“A Miscellaneous Menagerie”


There is a buzzard that has take to perching for extended periods on a particular concrete post just outside the prison fence.  A few days ago, I was watching it from my window, contemplating its elegance and majesty, when it lazily shuffled itself around to face away from me, carefully raised its tail feathers, and copiously defecated squarely in my direction.  Such is the way of nature.

We have a very healthy population of raptors around this prison, and there’s a pair of kestrels that sometimes perch even closer, on the inner fence or the lamp post only ten yards from my window.  I’ve seen a few sparrowhawks, heard many owls, and on one occasion I got a fantastic view of the underside of a red kite as it swooped quite low above my head.  Thankfully, it didn’t choose that moment to follow the ideas of the buzzard.

For a number of weeks, we had an explosion in the population of brown rats at this end of the campus, who presumably were thriving on the refuse bins around the wings.  They had become quite bold, scurrying hither and thither in broad daylight through the yard, and on several occasions I’d even describe their behaviour as ‘frolicking’; they genuinely seemed to be having fun, chasing each other about in the grass at high speed.

One morning, I watched as one of the smaller specimens (in general they appeared preternaturally plump) struggled comically to carry a slice of pizza that must have weighed about the same as the rat itself, and attempted to climb the wall of a compost bin made from large sleepers.  It was the repeated toppling backwards that provided the most entertainment.

Alas, their numbers had become so great as to draw attention, and the exterminators were called.  Undergrowth was cleared, the compost bin razed, and I’m guessing lots of tasty warfarin-laden treats distributed among the visible paths they had begun to make in the grass.  I haven’t seen a single one for several weeks now, and you may find it strange, but that leaves me a little sad.

The first frost has signalled the return of pleasantly chilled milk from my windowsill, and as the last leaves fall from the trees, my view has extended once more.  As I write this, I can see the shimmer of the lights in the nearby town, and if I had a good pair of binoculars I could tell you the price of petrol at the station on the roundabout where I filled up my Micra once, ten years ago.  I only recently realised I can see the railway from here, as I think the wind is mostly in the wrong direction to hear it.

On the weekend of Guy Fawkes’ Night, I was pleased to have an excellent view of a big fireworks display at the local rugby club.  I had a little fun working out it was slightly less than 1.4 miles away, by timing the delay between the flashes and the bangs (a consistent 6.6 seconds).  Whoever said that science wasn’t entertaining?  When I was a young teenager, I recall measuring the distance to the Moon using a garden cane, a coin and some Blu-Tack (other adhesive putties are available).  Yes, it’s true, I was an unusual child.

Speaking of no longer being young, I recently became slightly older.  Admittedly this is happening continually, but in this case I was happy to note a change in my numerical age that makes it not only a prime number, but also prime if reversed, and both digits are prime in and of themselves.  I can therefore say that I’m unquestionably now in my prime. Thank you for your cards and well-wishes.

During my several months of working in the Education department, I spent eight weeks of afternoons attempting to be a British Sign Language interpreter in a maths class. (I can add this to the long list of things that never even crossed my mind I might be doing in prison).  Previously having engaged in only casual conversation in BSL, this meant that I had very quickly to learn to use numbers.  With my relatively limited vocabulary, I was also in permanent ‘thesaurus mode’, whereby I spent much of the time scrabbling for combinations of words to explain a concept for which I knew no specific sign.  ‘Mental arithmetic’, for example, might become use-number-think, ‘factor’ could be number-split-nothing-left, and of course ‘donkey’ is easily understood as small-grey-Jesus-horse.  Hilarity frequently ensued, with sudden and apparently unprompted laughter often baffling the majority, who had no idea what had just happened.  I have to say, I learnt an awful lot by being persistently mocked for using the wrong sign.

One unexpected side-effect of all this language-mangling only became apparent when I went back to my study of German after a six-month hiatus.  Bizarrely, I suddenly found I could understand it significantly better.  I can only conclude that in exercising the parts of my brain that extract meaning from incomplete information (i.e. only understanding half of what was being signed to me and filling in the blanks with educated guesswork), I became better at it in a general context.  This also seems to be true for my comprehension of Geordie, which is a bonus.

Anyway, I’m still in the Education department, but as of last week I’m on a two-month sabbatical from teaching; I’m studying the principles and methods of running a business, and getting together what passes for a business plan for my ideas of self-employment.  So far this is proving to be useful, if somewhat intense.  To my slight surprise, they’re even letting me use a computer to do it, which makes life a lot easier.  Ultimately, my work will be burnt onto a CD, which I will be able to take with me into the wide world when I leave.  All of which is startlingly sensible for HMP Arbitrary.

Periodically, I make a request under the Data Protection Act, to find out what comments are being made about me on my file by various staff.  I’ll leave you with a selection of extracts.

I am:

‘. . . a positive force . . .’;

‘. . . polite and respectful . . .’;

‘. . . fully compliant . . .’;   (with which British Standard, I wonder?);

‘. . . eventually getting to a final answer . . .’, but taking ‘. . . longer than expected due to [my] communication style . . .’;

‘. . . trying to be clever . . .’;

and my personal favourite, ‘. . . smug and sarcastic . . .’.

I feel…