Date of writing : 16/11/2014
The Education department here at HMP Different offers a reasonable variety of courses, but the assertion in a recent edition of the prison newsletter that the sky is “quite literally” the limit, has turned out to be a scandalous exaggeration; indeed, my enquiries about learning to pilot a helicopter have been thus far met with blank stares and bafflement. One of the first things I noticed on my induction to Education some months ago was the amusing juxtaposition of signage on the door to one classroom. Just below a sign indicating that the room is for “Personal and Social Development” (and a friendly WordArt arch of letters saying “Welcome to your class!!”) is a notice that reads “WARNING: The carpet may be damp. Please take care as the floor may be slippery.” As an introduction to the baseline of expected academic achievement, it makes P&SD sound as though it may start with basic bodily function control.
However, I have for some time been spending one morning a week studying for a GCSE in English Literature. Now, technically, I do already have one of those, but I’ve long been disappointed with the grade I attained, so I’m seeing this as a chance to redeem myself. There are eight of us in the class, of which it was recently noted I am the youngest (despite being the one currently having the most facial hair). Our tutor, Ivana, is a forty-something Russian existentialist who in a different era wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Paris café pointedly tapping the ash from a black cigarette as she discussed Dostoevsky with a goatee’d man in a polo neck. Much as these classes can be tiring, I’m grateful for the intellectual punctuation they provide to my week.
The academic level is high, and the choice of texts ambitious. I think it unlikely that there are many at secondary school who’ve been given Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ to study, and if there are any at all then I doubt whether the analysis of the text would be followed to quite such a depth as Ivana seems to take it. There are several who have already dropped out – including Larry – and we are often reminded that the remainder are expected to get a minimum of an “A” grade. Frankly, It’s nice to be stretched for a change.
The atmosphere can occasionally descend into something approximating to a panel show, with serious discussions being interspersed with comic quips and sly one-upmanship. My own position seems to sway from teacher’s pet (with one essay photocopied and excruciatingly dissected as an exemplar), to being the subject of Ivana’s complaints about excessive sarcasm or receiving withering looks for the use of contrived puns. I’m mercilessly mocked by several of the others for my title, which was discovered when I had to provide evidence of my most recent qualification. The use of air quotes around “Doctor” is now apparently de rigueur – as though I were Gillian McKeith – and this included during their singing of Happy Birthday to me recently. Of course, I try to give as good as I get, and generally people take it in turns to be the subject of derision. What I describe may sound like a terrible atmosphere for learning, but of course these are the extremes highlighted for comic effect. In general there is camaraderie and an air of mutual encouragement.
The Education department as a whole has the same mixture of high technology and steam power as the rest of the prison, with the former frequently being ineptly operated and/or maintained, and the latter fettering the former with its restrictive anachronism. We have the wonder of ‘smart boards’ in the classrooms, which I still find futuristic despite having used them many times before. Nonetheless, I am completely unsurprised that the copy of Windows running on the board in our Literature classroom pops up with frequent notifications to warn that “You may be a victim of software counterfeiting”, and Word has a constantly red bar at the top exclaiming that its product activation has failed. I have to say; it was entertaining to see one of the tutors attempting to write on a piece of paper with a smart board pen a few days ago.
There is a thriving art class, and one of the first things I see on my way to Literature is a five-foot-wide version of Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus (of all things), albeit somewhat re-interpreted. There are many skilled artists here, including Winston – a man of French African origin – who has painted me some excellent small note cards, including a fine watercolour reproduction of a Picasso. As an aside, I’ve previously mentioned Larry’s skill with matchstick building, and I was looking today at the progress of his most recent project, which is a full-size ukulele. It’s genuinely brilliant – he’s found a supplier for the machine heads, strings, and bridge, and is now trying to source some hardwood for the fret board. I really believe it’s going to work, and I hope he can finish it in time for Christmas, as it’s intended as a gift.
The library is technically a branch of the Education department, and as such behind the counter – for reasons unclear – we have the desks of two Education staff members who are completely unconnected with the running of the library itself. One of these is the arch-nemesis of Sarah-the-Human, Ms. Umbrage. Aside from her unfortunate predisposition for adhering to the letter of rules and regulations, beneath Ms. Umbrage’s companionable veneer often lurks unspoken disapproval and an inclination to petty meddling. She appears by default to dislike Sarah’s choice of orderlies, and for a while I seemed high on her hit list. More recently though, my fellow orderly and chapel multi-instrumentalist ‘A’ appears to be the one more out of favour (she’s always seemed somewhat against ‘B’ who is the third – and part-time – orderly). We’ve concluded in any case that if Ms. Umbrage is around, then clarinet/guitar jazz improv is not an option. However, when the cat is away, the mice will play (instruments), which can be a lot of fun.
Speaking of instruments, I’ve finally managed to get some new strings for my guitar. We have an approved supplier – apparently a small shop somewhere in Oxfordshire – which was able to provide me not only with some phosphor-bronze D’Addario’s, but also a good quality capo and a small tin containing more picks than I’m ever likely to use. My improvised Argos-pen-and-trouser-elastic capo served me well, but I have felt no sadness in letting it go. I was also beginning to think I’d need to cut myself a pick from a margarine tub or similar. Most importantly, I can finally relax while re-tuning and stop fearing the loss of an eye due to paperclip failure. Plus, decent strings really bring out the surprisingly well-balanced tone of the guitar.
The dark evening have made basic stargazing a possibility of late, and it’s been great to re-acquaint myself with familiar constellations. Over the summer, I went nearly three months without seeing the moon, but over the last month or so I’ve encountered it low on the horizon in full glory and have been able to follow its waxing and waning at intervals. The brightest star in my most easily viewable patch of sky is currently Capella. I mention this only because an aside about its distance from Earth (42 light years) led to a discussion on the question of how long it would take to get there. A few sides of scribbled maths later, I realised this was a more difficult question than I had first imagined. I’ve now embarked on a journey to refresh my memory on the subject of Special Relativity – one of my lowest degree marks, if I recall correctly – and I hope to thus have something of an answer in due course. So it is that I continue to patch up my past educational lapses by both formal and informal means. Being here, it seems, is an education in more ways than one.