The Door Will Soon Open for me, but not for them – an afternoon in prison

18 months ago, I went to talk in a prison. I wrote 950 words about it on the train home and then it lolled around in a some nano gates of memory for “political reasons”.The chum who invited me through the gates has now asked me if I’d put it up as governors and politics change. I have rewritten nothing. I haven’t even reread it. This was my immediate reaction, bad grammar and all.

Today, I went to prison the first time.
My wife was obviously impressed when I told her that I was going to Leicester prison for Valentine’s day.
I have never been in prison and my meetings with former prisoners have been few. The most time I have spent with one was the two weeks I shared a flat with Malcolm Hardee in Johannesburg.
It was after a gig in Northampton that I was asked if I would come into Leicester prison and talk to some of the men there about whatever I could manage to talk about, writing or shouting or making a living being a dick. I said yes, then worried about it afterwards as usual. It wasn’t visiting a prison that I feared, it was having anything relevant or useful to say to those serving time. What would this middle class milksop have to say of any purpose or use?
Entering the prison felt surprisingly run of the mill. I thought some middle class antsy, pale foppery would make twitchy, but fortunately not. I went through hefty metal door after hefty metal door, the rattling of a multitude of keys, just as my cliched imagination foretold.
And inside, it looked not far off Porridge of 40 years ago.
I obeyed my OCD and popped to the toilet before the final few doors, knowing it would be something of a rigmarole of echoing iron and further keys once in the library.
About here, I suppose I should write, “I was nervous, what would these convicted criminals, with their scars and tattoos and slang and knowledge of intimidation and snooker balls in socks look like? My mind ran wild. The fear turned to sweat”.
But I am not so naive to imagine these examples of humanity would be so different to the ones I had just seen on the Leicester streets a few minutes before. By avoiding cod psychology and newspaper hoopla and screeching, I didn’t think I would see faces that betrayed some criminal gene. How easy it might be for those who wish to say intelligence and criminality are all formed in the womb. Education could be for those whose mouth swab reveals the anointed order of ACTGs and crime could just be declared destiny.
I was pleased to Randal Keynes‘ Creation (AKA Annie’s Box) was on the counter of the little library, I thumbed through it, seeking the “chaos of delight” quotation that I have repeated as a Darwinian mantra on so many occasions. On another shelf, I was Luke Haines’ Bad Vibes
The first men came in. One was writing poetry, and asked me what I thought of John Cooper Clarke, a man he had just found out about a few days ago. I recommended him highly and couldn’t help but recite, “You’ll Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express.”
I wondered how long he had written poetry. It sounded as if it had been his secret, real men don’t write poetry, but now he was happy, maybe proud, that he was creating stanzas.
I told him about John Cooper Clarke reciting poetry at punk gigs and how Oscar Wilde was a good boxer. He had been a boxer too.
Eight more joined us. We talked for a couple of hours. I probably talked too much. Brevity eludes me as usual. A few jokes were told.
I saw a rose made of bread. It had intricate details and vivid colour. A lump of dough that had been scrupulously sculpted. The sculptor had only started creating them a few weeks ago. He was filling his pad with them, and making them for others, as valentine’s gifts. (I found out they were now pads, not cells).
They told me of their feelings of incarceration and of parole boards and uncertainty.
Some say that prison is a holiday camp, but you could escape from even the most Stalinistic Butlins.
You might have a telly, as if that will compensate for all else. It seems there is a desperate lack of imagination in any mind that thinks access to ITV2 trumps an ability to walk out of the door and see a panoramic sky. Can Dancing on Ice make up for the touch of your family? Think of the fury and edginess you can feel when your mobile phone runs out of battery mid journey, then think of the scarcity of phone calls inside prison. When I walked through the gate of that prison, I knew I would be out again in a matter of hours. I don’t think I would be much good at anything much lengthier. Free will may be an illusion, but I like exercising it, whatever a fraud it might be.
These men had found creativity, poetry and art. Before I left, as they were sent back to the cells, one was given a couple of extra minutes to read me his poem. It was direct and heartfelt, with clever flourishes. In the reading, his sense of achievement was clear.
It was his work from his mind, and it expressed something about his predicament and how he wanted to change it. It had a humanity sadly lacking in much daily and political discourse.
It’s a popular party conference pleaser to say, “it’s time we thought of the victims” and then some Draconian legislation is mooted and the papers write furiously about the story of a convicted pickpocket who was given a chocolate biscuit. If we really thought about the victims, then we’d be looking to make prison and its aftermath as effective as possible in creating people who are not repeat offenders. What I saw today were people working hard to work out a route.

I am off to the Edinburgh Festival in August with two shows, one on art and one general upbeat rant on reality and madness. I’ll then be taking a confusion of the two shows around the UK on a small tour from Barnard Castle to Bath with 17 stops on the way (Dartmouth, Salford, Leeds, Hull, Bristol etc.) Might be some details at

You can also find an interview with Peter Capaldi and speeches by Helen Czerski and me from March of Science here.

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1 Response to The Door Will Soon Open for me, but not for them – an afternoon in prison

  1. Andy says:

    Really thoughtful and touching piece. And an act of great courage and magnanimity. Well done, Robin.

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