“Spring Walks and Stargazing”

Date of writing: 07/03/2015

There was a definite feel of Spring in the air as I came back from the chapel this afternoon. One unexpected benefit of the protracted demolition and re-erection of the library has been the scenic detours that are currently necessary to get to the temporary library, the gym, or indeed the chapel. The location of the construction work in what is essentially a central thoroughfare means that what would normally be a journey of around fifty yards is extended to probably closer to a thousand. Not generally having the opportunity to walk very far in a straight line, this is something I welcome. The 101 steps that make up a circuit of the yard take around 56 seconds, and I probably do this something approaching 300 times in a week. While this is much less boring than it sounds – particularly with good company – there are more interesting sights to be seen along the perimeter road.

There are two choices of route, which are much of a muchness in length, one roughly along the eastern perimeter, and the other along the western, forming most of a loop. The grounds are well maintained by a small army of semi-slave labour (while garden work is among the highest paid in the prison, this still works out at only a little over 83p an hour), and there are now hundreds of daffodils and crocuses starting to provide splashes of colour along the bases of fences and scattered through flower beds. The western road has a fairly unobstructed feel, affording views of open skies beyond the wall. It also takes us past the large triangle of gardens between B and C wings, which is intended to aid the rehabilitation of those prisoners recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. In addition to growing various food crops, this area has a number of ornamental sections, including a small pond with a wooden bridge over it. The temporary library is at the north end of this road, tucked between poly-tunnels, chickens, and the building that comprises the gym and the chapel.

The eastern road is perhaps the better used, leading as it does from the main administration blocks to the euphemistically titled ‘Care and Separation Unit’, better know as the Seg or the Block.   This route passes the remains of a significant section of half-dismantled railway line on a slight embankment, which was once used to train inmates in railway maintenance.   Opposite this, in another large triangle between wings, is an Astroturf pitch surrounded by grass, which in good weather is used for football and bowls. My new window looks out on this area, facing roughly to the south.   Between the railway and the Seg is a small shrubbery – with some minor attempts at topiary – which has a few benches that mostly only gardeners end up sitting on, as it’s in a red Band area.

Our wing’s yard is opposite the shrubbery and the Seg, and heading back today in the warm sunlight, the Catholic lay chaplain opened the gate and let me take a shortcut this way back to the wing. Larry was out on ‘exercise’ and after walking with him a while, we decided to sit on one of the yard’s benches and enjoy the sunshine.   As I had my guitar with me, I played a while and sang a little, enjoying for a change the way the sound flowed into the open air. I think the last time I played outside was about a month before I came to prison, when I spent a pleasant evening round a large bonfire at a friend’s firework party in the wilds of Norfolk. I hope that this guitar will get to see its share of campfires. All in good time.

Now as I sit in my cell writing this, I can see the Moon, slightly waning from the full, as it rises in the south east. Jupiter is shining brightly in spite of the moonlight, and there are a few scattered stars defeating the best efforts of the sodium floodlights. In the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of three planets being simultaneously visible in the early evening sky. Venus has been impressive, but the less common sight of the fainter and clearly red-tinted Mars I have found somehow more fascinating. There is also some poetry in the near-conjunction of the Roman gods of love and war.

Much as the lengthening days bring warmth and crocuses, when the clocks change in a few weeks, my evening walks will no longer be after sunset, and my stargazing will be limited again for a while. Autumn always was my favourite season, and now I’ve another reason to look forward to it.





“An Education”

An Education

Date of writing : 16/11/2014

The Education department here at HMP Different offers a reasonable variety of courses, but the assertion in a recent edition of the prison newsletter that the sky is “quite literally” the limit, has turned out to be a scandalous exaggeration; indeed, my enquiries about learning to pilot a helicopter have been thus far met with blank stares and bafflement.   One of the first things I noticed on my induction to Education some months ago was the amusing juxtaposition of signage on the door to one classroom. Just below a sign indicating that the room is for “Personal and Social Development” (and a friendly WordArt arch of letters saying “Welcome to your class!!”) is a notice that reads “WARNING: The carpet may be damp. Please take care as the floor may be slippery.” As an introduction to the baseline of expected academic achievement, it makes P&SD sound as though it may start with basic bodily function control.

However, I have for some time been spending one morning a week studying for a GCSE in English Literature. Now, technically, I do already have one of those, but I’ve long been disappointed with the grade I attained, so I’m seeing this as a chance to redeem myself. There are eight of us in the class, of which it was recently noted I am the youngest (despite being the one currently having the most facial hair). Our tutor, Ivana, is a forty-something Russian existentialist who in a different era wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Paris café pointedly tapping the ash from a black cigarette as she discussed Dostoevsky with a goatee’d man in a polo neck. Much as these classes can be tiring, I’m grateful for the intellectual punctuation they provide to my week.

The academic level is high, and the choice of texts ambitious. I think it unlikely that there are many at secondary school who’ve been given Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ to study, and if there are any at all then I doubt whether the analysis of the text would be followed to quite such a depth as Ivana seems to take it. There are several who have already dropped out – including Larry – and we are often reminded that the remainder are expected to get a minimum of an “A” grade. Frankly, It’s nice to be stretched for a change.

The atmosphere can occasionally descend into something approximating to a panel show, with serious discussions being interspersed with comic quips and sly one-upmanship. My own position seems to sway from teacher’s pet (with one essay photocopied and excruciatingly dissected as an exemplar), to being the subject of Ivana’s complaints about excessive sarcasm or receiving withering looks for the use of contrived puns. I’m mercilessly mocked by several of the others for my title, which was discovered when I had to provide evidence of my most recent qualification. The use of air quotes around “Doctor” is now apparently de rigueur – as though I were Gillian McKeith – and this included during their singing of Happy Birthday to me recently. Of course, I try to give as good as I get, and generally people take it in turns to be the subject of derision. What I describe may sound like a terrible atmosphere for learning, but of course these are the extremes highlighted for comic effect. In general there is camaraderie and an air of mutual encouragement.

The Education department as a whole has the same mixture of high technology and steam power as the rest of the prison, with the former frequently being ineptly operated and/or maintained, and the latter fettering the former with its restrictive anachronism. We have the wonder of ‘smart boards’ in the classrooms, which I still find futuristic despite having used them many times before.   Nonetheless, I am completely unsurprised that the copy of Windows running on the board in our Literature classroom pops up with frequent notifications to warn that “You may be a victim of software counterfeiting”, and Word has a constantly red bar at the top exclaiming that its product activation has failed. I have to say; it was entertaining to see one of the tutors attempting to write on a piece of paper with a smart board pen a few days ago.

There is a thriving art class, and one of the first things I see on my way to Literature is a five-foot-wide version of Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus (of all things), albeit somewhat re-interpreted.   There are many skilled artists here, including Winston – a man of French African origin – who has painted me some excellent small note cards, including a fine watercolour reproduction of a Picasso.   As an aside, I’ve previously mentioned Larry’s skill with matchstick building, and I was looking today at the progress of his most recent project, which is a full-size ukulele. It’s genuinely brilliant – he’s found a supplier for the machine heads, strings, and bridge, and is now trying to source some hardwood for the fret board. I really believe it’s going to work, and I hope he can finish it in time for Christmas, as it’s intended as a gift.

The library is technically a branch of the Education department, and as such behind the counter – for reasons unclear – we have the desks of two Education staff members who are completely unconnected with the running of the library itself. One of these is the arch-nemesis of Sarah-the-Human, Ms. Umbrage. Aside from her unfortunate predisposition for adhering to the letter of rules and regulations, beneath Ms. Umbrage’s companionable veneer often lurks unspoken disapproval and an inclination to petty meddling. She appears by default to dislike Sarah’s choice of orderlies, and for a while I seemed high on her hit list.   More recently though, my fellow orderly and chapel multi-instrumentalist ‘A’ appears to be the one more out of favour (she’s always seemed somewhat against ‘B’ who is the third – and part-time – orderly). We’ve concluded in any case that if Ms. Umbrage is around, then clarinet/guitar jazz improv is not an option. However, when the cat is away, the mice will play (instruments), which can be a lot of fun.

Speaking of instruments, I’ve finally managed to get some new strings for my guitar. We have an approved supplier – apparently a small shop somewhere in Oxfordshire – which was able to provide me not only with some phosphor-bronze D’Addario’s, but also a good quality capo and a small tin containing more picks than I’m ever likely to use. My improvised Argos-pen-and-trouser-elastic capo served me well, but I have felt no sadness in letting it go.   I was also beginning to think I’d need to cut myself a pick from a margarine tub or similar. Most importantly, I can finally relax while re-tuning and stop fearing the loss of an eye due to paperclip failure. Plus, decent strings really bring out the surprisingly well-balanced tone of the guitar.

The dark evening have made basic stargazing a possibility of late, and it’s been great to re-acquaint myself with familiar constellations. Over the summer, I went nearly three months without seeing the moon, but over the last month or so I’ve encountered it low on the horizon in full glory and have been able to follow its waxing and waning at intervals. The brightest star in my most easily viewable patch of sky is currently Capella. I mention this only because an aside about its distance from Earth (42 light years) led to a discussion on the question of how long it would take to get there. A few sides of scribbled maths later, I realised this was a more difficult question than I had first imagined.   I’ve now embarked on a journey to refresh my memory on the subject of Special Relativity – one of my lowest degree marks, if I recall correctly – and I hope to thus have something of an answer in due course. So it is that I continue to patch up my past educational lapses by both formal and informal means. Being here, it seems, is an education in more ways than one.




“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.