“Crows, Cons and Congregations”

Date of writing : 29/07/2014

There’s something poetic about doves making a nest in razor wire. Looking from my ground floor window across the yard, I can watch the pair that has decided to take up residence as they continue to add to their construction. Our wing (F) forms a ‘V’ with the adjacent E wing, and at the point of the wedge of yard between us, there is a significant triangle of grass dotted with clover and buttercups. My window is approximately in the middle of the Southern side of the grassy point, and from here I can watch a surprising variety of winged wildlife as it comes and goes. We’re out in the country here, and standing on the grass looking roughly East, I can see the tops of a row of trees – which I presume forms a field boundary – including what looks like an ancient dead oak that’s a favourite perch for crows. The smell of damp fields drifts over the wall.

We’re frequently visited by common birds such as starlings and sparrows, but there’s also a large population of pied wagtails, along with the aforementioned collared doves and crows. Swallows must have a nest nearby, as I’ve seen a whole family of juveniles, recently fledged, swooping around the relatively low roofs of the two-storey wings. One of the people I’ve come to talk to quite a lot (whom I’ll introduce later) often puts out bread for the birds, which seems to keep them coming. There are also a number of budgies on the wing (not in the sense that they’re flying – well, you know what I mean) whose chirruping can be heard during the quieter times. Perhaps the most impressive avian life nearby, however, is the large number of buzzards that can frequently be seen soaring over the fields near the crow tree.

Things are much more predictable here. The weekday morning unlock time (looking at my notes so far) is 0736 +/- 3 minutes on around 90% of days, with the rest of the day similarly reliable. There have been no unexpected lock-ups as yet, and the minimum out-of-cell time I’ve had in a day thus far is a little under 5 hours (compared to less than half an hour at HMP Anonymous). The normal time out once I get a job will be more like 10 hours. As it is, I’m frequently getting 7½ hours, and it helps that that is spread over the day including evening association until about half past seven. Without fail, the yard has been open twice a day for at least half an hour each time (but often more including for a total of 2½ hours on Saturday and Sunday) on a predictable alternating early/late schedule. This means I’ve been able several times to sit on the damp grass and take the morning air at 8am while I eat my toast – yes, toast! – or lie in the afternoon sun and watch the bees and hoverflies from close perspective.

Things are calmer here too; the population is more settled. This has the potential to make things more boring, but then I don’t think the excitement of fights, ongoing uncertainty, or startling unpredictability are things to be nostalgic about. The wide range of ages makes for a more balanced atmosphere, and also a number of very interesting characters. I don’t interact with Colin much outside our cell, but that seems to suit us both fine. Two people I do talk to quite a bit are Big Sam and Larry.

Big Sam is in his early thirties, 6ft something, built like an ox, and sports a number of apparently unfinished tattoos. He’s just been suspended from his job in the workshops for a single well-aimed punch at someone who, so far as I can gather, wasn’t entirely unprovoking. We’ve had conversations about why (from my perspective) violence isn’t really the answer, but I think our perspectives differ fairly fundamentally. Despite his disposition in this regard – and his continued complaints about perceived injustices – the staff seem strangely to be almost resignedly entertained by him. I think there’s something about him that’s just likeable – there’s even a certain affable honesty about his occasional tendency to swing at someone who’s been winding him up.

Larry is in his late sixties, and he and Sam were moved here together from the same prison. He’s a talented harmonica player, a great singer, and we’ve shared several blues improv sessions. He’s got quite a skill with matchstick modelling, and has now nearly finished his most recent creation, which is a beach-hut about 6 inches wide and perfect in it’s detail. The walls are beautifully barge-boarded, there are individual matchstick shingles on the roof, and the joists beneath are structurally complete with metal(lic) plates at their intersections. Big Sam calls him ‘Dad’ … but then, a lot of the time he calls me ‘Cecil’. If I were to tell you that it’s one of this pair that keeps his bread to feed to the birds, you might assume it to be Larry, but you’d be wrong.

Another of my semi-regular associates is The Captain. An Irish ex-jockey – who can’t be more than five feet tall, and has long grey hair and a long grey beard – The Captain got his nickname from the black eye patch he sports in his ID card photo. It also helps that one of his legs although not wooden is largely titanium (having been crushed by a horse) and he has a hobbling piratical gait, which is usually supported by a stick. I’ve been working with him on a couple of songs he’s written that have a distinctly folky leaning. They’re actually quite good. Despite his monocular disposition (being living proof that it is indeed all fun and games until someone loses an eye), and the resultant lack of depth perception this implies, he’s still somehow startlingly good at pool. He’s been giving me some useful coaching, and my game may finally be improving.

The Chaplaincy here is very active, with the opportunity to attend one thing or another at least once a day. I’ve not yet made it to morning prayer, as it clashes with toast time – something which in itself could be considered sacred – but I go to the weekend services and a couple of things in the week. Thankfully, nobody has asked for a concise statement of my beliefs, as I think that insofar as they’re in any way settled, many are probably quite heretical to say the least. Anyway, it hasn’t stopped me being collared to provide the music on Sundays, and I’ve been discovering the perils of attempting to keep sixty people to the rhythm I’m playing rather than the one they’re imagining. We managed to meet in the middle several times this week. I think turning up the volume might help – the pickup on my guitar works well, and it seems it’ll be getting more use than I expected. In a back room, there’s a dilapidated drum kit, some microphones and stands, numerous amplifiers and a plausible PA system. There’s talk of getting a band together – I might accidentally end up in a Christian Rock band if I’m not careful … …


Now You Are Four


Each morning, as the fog subsides,
turned to the wall, hiding my eyes, I lie,
as sharp echoes climb to find my mind
– but now I’m deaf as well as blind.

My heavy head can hold you then –
you two – and through each breath I send
my love, my hope your day ahead
will be woven with a golden thread
of security, and love, and joy;
adventure for my girl, my boy.
I think of brightness in your eyes,
the wonder there that’s written wide,
and all you have that’s yet to come,
because you’re still so very young.

And for the one who keeps you safe,
who holds you both with one embrace
– eyes edged with sleep and troubled face:
a shadow of a frown in place –
I pray today she can be strong,
and see past everything that’s wrong,
to find the tide of love that hides
inside and pour with heart held wide
unbounded love to fill you up,
and overflow your brimming cups –
to give all that she has to give
while keeping what she needs to live:
some small measure of perfect peace,
that she might find her own release.

Then through my day of doors and gates,
I drift with time as memories wait
to ambush while I’m off my guard,
like starlings swooping in the yard.
A scent, a sight, a simple phrase,
reminds me of an upturned gaze;
the calls of rooks, the smell of books,
are there for me like baited hooks.

But on my bunk, when day is done,
I pray your rest has long since come,
and send my love beyond my reach
to plant a kiss on each cool cheek
– and wonder as I’m drifting, then,
if you’ll be in my dreams again.


Date of writing : 10/07/2014
Well, I’m writing this on a sensibly sized desk, listening to the wonderfully epic 1978 album ‘Cyclone’ by Tangerine Dream, here in my new pad at HMP Different. I had some idea I might be shipped here this week – albeit only through rumours I’d had to investigate for myself – but was still slightly surprised when I was woken at 8 am on Tuesday and told I had an hour to get my things together – partly because people often only get half an hour. Although I’d had the foresight to partially de-clutter over the weekend, I still found myself with two large and heavy sacks as well as a guitar. Having come in with little more than the clothes I stood up in, it’s amazing to see how things build up. Once I’d been through reception to collect stored property (Yay! CDs!), I’d gained a third bag containing some clothes (which I’d had handed in while on remand), a suit, and a pair of black shoes. Altogether, two people could carry all this a short distance, but wouldn’t want to go far. We had one trolley between five of us, so getting where we needed to be was troublesome – particularly as some had far more than me.

As usual, everything was slow, and there was a lot of waiting around, but that gave me a chance to talk with the others, and exchange “Well, I’ve heard that…” stories about our destination. In our group was Danny, the ‘Wing Insider’ whom I met on my first day on the wing. He’s been in for 17 years now, and has seen most of it before. We’re very different, but over the last few months I think we’ve come to a mutual grudging respect whereby neither of us really wants to admit he actually quite likes the other in spite of our differences; Ringo is someone I’ve talked to quite a bit before – being as he was a part of the interesting predominantly gay subculture of the wing – and I was pleased to know he’d be here too; twenty-something Mahmood is one of the ever-complaining kind. Within less than 24 hours here he’d already irritated the staff enough to be known and noted for all the wrong reasons. I remember him mostly for the time I watched him beating someone’s head against a Perspex window boldly emblazoned with the slogan ‘Zero Tolerance to Violence’ (an attack for which he subsequently gained himself an extra six months.) The fifth of our party was the extremely elderly gentleman whom Mahmood has decided to call ‘Father Ted’ (although I suspect he was actually thinking of Father Jack, but I thought it wise to refrain from pointing this out).

This diverse band was duly loaded into the van, along with our small mountain of possessions. I noted gratefully as I mounted the steps that my guitar had apparently called shotgun, and was riding safely up front. I’d have been happier if they’d put the seatbelt on it though. I should probably confess at this point to socially engineering the theft of a Chaplaincy-stamped book. Often, the best way to hide things is in plain sight, even to the extent of actually drawing attention to them. So, after carrying it in my hand through three pat-downs, a drugs dog, and a metal detector, I’m now the apparent owner of said book. I shall probably post it back when I’ve finished with it, as Sister Martha obtained it for me personally and was very keen for me to read it, so I don’t feel too bad. So far it’s made interesting reading – not that I got to read much of it in the van, as I was too busy trying to hold down the thin, white bread sandwiches that had kindly been provided.

Motion sickness has long been a problem for me, and there’s a lay-by in Cumbria that may to this day still possess a Harrods bag of my childhood vomit. It’s mostly only a problem when I can’t see the road ahead, but sadly they wouldn’t let me join my guitar on the front seat for some reason. I struggled a bit until the motorway, and then alternated between enjoying the side view (of fields, trees, and power stations), and closing my eyes while breathing steadily to get through the cold sweats and tingling arms without losing my lunch. The last few miles on winding country roads were the worst, and we arrived in what I consider to be the nick of time. The journey proper probably took around an hour, not including a fairly long wait in the van at the end (Mahmood started his complaining before we’d even got inside by banging on the walls and shouting). I was the last one off, and was greeted at the small and unassuming door of ‘Arrivals’ by a fairly friendly group of G4S staff, this being a privately run establishment. A similarly friendly black Labrador gave me the once-over, deciding on balance that I was probably okay (for the short contact with him, I’ve found a disproportionate number of his hairs on my stuff), and I was ushered into a holding box with the others.

A second van was gradually unloaded of its six passengers, this one having come from significantly further afield. The small box became quickly crowded, but soon enough we were taken out one volunteer at a time. The nominal leader of the second crew decided it was fair that our lot should go first as we’d got in first, which I thought was jolly pleasant of him. As it turns out, I’m not quite sure why they put us in the box at all because when I came out I found those who’d gone before me just wandering about or sitting on the conveniently located sofas. I was fairly well searched, answered various questions about my basic details, and then joined the others. The whole Arrivals area had a sort of provisional feel to it – like some back-corridor maintenance section of an office building, with bare ventilation ducts on the ceiling, and various power control boxes and the like scattered about. There was also a kettle and a fridge, and we were directed to make ourselves at home while we waiting for … whatever it was we were waiting for.

An earnest Scotsman – who for the sake of national stereotyping I’ll call Jock – took us through some induction forms and answered various questions that were asked. Jock is a so-called Red Band inmate, also known as a Trustee. As these names suggest, he wears a red band (on his arm) containing a special ID card, and is considered to be trustworthy. The Red Band allows him to be in most areas of the prison if he has a good enough reason, and Red Band workers are left relatively unsupervised in a number of places. This includes the gardens that surround most of the octopus-like spread of the wings (where they cut the grass or tend to the shrubs and flower beds), and the kitchen gardens, where there are a number of polytunnels and some casual-looking chickens. Red Band is a status to which I aspire. All in good time.

Suddenly, there was food. This took me aback on several counts. First, it was hot, which is rare for food on reception. Secondly, it contained several identifiable vegetables. Thirdly, it also contained significant pieces of red meat (we eventually decided it was ovine not bovine) that were well cooked and didn’t have the consistency of shoe leather. Fourthly, it tasted quite good – enough to tip me over to the side of actively enjoying it. “If this is the shape of things to come” thought I, “then things could be looking up.” There was even the opportunity for seconds, and blueberry muffins for dessert.

I had earlier colluded with Ringo that we should indicate (when we had the opportunity) that we would like to share a cell. Here, 75% of inmates are in single cells, but new arrivals tend to start in doubles before being moved to singles as they become available. But it transpired that the available spaces were dotted around the wings, with no doubles unoccupied. So we were scattered to the wings – sadly without our belongings as yet – and I was the only one of the eleven arrivals to come to F wing. Here I was introduced to my new bunk buddy, the white-bristle-moustachioed Colin, of around sixty. There are far worse people I could be bunked with I have to admit. He’s inoffensive and considerate, and enjoys a good (/bad) pun. But I do find myself missing Harry, whom I’d just got to know pretty well and we had quite a lot in common.

It’s strange how quickly some things become normal, like suddenly being required to share a confined space (including a toilet) with a stranger for the next twelve hours without prior introduction, knowing only that they’re a convicted criminal. I used to say I’d struggle to go back to house-sharing as I did in my student days, but I’m genuinely unbothered now as I sit writing not four feet from Colin’s loudly snoring form. I’m finding a patience and tolerance I didn’t think I had – and not the gritted-teeth sort either. Having said that, I do look forward to getting a single cell: I’ve not had a night to myself since December.

I’ll be writing more once I’ve got a better measure of the place, but I think this is long enough for one post…..