Shannon Trust Reviews - Part 1
This is a series of reviews I wrote this year for the Shannon Trust, an organisation who run the Toe by Toe reading plan for prisoners. Some of these have made their way into the Shannon Trust newsletter and have been reproduced here with their kind permisson.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde
A Book Review by Alain English
"The Ballad of Reading Gaol" was Oscar Wilde's last great poem. It was drawn from his experiences in this very same prison, where he was jailed for 'homosexual' offences and sentenced to two years hard labour in prison. Known previously for his work that celebrated and satirized the London high life in which he had previously flourished, Wilde's work here captures well the harsh nature of prison life, and the rhythms of fear and guilt that ensnare all prisoners. Wilde was said to have gained much from the experience, as it made him think about another side of life in ways had never considered before.
In some ways this example of classic literature can be said to be dated in some ways. There is no longer as strong an emphasis on Christian religion in society (and it features heavily in the poem). Although Christian religion is still active today, I don’t think it pervades society as much as it did when Wilde was writing the poem and I don’t think he would use so many Christian references if he was writing the poem today. Of course hanging (the fate of the prisoners in the jail) has been outlawed in this country for decades. And whilst many crimes in society are committed for money, or in these times drugs, the protagonist in Wilde’s story is a man imprisoned for killing his wife. Yet the way Wilde describes the passion behind this crime and later the plight of all the prisoners, is what really powers the poem.
He employed a cross-rhyming (ABAB) ballad of rhyming triplets to tell his tale, and while there is no regular rhythm to accompany the rhyme, it’s still effective. More so are Wilde’s bitterly ironic turns of phrase ‘each man kills the thing he loves’, and the brilliant metaphor of the ghoulish ‘evil sprites’ the stalk the prison corridors tormenting the prisoners. The last section of the poem is best of all, in the way it describes the dog-eat-dog, crummy existence of prison life and how it corrupts its’ inhabitants:
‘The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison air
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there.’
Still a vital poem for our times and worth reading for both those involved in the life of the prison service, as well as a broader readership.
"Bronson" by Charles Bronson
Charles Bronson is a legend in the prison system, notorious for his rooftop protests and hostage-taking. His story was the subject of a movie of the same name a few years ago (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1172570/).
Throughout his time inside, Bronson (an adopted name - his real name's Mickey Peterson) has seen asylums as well as prisons and has been pronounced mad on many occasions. Yet the violence in his soul seems to have no known cause and is a mystery even to Bronson himself.
Although writes with relish about his various roof-climbing escapades and feuds with fellow inmates (cons) and prison officers (screws) his behaviour in prison seems a natural but sadly inevitable response to environment. He is upfront and goes into gruesome, bitter detail about life in prison and he writes about it so vividly and honestly you feel as though you are inside with him. It's compelling, but it's certainly not enjoyable.
He depicts the people around him honestly with fairness - if he likes or dislikes someone he always explains why. Whether or not you agree with Charlie, at least you know where he's coming from. His most tragic tales are of the opportunities he's lost inside to spend more time with his loved ones, in particular his father and his grown-up son.
I hated reading this, good book though it was. I respect Charles Bronson's courage and the creative yet forthright way he has written his book, but I challenge anyone to take a flip attitude about going to prison after reading his story.
"Wasted" by Mark Johnson
A Book Review by Alain English
Mark Johnson grew up in the West Midlands, where he was abused by his father and turned to crime. He is an ex-offender, former drug abuser and now a consultant on the criminal justice system campaigning for policy change on a national and international level. You can read more about this on his website here: http://www.mark-johnson.org.uk/ In "Wasted" he talks about his life story.
Telling his tale in present tense, with a direct honesty that neither relishes the clear horror of the events it describes nor wallows in self-pity either, the author demonstrates an innate understanding of human nature that precludes excessive sympathy for the characters in his story. This includes his own mother, whose absorption and lack of resistance to his father's abusive treatment clearly disgusted him.
In showing his journey from abused child to drug abuser, the book looks at all aspects of 'the system' a young person encounters when they pursue a life of crime - the courts, the lawyers, prison and rehab. There is an exploration of the drugs scene which has significantly transformed criminal life in the last few decades. With it's descriptions of abusers, ravers and the ins-and-outs of drug-taking, the book often feels like an English version of the novel "Trainspotting" only it's real - the reality often being far uglier than the fiction. Mark is wholly honest about the fundamental selfishness that lies at the heart of addiction, and the manipulation and violence that often occurs. There is also a look at recidivism - a term describing criminals who repeatedly reoffend but more generally the tendency of people to slip back into old habits despite repeated attempts to break out of them. This is something many addicts and recovering addicts are prone to, as Mark repeatedly demonstrates.
I have lived in London for five years but this book discloses a side of the city I never really knew existed - the drug culture infesting the gutters of the West End, with scores of ragged drug users scrabbling for a hit.
It really makes you think when you read stories like Mark's - "There but for the grace of God go I." Mark himself believes he is lucky to have survived his experiences, writing of many others on the streets who have not. His hard-earned recovery and successful turnaround of his life does not take away from the realities and truths in the book, which still continue and do not give the rest of us any real reason to be comfortable.
This book is recommended reading for prisoners, addicts and recovering addicts, as well as people interested in gaining greater insight into how the world really works.