Date of writing: 20/03/2015

[08:50] Much as the Perspex panels of my roughly south-facing cell window have been frosted by the degrading action of the Sun, I am most fortunate right now in being able to observe the progress of a partial solar eclipse. Through the high technology of a CD case sooted by smoke from a baby oil-powered lamp (don’t try this at home kids), I have a surprisingly clear view as the Moon gradually creeps in across the face of the Sun from the slightly upper right. (Fun fact:   this is technically not an eclipse at all, but an occultation.) Anyway, I realise I’m doubly lucky, as from what the television is telling me, a large proportion of the country has not been so lucky with the weather.

I remember back in ’99 projecting the last eclipse through a pair of binoculars onto a sheet of paper. That was the summer before I started university. It wasn’t quite total then either, but it wasn’t far off, if I recall correctly. Certainly at its peak there was chill in the air, and I remember the birds began to chatter as though it were dusk (latest favourite word: crepuscular, ‘relating to or resembling twilight’). I suspect the effect may not be as obvious this time, with only around 85% of totality. The strangely non-linear response of the eye manages to make even such a majority dimming seem less than it is.

[Later] I have to say, that was really quite impressive. There was something almost cartoonish about the way the cheeky tilted smile moved from one side to the other, briefly passing through perfect symmetry. We seem to be programmed to see faces in everything. In any case, I’m quite astonished that the sky stayed clear for me – many never get to see an eclipse first-hand, and serendipity has given me two already. I wonder where I’ll be when the next partial eclipse comes to the British Isles in 2026. One thing I can gratefully say with some certainty is that I’m very unlikely to be viewing that one from a prison cell. It’s a comforting thought that in terms of celestial mechanics, my incarceration is barely the blink of an eye. Maybe that’s why the Sun was smiling at me today.


“Spring Walks and Stargazing”

Date of writing: 07/03/2015

There was a definite feel of Spring in the air as I came back from the chapel this afternoon. One unexpected benefit of the protracted demolition and re-erection of the library has been the scenic detours that are currently necessary to get to the temporary library, the gym, or indeed the chapel. The location of the construction work in what is essentially a central thoroughfare means that what would normally be a journey of around fifty yards is extended to probably closer to a thousand. Not generally having the opportunity to walk very far in a straight line, this is something I welcome. The 101 steps that make up a circuit of the yard take around 56 seconds, and I probably do this something approaching 300 times in a week. While this is much less boring than it sounds – particularly with good company – there are more interesting sights to be seen along the perimeter road.

There are two choices of route, which are much of a muchness in length, one roughly along the eastern perimeter, and the other along the western, forming most of a loop. The grounds are well maintained by a small army of semi-slave labour (while garden work is among the highest paid in the prison, this still works out at only a little over 83p an hour), and there are now hundreds of daffodils and crocuses starting to provide splashes of colour along the bases of fences and scattered through flower beds. The western road has a fairly unobstructed feel, affording views of open skies beyond the wall. It also takes us past the large triangle of gardens between B and C wings, which is intended to aid the rehabilitation of those prisoners recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. In addition to growing various food crops, this area has a number of ornamental sections, including a small pond with a wooden bridge over it. The temporary library is at the north end of this road, tucked between poly-tunnels, chickens, and the building that comprises the gym and the chapel.

The eastern road is perhaps the better used, leading as it does from the main administration blocks to the euphemistically titled ‘Care and Separation Unit’, better know as the Seg or the Block.   This route passes the remains of a significant section of half-dismantled railway line on a slight embankment, which was once used to train inmates in railway maintenance.   Opposite this, in another large triangle between wings, is an Astroturf pitch surrounded by grass, which in good weather is used for football and bowls. My new window looks out on this area, facing roughly to the south.   Between the railway and the Seg is a small shrubbery – with some minor attempts at topiary – which has a few benches that mostly only gardeners end up sitting on, as it’s in a red Band area.

Our wing’s yard is opposite the shrubbery and the Seg, and heading back today in the warm sunlight, the Catholic lay chaplain opened the gate and let me take a shortcut this way back to the wing. Larry was out on ‘exercise’ and after walking with him a while, we decided to sit on one of the yard’s benches and enjoy the sunshine.   As I had my guitar with me, I played a while and sang a little, enjoying for a change the way the sound flowed into the open air. I think the last time I played outside was about a month before I came to prison, when I spent a pleasant evening round a large bonfire at a friend’s firework party in the wilds of Norfolk. I hope that this guitar will get to see its share of campfires. All in good time.

Now as I sit in my cell writing this, I can see the Moon, slightly waning from the full, as it rises in the south east. Jupiter is shining brightly in spite of the moonlight, and there are a few scattered stars defeating the best efforts of the sodium floodlights. In the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of three planets being simultaneously visible in the early evening sky. Venus has been impressive, but the less common sight of the fainter and clearly red-tinted Mars I have found somehow more fascinating. There is also some poetry in the near-conjunction of the Roman gods of love and war.

Much as the lengthening days bring warmth and crocuses, when the clocks change in a few weeks, my evening walks will no longer be after sunset, and my stargazing will be limited again for a while. Autumn always was my favourite season, and now I’ve another reason to look forward to it.




“Solitude and Security Silliness”

Date of writing: 24/02/2015

Tonight, for the first time in over a year, I sit alone in a cell after being locked up for the evening. Finally I have a cell to myself, and the privacy and solitude that go with it. I’m not extroverted by nature, and to be in constant company in a small space can be wearing – even with the most considerate of cellmates. I don’t believe I could have asked for better than Colin (my ninth and longest-serving confinement cohabitee, if I’ve counted correctly), who has over the last seven months provided a good balance between cheerful interaction and polite non-interaction. We got on well enough and had enough in common for the situation to work, but weren’t such close friends as to make it stifling.

The sharing of cheeses, large bags of Thai Sweet Chilli crisps, or indeed giant jars of gherkins, is something I shall miss. I expect also at times I shall miss the company – occasionally it’s good to watch a film with someone rather than alone. I will have more space to think, which can be bad and can be good. But overall, this is a step forward, and feels a more natural state of affairs – at least as far as anything can be natural in prison. In any case, he’s not gone far: we’re now neighbours on the other side of the wing from the cell we shared. I’ve told him to bang on the wall if he gets lonely. I wonder if I’ll be able to get to sleep without his snoring …

The reasons behind these cells becoming free are slightly perturbing, as the prison is in general flux at the moment. Anyone who is deemed not to be ‘engaging with prison life’ or is not ‘sentence plan compliant’ is under threat of being shipped out elsewhere, with a notice period in the region of hours if they’re lucky, or tens of minutes if not. My own position is not as sound as I’d like, because despite my willingness to engage in programmes of rehabilitation, I have been told I am ‘not suitable’ for any of them, because my risk of re-offending has been assessed as too low. This does raise the question: if I’m so unlikely to re-offend, and the prison service refuses to even attempt to rehabilitate me, why am I actually in prison in the first place? I’ll leave that one hanging, as I could end up ranting slightly otherwise. I’ll only say – as I’ve said before (although ‘I would say that, wouldn’t I’) that I’m not a great believer in retribution, and there’s only so much time a person can sit on the ‘naughty step’ before it starts to lose all meaning.

There is also a little uncertainty in my employment, and jobs in the prison are in the process of being shuffled. The library orderly jobs are being made ‘Red Band’ positions, which could potentially be a good thing (trusted status, a little more money). However, this requires me to be cleared by Security. Now, as far as I can tell, Security is a bungling and parochial microcosm of M15 that seems to take itself very seriously. I fear that by even writing that sentence I risk incurring a stern interrogation or some kind of unexpected summary consequence, but it’s a risk I’m prepared to take for the sake of your mild entertainment.

Until last week, I’d not had any reason to cross paths with Security, but it seems that they (like the Spanish Inquisition) pounce when they’re least expected. All it took was for me to be observed doing something slightly unusual on a laptop in my literature class, and suddenly I’m banned from using any IT equipment. Honestly, if they have PowerShell installed and easily accessible they can’t expect people not to use it … I was only trying to help.  Anyway, that’s a by the by. They evidently decided I Know Too Much, and through fear of what they don’t understand and lack of confidence in their own systems, I’m left significantly inconvenienced.  Not being able to touch Chewbacca, the library laptop, makes things awkward, but there’s plenty else for me to do. I’m just hoping they don’t use this debacle as a reason to refuse my Red Band, and thus potentially require me to seek alternative employment. We shall see.

The library contents were moved last month, and the building demolished at some length (considering I was mildly surprised that it remained standing at all). Our temporary accommodation is most pleasant, situated as it is next to the vegetable gardens and several dozen chickens. Their gentle burbling has become a soothing background to my days, and occasionally I let them peck at my fingers for some reason. I shall be sad when we have to move into the replacement Portacabins that were delivered today. (Why they couldn’t just build with brick I’m still not certain.)  Initial impressions leave me concerned that their volume, at least from a distance, appears wholly inadequate.  Sarah – our fully functional human librarian – has been away this last week, and shan’t return until Monday. I fear she’ll be distressed by recent developments, with two of her orderlies already refused Red Bands and a third hobbled by arbitrary computational restriction. On top of this, Chewbacca has been stripped of his (admittedly unauthorised) music collection, and our new accommodation doesn’t look wide enough to hold all our shelves at the same time as people. I hope all this doesn’t detract too much from any beneficial effects of her break.

Changing the subject entirely, I’ve got a new toy – an electronic version of the Oxford Concise Dictionary, Thesaurus, and Encyclopaedia. It’s quite marvellous, and also lets me cheat at Countdown. As a technology, it’s at least a decade after its time, but it certainly beats having the equivalent stack of books. I’m beginning to feel slightly lost if I forget to put it in my pocket. It’s as close as I can legitimately get to a smartphone in my situation: it’s fabulous for proving people wrong, which is of course the main purpose of a smartphone. Next on the obsolete technology agenda, I’m considering the possibility of a typewriter. I shall therefore fade this post out to the imagined them tune of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ …
Da da dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum daaaaah …

“The Finger that Points to the Moon”

Date of Writing : 22/02/2015

Many times in my life I have found myself at some kind of social function – perhaps where I’m little known; maybe standing a little awkwardly near the buffet with a paper plate in one hand and a plastic cup in the other; and perhaps exchanging pleasantries on the crispiness of the spring rolls and how this can be used as a barometer for the quality of the catering – when my new acquaintance will ask what on the face of it seems a fairly innocuous question: “so what is it you do, then?” I confess to having used similar phraseology myself on occasion, and I’m not suggesting it to be fundamentally impertinent, but let’s analyse for a moment the thinking behind the enquiry.

If asked very early in the discourse, then such a question is in essence a shortcut: it’s designed to elicit a concise response that will be used as a preliminary synopsis of one’s entire being. At its most brutal, it could be re-expressed more honestly as “tell me why I should continue talking to you”, but of course most people’s intentions are more genial. Nonetheless, even when asked in the most anodyne mode, the query betrays something that seems elemental to human nature: the need to label and categorise.

We can find ourselves uncomfortably adrift without some sense of how a person fits into our world view, and to seek an initial label based on their current employment provides a starting point for our own internal sorting algorithms. Try these: bartender, bus driver, doctor, hairdresser, bin man, lawyer, lumberjack … I’m sure each produces a picture of some sort; each gives a sketch of levels of wealth and intelligence, social background, and perhaps even personality. Whether we like it or not, we all have stereotypes associated with labels. We can’t help it, it’s human. We need this shorthand partly because it’s simply not possible to fit a complete understanding of another person into one’s head, and generalities give us something to work with.

There are, however, two ways we can use a label: either as a very provisional starting point from which to establish further information and understanding, or as a blunt bisecting instrument that divides people into the ultimate base categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s only possible to do the latter if we allow someone to be defined by – or even essentially to become – the label itself. This can exclude any possibility of nuance in character or subtlety of motivation, and can provide a convenient and comforting fiction with which we might shield ourselves from the inconvenient complexities of reality. Whatever the negative aspects of our own character, we can find solace in pointing at ‘the other’ and saying, “ he is bad”, which of course by implication has the ellipsis “I am good”.

Such simplistic dualism may seem like the preserve of popular cinema – where the bad guy is recognisable by his facial scarring, hollowed-out mountain lair, and/or generic East European accent, whereas the good guy is singular in his fine looks, dashing character, and propensity to always win (leaving aside for a moment his misogynistic sense of sexual entitlement) – but society is in reality pervaded by it. The tabloids tell us who to hate, blame, or fear – Isis, Putin, immigrants, Katie Hopkins – but they wouldn’t sell if we weren’t already open to the principle of dualistic categorisation. The broadsheets are far from blameless in this regard, and their labelling and pointing can in fact be more insidious with its between-the-lines assumptions that are all but invisible because of the their very ubiquity. A fish doesn’t notice the water it swims in, and we live in a sea of simplifications, categorisations and labels that are continually presented to us through not just the printed word, but through every medium.

This brings me to a point somewhat close to home: the labelling of ‘criminals’. I’m a criminal – at least if you take the OED definition – and you’re most likely not a criminal (with apologies to those of you who are). Me and you. Us and them. There’s obviously something fundamentally different about me: I’m the sort of person who commits crimes and goes to prison, and you’re a law-abiding citizen. Forgive me for seeming to put words in your mouth to make my point, as I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. I would be astounded if you could tell me in all honesty that you had never committed a crime. Perhaps it was just a little speeding, or maybe you once stole from the Pick-n-Mix in Woolworths. Maybe you even have a dark secret you hope to take to the grave, that would see you put away for a long time, were it discovered. More likely there’s something else, somewhere in-between, but I doubt that you’ve committed no crimes at all. So, despite my label, you and I probably have more in common than some would like to believe. I confessed to my crimes, and you – to put it crudely – just haven’t been caught. I don’t suppose it’s likely you’d be due a particularly severe sentence should your juvenile larceny be uncovered, but I labour this point to highlight the existence of a continuum that cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy.

On a day-to-day basis, my conversations are with burglars, armed robbers, drug dealers, rapists, and murderers. I live with ‘these people’: I sit down to eat with them, I share jokes with them, and I’ve recently started playing badminton with them. Only this afternoon, I helped someone who killed a member of his own family, with the mundane task of adding up the costs of a catalogue order. Over the last year, I’ve met pretty much every kind of criminal, from petty thieves to those detained indeterminately for the sake of public protection. Some have appeared on the local news before arriving in a nearby cell, and some I’ve helped to console after they were vilified in the National press. Some are unrepentant or objectionable, but most are not.

I have as much in common with these people as I would with any other arbitrarily selected group. They – or rather we – are people like any other, with hopes and fears, families and friends, and complex internal lives. We have made mistakes, chosen bad paths, or perhaps suffered from psychological problems, but there is nothing fundamentally different about us. If you’ve read this far, then I’m probably preaching to the converted, for which I apologise. I shall come, therefore, to the core of the point I’m trying to make: words are limited and imprecise, and rarely – if indeed ever – are they able to express whole truths.

We recently won a small battle in this prison that may on the face of it seem a strange one. After much wrangling, a decree has been issued that we are to be called ‘prisoners’, and not the previously ubiquitous term ‘offenders’. The objections to the label ‘offender’ are twofold. Firstly, a significant fraction of prisoners here are maintaining their innocence, and so object to the constant reference to offences they claim not to have committed. The second and probably more important objection, is that an ‘offender’ is ‘someone who offends’. Even if a person has committed offences in the past, the label ‘offender’ is very much active and in the present tense, suggesting that they are liable to offend again at any moment. It’s a label that attempts to define us by our past, and to put us clearly at the sharp end of a pointing finger. The term ‘prisoner’ is of course itself still a label, and as such should not be trusted. However, it at least has its basis in simple fact: we are undeniably held in prison. Although I would of course prefer to just be called by my name really.

I’ll finish with a parable. The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriarch Juineng, “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.” The patriarch responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.” Said the nun: “You cannot even recognise the characters? How are you able then to understand the meaning?” He replied, “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”