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.


“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.

“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.