“Mesh Monkeys and a Move”

Date of writing : 16/06/2014

Meanwhile, low-level unrest continues around the prison.  A month or so ago, it even reached our wing proper, with half a dozen refusing to go back to their cells one Tuesday evening.  Having climbed onto the mesh (which is at first floor level), they found themselves not quite sure what to do next.  Speaking to one of them afterwards he admitted feeling a bit of a lemon once he was up there.  It seems there was no one thing that drove them to it, but rather a collection of small niggles that was different for each of them.  For half of them, their hearts weren’t fully in it, and they came down after an hour.  The remainder clung on though.  The officers opened all the outside vents – it was a cool night, and the protesters were unprepared in T-shirts – and sat on the landing at net level, comfortable with a big box of drinks and snacks which they consumed in full view.

So the remaining three sat, laid, stood and occasionally bounced on the mesh, feeling cold and a bit silly.  Stubbornness seemed to be keeping them there.  From my vantage point below them – looking through the gaps round my door and past the flap which had been left ajar – I could see they were actually chatting fairly amicably with the officers, and everyone looked pretty bored.  After a few hours though, the cavalry arrived.  Specialists called in from a nearby town, they carried riot shields and wore helmets and serious expressions.  It didn’t take too long for the mesh moneys to concede defeat.  After a little over four hours in total, they came down without having to be dragged, and for their trouble were handcuffed and carried off to The Block.  All the while they were videoed by one of the specialists for the sake of evidence (should it be needed), and for the avoidance of spurious claims of brutality.

Once again, the prison service is in the news this week, with Chris Grayling defending his growing catalogue of errors as already overcrowded prisons are instructed to somehow accommodate yet more inmates, and officers recently in receipt of significant redundancy packages are re-recruited to tackle massive staffing problems.  Discontent as a result of grayling’s policies continues to grow, yet he shows no sign of changing course.  After decades of progressive reform, the prison system has gone considerably backwards, and if concessions are not make then I can see things heading back to the bad old days of the Strangeways riots.  I don’t like to state a political point too strongly, but in summary, Chris Grayling simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. 

Moving on, DF has been released into the wild once more, having done his (relatively short) time.  This left me with the usual dilemma of whether to get someone I already know in with me – and risk a bad choice that I could blame myself for – or to let the roll of the dice bring me what it will.  I had been considering rescuing the latest of Ahmed’s cellmates, but fate did this for me when he (Ahmed) was abruptly taken away to a secure hospital before DF left.  This had been mooted before, as I’ve mentioned, and I certainly have mixed feelings about it.  Much as I can’t imagine him managing on the outside, I hope he doesn’t just get lost in the system and never get out.  Anyway, I decided to choose. Harry.  After a brief interrogation about his daily routine and TV/radio habits, I concluded he was a good option.

Harry is a little over 60, and is generally quite peaceful.  He doesn’t watch any of the soaps, listens to Radio 4, Radio 3, Classic FM and sometimes Planet Rock, and doesn’t have any particularly bad habits that I’ve noticed.  Although he is a fairly big sports fan – which I’d usually consider a drawback – he’s quite content to watch cycling, football, or cricket with the sound off and Radio 3/4 on, which is absolutely fine by me.  A couple of days ago we were unexpectedly moved up to the 3s landing (the second floor) into a cell at the far end of the wing.  This has its pros and cons.  We were previously on the ground floor where it’s nice and cool, but a bit noisy (cell 1-11, or “all the ones” as I called it when people asked where to find me).  Up here, things are in theory quieter, but the height of summer may present temperature problems.  I’ve decided to call this cell “John” as it’s 3-16.

The biggest plus up here is the view.  We’re on the North side, which is the edge of the prison.  From my bunk, I can see a row of houses perhaps fifty yards away – a nice reminder of the real world – and leaning forward a little reveals a long row of trees at the foot of their gardens.  Standing at the window though, I can see over the yard to a suburban sprawl that at night becomes a constellation of shimmering street lights.  Beyond this, the horizon – probably two or three miles North-West – has a slight hill with a field topped by a row of poplars.  Best of all, I’ve just had the pleasure of watching a beautiful sunset, the first I’ve seen in six months.  I’ll be making the most of these in the next month or so, as I suspect after that they’ll begin disappearing behind F wing.  Perhaps it’s a sign of mental progress that rather than focussing on the poignancy of such transience, I’m appreciating the way that beauty can be emphasised by impermanence.





Date of writing : 13/06/2014

I promised you news of Edward Woodlouse, and I’m sure he’d be pleased to gain such fame – had he any grasp of the concept, and had he not already shuffled his many small legs off this mortal coil.  I shall tell you his short story nevertheless.  We met one day in the yard, where he was wandering around looking a little lost and was in danger of being trampled underfoot.  Recalling a woodlouse I had befriended as a child (who acquired the name Bert, for reasons I won’t go into), I thought we might keep each other company in the quiet evenings of the wing.  So I gathered some soil and decaying vegetable matter from the edges of the yard, and brought him in.  Gordon gave me a transparent salad box for his house, into which I melted some air-holes and built what I hoped was a comfortably damp home for him.  I sat this on a shelf, and kept an eye on him, bemoistening his home periodically.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not completely sure what a woodlouse is supposed to actually ‘do’ on a day-to-day basis.  I’d noticed Edward was mostly just hiding in his damp pile whenever I looked, and I wondered if there was perhaps some aspect of his environment he might be lacking.  So I took to the library.  Being a small library, I wasn’t particularly surprised to find a dearth of books on woodlouse husbandry.  I’m not sure what number this is in The Dewey Decimal System, and knowing the generally overburdened disposition of the librarian, I thought it better not to ask.  So I approached the multi-volume, multi-purpose World Book encyclopaedia.  The entry on woodlice was sadly short – bringing to mind the entry for Earth in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – but it at least told me that woodlice are nocturnal by habit.  Discovering this, I have to say, made me feel a little guilty, knowing how often I’d extracted him from his daytime repose for my own entertainment.  After a little thought though, I decided that lower crustaceans probably don’t actually sleep as such, and that I was excessively anthropormorphising.  The brief encyclopaedia entry also suggested I was along the right lines with my supply of dampness and decaying organic matter, so reassured, I continued as I had been.  We had some good conversations.

Alas, it was only a few short weeks before one day I found Edward unresponsive in his mulch.  He looked peaceful though, curled as he was into a small ball.  Gordon suggested we should give him a proper burial, and it seemed only right.  Torn as I was in judging what denomination Edward may have been, I concluded that had he been religious he probably would have been a Pagan of some description, (but as it never came up in our discourse, I didn’t know).  Gordon agreed to perform the ceremony, and so it was that a small group of those that had known him in life came to a small patch of accumulated soil and grit at the edge of the yard.  We dug him a tiny grave with a lolly-stick.  Gordon cast a circle with a matchstick wand, and acknowledging the deities of the four compass points, we committed his worldly remains to continue the circle of life, while his multi-legged immortal soul went off to join the great crustaceous isopod collective in the sky.  I’m not sure how long woodlice generally live, but I can’t help but wonder whether poor husbandry may have brought about his early demise.  I’ll probably never know.


“Highly Strung Paperclips”

Date of writing : 10/06/2014

I’m both surprised and delighted to be able to tell you that I now have a guitar.  I had begun to be concerned that the Wing Governor’s imminent retirement might render worthless my months of attrition.  However, it seems he was true to his word, and almost as a parting shot he personally placed the order form into the hands of the relevant administrative officer, issuing orders that I was to be allowed it on his direct authority.  The way he phrased it to me was that “his reputation was at stake” in ensuring he delivered on a final promise before he left.  He’ll be sadly missed, as he was actually a very reasonable man – although many officers said he was too soft.  It’s probably an indication of the incumbent’s contrasting style that after three weeks I’ve still not seen him on the wing, nor do I even know his name.

But so it was that not long after the Governor’s departure, I was called to reception.  This is something that happens erratically and without notice, usually at the weekend.  As I’d ordered a second lot of five CDs some weeks earlier, I assumed it was to collect these; after so much administerial prevarication in the preceding months, it didn’t even cross my mind it would be the guitar.  So when the large and approximately triangular box was handed to me, instead of being immediately overcome with happiness, I simply expressed my discontent that it wasn’t a pile of CDs! – such is the confusion of unfulfilled expectation.  “CDs?” said the officer “It says here they came through the post, so they’re Not For Issue”.  Pausing a moment, I took a deep breath, and with a feeling of déjà vu – noting at this point that I was essentially dealing with a character from a Kafka novel – I turned and walked away, knowing this was not an argument I could win.

Thankfully, the growing realisation of long-awaited guitar ownership quickly overcame my CD-related disappointment.  I didn’t even wait to get back to the wing before extracting it from the packaging.  I quickly had it tuned up and was playing it in the surprisingly enhancing acoustic environment of the holding box (where I had to wait while I waited for others to be processed).  I have to say, I’m impressed.  Having paid only £80 for it, I was expecting something pretty basic and uninspiring, but I’ve been unexpectedly pleased.  It’s a Martin Smith (of whom I’ve never previously heard) Chinese-made electro-acoustic with a high-fret cutaway.  The pickup is a basic under-bridge piezo type and is unlikely to see much use in here, but is good to have nonetheless.  It has a rosewood fret board with inlaid mother-of-pearl swallows on the key frets, each with its wings in a different flight position.  This could be tacky, but it’s nicely done and I think the effect is aesthetically quite good.   The front of the body is pale natural wood with a gloss lacquer, and an inlaid pearlescent trim around the edge.  Around the sound hole there’s a similar pattern but close inspection reveals this is a decal rather than an inlay.  There is no scratchplate, but I’m more of a picker than a strummer, and what strumming I do is well-targeted so I like the neatness of its absence.  The back and sides are glossy black, as is the neck and headstock.

More important than all of this is of course the sound.  I am pleasantly surprised at how well balanced it is.  The guitar I’d been playing around town before I came in has seen better days.  I’ve had it well over twenty years and it’s been around a lot of campfires and damp tents in that time, and fallen off at least one table.  The sound has become, well, muddy – even with new strings.  Now that I’ve adjusted the truss rod (with the help of a convenient guitar-building inmate) the action on the Martin Smith is consistent and easy-playing.  It produces a sound that’s bright without being too harsh, and holds enough of the mellow bass notes to be warm without any excessive booming resonance.  In summary, I’m delighted!  Much entertainment has already been had – by me and indeed others – and my fingertips are regaining their distinctive calluses.   Sadly, I’ve already broken two strings, but in so doing have been amazed to find it possible to repair them using paperclips – something I’d not previously considered would even be worthy trying.  As with many things here though, it seems necessity really is the mother of invention.


“Me, Myself, and Myers-Briggs”

Date of writing : 14/05/2014

“To educate in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society”      Theodore Roosevelt

Prison gives a person a lot of time to think.  Of course that can be a double-edged sword, but I feel in general that I’m making positive mental progress – albeit with the occasional troubling but probably necessary furlough to the edge of mental coherence.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way I think: in particular what comes naturally to me, and what doesn’t.  I thought I’d write a little about it here, so if you’re not fond of my introspections, you may want to skip this and wait for the next post!

Having spent something like 22 years in what passes for formal education, you’d think I’d have learnt a thing or two.  I have of course learned many things, mostly about science and mathematics and computing.  Facts and methods, algorithms and coding, numerical problem-solving – all very useful: I didn’t get where I am without them.  I did, however, get where I am today without paying much attention to the other end of the spectrum.  And you know where it is I am today.

By an accident of genetics, I was largely able to cruise through school without putting in too much effort.  To the continued frustration of my teachers (and sometimes my fellow pupils), I was lazy and often disruptive in lessons, but usually managed to pull it together when I knew it counted. “Could do better”, and “Has a tendency to rest on his laurels” were phrases mentioned in school reports and at parents’ evenings.  This pattern continued well into my undergraduate years, and the irony of my occasional low-level disruption during teacher training sessions was not lost on me.  In short, for a long time I didn’t really have to grow up and put some actual effort in: I just carried on cruising and getting away with it.  I became used to not having to work particularly hard at anything: I assumed I was just naturally good at stuff.  There are some things, however, that don’t get tested in exams.

Permit me, if you will, to divert for a moment in order to better explain myself.  You may or may not be familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI.  This is a kind of ‘personality test’ that breaks people down into one of sixteen types, with particular innate preferences in terms of the way they look at and handle the world.  Naturally, there are more than sixteen kinds of people; the reality is of course nuanced and complex.  But in my eyes, the MBTI gives a useful framework for describing and working with people’s preferences.  Having encountered many personality profiling schemes over the years – from Enneagrams to Belbin Team Roles, to obscure things little better than horoscopes – I could not have been more sceptical when I was first introduced to MBTI, around ten years ago.  However after experimentally applying its principles in practical contexts with positive results, I gradually became a convert.  Those of you who know me well will know I have a bullsh*t detector that, if anything, is somewhat over-sensitive.  So, bear with me if you’re raising an eyebrow at this.

I won’t give a fully detailed description of MBTI here, as a quick search will turn up plenty of info if you’re interested.  But in essence, it’s based on establishing on which side of four dichotomies a person falls.  In brief these are: –

Introversion/Extroversion (I/E) :  Where do you get your energy from: are you energised by social interaction (E) or do you seek time alone to recharge (I)?

Sensing/Intuition (S/N) : When taking in information, do you focus on the details (S) or the big picture (N)?

Thinking/Feeling (T/F) : When making decisions, do you predominantly use facts and logic (T), or do you consider the feelings of those involved to be more important (F)?

Judging/Perceiving(J/P) : Do you plan things well in advance and have a tidy desk (J), or do you wait and see what happens as you go along (P)?

With at least one of these you’re probably thinking, “Well, a bit of both – it kind of depends.”  I, for example, am relatively middling on the I/E scale, but if pressed would come down on the side of Introversion.  However, when it comes to the T/F dichotomy, I generally come out on the extreme T end.  In each case, it’s about what you prefer to do, and being able to work outside your preference where necessary is a desirable thing.  I‘ve personally found that the older people get, the more difficult they tend to be to pin down on the dichotomies.  Moreover, I’d go so far as to suggest that a balanced position on these scales might be indicative of maturity and could possibly be something for which to aim.  I do believe however, that people retain the framework of their preferences even as they learn to be comfortable working outside of them.

Overall, I come out as an ISTP, also known as ‘The Mechanic’.  As much as descriptions of this kind are prone to confirmation bias, I find it hard to disagree that I’m a pragmatic problem solver with sensation-seeking tendencies and a general disregard for rules unless it suits me and/or I can use them to my advantage.  Interestingly, a small-scale study of inmates in US prisons showed a significant over-representation of my type (I’d provide a link here, but I forget where I found the paper and lack of Internet means I can’t look for it.  Search for “MBTI and criminality”, or something).  I’m not saying this is in any way excuses my position – MBTI is a description and not a destiny – it’s just an interesting observation.

So, where am I going with this?  Well, it gives me a helpful language with which to express a few things.  I’m beginning to understand that my extreme T is probably not a healthy thing.  I have also been guilty of focussing far too heavily on concrete immediately observable reality, and ignoring my more intuitive side (i.e. disregarding N in favour of S).  Psychiatric reports prepared for the Court highlighted my difficulties in empathising and a poor understanding of my own emotions.  I’ve never been that great with eye contact either – the psychiatrist described it as ‘emotional response anxiety’.  The phrase ‘autistic tendencies’ was used, but I’d sooner describe it as a lack of emotional aptitude combined with a lazy complacency.  I would have probably done well to work on these areas of weakness, but instead I have been sadly blind to my ineptitudes.

The last year has been quite a rollercoaster, to use a cliché.  My emotions became at times so intense that there was no avoiding them.  Because that’s what I’ve often done in the past: rather than dealing with feelings, I’d dive into any kind of sensation-seeking to distract myself – even to the extent of making small explosions in my garden.  I’d describe this as ‘cathartic’, but ‘avoidance strategy’ would be more accurate.  (I should note at this point that I do hold a pyrotechnics qualification, and thankfully had tolerant neighbours, in case you were concerned about either).  I also had other, more destructive avoidance strategies, which ultimately led me to a 12-step Fellowship last summer.  Now, 12-step programmes are not much like the way they’re often presented on TV and in films: they all have a fundamental spiritual component, which can present a challenge to Sensing-Thinking (ST) types – like me.

Spirituality, I believe, comes most naturally to Intuitive-Feeling (NF) types: it’s not something that’s easy to rationalise – although that’s not to imply that it’s in any way irrational.  But approaching spirituality from the same perspective one might use to solve an equation is like trying to understand what someone is thinking by dissecting their brain: you just end up with a messy pile of grey stuff that doesn’t really tell you anything.  (You also tend to upset the owner of the brain – at least for as long as they retain the capacity to be upset.)  My past attempts to examine spirituality mostly ran up against the rationality barrier: I couldn’t explain things succinctly as concepts that made any conventional ‘sense’, so I decided there was no sense to be had.  Like an Englishman on a Calais booze cruise, I just shouted louder in my own language, and when I still wasn’t understood, I simply concluded that all Frenchmen were idiots.

I have had some successes though, most notably on one occasion when I was 14.  I was on a family camping holiday in the Lake District, and a number of things fortuitously came together to give me what I’d describe as my first significant spiritual experience. Being the summer holidays, I didn’t have a great deal to worry about.  I’d finished lower secondary school, and hadn’t yet started GCSEs, so there were no looming exams or ongoing work to worry about.  I wasn’t entangled in any relationships, and things around me were generally harmonious.  The weather was good, and I had little to think about but the here and now.  I’d been reading parts of a book borrowed from my mother, called ‘Zen Without Zen Masters’, by Camden Benares (a name I’m now sure must have been made up as a mischievous message in true Zen style). It’s fairly accessible, as it’s in the form of short Zen stories – sometimes of only a few lines – and I spent a lot of the time at the campsite dipping in and out of it.

At some point, this got me into a state of mind that I’d describe as being incredibly present.  I somehow felt such that everything was a joy.  Even just sitting still was a pleasure: I even found myself volunteering to do the washing-up – and that‘s not a normal thing for a teenage boy to do, as anybody who has lived with one will tell you.  But I took joy in the way the bubbles slid from the blue plastic plates, and the way the water sounded – even just the texture of the brush.  It was an amazing state of mind to be in.  Naturally, it came and went, and varied in intensity (my mother’s holiday diary shows I had my anxieties in that time too).  But for a few days I managed to access the kind of peace that Eckhart Tolle four years later would describe as ‘The Power Of Now’.  Of course, at some point external circumstances unaligned themselves, we went back home, and it was no longer quite so easy to keep the feeling.  But the memory of it is still with me, heading for twenty years later.

In the intervening years I occasionally flirted with meditation and the like, with limited success, and even more limited commitment.  As for religion, as I’ve suggested before, I went from almost hostility (probably as a fearful reaction to my lack of understanding), through bafflement, to eventual acceptance that it seemed to work for other people and I should probably let them get on with it. But I had a feeling of lack sometimes, in the background, which I usually tried to cancel with the wrong things.  This comes back to avoidance strategies again – for me, spirituality and understanding of my own emotions go hand-in-hand, and empathy, compassion and creativity are all tangled up with it too. These are the things that properly feed the lack: the things that get me closer to the serenity of ‘Zen washing up’.  So these are the things that I’ve been trying to work on to fill the gaps.  All of which can be described as developing my withered and neglected Intuitive-Feeling side.

So, as I mentioned, last year I found myself faced with a flood of emotions I had no choice but to deal with.  In talking with others in this time, my normal mode of Introverted Thinking often spilled over into Extroverted Feeling – something I’m not used to, and I’m not really very good at. Indeed, not being well practiced in handling emotions in general, I initially approached the problem fairly passively and tangentially.  For example I’d sometimes listen to particular music that made me cry, because somehow that made me feel better.  Not too long after that, I managed to sidestep into related creativity: I’d write songs that made me cry, rehearse them until they didn’t make me cry any more, and then perform them at Open Mic nights.  (It was important to do it in that order, because tears as performance art require a particular kind of audience I didn’t think it likely I’d find in a city-centre bar on a midweek evening).

I also embarked on a photography project that lasted nearly six months.  This involved expressing something via a new photograph every day, which I’d post to my Flickr page (I’d put a link here, but it would dent my anonymity somewhat).  This had the advantage of getting me out of the flat every day, whatever my mood. It took me to some interesting and sometimes slightly unsettling places, including the darkness of derelict warehouses on the wrong side of the tracks, a disused railway tunnel, and a forgotten cave system under the city streets.  But most of my subjects were more every-day: a reflection in a puddle, a muddy boot, or a discarded gift tag on a pavement.  I found it made me look at things differently – on a good day it was as though I was seeing everything for the first time.

It was in the midst of all this that I came to the 12-step Fellowship.  I have to say I’m glad that I was already branching out and exploring my NF side, otherwise I would probably have had a lot more trouble with the concept of ‘a Power greater than myself’ having anything to do with my recovery.  It took me a long time to get past this language, and what it even means is still a complex question for me (as discussed in my Active Agnosticism post – 10th March 2014).  As it is, my Higher Power certainly isn’t any traditional notion of what you might call God.  But this is where my recent exploration of spirituality started, and it’s still very much an ongoing process, as you can probably tell.  It has been instrumental in expanding my self-awareness, and I believe it’s helping to build my empathy too: 12-step Fellowships have a foundation of mutual support, and we help ourselves by helping each other. The detailed examination of our past behaviour and how it has affected other people is also a fundamental part of the Steps.  Working on my Intuitive-Feeling side is probably going to be a lifelong project though. Sometimes it feels a bit like I’m learning to compensate for a disability … erm … is that what an autistic person would say…?

Anyway, I plan to write some more about the 12 steps – I feel I should try to counter the plot-assisting yet factually dubious presentations I’ve seen on screen.  I’ll also be carrying on with my more journal-like posts at the same time though.  I have quite a bit to write along those lines that I haven’t got round to just yet – I’ve rather got out of the rhythm recently.

Fear not!  I’ll tell you all about my pet woodlouse in good time … …