Magazine article The Spectator

The Penitential Pen

Magazine article The Spectator

The Penitential Pen

Article excerpt


Throughout the summer I railed continually against a coterie of soi-disant commentators, selfserving and self-styled 'experts' on the criminal justice system who, regardless of what little experience of the actuality of imprisonment they possess, are given seemingly unlimited space in the columns of our most prestigious newspapers and magazines to preach and pontificate, disseminating fanciful notions and half-baked ideas to a readership that both expects and deserves better. To draw a parallel, how many people would buy a guidebook on Berlin if they knew its author had never visited Germany?

Convicted bank robber Jim Phelan had their measure when, as far back as the 1930s, he was complaining about 'scientifically inclined penologists' without access to their own laboratories. Julian Broadhead gives Phelan free rein in this timely addition to the penal debate: 'I had the men themselves, ' the old lag argued, 'their chuckles and their groans, their blood and sweat and excretement, the animal growth of jail voices, the sniffing one another from afar, the lip-licking, saliva-drooling jungle technique of homosexual love-making, the fantasy hiss, the small sadism, the neuroses...' And how. Who but a serving prisoner can so authentically evoke the conditions, the raw emotion, the agonies and ecstasies, the visceralities of doing time?

Perhaps this was why the Guardian, shining on this occasion like a beacon of enlightenment in otherwise murky waters, chose to advertise, without any sense of irony, for a new 'prisons correspondent', a full-time post they thought 'might suit a recent former prisoner'; and to publish Erwin James's 'Life Inside' columns, which proved so popular that a collection of the lifer's articles appeared in book form. I only wish some enterprising publisher would come along and bring together all my prison journalism -- there must be 500 pieces by now -- if only to correct Broadhead's supposition that my work is merely 'topical and short-lived' despite his extensive quotations from it. What I think he means is that I haven't yet published a full-length book on the subject, as he has, using my material, alas, without permission.

But let's not carp. Across the broader canvas, in this country at any rate, it would appear that the truly literary con is a very rare bird indeed. As Broadhead is anxious to establish, and pace undisputed classics of the genre like Wilde's De Profundis and Behan's Borstal Boy (both significantly Anglo-Irish contributions), the United Kingdom has no novelist (and the novel seems to be his preferred measuring rod) to compare with the likes of a Dostoevsky, a Genet, or ever an Edward Bunker (Tarantino's infamous 'Mr Blue'), a man so dedicated to his craft in the beginning that he 'had to sell [his] blood to pay for postage'.

Jimmy Boyle, John McVicar, Norman Parker, Mark Leech or Hugh Collins just don't seem to cut it in such exaltedly picaresque company. One only has to hold up the latest 'blockbusting' example of an English prison 'memoir' to figure out why. Will Self described the work of Noël 'Razor' Smith (not to be confused with Terry 'College Boy' Smith, whose deliciously baroque Art of Armed Robbery is conspicuous by its absence here) as reminiscent of 'Chester Himes with a generous dash of Damon Runyon', and, as Broadhead reminds us no less than four times in as many chapters, arranged for its publication under the title A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun. …

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