Living the Dream

In the charity shop I see a floor length vintage dress in dusky pink lace and chiffon.  I try it on because, even though I am alone behind the flimsy pine door of the cubicle, and no-one will ever see me in this sumptuous creation, it feels decadent to shed my sensible insulating winter layers and dream for a moment that I have a life that requires such attire and that I’m not headed for a muddy park in an ageing parka with worn cuffs and pockets stuffed full of doggie poo bags.  Then, in a moment of madness I buy the dress, mostly because I can do it up and didn’t think I’d be able to, but also because its good to dream.  You’ve got to have dreams.

That evening I make a late night dash to the shops and see Thomas, a homeless man who always seemed slightly other to the desperate collection of rattling junkies who worked the street alongside him. Thomas never appeared to be under the influence of anything.  He just didn’t have many teeth or a home.  I hadn’t seen him for months and tell him I’ve missed him and was worried about him.  He informs me proudly that he has a room now: a good clean place and that he is only out here tonight as there has been a glitch in his benefit this week.  He looks well and I tell him so.  He is pleased and replies in his gentle Irish lilt that he feels well too.

I ask him how he managed before the room: sleeping rough and hostels, until his brother bought him a caravan, which he could have sold now, but has passed on to another man in need, without fraternal support, and he is proud of his choice to re-gift and create the possibility of a second transformation.  I ask him what is next.  He looks longingly into the distance.  “Maybe… a job?  I think perhaps now that I can keep clean and I’ve got an address I might be able to get one”.  This is his dream, as uncertain and tantalising to him as my Cinderella ball is to me, and a damn sight less frivolous.

I don’t see Thomas again.  I hope that now he is “in the system”, someone will look out for him.  The families of prisoners live with this same misguided hope that the system that has captured their loved ones will also care for them, but every three days one of these families will get a call to say that their husband or son or brother or daughter has hung themselves inside, and these numbers don’t even include homicide, accidental overdose or death due to lack of medical attention.  Hope is a far cry.

When you enter prison, you no longer control your destiny.  You are unlocked when and if someone comes, you are fed what there is, when there is, if there is and you will be released when the powers that be deem it fit to do so.  This is true for all prisoners, many of whom incur extra years inside for perceived misdemeanours, but it is most particularly the case for IPP (imprisonment for public protection) prisoners who have to prove that they are no longer a risk to society.  Often the box ticking for their release includes education that they may not be able to complete because they can’t read or because the prerequisite courses don’t exist in their particular prison(!) and it always relies on the goodwill of officers, governors and parole boards who are under no obligation to give it.  In June 2015 there were still 4,600 IPP prisoners in Britain almost a tenth of whom had served five times their minimum sentence. When there is no hope, there will be no rehabilitation and we create men who have nothing left to lose; desperate and dangerous.

When I visit Rob the men are let out half an hour late so that we miss even more of our precious time than usual due to basic ineptitude and lack of consideration.  When I finally see him traversing the visit hall, looking like thunder, he remarks that if the same thing had happened at Hewell there would have been broken jaws and probably a riot.  Conditions are often better in the more high risk category B prisons because they have to be.  When you have no rights, no voice and no future, violence is what is left over and it works, at a price.

It is Rob’s birthday tomorrow.  I can’t send anything except cards and books, and there is no telling when and if the books will arrive – none have so far.  He calls to warn me that he will be locked up all day tomorrow so I probably won’t be able to speak to him either, which somewhat dashes the girl’s plans for a three part harmony rendition of “Happy Birthday”.

Prison is a rarefied world.  Many, like Rob, are serving sentences too long to wish away.  You have to live as if this captivity was life.  Prison life happens in prison time, which is punctuated by the locks and unlocks, the tannoy, the meals, the visits, the phone and shower queues (shorter than they should be given the paucity of facilities and the number of men) and the seasons.  Summer, autumn, winter, spring and summer again, and again and again.

I can’t look after Rob tomorrow or any day, the institution certainly isn’t looking after anyone, and so it is left to the men themselves to care for each other.  At Highpoint North which basically exists to house all the quiet easy men, a small community is forming.  Laundry used to be overseen by a large, heavily muscled African with little time for the task in-between bench presses, and often arrived in a disheartening damp clump outside the cell doors, but has since been overtaken by an small Asian guy who drys, folds and delivers with pride, so that Unit 12 are now all looking and smelling (apart from the shower refuseniks), rather dapper.

As with all communities it takes all sorts.  Some are fat and lazy, some are intense, some are funny and talented, some have frightful halitosis (a major downside to a cellmate) and some simply don’t bother to wash, but they are a kind of community now and you take the rough (and boy is it rough sometimes) with the smooth.

Rob used to be a diligent man.  Now weeks go by where he doesn’t reply to letters, leaving me fielding the enquiries, but he doesn’t live in the world that the letters come from or play by its rules and etiquette anymore.  He lives inside with his prison family now and if someone needs to chat, he will listen before he attends to anything on the distant out.  I am still the exception to this, so it’s easy for me to say, but I am glad that he has a new life.  I want someone to benefit from his wit and care and kindness.  Let him be a light in that Godforsaken place.  At least now with a new non-snoring cell mate, sleep is a possibility once more, and Rob can finally have some dreams of his own.

By | November 29th, 2016|

The Wrong Trousers

Rob’s mate Z, an ex pro footballer, is carrying on where I left off with Rob’s culinary care.  He always gives Rob his potato waffles having decided, correctly perhaps, that there is no nutritional value in them and he doesn’t actually like them.  Rob agrees, but the Irish in him makes him very partial to potato products, and the right to eat things behind locked doors and in the relative privacy of his jail cell that no self respecting nutritionist’s husband would ever dare to put in his mouth on the out, acts as a uniquely liberating influence.  Rob now eats whatever he can get his hands on: it’s the calories that count if you want to keep your trousers up.

Z also makes a mean prison cheese cake (no baking required) out of his canteen purchases. (I’m unsure whether it actually contains any cheese, as eggs, cheese and butter are considered seditious for some reason and have been taken off the canteen list on the North side, but it tastes awesome apparently).  Getting it between the locked spurs is tricky however and their first attempt meets with disaster:

Z cuts a generous slice onto a plate and proceeds to propel it decisively across the open floor space between the wing cages.  His torque is slightly wrong though (perhaps he is better with his feet) and the cake flies off the plate, which, having jettisoned its cargo, smashes into the opposite wall.  Helpers arrive on both sides of the divide and hastily cobble together a recovery plan, whilst Z and Rob wet themselves with hysterical laughter and are no help whatsoever, but even these resourceful types can’t produce a long enough rescue implement to reach their quarry before a random prisoner, who as luck may have it is being escorted down the corridor, interprets the 5 second rule in a liberal fashion, and eats it.

Operation Cheese Cake mark 2 is more sophisticated and involves tuppaware.  Simultaneously channeling Lampard, Gerard and Ronaldo, Z aims well and scores with a decisive shot under the left hand corner of the bars and Rob finally gets his benefaction.

During the strike lock down Tala was worried about how Daddy would eat.  She herself, mid growth spurt, does so almost continually and has to supplement mealtimes with hourly Special K injections just to keep things ticking over.  She needn’t have worried.  Prisoners were issued with a pack of white bread and something almost resembling cheese in the absence of a meal, and in any case, Rob keeps a supply of tinned kippers under the mattress.  Last night there was some sort of glitch with the food so the men just got carrots and rice pudding instead of the curry that should have been on.  This sort of thing is a blow to the institutionalised, and even more so to Rob who isn’t a big carrot man (“They just don’t go”) ,and especially not when they have been liberally boiled into something unlikely to contain more than a memory of minerals.

The Daily Mail announces confidently that prisoners are eating steak (the lucky bastards) and wouldn’t we all like to be sitting around watching telly and living it up like them.  Sadly, the overcrowding situation in British jails makes it unlikely that I could indulge the editor with a free trial at one of the HMPs, but I suspect he might find it slightly less agreeable than his bravado suggests.  Prisoners are given TV’s in the way I dish out screen time to my ten year old, because I am too lazy (or occasionally hung over) to do anything else with her.  It is a drug they are fed in the absence of education or rehabilitation. It is not given as a privilege, but rather as an anaesthetic.  Everything else they are supposed to have, they don’t.  Except drugs.  Huge amounts of them, anywhere, any place, anytime, for a price… which is sometimes death.

Still, the Daily Mail were top of a league table charting the number of breaches of the editor’s code of conduct, (beating its closest rival the Sun by more than double), so perhaps someone from the paper may yet get to sample the cushy life of the incarcerated.  P.S. Anyone from the Mail want to give me a column? I could use the cash and, incredibly, every one of their readers gets a vote so it might be an idea to let them know what is actually going on inside, and why.

Yes, there are a handful of very unpleasant individuals who are probably where they should be until they can be given an alternative vision of what it is to be human from that handed down to them as children brought up knowing nothing else but violence and abuse and fear as is almost invariably the case with bullies, but the majority of prisoners are, in Rob’s experience, pretty decent people, and often unusually kind, funny and even brilliant.

Prison reform doesn’t happen because it isn’t a vote winner not because it can’t be done.  That is changing at the moment because of the rapid and inexorable slide of our penal institutions towards out and out anarchy.  Rob is pleased that his current abode is topical.  He moved out East when West was still best and was always ahead of the curve – an early adopter you might say, wearing trousers that looked all wrong to the uninitiated and then suddenly so right as the rest of us dragged ourselves wearily towards the next fashion imperative.

Although he’d doubtless rather be in N16 with us, he is currently happy again, and praying to stay put until after Christmas at least. His nightly scrabble battles with the Libor Americans (hung out to dry by Barclays for trading irregularities that were ubiquitous and widespread to the point of institutionalisation), and AJ, (an ex-Tamal Tiger for whom English is his third language and who is thus given considerable leeway with his spelling upon occasion), are a nightly source of raucous hilarity.  One can’t help feeling that they might be better off doing some kind of government work at home on a tag for the next nine years, contributing to society and funded by their families: these are pretty bright guys…. but I’m sure Liz Truss knows best.

Rob never challenges the Sri Lankan on his letter arrangements and in fact argues the Tiger’s case vehemently, advocating passionately for words such as “scaringz” (multiple frights), as they have a pact to beat the Americans at any cost.  He was jubilant this morning on the phone, having almost won last night. “Doesn’t that mean you lost?” I ask somewhat insensitively.  “Well yes, but not by much”. Sounds a bit like us.  So close and yet so far.

By | November 22nd, 2016|


It is remembrance Sunday and I listen to the sombre reverent tones of a memorial service: An honouring of our brave boys, except that 1 in 10 prisoners are ex-servicemen and are living in squalor courtesy of Her Majesty.  PTSD is just one of the plethora of mental illnesses at the heart of offending, poverty and incarceration.

“The Secret Life of Prisons” (shot on illegal camera phones inside) airs on Channel 4 and I watch a father’s face as he sees his mentally ill son volunteering to be punched violently in the head in exchange for mamba.  I see the anarchy, the addiction, the violence and the hopelessness.  Rob has seen all of this and so much more. It’s nothing.  He doesn’t even warn me that I will be shocked and scared for him.

Prison officers are striking nationwide over safety: theirs and the prisoner’s. I hear nothing at all from Rob all day.  I hope it is because he is locked up.  The thought of what else would keep him from the phone is something I don’t want to consider.

The Minister for prisons is on the radio blaming “new psychoactive substances” (he means mamba/spice), for the upsurge in violence. How convenient.  Nothing to do with staff shortages then and the inevitable lock downs and human caging that results.  The 2,500 extra part-time guards promised by 2018 is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed, even if they can be recruited on pitiful pay and dire working conditions.  Nothing to do with the fact that most of the inmates are addicts whose illnesses are not being treated.

A heinous fart of pressure is building up in the holding pens that pass for prisons in the UK and they are beginning to blow in the form of suicides, escapes, riots and strikes.  This is not going to be pretty.

Luckily however the minister has a solution to the spice problem. Random drug tests.  Ta dah! Now we can make lists of the people we already know are taking drugs, punish them more (because that really works), whilst simultaneously sparking an internal trade in child pee as prisoners everywhere make like Withnail and carry a sachet of unadulterated urine with them at all times.

In the interest of balance (between idiocy and common sense) they also get Ken Clarke on the program.  He describes British prisons as “overcrowded slums” into which we funnel a greater percentage of our population than any other European country with no positive effect on crime figures whatsoever, and explains in a single sentence how to sort it out: Lock up only those who are a danger to others or themselves, rehabilitate, treat addiction and mental illness and use fines and tags where punishment is necessary. Attaboy Ken.

Fortunately we are not alone in Europe (well not yet anyway) in having a problem with our prison service.  Holland is in trouble too. A BBC news headline reads “Dutch prison crisis: A shortage of prisoners.” Ah.  Slightly different problem to ours then.

Their reluctance to lock up anyone but the most violent or persistent offenders, coupled with a shift away from a war on drugs in favour of the pursuit of human traffickers and terrorists means that most criminality is effectively dealt with using community service orders, fines and tagging, leading to the closure of 19 prisons, and this despite having had one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe a decade ago.

You see it really isn’t that hard.  We could turn this ship around, but we are currently plotting a very different course across the Atlantic towards the American Nightmare.

I go for supper at Cyril’s house.  The one who got away.  Since mentioning the shamefully (for a nutritionist) erratic eating habits I have occasionally adopted of late, I have had more dinner invitations that I can shake a stick at.  It’s fantastic.  Might I add that I have criminally little (all right not any at all) Chanel in my wardrobe?

I remember meeting Cyril at the film industry mecca of Cannes in a jaunty suit and trainers, looking impossibly dashing and fresh faced when he started out working for Rob 14 years ago.  Now he is tasked with re-homing the staff and dismantling the business they built together.  Rob’s space on the desk where they worked side by side is sterile and tidy; the banter between them silenced by absence.

As the judge pronounced his co-defendants guiltily one after the other Cyril saw the bullet with his name on it suspended inches from his forehead.  Despite being pronounced not guilty, the bullet has lingered and follows him still months afterwards in his dreams.  In a supermarket car park he is paralysed with fear and cannot get out of the car.
I ask him somewhat selfishly to relive the sentencing.  I fantasise that perhaps he might have experienced the euphoria of the reprieve that I had longed for.  Did he make the ecstatic call to his wife – the call I had played out a hundred times in my mind when it seemed there were still two paths ahead?

But no-one really got out of this jail free.  There was no happy call, just a rising tide of tears that overtook Katja so savagely as she sat at her desk at work, that she could not stem their flow or speak or explain herself.  Not tears of relief.  Tears of bitter sadness for our sake.

Empathy is a beautiful thing because without it we could just imagine that other people don’t suffer or love or hope or fail as we do.  In our cellar there is a broken neon sign that spells out “Namaste” in a looped font.  It was damaged in transit on one of the many house moves that have punctuated our life together and belonged to Rob before I knew him.  I plan to repair it and never do. It’s a sanskrit word that can be translated in many ways.  The most powerful for me is this understanding: “I recognise myself in you and you in myself”.

One day, (and I trust, naively perhaps, that it will be soon), we will look back at the way we treat the most vulnerable section of our society: our soldiers, our sick, our poor, our disenfranchised, our foster children, our weak… and our inability to see more in them than their mistake will shock our children.  We will shake our heads in wonder at the barbarism of it all, of the “them and us” mentality, of the shameless superiority and schadenfreude.


By | November 17th, 2016|

Post Truth Generation

I wake up feeling decidedly wobbly.  It’s probably just the cold, or the fact that supper was pistachio nuts and Nutella off the spoon, but I feel hopeless. This is not a time span that you can wish away. It is relentless.  He is not here and he is not here and he is not here.

Loneliness opens up like a chasm in my chest.  Crying feels like an admission of defeat, so I don’t and get up and do what needs to be done for the children.  Lunches, laundry, love. I am so blessed with support from every angle, but images of familial contentment have began to hound me.  After a wonderful supper with friends their Daddy comes home on his bike to them, flushed both with cold and the warmth they are about to give him, and ours does not.

I turn on the radio.  Dear God no! America has just elected to its highest office a man who thinks that it is acceptable to face the world pretending that the dead thing on his head, that looks as if it has been cobbled together from the contents of the plug hole after a molting orangutan bath, is hair.

I’ve kind of had it with the will of the people.  Brexit and Trump are indicative omens of our time.  Facts and truth and considered opinion seem to be relics from a bygone age and now what is important is how things can be made to appear, like having hair in places where you clearly don’t.

The vilification of “Brexit Blocker” judges in the Daily Mail (other crappy papers also available), complete with mugshots and details of their earnings, plus their sexual and religious orientation, was also extraordinary.  They were asked to advise on a legal matter, did so, and are now being publicly stoned for their expert opinion and accused of standing in the way of “The People”.

The dynamics of this situation, along with the way Trump has conducted himself and his campaign in the U.S. and then won, are national and global examples so redolent of my own small personal tragedy: of why I am here and Rob is not, that I feel hopeless all over again.  We are a post truth generation.  It is rhetoric over fact.  It is the triumph and the Trump of fear.

Benevolent dictatorship Plato style is sounding good to me right now.  Lets have Sandy Toksvig for Philosopher Queen: at least we could all laugh as the country follows the U.S. to the dogs.  For pity’s sake don’t let the people decide on anything more vital than Bake Off.

In what I would like to describe as shock and horror, but is actually closer to resignation at the predictability of the will of white males everywhere, I take to the page and consider that the very fact that I am able to do is this is because I am taking advantage of the post truth generation tool: the internet – a platform that requires no qualification.  I am not an expert on the law or the prison system or relationships and certainly not on politics.  I am a pissed off woman telling it as I see it.  It’s just a story, but then, what isn’t?

I wonder about truth.  It has always seemed like a laudable principle.  In the context of Brexit and the US election more of it would have been welcome.  The truth sets you free apparently. But when applied as an absolute and abiding rule it too can become a blunt instrument of pain in its own right. If the truth is something you vomit up and pass off as a delicacy by dint of veracity, it will still taste like sick.  On a personal level, I’m in the suck it up, keep it inside, internalisation of angst camp.

Part of me is glad that the prison phone system only works one way.  After a bracing walk with the dog and a hug from one of Rob’s best mates, I have rebuilt my mental health sufficiently to avoid splurging Rob with my own fears and loss when he calls.  I hide the overwhelm.  We talk about Trump.  I don’t tell him that I am dying alone here.  What good will it do to tell it? He can’t do anything, change anything, fight for anything, love me or hold me from where he is.  Talk is cheap, (or it would be if prisoners weren’t being overcharged three times over), and even more so when there is so much left unsaid, but we have nothing else today.  Nothing more until the next visit in nearly two weeks time.

I receive poetry written inside from an ex offender.  It is so powerful and poignant and redolent with a despair that is so bitterly familiar to me about the breakdown of his marriage, the dreadful inability to hold his children and the mountain of hours and days and years ahead, that I can’t take it anymore and I give myself over to the sobbing that must out. Something new breaks in me.  We have to stop the punishment.

Liz Truss, please, help these men in your care! Don’t sit there like a smug muggle Professor Umbridge presiding over the chaos that is erupting in the correctional establishments whose numbers you actually want to increase, so that we can lock more people up in them rather than actually reducing our offending rates? (which are incidentally the worst in the world).  Don’t spend your life getting into a position of power only to do with it something ineffectual and wasteful.  Men are rioting and breaking out of your prisons because they have nothing left to lose (and by the way there is no way the Pentonville escapees made it out without both outside and inside help). Speak to the service users.  Hear them.  Don’t sit in your ivory tower forcing them to write “I must not tell lies” on their hands over and over until they bleed.  They are already bleeding.  And so are we on “the out” without them. That is the truth.  Hear my prayer and help us, and God help America.

By | November 9th, 2016|

Great Expectations

I set off for the BBC to record the interview for Woman’s Hour. Tala sets the bar of expectation low for my first foray into mainstream media. Her parting shot is: “Mamma try not to burp on the radio”. It’s good advice which I manage to follow. Jane Garvey is fiercely bright and business like and I sense that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She asks me things and I try to answer them as honestly as I can. After we finish I have no idea what I have said, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve missed plenty of tricks. When the interview airs the following day however, apart from sounding so posh that I could slap myself, I am surprised to hear a reasonably lucid conversation.

I check my website to see what’s happening and find that it has crashed. When I finally get on there have been 3000 hits before the end of the program and this continues to rise throughout the day, quadrupling itself after the piece makes the weekend show. I get emails from other women in my situation and much worse, beautiful letters from random strangers and hundreds of sign-ups to the site.

I can’t believe it. In this world where there is so much to be upset about, so much misery and confusion and madness, people still have the time and energy to be interested in the lives of a convict and his family. It is an incredible feeling to be wrapped in layers of protection that radiate outwards from my family, to my friends, to acquaintances, to friends of friends and now to total strangers who happened to turn on the radio on Tuesday morning. I feel like the penguin in the centre of an Antarctic huddle.

Rob doesn’t catch the Tuesday broadcast because he is in “labour”. I hope it isn’t as painful as mine were. There isn’t a box with “wife on the radio” that can be ticked to excuse him from disassembling a computer(?) which is what passes for education at Lowpoint so I urge him to commit an act of civil disobedience and refuse to leave his cell, or at least pull an old fashioned sickie – “Ferris Beuller’s day off” is a family favourite and we have both observed our occasionally reluctant and resourceful offspring enough times to know what to do, but he is still pursuing his enhanced status, which would let him draw down more money weekly and entitle us to an extra visit a month and he doesn’t want to risk the penalty.

Even in jail where there is so little to achieve, the basic human drive to succeed and prosper is still a powerful force in him. Acceptance is a tough nut to crack. He is becoming a little desperate about his dwindling funds. Now that he isn’t working, even though he has money in his “spends” (his personal account that I have paid into), he isn’t entitled to access enough of it to continue to call us every day and still buy essentials like washing powder, or cod liver oil (a great vitamin D source and vital for these men who get virtually no access to daylight for years on end) or fruit. One of the reasons for this is that the call rate out of the prison is three times the standard rate. Talk about kicking a man when he is down.

Even when he does have credit he can’t get to the phone much at the moment however as staff shortages mean that the men are being locked down almost permanently. I stop expecting him to call in the afternoons. It is better not to expect.

The upside of the lock up is that Rob is reading avidly and is becoming a full on bibliophile. He starts to attend book club. Along with getting religion (he has chosen Hinduism mostly in a bid to get in on the Diwali feasting I suspect), you get ticks for activities like this that supposedly contribute to eligibility for enhancement. The endless jumping through hoops and singing for your supper. One of the club attendees is a traveller who has already served ten out of a certain seventeen years of his sentence for a murder.   He is extraordinary well informed about history and literature and comes alive when he shares his knowledge. He learns for its own sake. For the sheer joy.  There can be no other reason.

It is Sunday and bitingly cold suddenly. I think about people making roasts for their families and almost regret the no cook zone in my kitchen. Tala is at ballet all day, Arsenal have anaesthetised the surrounding populace into a familiar low level of tepid disappointment with a draw, Okha is AWOL without a functioning phone and the dog looks horrified when I suggest a late walk in the drizzling dusk. The coziness of the house seems insurmountably hard to maintain with all of its people scattered and winter closing in.

Luckily we have fresh blood. In an attempt to keep my head above water and service the plethora of bills that continue to mount up: council tax, insurance, water, electric, gas etc. etc. I have turfed Okha out of her loft space, shoe horned her extravagant collection of make up and costumery into the spare room and rented her room out. Admittedly it’s a little brutal, but we have to be practical. Our lodger is gorgeous – quiet and friendly and she cleans the sink after she washes up. I like the feeling of another body in the home. It’s win win in an otherwise pretty relentlessly lose lose situation.

As the dog and I face off over the walking situation, there is a knock at the door. I open it to find Okha’s ex-boyfriend arriving to spend the afternoon with her as per their yesterdays arrangement. She isn’t home and sends no word to him until two and a half hours later. We sit in the kitchen together and I eat everything that is readily available from the fridge (left over pasta, a stray sweet potato pie and some almond butter) whilst we chat.

He has been travelling and has grown almost beyond recognition in the last year, full of stories and photos that he shares with me. The depth of his continued love for my child, for whom, despite her faults and even as he is being stood up, he has nothing but respect and admiration, moves me to tears that I try to hide for fear of freaking him out. How many of us can love when it is futile and stay open when it would be so much less painful to cut off and walk away?

It isn’t the afternoon either of us expected, but weirdly, it works. We sit there, bridging gender and age gaps, united in loving someone who is not there and it makes me think about Amy singing “Love is a Loosing Game”. Love is something that you do against rubbish odds, hopelessly and into the void. No expectations.

By | November 7th, 2016|
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