‘Tommy ow’s yer soul?’ Broken Soldiers and Soldiers’ Children

I’ve been working with soldiers and their children for the last few years, as a researcher and as a writer. It has been instructive, about the world I live in as much as the one they do. For a year I worked as a researcher for a university, part of a team that evaluated a drug and alcohol recovery scheme run exclusively for ex-service personnel. It meant travelling around the north interviewing mostly former soldiers who had significant problems with alcohol abuse. Many had been through other programmes that hadn’t worked and most put it down to civilians’ lack of understanding of their experiences and culture, the absence of the camaraderie that soldiers possess, people asking them questions such as Did you ever kill anyone?

Though many had left the army years before the soldier was still present and their continued drinking was testament to that. Most said the army had taught them to drink from a young age, from their twelve weeks basic training. To not go to the bar each evening, to not even drink copiously, would leave a recruit open to ridicule, to bullying from the outset, and bullying in the army isn’t like bullying at the council. People spoke of drinking rituals, one involving a glass boot filled with three different coloured liquors.

‘There were people no one wanted to run behind the next morning because they were bound to puke.’

There was for some veterans a trigger, a particular experience, usually during combat that intensified their drinking. One man, whose drinking had cost him his family, spoke to me about his experience in Basra, Iraq.

‘Nothing could have prepared us for that. For what happened. The training we did. Running round the Brecon Beacons with a pack on your back? I was put in charge of  prisoners and I couldn’t cope.’

For others no one incident was cited but there was the obvious sustained stress of tours in Northern Ireland, or in Bosnia, Iraq etc.

‘Ireland, seen a few killed. Falklands, seen a lot killed.’

As well as combat fatigue there is also combat regret. One veteran began an interview by stating, ‘You wouldn’t like me if you knew what I’d done.’  Another,

‘In the last five years…it’s been coming back to me, what I did, and why I didn’t question it, but that was your military for you. It’s later on in life I’ve learned to question what actions I did when I was a lot younger, then the dreams started coming.  Think the spring just broke.’

A recurring theme was how little preparation there was for life after the army. The army breaks down the civilian to create the solider but not the other way round. Most expressed disappointment and antipathy with the individualism of civilian life. There’s no respect, no discipline, no camaraderie, it’s all backstabbing. The discreet programme they were part of was comparatively successful because of the values that the army had taught them. They supported one another to a degree they would not have done had they not been former soldiers. They organised their own events and each local group had their selected champions who seemed akin to corporals. Their humour was predictably tough, their outlook more stoical than most, as one veteran remarked,

‘In the dictionary the word sympathy is somewhere between shite and suicide.’

They talked a great deal about the strength of comradeship amongst soldiers about friendship, pals, having one another’s back in general and specifically on patrol; how much they missed those bonds. They disliked the boastfulness, the shallow egotism of civilian life. At the conference to launch the report’s findings, an employment worker remarked that one of the problems that former soldiers had in finding work was their reluctance, their refusal even, to sell themselves. Sadly true perhaps, but for me that was an asset that they possessed and the rest of us didn’t. Even though during that time I was the paid observer and they the problematical subject, there was some things about them I envied.

A year prior I was commissioned to write a play for Burnley Youth Theatre to commemorate the First World War. The project would also involve working with children from Preston Barracks, home of the Lancashire Regiment. My first thought was, how am I going to do this without derivation? After Oh What a Lovely War the most well-known stage play concerning WW1 is The Accrington Pals, the story of the Lancashire Regiment at the Somme. So I went to Gallipoli, to Cape Helles where six Lancashire fusiliers won VCs on the same morning and I went to an imaginary munitions factory. The young people from Burnley Youth Theatre were terrific as I already knew, the children from the barracks, who had never been in a play before, also. They had taken the greater step and soldiers and family members from the barracks attended the shows and I sensed there was more than family pride at work, both in the performances and in the audience. A little later an army welfare worker contacted me to say they wanted to make a film about the impact of soldiering upon soldiers’ children. It wasn’t something that Arts Council England was going to throw money at so it took some time to raise the money, but we’ve recently started work on the project.

The barracks have a youth club and it is there that I work with the children to devise, to write dialogue and poetry for the film. A few things have struck me at the outset. Firstly, how much their education is disrupted by families repeatedly moving home. An eleven year old I spoke to was currently on her sixth school, starting a seventh in September.  This is not unusual. Also, the number of children whose fathers had experienced combat.

‘My daddy was shot and he almost died but’s he’s better now.’

‘My dad was in Afghanistan and in a jeep behind another jeep and a boy came up to the one in front and blew himself up and my dad got out to help the people that were injured.’

‘I’ve seen some medals round the house, I don’t know what he did for them, but his knee doesn’t work properly now. He says he won’t have me joining the army because it’s dangerous and he’s thinking about getting out.’

Children are without their fathers for long periods of time during which their fathers are in harm’s way. The children talk a lot about missing friends they made at previous postings. A couple of children said they were frightened of terrorists killing their fathers in the UK. One lad said he was getting in fights at school because his father was a soldier but wouldn’t say exactly why. And there is also resilience and pride. One youngster said that moving around the UK and abroad was interesting and she was smarter and stronger for it. Being an army kid is special and early days it may be, but there is agreement that whilst the narrative of what will probably be a twenty minute film, will deal with separation and anxiety, the tone will not be one of pathos but rather validation if not celebration.

During the Blair years there was an overt attempt to promote the armed forces in the context of the unpopular war in Iraq. Soldiers seemed to be popping up at presentations at half-time, Crufts and elsewhere, a tin rattled for Help the Heroes in every shopping centre. The veterans I spoke to during the research project wanted no part of that but neither did they want the grief they got from the Stop The War crowd on Poppy Day. They desired a degree of respect and meaningful employment. The employment they had come from had been overwhelmingly physical, the terrain of work beyond it, increasingly non-physical, requiring ‘soft skills’. Like a lot of working class men in mid-life, they don’t fit in any more.

More than anything they wanted what is increasingly rare in Britain today: solidarity at work and in their community, which is why they hung out with their old comrades, drinking or struggling not to drink. Many of them were in the process of repairing relationships with their own children. Former soldiers are far more likely than other occupations to commit crime, in particular violent crime. They are more likely to become homeless and experience poor mental health. Assisting veterans adjust to civilians life isn’t just about putting them at the front of the job centre queue. It might be about recognising that they have different values, values that should not be seen as redundant or to be mocked even, but might in fact be worth learning from.


He meets his regiment mates every week,
not at the Legion – not no more after what he said
to a former officer there.

They make plans over pints to occupy themselves,
short hikes and long distance footpaths
days plotted from a to b.

He’s worked out how to go from Sheffield to London by bus,
the routes, times, numbers all listed,
he briefs them on the expense the excursion will incur.

Under his shirt his back wears a relief map
of burns where a petrol bomb splashed across him
one Saturday in Derry.

They sit at the back of the bus sipping cans,
talk about the coppers coming
for something that was done in Ireland,

what that Asian lad said to him on Poppy Day,
about six am on the parade ground
before he became someone else’s job
and had to rely on people who don’t show up on time.

Is the Genie out of the Bottle? Brexit and the future of democracy in Britain

One cannot help but feel that democracy is in trouble here. It’s not on the ropes but it is getting the pounding that could leave it bloodied and reeling, ready for the count. It has many assailants: the Judiciary, the House of Lords, faithless politicians, television and radio, all scurrying to try and undo the biggest political mandate in British history. After Parliament asked the demos a straightforward question, congratulating itself for placing such trust in the people, the wrong answer came back. Since then, much of the political class have done little else bar seeking to have the question asked again, or advocating the answer that 17.4 million people gave, be ignored. Lately Leave voters have been treated to the undignified seething contempt of Vince Cable, a contempt that I suspect he and his kind have held much of their lives.


The over reaction to the referendum result cannot be divorced from who voted which way and the most likely indicator of how people voted, beyond geography and race, is class. As someone in north Manchester told John Harris of The Guardian, ‘If you’ve got money you’re in, if you haven’t you’re out.’ Bradford, a famously multiracial City, voted Leave. It’s a predominantly working class place, and it’s in the north, which is why that happened and why you won’t have seen that mentioned in the TV debates. It is the factor of class above all others that drives those that now stand opposed to the implementation of the mandate, and in truth to democracy. The BBC and indeed many Labour politicians repeatedly remind us that it was the ‘less educated’ who voted Leave. Dianne Abbot wasted no time in describing the Leave vote as a racist vote.

There is so much in the saga that is depressing and injurious for our democracy, our civil society. The Gina Miller shenanigans, liberals and the Left cheering on high court judges and their new found comrades in the House of Lords, the perpetual exploitation of Jo Cox’s murder, the routine vitriol heaped on working class Leave voters by politicians who are handsomely paid to represent them. But arguably the worst of it is this: the voice of chattering class Remain voters proclaiming that there are more important things than democracy. This increasingly outspoken and growing authoritarianism is a new phenomenon, or perhaps an Edwardian one reborn, and one that emerged prior to the referendum under the managerialism of the Blair years. Politics is no longer a matter of belief or opinion, it is about being right or wrong and the technocracy always knows best.

your decision

The more important things can be broadly divided into ‘the economy’ and increasingly ‘racism’ or more precisely, the necessity of avoiding any accusation of racism at all costs. That George Osborne’s economic forecasts for the aftermath of a Leave majority have proven to be nonsense, is apparently besides the point, project fear is constantly renewing itself and we are in the words of Sadiq Khan, about to fall off a cliff. Again. The argument follows that the referendum result is meaningless because the point of voting,  the point of the electorate, is to serve economic growth and any decision that doesn’t do that is technically off side. Leave voters being less likely to have attended a university is in this argument, both cause and result: economic failures turning their backs on economic opportunity. You don’t have to go far on social media or elsewhere to find that people who voted Leave are morally and intellectually inferior to ‘the rest of us,’ and to hear that some of them, particularly older people, should have the right to vote taken off them. When I first heard this said on Radio Four, I was shocked. Now the Liberal Democrats say it at press conferences. Neither is it unusual to hear members of The Guardian club question whether ‘the uninformed’ should be allowed a say in such important matters, by which they mean removing the vote from the poor. The progressive discourse is moving fast, it’s now moved on to who gets to decide who doesn’t vote. And all this, in the centenary year of the Representation of the People Act of 1918.

Brexit is racist

The other trump card played alongside the first, is that those who oppose unlimited and indefinite mass migration from the EU are motivated only by racism. It doesn’t matter what they say about sovereignty, about being a socialist since you were seventeen, you’re a little Englander. Indeed the Brexit backing Morning Star itself was described as such, the Stalinist handbook rewritten to be used against its very authors. The upshot is, that the denunciation alone invalidates the referendum result because racism now has the position that original sin once did; unless proven otherwise we are all damned by the worst of all offences. All white people that is. The paranoia around racism and the accusation of it, is corrupting public life and personal lives, as well as trivialising people’s very real experiences of racial discrimination.

In the last couple of days, a news story has broken about child abuse and related murders in Telford , grave crimes that have continued for decades involving children as young as eleven. The victims were and are white working class girls, the perpetrators Pakistani men. It is the latest, and it appears the largest of many such cases across England. Like in so many of the others, police and social workers are reported as looking the other way because they were frightened of being accused of racism. People more worried about what that would do to their reputation than the sexual exploitation of children. This is where the power of identity politics ends up, shovelling obscenity upon obscenity at the graveyard of human decency. Telford stands out because of its longevity, the number of children, the murders, the magnitude of the suffering. What’s also fast become a related secondary story, is that two days after it was on every other news channel and even in The Guardian, BBC coverage was scant and MPs were not talking about it much either. Indeed, on the day after the story broke, MP Caroline Lucas took the opportunity to ask an emergency question in the commons to discuss harassment and bullying of MPs by other MPs.


Caroline Lucas’s emergency question is where self-regarding bourgeois feminists end up: thinking that an MP touching another MP’s knee warrants an emergency question in Parliament, instead of the largest and longest case of child abuse in the country’s history, one that has lasted for nearly forty years and has finally got the authorities’ attention. Lucas’s response to criticism was inevitably that people were using Telford to ‘whip up racial hatred.’ If the alleged sin of racism can make the police blind, MPs deaf and the BBC silent, it can and is being used to undo the referendum result and undo democracy. I’m 60 next year, I’ve never been called racist in my life, not until I voted Leave, and now I’m running out of fingers to count on. I do take it personally but often it isn’t meant as such. It is just part of a paradoxical narrative that believes the vote to leave the EU is part of a far right surge in British public life, that the white working class are a pogrom waiting to happen and the only way to stem this is to put democracy on hold. Historically, authoritarianism in Europe and fascism in particular, was borne from a fear of the working class power.

The notion of Leave voters’ racism and mass stupidity is not merely abuse, or mythology, it is for some a cast iron belief, a fact as real as the moral and intellectual superiority of the Remain case. Such certainty is dangerous to democracy and if you want an historical example, you should read Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain, an Everest of a book. It is a mosaic of personal accounts from interviews with 300 participants of the conflict from either side, skirmish by skirmish. One is faced with common enmity and humanity on facing pages. Fraser takes us right inside both camps listening to how people lived the war. Leave and Remain need to look at the facing pages of the referendum, look into each other’s camp, and I have to say, Remain more than Leave because switching on the TV or radio these days is like listening to Pathe news for the EU. Whether we exit the EU or not the managerialism that has become authoritarianism will not leave the scene. It has found its feet in the anti-Brexit movement and I fear has them under the table at the Labour Party. From proposals for all women train carriages to the no platforming of speakers, the banning of newspapers on trains, the media witch hunts to the undermining of the biggest popular vote in our history, something rotten, something deeply reactionary is abroad. If the vote to leave the EU is betrayed it will inevitably undermine the legitimacy of future governments, for no one, not Atlee, Thatcher or Blair, gets 52%. And each of those in their way, made greater changes to this country than leaving a free trade outfit. Even if we do leave the EU, the authoritarian genie is out of the bottle.

But there are other movements afoot as well. I went to the first meeting of Artists for Brexit last week in London. There were some great artists there, including novelist Helen Dale, songwriter and former Culture Club member Phil Picket, and painter Michael Lightfoot. We’re not re running the debate, we’re bi partisan, open to Leave and Remain voters and looking at very practical issues like visa regulations for artists post Brexit. This is in regard of both EU artists and artists from elsewhere, who are currently disadvantaged. We will be contacting the Department of Exiting the EU with our proposals. We have a mission statement, the last few lines of which reads, We want to continue to live and work in a society that, even when the decisions to be made are difficult, respects democracy as our most important value. A country that is tolerant and politically independent, innovative in its art and ideas, reaching out and welcoming to the world. We are Artists for Brexit.

If you’re an artist and you want to get on with the future, no matter how you voted, you should think about joining our growing network. There is work to be done so that artists can get the best deal out of Brexit, and Britain post Brexit, gets to see wonderful artists and their work, from the EU and the rest of the world. Get in touch on Twitter here. 





How Did It All Go So Right? Labour, Brexit, and the Arts

It was 1983, I think, South London. As usual, I was in the front row of the audience. On the stage behind the canteen table were Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight, and someone I’d never seen before, on such an esteemed platform. He was young and tatty, I thought, some social worker or polytechnic lecturer there to tell us about his strike. The rally was dominated by Benn’s oratory, in particular on his increasingly chosen subject of the Common Market. It was he argued, merely a cartel for capitalists, a means to maximise profit, one enormous  market designed to offset overproduction and to which all else, democracy, the power of national parliaments, the very existence of national sovereignty would be subordinate. It all sounded a bit overstated I thought, but rallies are often part the utopia and part the apocalypse, and I was quick to get to my feet and applaud. This was a full decade before the emergence of UKIP and nine years before the EEC became the EU. Opposition to the European cartel then was a given on the left, even among the soft left of the Tribune Group. At that time, there were four million unemployed and it was understood that this was no tragedy but merely a tactic, a government policy to instil fear in those in work and restraint in their trade union representatives. And it worked like a charm.


Resurrect Benn today and he would describe the free movement of labour in similar terms; as a means to weaken the bargaining power of labour in relation to capital par excellence. Thatcher’s mass unemployment of the early eighties was temporary, he’d argue, but the EU’s reserve army of labour is limitless and permanent. He would point out that it is far from a coincidence that wages in the UK have fallen faster in recent years than anywhere in the EU other than Greece; it is in fact in EU terms a success story, because that is its raison d’etre. That, the stubborn low productivity and the casualisation of the UK workforce are symptomatic of the condition: why invest in workers or machinery, why give them a permanent contract, or any kind of security, when there is always another worker behind in the queue? Why train apprentices at all when the time served can be enlisted from elsewhere? The EU’s case, Tony Blair’s case, is that the international workforce brings skilled labour straight to your door, already trained, highly motivated, increasing profits and therefore investment. And he’s right, it does. But Benn would also be right in saying, because the labour supply is endless, wages never get to catch up. 1983 is here to stay he’d say, and it’s become known as the ‘gig economy’, as if we were all doing stand-up routines just for a chance to be a compere. That Benn and Blair are both right about the economics of the EU is no contradiction. As anyone who has a copy of Marx for Beginners will tell you, there isn’t one economy, there’s two; one for capital, another for labour.

Benn and Bennism is dead and buried, and the man whose jumper didn’t reach to his wrists or his waist that day, the newly elected Jeremy Corbyn, isn’t quoting his mentor anymore. I queued for an hour in Leeds during his leadership campaign, there must have been more than two thousand in the hall waiting for him, and when he hunched in, with a self-effacing smile and a beige sports jacket, the seated joined the standing in applause. At last…at last, something was happening. The EU came up briefly in his speech. And if EU membership isn’t working for working people, we’ll look at our membership. It was almost an aside, he took a hopeful double take at the audience to see how it had gone down; at least I clapped. Few anticipated that within twelve months the question would be answered for him, or that the reaction of the Labour Party to the referendum result, would be what it has been; so confused, debilitated, and frightened.

I had been in and around the left and the trade union movement for many years before and after 1983. I re-joined the Labour Party a few years ago under Ed Miliband and went to my last meeting shortly after the Leave vote. The room was packed with new members and the atmosphere was a mixture of sombreness and hysteria. When I tried to tell people why I had voted Leave I was booed, there was no way I was going to get to an anecdote about Benn and Corbyn. Elsewhere, former comrades have called me ‘Tory Scum’ and predictably of course, a racist. That was my last day as a member, my last meeting, and the most telling contribution in that room was someone saying how sorry he felt for the people who voted Leave, because it is they, the poor, misguided, taken in, working class people who would suffer the most. I think he even used the word, ‘pity’. I have heard this ethic expressed a lot recently from people who actually believe themselves to be socialists and my best riposte is a family anecdote.

I was fourteen, it was half term, my father came in the backdoor whilst I was having lunch in the kitchen with mum. ‘What are you doing home?’ she asked. My father worked in a London Transport bus garage and was a T&G shop steward. ‘We walked out,’ he said. ‘I came across this plumber in the toilet and asked him what union he was in, and he said he wasn’t in one, so we called the garage out. I’d warned the gaffers about this before.’ My mother was worried, ‘They’ll sack you for that.’ He laughed back. ‘They wouldn’t dare.’ A London Transport garage of several hundred workers went home at noon because the man fixing the tap wasn’t in a union, so wasn’t paid the union rate. I know to some of you it sounds archaic and possibly terrifying, but it was the mid-seventies and the gloves were off, and our class, my class, had power and the confidence to use it. It was Scargill and Gormley, mess with us and we’ll turn your lights off during Horse of the Year Show. We had each other’s backs and didn’t hang about for postal ballots. We were yet to be defeated, thereafter humiliated. The Labour Party was about working people representing themselves, politics something you did, not just something that is done to you. I became my father’s son, was never happier than on a picket line and would far sooner have someone’s contempt than pity for voting to leave the EU. People imagine that because the unions have been emasculated that the conflict between capital and labour no longer exists, ‘the end of history.’ It remains unresolved, its just invisible because one side has a triumphant position, nearly all the time. The Brexit vote? That’s a bus garage walking out and they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Kes 2

Corbyn’s leadership notwithstanding, the Labour Party and the left I have left behind is unrecognisable to that which I joined in my teens in the late seventies; unrecognisable to itself. Yes, I have changed and so has the world, but the left is so perpetually realigning itself it is not even easy to define it any more, let alone sign up to it. Socially and culturally it is middle class and managerial. It feels sorry for people yet at the same time wants to police them. It does not believe in commonality, instead it makes a fetish of skin-deep differences. The denigration, snobbery and abuse towards Leave voters, particularly working class Leave voters, overwhelmingly comes from the ranks of the Party and its supporters. Most of them desire to see the biggest democratic mandate of UK history, ignored. Not even Atlee got 52% of a 72% turnout in 1945 and he changed the country a lot more than leaving a free trade outfit. You can hear Labour supporters on Radio Four arguing that the elderly should have the vote taken off them. Not only are they not even democrats in any book I’ve ever read, this is the stuff of the hard right or the Stalinist left and Corbyn should take them in hand but doesn’t.

life support







Intellectually, and that is probably a compliment too far, many have fallen down a relativist rabbit hole and re-emerged to change places as frequently as the Mad Hatter at his tea party possessed by his logic. Simply because Trump is opposed to Iran they are sympathetic to the Islamic Republic. They can’t even bring themselves to support the women risking life and liberty for taking off head scarves. They are frightened that doing so might either alienate Salafists here, or perhaps encourage a similar movement in the UK. And what would they do with that? They don’t even know what to do with the radical nature of Brexit, are scared of it, cannot comprehend its meaning. Many simply voted Remain because Nigel Farage led the Leave campaign;  he having no business being allowed the space to do so.


It is perfectly easy these days to find Labour Party members or supporters who are sympathetic to, if not supportive of: Scottish Nationalism (because it’s anti the British state, and anti-English); Hezbollah (because it’s against Israel); Islamic terror (because it’s against western imperialism); the House of Lords (because it might block Brexit); the banning of newspapers, public speakers, plays, books and paintings (because they disagree with them or they might offend someone they feel sorry for). Identity politics has replaced class, has replaced serious ideas. Labour was once ‘the hope of the world.’ Now it’s the cause of a long list of competing minority groups of everybody except of course, Stan from Doncaster; an oppression layer cake at the Hatter’s party. The prospect of a Corbyn/Momentum government is not exciting to me, it’s doesn’t feel like the march of Solidarity in Poland, it has the feel of something more ominous.


If my divorce isn’t amicable, the feeling is mutual. And I don’t see myself running off-hand in hand with the right either. Another five years of austerity is barely imaginable. The queue at my local food bank tails back round the outside of the church. I want the market out of education and other public services, but I also want more democracy not less, greater freedom of expression not a censorious culture that tip toes around the professionally offended. Though no longer a joiner, I recently came across artists4brexit, a group of artists positive about a politically independent Britain and even reaching out as they say, to Remain voters who respect the mandate. There are some terrific writers and artists involved, some who voted Remain, and it’s a relief to be away from the vitriol and among people who believe art should be part of society, not apart from it. Whilst 52% of the largest turnout in a quarter of a century voted Leave, in a recent survey 96% of artists were opposed to leaving the EU. What does that tell us about the relationship between the arts and the people in this country? The arts scene is pre-occupied with identity politics, half the time that’s all the poem, the play is about. There’s not much narrative, insufficient craft, just an expression of the author’s identity. Everyone in the room talks about diversity yet everyone thinks alike. Political correctness is killing art, but then that’s the point of it. Increasingly I  don’t define myself by politics, and never by the chains of my ‘identity’, but rather by what books and ideas have captured me of late. We are what we read, think and do, the difference we make to the world, not just the way we came into it.

world turned

I’m about to start work on a youth theatre project with the children of serving soldiers and then hopefully a community play on the English Civil War, for which I’ve been re-reading Christopher Hill’s magnificent The World Turned Upside Down. It is a subject that has drawn me all my reading life and ultimately what determined my decision to vote Leave. I didn’t do it because of what Tony Benn or anyone else said, or what was written on the side of a bus. I did it because the fight for ordinary people to have a say in how they are governed in this country, is at least a four hundred year old struggle, arguably beginning with the Levellers in 1645. It was followed by those who fell at Peterloo, the Chartists and the Suffragettes. It is a struggle that isn’t finished yet and we, we that are just passing through, are insignificant and brief custodians of all that has been hard-won before we were born. We have no right to give up, any portion of that sovereignty that people gave their lives for, to an oligarchy in Brussels, in exchange for a shorter queue at the airport, a special offer on the Chardonnay, or even yes, our employment. Democracy for me, is as near to sacred as it gets. The Maoris say we walk into the future backwards, looking behind us for guidance from our ancestors. Well I voted Leave because Winstanley and Milton, Shelley and Mary Wolstencroft, Fergus O’Connor, Sylvia Pankhurst and Tom Mann, all said I should. And turning to look the other way, there is still much more freedom to be won.

My poetry collection First Fleet is available from Smokestack Books. You can find out more about my work at my website.

James Ruse: the first white Australian settler.

My last blog post on ‘1788 and all that; poetry and the First Fleet’ has had some very welcome attention from two descendants of the first ‘convict’ farmer in Australia, James Ruse. Partly in response to interest from Caroline Ruse and Samantha Dimmock Ruse I’m publishing the ‘two Ruse poems’ thus far from my sequence on the penal settlement at Sydney Cove. First it’s worth knowing something about the man in question.

I’ve been writing the sequence for the past year and then along comes Jimmy McGovern to steal my thunder with his TV series Banished except he doesn’t, because he writes screen drama and I write poetry and fortunately for me he has avoided many of the key figures in the settlement, including James Ruse. Twenty three year old James Ruse (spelt ‘Roose’ ‘Ruce’ elsewhere in records) was sentenced to death at Bodmin Assizes in July 1782 for “burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Thomas Olive and stealing thereout 2 silver watches, value 5 pounds.” The sentence was transmuted to seven years transportation and in some ways the Cornish farm-hand’s story can be said to mark the beginning of European colonisation of the continent.

At that time the transportation business was running into difficulties on account of the American War of Independence. So, like many others James spent several years on a prison hulk on the Thames, five in fact. This meant that by the time the British decided to use New South Wales and he reached Botany Bay, officially he only had another year of captivity ahead of him. As far as the Governor was concerned this was a moot point.

James it is claimed was the first ashore in January 1788, carrying on his back to the beach the officers from a long boat. At the establishment of the settlement the Governor gave the former tenant farmer responsibility for ‘Cove Farm’ at the site of the present botanical gardens. It failed and starvation threatened the settlement. Ruse’s time was up but the Governor refused to provide papers for his journey home, offering him instead farmland along the Parramatta River. After fifteen months Ruse announced that he and his wife Elizabeth whom he married in 1790 were now self-sufficient in food, and their farm formed the nucleus of a small community of farmers who helped feed the settlement and while technically still convicts, enjoyed considerable freedom and later had other convicts assigned to work for them. In April 1791 he got his liberty and the deeds to his farm. The Crown apart, the first white person to own land on the continent of Australia. There is now an agricultural college in his name in Parramatta. Comments on the poems always welcome.

Susannah Ruse, Bodmin Assizes, July 29th 1782

James down there, handsome, filthy from gaol.
Caught in the silversmith’s house in the night,
two watches in his pocket, cheese in his mouth.
In front of a judge now, chin stuck out.

Married me in Lawhitton,
Lizzie already twisting in my belly.
She’s a prowling cat. Hasty James,
has an ocean of fields to teal now.

The pushed aside, eldest child is hanged,
reprieved, transported seven years.
I’ll not roar like others in the gallery, and he
no sadder than our wedding night, his lips write

wait for me. Gawky James, farmhand
with a farmer’s family to feed, I said
the silversmith would have a pistol.
One watch would have done wouldn’t it?

James Ruse face like Growan clay,
will pull a plough in his burgling clothes,
labouring right through our nights
as he crosses off his days.

James Ruse at his farm, Rose Hill, Parramatta River, December 1791

I James Ruse now of Parramatta
ten miles up-river of the famine
have harvested two hundred bushels from thirty acres,
have served my sentence.

The farm hand from Launceston
has fed convicts and marines alike,
ploughed out his life priced at two silver watches
at Bodmin Assizes.

I carried his Lieutenant to the shore,
grand and sparkling on my back,
I James Ruse, the first to face the land
dreamed of Cornwall

where the grit stone tore the skin
between my fingers till my hands
bled silver, harsher than the grasses
of the Parramatta.

One day the Governor will go
and I will continue to plant and grow.
I have my eyes on the Hawkesbury River,
on horses and hogs.

1788 And All That: Poetry and the First Fleet.

ff blogBanished 2

In December last year I made an application to Arts Council England to write a collection of poetry, concerned in the main with the first convict settlement in Australia in 1788. It paid off; I got the grant, which just leaves the writing part. In the application I promised a blog to all and sundry, so here is an early glimpse of a few poems and an invitation to leave a comment on the work and the concept of re-telling that historic endeavour through imagined poetic voices.

I began writing the poems last May when I was in Sydney. I’d read Robert Hughes’s ‘The Fatal Shore’ and Tom Keneally’s ‘The Commonwealth of Thieves’. After Hughes one wonders what there is left to say on the subject but what Keneally does is spotlight the first two years, ‘the starvation years’ of the settlement and in particular, the uncertain lives of individual convicts, marines, officers and Aboriginal people who make up this absorbing drama that isn’t the story many believe it to be. But Keneally only goes as far as a historian dares and I wanted to see the characters actualised and more than anything, I needed to hear them. In some cases that was not difficult to do. The transported Cornish watch thief turned settlement farmer James Ruse soon began to boast of his achievement to me having, fed convicts and marines alike/ploughed out my life priced at two silver watches/at Bodmin Assizes.

Initially I set out to tell the history of the first years of the settlement with quite a cast. I’d read every journal by officers and surgeons, noted their diet, the Aboriginal tribes encountered, the climate and the soil. A sequence of six was published in the last issue of Prole Journal which has been encouraging. What I have subsequently realised is that I also must go deeper rather than wider, to fewer characters about whom we know less or little. So, I strive to tell their mostly imagined stories through several rather than a dozen or more imagined voices. That way we may still get a picture of the wider experience in what was called New Holland. If I only achieve a sense of the personal experience of long ago extinguished voices that will be enough. Arts Council England have also funded a very patient mentor in poet and teacher Sarah Corbett who reminds me that the master I am writing for is poetry not history. This week sees the first instalment of Jimmy McGovern’s BBC television First Fleet drama Banished. Likewise he will no doubt do his job and serve his audience well. I only hope that his drama makes it more likely that people will want to read poetry concerned with 1788 and all that. Below, meet seventeen year old Jane Fitzgerald, a west country convict, seaman Jacob Nagle and Bennelong, the indigenous Australian who came to London when the first Governor returned.

Jane Fitzgerald, Sydney Cove February 1788

Just the shine off them, the blackberries of home.
Bread dipped in butter, and chestnuts and eels.
My mouth is sore from fancying.

But I am not at sea now. I have my rations
without the pleasure of marines. They are ill-tempered.
Vermin won’t leave them be.

One who knew me on the Charlotte
struck another for two words to me.
He’s to be lashed for that. Won’t know his coat from his back.

After that I will go into the woods
lie all night in the dews with a highway robber.
A mutinous man.

We make free out here, of the land and the sea,
of each other. Marriage means nothing.
Seven or eight die each day.

There is talk of taking men to some island
weeks east. So red and rocky the earth
so fevered men behave.

They watch the lightning off the bay,
or look behind the camp up-river,
to China they say.

Jane Fitzgerald receives twenty five lashes for disobedience, March 1789. 

I only talked with him. We like to talk with each other;
our corner in the shade. But Bloodworth the brick-master,
the henhouse sneak, has folk flogged now, easy as the Major.

William went to plead but mister Tench said
I have written the sentence down. William said,
count every second stroke Jane.

I couldn’t count after five. I pressed my face
into the tree like it was my mother’s skirts,
Bloodworth shouting damned bitch from the crowd.

I cried so I saw my daughters in Bristol.
The girls are taller, waist high to their father.
Their faces are clean, their hair shines, their mouths shut bravely tight.
When it stops we walk to my hut. My eldest holds my hand.

Women are separate from the men now.
We have our own fires and places.
But William is allowed, he nurses me.
His narrow fingers, soft as water make me sleep.
I dread the flies that’s all. Their footsteps along my wounds,
the shiver of their eggs.

William is no soldier. His uniform hangs off his shoulders,
he is young, taunted and ordered by all others.
But he brings me the healing leaves,
sets down his musket, reaches for me.
I will sew his torn sleeves.


Seaman Jacob Nagle on board the Sirius, October 1788

Seamen are not convicts.
The way the continent has it
positons are ice islands, ebbing, slipping.

Convict, marine, Governor, seaman
are false landfalls
crawled upon, starved, whipped.

A native sits at the Governor’s table
while we are taken with scurvy
scudding the Horn in search of supplies.

Behind us every ghost lives a week
on five pounds of flour, four of pork
two pints of pease.

Whales are about us soaking the deck.
In the watch we have but thirteen left,
that with the carpenter’s crew.

Tied below the third lieutenant screams
Tip all nines and we’ll see
if she rises for a set of dammed rascals.

We saw land but three miles off.
The captain brought his charts on deck.
He overhauled them. We saw surf,

trees, hills there were, brush and woods.
A man died in sight of it.
Then it vanished. The Cape Flyaway.

I have my ring, my buckles.
If we reach Table Bay I’ll trade my seamanship,
return no more to Sydney Cove.

Bennelong in London
Bennelong after the death of his friend Yemmerawanne, Eltham May 1794

Father you stole me, tied me,
made my tongue turn like yours.

While our words mixed like colours Be-anga,
another man took my woman across the shore.

I paid you back with the spear, I had to.
Your forgiveness carried me across the black seas to here.

I have not met your King, I have met your Isabella
who has nursed me, tried to save my friend

Yemmerawanne. I made a ceremony alone for him.
I am invisible now, lazy as the moon.

There are men under bridges who cannot read the stars.
Some will come home on ships, some strangled where they are.

Once we were like long ago, when all
had been made, yet all was in darkness.

I shall be home when the Emu is in the sky.
Then I will leave my English clothes for good,
but keep a handkerchief.

On Emigration, Invasion and Rehabilitation

I‘ve been in Australia and I’ve been in New Zealand. In Australia I was catching up on family and the First Fleet. In New Zealand I was running writing workshops at Arohota Women’s Prison. I’ve been laying the ground for future research on the impact creative writing can have on reducing re-offending, both positive and negative. I plan to compare practice in the UK with work in New Zealand. If one is going to do an international project, one should push the boat out (to the North and the South Island hopefully). One thing that seems apparent to me already is that those who manage arts work in prisons in the UK should look to Arts Access Aotearoa as a model organisation in this field. They coordinate, prepare and support artists working in custody, ensuring a level of security and quality. My visit over the three days was organised by their prison arts advisor Jacqui Moyes and it couldn’t have been better organised.

For a capital city Wellington is comfortably small. It was windy, weathered and compared to Sydney, cheap. Then so is Kensington and Chelsea. I was made welcome and I was kept busy. First off I was interviewed about my work on Radio New Zealand on the morning show Nine to Noon (see link for recording). My work is about using writing with prisoners for all the obvious benefits: literacy, expression, for the love of writing and the craft but principally about challenging pro criminal thinking; using memoir to examine not just who you are but what you have done, to yourself and to others, because we become aware of ourselves from what we have done to others. And it’s about doing this work to support the work of probation, psychology, prison officers and education staff. If I am working with a house breaker I start with his or her story, unrelated to offending, usually childhood memoir work told in the first person present tense. Gradually we move on to story telling and the creation of characters. Then I return to memoir asking them to think of a specific burglary. I have worked with hundreds of burglars in and out of prison and in my experience to one degree or another, they read the houses they enter. They construct outlines of individuals and families through belongings, through clothes, even the food in your fridge. To some extent they think about what they have done, or rather it can haunt them a little. It is an involuntary process rather than active consideration because if you are committing crime or considering it as career move, the first thing you must do is rid yourself of consideration for others. Conscience is fatal; it makes for hesitation, for lack of resolve and for getting caught. So one has to switch it off. My work is in part about attempting to resurrect it. So I get my writers to create the inhabitants of the houses they stole from; detailed biographies, imaginary emotional and psychological histories. Then we put them in conversation before and after the burglary and also during, in dialogue with the writer as distressed holograms. This, one lad at HM YOI Lancaster Farms told me, was the hardest thing he had ever been asked to do in five years in prison. At the end of this process there may be more chance of entering into a restorative justice process.

After the radio interview I was treated to a breakfast reception at Arts Access Aotearoa chaired by Executive Director Richard Benge. (Indeed throughout my time in Wellington I was generously treated to food and drink). I then ran a training session for around twenty participants including prison writers, probation officers, Corrections staff and staff from Victoria University. I took them through some of the exercises I take prisoners through, from first contact writing warm-ups to the voices of their victims. One or two acknowledged that they would find my objectives, difficult, awkward. I do. But for me the purpose of writing with prisoners has always been to assist in the process of making them less likely to offend, and this is one of the ways we do this. The other issue that was raised was levels of literacy amongst prisoners as a barrier to writing. It is true that low literacy is an obstacle, but one that isn’t insurmountable. In the UK at least, literacy levels amongst prisoners is not as low as many believe. Prisoners tend to come from poorer, socially and economically excluded areas and when you compare their levels with the average for their communities, they are actually higher than most, precisely because they have been in prison, been to education and written and read more than they would on the out. The issue again begs the question, what is the writing for? Much of the writing produced (under supervision) is potent and direct. Hardly any of it is publishable. The point of prisoners writing is to get them to take an active part in their own desistance journey. Rehabilitation is not something that the state can do to people. That’s punishment and it has its place. The rest is trickier. The state can’t send someone round to burgle the offender’s house to show them how it feels. (Statistically the offender is more likely than most to already know. Burglary produces burglars). What we can do is to facilitate meetings with victims and in preparation for that, or regrettably as a substitute for that, we can try to get them to inhabit and author a victim’s story. My PhD will be to see if any of this works. I’ve been doing it for ten years or more and anecdotally I believe it does, but to get a doctorate Sheffield Hallam will want more than my own memoirs.


Michael Crowley workshop2 sm

Photo courtesy of Iona McNaughton Arts Access Aotearoa

In the evening I went to a meeting of restorative justice practitioners. I was an RJ practitioner for seven years and the first thing one is told in one’s training is that New Zealand is the home of restorative justice, that it is integral to Maori culture. The team there are dealing in early intervention work and were encountering exactly the same problems that I did when I started in youth justice: having a small window of time pre sentence to facilitate the possibility of a victim offender meeting. And more profoundly, that participants in restorative meetings often lack the desired language, a means to express themselves sufficiently well enough to make the face to face meeting worthwhile. It is a process that requires a direct and honest language. Language like a window. Language that people don’t often have. It was this that spurred me into creative writing with children and  young people in youth justice. Their absence of an ability to express contrition or explain their actions was often deemed as a lack of conscience. The result of my discussion with Wellington practitioners was that I would design some writing exercises for both offenders and victims that they will be encouraged to do as part of the two-hour session and in their own time. The hope is that they will be better prepared, better able to express themselves in any face to face meeting.

Arohata Womens’s Prison on the outskirts of Wellington was built in 1944 and holds 88 minimum to high security women. From my understanding it is used to visiting artists of one form or another but they don’t have a writer in residence.  I spent most of the morning working with six women in the library. Using exercises I wanted to prove to them that they could write creatively and thus I wanted them to have a piece by the end of the session. We began with an automatic writing exercise – all of them thinking of a particular morning, responding quickly to ten nouns, light, sounds – all the senses – their hands, their hair, their memories of love and home. I then asked them to think of five actions they have done with their hand that morning. Put all this to one side and then to write a list of seven emotions and chose one and think of a time when it was dominant. I continue to tell them where and how to dig; setting them parameters but also allowing things to be open. The women were eager and diligent and concentrated. By the end of the session we had two poems that were virtually good to go and the bones of four others. And what was more important they wanted to write more and were enthusiastic about getting a regular creative writing anthology together.

Then there was an unexpected impromptu workshop in Arohata’s drug treatment unit. Jacqui Moyes and I walked down the long, forbidding corridor and were met in a room the size of a drama studio by twenty to thirty women who greeted us with traditional song and dance. When they finished they looked at me expectantly. So I told a story.

‘Once upon a time there was a man made of glass. He was famous where he lived. Everyone knew who he was. Most people were scared of him. The Glass Man liked this and called it respect. People feared him because with one wave of his hand he could sever them into pieces. Some children saw their reflections in him and dreamt of being like the Glass Man. But the older people didn’t admire him; they could see straight through him and knew he was empty and hollow. They would recoil in horror whenever he took out his blood stained money. Even the dogs looked away in disgust. So the Glass Man looked instead to the children. They gave him his power he thought. Then one day, one of them crept up behind him and smashed him into pieces.’

It was written by a young prisoner from Manchester who was a drug dealer and who came up with an allegorical way of describing the only occupation he’d ever had. I ran with the theme and asked the women if their addiction were an animal, what would it be? ‘A snake!’ Why? ‘Because it creeps up on you.’ ‘It lives in a hole.’ ‘Sheds its skin.’ ‘Puts poison into me.’  In English jails there is always someone in the room that fights me, whose only effort is disruption. I waited for them, but there wasn’t anyone in the room like that in Arohata. Since everyone had AWP stamped on their clothing, I asked if anyone could think of a way of using the letters to title a writing magazine and the answer was ‘Arohata With Pride.


There was another reason why I was in that part of the world. I have become a grandparent and we had the pleasure of meeting Rosa Francesca at three months into the world. She is the daughter of my stepdaughter and I have little experience of babies and infants but in the four weeks we were there I’m convinced Rosa took on new mannerisms and expressions, or perhaps it was just what one sees when you look at someone so much.

Each time I go to Australia I become more interested in its story. By that I mean its ‘European’ story and their early contact with Aboriginal people (who’d already been there some sixty thousand years); the story of the early fleets and the first one of 1788 in particular. The future of an entire continent, and consequently the future of entire Peoples hinged on decisions, quite random at times, on the deeds and disasters of a very small number of individuals, almost in touching distance to us today. I’ve just finished reading the absorbing ‘The Commonwealth of Thieves’ by Thomas Keneally. Through Keneally’s writing we can empathise with the first Governor, with convicts and Eora people alike. Through his research we see how chance and endurance shaped the last two hundred years of Australia. Only a week after the eleven ships of the First Fleet anchored at Botany Bay the French sailed in. There was a kind of stand-off without guns being pointed (they had just come out of the Seven Years War). Then fleet leader and future first Governor Arthur Phillip sent a boat to the French to say “will give you what supplies you need to go home” and the French replied “likewise”(sic). It is partly matter of timing that Australian’s first language isn’t French today (A relief no doubt to Tony Abbott). Apparently the proposed name of the British settlement was to be ‘Albion’ but then Phillip personally decided that it would be called Sydney. His reasoning was that the Home Secretary Lord Sydney was less likely to forget and let perish a settlement named after him. And perish it very nearly did. The convict James Ruse was a former farm-hand and given the job of the ploughing the first farm but failed to produce anything but more seed in the first year. So the flag-ship Sirus was sent to Cape Hope to get more supplies. Stripped of guns and its decks cleared its small half-starved crew circumnavigated the globe at 40 degrees; something not easily attempted today. Half the crew died through scurvy, the 3rd Lieutenant Maxwell was driven insane and had to be restrained. But ultimately they returned with provisions to head off starvation.

The establishment and the survival of the colony was an extraordinary achievement of endurance. It has the feel of The Tempest. However it is of course complicated and marred by the fact that the original inhabitants of the continent saw it as an invasion. And an invasion it was. Not in the D Day Landings or 1066 sense but more in the sense of a century long land grab backed up by muskets and small pox. Year after year the British parcelled up land and gave it to convicts who’d served their sentences. Many of them murdered any Aboriginal who put a foot on ‘their’ property. In the decades that followed, skirmishes became a war became massacres. In Tasmania what was known as The Black War at the time was used as an example to define genocide in the 1940’s. On 1 December 1826, the Tasmanian Colonial Times declared that: “We make no pompous display of Philanthropy. We say this unequivocally SELF DEFENCE IS THE FIRST LAW OF NATURE. THE GOVERNMENT MUST REMOVE THE NATIVES—IF NOT, THEY WILL BE HUNTED DOWN LIKE WILD BEASTS, AND DESTROYED!” It is not surprising that not everyone shares an admiration for the resolve of the first settlers.

For these reasons it is important that the story is dragged out into the light and I am surprised Hollywood hasn’t got hold of it. The seminal history of transportation is Robert Hughes’s ‘The Fatal Shore’, the seminal stage play is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good.’ Some seven years ago, when I’d just taken up residency at HM YOI Lancaster Farms I worked on the play with a group of young prisoners. The culmination of the process was the visit of the company from Theatre by the Lake who were then in rehearsal for a production. It wasn’t hard to find lads to work with. It never was. But a drama about Botany Bay appeals. Prisoners I’ve noticed are generally interested in the history of prison. You would be, it connects to a wider humanity and reinforces a sense of injustice, misplaced or otherwise since the further back one goes the more arbitrary and cruel punishment was. In reading the script (and I had to get lads to play more than one part because I simply couldn’t control a cast the size of Wertenbaker’s) I soon realised how little lads knew about the history but also how interested they were. So we put the scripts to one side and sat down and I gave them photocopies of a few pages from Hughes. (Technically unlawful I know). As much as acting, if not more, the project became a history course through a play. It was in fact the first time I’d done any drama in a jail and there was something else I realised. There was one lad in particular who struggled to read and consequently wouldn’t go to education but who loved acting even if meant stammering over the script. During the six or seven weeks his reading  noticeably improved. It was the fact that the text was a drama that helped. It gave him something to do as well to think about. And of course he was part of a story. Only once did another lad express any frustration about his poor literacy because drama is essentially collaborative – which is another reason why people who behave anti-socially should be introduced to it.

There are twenty known contemporary accounts of the First Fleet but only one by a convict. So I have started taking it upon myself to imagine their voices (see below) starting with the Cornish farm-hand James Ruse and seventeen year old Catherine Crowley “sentenced to seven years’ transportation for stealing sheets and clothes, valued at one pound eleven shillings, from the house of her employer.” There were more than twenty Crowley’s transported during the period, most to Van Diemens Land. Some were Irish rebels most were thieves. It’s not even a common name, what is it with us and imprisonment?

Jacqui Moyes told me that in Maori culture they believe that we all walk backwards into the future: ka mura ka muri. We do so looking upon the people before, the dead, our ancestors. Maori people ask ‘where’s your folks from, your mother’s people?’ They’re right. It’s true. We owe the dead. We owe it to children to tell them of the things they did for us as well as the foul ups. And we owe it to ourselves to think upon on own pasts. I sensed the women in the library in Arohata needed to do this. As William Faulkner said, ‘The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.’ I’m currently trying to tune in on 1788.

I James Ruse

Now of Parramatta
ten miles up-river of the famine
have harvested two hundred bushels from thirty acres,
have served my sentence.

The farm hand from Launceston
has fed convicts and marines alike
ploughed out his life priced at two silver watches
at Bodmin Assizes.

The Governor sickens and worsens.
He has blundered, even with the hangings.
Treated marine and convict alike,
savages better.

I carried his Lieutenant to the shore,
scarlet and glittering on my back,
I James Ruse, the first to face the land
dreamed of Devon

where the grit stone tore the skin
between my fingers till my hands
bled silver, harsher than the grasses
of the Parramatta.

One day the Governor will go
and I will continue to plant and grow.
I have my eyes on the Hawkesbury River,
on horses and hogs.


Jane Fitzgerald

Just the shine off them, the blackberries of home.
Bread dipped in butter, and chestnuts and eels.
My mouth is sore from fancying.

But I am not at sea now. I have my rations
Without the pleasure of marines. They are ill-tempered.
Vermin won’t leave them be.

One who knew me on the Charlotte
Struck another for two words to me.
He’s to be lashed for that. Won’t know his coat from his back.

After that I will go into the woods
Lie all night in the dews with a highway robber.
A mutinous man.

We make free out here, of the land and the sea
Of each other. Marriage means nothing.
Seven or eight die each day.

There is talk of taking men to some island
Weeks east. So red and rocky the earth
So fevered men behave.

They watch the lightning off the bay,
Or look behind the camp up-river,
To China they say.

Oedipus in Jail

I may very well be coming to the end of my residency as a writer at a young offenders’ institution. I’m waiting to hear. For their decision. As with the prisoners I am in the hands of the gods. For the past six months I’ve been cooperating with Julian Armitstead, a writer who was based at HMP Hewell, on a project entitled ‘Oedipus in Jail’. Julian approached me at the end of 2012 suggesting we retell the first part of Sophocles Theban trilogy Oedipus the King but set in a prison. We would develop the script with serving prisoners and possibly even, perform or read it to an audience inside. It was an ambitious idea, some friends and colleagues thought over ambitious, but that was partly why I agreed. Over the last six years at HM YOI Lancaster Farms I have worked with groups of young prisoners (lads) on Othello, Macbeth, Our Country’s Good, Of Mice and Men and watched them recite Auden (his choice not mine) from the stage in the chapel. It was a given to me that despite many lads being culturally impoverished, I could work with them on great literature. Not all of them by any means, not most even, but some lads no question. In my experience they are flattered by my proposal, unfazed and keen to get out of whatever they are pretending to do. There are also in that jail, in any jail, just like Oedipus himself, naturally bright lads. But the major reason why the Oedipus story seemed apposite to explore with prisoners was its enduring narrative and subtext. A mother and father believe their son will come to no good, they are told so by those that know the future, they even try to take his life, but through the intervention of a good shepherd he is adopted across the mountains and grows up believing he is with his natural mother and father. Once he has grown it is again foretold he will bring destruction upon his family, so where does he run to? Back to where he came from, only to clash with his own anonymous father upon a one-way street, killing him before facing down the monster at the gates of Thebes by answering the riddle of the age and entering the city to be crowned and offered the hand in marriage of his own mother. This is just the backstory to Sophocles’ play, the crime that Oedipus sets out to solve in the drama.

Initially Julian and I were uncertain what we would dramatise, what part of the story and what the involvement of prisoners in the retelling would be. Why would a group of criminals, fictional or otherwise want to stage Oedipus? I thought I’d ask them. I went round classrooms and groups of lads, mostly cleaners on the wings, telling them the narrative and asking who was interested in retelling this story in the context of a jail. What surprised me was how many lads knew something of the story, even when they couldn’t remember where they’d heard it before. I then worked with different groups of up to four lads around the jail discussing why and how a group of prisoners might want to re interpret or interpret a two and a half thousand year old play. Once again my assumptions which I considered freethinking were brought to book. I suggested to a group in a classroom that a fictional group of prisoners might decide to retell it set in a contemporary housing estate and there was immediately some offence in the room. Why wouldn’t they try and do it just like the Greeks? Yeah, why does everything we do have to set on a miserable estate or in gangs?  I was reminded that the reason we were doing this, the reason I am there is, the point of drama itself, to help people escape.

Who thinks

They say there are seven stories: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. They are all in Oedipus and they are all in us and our fantasies but they are all, especially it seems, in prisons. Every time we discussed the plot someone always digressed to their own life, the life of a co-defendant, another lad on the wing, in love with his step mum, who had killed their father, or just wished they had. Lads that had never met their ‘real dad’ had been put into foster care at an early age and gone looking to no avail or to significant disappointment. ‘Comedy’ by the way isn’t the Jim Carey variety; it’s generally thought to mean the set-up of a misunderstanding that keeps parties apart, more in the Twelfth Night variety. The allegories at Lancaster Farms are comedies that tend to be about who stitched up who and are now on separate wings. We do have Romeo and Juliets and ‘From Getting By to Riches to Rags’. It became apparent that we didn’t need a group of fictional prisoners to dramatise Oedipus the King because he was already there, in the room. His story would be told through the lives of four prisoners, forced to confront their pasts through a victim awareness course. A course that the four characters have to complete if they want any chance of parole and usually the only arena where prisoners are asked to confront what they have done to others. Over the next few months, with the involvement of prisoners at HMP Hewell and Lancaster Farms Julian and I developed four fictional characters, each haunted by some element of Oedipus. They became: McBride, Stretch, Monk and Kasra. They are taught by former drama teacher Helen, and McBride is visited by his wife Lauren and his solicitor Shirley. It was McBride’s story that formed the spine of the plot. He is edging towards parole. He needs it to be with his son. But then, a new witness for an old crime comes forward, implicating him. And he must deal with the witness as well as pass a victim awareness course at the same time. He must do what a lot of prisoners do: face both ways. It doesn’t end well.

the chair's in the air

We put the characters into scene after scene, in conflict with a Governor, with a teacher, with their mothers, fathers, a wife and a son and the law. We got rid of the Governor, changed the gender of the teacher; turned the prisoners against each other and themselves. Every scene was read with groups of prisoners, tested for its authenticity, its power to hold; some were discarded all were rewritten several times until a first draft was completed. We then work-shopped the script for three days with a group of talented actors before a script in hand performance at this years’ 24:7 Theatre Festival in Manchester. It was well received. There’s another draft out now. Just released. With a London theatre. We hope the gods smile upon us.

Developed with financial support of Arts Council England, Writers in Prison Network and dramaturgical support from Synergy Theatre Company

you answer that