading, Uncategorized

Now the ban on sending books to prisoners is over, the chatter is about which books to send. Books have always been an important part of prison life. In this Pathe News clip of The Cell of the Future (1959) a selection of books can be glimpsed. It’s a mixture of thrillers, historical novels, and comedy. The only name that sticks out is Edith Pargeter (Holiday with violence) who, as Ellis Peters, wrote the Brother Cadfael series.
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A more contemporary cell would probably have Martina Cole, James Patterson, a graphic novel, and something like Sharpe with a bit of true crime and self-help thrown in. It would also be more cramped and there would be a bag of breakfast cereal next to the kettle.

At an event in HMP Grendon a couple of years ago I was asked to bring along a book I’d enjoyed, to give to prisoners. I chose Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog. It had really cast a spell over me when I read it and it has a wide range of characters to empathise with. I handed out a couple of copies to prisoners and thought no more about it. Two years later I’m back at Grendon with Erwin James who talked about how his reading developed and changed during his time in prison. When he was first there he read westerns such as the Edge series (I loved these as a teenager) but it was book called Prisoners of Honour that someone gave him that struck a chord. After the talk I’m standing there giving out dictionaries for those who have completed the Six Book Challenge when a voice says, “You know that book you said we should read?”
I have no idea what the man standing in front of me is talking about. I’m frozen in the act of handing him a dictionary.
‘Already got one.’
He’s waiting for me to pick up the conversation. The men queuing behind wait politely, no fuss. Time stops. I know the staff needs us out in a few minutes and lots of people still want to chat with Erwin
Did I recommend a particular book in the talk with Erwin before? I can never remember what I say my favourite book is: Rumblefish, Seventh Heaven, Winter’s Bone, Game of Thrones?
I must have been still looking blank when he launched into why my recommendation hadn’t come up to scratch. “It started off okay but it went a bit Hollywood at the end.”
And then I’m in the conversation and for the next few minutes as we stand there, my brain is buzzing, trying to remember the points I want to make. It’s clearly all primed in the mind of the reader in front of me. Perhaps when you’re struggling with your own demons, trying to make the rights choices, you don’t want to read about people who deceive themselves, and repeatedly make bad choices.
We talk and it reminds me why I love discussing books, particularly when a discussion pops up unexpectedly like this. I might not have chosen the right book for this particular reader but we are enlivened by the argument. It is a bridge between us. An equalizer.

Back to sending books to prisoners. The best comment I saw was from Russell Webster who simply tweeted Depends on what they want to read. Exactly.

Who are we when we read?

August 4, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, young people

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Reading is complicated. Not just the decoding, putting together, joining up all the meanings into a narrative, but the motives that bring us to reading. I once did a project for the new library in Lewes in which I spoke with 100 people about why they read and was surprised by the variety of answers.

THE CHALET MAID “I like writing that bounces around – that isn’t just about real life.”

THE COMMUTER “The book I’m reading now is so stylized it’s quite difficult to follow in places but it’s better than the telly. I have spare time now to read on the train. I like to drift into someone else’s thoughts.”

Rory Stewart gives a great description of this drifting in The Pleasure of Reading:
‘Once you have taken possession of a book, you can inspect a writer’s mind, in all its shades and dimensions. You can establish a relationship, which would be intolerable to a living individual: you can wake the writer at three in the morning, switch her off mid-sentence, insist she continues for six hours unbroken, skip, go back, repeat the same paragraph again and again, impertinently second-guessing her vocabulary, and metaphors, scrutinizing her structure and tricks.’

And who do we think we are when we’re reading? The general assumption is we identify with the protagonist but I often feel it’s more that you look through several characters’ eyes, and also, somehow, you are a part of the narrative, its landscape, the tone. The book comes alive in your head. As an adolescent I loved Robert E Howard. Gloomy, sulky heroes, grimly hacking their way through a world always tottering on invasion, destruction by demons, or treachery. Lost Gods, and melancholic heroes, in an invented past written fifty years before, and yet they chimed with something in me and it became my quest to hunt them down. In rural Yorkshire the Moors were still shadowed by Brady and Hindley, at football matches the police were taunted with their failure to capture the new monster. Long lines of warehouses lay empty, windows broken, the sense of an ending, of armies stirring.

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Stories need readers. Millions of stories migrating, drifting, in libraries, on park benches and carriage seats, in birthday wrappings, on market stalls, with the old and abandoned in charity shops, with the new and talked-about in brightly-lit shops, until they meet their reader.

At the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts the aboriginal writer Tony Birch spoke about the book that he had found himself in.

‘No book left the impression on me that Kes did. I was convinced that it had travelled the globe to find me. From the first pages, when Billy wakes in the early morning in his damp, crowded room and is teased and abused by his brother, I felt more than empathy for him. I was sure I was Billy.’

He went on to say that Billy’s world made sense to him and his friends. “Billy gets walloped. His brother wallops him, his teacher wallops him, everybody wallops him. We knew this world. “ This book from Barnsley, in northern dialect, unpublished in America until 2015, was doing the rounds of teenagers literally at the other side of the world, yet it speaks to them. It illuminates their world.

I’m always uncovering new reasons why people read. It’s a subject I find endlessly fascinating. The reasons are probably as many and as varied as human experience.

“I read to find out what’s normal. I look for a Mom and a Dad in the story, see what kinds of things they do. I never had that on the street so I look in books to find these things out.”
Paul, HMP Pentonville

Despite what educators would like to believe there is no magic list of books you should read. Be curious. You are unique and no one can predict which of the books you read will leave their mark.

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World Without Libraries II

July 15, 2015 | Posted in: Reading, young people

Our public libraries still amaze me. Even though they’re being hit hard by cuts, challenged to find a place in a world romancing the digital, their very function at odds with a future in love with ‘sharing’ but sniffy about borrowing, they remain a stunning act of generosity. Where else can you wander through thousands of years of thought? It’s all here: dreams, schemes, delusions, and designs for life. What other institution not only allows free access but packages up that knowledge and implores you to live with it for a while.

And while the UK library system is going through a tough time, despite a wealth of ideas, the rest of the world seems to be rocking quite happily on with public libraries. You can have reading nets in Spain, open offices in Sweden, and the drive up window at Cleveland Ohio. Not heard of that one? Me neither until my friend Cath was over from the States and told me. No need to browse, just phone your request through and drive up to the window.

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Okay, we can sneer at this symbol of American car culture but it’s also a symbol of American attitudes to service. You order it and they will have it ready for you. Reservation costs? Zero. Zero!! I’m paying 80p a shot. Worse, Cath tells me DVDs and CDs are all loaned out for free too. This might seem small beans but these are precisely some of the reasons that families in the UK don’t use public libraries.
Sometimes this great expression of generosity is spoilt by the petty conditions and the need to support a public service by racking up fees from photocopying, DVDs lending etc.

But this weekend the sun was shinning on libraries all over the UK. Even our small library was buzzing, and all over the town you could see children walking around clutching books! The reason? The Summer Reading Challenge. The icing on the cake, the offer that keeps giving, the embodiment of that stunning act of generosity pitched at our futures.