“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 … …

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