How do you make your coffee in the morning? Perhaps this seems like a non-question, with only trivial answers, but humour me for a moment in my introductory digression. I only relatively recently fell off the non-caffeine wagon, having spent several years ‘dry’ following a period of excessive consumption that I concluded was bad for my overall mental health. During this time I did sometimes sorely miss a good cup of coffee: while decaf has its merits, I don’t really count it as the same drink.
Having returned to a state of carefully-controlled caffeination (one or two cups, mornings only except if Listener duties or similar demand communicative consciousness in the small hours), I was a little excited to see basic filter coffee appear on the list of things we can buy. Of course, in the absurdist tradition of HMP Arbitrary, we have naturally been offered no means by which to brew it. The Polish, it seems, are apt to make it in the cup and rely on a combination of settlement and filtration through the teeth. I (in company with others) am not a great fan of this method, and went through several iterations of attempts with J-cloths, paper towels, and even old (and, I would add, clean) boxer shorts, before I came up with a practical and re-usable solution. But nothing’s ever straightforward in prison.
First, I had to barter for a plastic Ovaltine jar, because I’ve established that when inverted, its slightly conical lid will sit neatly in the top of a mug. Second, I needed to cut the jar in half, across the widest point of its barrelled cross-section. This necessitated the careful application of a pencil sharpener blade, which is always hazardous to the fingers (how to remove said implement from its mounting is an issue in itself, of course). Next, I wanted to cut out a disc from the lid, leaving only the conical threaded section, but found the pencil sharpener was too feeble to pierce its thicker plastic. So I turned to my trusty small bent piece of metal, which I found somewhere about three years ago and decided it could be useful for something and kept it. Indeed it’s turned out to be just the right shape for so many things – in this case, heating over a lighter and sort of melt-sawing through the lid. I would add that subsequently, lighters have been banned, which has caused its own problems that I shan’t go into here, for the sake of some semblance of brevity.
Finally, I needed a filter material of some sort. About a year ago I plucked up the courage to attend the slightly intimidating macho environment of the gym to play badminton, only to be told (Arbitrarily) that I couldn’t wear a T-shirt for this, and must instead wear a vest. I solved that problem by simply unpicking the T-shirt’s sleeves and just calling it a vest. Anyway, I wasn’t quite sure at the time why I kept these sleeves, but it turns out that when stretched over the end of the Ovaltine jar and held in place by the threaded part of the lid, the mesh of T-shirt material is just right for filtering coffee.
All of this is of course the quintessence of #FirstWorldPrisonProblems, and I’m under no illusions that any of it really matters. Indeed, I’m grateful to have the option of good coffee. I just wanted to give you another small insight into the mundane minutiae of my day-to-day reality. I hope you’ve found it mildly diverting.
Speaking of diversions, I recently left my job at the Craft workshop to start work as an Education Mentor. The workshop instructor has moved on to a job with better pay and conditions after (as I understand it) serving a term of over 20 years. He is much missed, and whilst the two men who’ve been brought in to replace him are nice enough chaps, they don’t have his experience and skills. The function of the workshop has had to shift towards furniture reconditioning, and although this is a worthwhile enterprise, for me it’s removed most the creativity from it, so I decided to move on. And it seems I’ve not been the only one – they’re struggling to plug the brain drain, and have developed a bit of an employee turnover problem. I do hope it settles down eventually.
Meanwhile, over in the Education Dept., I’m doing my Andy Dufresne bit in trying to help teach what’s known as ‘Functional Skills’ English and Maths. As I’ve noted before, literacy levels in prison can be startlingly low, and these courses are designed by City & Guilds to cover what literacy and numeracy people might need in day-to-day life. In theory, this goes up to the equivalent of about a grade C at GCSE level, but the range of topics is much smaller than a whole GCSE. It’s meant to be mostly a tick in a box for a potential employer if someone missed out on getting a pass grade at school (or indeed managed to avoid school entirely).
I haven’t yet completely decided how much I’m enjoying it: there have been a number of rewarding moments, but they’re interspersed with periods of relative boredom. It can certainly sometimes stretch my lateral thinking – finding new ways to explain something that to me seems utterly self-evident can be a challenge. Somewhere between assuming too much and being insultingly patronising there is surely a happy medium, but I have the impression I don’t always find it. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I didn’t get on so well when I tried teaching Secondary School Science ten years ago.
One of the things that has certainly held my interest is working with a Deaf student who has been improving his English, essentially as a second language (after British Sign Language). Though I’ve had no formal training in BSL, I’ve now got to a level where I can hold a reasonably fluid conversation with occasional stumbles over a particular concept that might need ‘fingerspelling’. The wonderful thing about BSL is that even if I don’t know the exact sign for something, I can often get quite complex concepts across using a combination of near-synonymous signs and a kind of mime. This also leads to a fantastic new world of possibility in visual jokes, which probably wouldn’t be funny in English by the time you’d finished explaining them. I’m also beginning to get an insight into Deaf culture, which I hadn’t even really known was a distinct thing until perhaps 18 months ago.
It has made me realise that the way we think about things can be strongly influenced by the structure of the language we use to express them. I don’t claim any new discovery on this front – it just hadn’t really been quite so clear to me before. Because of the lack of specific linguistic subtlety in BSL – for example, the same sign can be used for ‘why’, ‘reason’, ‘because’, and ‘purpose’, dependent upon facial expression and context – when using English, a Deaf person might come across as abrupt or rude. In fact this is often better interpreted as directness, or perhaps a kind of habitual ‘cutting to the chase’. The nature of BSL does tend to invite this, and once you get the hang of it, it can be quite liberating. I can see now that Deaf people across the country (and to some extent, the world) form as distinct a community culture as, say, Italians with varying levels of English living in a British city. This is where the capital ‘D’ comes from, to distinguish cultural users of BSL from those who have little or no hearing but still communicate principally or exclusively in English. This is a potentially controversial topic which I’m sure is discussed elsewhere on the Internet in great depth, so I will leave it at that, at least for the moment.
Something that will have been of little interest to our Deaf community is the pair of concerts we recently held to raise money for the Red Cross Grenfell Tower Relief Fund. Having taken over the B-wing dining hall for a day, we found the demand for tickets was such that we did it all again two weeks later. In the end, perhaps 250 people (mostly prisoners) came, and the total raised is looking like it should come close to £1,000. I’ve been quite impressed by the range of talent we have here, with acts varying from classic ‘60s covers, through home-spun rap to modern pop. I did a few solo guitar pieces, but having listened back to the recording of my drumming I’ve realised I really need to let go of any illusions I had about being the next Phil Collins. It was all a lot of fun though.
I forget whether I’ve previously written about being a part of a psychology research group here, whereby a small number of prisoners is consulted by staff from the Psychology Dept. (which is linked to a local university) about how they conduct their research into prisoners’ rehabilitation and reoffending. This is often fascinating, and also frequently involves cake. Recently one of the researchers has taken to giving me research papers for proofreading and comment before they’re sent for peer-review, which feels like quite a privilege. For a while now, I’ve been considering a career in proofreading, copy-editing and technical writing, and so far I’m enjoying the practice.
I shall end this post by sending my best wishes to Larry back at HMP Different, whose birthday is later this month – I hope you’re well, and continuing to make ever more impressive constructions from matchsticks. My regards also to the keeper of the incunabula, whom I have not forgotten. And to you who choose not to (or cannot) be in touch, thank you for reading.