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It’s the words, stupid

March 3, 2018 | Posted in: literacy, prison

It might have been a waste of time. You arrive early at the prison. You’re not on the list so you don’t exist. You are not given an explanation. The young woman behind the glass tells you to wait in the search area. Ten minutes go by. An interpreter joins you on the bench, and you swap stories of long waits in prisons, and treatment by staff. More time goes by. You can hear the chatter of families queuing to see their loved ones. “I’ve told him. Don’t think I haven’t told him.”
Another ten minutes go by. You are now late. The young woman who was behind the glass enters the search area and again asks to see your ID. You have become a person again. Freshly searched, you are ushered through to where the tutors are waiting.

Snow flurries twirl around you as you walk. You would like to walk quicker because of the cold and your thin jacket, but nobody moves fast in prison. You chat with the tutors, get an idea of their mood, their approach to the students. Neither seems worn down by the prison regime. Both are enthusiastic about what their students can achieve. Their present students are mainly Old Soviet Bloc: Poles, and Romanians, though there is one Vietnamese guy in the less able class. You want to see both classes. In one they can easily cope with a Quick Read. ‘They really liked Dead Simple”. You are glad to hear that. With that level of language reading for pleasure becomes much more obvious. There is a shared language of comparison, and investigation, plotlines and empathy.

In the other class, the one with the Vietnamese guy, the level of English is much more basic. Some have only a few words. The teacher is a little worried about the Vietnamese guy. He will be cross. He didn’t get off the wing yesterday. She waves a sheet of paper. He was on the list but the officers used the list from the day before. Paper. You know the power of paper in a prison. Everything is on paper. That’s why you were not on the list at the gate. Someone had mislaid your Intent to Visit, or not written one. You waited twenty minutes and someone came and fetched you. That wouldn’t happen on the wing.

You place your bag of books on the table. The students have still not arrived. No movement. They’re late but that’s not unusual. The teacher shows you some photo prompts that she’d prepared for encouraging writing and speaking. “They didn’t like them,” she explains. They look fine to you. You plan to get the group to choose which of the books you’ve brought they feel comfortable with. A simple exercise but it means they have to get involved, make choices, show they can understand what the book is likely to be about.

The students are now 45 minutes late. This could be a wasted trip. You will have to drive for two hours after. Probably through snow. The teachers in the education block have no radios so have no idea what might be going on in the rest of the prison, what might be delaying or preventing students coming to the class. You look out of the window. Nobody is moving across the yard. Another teacher volunteers to find an officer and see what is going on. The teachers are embarrassed. “You’ve come all this way.”
You tell them of the hours you have spent waiting in various prisons. When a count falls short. The inability to know exactly when a lesson with start and end, because in prison the regime dictates time, not the clock.

The teacher returns. They’re on the way. You will have one hour. You decide to stay with the lower level group before moving to the more able group. It will be useful to compare the two classes’ choices. The Vietnamese guy arrives. He is cross that he wasn’t allowed to education yesterday. Students file past on the way to the other class but nobody else enters yours. The tutor gives the Vietnamese guy a worksheet while we wait. Five minutes go by.

You move across to the Vietnamese guy. He is filling in upper and lower case letters, and numbering the letters of the alphabet A is 1, B is 2 etc. You introduce yourself.
“Thanh.” (Not his real name)
You shake hands. None of your prepared exercises are for single students. You decide to try out one of the simplest books, check what words Thanh recognises and work with that. His spoken English is heavily accented but he seems to have enough for short comments and sentences. You will work with him for twenty minutes, and then move on to the more able group.
Thanh smiles at the book. The book is about skyscrapers (David Orme). Information given in short sentences, or just single words. The book starts with the pyramids and Thanh wants to show me his understanding of the numbers given. We turn to the modern skyscrapers and you try to guess where they are.

“I know this,’ he points. ‘Tokyo.”
“You’ve been there?”
He nods. Points to himself.
“To the top?” You point to the picture.
Thanh nods again.
“Did you use the lift?”
The word doesn’t mean anything to him. Your miming doesn’t help. Luckily the book has a picture and he understands, nods.
“Yes, lift.” He points upwards.
You smile. Thanh smiles. You have connected. You have managed to convey something to each other. You both smile again at this success.

Now it is different. Charged. He wants to read everything on each page. Hurls himself at the words. Not to show you what a good student he is, but because he really wants to learn English.

You finish Skyscrapers and move to Ben’s Jerk Chicken Van (Cath Jones). Again, it is simple but it is a story, a narrative, rather than plucking out individual words.

Thanh has no problem sounding out the words but he doesn’t always understand their meaning. You stop him; check he has understood tools, the rush.
And he is off again.
The teacher says, “I never knew you could read so well.”
Thanh shrugs, eager to get back to the story.

You pause him on another word, and this time he looks at you, smiles and then brings out a sheet of lined paper. On it is a list of words and their meanings.
“My cell mate,” he explains. “He teaching me.”
The list of words is practical: Shaving, food items from the canteen sheet etc. The words you need in prison. You look at the clock. There is only twenty minutes left. Should you go to the other class? But Thanh is back at the words. He wouldn’t let you go, and that fierce focus reminds you of when your son was learning to read; puzzling out words and sentences of simple stories; finding a toy, losing a toy, a dog eating a sandwich. You recognise the same focus, the magnetic pull of words because each word, each sentence, however simple, is a window, a magic door to the world. Each word unlocks something, makes the reader see more clearly, adds to the world.
Thanh finishes Ben’s Jerk Chicken Van.
“I never knew,” the teacher says.
“I want to learn,” says Thanh triumphantly.

Another teacher puts his head around the door and tells us the class is finishing fifteen minutes early. We are not told why.

Note: the class visit was part of a project (funded by the Bell Foundation) to use Reading Ahead with prisoners with esol needs.

Time for Dad

September 5, 2017 | Posted in: literacy, prison, schools, young people

‘Which are the good ones?’ Len gingerly picks through the picture books I’ve placed in front of him. The rest of the group sense a shortcut and stop sifting their own book piles.
‘You just need to look through them. Choose one you like.’ I keep my voice light. I want them to see this as fun, not a chore. To me, choosing a picture book means five or ten minutes max. The group act as if it’s going to take them hours. They fan out the slim books, unsure how to begin.
‘Why don’t you just tell us which are best? That would make it quicker.’ Marco gives me his just-trying-to-help face.
‘You have to decide for yourself.’
They look at me. In truth, they’re not trying to skive, they just want a clear answer. Because there has to be answer. There has to be a ‘best book’.
‘Listen,’ I pick a book from the top of the pile near Len and sit on the floor. The group remain on their chairs, watching me curiously.

I read Fizz the Fire Engine out loud to this group of addicts, thieves, fraudsters, drug dealers, and villains. I read it the way I read it to my son when he was barely walking, and this was his favourite book. It’s a quick story, even with all the sound effects, and as I’m reading I’m aware (because you need to be aware of your audience) of their nervous looks, their smirks and grins at my expense but also that they GOT the story, that they GOT the point of enjoying yourself, of throwing yourself into something as small and as vital as story for your child. Reading with your children isn’t a chore, it’s a gift.

Safeground’s Fathers Inside is a parenting course for men in prison. We cover parental rights, choices, dealing with your children’s schoolwork – everything, which includes reading with your kids. The five-week course is intensive and challenging, made doubly so by the fact that we use drama in every session. The men create scenarios where they tell the truth, where they role-play stories because that’s how we learn. It asks an awful lot of them in a place where honesty is rarely rewarded. They get stick for coming to courses such as this. It’s not a parent-friendly environment. Parenting? What you need that for? What’s wrong with you?
The group appreciate the different space Fathers Inside gives them.
‘We can leave all that shit on the wing,’ they say, despite my often having to cajole them back from discussing ‘wing shit’.
‘Here we can be ourselves. We’re all dads.’ Marco looks around the room. ‘That’s what we have in common. Before this I would have walked on by if he (he nods at Len) were getting trouble. Now I’ve got his back.’ He grins ‘We’d even help you, Davo.’
In the class they can see themselves and each other as fathers and individuals rather than other men caught in the same trap. Part of the value of the course is to remind the men of that other identity, help them strengthen it as only then will they be able to resist the offender label, and all its harmful negativity, which is the bedrock of prison life.

The big carrot for the course is a family day where they put on a performance for their families. There is much excitement that they will get five hours with their families, twice as long as a normal visit. This is also a source of stress. Knowing that your family and your relationship with them will be on view: this can unravel some of the stories the men tell about themselves. One man, right from the start, tells us just what a fabulous dad he is, how much he loves his kids, how much he does for them but as we get closer to the performance he has to acknowledge that nobody is coming to see him. To his credit he carries on playing his part so the performance can continue. Len, who has a three-month-old son, tells me that he would also like to contact his children from a previous relationship.

The men’s wives and partners rarely work. This can appear conservative, for all their wild drug tales the men want to keep traditional male and female roles. And yet they have never, not a single one, raised a hand to their children. Partly this is because so much of the childcare is left to their partners; they prefer to be the one who brings fun and toys. It is also because so many remember being beaten by their fathers (and mothers). Traditional, and yet they can confound my expectations. When one man said he would never read to his children as that was ‘a woman’s job’, the group freeze him out.

The group discuss how hard it is to keep family contact going. ‘Sometimes you just don’t want to see them, you know.’
‘Gotta do your own time’ – nods Zen-Bobby who misses one session a week to attend meditation. This helps with his temper though Zen-Bobby is adamant that he has no problem dealing with prison. ‘Sleep your way through. 23hr bang-up? Lovely. You go into a kind of trance. When they let you out of the cell properly a whole week might have gone by.’
For these men it is one thing to do your time. Most accept this. It is something that must be got through, slept through, something to drug yourself through, fight and paranoia yourself through. Being conscious of your family on the outside, of being helpless to help them, of not being the provider: that is hard. Too hard for many. Fathers Inside offers different ways in which they can maintain relationships.

Back to the books. ‘This is a bit near.’ Marco holds up When Dad was Away (Liz Weir/Karin Littlewood). Len has got Visiting Day (Jacqueline Woodson/James E Ransome).


Both books are about families who have a father in prison
‘Fuck. I never knew there were books like this.’
Freddie takes the book. Freddie copies out the whole book and adds drawings of his own for his own children. One of the drug dealers reveals a life long love of Dr Seuss. We show them books that help dyslexics, books that deal with all kinds of issues such as loss, moving house, worries etc.

‘I never realised books were more than stories. That when I read to my kids we’re also learning about each other,’ says John with genuine wonder.

John loves Dinkin Dings (Guy Bass). ‘Can I borrow it? ‘John is a habitual thief: sellatape, pens, paper vanish when he’s in the room. I never see him do it. But if I ask for items to be returned he will unashamedly bring them back. ‘Didn’t think they were important.’
Dinkin Dings will not come back but I want to believe he will read it down the phone to his son. The phones, the over-expensive, non-private phones where everyone’s family drama is broadcast down the wing.

On the day of the performance the group are excited. It’s the big day and they are also terrified.
‘You have no idea how scary this is for us.’
It goes well. Each family get a gift bag with books from Give A Book, a charity that supports many book-gifting projects inside and outside prison

That’s a long time they say with both apprehension and satisfaction. ‘I don’t think I spent that long with my kids before.’ If you’re out working or dealing it tends to take you away from your families. On the day the families love the performance, and mingle. They sit in couples, hands in hand (forbidden on usual visits) baby asleep on a blanket.

A long visit is something that they have all looked forward to but it’s also a long time to sit with people who inhabit a different world. Families also have long journeys. One family arrive hours early because of the trains. Others have to start back with tired and hungry children.

At the end only two of our group are still sitting with their families.
I’m enjoying watching Len and Marco with their babies. Len will be back on building sites soon, minding his temper. He seems happy and when his girlfriend goes to get a cup of tea, he is looking after his three-month-old baby. The baby isn’t immediately impressed and keeps looking around for his mother. I watch Len to see if he will wait for his girlfriend to return. The baby is grizzling now but Len’s still smiling as he reaches into the book bag and pulls out a book. His baby son looks curious before resuming his grizzling, twisting round in the direction his mother took. Len picks up his son, places him on his knee, balances the book and begins to read.

* All names have been changed


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

‘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.
‘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.

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.


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?

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.


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

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.


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

Reading Headlines

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


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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

Scan 1
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.


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.

Scan 2

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


A World Without Libraries

March 28, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


This week we got the news that Shropshire are going the way of so many authorities and sliding their public funded libraries into volunteer control. I don’t think my son would be so much of a reader without access to public libraries. Sure, he would be able to read, and read well, but I’m not sure the compulsion to read for pleasure would be there. I know some kids who will pick up a dog-eared Enid Blyton just to have something to read but I don’t think he’s like that. He’s been brought up in a world where the presentation of narrative and knowledge is constantly updating. My childhood world was of repeats, rigid schedules, and limited choice; rereading books and comics came as naturally as watching TV repeats. Now the narrative world presents endless choices, and being able to select 10 new titles a week from the local library was a gift. No other word for it. It was a beautiful, heady, absorbing, and delightful gift. Ten titles every week for the first decade of his life. Hundreds of books every year – that experience would never have been possible without a public library.
Sometimes we got the same book out again and again. We went through whole series: Elmer, The Little Princess, Amazing Machines, Blue Kangaroo, Horrid Henry, Beast Quest, Scream Street, Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Skulduggery, and many that I have forgotten until I see them in a bookshop or sale and I smile when the words slip into my head. Round the Corner, Not Far Away. Bing begins another Day.

I remember the delight on his face when he saw Fizz the Fire Engine, the book he knew so well from the library, in a bookshop, and we had to buy it because he wouldn’t let it go. Not just endless storybooks; in those pre literate years, we had ‘looking at books,’ generally of vehicles; emergency, space and military being the most popular. So much knowledge that you absorb at your own pace, as your own mind grew, without fear of being monitored.

Public libraries should be more than branded coffee and free Wi-Fi. At our beloved library in Bishops Castle, we were always made welcome. Generally we had ordered our books online beforehand, and after a while it became normal for my son to rush in, drop off the books he’d finished with, and dart behind the library counter to see if any books for him had arrived. We would go in the early evenings, so we could go to the pub afterwards to look/read at our books. Another family would often come in at the same time. They would drive down in a mud-spattered Landy; Dad still in wellies and work clothes, the little one in pyjamas complete with teddy bear, and the two other children in school uniform. The Dad would usher them in, it was never a long stop, they knew what they wanted: books for bedtime, books for school, books for adventure and books for reading together. The nearest bookshop was an hour drive away and might as well have been on the moon. We all knew the library was the place we could dip into knowledge and dreams. Choose ten. Every week.

337 public libraries have closed since 2010