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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.
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.
Tunnel in the Sky
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.

Unknown-6Unknown-7cyborgDunePhil K DickStainless Steel Ratimages-4

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.