“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.

“Another Year”

Date of Writing : 31/12/2014

Early December marked the first anniversary of my arrival in prison, and it’s felt like a positive milestone; with one down, I feel like the rest can be done. Not long after this anniversary, following nearly nine months of misplaced forms, incompetence, indifference, and foot-dragging, I finally obtained my ‘Enhanced’ status. I can now look forward to a new year of double the available visits (up to six per month, at an extended 2 hours each) and various other minor benefits such as being able to buy a DVD player. Oh, and I’m also now officially allowed to have the job I’ve been doing for the last three months anyway.

The library continues to be a positive source of sanity-maintaining human interaction for me, and I’m grateful to be accepted into its quirky clique. The job’s few downsides – such as being sworn at at some point during most weeks, occasionally being physically threatened, and just the general battering one takes in attempting to keep up to two dozen inmates from the drug and alcohol rehabilitation wing calm and contained despite their inability to grasp the concept of a queue – are very much outweighed by its upsides. I have easy access to books (approximately 8,000 of them), daily newspapers, CDs (both audio books and some music too), and DVDs (over 700), and I’ve even been able to keep my hand in with a little light programming – albeit using the horrific offence against programming paradigms that is Visual Basic in Excel. Library spreadsheets have never been so funky. The barcode-scanning laptop has acquired the name ‘Chewbacca’, as a result of the authentic wooky noise it has (ahem) somehow started making whenever someone has an overdue loan or tries to borrow too many books.

The recent wet weeks took their toll on the leaky library roof, and we weren’t quite able to catch all the drips. As a result, I came in on the Monday of Christmas week to discover a small cluster of pale, tough, brackety-looking mushrooms growing obstinately from the carpet in the middle of the aisle. I was all for seeing how they developed, but Ms. Umbrage feared (probably quite accurately) that someone would harvest and try to smoke them or similar. In any case, it’s clearly well overdue that we should finally be moving to temporary accommodation in January in advance of the current structure being replaced. I’ll believe it once it’s happened though. As an aside, while providing cover during Sarah’s well-earned leave that week, Ms. Umbrage had good enough cheer to bring the offering of a tub of Roses chocolates and some pork pies. Perhaps I’m too hasty to judge her, or maybe it ‘s really part of some wider, more sinister scheme …

Christmas here has actually felt fairly festive overall – the pair of collared doves even put in an appearance on Christmas day after a long absence. I didn’t like to point out to them that they were a day early and were also the wrong kind of doves. The sparsely decorated and somewhat pathetic tree on our wing was mysteriously replaced with a bushier one at some point, but I can only assume people have found a nefarious use for the bulbs in the fairy lights, as so many have gone missing now that it’s not worth even plugging them in to try and turn them on.

There was an early carol service in the chapel, to which numerous outside visitors were invited, and which was also attended by a significant group of senior management staff. As it was organised (although that’s probably a strong word) by Fred, our Nigerian Pentecostal chaplain, it was mildly chaotic for anyone expected to provide music. Despite numerous requests, neither myself nor “the band” (which has sprung up – to my mild relief – without my membership) had any idea what we were expected to play, and yet somehow Fred had contrived to print programmes which included all the words to the carols while still keeping us in the dark.

In the initial flurry of figuring out what was actually going on, Andy – the band’s guitarist – managed to accidentally head-butt me directly in front of the Governor by turning around suddenly while rushing to get a music book. In the end we concluded I might as well sit this one out while the band winged it. I perched at the back on the overflow seating (immensely uncomfortable PE-style benches) and braced myself for an omnishambles. As it happened, I was somewhat uncharitably almost disappointed when it failed to completely fall apart. Aside from some questionable organ playing, a slightly ill judged rendition of ‘Wishing On A Star’ that included a cringeworthy rap section, and a protracted radio communications network test cutting through the readings, it actually went fairly well. Even the apparently blunderbuss-applied chapel decorations seemed to help kick off a pleasantly festive atmosphere.

It was probably as well that I did sit that one out, as over the week-and-a-bit around Christmas I played in six other services as well as a couple of less formal chapel meetings. ‘Carol fatigue’ begins to set in after a while (a phrase which incidentally reminds me of a slightly insane girlfriend I had once). However, the Catholic ‘midnight mass’ – which we of course had at 10am on Christmas Eve – was a great success, and I actually found it quite moving. A fantastic choir came in from the nearby town, bringing a superb pianist with them, and put together with the two guitars and a clarinet the overall sound was pretty impressive – especially considering we’d had no opportunity to rehearse as a group beforehand.

One member of the choir was moved to tears by the communion reflection (penned and excellently read by an inmate), and I confess to finding it difficult to swallow for a bit after the final wonderfully harmonised chorus of ‘Hark The Herald Angels’. As much as anything, I was moved by the choir’s faith in us as worthwhile humans, rather than simply labelling and dismissing us as criminals (of which perhaps more in a later post). After that, I couldn’t help but imagine Christmas Day itself would be an anticlimax.

Anticlimax is perhaps a strong word but Fred’s Christmas Day service displayed a similar lack of coherence and focus as the first carol service. At least this time I knew all the chosen songs, but he still insisted on changing the order as he went along (without telling me). This led to me getting slightly flustered and playing one number sans-capo, three semitones too low (with mildly entertaining results), as well as my fluffing of an intro to another, which caused the congregation to start on the wrong note entirely and proceed thus inexorably. However, it was nonetheless festive enough, and Fred even managed to get us back in good time for lunch (which is unusual).

As for lunch itself, the traditional turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, a pig in a blanket, and (as I was later to discover, dramatically flatulence-inducing) sprouts, were provided in abundance. Indeed, the mass of my plateful was enough to cause my arm to ache a little by the time I reached my usual table. Marked out by Larry’s tongue-in-cheek Christmas ‘RESERVED’ sign, said table was (as is often the case) occupied by Larry himself, Winston, and Mike. The latter of this group I don’t believe I’ve mentioned before, but he has been inside more than thirty years. He is quite autistic, and I could probably devote a whole post to why he should have been released long ago; however that’s a horse I shan’t climb on just now.

A dessert of Christmas pudding and custard was followed by the all-too-swift provision of yet more food, making it not so unlike any other Christmas Day to some degree (aside from the absence of alcohol). Indeed, this month has been one of a slight excess of food in general. This was due at least in part to the over-purchase of cheeses (as is again a Christmas tradition) by Colin and myself. Stilton and Brie appeared on the canteen and we didn’t want to miss out should supplies be limited. However, the Brie I’ve had keeping (moderately) cool by the window vent for a few weeks now may actually have crossed a line. The degree of ammonia exuded when I tried some on a New Year’s Eve digestive biscuit earlier was actually slightly eye watering.

So here I sit now, moments before midnight, as a camera pans across the Thames in anticipation of the fireworks. There – 2015 has just been greeted by a chorus of door kicking, shouts, and whistles echoing through the wing. Distant shell bursts sound across the fields as a new year begins. The digits have ticked over to bring my release date psychologically that little bit closer. Life goes on in here just as it does elsewhere, and as I survey the array of cards on my wall and think of the many letters, emails, phone calls, and visits I’ve had in the last year, I know I have much to be thankful for. Thank you, all of you who keep in touch, and indeed those of you who don’t, yet are still reading this. I send you my love as I look ahead to another year.