“A Miscellaneous Menagerie”

28/11/2017

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…

known.

 

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“Concerts, Deaf Culture and Coffee”   

01/08/2017

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.

“A Brexit Christmas and the Vompocalypse”

19/01/2017

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 …

“Christmas and All That

Date of writing: 31/12/2015

Well, I’d probably say that it’s been the most entertaining of the three prison Christmases I’ve had so far. The quality of the musical performances was certainly many times better than last year’s anyway. We had an audience of about 150 for the carol concert, with various senior staff, and outside guests which included a local deputy Mayor and a Suffragan Bishop (a kind of Bishop’s assistant – like Debbie McGee to Paul Daniels, but with fewer sequins). The bulk of the crowd was however made up of prisoners who’d probably signed up just to get a free mince pie, (which, as it happens, turned out to be an Eccles cake due to a mix-up at the kitchens).

We managed to get the biggest gaffe out of the way in the first few seconds, when our soloist listened carefully to the first three notes of Once in Royal David’s City (helpfully provided by a Salvation Army trumpeter), and then proceeded to start singing somewhere above all of them.   From there it was an agonising 25 seconds while he continued inexorably – and apparently oblivious – towards what should have been a moderately high D on the word ‘Mary’, but was in fact probably closer to a just-out-of-reach G#. His attempt was valiant, albeit after the kind of brief, uncertain pause taken by a cat as it carefully misjudges the distance between widely separated pieces of furniture before becoming yet another clip in a YouTube compilation.

Thankfully, mobile phones are banned in prisons, so this particular fail will soon be just an amusing anecdote as it fades from the memories of most. What was actually quite heart-warming was the response of the audience, who took it up again from the beginning and sang it through a capella in strong voice as if to say “don’t worry – we can all do it together!”. In a way, I think it did a good job of setting a festive mood: a bit of sympathetic laughter can be a good warm-up act, it seems.

By the time it came to my Christmas skit I think people were in the mood to be entertained. I’m hoping that (with the help of consultant technical editors) you should be able to download the script of Mister Jimbo from here ….   Mister Jimbo

In any case, it was well received.   The simple things seemed to get the big laughs (such as the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present as he struggled to get through the stage door in his oversized, wrapping-paper-covered box), while Jim’s mini-soliloquy on existential self-loathing actually got a small cheer. The errant soloist redeemed himself as Brian Blessed in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and I like to believe I was a passable Narrator and singing barber. Overall, I think it was the careful casting of Jim that held it all together. The über-Bishop was sat in the front row, and I’m told he was seen to laugh genuinely at the worst of Mary’s lines, so I feel I’m in the clear with the Church at least. The Governor however, was apparently on edge from the beginning when she realised the plot centred around the brewing of illicit alcohol. Her speech at the end included the word ’controversial’, but I figure if I’m not upsetting the Governor at least a little bit then I’m not doing it right. In the valedictory round of conversation, congratulation and consumption of Eccles cakes, she seemed to completely blank me, but I haven’t ended up on the Block, so she can’t have been too troubled.

Other highlights included the ‘Catholic’ band (of which I’m a part, despite being more of an agnostic existentialist Zen Quaker) singing a four-part rendition of O Holy Night, and an impressive saxophone solo during one of the choir pieces. I think we managed to use most of our technical gear simultaneously, and aside from needing to re-solder some lighting cables before it all started, everything actually seemed to work properly, which was a surprise. Almost disappointingly, nobody fell over and nothing caught fire and/or exploded. Still, there’s always next year.

After all that, Christmas Day itself was almost an anticlimax.   I shaved my beard off on Christmas Eve, just to remember what my chin looks like. Then I remembered having no beard makes my nose look big (although I’m told that in fact, “having a big nose” is what makes my nose look big).   Whatever – I’m growing it back already ‘cos my chin’s cold.   I digress… …Oooh – suddenly it’s 2016! Happy new year! I don’t know what you’re doing to celebrate, but I’m sitting here sipping peppermint tea and eating gingernuts spread with peanut butter (don’t knock it ‘til you‘ve tried it).

Where was I? Ah yes, Christmas day. The assistant Bishop was with us again, and the most entertaining part of his morning service came during his sermon. By way of seeking volunteers to come and stand holding pre-printed signs while wearing Christmas hats (to demonstrate something or other that now completely escapes me), he said “I’m looking for three wise men”. At this point a quick-witted congregant called out “If we were wise, we wouldn’t be here!”, causing the rest of the congregation to be lost to laughter for the next few minutes. I don’t suppose Bishops are used to being heckled.

Christmas lunch was moderately good, comprising actual turkey, traditional pig/blanket combination, stuffing, ‘roast’ potatoes, and Brussels sprouts among other things. I included toast to the list to mop up the gravy, which I would recommend as an unconventional addition. The Christmas pudding (with brandy-free brandy sauce) was actually rather good.   After a few slightly bizarre rounds of Bingo (which some took exceptionally seriously) the afternoon proceeded with what passes for a party, in Deaf Dave’s pad.

Some may consider Dave’s epithet offensive or politically incorrect, but he seems comfortable with it, which is what matters.   On a slight tangent, this wing houses the majority of the prison’s sign-language-using Deaf community (there can’t be more than as dozen altogether), which is proving to be an education. A couple of months back, I got into a largely gesture-based conversation with one of these chaps on the subject of ‘what unusual animals have you eaten?’ (don’t ask me how that started), when I attempted to convey the concept of a dog – by barking. At a deaf person. Rapidly realising my error, I became the subject of some ridicule for those within fully-functional earshot. Since then, Dave has been helping me learn some British Sign Language, and I now have a book to help me. Interestingly, Dave is a fellow ‘Listener’ for those with BSL as a main language.   Perhaps ‘Watcher’ might be a more accurate description.

Anyway, seven or eight of us brought various food and drink to Dave’s place in time for the Queen’s speech. Kettle Chips, pretzels, sour cream and onion crackers (‘distributed exclusively in Australia and New Zealand’, according to the packaging), Jaffa cakes, Skittles, Christmas cake, and (actual) mince pies were washed down with Orangina and Pepsi, as we all stood and loudly sang the National Anthem.   It was an odd gathering, but a fun one.   As I may have intimated before there are many amusing things I wish I could relate here, but can’t, for fear of incriminating myself or others, or at least impeding opportunities for future high jinks. Perhaps I’ll write of these things after I’m out.

For evening lock-up, we were provided with a buffet-style selection of items comprising a pork pie, sausage roll, boiled egg, cheese sandwich, passable coleslaw, and a salad with identifiable and edible contents, as well as Christmas cake and another mince pie (not Eccles cake). With a bit of pickle and judicious use of condiments it made for a fine platter.   I can only assume that the prison pushed the boat out significantly beyond our normal daily food budget of £2.07, for which I’m grateful. Thus feeling pleasantly uncomfortable, with slight indigestion, I retired to a fairly sound if flatulent sleep.

Suddenly, it was 2 am and there were two officers in my room speaking what appeared to be Greek. When I eventually regained the ability to process speech, after having been woken from what I imagine must have been the deepest phase of sleep, I asked them to repeat themselves in English (which they assured me they had been speaking all along), and they duly did. Gradually, as my logic circuits came back online, I remembered that I was the duty Listener for the evening. Christmas has been a moderately busy time for us, but I was happy to spend the early hours of Boxing Day doing something useful. Especially as I had the chance of a good nap in the afternoon.

Christmas Day being on a Friday this year, the usual round of weekend services flowed straight after it unabated, and I spent the Bank Holiday catching up with the chapel cleaning jobs that had slid during the season. Festivities are set to continue tomorrow afternoon, with a number of us playing for a Christmas singalong.   This has the potential to be cringe-makingly dire or strangely compelling, but will likely be a mixture of both. As I said at the start, it’s been entertaining. After what’s seemed like a long December, I look at 2016 with a cautiously optimistic eye, and wish you all a happy new year.