Thursday, August 30, 2007

An expert steps in
Thursday mid-morning
: The legal aid solicitor emailed this a few minutes ago.

    Paul, the delay is nothing unusual (apparently!).

    I’ve just spoken to the parole board and they’ve informed me that because your sentence is one of 16 years, they can only make a recommendation on release, they can’t actually direct release. The case is then passed to the Ministry of Justice (formerly the Home Office) and they can take up to 20 working days to make a decision and communicate it to you.

    The Ministry of Justice has not actually received the file yet as it was only sent via the internal mail yesterday.

    So it could be a while before we hear anything. This delay shouldn’t cause you worry, although I’ve no doubt it’s torture.

    If I hear anything I’ll let you know.


It seems the wretch can return to the crossfinger stage rather than trying to recall nautical ropework and the expert way he (flatters himself that he) used to tie an exquisite hangman's knot.


Augury? Course not

Thursday morning. Returning to the lodgings last night, a senior officer half-sneered at the gate. He often aims a similar face towards the wretch. The look caught my breath. He said nothing. Remembering the advice that notice of a refusal of parole is heralded by a senior officer, it was heartening that the epaulets remained unspeaking.

Good news comes in a manila envelope in the pigeon hole. No envelope of any shade for me.

A tap on the cell door. ‘Look, I thought you should know.’ It’s a neighbour. ‘Ritchie downstairs had his parole application before the board on your same day – Friday. He was told today he is going home. You’ve heard nothing, right, so maybe, perhaps, you better get ready for news that’s not so good.’

Like Hamlet, we don’t believe in augury. But leaving this morning, Senior Officer Ray who was arriving for work, said, ‘Is everything alright, everything in order?’

I hope so, I said, and wondered why he would suspect everything mightn’t be. Was someone supposed to tell me something grim last night? Nonsense, of course not. We don’t believe in augury.

Cycling along the river to work, a canvas sign at a café, waving in the light breeze, had my name in an advert. I must have seen the slogan a hundred times this summer, but never saw my name there before.

Passing the bookshop next to work, a display in the window features the book, ‘Absolute War’. Absolute! The beginning of the soliloquy I have been comforting myself with. Of course, we don’t believe in augury. But we do wait, thinking, ‘How would master stoic Uncle Bill have handled this?’

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Trying to be absolute

What is the wretch to think? Here it is, Wednesday evening and the decision was made last Friday, the decision that has surely to be the most important decision in my life – other than the Grim Reaper’s perhaps. And I am still not told.

I try to recall the strength and stoicism of our Uncle Bill, God bless his memory, gone many years now.

Someone I do call on at times like this is the Bard. He answered all of life’s problems, it seems to me. If anyone wants to understand almost any aspect of this crazy human life we were born into, refer to Shakespeare. Somewhere in the plays or the sonnets will lie the answer.

I’m thinking of this favourite, wonderful, brilliant soliloquy to steel me for the possibility that the lateness means the news is far from good.

    Be absolute for death; either death or life
    Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
    If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
    That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
    Servile to all the skyey influences,
    That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,
    Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death's fool;
    For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun
    And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not noble;
    For all the accommodations that thou bear'st
    Are nursed by baseness. Thou'rt by no means valiant;
    For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
    Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
    And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear'st
    Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
    For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains
    That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
    For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,
    And what thou hast, forget'st. Thou art not certain;
    For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
    After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;
    For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
    Thou bear's thy heavy riches but a journey,
    And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
    For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
    The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
    Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
    For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
    But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
    Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
    Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
    Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
    Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
    To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this
    That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
    Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
    That makes these odds all even.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What's a few days more, after all?
he long weekend leaves me with thinking time while I wait for the announcement of probably the biggest event in this little life. Do I go home (although the state has taken away the home) or do I remain a captive? I mean, will I be allowed to return to humanity, to manhood, to be an actual person again who has a name rather than a number?

Saturday, Sunday, Monday. On Tuesday I might be told, but the industry is very busy, I must understand that, so it’s more likely to be Wednesday.

We are the stuff that dreams are made of, and even in the eight-year nightmare, there are gentler dreams. Last night, I was working with a pleasant fellow, and such a likeable one that I soon told him about these years, about the worst bits, and the good bits, of a dubious prosecution, about the bursts of learning that have made such a difference.

Later on he said, ‘I have to report back now.’ The realisation arrived right away. He was one of them, and my heart with some old vestiges apparently from a former non-caged life, had put me off my guard and allowed me to be taken in. ‘You have shown great improvement,’ he said. ‘But my view is that you need another six months, and that’s what I shall be recommending to the board.’

In reality, six months (divided by the likely remaining time for this little life on the planet) is a huge time, the loss of which would be very grim indeed. To my later amazement - upon waking, I mean – I was very grateful in the dream for his consideration, for his keeping in the dark the reason for our contact, and for the recommendation. Six months would be just the thing, I told him.

So glad it was a dream which really has no ability to foretell, as Hamlet claims. 'We do not believe in augury.' I hope Hamlet was right. Tuesday or Wednesday may tell.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Out, at last! Or more horror show till 2010?
decision's made. I'm out from the beginning of September … or the horror show continues till May 2010. The board was due to sit today, and as far as local authorities know, sit it did.

'Normally,' said the pleasant man in charge of such things back at the hostelry, 'we would hear tonight. But it's a long weekend, so it is quite likely we won’t know till Tuesday.

'But you can be sure that as soon as I know anything, as soon as they fax me, you will know. I know which wing you are in, don't worry.'

After eight years – minus six days – the chance of returning to life or not is hardly going to encourage the weekend to flash past, I suspect. At least the weather promises to be a little bit summery, and I shall be working behind the counter at Quarks on Saturday and Sunday.

Monday will be the weekly mandatory 24 hours inside. Fingers crossed, I think, for the next three days.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The final count-down?

With just a week to go for the Parole Board to decide whether I am civilised enough to go Out There again, to mingle in the sanctity of society, I felt it could be beneficial to recall experiences that perhaps match the horror show of the last eight years.
The raison d'etre - a self portrait from younger days.

I applied the notion in what the Open University terms life-writing - biography - in one of the last assignments before I learn if I graduate in English Literature.

Worse things happen at sea, they say
The South Atlantic torrented into the main cabin as if flung from a new trebuchet and as tellingly. The roar in that echoey space hurt, felt loud enough to cause injury, threatening more than haemorrhaging eardrums and deafness. It chorused discordantly that we were done for: no escape, no rescue, no hope, a palindrome of an out-of-tune tune, for the message came the same from any angle. And that left only supernatural help to pray for. Perhaps an airliner might whoosh low down through clouds thick as curtains, packed with pelagic bird spotters, perhaps a naval submarine quite lost might periscope to seek directions, perhaps a friendly UFO will appear and report us to NASA or the CIA. The charts revealed the clear message. Yes, I had navigated us very neatly - the line of the track was straight enough to please a Roman roadmaker - and we were just about equidistant between South America and Africa, straddling a stretched mountain chain of the dark deep, and a little to the north-west of Tristan.

Had we braved slightly more robust conditions a whisker to the southward, our threatened demise might have occurred at the garden gate of that perpendicular British satellite and within reach of rescue. The impeccable DRs and sun-fixes and GPS confirmations showed that we had gambled with safety just as we gambled for safety. To try to bypass the worst weather of the Roaring Forties, I navigated us through what could be termed, comparatively, moderate latitudes.

Coming this way meant kinder winds, manageable waves, and some warm sun, but no ships. When everything is ship shape, an absence of ships is wholly to be desired. But if things go wrong - why would they go wrong, optimism had said up to a quarter of a league ago - no ships meant no rescue. And here we were adrift where ships don’t voyage. A sickly chromatic dawn probed the morning’s weighty cloud and confirmed our discomfort. Until now, since abandoning the yacht, we suffered just the feel of the new sensations of our new transport. We felt the exhaustion that accompanies the most desperate of dramas, that intense tiredness that makes an impossible effort of everything no matter how vital or trivial. Of course, there could be no walking on this flimsy floor, but it dragged at your heels like Robinson Crusoe felt in a dream where terror simply won’t let you run, even though to move any slower is to woo painful death.

In the stricken yacht, while there were things to do, we were overacting furnaces of fire, performing everything with enthusiasm - performing those distress calls, committing the contents of the current chart to memory, collecting clothing and food, preparing the raft, shrugging bravely over the equipment and materials and parts of our present life about to vanish into the past and accompany the hulk zig-zagging far down into the nightbound deep. But here boarded and resident on the raft, there was little to do but suffer. And the look of our weary expressions confirmed that we were uncertainly suffering.

And how could it be otherwise? The irreconcilable floor was flimsy and frozen and wore the wetness of a new corpse. Wherever you leant, the floor clung to bare skin yet sagged underneath, and in the indent of the sagging, the wetness pooled. That meant as we sat hunched over, our bottoms pushed the floor down and we were dumped in the damp. If the sea should get up, if it should rain, if we should develop a leak, what would be the situation then, we could hardly help but question ourselves silently, knowing all the time that only hopeless optimism used the word ‘if’. The correct term was ‘when’. And then when we attempted to sleep, when we were lying down stretched out as much as the raft allowed, we would be lying in water. It did not make for encouraging thoughts in the dark of a fairly peaceful night.

In the new cruel light of dawn, these were dangerous fears surfacing, or descending, as worrying even terrorising notions. In the dark, when you can’t see what you are up against, it’s easier to be stoical and even a little bit brave. However, in the olivine probing light of our first dawn, one felt overpowered by all the things that were wrong, even by the few things that were right, like being undrowned and able to experience pain and, worse than worst, anticipate what was to come. Fortunately, given our mood, we had not dwelt much on the likelihood of famished marauders summoned by spilt blood. That was a surprise in store.

The few hours of darkness that allowed us to journey from novice to unhappy graduation had gradually ended. Now there was no disguising the inadequate bags dumped unhappily about the tiny shell that was our home and our coffin, the few clothes half out of the unsealable bags, soggy towels waiting to perform impossible chores, scant items of food vulnerably open to the elements, mixed smells of new rubber and French chalk and the sweat of fright and fear, and the two miserable beings dumped in the middle of the muddle, perhaps trying to look brave and ready for eventualities and capable of handling all emergencies, but now in the roseate splash of dawn looking instead haggard and, with good reason, desperate and desperately unhappy. The advantages of company, of not having to hoard your misery, and being able to talk about it and through it and talk problems out, become disadvantages when nature makes its daily demands on humans. We have animal bodies that have necessary functions, which in our civilised way we don’t talk about, and between the sexes, through romance and the society’s niceties, often forget their existence. But here a man and a woman existed till death did them part in a tiny cockleshell, less than six feet across, and how were we now to deny our needs, and even more difficult, how were we to perform those necessary functions?

There was certainly no reassuring porcelain here, no muffling walls in case we might revolt each other, not even a curtained off corner, no accessories, no air freshener, not even a basin with perfumed soap. Not even soap. And added to all the amenities that did not exist to aid our upbringings, there was simply a very thin piece of material between us and the sea, and whatever might dwell there, friend or foe, and so floppy and creepy to the touch that reluctant movement across it was only possible by manoeuvring as babies manoeuvre, feet out, press heels down, pull the hams after. And around that flimsiness was the inflated rim, a large gas-filled bolster that kept out the sea - we hoped - and anything out there that might try to get in. (This didn’t need any thinking about.) There was not so much as a handy receptacle. Yet somehow we had to invent a method that allowed the relief that soon could no longer be denied. And not just once, but every day we were trapped out here, or until we perished from weather, or were consumed by something beneath us, or we succumbed slowly to the sea.

Through the doorway of our covered raft, a blue rather smooth sea dazzled as far as the eye could see - perhaps almost a mile this close to the surface. And on the surface, rocking in very slow motion the yacht waited, mesmerically and mockingly, ocean lapping the gunnels,yet suspended by something unknown from the plunge all the way two miles down to the South American Plate of the Central Atlantic Ridge. We were tethered on a long line because the tall mast and the superstructure were much more likely to be seen from afar than our tiny tinpot shelter. If someone sailed along, they might well see the yacht and recognise her Marie Celeste distress and be curious. But if the raft bounced and wombled and wallowed here on her own, they would almost run us down before they could see the gaudy orange top. Perhaps as well - though frankly she had been a bastard, disobliging, flighty sailer - I simply could not let her go without a salute, without a truly sorrowful farewell, and doubtlessly superstition was a part of it too. Perhaps she wouldn’t sink while the tethering was in place. Perhaps it would all turn out to be a catoptric caused by sea reflection.

We could pull ourselves back to the yacht one day, find her drained and dry and welcoming, and go back on board, laughing about being taken in. ‘Liz, I, well, I need to go, and there’s the yacht there. Shall we see if we can get onto her for some, well, privacy?’ ‘Good idea,’ said Liz, and hand over hand, we inched over to the doomed vessel, clambered onto the unstable deck, found she didn’t plunge beneath our weight, and in some strange human way, recovered a little dignity and purpose.

It was so good to stand on the yacht, to touch the wheel, to look at the dear old compass, to see the boom swaying a little with the mainsail firmly boused down, to listen to the melancholy cacophony of halyards frapping. Dear God, I would give my right arm for the water to evaporate, for us to have our command of a sensible if stubborn means of transport again. We’ll turn about and go back to Rio and I’ll never embrace the sea again, perhaps join a monastery, donate my remaining life to the warbling of divine praise.

A toothbrush lay waiting by the wheel. It must have fallen when I was carrying our luggage over to the raft. We were strangers, but a man and a woman after all. I’d hate to offend. And with what joy I squeezed onto the bristles some paste from a tube of Colgate lying nearby and smelled its sharp, minty reminder of home, brushed my teeth as though I were back at the wheel with a reason, and this another glorious seafaring day. But splats of toothpaste hitting the water ended the dream. They proved the calamity: there was no way on. The yacht was stopped, swaying as if drunk, semaphoring small shines of half-sunlit distress, alphabets of silver and gold, syllables of red and orange.


He tries his hand at versifying
I had pencilled in a session of verse-writing back in the cell. I had in mind a poem about my gorgeous cycle to work each day along the Thames. It was to be dedicated to my marvellous sister, Jaedra. However, other not so attractive memories thrust themselves forward.

Happening upon James Fenton’s * description of the sestina, I was immediately attracted to the form – though I'm not sure why.

At first, I thought the end-words of the first stanza had to be integrated into the envoy only. It was a surprise to discover that they are used in the end and beginning-lines of the five stanzas as well. Back to the drawing board.

As with admired Kipling, and his Sestina of the Tramp-Royal (and so much of his Boer War verse), I planned to use the vernacular, hoping to contrast it with the voice’s more regular English, hoping it might encourage empathy.

Of imagery, I hope the message is clear. Perhaps I should have been more shadowy – dungeons packed with depressed, affection-starved men are very dark, barbaric places indeed, as England knows so well to her shame.

I was determined to avoid easy end-words for the first stanza, though that created a challenge for the envoy. I had to cheat a bit, hoping that an attempt at humour might allow it to work. The envoy is supposed to have only three lines but I called on a little poetic licence by adding a fourth.

*James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2002 A present from lovely Iris Davies a year or two back, and appreciated greatly.

Penal Paradiso

The gates sweep back, rake, and gaping wide, gulp
all down the vast edges drear onto naked
shingles where dogs, gross as grislies, demon-
grinned, vampire-eyed, drooling hate from wolf fangs,
guard guards in naval uniforms who bark
‘’Oos next. ’Oos next. Mind, I’ll beg just once more!’

‘You there, oi, knees-knocker, trep’dation more
should of fought ‘bout it afore doin’ it.
Cannot do the time, do not do the crime.
Name, number? ‘Ere watch the yeller lime.
Don’t cross the yeller lime what’er you do.
Welcome to flagship HMP Naked.

‘Si-ir? Not sir! App’lations ‘Guv’ at Nak’d
Me ‘Guv.’ You ‘con.’ Your first time, your start
in crime? ‘Sperience says so. You got rights.
You ain’t convicted yet, but I got rights -
to ‘and out horders. Come on, act the part!
S’posed to be a con. You ain’t a demon- …

‘Strative one. Under ‘fluence was you? Demon –
stratin’ of some drug? Tampered as a kid?
Wait there. Next! You, fat lad!... ’ ‘’ow’s it, Sid?’
You ain’t ‘alf pastie, like pizza dough flung
As if you didn’t know your luck’s sprung.
As if forgot blessin's in scope of bark.

‘Welcome to the genui-wine sounds, the bark
of Pearly Gates.’ He smiles, he’s contented,
no terror, no sweat, no lie fermented
in the throat deep as to the lungs, upbeat,
reeking loos and Maori maze*. I, defeat,
amaz’d just clutch my pain, cringe, avoid the fangs.

‘I fink you forgotted a missus’ fangs
who this morning could do no right? That nice
what’s-it sings? Nuvver day in Paradise.
‘Ell out there. ‘Eaven in ‘ere. No forlorn
maids ‘ere. Winter’s close, it’s warm, no birds’ scorn
no griping missus ‘ere. Tis Paradise.

Envoy –
‘Beds warm, gulp food hot, no demon girls come
To moan. No mates beggin’ for the fare home.
Visits bring you naked cash. You say fangs
That iron barks no more on a nick hangs.’

*Referring to the Maori custom of ‘maturing’ maize in sacks under water. The odour when the process is over is very – gasp! - powerful.

Good friend Paddy V in Missouri (via Wanganui), an accomplished writer of great iambic pentameters and thought-provoking haikus, nudged me into disclosing this on the blog space. To all yawners, apologies.

The sestina is a highly structured form of poetry, dating back to the 12th century. It consists of thirty-nine lines; six six-line stanzas ending with a triplet. There are no restrictions on line length, although, in English, the sestina is most commonly written in iambic pentameter or in decasyllabic meters.