Magazine article The Spectator

Iron Bars Do Not an Author Make

Magazine article The Spectator

Iron Bars Do Not an Author Make

Article excerpt

MY LIFE AS A GIRL IN A MEN'S PRISON by Kate Pullinger Phoenix House, L15.99, L9.99, pp. 222

In these difficult times of postHowardian penal austerity, there is always a drama whenever one of my editors sends into the prison a new book for me to review. Gone are the days when access to literature was considered a basic human right. In the wake of two Solonian reports on prison security, gubernatorial enquiries are launched into the suitability of any incoming volumes before they are finally, if ever, issued. When My Life as a Girl in a Men's Prison arrived last week, zealously suspicious eyebrows were immediately raised by its provocative title, and I found myself pleading my case in front of the Number One Governor. What with all the palaver, I hid the book under my pillow when I got it back to the cell. Alas, Kate Pullinger's second collection of short stories didn't live up to any prurient expectations the philistine screws may have had.

A number of these tales were inspired (so the author claims in a patronising disclaimer about how she `consciously avoided' stealing prisoners' stories) by the year Pullinger spent as writer-in-residence at Gartree top security prison in Leicestershire, on one of the Arts Councilsponsored bursaries set up ostensibly to encourage literary creativity across the carceral estate. Fair enough. This is a scheme which I heartily endorse and in which I have participated over the years. But as for guarding prisoners' confidences ... let us examine what comes out in Pullinger's 'fiction'.

The English teacher in the title story, `My Life As . . .' opines that

prison smells like a huge locker-room that somehow ended up inside an even larger greasy spoon, sweat and socks mixed with custard and frying mince.

OK. Cliche-ridden the similes may be, but Pullinger undoubtedly got a whiff of lunch and the laundry as she made her escorted way along Gartree's ever-stretching corridors. One begins to worry though when, in `The Visits Room', the author recounts the detailed mechanics and bodily legerdemain involved if prisoners manage to reach orgasm during clandestine sexual intercourse on visits:

I get a letter from him; he tells me not to wear any knickers, to wear a big long skirt. To sit on his lap, my skirt covering us, and then to move in a slow way that will let him get inside me.

This does seem to suggest Pullinger is being less than discreet with information that can only have been gleaned from her adoring and desperate studentprisoners. …

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