“Highly Strung Paperclips”

Date of writing : 10/06/2014

I’m both surprised and delighted to be able to tell you that I now have a guitar.  I had begun to be concerned that the Wing Governor’s imminent retirement might render worthless my months of attrition.  However, it seems he was true to his word, and almost as a parting shot he personally placed the order form into the hands of the relevant administrative officer, issuing orders that I was to be allowed it on his direct authority.  The way he phrased it to me was that “his reputation was at stake” in ensuring he delivered on a final promise before he left.  He’ll be sadly missed, as he was actually a very reasonable man – although many officers said he was too soft.  It’s probably an indication of the incumbent’s contrasting style that after three weeks I’ve still not seen him on the wing, nor do I even know his name.

But so it was that not long after the Governor’s departure, I was called to reception.  This is something that happens erratically and without notice, usually at the weekend.  As I’d ordered a second lot of five CDs some weeks earlier, I assumed it was to collect these; after so much administerial prevarication in the preceding months, it didn’t even cross my mind it would be the guitar.  So when the large and approximately triangular box was handed to me, instead of being immediately overcome with happiness, I simply expressed my discontent that it wasn’t a pile of CDs! – such is the confusion of unfulfilled expectation.  “CDs?” said the officer “It says here they came through the post, so they’re Not For Issue”.  Pausing a moment, I took a deep breath, and with a feeling of déjà vu – noting at this point that I was essentially dealing with a character from a Kafka novel – I turned and walked away, knowing this was not an argument I could win.

Thankfully, the growing realisation of long-awaited guitar ownership quickly overcame my CD-related disappointment.  I didn’t even wait to get back to the wing before extracting it from the packaging.  I quickly had it tuned up and was playing it in the surprisingly enhancing acoustic environment of the holding box (where I had to wait while I waited for others to be processed).  I have to say, I’m impressed.  Having paid only £80 for it, I was expecting something pretty basic and uninspiring, but I’ve been unexpectedly pleased.  It’s a Martin Smith (of whom I’ve never previously heard) Chinese-made electro-acoustic with a high-fret cutaway.  The pickup is a basic under-bridge piezo type and is unlikely to see much use in here, but is good to have nonetheless.  It has a rosewood fret board with inlaid mother-of-pearl swallows on the key frets, each with its wings in a different flight position.  This could be tacky, but it’s nicely done and I think the effect is aesthetically quite good.   The front of the body is pale natural wood with a gloss lacquer, and an inlaid pearlescent trim around the edge.  Around the sound hole there’s a similar pattern but close inspection reveals this is a decal rather than an inlay.  There is no scratchplate, but I’m more of a picker than a strummer, and what strumming I do is well-targeted so I like the neatness of its absence.  The back and sides are glossy black, as is the neck and headstock.

More important than all of this is of course the sound.  I am pleasantly surprised at how well balanced it is.  The guitar I’d been playing around town before I came in has seen better days.  I’ve had it well over twenty years and it’s been around a lot of campfires and damp tents in that time, and fallen off at least one table.  The sound has become, well, muddy – even with new strings.  Now that I’ve adjusted the truss rod (with the help of a convenient guitar-building inmate) the action on the Martin Smith is consistent and easy-playing.  It produces a sound that’s bright without being too harsh, and holds enough of the mellow bass notes to be warm without any excessive booming resonance.  In summary, I’m delighted!  Much entertainment has already been had – by me and indeed others – and my fingertips are regaining their distinctive calluses.   Sadly, I’ve already broken two strings, but in so doing have been amazed to find it possible to repair them using paperclips – something I’d not previously considered would even be worthy trying.  As with many things here though, it seems necessity really is the mother of invention.



“Much Ado About Nothing”

“Much Ado About Nothing”    

Date of writing : 27/04/2014

‘What’s been happening? And where have you been?’   I imagine I hear you ask. Well, the short answers are ‘not much’, and ‘the same place’, but once I start writing I expect it will emerge that neither is completely true. Much as I plan a vague outline of these posts in my head before I start writing, I’m often surprised what comes out once I get going. This is why I usually write the title last. I’ll start by listing a few of the slightly interesting things that have happened recently. Thankfully none of them involve chessboards.

Easter happened, of course, and for many of you that probably meant a little over- indulgence in some way. I have to confess that I had rather more hot cross buns on Good Friday than was perhaps entirely necessary, but my chocolate consumption on Easter Sunday consisted of a single Crème Egg (I should remind you at this point that I only promised ‘slightly’ interesting). The Easter Sunday ecumenical service included two baptisms in a somewhat incongruous paddling pool, resulting in large wet footprints across a significant fraction of the carpet tiles. The Catholic deacon is trying to nudge me in the direction of baptism and confirmation myself – those who’ve read my recent post on agnosticism will realise he’s perhaps a little premature. Although I was amused, and curiously satisfied, to hear the Baptist chaplain describe herself to me as ‘probably an agnostic really’ a few weeks back. It may explain why I get on with her so well – she’s anything but dogmatic. As it stands, I’ve changed my official listed religion to Roman Catholic as a ‘flag of convenience’. This seems to be keeping everyone happy enough for the moment.

I finally got the CDs I ordered – a very helpful Senior Officer worked his magic with Reception. Yesterday, he also brought me my headphones, the saga of which I don’t think I related here, but you can probably imagine. (The trouble centred on the cable being decreed slightly too long, and the rest unfolded with a distressing inevitability). The main thing is I’ve got them now, even though they should have arrived with my stereo however many weeks ago. I’ve decided to label the S.O. in question ‘ Mr Red’, as he does seem to be able to locate things from time to time.

I’ve acquired a pair of prison issue blue jeans, and they even fit me. These are a welcome change from essentially wearing thick pyjamas all day. I don’t really know why this is significant – I almost never wore jeans in the real world, generally finding them uncomfortable – but I think it probably just makes me feel a little more human. It’s made me more keen to get Enhanced status so I can wear my own clothes. So, realising I’ve reached the point of meeting the enhancement criteria, on Wednesday I submitted a carefully written application to this end. Yesterday, it came back under my door, bafflingly un-annotated or commented on in any way. I can only imagine some helpful officer saw that the form had something stapled to it and assumed it must be a reply, so sent it back to me without even reading it. I’ve put it back in the box again, and I’m hoping this time that before appearing in my cell again it might encounter someone with an IQ greater than that of my secondary school PE teacher.

Some time ago, I applied to become a ‘Toe by Toe’ mentor for the Shannon Trust. This is a scheme whereby inmates help other inmates to learn to read (literacy levels among prisoners are shocking). In a startling example of near-efficiency, I’ve now not only had fairly informative training for this, but I’ve also been allocated my first learner. After a couple of sessions with him, I think I’m going to find it rewarding – if a bit tiring. Thankfully I’ll only be teaching people who actually want to learn. This is in marked contrast to my brief stint as a secondary school teacher – one of the main reasons I quit – along with my massive planning anxiety and the fact that I quickly reached the conclusion that the system was somehow broken and I couldn’t do anything to fix it.

Alongside all of this, the ebb and flow of my fellow inmates has continued unabated. Marley’s pool-playing cellmate Dick was shipped off to another prison some time ago.   Scott of the helicopter story has been moved closer to home prior to release. A pair on remand for murder were acquitted. White Tyson, whom I only mentioned in passing, was released – but last thing I heard, his plan for the outside was to ‘rob a shop’, so I’ve a feeling he may be back. There are a few of these sad stories around…

Ferret has basically grown up in YOIs and prisons, and is now in his early 20s. He says he’s only been ‘on the road’ (as he puts it) for 18 months since he was 12.   I don’t know how true that is, as he’s shown on many occasions his ability to earnestly profess outright lies, but I suspect this trait in itself may be evidence of such a history.   He was released about a month ago, causing much outrage: he’d lied about his Court date, and variously owed people on the wing what amounted to the GDP of a small African nation. He managed to disappear several days before people were expecting him to. I hoped for his sake he’d stay out this time – in a strange way I feel protective of him, despite his more objectionable characteristics. But today, here he is again, back in corned beefs. Breach of licence – I don’t know what, and I probably don’t want to – it’s just sad.

Some people seem constitutionally incapable of doing the right thing for themselves. Calvin – the wheeler-dealer of the chess set scam – has been caught (by the sniffer dog) twice in the space of three weeks, brewing hooch. You’d think he’d have got the message by now, but his minions were out in force last week collecting oranges. I honestly can’t understand why anybody would consider risking their eyesight to drink it anyway. Sure, I’d love a drink, but a ‘good’ drink, not just some weird-tasting danger liquid to get me slightly tipsy.

There have been a few more black eyes, and consequent blue cards (what people on Basic get outside their door instead of the Standard white of Enhanced yellow). On the other wings the discontent rumbles on, albeit at a lower level; the general alarms are fewer now. Ahmed’s still here, with a new and surprisingly tolerant cellmate. I still talk to him on occasion, and he tells me a psychiatric assessment has suggested he may be schizophrenic, and the Courts are talking about moving him to a secure hospital. I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or not – much as I struggle to see how he’d manage in normal society, I fear if he’s hospitalised he’ll never get out.

On a lighter note, I’ve discovered it’s worth spending 43p instead of 35p on Instant Noodles. The extra 8p gets you hydrolysed vegetable protein instead of monosodium glutamate. It’s a smoother flavour – a subtler high – and the ‘Super Chow Mein’ ones come with no fewer than four flavour sachets, including soy sauce and chilli flakes.   I’ll even go to the effort of ‘cooking’ these – they taste almost like real food.

I’ve also discovered that if I crouch down in the corner up against the door, I can’t be seen through the door flap. This can provide some entertainment come the 9pm roll check, as an officer stares in bafflement at an apparently under-occupied cell before being startled by my sudden reappearance in a variety of styles.   The evening staff are often bored, and thence thankfully fairly tolerant of such antics. I think it’ll get old pretty quickly though.

So, that’s what’s been happening. More than I perhaps thought, as I suggested when I started writing. As for where I’ve been, well, physically I haven’t gone far. But I do try to keep my mind travelling.   Up next: a little more about where it’s been recently.