“Another Year”

Date of Writing : 31/12/2014

Early December marked the first anniversary of my arrival in prison, and it’s felt like a positive milestone; with one down, I feel like the rest can be done. Not long after this anniversary, following nearly nine months of misplaced forms, incompetence, indifference, and foot-dragging, I finally obtained my ‘Enhanced’ status. I can now look forward to a new year of double the available visits (up to six per month, at an extended 2 hours each) and various other minor benefits such as being able to buy a DVD player. Oh, and I’m also now officially allowed to have the job I’ve been doing for the last three months anyway.

The library continues to be a positive source of sanity-maintaining human interaction for me, and I’m grateful to be accepted into its quirky clique. The job’s few downsides – such as being sworn at at some point during most weeks, occasionally being physically threatened, and just the general battering one takes in attempting to keep up to two dozen inmates from the drug and alcohol rehabilitation wing calm and contained despite their inability to grasp the concept of a queue – are very much outweighed by its upsides. I have easy access to books (approximately 8,000 of them), daily newspapers, CDs (both audio books and some music too), and DVDs (over 700), and I’ve even been able to keep my hand in with a little light programming – albeit using the horrific offence against programming paradigms that is Visual Basic in Excel. Library spreadsheets have never been so funky. The barcode-scanning laptop has acquired the name ‘Chewbacca’, as a result of the authentic wooky noise it has (ahem) somehow started making whenever someone has an overdue loan or tries to borrow too many books.

The recent wet weeks took their toll on the leaky library roof, and we weren’t quite able to catch all the drips. As a result, I came in on the Monday of Christmas week to discover a small cluster of pale, tough, brackety-looking mushrooms growing obstinately from the carpet in the middle of the aisle. I was all for seeing how they developed, but Ms. Umbrage feared (probably quite accurately) that someone would harvest and try to smoke them or similar. In any case, it’s clearly well overdue that we should finally be moving to temporary accommodation in January in advance of the current structure being replaced. I’ll believe it once it’s happened though. As an aside, while providing cover during Sarah’s well-earned leave that week, Ms. Umbrage had good enough cheer to bring the offering of a tub of Roses chocolates and some pork pies. Perhaps I’m too hasty to judge her, or maybe it ‘s really part of some wider, more sinister scheme …

Christmas here has actually felt fairly festive overall – the pair of collared doves even put in an appearance on Christmas day after a long absence. I didn’t like to point out to them that they were a day early and were also the wrong kind of doves. The sparsely decorated and somewhat pathetic tree on our wing was mysteriously replaced with a bushier one at some point, but I can only assume people have found a nefarious use for the bulbs in the fairy lights, as so many have gone missing now that it’s not worth even plugging them in to try and turn them on.

There was an early carol service in the chapel, to which numerous outside visitors were invited, and which was also attended by a significant group of senior management staff. As it was organised (although that’s probably a strong word) by Fred, our Nigerian Pentecostal chaplain, it was mildly chaotic for anyone expected to provide music. Despite numerous requests, neither myself nor “the band” (which has sprung up – to my mild relief – without my membership) had any idea what we were expected to play, and yet somehow Fred had contrived to print programmes which included all the words to the carols while still keeping us in the dark.

In the initial flurry of figuring out what was actually going on, Andy – the band’s guitarist – managed to accidentally head-butt me directly in front of the Governor by turning around suddenly while rushing to get a music book. In the end we concluded I might as well sit this one out while the band winged it. I perched at the back on the overflow seating (immensely uncomfortable PE-style benches) and braced myself for an omnishambles. As it happened, I was somewhat uncharitably almost disappointed when it failed to completely fall apart. Aside from some questionable organ playing, a slightly ill judged rendition of ‘Wishing On A Star’ that included a cringeworthy rap section, and a protracted radio communications network test cutting through the readings, it actually went fairly well. Even the apparently blunderbuss-applied chapel decorations seemed to help kick off a pleasantly festive atmosphere.

It was probably as well that I did sit that one out, as over the week-and-a-bit around Christmas I played in six other services as well as a couple of less formal chapel meetings. ‘Carol fatigue’ begins to set in after a while (a phrase which incidentally reminds me of a slightly insane girlfriend I had once). However, the Catholic ‘midnight mass’ – which we of course had at 10am on Christmas Eve – was a great success, and I actually found it quite moving. A fantastic choir came in from the nearby town, bringing a superb pianist with them, and put together with the two guitars and a clarinet the overall sound was pretty impressive – especially considering we’d had no opportunity to rehearse as a group beforehand.

One member of the choir was moved to tears by the communion reflection (penned and excellently read by an inmate), and I confess to finding it difficult to swallow for a bit after the final wonderfully harmonised chorus of ‘Hark The Herald Angels’. As much as anything, I was moved by the choir’s faith in us as worthwhile humans, rather than simply labelling and dismissing us as criminals (of which perhaps more in a later post). After that, I couldn’t help but imagine Christmas Day itself would be an anticlimax.

Anticlimax is perhaps a strong word but Fred’s Christmas Day service displayed a similar lack of coherence and focus as the first carol service. At least this time I knew all the chosen songs, but he still insisted on changing the order as he went along (without telling me). This led to me getting slightly flustered and playing one number sans-capo, three semitones too low (with mildly entertaining results), as well as my fluffing of an intro to another, which caused the congregation to start on the wrong note entirely and proceed thus inexorably. However, it was nonetheless festive enough, and Fred even managed to get us back in good time for lunch (which is unusual).

As for lunch itself, the traditional turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, a pig in a blanket, and (as I was later to discover, dramatically flatulence-inducing) sprouts, were provided in abundance. Indeed, the mass of my plateful was enough to cause my arm to ache a little by the time I reached my usual table. Marked out by Larry’s tongue-in-cheek Christmas ‘RESERVED’ sign, said table was (as is often the case) occupied by Larry himself, Winston, and Mike. The latter of this group I don’t believe I’ve mentioned before, but he has been inside more than thirty years. He is quite autistic, and I could probably devote a whole post to why he should have been released long ago; however that’s a horse I shan’t climb on just now.

A dessert of Christmas pudding and custard was followed by the all-too-swift provision of yet more food, making it not so unlike any other Christmas Day to some degree (aside from the absence of alcohol). Indeed, this month has been one of a slight excess of food in general. This was due at least in part to the over-purchase of cheeses (as is again a Christmas tradition) by Colin and myself. Stilton and Brie appeared on the canteen and we didn’t want to miss out should supplies be limited. However, the Brie I’ve had keeping (moderately) cool by the window vent for a few weeks now may actually have crossed a line. The degree of ammonia exuded when I tried some on a New Year’s Eve digestive biscuit earlier was actually slightly eye watering.

So here I sit now, moments before midnight, as a camera pans across the Thames in anticipation of the fireworks. There – 2015 has just been greeted by a chorus of door kicking, shouts, and whistles echoing through the wing. Distant shell bursts sound across the fields as a new year begins. The digits have ticked over to bring my release date psychologically that little bit closer. Life goes on in here just as it does elsewhere, and as I survey the array of cards on my wall and think of the many letters, emails, phone calls, and visits I’ve had in the last year, I know I have much to be thankful for. Thank you, all of you who keep in touch, and indeed those of you who don’t, yet are still reading this. I send you my love as I look ahead to another year.