Wednesday 2 April 2014

The Ballad Of (not) Reading (in) Gaol

Oscar Wilde was denied books in gaol until late in his sentence

I imagine most people have wondered what it is like to be in prison. I have visited local prisons in Cardiff and Swansea, Shepton Mallet (long-term, now closed) and Grendon (which has an interesting therapeutic/psychiatric regime addressing violence and sexual crime) but never, mercifully, long enough to find out what it is really like.

When I try to imagine the experience of being locked up I mainly think about the loss of privacy and also (and I doubt I am alone in this) the problem of not getting clean clothes every day. And of course there are many more serious challenges for prisoners.

One of the things which I imagine would give me some comfort would be being able to "escape" by reading books - not just to use up time usefully or entertainingly but to find other worlds to explore in fact or fiction.

So it was dismaying to read that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has stopped families sending books to prisoners - see this link.

A high proportion of prisoners have a serious mental illness (perhaps 30% of women prisoners) and they obviously have enough trouble already in coping with the loss of liberty. It seems particularly cruel to deny easy access to books which I do think are a staple not a luxury.


What would your desert island book choice be?

Under the rules you get the Bible and complete works of Shakespeare anyway (because they assume everybody would otherwise go for one of those - actually I would too, Shakespeare I mean although the Bible could also be good even for pagans like me - lots of rattling yarns in the Old Testament even if the New Testament is a bit repetitive and goody-goody).

I might be tempted to take Joyce's Finnegans Wake on the basis that nobody would ever read that if there was anything else available to read. But I'm not sure even a desolate island environment would compel me to read it - I'd probably end up using it to kindle fires.

Montaigne's Essays would be a possibility. I realise that sounds rather intellectually hoity-toity but actually they are quite accessible and funny too - and it's a very long book so you could finish it and start again having forgotten the beginning, if you see what I mean.

But I'm glad I'm not being sent to Chris Grayling's desert island.

Finnegans Wake: "A formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room" (Nabokov)