Victorian Jail?

The UK has 150 jails with roughly a quarter old stock. HMP Shepton Mallet dated from 1625, Dartmoor 1809, Lincoln 1872, Pentonville 1842,  Wandsworth 1851, Walton 1855, Strangeways 1868, Walton 1855. Prisoners are hidden from view and forgotten. Likewise, there is a landscape of prisons that only the convicted know to navigate.

“I was sentenced in Dover so went to Elmly. They say, you never get off the island, transferred to Stanford Hill to Swaleside. I done 18 months there before being transferred near my family”  Tales of Sheppy island, Kent.

“Armly, Altcourse, then Walton” Lists of places I had never heard of, now become the path of lives. Some navigate by pubs, or Garmin, or stars but many see the UK as a series of moves from one barred window to another. Alehouse, Courthouse, jailhouse.

What is it like walking into prison for the first time?  Walking into history. This in Ronnie Barker’s Porridge prison so let’s call it that: HMP Slade, a Victorian city centre hulk. HMP Slade is an old Victorian jail it could be Liverpool’s finest Walton or Manchester’s majestic Strangeways. All are dumps.

The incredible hulk

I should be thankful I’m on dry land. England loved to house prisoners at sea. The ‘goto’ convict of the British imagination, Abel Magwich, was on the run in 1812, in ‘Great Expectations’, from a ship moored on the Thames. Actually, ships at that time were on the nearby River Medway, so Dickens used artistic licence to move ship but the conditions he described were accurate: shackles and misery. The English had treated the American war of independence as a practice ground for killing people on hulks and perfected it during the Napoleonic wars. Clearly, the French and the proto-Americans were keen to exaggerate the numbers for propaganda but measured historical review puts mortality rates at around 10%.

A prison ship was used to transport prisoners to colonies. A non-seaworthy vessel is a hulk. A rotting ship with rotting residents, typhus outbreaks and riots. The first prison ship was privately owned, Tayloe, engaged by the home Office in 1775. This country is no stranger to privatising prisons indeed until the 19th Century all prisons were run privately for profit. As many as 30 hulks in service during the 1800’s. They were phased out as the Victorian prison building program began. Given the English love to detain the upstart colonists, HMS Argenta was purchased following the 1920 Bloody Sunday uprising and used to house Irish Republicans until it was scrapped in 1925.

HMS Maidstone, in Northern Ireland, was used in the 1970s to house suspected Nationalist Paramilitaries. Gerry Adams lived there in 1972. I doubt he called it home

So, when prison policy planning is out at sea the hulk returns. HMP Weare was used as a prison ship between 1997 and 2006 in Portland Harbour, Dorset.  It was towed across the Atlantic in 2007 for our American Cousins to incarcerate their own.

We taught them well.


Carol Vorderman and I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in…..

I have decided to attend church each week as an act of faith but a faith not connected to a God. A different church group comes in each week. This morning it is Pastor Bobby and 3 middle aged women with odd straightened hair and or wigs. James Brown and his backing singers are reborn in front of us, though any sex machine has long since left this building.

17 chaps out of 387 have made it to the 10 am Sunday service. Which is a good turn out. Many parish churches would love that percentage to attend. Prior to prison, I would have said they would not have wanted 17 criminals to attend, now I realise the nonjudgemental approach of Christians. Forgiveness is the heart of their faith or desperation giving the rise of Richard Dawkins.

One of the Pastorettes has a Mr. T fetish going on, wearing a lot of gold bangles. I get the chance to study these in some details as they are waved above her head and in my face of the next hour or so. I can see one of the bracelets is a golden handcuff. This is a dedication to one’s audience.

They launch into a reggae version of “O come all ye faithful.” The weight of the Lord must be pressing hard on the congregation as no one is standing. The lady at the front with Darth Vader boots and matching hair asks:

“Can you not feel me today? Stand up and praise the Lord.”

Many sink lower. Pastor Bobby dances and sings for all of us. The prison chaplain would normally stand but today he is on drums so he can only cajole confined behind a plastic screen.

The happy, happy, happy singing does not catch on which is a shame as this is the best Carribean riff of “Away in a manger” that I, or anyone, has ever heard.

Pastor Bobby is standing at the front pointing to the roof, maybe he has spotted a leak, which is miraculous as his eyes are closed, he then starts repeating “I believe, I believe, I believe” who is he trying to convince? He raises both hands measuring out that Biblical fish God will catch for him or be hailing a taxi, one can’t be sure.

The lack of spontaneity is making the relaxed hair girl become tightly wound. She asks in desperation

“What Christmas songs would you like?”

Various requests from ABBA to the poignant “Wish I was at home for Christmas” fly at the singer

“NO, no, no…….. carols”

“Carol Carpenter” is offered in all sincerity but the boys catch on and add quickly

“Carol Decker”…

“Carol King”

they are stretching it with”Lewis Carrol” but from the back, a clear shout of “I want Carol Vorderman’s number.”

The heckling leads to a kerfuffle, a flutter of hymn sheets before they settle on the religious tome “We wish you a merry Christmas” which she belts out very well, ending with “May God have a blessing for your head in the new year.” I resign myself to have to wait 4 weeks for my blessing but suspect I will have to wait an eternity.

Pastor Bobby has been lying face down in front of the altar for most of the last song. It is a contact lens thing I’m sure. He rises to give a sermon, describing that we should not be labeled by our crimes. Good point. He pictures for us the sign outside the prison ‘HMP Tabley Heath.’ A sign I have not seen, as my sweat box seat was on the other side of the prison van. He assures us it stands for Her Majesty’s Pleasure. He is wrong. We are detained in one of Her Majesty’s Prisons. Some long term sentences can be determined at Her Majesty’s pleasure. These sentences have transferred the belief that the Queen enjoys to lock everyone up, the feelings of the Queen on the matter are private.

Oscar Wilde commented, one old queen on another, that

“If this is the way Queen Victoria treats her prisoners then she does not deserve to have any.”

Little has changed since Oscar’s day. Homosexuality is still the last taboo in British jails. The soap is safe to pick up.

Another dent in the veracity of the word of Pastor Bobby comes when he asks us if we have seen his favorite film “The short sharp redemption” while this sounds an ideal reconciliatory pathway I’m not sure it’s the same movie Morgan Freeman movie Pastor Bobby has in mind.

Just when I feel my cliche count for the day has been passed the ladies start up with ‘When the saints go marching in.” They may be follically challenged but they are plainly in the number when it comes to singing. Their version is again the best ever.

I retire to the corner for my free coffee, my raison d’etre and reflect I have only 8 more of these to go. Pastor Bobby comes over and hands me a blank cellophane wrapped Christmas card to post to my family.

Hallelujah. I wonder if my faith will remain strong.

Mean Wing the Merciless

Convinced that the criminal masterminds in the jail are the ducks, spot over 10 film references to our secret and you are doing well

Ducks, but only more Mafio-so.

Top to tail, yin-yang pair: cosa nostrils.

Two eyes sleeping with the fishes,

Two amber jewels in jade scarf face and an eye for an eye life.

Protecting godmother goose,  the pot bellied bully as Consigliere cats counsel, goodfella ducks hoard, feathering their nest,

Living on a wing and a prayer, quack offers cannot be refused.

A soprano machine gun

whack whack” an enemy falls wings clipped.

Swagger seedy existence: concrete boots, horse head beds, cracking eggs, reprisals, wads of waddle, wicked web feats.

Bills mount, ringmaster reigns fall as Agent Orange strikes.

Au revoir.

Bonjour fois gras

The apologetic apothecary​

You are only as happy as you think you are.

Some are born happy, some have happiness bought upon them.

The most fortunate exude happiness like our 21st century Dr. Robert, juvenile, gentle angelic, Jesus of the Rave. Tuned in, dark web dealer, dropping out in deep waters of the mind.

Unwary of his wonderland wares partakes with pleasure,

No toe dipping. Trips headfirst into illusory oceans.

A nose narcotic knows, ecstasy elixirs, opiate apparitions, DMT potions, LSD labyrinths, spice of life. Selling serotonin, drug dreams, brain bombs, real unreal realities, fun and funny fags. Highs in posting psychonauts payloads; blasting them into diamond skies.

But clarity through the clouds a chemical conscience troubled over dispensing deliriums of death.

We all comedown, fallacies finish, smoke and coke off mirrors crack with a bar to the face, out of joint, a £30K hole. Visions cease in seizures.

“I’d not slept for a month before coming away. I wanted to get the partying out of my system” and well-being

Sober, springy survivor beatific beanpole retains Cheshire cat cool calm.

Ducking Jogging



Perfect weather for ducks.

Rounding the bend, the webmaster charges at me a white slice on his bill.

Chased by a phalanx of feathers, a puddled pack, quack attack.

“Give us our daily window bread”

Using his loaf he waddles supreme but the brace barrage bites, the pecking order is toast: confetti crumbs fly down.

When winging it one gets in a flap, fluttered, crash lands.

I’m stopped.

Sweat still runs quickly off my back.

Fall and rise rumps process, progress to the next round.

Time still runs quickly off my back.

Got a light mate?

Tobacco is known simply and descriptively as “burn.” HMP Slade is a non-smoking prison. The corollary of this policy is it’s constantly full of smoke: an acrid plastic fume fug that induces nausea and gives a headache.

Tobacco products are banned. No: pouches of rolling tobacco, cigarettes, cigarillos, Cuban cigars, snuff or cheroots. Any incendiary devices are banned too: no lighters (Zippo, cheap plastic or Magnum mockup) and of course no matches.

So, any prisoner arriving from another jail or from the court will have all of his smoking paraphernalia taken off him and binned. The Screws give out the healthy option of a nicotine replacement patch and in return are given a healthy amount of abuse.

The presence of only a replacement therapy is not going to stop a resourceful lot like criminals from smoking. Contraband tobacco will make its way in. So, the ban is not exactly working. Dimps from all of the above are in the showers. Snuff is not to be sniffed at these days and pipe smokers are clearly Holmes’ types who leave no clues.

Any product that can be made into a roach or a cigarette paper will be used. Covers and pages from books torn off and out, notices pulled down.

The central tube from a toilet roll will be pulled out. The tissue binned so a taper can be lit in a long coil card,  that will smoke and burn all night but mainly smoke. This is usually hung out the window.  The result of this is:

1. The plastic windows are burnt.

2. A plume of smoke leaves the window beneth and enters mine.

Sometimes, it’s windy and I’m reprieved the whiff of the worse joss stick ever from below and get it from the window next to me instead. I would close my window but there is no glass in the frame.

How to get a light? Simply pull the wires out of the kettle or T.V., to leave plug in the wall with cable and insert the two live wires into a cup of shower gel. The current combusts the gel and you have a flame, light your taper and you can smoke all night. You can’t watch T.V. or use the kettle as these are now scrap and will be removed the next day.

In the absence of smuggled in stuff, a ciggy is assembled from the contents of a tea bag tipped onto a piece of paper with the gluey gunk of a nicotine patch on top. In fairness, the tea bags probably make better cigs than cups of tea. There must be marketing possibilities for a prison brand cancer stick: PG TIPS? Yummy,  just makes you want to take up the habit.

My new copy of the bible is being looked at eagerly by next door neighbors. They are feeling the pages and saying it looks a “good book”.  There is nor irony is the use of that phrase. One holds my book and reads it under my nervous gaze. Or he would be if he was not holding it upside down. Bibles burn best but not mine. I recount the above to the Chaplin. She is unaware of the jails smoking ban she has only worked here for four years and the ban in place for 18 months. She is a plump lady as unfamiliar with cock as she is with the real world.  She misses the point, as she is delighted her only read is referred to as a good book. I inform her of the uses of the bible in this establishment and conclude with the simple statement:

“Clearly the light of the Lord burns brightly in HMP Slade”

She laughs loudly and for too long. As she is locking me back in my cell says,

“Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

I meditate on her message for most of the evening while reading chunks of a gospel and I have a clear vision: I have no idea what message her God is conveying here……. but nothing new in that.

My place?

First probation meeting.

I’m having an induction with 10 or so lads and two nice girls are explaining the rules: be polite, turn up on time, no swearing, no using your phone in meetings, stay at this address every night as you are under restrictions from the court/prison etc.

One young lad chirps up with:

“OI OI Oi for fuck sake, if I’m out drinking, if I want to go back with a bird I can’t go back to her place and that?”

I’m thinking how many guidelines he has broken with his first query, but they did not specifically say no to asking moronic questions. Which surely must be their main drain on their time

“No, you can’t go back with anyone to another address that is what the Judge has decreed” A perfectly sensible reply from the probation staff.

I consider two things when I heard his comment. The first I choose not to share with the young miscreant which is plainly:

“You are an ugly bastard and chance would be a fine thing.”

The second, I do share this with him:

“Mate,” I’m so street me “you just need to be aware when you ask ‘my place or yours?’ that there is only one answer”

He seemed appreciative.  I’m relieved given the size of his tattooed forearms.