“A Spring Wedding and Sundry Silliness”


And so it is, that the mornings continue inexorably to lighten, the chiffchaff echoes its insistent call from the hedgerow beyond the fence, the daffodil shamelessly flaunts its luminous bloom, and the change of the seasons is marked by my concession that the UHT milk on my bran flakes – which was formerly kept passably cool on my windowsill – can now at best be described as disagreeably tepid.   And yet, still frequently when I go out, I find myself thinking – with a slight shiver – that I probably should have brought a hat.  This then, must be Spring.

Believe it or not, I went to a wedding last week.  There are currently three Chapel Orderlies: a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim.  This fine example of religious harmony – which is of course crying out for a punchline – is something I suspect is rare outside the unavoidably inter-faith context of a prison, but here it seems to be working rather well.  None of them, however, has yet quite got to grips with our various sound gear, and so I was temporarily seconded back to give them a hand for a morning down in the visits hall.

The couple in question have, as I understand it, been together for more than three decades, at least two of which the groom has spent behind bars.  They nonetheless have several adult children, and at least one toddling grandchild, who was among the dozen or so guests who came from outside in full formal attire, along with registrars and a photographer.  I have to say that in many respects it felt exactly like any other register office wedding – aside of course from the two uniformed officers lurking discreetly at the back of the room.  Parts of the service were quite moving – the chaplain had come prepared with tissues, which she distributed to grateful relatives – and even my own eyes weren’t completely dry, despite not having met the couple before the day.  There was sadly no alcohol for a toast, but the cake was delicious.

There’s always a degree of dark humour in prison, and perhaps we can take this too far sometimes – but I think it helps us all get through.  In any case, I couldn’t help but chuckle when the Muslim orderly turned to me during the service and, indicating his shiny black shoes, said “Last time I wore these I got a life sentence.”  His own laughter was perhaps a little too loud to be completely convincing.  Of course, it would be the Catholic who then, nodding towards the groom, chimed in with”…and now he’s volunteering himself for a second one.”  A time-worn sentiment I know, but it somehow has an added resonance in such a context.  Perhaps the strangest thing is that at the end of their wedding day, she will have gone back out into the world under the razor wire and through the gates, and he will have gone back to his cell, and slept alone.

Meanwhile, life in the rest of the prison goes on.  Finally, after much dithering, we have been allowed to wear our own clothes, most of the time.  Naturally though, this being HMP Arbitrary, they couldn’t make it simple.  Each person must make a choice, and if they choose to wear their own clothes they must relinquish all that is prison-issue, and they cannot revert.  But … there are odd exceptions … we must keep our green trousers, which must be worn in all workshops – but still never – ever – in the library.  We must also still never mix our own and the prison’s clothes.  Once it was pointed out that this would make all workshops potentially shirt-free zones, they had to hastily back-track and say we could keep prison T-shirts.  This was of course after many people had already surrendered them.  The tangles over ifs and buts continue to rumble a little, but the dust of the slightly bungled implementation is mostly settling, and on the whole it has made life slightly easier and a little more comfortable.

Since the smoking ban, tobacco has become a very valuable commodity, and increasingly rare (though if you know the right people and are prepared to pay the absurd prices, it can be found).  The latest craze, however, is smoking a (probably highly toxic) mixture of peppermint tea and the scrapings from nicotine patches, rolled up in Gideon Bible pages.  If I hear of people doing this, I’ve been trying to encourage them to at least start at the back, because, let’s face it, the Book of Revelation probably makes about as much sense in the smoking as it does in the reading.  Punishments for those caught smoking any kind of substance can be quite harsh, so in all it’s probably best to stick to the e-cigarettes, which are still permitted and freely available.  But there are those who just seem intent on finding new and innovative ways to destroy their lungs.

As I write, I am sat in the tea room of the Craft workshop, unable to finish the pine tables I’ve designed due to the required wood not yet having arrived.  I mention this as it’s a good illustration of the unintended and counter-productive consequences of target-based performance measures.  Every prison is expected to produce a variety of statistics, one of which relates to the proportion of prisoners engaged in so-called ‘purposeful activity’.  Despite my being unable to do anything of constructive value this afternoon, I’m required to remain in the workshop so that the statistics will show another body apparently being purposefully active.  This has been the case for several days now, and my requests to attend the library, gym, or indeed anywhere else instead have been (predictably) declined, because these don’t count in the stats.  So the need to show as many bums on seats as possible frequently has the effect of preventing people actually doing anything useful.  It’s something worth considering the next time you see an announcement of some target proudly met.  On the plus side, I have been able to get a lot of reading done.  Does that count as purposeful activity?






Scattered Mumbles


The pale and swelling chestnut shells,
their spines not yet staunch in purpose,
cast August in hanging shades of Autumn
while the air is yet to hang redolent
with the smoulder of gardeners’ rakings.

So too, February brings the scattered mumbles
of wood pigeons, as they clear their throats
in slow recall of how a Spring is made
not just from light and eager growth,
but with steady promise of what’s yet to come.

“A Brexit Christmas and the Vompocalypse”


I’m out next year. Feels slightly strange writing that, but it’s a milestone of sorts. People tend to count these little things on their progress towards release – that is, if they know when they’re getting out. Some have had to become accustomed to living one year to the next, never sure what they’re aiming towards. I was talking to someone a few weeks ago, in casual conversation about where we’d lived in the past – amongst other things – and I mentioned the town where I used to own a house. He became a little animated, saying, “Ah, yeah, I know [town name] – I done my murder there!”, and proceeded to explain which road it was on, checking I was familiar with the landmarks along the way – as though he were giving directions to a favourite pub.

While any murder is of course a tragedy, it’s often the way of such prison conversations to take as darkly humorous tone. But then I saw his expression subtly change, and his eyes assumed a faraway look as he added “…Course, that was 27 years ago…”. Somehow that brought the reality home. I don’t think you’d know a murderer if you met one – I’ve met dozens, and I still can’t pick ‘em out. It’s a strange world I live in.

Now, I seem to remember writing something last January about looking at 2016 with a cautiously optimistic eye. Looking back, in terms of the global political situation my optimism appears to have been, well, optimistic. Personally speaking however, all things considered, it could have been a lot worse. Practical achievements include mastering the basics of British Sign Language, significantly improving my understanding of German, and learning to solve a Rubik’s Cube in around 90 seconds. The latter is of course utterly useless and around thirty years too late to be cool, but a fun thing to boast nonetheless. My enforced monasticism also continues to give me the opportunity to develop my long-neglected creative side – something I’ve come to realise is probably vital for my future functioning as a semi-normal human being.

On that note, the Christmas play turned out surprisingly well. Aside from a minor interrogation by a deputy governor about who’d vetted the script because some of it was a little close to the line (that’s a win from my perspective), and having to personally apologise to one of the Evangelical chaplains for my “grossly offensive” portrayal of a Jewish stereotype (he clearly missed the heavy dose of irony), I ended up receiving an embarrassment of compliments. The No.1 Governer gave us an unprecedented standing ovation – largely, it would seem, due to her sympathy with what she took as the play’s overtly anti-Brexit message. It wasn’t my intention, but I suppose my political bias must’ve seeped in just a tad. I hope it’s been possible to attach a PDF of the script too this post, so you can judge for yourself if you like… brexit143

My fourth prison Christmas was pleasantly uneventful. The food wasn’t too bad, and the roast potatoes were almost believable. A dozen or so of us clubbed together for a buffet in the afternoon (I made some peanut brittle – quite tricky in a microwave), and I can’t decide if I’m ashamed or proud to say that watching Frozen moved me to shed a tear or two. I used my small annual ration of real butter for a late breakfast of kippers on toast on Boxing Day. Lovely.

It’s strange how tastes evolve; I was thinking to myself the other day that I must’ve forgotten how terrible UHT milk is. Time was, I couldn’t bear it, even in tea. Now it seems I’m happy to drink it neat; I even almost like it – I’m practically French. I wonder whether I’ll end up objecting to the taste of real milk. I do hope not.

All digressions aside, 2017 is shaping up reasonably well so far. I’ve started spending my mornings learning about double-entry bookkeeping and Sage accounting (which is surprisingly more fascinating than it sounds), and it looks like I’ll soon have half a dozen more City & Guilds certificates to add to my collection. I begin to believe I could comfortably manage the finances of a small business, which may well come in handy when I get out. In the afternoons I’ve moved on to making picture frames in the Craft shop, from a big block of beech downwards, which is rather pleasing. Sometimes I’ll spend a few hours being interrogated by Psychologists, who still aren’t really sure what (if anything) they want to do with me; the process is interesting though.

Predictions of chaos following the smoking ban have proved almost entirely unfounded, with little more than passive-aggressive mumblings of complaint. There was some profiteering, with grossly inflated prices being charged for individual roll-ups, followed by a few victims being moved around between wings in an attempt to evade their creditors. The Seg was apparently full over Christmas, with some overflow onto the adjacent wing, but more than a month later things seem pretty much back to normal. The wonderful thing is, I’m now able to leave my door open without feeling like I’m living in an ashtray. Most seem to have taken well to e-cigarettes, which – despite their current ubiquity – appear to leave the air mercifully untainted.

One thing that hasn’t been so good this year, at least so far, is the health of the prison population. The first week of January saw an outbreak of a flu-like illness, to which I myself succumbed with bouts of mild hallucination. I can’t complain too much though as the last time I recall having a fever was during the swine flu epidemic of late 2007. These things tend to blow over without too much trouble, but as I write this, the prison is currently in the grip of what can only be described as a Vompocalypse…

The first sign I encountered was a couple of nights ago, on a Listener call, when what had been a fairly normal conversation with a client took a turn for the bilious as he suddenly had to rush to my toilet, and I was reminded once again how grateful I am that it has a closable door. The night-duty officers – who I now know were engaged elsewhere with similar cases – took over an hour to arrive and escort him back to his own room. During this period he was mostly engaged in intermittent bouts of copious vomiting.

Having previously suffered the horror of norovirus, after he left I spent the best part of an hour bleaching pretty much everything while trying not to open my mouth, as I feared I recognised the symptoms. Thankfully, as yet I remain well, which is more than can be said for (at the last count) over 200 others. All but essential services have gone into lockdown, all visits have been cancelled for the next four days, blue vinyl gloves abound, and some officers have taken to wearing Japanese-style facemasks. Anyone with symptoms is being confined to quarters for a minimum of 48 hours, and there’s a rolling programme of deep cleaning. In short, it’s a lot like being on a cruise ship. Let’s hope the captain doesn’t get too close to those islands, and hopefully I’ll see you when we dock …


“An Overdue Update”


There’s been quite a gap in my postings here, and I thank those who’ve been asking after me. By any normal measure I’d be lying if I said it was because I’ve been too busy.   In truth, in my situation there should always be time to write, as my evenings never contain any structured activity beyond 7pm. Admittedly, I’ve had quite a lot of Listener calls recently, often at distinctly unsociable hours, but I’ve still had more nights off than on, so to speak. Partly I’ve told myself I’ve been waiting until I had some interesting things to say, and I never quite reached my own arbitrary threshold for that. The Internet is full of the writings of people who haven’t really got anything to say, so sometimes I feel reluctant to add to that background noise. It’s perhaps a good thing that my day-to-day life seems to contain no more (or less) that’s of interest than that of someone who is not incarcerated. As I think I’ve suggested before, in many ways my life is probably not unlike yours.

All of this got me wondering why it is that people with apparent time on their hands don’t get round to doing things. In my own case, over the last few months I’ve had a continuing series of vaguely creative tasks that I needed/wanted to complete – in some cases by a specific deadline. In such a situation I feel a bit like a computer whose desktop is apparently clear of running applications, and yet seems reluctant even to open Word.   If you listen carefully there’s a faint but somewhat insistent chuntering of the hard drive as it performs background tasks – useful or otherwise – which seem to keep it sort of distracted.

I suspect I’m not alone in this experience. Sometimes it’s not just time I need, but space in subconscious background working memory. In the absence of any ability to upgrade my RAM, it’s often easier for me to get lost in reading (I’ve been grateful to have been sent a few surprise books recently), or doze in front of a BBC wildlife documentary, and let my background tasks do their thing while I remain outwardly unproductive and sedentary.   Perhaps I’m just making excuses for myself …

So, I’ll give you a bit of an update on what I’ve been up to. Firstly, after well over a year working in the Chapel, my tenure officially came to an end at the beginning of August, and I chose to move to the Craft Workshop. In the past, I’ve made many things from wood, and it’s something I’ve found quite satisfying. I sometimes wonder if the new owners of my house – whomever they ended up being – are enjoying my various Danish-oiled creations, or if they’ve ripped them out in favour of Ikea flatpack minimalism. In any case, I feel quite philosophically unattached to these things – I enjoyed the process of creating them, and while they were mine I enjoyed their form and utility. So, while I have the opportunity for essentially free tuition, I decided I’d like to have a go at some more traditional joinery.

There’s a well-trodden path of learning in Workshop 13, starting with a functionally useless but educational frame comprising mortise-and-tenon, haunched mortise, half lap, and dovetail joints. After this, we must build a small box with dovetailed sides and a hinged lid inlaid with a design of some kind (I chose an ‘impossible triangle’ formed from three different hardwoods). I’m now working on the larger ‘shoeshine’ box, which is a traditional design with a drawer and a removable tray. I’ve been learning the use of quite a range of manual and power tools, including a router, which I’ve decided is on my must-have list once I’m in a position to start building things in the outside world again.

It’s not simply an educational workshop, but takes commissions from departments in this and other prisons, as well as local organisations. At the moment there’s a small production line for exceptionally high quality hardwood benches. For the time and attention to detail each individual part receives, I don’t imagine they could be sold economically if they were produced outside, but when each of the workers is paid only £10.60 per week, the cost of materials becomes the dominant factor. Some people in the workshop are highly skilled, and importantly seem able to work in a mindful way. It can be a peaceful place to work in all aspects except the literal – there’s no real time pressure, and an emphasis on quality over productivity, but I spend most of my day wearing ear-defenders …

In other news, it became clear over the summer that nobody else was going to volunteer to write the Christmas play, so I’ve put together another slightly unorthodox skit, which I might share with you at some point. Rehearsals seem to be going well now, and our new managing Chaplain required only relatively minor edits.   If I had a free hand, the whole thing would be much darker and more surreal, but I accept the need for it to be essentially ‘panto’ in its silliness. I’ve made it clear that it’s somebody else’s turn next year … even though it’ll be my last Christmas in prison (is that a faint light I can see at the end of the tunnel?).

The Listeners celebrated 25 years of service this year, and I’ve been working as a volunteer for over a year now. While the last few weeks have been busy, we’re all braced for a sharp uptick in general stress levels in the next couple of months, because finally it looks like the smoking ban will actually be implemented. I haven’t said much about this lately, as we had a number of false starts and shifted deadlines, but this time it really seems to be happening. As of last week, nobody has been able to buy any tobacco products here, and from 5th December all smoking requisites will become contraband items.

Already members of staff are banned from smoking anywhere on the site, and five of the fourteen blocks have gone smoke-free. People’s purchases were monitored for signs of stockpiling, and fairly harsh standard tariffs have been drawn up for possession offences. Indications from other prisons that have already taken the plunge are that internal adjudications (known as ‘nickings’) are likely to rise three-fold. This is not just from people being found with tobacco, but also because of an increased level of scuffles and general unrest. There are potentially interesting times ahead in the run-up to Christmas.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the ban, but for those who are less keen, in addition to the ‘stick’ of adjudications, the prison appears to be offering at least a little carrot. When tobacco disappeared from our weekly shopping list (known as the ‘canteen’), the range of other available items suddenly increased by more than 50%. I’m now very pleased to be able to easily get hold of peppermint tea, mango chutney, and olives, to name but a few. I have also heard fairly strong rumours that it may not be all that long before we’re allowed to wear our own clothes all the time, which would be quite a step forward for HMP Arbitrary.   I’ll believe it when it’s happened though.

The Psychology Department has recently been subjecting me to a series of interviews and psychometric tests, which has been informative. All along I’ve been told that my risk of re-offending is too low for me to qualify for any rehabilitative programmes, but after I nudged them quite a lot they agreed to assess me. They’re now essentially trying to build a business case to justify funding my course. Conclusions so far include that the results of three different Baron-Cohen screening tests for Autistic Spectrum Disorder indicate that I might be on the spectrum, but a formal diagnosis is ‘not clinically appropriate at this time’. The results of my IQ assessment have been dangerous fodder for my ego, so I keep reminding myself that there are around 15,000,000 people in the world who are cleverer than me and that nobody likes a smart-arse.   I await their final conclusions, and hope that they’ll finally give me the opportunity to formally work through the reasons I ended up here.

Finally, I’ve decided to write very little about either Brexit or Trump. Both have significantly dented my faith in humanity, and it’s all rather troubling.   Two questions though: what would happen if we took the EU poll again having seen some of the difficulties it’s already causing? (I’m not sure, but it would be interesting); and, how on earth can the US have such an absurd system of presidential election whereby one candidate can get significantly more votes, but the other one gets in?  Seriously world, I go to prison for a few years and look at the mess you end up making …





This year’s fractal clouds seem closer;
something’s subtly shifted,
lifted – though the mist’s still drifting.
I think of you, and can’t say why
the sweep of skies is wider
out beyond the wire horizons.
Out there the wind still sighs
through tops of trees
whose trunks I never see;
the bees tell me the world’s the same,
that nothing’s changed
unless it’s me.

A wider world is hard to hold
in mind
when mine’s so small –
for all the ways I fill my time.
And when I try,
I find the details clog my head.
But still, you’re always somewhere there –
a thread that’s loose, abstract,
yet fast attached.

And floating
down the microscope, you’re there,
a pair of tiny rings
somehow holding everything you’ll be
in four small clumps of light and shade
that flowing years have billions made
to build familiar lines in eyes
or soft reflect a pensive smile
that I’ve not seen in so much time.

Yet, I can smile,
when your faces find me
through early morning August air;
when sunrise stillness holds a promise
of blackberries and drifting leaves
in chestnut scenes,
and I believe you’re finding joy.
Yes, I can smile,
when I see you in shades of September.


“Voting Rights and Wrongs”


It’s not often I find myself agreeing with David Cameron, and it’s partly due to one of my strong disagreements with him that I’m writing this now. I don’t know about you, but personally I was sick of the EU referendum debate before it even officially started. For that reason, I shall attempt to keep this concise. However, as I’m (il)legally prevented from participating in the democratic process (in contravention, ironically, of an EU ruling), I wanted to do something to have some kind of voice. You may recall that the idea of giving prisoners the vote makes the PM feel “physically sick”, so I hope in some small way that my writing this may contribute to his digestive distress.

I’ll set out my stall from the beginning: I want unequivocally for Britain to remain in the EU.   Yes, that’s right DC – if you’d let me vote, I’d be using that vote to agree with you. It’s confusing, I know. To be honest, it’s upsetting me a bit too – I don’t like simultaneously feeling that someone can be so horrifically wrong about one thing and yet completely right about another. Like when St Paul wrote that beautiful passage describing the nature of love in his first letter to the Corinthians, and followed it up in the next chapter with a rant about women remaining silent in church and being in submission to their husbands. But then, in a way, that’s exactly what giving prisoners the vote is all about: people are complex mixtures of good and bad, right and wrong, and everything in between. A prisoner may have transgressed against some aspect of society’s rules, but that should not define him as someone whose opinions are all therefore invalid. So here I am, giving mine.

Unusually for me, I’m not going to go into fine details or ‘facts’ about how many thousand pounds we’ll be better or worse off, nor how many jobs we’ll gain or lose, nor how much money is wasted or well-spent.   All of these things can be bent to suit whatever position you hold, and the truth is that nobody really has any idea about any of them, whatever their claims to the contrary. We’ll only find out all of that when it’s already too late, either way. Claims and counter-claims fired back-and-forth like mortars between entrenched positions have, I suspect, so far served only to engender distrust and cynicism. I realised that the whole debate had finally descended into the absurdity of a YouTube comment thread when Boris Johnson started making comparisons to Hitler (see: Godwin’s Law).

My own argument is a fairly simple matter of principle. Perhaps I’m idealistic, but I believe in the idea of people working together for the common good.   I’ve heard it said that patriotism is the erroneous belief that your own country is the best, just because you happened to be born in it. Nationalism and separatism often boil down to the simplistic dualism of ‘us’ and ‘them’, about which I’ve previously written at length. All the lines of separation we draw are arbitrary. I’ve yet to hear a list of ‘distinctive’ British values that any other European – or indeed any citizen of a post-industrial democracy – wouldn’t be likely to claim as his own. Western Europe has so far seen over seven decades of peace after centuries of intermittent war, thanks to the ever-closer co-operation of nations working together to understand and resolve their differences. This is not something to be discarded lightly.

Some people talk about laws being handed down from Brussels as though they were the diktats of some distant Caesar over whom we have no influence. The reality is that there is no ‘them’ in Brussels: we’re represented there as much as any other EU nation, and we give due input into the passing of all the statutes. Of course, in this way, we are only one fish in a large pond. But this is a fair representation of our true place in the world. To pull up the drawbridge in sociopathic self-interest is to be the petulant child who stomps off, declaring “I’m not playing any more!”, just because he couldn’t always get his own way.

What problems there are with the administration of the EU surely just give all the more reason to continue working to make it better, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As a species, we are likely to face much bigger challenges in the next century than whether there are too many Polish people taking the jobs that no Britons seem prepared to do anyway. Shortsighted parochialism is only going to hinder global efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, slow the spread of oppressive ideologies, or mitigate the effects of climate change. Separation is always going to be a retrograde step that will increase divisions and amplify perceived differences.

I don’t have a vote in the EU referendum, but if you’re reading this then maybe you do. Perhaps you weren’t planning to vote, because you’re not too sure either way.   If that’s the case, then I’d like to ask a favour: don’t waste your vote, but give it to me. Go out on June 23rd, and vote to stay in the EU, as I would if my rights were being upheld. Whether you’re a fan of the PM or not, this is your opportunity to simultaneously please and annoy him …







9th June, 2016

I think you’d love me better now
(not that you could, or should).
I’ve been working on sides that I
was hiding (from)
like a polygon
cautiously probing the third dimension.

I didn’t believe in emotions
because they don’t make sense
(but in their defence,
neither does wave-particle duality),
and in my recent reality
I still don’t believe in salad
(though I know it exists),
but I eat it, now and then.

And again, there are things I
(‘believe’ is too strong)
that I said I never could (I was wrong).
Like uncertainty, unprovability,
and things bigger than me
(like mice, or most things really).
Though of course (being me)
I still have to approach

Now I’ll seek (like a leech)
to feed on emotion
and find empathy with the troubling notions
of minds unconnected to mine
(so far I’ve not told myself why);
and sometimes I’ll let myself cry
at the predicted progression
of a plot full of holes
while I silence (and softly console)
my inner voice of derision.

But now don’t mistake me
(as I have, and I do, time to time);
I can still be the one
(calculating and cold)
who weighs and measures all with dispassion
(disregarding all feeling and soft intuition)
who, untroubled, would photograph tears newly cried:
because all data is sacred.

Still, I think now I see
(at least, more often)
that there’s more to the data than information:
areas that aren’t found by integration;
spaces between certainties where something’s just ‘right’,
the places between pixels
where love meets light.

Then I’ll wake
(in the dark)
in a haze of joined-up-thinking
and comprehend, for a moment,
the whole of something.
where my life has left yours.
I can’t live there for long,
but now I can visit.