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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


PS the men wrote their own piece