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August 04, 2006

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham organises a book club in the prison library - and finds out that Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew is not a suitable book for a prison book club

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham sets up a book club in the prison library and discovers that Bernard Hare's Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew does not make suitable reading.

I've been writer-in-residence in a Category B local prison for ten months, so I know that anything as ambitious as organising a book club in the prison library is lined with logistical and bureaucratic minefields. It was a rash move, but when I read Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew I had to do it.

I chose this book because its author, Bernard Hare, spent a year or so living with pre-teen hoodies on the streets and wastelands of Leeds. Urban and his friends do drugs, sex, homelessness and they twoc a lot. That's "taking without consent" - the crime of choice for pre-teens. They steal cars and crash them, setting the wrecks on fire in order to destroy DNA traces. Or they sit in the stolen car all night, smoking spliffs and taking shelter, leaving it pretty much as they found it. The lives Hare chronicles are filled with drugs and disorder. I thought the men would relate to it.

Ten men signed up for the club. Two men filed into the library, with books in hand. Neither of those books was the book under discussion. Access to the library is precious, so they were returning their Martina Coles and real-life gangland dramas for more of the same. I felt discouraged. The no-show meant either that the book had not grabbed them, or that they had other courses to attend that were prioritised, or that the wing officers had not got the list of men to be unlocked in time that afternoon. Knowing prison, I'll never know.
I asked if either of them had read the book.

volunteered one guy. I'll call him "Freddie". I prompted:
What did you think?
Freddie's roundabout reply came:
Why did you choose this book for us, Miss? Did you think we'd relate to it?
I cleared my throat, stalling for time, suddenly aware that I may have committed a major faux pas. These two guys are in their thirties; but most men are here because of drugs. They see themselves as sophisticated operators of the street. Maybe I had insulted them by plunging them into lowlife, pre-teen chaos. But he continued:
I was up all night reading it by the light of the telly. I love the language. There's some really good words in there.
He produced a list of words - "affinity", "infidel", etc. He continued:
But it was shocking. If these bods were doing crack at twelve, who was selling it to them?
I asked:
How old were you when you started selling drugs?
Freddie replied:
Seventeen. But there's a rule on the street. No one sells drugs to kiddies.
I looked at the other man, "Chris". He explained:
I weren't that into the book to be honest, Miss. It reminded me too much of my childhood, and I want to get away from that.
Chris is due to be released and will go straight into residential rehab, where most of these men should be going. Instead they are sent back to their communities, then back they come again to prison, and so it goes on.

Chris explained that his reading took in Native American poetry. He has an affinity with Nature. Urban Grimshaw was forgotten as Chris and Freddie reminisced on their smack habits and, before that, their youthful explorations of the English countryside. It was like listening to Arthur Ransome. Prisoners' stories usually end with an adrenalin-fuelled climax. But Bernard Hare's influence had been felt. Even if it was as a realisation that the lifestyle he describes is shocking and sad, and that childhood should be played out in harmonious surroundings.

Chris wants to get away from drugs and disorder. He spoke movingly about his affinity with Nature. In choosing this book I could see that I had made a mistake. These men, when they're not reading Martina Cole, don't want to be reminded in book-form of their sorrows.

I think the lives of the children Hare befriended had shocked Freddie. He related to the richness of their language, their vibrancy, but, in telling me stories of his youthful fascination with reptiles, his ambitions to become a Vet, he was trying to impress upon me that, no, he couldn't relate to the extreme dysfunction Hare describes:

I couldn't have had a better childhood, Miss. My parents did everything for me. It's me who's let them down. Not like this boy's mother - she's well out of it, doing smack and that.
I remarked:
Smackheads come out badly in this book, don't they? They seem to be bottom of the pile when it comes to taking drugs.
Freddie explained:
That's because brown [heroin] takes everything from you. It's the only drug that really grips you so that you don't care what you look like, or what's occurring around you, or what you do to get your next fix.
He continued, shaking his head:
And when smackheads are arrested they'll cluck to the Old Bill because they're sweating for it. You can't trust them. If you deal in heroin [which he did], you know the police will be on to you pretty quickly, because the smackheads will cluck to them.
Freddie was both dealer and user. Prison is the only place he doesn't do drugs. I'm confident this is why he comes back.

As far as smackheads are concerned I know that "Don't grass on your mates," is the prisoner's mantra. Freddie, pointing to the book's cover, said:

Yeah, even these bods got rules.
I suggested Freddie read Nicola Barker's short stories, which describe a semi-rural Kent full of odd bods adrift in a surreal landscape, and a man who liberates eels from pie and mash shops. I thought he might relate to it because it expressed his aspirations in literary form. For Chris, I recommended James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a compelling story of rehab. I'm pleased to report that Chris loved Frey, and wrote a review of it, and that Freddie wrote a beautiful short story about finding a snake in the grass on a hot summer's day in his childhood.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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Keep on writin', Emily, 'coz I'm a-readin'.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at August 9, 2006 10:05 PM
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