27th August, 2017

First grief was a broken stone,
cleft by the troubled frost
of a season come too soon.
It fell clattering from the crag
to lodge awhile – jagged, sharp –
in the icy waters of the gill, until
a spring melt swept it down the scar.

And though I knew the sting of each
and every knock against unyielding rock,
by tick, by tock,
I watched the corners wear and flake
all in the ache of summer rain.
So slow it came to lower slopes
where patient depths could weigh a softer frame
against a brighter sky
reflected in the rolling swell.

Now tumbling with the flow,
each turn of days erodes a little more.
Ahead perhaps are falls
and rapids yet unmapped;
the fleeting squalls can dark the glass
and yet they pass
to leave a stillness deepened.

Some day, out on the spreading plain I’ll stand
to watch the trees aflame with setting sun,
and find there on the bank
of a sandy wide meander,
such a smooth and weathered pebble
to fit neatly, lightly, in my palm.
Till then, I’ll keep you close,
and bear you gently through the storms,
on the moving currents of my heart.




May, 2017

There’s a no-man’s land between you and I;
a band of grey, brown tufted through,
bare metres wide and lined in razor heights:
a margin,
where Nature scribbles her faltering pen.

My side, she writes constrained:
a close-controlled, redacted chapter;
for you the land’s bestrewn with reams
cast by her sweeping arm,
where kestrels dive from blue
through wanton arcs of vivid ink
to sink in yellow fields
and rise triumphant.

Yet heedless are the ones who perch
plump and unconcerned,
this side or that,
to murmur greetings that disturb our faith
in the rulings of the clumsy quill of man.

“The Chamber of Insanity”


One of the (many) frustrating things about prison life is the limited control I have over exactly where I’m living.  The accommodation in this prison covers almost the full gamut of possibilities, from reasonably-sized rooms with en-suite shower and windows that actually open, down to the human equivalent of a rabbit hutch a mere 5½ feet wide and a little longer than a bed.  The latter unfortunately necessitates sleeping with your head only inches from a toilet and having a sink double-up as a desk by means of a covering board.  Having temporarily relinquished my right to self-determination, I’m unfortunately at the whim of the machine, and could at any moment be told to move anywhere.  This in theory extends to a movement to any prison anywhere in the country, with the only required justification being the slightly Orwellian phrase “for operational reasons”.

Thankfully, however, those in charge of such decisions are – especially after recent inmate uprisings – well aware of the concept of governance by mutual consent, so in practice we do tend to have some say.  The degree of influence a person has will, it seems, mostly depend on how much of a pain-in-the-arse he’s made himself in the past.  This is one of many reasons it’s best to try to avoid biting the hand that feeds you.

Having been in the same room for nearly 18 months – by far the longest I’ve stayed in one place – it was with a little trepidation that I received the news I’d likely be ‘asked’ to move upstairs in a few days; much as the rooms on this block are all basically the same in terms of layout (barring left-right reflection), there are always differences – for example in state of repair, temperature, and cleanliness (I’ll get back to this one).  Neighbours are also a consideration – they can be friendly, noisy, complainy, helpful, needy, or indeed genuinely insane.  I’ve mostly been lucky, but you never can tell.  So, there’s always apprehension at a potentially adverse change – although I suppose it’s not so much the fear of the unknown, as the fear of the loss of the known. There’s a comfort in the familiar, however uncomfortable it may be in truth.  As it was, I was quite content with my lodgings, so just didn’t really much fancy moving, but… ho-hum.

Now, the previous occupant of my proposed new room was well-known for not quite being the full shilling.  Nice enough chap, but had a tendency to rave-dance to a soundtrack only he could hear, and rant aggressively at passing helicopters – I get the impression he took a lot of pills in the ’90s.  It turns out he also wasn’t that great at looking after himself or his surroundings.  I remember this room under the tenancy of its previous occupant, and it was immaculate.  In the space of only a few months, however, it somehow deteriorated to one of the worst states I’ve seen at HMP Arbitrary.  With hindsight, he probably should have been having help from one of the volunteer Social Care Advocates before it got anywhere near as bad, but it was a little late for that.  I’ll spare the full details, but I still don’t understand how he got dried food splats on the underside of a bottom drawer, or managed to make the outside of the windows worse than the inside.  I did however take encouragement form the fact that it didn’t actually smell too bad.

One of my new neighbours wanted to help out, and has the added bonus of literally being an Obsessive Compulsive cleaner; if he notices a mark on his floor he’ll stay up until the small hours to make sure everything has been done to remove it.  I understand this is actually quite debilitating, but he likes to put it to good use if he can.  So the two of us donned gloves, broke out the bleach, and spent about three hours of the morning scrubbing every surface back to its native hue.  This included parts of the ceiling.  It was actually quite rewarding, and once we were done, I was feeling much more comfortable as I moved my things in.  And then it started.

At first, I thought it was a passing aircraft, or perhaps the tractor from the Gardens Dept. trundling past, but it did not fade.  Indeed, it gradually built, until the sound was comparable to the engine of an articulated lorry idling a few inches from my window:  a deep, rumbling bass note, overlaid with a moderate rattle like there was a loose panel in the door of the driver’s cab.  With my door closed, it resonated around the space in such a way that I wasn’t sure whether I was hearing it or feeling it.  I became perturbed.

Some experimentation led me to pinpoint the source of the rumble: it appeared to emanate from the centre of my ceiling.  The vibration was quite palpable, and resting a hand next to the light fitting the movement seemed to have an amplitude that was a significant fraction of a millimetre.  Pushing hard on the ceiling had the effect of temporarily stopping the loose-panel part of the noise, but somehow this seemed to make the remaining rumble all the more ominous.  It was like that tense part of a horror film where you just know something terrible is about to happen because all you can hear (aside from the ragged breathing of the ill-fated protagonist) is a low, droning note from a double bass.  Suffice it to say that this was not an ideal accompaniment to restful sleep.

Although the drone didn’t continue for the whole night, this somehow made it worse, as the periods of quiet were marred by the nervous anticipation of its inevitable return.  Against such an intrusion my earplugs were useless: the frequency was so low that they appeared to have almost no effect.  I began to consider that perhaps my predecessor wasn’t quite so crazy before he came to live here.  I resolved that my fate would not be the same as his; whatever it took, I would not be spending another night in this chamber of insanity!   I envisioned myself being forcibly dragged back in, screaming lunacies about impending doom, ultimately to be carried off to end my days in a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest scenario.  Such were the meanderings of my mind in the small hours.

When morning brought another suspenseful silence, I took my concerns to the officers of the wing – in tones more measured than the above, but still with the insistence of self-preservation.  My suggestion was that I could swap with one of the several Deaf people on the wing, for whom it should present no problem.  Unexpectedly, however, we were suddenly presented with a volunteer in the form of a generally-incomprehensible Geordie dwarf.  Apparently, he’d always wanted to overlook the yard, and was currently in the room opposite the Chamber of Insanity.  After making sure we’d understood his request (I considered calling a professional interpreter), we also made certain he knew exactly what he was letting himself in for.  He was bizarrely unconcerned, and accepted all disclaimers – even after having listened carefully to the Harbinger of Doom present (albeit at some distance) above his head.  So we swapped that very afternoon.

The transition – at least, for me – has been sublime.  I have long coveted the westerly prospects offered by the upper windows on this side, and I’ve not been disappointed.  I shall describe for you my vista.   Between this building and the inner fence is a band of grass, perhaps 10 or 15 metres wide, which is roughly mown on the near and far sides but left with a broad meandering middle that contains all manner of wildflowers, nettles, small saplings, insect hotels, and bird boxes – one of which appears currently to harbour a family of blue tits.  The twin parallel fences – with a sandwich filling of a few metres of coarse gravel – are probably around 18 feet high, but the whole of the inner and the upper half of the outer is made from a mesh which can be seen through quite clearly.  Beyond this is the outside world.

A long, slug-like embankment – apparently flat and grassy on top, and scattered with a variety of young trees and shrubbery – seems to rise gradually from the left before descending to a hedgerow on the right.  Behind the embankment and hedge, not far at all from the fence, snakes a small local road, where I can see the tops of taller vehicles as they pass by.  If I look at a 45 degree angle to the right, there’s a gap in the hedge where I can see the road and some farm buildings beyond.  Quite often, I’ll hear what I imagine is a farmer shooting rabbits with what sounds like a double-barrelled shotgun (the bangs come in pairs).  A few days ago I was slightly startled to see a man on the embankment nonchalantly walking his Staffordshire bull terrier.  If he’d glanced my way I could’ve waved at him.  Perhaps I’ll go and stand there myself one day.

On the far side of the road, beyond more hedges and trees, are acres and yet more acres of open fields, which are currently painted with the brilliant yellow of rapeseed flowers.  My horizon to the left is bounded by the lights and the traffic of the A-road that passes in front of the prison – close enough to count the lorries, but far enough to keep the peace.  To the right, some distant low hills and a few lazy pylons complete the panorama to give a near-uninterrupted view of a sunset sky.  As Spring rolls on, Orion is giving way to Auriga and Gemini – constellations that are much clearer with no lights shining into my window – and I wake each morning to the twitterings of sparrows and finches, and the occasional rasping call of a pheasant in the hedgerow.

As for the rumble, I’ve come to understand that it’s caused by an unbalanced extractor fan in the roof space.  Screws have now been put into the ceiling to curb the worst of the rattle, and the diminutive North easterner seems largely to have accepted the rest.  Maybe I’m just an over-sensitive Southern softie.  In any case, it was a stressful few days, but I think it all turned out rather well in the end.

“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.

“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 …



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.